The Dialectics of Enlightenment

In Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, he posits that just as with major civilizations of the past, like ancient Athens and the Roman Empire, American culture is experiencing decline. This is caused by several factors including spiritual weakening, crumbling school systems, widespread functional illiteracy, economic inequality, and a false sense of individualism called “McWorld” by political scientist Benjamin Barber (Berman, 3). Politically, we are descending into an oligarchic government which masquerade for a democracy in which consumerism is king and corporations rule and make the rules. In his chapter entitled, The Dialectics of Enlightenment, Berman shares sociologist Pitirim Sorokin’s viewpoint from Social and Cultural Dynamics that “civilization in general falls into two fundamental categories, which he labels ‘ideational’ and ‘sensate’” (Berman, 104). Ideational cultures focus on man’s inner development and are characterizes as spiritual. On the other hand, sensate cultures are materialistic and focused on outward growth and development. Sorokin also identified an intermediate position called “idealistic,” which incorporates a balance of the two and can be characterized as harmoniously combining faith and reason (Berman, 104). Despite isolated examples of ideational activity in the United States, the dominant culture is sensate in nature, and as such is destined to fall unless the monastic option can be employed on a grand enough scale to turn the tide.

This decline is evident in American culture in many ways which Berman chronicles and which are observable in modern society, especially during the campaign and after the most recent Presidential election. During the campaign cycle, people who had become disillusioned with their station in life because of economic difficulties, lack of opportunities or with politicians in general, decided to vote for a billionaire businessman who promised to “Make America Great Again” with very little understanding of how to deliver on his campaign promises. Michael Moore predicted that this would happen in his article, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win,” in which he chronicles aspects of the collapse of American culture: 1) Trump courted those in the rust belt whose jobs have been outsourced to other countries and who are now struggling, broken and depressed and ignored by the Democratic party; 2) What Moore calls, “The Last Stand of the Angry White Man,” the impalpability of a woman in the White House, and not just any woman, but one with slightly left of center leanings; 3) Hillary’s bad reputation characterized as untrustworthy and dishonest; 4) The suppressed Sander’s vote, and finally; 5) Because “…the anger that so many have towards a broken political system, millions are going to vote from Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can” (Moore). This article, written before the election, was prophetic, later analysts would concur with Moore’s opinions and his prediction of a Trump presidency would come to fruition.

Placed into the context of Berman’s book, the election exemplifies the sensate aspects of our culture. A people with very little faith in a political system founded as a democracy elected a billionaire because they believed that he would save them from the economic decline. However, instead of focusing on what has contributed to the decline of American society, things like inadequate employment, wealth inequality, racial injustice and quality education which is accessible to the masses, Trump has delivered the exact opposite. His focus has been to lambast the media as supporters of “fake news,” the judiciary system as unfair (“so-called judge”) and blame refugees and immigrants for the nation’s woes.

Berman relates that Sorokin made predictions about the twenty-first century. “Sorokin foretells that the boundary between true and false will erode, and that conscience (superego) will disappear in favor of special-interest groups. Force and fraud will become the norm.” He says: the family will disintegrate; real creativity will wane” (Berman, 106). He later goes on to say that “our belief system will turn into a strange, inchoate stew of shreds of science, philosophy and magic” (Berman, 106). Everything will be focused on consumerism – instead of accessing the classics, we’ll have best sellers, we’ll be bombarded by information without analysis and culture will be devoid of any value. All this will continue until some spark, some reaction occurs which will provide the impetus for “a new ideational culture to arise from the ashes of the old sensate one” (Berman, 106).

Sorokin points to the years between 1350 – 1850 AD as the time when culture “went bad.” This marks the beginning of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution and even though this was Europe’s most creative time, it was also the time when everything “got objectified: only that which was measurable and empirical was regarded as real” (Berman, 107). Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in The Dialectic of Enlightenment that “Enlightenment thought slowly got transmuted into scientism and positivism” (Berman, 107). In essence, that there was a “good” Enlightenment and a “bad” Enlightenment. The “good” Enlightenment is characterized by the world of Voltaire and Hume and the ability to critically think about the world in which we live. The “bad” Enlightenment is “the modern obsession with quantification, control and the domination of the natural world” (Berman, 114). This progress that we have seen has had no balance and through modern technological advances precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, society has become devoid of true individualism and creativity.

There are pockets of resistance to this sensate culture, this “bad” Enlightenment. Michael Moore offers truly independent political analysis during some of the nation’s most difficult and trying times. Frances Fox Piven offers commentary about the state of welfare on National Public Radio, Noam Chomsky offers analysis of historical events and economics and Jeff Cohen offers detailed analysis of the distortions of the mainstream media. Berman cites other examples of people who are living the monastic option, those like José María Arízmendi who founded a worker’s cooperative in the Basque parish of Mondragón and Earl Shorris who founded the Clemente Course in the Humanities for the poor to learn the classics (Berman, 145-46). These people are all engaging in the “monastic option” and their creativity and skills that “go against the grain” will contribute to the rebirth of civilization following the current decline.

Admittedly, Horkheimer and Adorno recognize that the “good” and the “bad” cannot be separated, they are a package deal. The saving grace in American culture and our political situation is that the sensate inevitability leads to the ideational. There is a cycle in civilizations, one never truly dies, but it simply experiences an evolution into something else, often new and improved. We see glimpses of this in our current landscape where more and more people are becoming political engaged. Is the Trump presidency the “spark” that is needed to begin the process of a large-scale evolution back to an ideational society? If so, one can only hope that the spark will ignite the change. Will Trump’s supporters wake up to the inconsistencies and the fact that in many cases they have voted against their own interests? Will those in elected offices continue to offer resistance to the federal government at the state and local level? Will individuals continue to support the arts, sciences and music education in our school system? Will individuals continue to practice the “monastic option” in their homes and workplaces? These things will serve as the repositories of learning in the coming years and will provide continued access to enlightened thought. Things like the classics in literature and art are more important than ever as the twenty-first century progresses.


Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

“5 Reasons Trump Will Win.” Accessed May 29, 2017.