Pitirim Sorokin: expanding the radius of love

Cultural crises are opportunities to change the direction of society in fundamental ways.

Russell Nieli
16 June 2015


Pitirim Sorokin. Credit: All rights reserved.

Pitirim Sorokin, a refugee from Communist Russia, was the founding chairman of Harvard University's sociology department in the early 1930s. He was among the most important social thinkers in the West in the early and middle years of the twentieth century, but today his work is almost entirely forgotten despite the fact that much of what he wrote continues to be of ever greater relevance. Indeed, he is the only social thinker from this period who accurately gauged the long term trajectory of American and European cultural developments.

Sorokin's seminal belief was that civilizations and cultures tend to oscillate over very long stretches of time between two different understandings of what is ultimately real, true, and important in human life. ‘Sensate’ cultures prioritize material reality, understood as that which is grasped through our body's sense organs and their extensions through telescopes, microscopes, and other instruments used in the natural sciences. By contrast, ‘ideational’ cultures prioritize mystical or ‘supraconscious’ reality, understood as that which is grasped intuitively through prayer, meditation, and spontaneously occurring spiritual and religious experiences. 

For Sorokin, reality always incorporates both of these elements, but over time cultures tend to over-emphasize one to the neglect of the other. When this occurs countervailing developments arise that recognize the importance of those aspects of reality that have been neglected. Hence, there is no universal progress or decline, only a movement from balance to imbalance and back again. 

Human beings, he taught, crave a proper balance between the mystical and the material, the intuitional and the sensate, the ‘this-worldly’ and the ‘other-worldly.’ Such integrations have been attained many times before: Sorokin particularly likes what he sees in thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Confucius, and Lao-tzu. But well-integrated world-views never last indefinitely as times and historical conditions change, giving rise to the need for creative new integrations that are capable of doing justice to the multi-dimensional realities that always exist.

Sorokin believed that by the middle of the twentieth century, Western civilization had reached the endpoint of a one-sided sensate development going back several centuries and was ripe for a moral and spiritual revival. He saw communism and fascism as desperate attempts to break free from the spiritual desolation and forlornness of the West's decadent, materialistic culture. In practice however, both turned out to be diabolical seductions that inevitably led to tyranny.  

Against the one-sidedness of the Western emphasis on natural science, material progress, and sensate pleasures, Sorokin hoped for a more balanced focus that included a theocentric humanism, an emphasis on personal moral and spiritual transformation, and renewed creativity in the realm of ethical thought and behavior. Central to his thinking was the concept of ‘agapic love,’ which he understood as a human manifestation of a divine force that proceeds from the deepest core of the human soul when it seeks guidance and strength from a supernatural power beyond itself. Such love is never self-centered and overcomes the normal human tendency to think in terms of ‘mine’ and ‘thine,’ whether individually or in the collective forms of national, ethnic, or class-based chauvinisms.

In his book Altruistic Love, published in 1950, Sorokin described the contemporary challenge for America and Europe like this:

“There are times when mankind most urgently needs an upsurge of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. And there are times when the paramount need is a release of aesthetic or religious or philosophical creativity. Finally, there are periods when the greatest need of humanity is ethical creativity at its noblest, wisest, and best.  An exuberant blossoming of ethical creativity seems to be the most desperate need of humanity today.”

Like his contemporary Arnold Toynbee, Sorokin saw such ethical creativity as stemming primarily from the ‘creative minorities,’ particularly ones called into action by the great mystics, saints, and spiritual leaders of humanity.

"An extraordinary creative achievement of a genius in any field,” he wrote, “never passes without calling forth conscious or unconscious 'imitation' of the heroic example by others …The same is true of the achievements of a creative genius of unselfish love. His heroic example never perishes in vain and always engenders an uncounted legion of followers. Lao-tzu and Confucius, Buddha and Mahavira, Moses and Hillel, Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi, All Hallaj and Al Ghazzali, Gandhi and Schweitzer are striking examples.”

“Still more remarkable is the fact that the heroes of unselfish love accomplish this without arms and armies, or wealth and coercive government machinery, without a control of means of communication, or other instrumentalities of influencing people and recruiting followers. Even more, they often go against the prevailing mores and powerful governments and suffer the penalty…In spite of this, these greatest apostles of love have had a much greater number of followers for a much longer time than any of the mighty monarchs, conquerors, statesmen, millionaires, dictators, and other executives of history.”

Sorokin believed that the kind of ethical revolution that was needed had to be grounded in personal moral and spiritual transformation. It was pure folly, he thought, to expect changes in economic and political policies, however important they might be, to transform by themselves the moral character of a people. Here is where the communists and fascists had gone wrong, he felt, but also those who espoused more moderate programs of political reform. 

Truly positive moral and cultural changes, Sorokin taught, require "the reconstruction of humanity," which can only be accomplished by arduous, life-long processes of moral transformation, the details of which have been laid out in the disciplinary manuals of the great spiritual traditions of both East and West. Prayer, meditation, fasting, service to the poor and needy, participation in elevating religious rituals, and listening to inspired music are all part of this reconstruction process. Of greatest importance, he held, was careful selection of one's friends and associates so that one spends most of one's time with people who share the same ethical goals and ideals.

Sorokin thought that in its "overripe" sensate stage, the modern West was nearing the end point of its creative achievements. A preoccupation with consumer goods and an ever-rising standard of material welfare had dulled people’s sensitivities for the important non-material things in life. Equally harmful, Sorokin believed, was what he saw as an ever growing “sex obsession,” which in its hedonistic excess would inevitably sap the creative vigor of the modern West as it once done to the populations of Greece and Rome in the later stages of their decline.

Sorokin, however, was optimistic and believed change was in the offing. He was particularly impressed by the examples of Albert Schweitzer, ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, and Dorothy Day and the influence they exerted upon Western populations. Had he enjoyed a longer life, no doubt he would have added similar examples including Mother Teresa and such Gandhi-inspired political figures as Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela. And if he had lived to see the rise of radical Jihadism and other forms of religious extremism, he probably would see in them what he saw in the communism and fascism of the 1930s and 1940s—an understandable yet ultimately pathological and destructive revolt against the decadence of late sensate culture. 

But cultural crises, Sorokin believed, are ripe for truly creative minorities to change the direction of society, much in the way that Christians had done in the late Roman Empire, or the Asoka-connected Buddhists in ancient India, or the followers of St. Benedict in early post-Roman Europe. After centuries of a sensate culture that had become increasingly unbalanced, the task for the moral and spiritual leaders of the future, he believed,  is to unleash the energies of a people into achieving the most important thing in human life—the flowering of agapic love as a force for social change. 

The challenge is at hand, and Sorokin was confident that in the future inspirational figures would rise to meet it. 

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