The more I am hit by the decadence and vulgarity of American culture, the more I return to the thought of Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968). Now out of favor in spite of his enduring scholarship and his central role in the development of academic sociology, Sorokin was already beginning to fade when I entered graduate school in the late-1950s. His stout anti-communism, critique of loosening sexual mores, and cultural conservatism ran squarely against the academic trends of the time. And it didn’t help that his life story gave him far more credibility than his colleagues to discuss the great ideological debates of the Cold War.
It was an extraordinary career. Born in Russia and steeped in Russian Orthodoxy, Sorokin spent time in jail because of his resistance to the Czar. He joined the February Revolution and became a functionary in the Kerensky regime, but that of course was temporary. After the Bolsheviks took over in October, Sorokin turned to studies in sociology, law, and penology, writing books and articles that promoted him in the Soviet intellectual world. He sharply criticized the new Communist regime, though, and was faced with the choice of imprisonment, execution, or exile. He took exile. Emigrating to the United States, he taught sociology at the University of Minnesota, and then founded the Department of Sociology at Harvard. Giving up his earlier commitment to “empirical” sociology, he developed what one could call a normative sociology, one which was informed by his own philosophical and religious commitments. Combative and sarcastic, Sorokin engaged in some celebrated academic conflicts. His rival sociologist at Harvard, Talcott Parsons, finally had him removed from his position as head of the department in 1955. He continued writing until his death in 1968, focusing on the necessary role of altruism in any wholesome social life.
We students read his The Crisis of Our Age (1941) in which he developed his then famous theory of cultural cycles. He argued that cultures move from ideational forms in which transcendent truth claims and moral norms are the organizing principles of social life, to idealistic cultures, which blend ideational and “sensate” aims, to sensate cultures, which focus exclusively on sensory perceptions and experiences. This latter stage rejects transcendent values and slides into decadence and chaos, out of which is born a new ideational culture. The transitions between cycles are characterized by violent upheavals. Sorokin thought the period of World War II was such an upheaval, one which marked the end of a sensate cycle and presaged the dawning of a new ideational phase.
Needless to say, the West has not experienced a new birth of religious commitment,