We live in toxic times. Stating your opinion, especially on delicate issues, such as abortion or our national anthem, can lead to verbal (sometimes physical) assault, ostracization, and anonymous trolls extracting their social media revenge upon you. Even a simple discussion about politics can erupt into a cascade of threats. This milieu leads many to the belittling process of self-censorship for fear that expressing a controversial viewpoint will have dire social and professional repercussions. Our appreciation for “love thy neighbor” has eroded. One doubts Fr. Bernard Lonergan would have been surprised by our current environment. He did, however, leave us with suggestions for a way forward.

Bias and the Longer Cycle of Decline

Lonergan grasped a powerful understanding of the human condition when he addressed the issue of bias and its role in the Longer Cycle of Decline in history. The thwarting of humanity’s progress begins with individual bias, which occurs when we ignore the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”) and our only concern is in better grasping our own interests and not those of others – we become “egoists.” Individual bias leads to group bias. When enough egoists form a collective, the stratification of society ensues with each group resenting, even hating, the other. Civilization fractures. These ruptures produce an atmosphere of general bias where we lose our spirit of inquiry, reflection, and common sense. We become unintellectual slugs. Each phase is a step down in the decline of humanity as seen in Figure 1 below.

 

General bias then leads us into the Longer Cycle of Decline. Thus, there are three phases in history: Progress, Decline, and Renewal. The final phase, however, does not return us where we were before the last phase of Decline as Figure 2 depicts below.

 

The second phase of Decline is due to bias (i.e. sin), but the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – offer a path toward the third phase of Renewal. It is important to note that the Longer Cycle of Decline process is not a reboot of a computer system, but a slow degradation. We do not return from whence we came.

The Roman Empire – An Example of Lonergan’s Longer Cycle of Decline

The fall of the Roman Empire illustrates Lonergan’s thesis well. Over the course of five centuries, Rome decayed from within as each process of Decline (phase 2) marked signs of irreversible deterioration. Each crisis, whether political, economic, or cultural, precipitated an ideological shift but in the immediate moment, relieved the pressing crisis. Rome would “recover” (phase 3) after each catastrophe, but remain altered, until the civilization transitioned from princeps (first among equals) of Emperor Augustus to dominus (master of all) of Emperor Diocletian, and ultimately, collapsed. Thus, clouded by bias, Romans stopped being Roman without ever realizing it.

Whether a person is our neighbor or a figure in history, we must strive to learn from them. One of Lonergan’s favorite passages from scripture was Romans 5:5: “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The only way we will break our biases and the Longer Cycle of Decline is submitting to a higher, Divine authority; Lonergan concluded it was this hope that is a supreme force in history. Lonergan strove to aid people in understanding each other and themselves. His often-spoken aphorism was: “You do what you can.” Indeed, the least we can do for one another is listen with humility, not hostility.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.