The Rise and Decline of European Morals and Society

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Progression and Destruction

Europe during the early to mid-twentieth century was an unstable Europe and in stark contrast to the Europe of the nineteenth century. Devastated by two World wars and political revolutions pitting western Europe against Eastern Europe, many were left questioning the progress made over the past century and whether all of this change was for the better or indeed for the worse. But this disenchantment of European civilization was far from new. As imperialism spread some Europeans began to question its institution and the morality surrounding it.

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But it is from these three events, imperialism and the two world wars where we begin to see the questioning of ideals, of progress, of European society and of humanity. By looking at these events as well as the works of those who experienced them and observed the human condition, we can gather a greater view of just how far many believed European civilization had indeed fallen.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century Europe would see its fortunes change drastically. From the growth into a powerful center for progress and thought to an area crippled by devastating wars it’s seemed that by the mid twentieth century Europe had fallen from grace. Imperialism was seen by many Europeans as a way for them to “civilize” the rest of the world while simultaneously gathering riches and expanding their territories. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness paints a picture of Europeans who, while they see themselves as the superiors, can be just as savage as those they are trying to conquer. A great example of this is the character Kurtz. Kurtz has a reputation among other Europeans in Africa as being a man of great talents and skill. He is described towards the end of book by his cousin as “essentially a great musician. ‘There was the making of an immense success” (Conrad 121). Even the main character up until this moment had thought of Kurtz as “a painter who wrote for the papers, or else for a journalist who could paint” (Conrad 121.). Kurtz is seen as an ideal enlightened man of Europe, one with many skills and talents, yet when Marlow runs into him what he finds a tyrant and a criminal who earns his riches in ivory, of which he takes by force. This theme was fairly true to imperialism and showed the decline of European society as many of these poorer countries did not have the means to fight the wealthy and industrialized forces of Europe. Therefore, there was really no choice but to capitulate.

Many Europeans also saw imperialism as a way to promote western ideals. With a racially charged cause to civilize the uncivilized, many of these nations tired to spread in these conquered lands European technology and beliefs. Heart of Darkness portrays this sense of elitism by the Europeans almost any time they come in contact with the native population. In one instance in the book Conrad states “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity— like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad 58). This quote helps to illustrate the general attitude towards the natives, almost with a sense of bewilderment or disbelief, the Europeans thought it seemingly absurd that they were even of the same species as these natives. Every time Marlow or any other European has a run in with these natives they describe them as savages and their actions are seen as bizarre or peculiar to the Enlightened and honorable Europeans. Heart of Darkness paints an unpleasant picture of imperialism, it shows how civilized man can very quickly become uncivilized, how the institution of imperialism was indeed flawed and the effects it had on both the natives and the Europeans themselves. Heart of Darkness shows the loss of humanity that is still possible even with all the progress of European Society.

Freud is another who seeks answers to human civility is his book, Civilization and its Discontents. This book explores the human mind, how it deals with suffering and as well looks at modern civilization and how it ties into the troubles that we experience. Written after the horrors of the first world war and right after the start of the great depression, Freud takes a look into the advances of mankind and aims to connect those advances to problems of the past, such as World War One and potential future conflicts. We can gather from this book that Freud sees the institution of religion as a problem and the advances of civilization create conflict for the individual. From his book it could be argued that Freud saw the advances of the enlightenment such as secularism, and universalism as positive means of progress, but viewed industrialization and cities as the negatives of human progress and a suppressor of human instinct and emotion.

Freud is clearly distraught with modern civilization and holds a somewhat ironic view of it. He states that “The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization” (Freud 96). With this quote Freud is striking back at modern society and how oppressive it is, stating man was his most free, naturally free before the advent of modern civilization and the only thing civilization did to this freedom was put restrictions on it and take it away. With this Freud could be referring to imperialism, Europeans arriving in new lands with people who were described in Heart of Darkness as “savages”, yet had their individual freedom which the Europeans, modern society, came and took away from the native people.

Furthermore, there are still many issues Freud sees with modern society and modern science is one of these areas. Advances in science throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century saw many benefits for civilization, from the development of germ theory to the products of industrialization, modern science had brought with it many new theories and innovations that would make civilized life easier and more bearable, but not to Freud. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud states that it is man’s natural goal to try to attain happiness and that the in the “new generations mankind has made an extraordinary advance in the natural sciences and in their technical application and has established his control over nature in a way never before imagined” (Freud 87). He acknowledges that while there have been great advances that have allowed mankind to master their world that “the fulfilment of a longing that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier.” (Freud 88). With these two quotes Freud is saying how he believes that these advancements in science have done modern civilization no real good in their quest for true happiness and that “power over nature” is not the only precondition to our happiness as a species.

In Civilization and it’s Discontents Freud paints a rather unhappy image of modern civilization. He see’s the advances that were made in the preceding centuries as negative and that all of this progression only provides a false sense of happiness. Modern civilization is just a ruse, before its onset we had always been free, but it was this idea of civilization, of belonging and behaving properly amongst a group, that led to the loss of our individual freedom and upon the discovery of other cultures who were still living in these ways, modern civilization came and took these freedoms from them and restricted. Freud paints a hopelessly negative view of modern civilization stating that “men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent…no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man” (Freud 112), possibly referring to the new weapons and horrors that unfolded in the First World War. With one of the last quotes in his book, Freud leaves a low expectation of mankind and an ominous prediction into the events of the Second World War.

Through the eyes Tadeusz Borowski we see the horrors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and the capabilities of modern man and technology. We also see the coping mechanisms of man during extreme situations. Throughout Borowski’s book we see him recount stories of love and prostitution and even an instance where he is cheerfully playing soccer while watching lines of freshly arrived Jews at Auschwitz walk to their deaths in the gas chambers. One quote from Borowski’s book states that “I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber!” (Borowski 40). This is Borowski talking to his friend asking if they are good people after unloading Jews to go their death at Auschwitz, after hearing this his friend simply replies, “the easiest way to relieve your hate is to turn against someone weaker” (Borowski 40). These two quotes seem to relate to Freud who states, “their neighbor is for them also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him… to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” (Freud 111). That is exactly what these people are to Borowski and the other inmates, a source for these men to vent their frustrations of being trapped in an extreme situation. Borowski’s tone towards his experiences sometimes come off as comical and at times seems as if he is totally desensitized to what is going on around him. This again ties into both Conrad and Freud who both argue that man is naturally capable of violence and cruelty towards others. Borowski’s depictions of the Germans as well further ties into Conrad and Freud’s views who kill for seemingly meaningless reasons such as when a German SS officer notices that a group of inmates doesn’t know how to march properly and says “they can’t march? Then kill them!” (Borowski 76). Borowski’s book paints an image of a world were a life has no meaning and were man is at its utmost cruelest. It is no doubt that during this time period European society had fallen to its absolute lowest point.

Europe during the early twentieth century underwent a period of great suffering and torment. Two devastating World Wars which took the lives of millions upon millions of men women and children shook the foundations of European society in ways never before seen. From these wars and the amoral system of imperialism arose critics of European culture and society. Conrad, Freud and Borowski all paint unsettling pictures of Europeans and modern “civilized” society. From Conrad who points out the backwards and hypocritic system of imperialism along with the loss of humanity that goes along with it to Freud, who states that man is inherently violent with no predispositions to exterminating each other and his views towards modern civilization and science which he regards as greatest limitations to humanities true happiness and freedom. Coupled with Conrad and Freud, Borowski paints a picture through his book of hopelessness, of a modern society slaughtering helpless hordes of people needlessly and without remorse. All three of these men paint a negative picture of European society. They see the progresses made as hurting man, not helping, and humans as inherently violent and cruel towards one another. Each one of these men accurately accounts and reflects the descent of Europe from the center of progress in the nineteenth century, to the center of turmoil and chaos by the mid twentieth century.

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The Rise and Decline of European Morals and Society. (2020, Mar 27). Retrieved from