When people fear that their civilization is receding they often cry out to “make it great again!” The technical term for this perceived process is “social degeneration.”
But what, exactly, is receding? Success? Money? Comfort? Prestige? Happiness? Will more of any of these “make it great again?” Degeneration has always been poorly defined.
In 1851, the poet Matthew Arnold feared that English civilization was receding. Then the most powerful country in the world, Arnold worried that England was ceding it’s cultural authority to other nations, particularly France. This is the final stanza of his poem, “Dover Beach,” which he wrote while looking at The White Cliffs of Dover:
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
In uncertain times, Arnold finds refuge in the relationship between two people. Indeed, it is the only thing that was ever great in the first place.