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The Wizards of Ozymandias

The Wizards of Ozymandias

Western Civilization--the American version in particular--is in a very turbulent and, perhaps terminal condition. The sense of civility that helps give meaning to a "civilization" is in full retreat.

Butler Shaffer has, over the course of several years, written 51 wonderful essays observing the dissolution of Western culture and civilization. They have been assembled in the The Wizards of Ozymandias a captivating work full of entertaining epigrams and anecdotes, as well as enlightening commentary on current events, and historical episodes, that will keep you engaged and immersed from the first to last page. Shaffer's intellectual prowess and deep well of life experience enlightens and rouses introspection at every turn. It is immediately evident that the author has been writing on law, economics, and history for decades. This book will challenge you to more deeply contemplate the ideals of liberty. The title may be foreboding, but for all that, the book is an uplifting and gratifying read.

In his great poem "Ozymandias" Percy Shelley pictures for us the eponymous tyrant whose arrogance of power could not save him from historical oblivion. Ozymandias is a reminder of the fragile nature of every system—be it biological, institutional, or cosmic in character. As we are learning from the advanced course in history in which we seem now to be enrolled, this precariousness also applies to civilizations. It is difficult for intelligent minds to doubt that this current system is in the process of joining Ozymandias in the dust-bin of history.

Western culture has produced material and spiritual values that have done so much to humanize and civilize mankind. Unfortunately, it has also produced highly-structured institutions and practices that not only impede, but reverse these life-enhancing qualities. Is it possible for us to energize our intelligence in order to rediscover, in the debris of our dying civilization, the requisite components for a fundamentally transformed culture grounded in free, peaceful, and productive systems that sustain rather than diminish life?

In the introduction Shaffer describes how civilizations are created by individuals. In following chapters, he explains how they are destroyed by collectives which are good for little more than the destruction of what others have created. Seen in the sharp contrasts between market economies and state socialism; the fundamental struggles are between the creative energies unleashed by liberty, and the repressive forces of politics. Shaffer explores the impact that institutionalism may have on the decline of civilization.

Shaffer methodically takes the reader through the rise and decline of Western civilization using references that range from the construction of an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, to the BP disaster, to the 1951 motion picture, The Day the Earth Stood Stilland on to experiments in removing road signs and traffic lights.

What is likely to follow from this imminent “decline and fall?” Might the remnants of our terminal culture—like an estate bequeathed us by a rich benefactor—provide the foundations for a fundamentally transformed culture; one that does not cannibalize itself?

Can conditions of peace and liberty replace the wars, coercive regulation, and worship of violence that have combined to destroy our present civilization? The book ends with such questions, and invites the reader to contemplate how such a life-centered culture might arise.

If after reading this book you are not convinced that the fall of western civilization is upon us, don't grieve just yet! Shaffer is optimistic that such a collapse could be the turning point for a social transformation toward a society that embraces individual liberty and private property, and that is free from collectivism and institutionalization. Shaffer can already see the seeds of such a transformation.

"The new renaissance that seems to be emerging is fostered, in large part, by exponential increases in our capacities for communicating information to one another. Indeed, “information” may prove to be the “instrument of expansion” that will underlie a new culture."

Updated 7/19/2012