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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Mark Twain, The Decline of the West & You've Never Had it So Good - Guest Post

The Rev Dr Frank Hegedűs is an intriguing fellow. An American with Hungarian ancestry, he is head priest honcho of St Margaret’s Anglican Church, Budapest, and has some responsibilities for churches in the region, including Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Photo: Rev Dr Frank Hegedűs - piccie form St Margaret's website.

His bio, on said church's website, reads: “A priest for over forty years, he has ministered in several Episcopal dioceses in the United States including Los Angeles, San Diego, Michigan, and Minnesota. Father Frank has also worked as a psychotherapist and business professional.”

That last bit in particular sounds interesting, so I asked for more. It turns out that somewhere along the way, he swapped mammon for the ministry.

I have a so-called professional doctorate, a Doctor of Ministry or DMin, in pastoral counseling. As an unlicensed psychotherapist, I did assessments and referral work mostly. I also have an MBA [a Masters of Business Administration] and had at one time a stockbroker's license in the US and worked as a financial planner for a number of years in Minnesota. I like to think that I learned more theology in business school than seminary.

Apparently he's a life-long learner of Hungarian (I think we all feel we've all been there, Frank) and also likes swimming and travelling – some. So I asked him about his most memorable visit.

Not sure about the most memorable place I have been, but I will never forget experiencing a total eclipse of the sun right here in Hungary in the late 1990s, I think it was. At one time, I even knew how to say 'total eclipse of the sun in Hungarian'.”

If I recall correctly, it was August, 1997, Frank.

[Edit: Reader John Cantwell has written in to correct me - August 1999. Thanks, John!]

But you had to go to Balaton to get the total black-out. (I shared the gloom in Budapest in the office roof garden with folks at the Budapest Sun.)

Anyway, Frank concocts a sermon (?), lesson (?) - perhaps it's better termed a thought-provoking essay – dubbed Frankly Speaking every month in the church newsletter.

He clearly puts a lot of creative effort into these, so I asked him if he'd like to do a guest post for this blog: this is his response. It's a tweaked Frankly Speaking from about a year ago. Here you go!

Father Frankly


American humourist and literary figure, Mark Twain, is credited with the wry and perhaps cynical observation that life, and presumably all human history, is just one darned thing after the other. He actually use a stronger word than the euphemistic darned, but you get the idea.

It is of course not known what brought Twain to such a curmudgeonly point of view and state of exasperation over a century ago, but considering the state of affairs in late nineteenth-century Europe and America, it could probably have been any of a number of things.

Historians and philosophers on the other hand have long tried to make sense of the world and human history and so, in a sense prove Twain wrong. Going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Jews, historians have tended to impute deeper meaning into world events, inevitably of course long after the fact. The same in a sense holds true for the authors of the Christian Scriptures. Luke, for instance, arguably the greatest of Christian historians, calls his Gospel an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” about as succinct a description of the historian’s craft as you could possibly ask for.

It strikes me that much of modern history writing and historiography is preoccupied with the decline and collapse of societies and their cultures. Apocalypse sells, I guess.

Eighteenth-century British historian Edward Gibbon is justly famous for his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to Gibbon – I hasten to add that I have not read his six-volume tome -- the decline and fall of Rome was apparently the fault of others; namely the barbarians, a theme still all too common among contemporary pundits and commentators everywhere. When things go wrong, it seems, it is usually someone else’s fault, and preferably that of the barbarians, people in other words of whom we do not approve.

On the Continent meanwhile, early twentieth-century German historian and philosopher, Oswald Spengler, picked up on the theme of deterioration and collapse in his own monumental work, predictably titled The Decline of the West, a study of what we today might call the life-cycles of cultures and societies. It was on the reading list of the university in the US I attended half a century ago. According to some current interpreters of Spengler’s work, we are now entering, in the early 2000s, the final end of Western Civilisation’s centuries-long life-cycle. Considering the whole estate of Christ’s Church and the world today, it is tempting to believe the observation may have some validity to it.

Contemporary American commentator and journalist, Rod Dreher [who, according to some reports, now resides at least part-time in Budapest- Ed] offers a solution of sorts to the decline predicted by others. In his best-selling book of a few short years ago, The Benedict Option, he picks up where Gibbon left off and suggests that Christians today are surrounded by modern-day barbarians intent upon destroying the values which Christianity has inculcated into society over the past millennium. It’s the barbarians, it seems, all over again.

Dreher’s answer or solution is to return to the era of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism active around the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire; re-enter the bulwark-like walls and safety of early medieval monasteries, figuratively or actually; and fight off from there the encroachments and allurements of current secular societies.

Having had some personal acquaintance with monastic life in a previous existence of mine, I am not sure I entirely agree with Dreher’s solution.

If all this gloom is getting you down, Canadian-born Harvard philosopher and linguist, Steven Pinker, has good news for you: You’ve never had it so good. In his own bestseller, The Better Angels of our Nature, he suggests that the world of today is far safer and more advanced in almost every way than was the world before the Renaissance and Enlightenment just three or four hundred years ago. He is probably right, at least about most of us fortunate enough to live in the arguably developed West.

So, is our Western world indeed collapsing or can society look forward to several more centuries – millennia even -- of progress and development spreading inevitably across the globe…?

Well, as someone has said – could it have been Twain? -- it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. On the other hand, as any street-corner philosopher In Hungary will be happy to explain to you with a shrug of the shoulders, Majd meglátjuk. We shall soon see. So, be patient. Meantime, for my part at least, I think I will stick with Luke’s ancient but “orderly account,” and the ever-new Gospel it proclaims.

But hey… That’s just me. Decide for yourself.

Frank Hegedűs

Chaplain and Area Dean

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