"We live in times when the very composition of man is changing."
The remark was made sometime in the 1980s by Fr. John Krestiankin, a Russian Orthodox monk, and is quoted in a long piece called "The New Martyrs and Confessors: A Personal Memoir of Russia's Orthodox Clergy & Elders Under Communism," written by Fr. Vladimir Vorbyev and appearing in the September/October issue of Touchstone.
(This link may take you to the article; I think it's subscriber-only but this link is supposed to allow me to share it.)
Many years ago--maybe in the late '70s or early '80s, maybe even earlier--I read someone's conjecture, based on some esoteric spirituality that included reincarnation, that there is only a certain amount of human spiritual "matter," and that the ever-growing population of the world, especially its growth in the past couple of centuries, means that this essence is being spread ever thinner among the living. I didn't believe it, but it was one of those eccentric theories that make you think "Well, it would explain a few things."
I have often, over the years, going back to my acquaintance with the literature of the past when I was young, felt that the writers (and other artists) seemed to be made of...well, "sterner stuff" is the phrase that comes to mind after "made of," and that's probably part of it, but there's more to it than that. And anyway it's not only sterner; it's also in a way softer, more sensitive. In general it seems richer and stronger. I wouldn't really defend those observations as truth, but they are, as I say, something that has passed through my mind. I thought of it again a couple of years ago when I was looking through a trove of family records going back into the late 19th century. There were, for instance, poems written more or less casually in letters or published in the local paper that were remarkably well-crafted, certainly beyond what an ordinary person of ordinary education would be likely to produce today. And I guess we've all seen and heard of the McGuffey Readers of that time which were used in elementary schools but would be considered too difficult for our high school or even college students.
I don't wish I had lived in 1850. Or 1150, or any other time. I don't think we can say that people were any more virtuous before, say, 1900: those times were full of brutalities which were accepted as normal but which horrify us. And yet: doesn't it sometimes seem that we are a smaller, more trivial people than we once were? Fr. Vladimir continues:
At first I couldn't understand these words, but then I recalled the Book of Genesis, which says that God sent the Flood to the earth when he saw that men became fleshly (9:3). "The very composition of man is changing" meant that the spirit was diminishing. Alas, there are more and more people in whom it's hard to perceive their spiritual nature, because for some reason they want to behave like beasts.
It isn't the comparison to beasts that strikes me so much as "the spirit was diminishing." I don't know if that's the best way to describe it, either. But I've had the feeling for a long time that there is something bad going on in our culture that is spiritual and very deeply hidden, something more fundamental than mere skepticism, hedonism, and materialism--something that helps to give those their power.