Did Western Civilization Survive the 20th Century?

December 1, 1999 Topic: Society Tags: AcademiaEmpire

Did Western Civilization Survive the 20th Century?

Mini Teaser: Taking the long view, and finding reassurance, at the end of the millenium.

by Author(s): Alan Charles Kors

The very fact that the question posed above might reasonably be asked is in itself alarming, though it should not be. The West, in its various incarnations, has feared the end of its own civilization almost from the beginning. We do ourselves and our civilization a great disservice if we imagine ourselves the unhappiest of souls at the unhappiest of times, or as the last bearers of the Western torch.

Imagine the question of the end of something akin to Western civilization being posed when Athens fell; or when Christian Rome was sacked by barbarians; or when the Norsemen ravaged settled Europe; or when feudal warlords reigned unchecked; or when the Black Death left soul and society without mooring. Imagine the question posed by critics of the papacy, when visiting the decadence and bad faith of fourteenth-century Rome, or by Catholic apologists when they saw Western Christendom rent first in two and then into a multitude of competing sects. Imagine the question posed during the religious civil wars, or, indeed, during the devastation of the Thirty Years War, when Europe became a charnel house of competing militant creeds and dynastic interests; or during the Terror, the decades of Revolutionary and then Napoleonic Wars. Coming closer to our own time, imagine the question posed on the slaughterfields of World War I, or at Auschwitz or in the Gulag. The West is resilient beyond all seeming possibility, and something gives it that resiliency. The West has survived its barbarians without and, more dreadful yet, its own barbaric offspring within. If it could outlast Attila the Hun, Julius Streicher and Michael Suslov, it surely can outlast Jacques Derrida, Stanley Fish and the Friends of Bill.

At each moment of seeming dissolution, there have been diverse Jeremiahs, profound voices who in rightful lamentation analyze compellingly the depths to which we have fallen, the irretrievable loss of something vital--and yet the West has survived. It has been a matter of mind and spirit. Greece fell, but its philosophers conquered the minds of those who conquered its soil, and, indeed, its muses touched consciousness and sensibility wherever its language became accessible. It fell, but when the human bearers of Christian revelation sought a human voice of natural philosophy by which to explain, justify and elaborate upon their beliefs, they found it, almost despite themselves, in Greece--first in Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophers, later in Aristotle, sometimes even in the Greek skeptics. Greece fell, but its mathematics still measures, actually and metaphorically, the world. It fell, but its natural conceptual categories still organize our understanding of, and debates about, reality and knowledge.
Rome, too, fell but its language became the lingua franca, and, thus, the natural, definitional universe of Christen-dom. Its history became the great drama by which to understand the glory and the baseness of political life. The barbarian tribes believed that they had conquered Rome, but Rome, in greater part, had conquered them. The descendants of those tribes called their realm the Holy Roman Empire, and these words were not, until much later, empty ones.

When the Norsemen came, learning fled to monasteries, but that learning, and those monasteries, eventually conquered the Norse, whose descendants founded universities in Britain that live to this day. It is the last thing that any frightened monk taking desperate shelter in the eighth century ever could have imagined.

The Thirty Years War seemed the end of civilization, but its battles are now mostly forgotten. What remains of the seventeenth century? Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal, Bayle, Boyle, Harvey, Huyghens, Newton, Locke. Louis XIV is a tourist attraction at Versailles; his wars changed precious little.

The conceptual revolution of the West, however, changed a great deal in that same century. It was born of the very dynamics of the West's models of learning, disputation, accounting for appearances, refining inductive and deductive logic--all now linked to expanded education and to printing. What happened in the minds of the graduates of Europe's Christian universities changed the human relationship to nature, to knowledge, to charity armed with scientia, to the rights of inquiry and conscience, and to political and economic life. When Galileo was charged with offering an astronomy that contradicted Scripture, he replied by citing the ancient fathers of the Church themselves, above all Augustine, who had insisted that there was but one truth, that it was consistent, that it shone in nature also, and that no one had the right to tie faith to what could be proven false in the created, natural world. The Christian West kept the traditions of the Greek mind alive and, thus, by its own debates, overthrew the presumptive authority of the past in matters of natural knowledge and its application. The West believed that we were not cast fatally adrift in this world, but that we could learn new things and that we could bring the sorry scheme of experience closer to the heart's desire for knowledge, order and well-being. It was not Faust, dreaming of occult knowledge that would make him a demigod, but Bacon, commanding that knowledge proceed from humility and charity, who became the prophet of the great scientific revolution of the West. Louis XIV is a statue; Bacon is a living force wherever the West touches minds.

Revolutionary Social Work

Through natural catastrophe, anarchy, war and despotisms, the West survived, its religion teaching always that the greatest of sins is despair, a lesson that each generation needs to learn afresh. Conservatives need to relearn that today. It is odd, indeed, that conservatives should question whether Western civilization has survived the twentieth century at a time when the cultural Left defines that civilization as a singular hegemony that stands astride the globe. What, after all, is the "multiculturalism" so ardently but desperately proclaimed in higher education but the belief that there is a hegemonic Western civilization that, unchallenged, frames all issues and provides almost all modes of understanding? For the so-called multiculturalists, the question is not whether what they see without complexity as Western civilization will survive into the twenty-first century, but whether anything other than Western civilization will so survive. Shouldn't we take heart from their despair, a despair so intense that they are reduced to trying to save the world by doing revolutionary social work among the children of the Ivy League?

What, after all, do the multiculturalists mean by the hegemony of the West? It is not physical colonialism and imperialism that concerns them anymore. They see as far more ominous what they term the cultural colonialism and imperialism of the West, a triumphant colonialism of the mind by a civilization that believes in universal categories that transcend itself. The West believes its faiths and values to be accessible to all human souls. The West believes its science to be a method by which all human beings, everywhere, can rise above ignorance, superstition, helplessness and prejudice. The West believes that there are rights and obligations that belong to humanity qua humanity, beyond the power of governments and political wills. Conservatives despair about the West's disappearance; the cultural Left despairs about its transcendent success.

There are profound ironies about the multiculturalist Leftists, many of which testify precisely to the dynamism and inescapable appeal of that Western civilization to whose dismemberment they are in theory committed. If we take them at their word, multiculturalists hold the view that there is no fixed point from which to value or analyze cultures objectively. They believe, in theory, that all cultures are inherently equal, rightfully judging themselves from perspectives relative to themselves. If this were true, of course, their judgments of the injustice, inequity and malevolence of Western culture compared to the rest of the world would be self-contradictory of their theory.

Their self-contradictions betray their inability to escape from the civilization they claim to despise. In their epistemology, multiculturalists are the third-rate heirs of the Greek skeptics and historians, without, to their shame, even knowing that fact. Their assaults upon dogmatism, at best, never rise above the level of the subtleties and paradoxes handed down to us by Sextus Empiricus, chronicler and compiler of the Greek skeptical tradition. Sextus Empiricus was a bestseller of the sixteenth century, and widely translated in the seventeenth century. His writings intellectually delighted European men of letters, including clerics, many of whom embraced him as a tonic antidote to the pride of human reason. Many philosophers modified their views of the claims of metaphysics in the face of such skepticism.

The West always has been concerned with the limits of reason and knowledge, the role of received prejudice and custom, the appropriateness or arrogance of its metaphysical conclusions, and with the phenomenon of paradox. Indeed, the West authored the formal exposition and mental pyrotechnics of such concerns. The heirs of the least subtle forms of that tradition do not even know their parentage, but their inheritance attests to the dynamism, for better or worse, of the Western intellectual dialogue itself.

It was the Greeks and their heirs--not any Third World critics of post-colonialism--who obsessed so creatively about the role of King Nomos, of received opinion, of education and prejudgment, of the seeming relativity of values, beliefs, and taste to time, place, and accident of birth. Montesquieu, in the eighteenth century, was profoundly struck by the malleability of the human condition, and by the relativity of what might seem the most foundational aspects of human existence to geography, time and historical vicissitudes. He also saw, however, what our current social constructionists do not: as undeniable as that malleability may be, there is a natural reality that underlies, conditions and sets limits to it, and the relationship between human malleability and natural reality is the appropriate subject of deep objective study. For Montesquieu, civilizations may flourish ephemerally without solving real problems of reciprocity, justice and virtue, but they cannot survive. Further, he believed that while certain forms of social arrangements may persist for as long as terror and despotism sustain them, there is a real human nature and a set of real human needs, and these will out toward their true ends when coercion is lessened by chance or struggle. Montesquieu, and indeed Enlightenment thinkers in general, often are equally loathed by conservatives who believe them excessively relativistic, and by postmodernists who see them as excessively dogmatic. In fact, few in the Enlightenment would have disagreed with the observation that Adam Smith made, in 1759, about "the necessity of justice to the existence of society."

The failure of the postmodernists' canon and politics fully to grasp the irony of their proclaimed alienation from Western thought and values signifies a profound failure of self-knowledge. Their ideologies derive not from non-Western culture, but from the internal debates of the West and the products of its educational vitality: from Marcuse, Gramsci, Marx, Hegel and Rousseau--from, in short, the debates that the West has always had with itself. Their kaleidoscopic values eventually return to the West. They sought sanctuary in Christian churches, that most medieval of protections, for the Leninists of Latin America. They campaign against, and seek asylum in America for the victims of, involuntary female circumcision, citing our notions of legal equality and universal human dignity, not their alleged commitments to the relativity of all human values and cultures. They seek tenure at universities with medieval traditions of what the West called "philosophical liberty." They wear ribbons for greater funding of Western medical research into the causes and cures of aids and breast cancer. Hypocrites without self-knowledge will not bring down this civilization, unless we join them in its demolition and work even harder than they do.

The Radical Tradition

As presented to the public, multiculturalism invites the deep study, appreciation and celebration of a diversity of cultures, removing legitimacy from all claims of cultural superiority. Thus, college cafeterias occasionally have their Korean or African food days, cuisine being, in my view, multiculturalism's strongest suit.

In fact, the primary, true meaning of the term "multiculturalism" is quite different. It means precisely this: there is one dominant culture in the West--Greek, Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment in its sources; this culture is the enemy of authentic debate, human freedom and altruism everywhere; it is capitalistic, sexist, racist and Eurocentric; it spreads ignorance, injustice, despotic power and poverty everywhere. Any voices that challenge this hegemonic culture, and only those voices that challenge it, are "multicultural"--that is, progressive enemies of the singular, dominant culture. This explains why neo-Marxism in Africa or among black academics is multicultural but Thomas Sowell is not; why queer theory that attacks the scientific tradition is multicultural, but gay Log Cabin Republicans are not; why the Sandinistas are multicultural, but the Cuban entrepreneurs of Dade County are not.

"Multiculturalism" does not mean a deep study, appreciation and celebration of evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, black American Pentecostals, or the gender roles of Orthodox Jewish and Shiite Islamic cultures. It does not mean a deep study, appreciation and celebration of any assimilationist immigrant cultures, or of white, rural Southern cultures. It does not mean the serious study of West African Benin culture or of Confucian culture, both requiring linguistic accomplishment and rigorous Western inquiry to achieve understanding. All that it means is the deep study, appreciation and celebration of those Westernized intellectuals who think exactly the way multiculturalists do about the nature and causes of oppression, however nonrepresentative those thinkers are of the broader groups they allegedly represent. These thinkers are not multiculturalists in any meaningful sense. They are Western radicals, in the Western radical tradition, with the most imperial, dogmatic and absolutist aspirations of all.

Further, they are the beneficiaries of the Western commitment to intellectual debate, instead of a coerced intellectual conformity, in the Republic of Letters. They are the beneficiaries of our Western tolerance of dissent and extreme heterodoxy. They are the beneficiaries of our tradition--from Aristotle's insistence that we overcome all possible arguments against our beliefs; to the medieval insistence upon sed contra objections in formal disputations; to Mill's insistence that beliefs untested by free criticism are no longer truly alive--that we must consider radical dissent. They are the beneficiaries of our own philosophical pluralism, and, indeed, of its constant extension. As they seek to deny to others those values of which they are themselves beneficiaries, however, they lose, by their own hypocrisy and arrogance, any legitimate claim upon the protections that these values offer, and there will be a day of reckoning. It may take time, but it truly is as simple as that. They are here by our forbearance.

The current barbarians within also remind us that the West is, again and again, the author of its own worst follies and abuses, compared to most of which the postmodernists pale into virtual insignificance. We are the authors of our own religious wars and persecutions, our own enthusiastic superstitions, our own conquests of lands and peoples over which and over whom we had no rights, our own ultimate nightmares of National or Leninist Socialism, which drowned our world in blood unimaginable in any century but the twentieth, and which truly threatened to bring this civilization to an awful end. We have had the will, however, to learn from depravity and from reality, and to bear ultimate witness to the higher sides of our being. What civilization ever has engaged in more searing analysis and soul-searching of its own sins?

The American Accomplishment

Having defeated the National Socialists and the Communists within, the bearers of the best of this civilization have reason for a moment of optimistic pride. What often denies us both optimism and pride, however, is the very stringency of our self-judgment untempered by historical realism. It is a dangerous intellectual error to imagine that goodness, wisdom, order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance and kindness are the normal state of things in human affairs, and that it is malice, folly, disorder, injustice, war, coercion, legal inequality, murderous intolerance and cruelty that stand in need of historical explanation. The West, in theory, always has understood that man has a lower side to which he is drawn, that man is a wolf to man, and that we are governed more by prejudice and passion than by the rational capacity of our minds. The West, in theory, has always understood that knowledge, including moral knowledge, is a hard-won acquisition, and that its application is even harder.

If that is so then we err grievously in our assumptions of what it is that requires particular explanation in the world. We understand the defaults; what should astonish us is the ability to change them. Rousseau and the postmodernists have it all wrong in this domain. It is not aversion to difference, for example, that requires historical explanation; aversion to difference is the human condition. Rather, it is the West's partial but breathtaking ability to overcome tribalism and exclusion that demands explanation, above all in the singular American accomplishment. It is not the injustice of difference in America that requires historical explanation, as if this were the odd phenomenon of human affairs. That injustice indeed requires reflection, so that we never lose sight of human moral weakness in general or of our own malice in particular. But historically, it is the existence and agency of Western values by which that injustice has been and is being progressively overcome that truly should excite our curiosity and awe. Anti-Semitism is not surprising; the opening of Christian America to Jews is what should amaze. Racial aversion and injustice are not the source of wonderment; the Fourteenth Amendment and its gradual implementation are what should astonish. It is not the abuse of power that requires explanation, but the Western rule of law.

Most dramatically, of course, it is not slavery that requires explanation--slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions--but the values and agency by which the West identified slavery as an evil and abolished it. Finally, it is not relative pockets of poverty in the West that should occasion our wonder--the general state of poverty once went under the name of "the human condition"--but, rather, the values, institutions, knowledge, risk, ethics and liberties that created such prosperity that we even notice such poverty at all, let alone believe that it is eradicable. We are surprised, in a failure of intellectual analysis, by all of the wrong things, and we lose our wonder at the accomplishments and aspirations of our civilization as a tragic result.

That attempt to contain depravity, indeed, has been so successful in the West, relative to the human condition, that the other world fantasized by the multiculturalists seeks entrance, again and again, at our doors. One sees the alleged victims of Western civilization hopefully seeking entrance to it; one does not see the intellectual despisers and would-be despoilers of this civilization beating down the doors of the cultures they claim to celebrate. Leave Harvard for Sierra Leone, MIT for contemporary Vietnam? Gender feminists escaping the oppression of the West for Kenya, Guatemala, Cuba, Afghanistan, India or the territories of the Inuits? I think not.

Some might argue that it is merely the West's material wealth and prosperity that draws people to it. It would be bizarre to hear the multiculturalists argue that. Have so many been willing to die merely for the prosperity of their neighbors? Does the prosperity of the West not reflect the fruits of its values, its freedom, its notions of individuality, liberty and responsibility, its faiths, its institutions of law and legal equality, its commitment to reciprocity, and its intellectual realism?

Reality and Reason

It is worth reflecting on this latter trait of the West, its intellectual--its philosophical--realism. While various extreme epistemological and ontological skepticisms and various radical irrationalisms have flourished in our history, sometimes with brilliance and profundity, Western civilization always has had at its core a belief that there is a reality independent of our wishes and ideas; that natural knowledge of that reality is possible, and, indeed, indispensable to human dignity, and that such knowledge must be acquired through a discipline of the will and mind; and that central to that discipline is a compact with reason. The West has willed, in theory at least, to reduce the chaos of the world to natural coherence by the powers of the mind. When some Christian voices condemned such efforts as impious, the great doctors of the Church proclaimed them indispensable to a coherence on which human understanding of the faith depended. The Christian universities of the West began higher education in philosophy, and to reason badly or against straw men was always deemed an error of grave import.

The Greek principle of self-contradiction as the touchstone of error is the formal expression of a commitment to reason well that the West always understood to separate us from beasts and madmen. To live with self-contradiction was not merely to fail an introduction to philosophy, it was to be less than human, less than coherent, less than sane. Induction from experience always had a logic, and the exploration of that logic was one of the great and ultimately triumphant pursuits of the Western mind. The Christian universities of Europe emphatically rejected that their enemy was the logic of deduction and induction applied to a knowable natural reality. On the contrary, they believed that philosophy was the friend of faith, and that although it was not necessary to salvation, it was necessary to a coherent natural understanding of the creed, to reasoned belief, and to full human dignity.

It was not surprising, therefore, that those Christian universities were far more dynamic and productive of intellectual innovation than their caricaturists--either their rebellious children or their later historians--ever allowed. The great minds whom we associate with the conceptual revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were almost all educated by those universities, and they remained true to the call to know an independent reality by means of human inquiry and reason, avoiding logical error, false induction and a failure to account for appearances. Although there were many radical ruptures in the history of certain disciplines in the West, there were no radical ruptures with the Western compact with reality and reason.

It is this compact that led to a civilization in which religion itself led the scrutiny against superstition, which gave rebirth to critical scholarship and, ultimately, to a tolerated heterodoxy that could question the West's religion itself; a civilization in which the mind could appeal against the irrational with ultimate success--however slow the appellate process--to the rational; a civilization in which belief in learning as a constant self-correction, the goal of which was understanding of a reality that did not depend on a human self, led to the sciences that have changed both the entire human relationship to nature, and our sense of human possibilities tempered by our knowledge of human nature and society.

The fruits of that civilization have been an unprecedented ability to modify the remediable causes of human suffering, to give great agency to utility and charity alike; to give to each individual a degree of choice and freedom unparalleled in all of human history; and to offer a means of overcoming the station in life to which one was born by the effort of one's labor, mind and will.

Abundant as they have been, with merely those fruits the civilization of the West might well have remained a parochial one to the rest of the world, closed, xenophobic and all-conquering. There have been those, indeed, who wished and worked for that, and there have been depredations occasioned by our arrogance--which we subject to critical study and restudy in almost all domains of social, political and moral knowledge. The drama, however, is that this civilization of the West, for all of its faults and sins, believed that its values and knowledge were not parochial, but universal, the birthright of every human life and soul. It believed, in the final analysis, that its values transcended its own geographical space.

To believe, as the multiculturalists do, that this is a source of suffering, not hope, in the world as the twentieth century ends is to break the compact with reality, with reason, and with the logic of inductive inference. Let the inhabitants of the world take or leave that offering--we have come, by our own dynamic and experience, to treasure voluntary, not coerced, exchange--but to the extent that Western civilization survives, and only to that extent, the hope of the world survives: the hope to eradicate unnecessary suffering; to speak a language of human dignity, responsibility and rights linked to a common reality; to minimize the depredations of the irrational, the unexamined, the merely prejudicial in our lives; to understand--with the possibility that both interest and charity will apply that understanding for good--the world in which we find ourselves.

Has that civilization survived? Which is to ask: Has a human relationship to the world based upon the assumption of a knowable reality, reason, and a transcendent value to human dignity and responsibility survived? Has a recognition of human depravity and the distinctively Western recognition of the need to limit the power of men over men survived? It is also to ask whether human beings throughout the world, observing the fruits of different ways of being human, find foundational importance in the way of the West. Free men and women are not likely to abandon that hard-won shelter from chaos, ignorance, parochial tribalism, irrationalism and, ultimately, helplessness that after enormous effort--and frequent failure--Western civilization has succeeded in erecting.

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