How the West Was Spun

How the West Was Spun

Mini Teaser: Christopher Coker's Twilight of the West looks at present geopolitical trends and predicts the West's dissolution; David Gress, in From Plato to Nato, sees them as yet another episode in the long struggle between the mainstream W

by Author(s): John O'Sullivan

David Gress, From Plato to Nato (New York: Free Press, 1998), 592 pp., $28.

Christopher Coker, Twilight of the West (Boulder, co: Westview Press, 1998), 203 pp., $28.

Is the West an idea? A civilization? Or a set of political
arrangements? Plainly it is all three and, as a result, difficult to
pin down between hard covers. For if we talk about the decline of the
West, we may be discussing the difficulties that NATO encounters in
formulating policy toward the Balkans, or the rise of ideologies such
as environmentalism that blame the problems of the world on Western
science and capitalism, or the debasement of Western (and other)
cultures by Hollywood's entertainment industry. Or ten other topics.

So both David Gress and Christopher Coker have set themselves a
formidable task when they attempt to chart the West's progress. And
though they are fairly near to each other on the political
spectrum--Mr. Gress being a judicious Danish neoconservative and Mr.
Coker a pessimistic English conservative--they have written very
different books. To oversimplify, Mr. Gress is inclined to stress the
concept of the West as an organic civilization--though one repeatedly
riven by civil and cultural wars--and therefore to believe that its
political structures are natural and likely to survive. Mr. Coker
tends to see the West as an idea in the minds of poets and
philosophers, and he therefore envisages its political links being
gradually eaten away by the intellectual acids of Europeanism,
multiculturalism and postmodern skepticism.

Yet it is Mr. Gress who opens his book on a note of strong skepticism
about the idea of the West--or, rather, that particular idea of the
West he calls "the Grand Narrative." This was the account,
promulgated in such forums as the contemporary civilization course at
Columbia and the "Great Books" program at the University of Chicago,
that depicted Western history as the progress of liberty from the
ancient Greeks to modern America. Mr. Gress concedes that these were
great educational enterprises in their day, but he skillfully
deconstructs their claim to be an adequate account of the actual
social and intellectual history of the West.

Their essential error was to treat liberty as a moral abstraction,
invented by the Greeks and passed on to the modern age, almost
outside of history, by a series of great thinkers and great books.
This involved a number of distortions. It blurred the serious
differences between the Greek concept of liberty as the right to
participate in government, and the Western idea of liberty as, in
Benjamin Constant's phrase, "the individual's right to his own
pursuits." It leapt nimbly over those lengthy historical interludes
that did not lend themselves to a buoyant account of liberty's
progress--i.e., the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages and indeed most of
the period from the Greeks to 1776. It downplayed crucial elements in
Western history, such as the specifically religious aspects of
Christianity, which had helped to form Western ideas of liberty but
which did not conform to the political sympathies of its liberal
authors, and such as the importance of the Germanic tribes in the
Dark Ages (because of possible confusion with a modern nation-state
of the same name). And it exaggerated the role that (admittedly
important) philosophers, such as Locke and Rousseau, had played in
making Western freedom a practical possibility. In other words the
"Grand Narrative" saw the whole of Western history "from Plato to
Nato" as a teleological process leading up to moral perfection in the
form of the modern American liberal circa 1955.

In the words of Private Eye: Shome misthtake, surely. Neither the
West nor any real-world civilization could possibly live up to this
idealized picture of inevitable progress punctuated by what Gress
calls "Magic Moments"--Magna Carta! The Copernican Revolution! 1776!
The Atlantic Charter! The actual history of the West has included
such unpleasant features as war, slavery, social oppression,
religious bigotry and torture, economic inequality and racial
arrogance. These evils were not confined to the West, of course, and
a case could easily be made that Western civilization has acted to
correct them sooner and more thoroughly than any other civilization.
But their mere existence undermined the "Grand Narrative." Western
civilization was more--and worse--than a history of liberty. It was
not even the story of liberty triumphing over these evils, since, in
greater or lesser form, they still exist. Might it not be, then, that
the West was the story of these evils triumphing over liberty--and
then hypocritically donning the red cap? Indeed, that was the
judgment of anti-Western radicals (themselves usually Western) in the
Sixties and, after the briefest possible resistance, the verdict
accepted by the very liberals whose story the "Grand Narrative" had
been.

Having demolished the authorized version, Gress sets down his own
account of how liberty actually developed--not as an isolated
abstraction but intertwined with slavery, war and oppression and
flourishing especially in the interstices of Western history. He
quotes Montesquieu to the effect that freedom and prosperity occur
"in societies where several govern", as when the clashes between the
Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy enabled not only kings but also
self-governing cities to demarcate some autonomy. And because liberty
produced prosperity when it was allowed to do so, intelligent rulers
often left its accidental occurrences alone or, more rarely,
deliberately instituted limited editions of it. "Liberty grew because
it served the interests of power", says Gress in the first sentence
of his book. As the West took on distinctive shape, however, Power
increasingly found that Liberty had either slipped from its control
or that its benefits were too valuable to risk losing.

But this is to summarize brutally what is a tour de force of
historical argument and criticism. In search of changing concepts of
the West, Gress guides us through the Roman Empire, late Antiquity,
the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the age of Liberalism and our own
century. He deals exhaustively with an extraordinary range of topics,
from the political institutions of the Germanic tribes to the
emergence of romantic love, that have helped shape a distinctive
Western identity. And he presents the theories of scholars from
Gibbon to Samuel Huntington on all of these matters as he goes along,
subjecting them to a judicious and generally persuasive criticism.

The Radical and Skeptical Traditions

What emerges from this large survey is that there are several
"Wests." Emperors, popes, kings and revolutionaries fought for
different international orders, and philosophers disputed over what
the outcomes of these struggles signified. "The West" is what
emerged, either victorious or persuasive, at any one time. And such
struggles continue in our own day.

Nonetheless, Gress selects two such "Wests" as sailing along--and by
their drift revealing--the main currents of Western civilization.
What he calls the "Old West" was the medieval synthesis, achieved
around 1000 a.d., of three powerful civilizational forces: Roman
imperial order (the memory of which inspired attempts to construct
international polities like the Holy Roman Empire); the "aristocratic
freedom" of the Germanic tribes (which evolved into consultative, if
not democratic, methods of government); and Christianity, or what
Gress calls "Christian ethnicity" (which provided otherwise different
peoples with a common underlying moral and psychological outlook).
Until the Reformation and the nation-state jointly overthrew it, this
medieval synthesis gave rise to a broad sense of Western identity in
certain classes across Europe. Paradoxically, the religious wars
confirmed this, for people on both sides shared a common view of what
was at stake.

If the wars of religion helped destroy the "Old West", what emerged
from them was what Gress calls the "New West" of science, democracy
and capitalism, which is essentially the same modern West that
recently won the Cold War. But was this New West an outgrowth of the
Old? Or was it, to coin a phrase, a novus ordo seculorum, a
historical caesura and something new under the sun? Gress argues
forcefully that it grew directly out of the Old West; that, for
instance, the green shoots of capitalism and democracy could be
detected beneath the melting snows of the late Middle Ages.

This is a crucial dispute; even the Enlightenment--which is in effect
the intellectual crystallization of the New West--expressed divided
opinions on this very point. The "radical Enlightenment" of Voltaire,
Rousseau and the French revolutionaries conceived modernity as
something to be achieved against the past. The philosophes, for
instance, saw institutional Christianity as an obstacle to political
and intellectual freedom, to be either overthrown or exiled from the
public square into private life by the secular power. The "skeptical
Enlightenment" of Hume, Locke and Montesquieu, on the other hand, saw
freedom as emerging, however imperfectly, from the practices,
traditions and institutions of the Old West, including the Christian
religion. "Superstition", said David Hume, "is an enemy to civil
liberty, and enthusiasm a friend to it." By which he meant that
evangelical Protestant sects had nurtured the kind of personality
that not only demonstrated economic enterprise but also thought for
itself--a truth still wreaking progress in Latin America. As David
Martin's Tongues of Fire reminds us, Wesleyism may be the most
profound, because the most personal, revolutionary force of the last
three hundred years. It is, however, a revolution within tradition
rather than against it.

Essay Types: Book Review