Monday, April 14, 2014

The Essence of Western Civilization

Naming civilizations is a complex task. If we use the term 'European culture', we must immediately point out that the roots of the civilization are found in the Ancient Near East, and its modern domain includes the Americans, Australia, and is spreading into parts of Asia and Africa.

If we use the term 'Western Civilization', we note that there is nothing on the compass which indicates societal trends: Senegal is west of Portugal, but it is not more "western" than Portugal. The term probably arose when Europe saw itself as the western end of the known world, and saw China as the eastern end. Even if we ignore that the Americas would be found further west, and that Japan was further east, the geographical designation, while handy and, at least at that point in time, intuitive, is not to be taken literally.

Finally, the term 'Judeo-Christian tradition', while accurately identifying the source of much of Western Civilization's values and world views, ignores the fact that now Hindus and Sikhs, atheists and Buddhists, and followers of many other belief systems are now part of this Judeo-Christian tradition. The prophet Muhammad consciously and deliberately placed himself and his ideas among the outgrowths of this tradition.

While these names for civilization have the defects noted, they have been and probably will continue to be in widespread use in textbooks and classrooms. A more accurate name would reflect the two key features of Western Civilization: its discovery of, and emphasis on, the individual - and its discovery of, and emphasis on, freedom.

French scholar Jacques Ellul examines this notion of personal liberty:

Let me return to my main argument. It was the West that established the splendid interplay of freedom, reason, self-control, and coherent behavior. It thus produced a type of human being that is unique in history, true western man. (I repeat: the type belongs neither to nature nor to the animal world; it is a deliberate construct achieved through effort.) I am bound to say that I regard this type as superior to anything I have seen or known elsewhere. A value judgment, a personal and subjective preference? Of course. But I am not ready on that account to turn my back on the construction and on the victory and affirmation it represents. Why? Because the issue is freedom itself, and because I see no other satisfactory model that can replace what the West has produced.

Perhaps a concrete example of Ellul's formulation would be George Washington. While exerting himself maximally to obtain a degree of freedom previously unknown in world history, he imposed upon himself a moral and behavioral code more rigorous than the personal codes of those against whom he fought. Freedom does not, in Ellul's framework, imply anarchy. Quite the opposite: in order to retain liberty, individuals and societies must exhibit reason, self-control, and coherent behavior.

One peculiarly human feature which distinguishes us from plants and animals is the ability to say 'no' to one's self: the habit of identifying a desire or drive or impulse and then denying it. Self-control, or self-denial, is an essential ingredient for political liberty. Those who use liberty as an excuse for license will lose that liberty. Societies will eventually invite authoritarianism, even at the cost of society's liberties, to quell anarchy.

While such self-control is required for enduring liberty, it is also a feature which aspiring despots seek to exploit. Tyrants attempt, and sometimes succeed, in persuading citizens that this virtue of self-denial should be extended beyond what is actually necessary to maintain liberty. Samuel Adams wrote insightfully:

Subordination is necessary to promote the purposes of government; the grand design of which is, that men might enjoy a greater share of the blessings resulting from that social nature, and those rational powers, with which indulgent Heaven has endow’d us, than they could in the state of nature: But there is a degree of subordination, which will for ever be abhorrent to the generous mind; when it is extended to the very borders, if not within the bounds of slavery: A subordination, which is so far from conducing “to the welfare and happiness of the whole”, that it necessarily involves the idea of that worst of all the evils of this life, a tyranny: An abject servility, which instead of “being essential to our existence as a people,“ disgraces the human nature, and sinks it to that of the most despicable brute.

Thus it is that, when despotic governments seek to regulate and tax, they are not only reducing or ultimately eliminating liberty; they are striking at the very foundations of civilization itself.