Monday, November 20, 2017

Jacques Ellul and the History of … ?

In the thought and writings of the French philosopher Jacques Ellul the ambiguity of civilization and its value is clearly manifest. What is our civilization, and how is it to be labeled and assessed?

Each of the three common names for civilization contains a bit of truth, and yet each of the three is somewhat misleading: to call it ‘Western Civilization’ makes use of a geographical designator that is both incorrect and irrelevant; to call it ‘European Culture’ is to ignore that its roots lie in the valleys of the Jordan, the Tigris, the Nile, and the Euphrates; to call it the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ does not take into the account that since their inception, these peculiar values and worldviews have occasionally been embraced by Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and others.

Whatever it may be called, French historian Jacques Ellul has at least three things to say about it.

First, it’s not perfect. Although Western Civilization came up with some great ideas - social and legal equality for all races and both genders, political liberty for all citizens, human rights for all people, the value and dignity of every human life - it didn’t always follow through on these ideas. There have been times in which the worst crimes against humanity and the worst atrocities have been committed by individuals were part of Western Civilization.

Second, Western Civilization has made important contributions to the world. Despite its crimes and flaws, it is the custodian of certain unique concepts: that the dignity of each human is recognized in acknowledging and honoring that human’s freedom and individuality. Despite instances of torture or racism, Western Civilization had the distinctive insight that these things were wrong: that they were evil. Despite instances of injustice, Western Civilization developed its characteristic system of values which worked toward equality between men and women. These are the identifying marks of Western Civilization.

Third, Ellul argues that modern, and even more so postmodern, academics have been too harsh on Western Civilization. Its faults and crimes are constantly recited, but its achievements rarely mentioned. Instead of balanced study and an attempt at objective appraisal, academia has presented an unrelenting attack on the West.

Jacques Ellul wrote between 1936 and 1992, and has been called a sociologist, philosopher, historian, anarchist, existentialist, and a communist, among other labels. Given the variety of words applied to him, it is safe to say that he does not fit easily into any of the usual intellectual categories. He cited Marx and Kierkegaard as two of the biggest influences on his thought.