The American Conservative September 2004
Today, Western civilization is almost never mentioned, much less promoted, in political and intellectual discourse. When it is mentioned amongst Western elites, its traditions are almost always an object of criticism and contempt. Real discussion of Western civilization is usually by the political, intellectual, and religious leaders of non-Western societies, most obviously Muslim societies. Indeed, the idea of the West seems to be most charged with vital energy in the excited mind of its principle contemporary enemy, radical Islam. The most lively consciousness about the West actually seems to be found within the East. Within the West itself, the Western civilization of 50 years ago has become the lost civilization of today.
What explains this great transformation? Which traditions remain a living reality today? And what might be the fate of these traditions in the future?
Among scholarly interpreters of the West, it has been widely understood that Western civilization was formed from three distinct traditions: (1) the classical culture of Greece and Rome; (2) the Christian religion; and (3) the Enlightenment of the modern era. Many have seen Western civilization as a synthesis of all three traditions; others have emphasized the conflicts among them, the struggle between the Christian religion and the Enlightenment being especially consequential.
The first of the Western traditions was classical culture. In the realm of politics, for example, Greece contributed the idea of a republic, while Rome contributed that of empire. Greece contributed the idea of liberty and Rome that of law. Combined, these gave rise to the important concept of liberty under law.
Christian theology established the sanctity of the individual believer and called for obedience to an authority (Christ) higher than any secular ruler (Caesar), ideas that further refined and supported the concept of liberty under law. Christian institutions, particularly the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church and its ongoing struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor and local monarchs, bequeathed to the West the idea of a separation of powers.
The modern Enlightenment provided the ideas of liberal democracy, the free market, and the belief in reason and science as the means for making sense of the world. More particularly, the British Revolution of 1688 emphasized liberty and constitutionalism, while the French Revolution of 1789 emphasized democracy and rationalism. The differences between the Enlightenment in Britain and on the Continent would give rise to important divisions within the West during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the case with the Industrial Revolution and the different responses to it; both state guidance of the economy and Marxist ideology played a much greater role on the Continent than in Britain or the United States.
From Christendom to Western Civilization
The very term "Western civilization" is something of an anomaly. It was invented only a century ago, and it is not really comparable to the terms commonly used for other civilizations. Most other civilizations (e.g., Islamic, Hindu, Orthodox) have retained a religious identification, and, indeed, before the Enlightenment the term that people in the West commonly used for their civilization was "Christendom." The story of how "Christendom" became "Western civilization" is significant for understanding the changing nature of our civilization and perhaps its fate.
The Enlightenment brought about the secularization of most of the intellectual elite of Christendom. This elite ensured that the civilization was no longer called that, even though much of its ordinary population remained Christian. The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution spread Enlightenment ideas to important parts of that population, but the Christian churches continued to be a vital force. Since the Enlightenment, however, it has not been possible to refer to the civilization as Christendom.
For about a century, the preferred term for the civilization was "Europe." But this was also the time that saw the rise of European settlements in the New World to the status of independent nations. This made the term "European civilization" unsuitable, and in the early 20th century, a few Europeans conceived of a new and more appropriate term, "Western civilization." Almost as soon as it was invented, the term began to be used in the pessimistic context of civilizational decline, as in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918). Had the term been left to Europeans alone it would probably have had a short and unhappy life, particularly given the devastating moral, as well as material, consequences of the First World War.
The American Redefinition of Western Civilization
It was the New World that was called in to redress the pessimism of the Old. Americans breathed a new meaning into the concept of Western civilization, first as they dealt with the great surge of European immigrants and then as they dealt with the European nations in the course of the two World Wars. For Americans in the first decades of the 20th century, Western civilization was principally the ideas of liberty and individualism, institutionalized in liberal democracy, free markets, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. Americans referred to this ensemble of ideas as "the American creed," which they promoted as a principal means to Americanize new immigrants. These ideas were, of course, direct descendants of the British Enlightenment, but they were also indirect descendants of some of the elements in the classical and the Christian traditions.
American intervention in the First World War and again in the Second World War brought about a redefinition of Western civilization. The new conception has been described as "the Allied scheme of history," but its central pillar was the American sense of historical mission. The new content of Western civilization became the American creed. Conversely, the new context for the American creed became Western civilization. The combination of American energy and European legacy gave the idea of Western civilization power and legitimacy in both America and Europe. The power helped the United States win the First World War against the German Empire, the Second World War against Nazi Germany and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The legitimacy helped to order the long peace within Western Europe that was intertwined with the Cold War. With its appropriation by America, therefore, the idea of Western civilization experienced its heroic age.
The Cold War Concept of Western Civilization
The Cold War crystallized the political and intellectual division between the West and the East. The "Allied scheme of history," the product of the two World Wars, was institutionalized in NATO. Almost all of the members of the North Atlantic alliance appeared to be heirs of each of the three great Western traditions, and they seemed to be comfortable and confident in this identity. (NATO did include a couple of cultural anomalies--Greece and Turkey--which were obviously outside elements of the three traditions, and the U.S. did have another, immensely important, ally--Japan--which was outside all three traditions, as well as outside any plausible geographical definition of the West. But these anomalies became acceptable with the argument that each of these countries was now engaged in the grand project of "Westernization.")
During the first decade of the Cold War, the struggle between the West and the East took the form of a struggle between "the Free World" and "the Socialist World," as the two antagonists referred to themselves. With the decolonization of the European empires, a new region, the South, emerged and the struggle was said to be between the First and Second Worlds over the future of the Third. Both the West and the East offered the South a particular version of the Enlightenment project, a secular doctrine of progress. The West promoted liberalism, which was largely a product of the British Enlightenment, while the East promoted Marxism, which was largely a product of the French Enlightenment.
It is significant, however, that the West decided that it could not promote the other Western traditions, the classical culture and the Christian religion. The 1950s, the high Cold War, were the golden age of the conception of Western civilization. With the 1960s, it came under sustained assault, and the Western traditions have been on the defensive ever since, though defensive may be too strong a term, since today very few defenders of Western civilization can be found.
What were the causes of this strong rejection of the great traditions? We will begin with the rejection of the classical one, which even in the seeming golden age was the most vulnerable.
The Death of the Classical Tradition
The classical tradition was still taught to some extent in American and European universities in the 1950s. But deep within this classical education was a problematic assumption: that this tradition was relevant for a particular part of society. This was the elite who became the governors, administrators, and judges. The classical tradition valued aristocracy and hierarchy, honor and duty. (The ideal career for the student of the classical tradition during the modern age was to become a colonial administrator, such as the legendary young men who went out from Oxford and Cambridge to become district officers of the British Empire in India.)
Antithetical to the classical spirit are both the democratic spirit and the commercial spirit, which were greatly strengthened by the Enlightenment. They were, of course, especially prevalent in the United States. Whatever might be made of "classical republican" ideas at the time of the American founding, by the 1830s much of America was thoroughly democratic and commercial in its spirit, as Tocqueville famously demonstrated in his masterpiece Democracy in America. Although the America of the 1950s was the leader of the West during the golden age of self-consciousness about Western civilization, the classical tradition was by that time almost wholly invisible in American life. This meant that there would be no substantial interest in defending that tradition if it were assaulted by some substantial force.
The classical culture of Greece and Rome, so integral to both Western civilization and to the civilization shaped by Eastern Orthodoxy, formed no part of the history of most other cultures. It meant almost nothing to the peoples of Asia or Africa, or even to the Indian and Mestizo peoples of Latin America. But the United States had living within its borders many descendants of these non-Western peoples, and it would come to have vastly more as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965. Their political and intellectual leaders saw classical culture as a device by which the traditional elite excluded them from equal participation and respect within what should be a democratic society. In regard to the classical culture, therefore, the civil-rights movement became an uncivil wrecking operation. At the same time, the anti-colonial movement performed a similar operation in regard to Europe.
The political and economic elites of America and also those of Europe. who were now following American leadership in many ways--imbued as they were with the democratic and commercial spirit--had already ceased to believe in the classical tradition, since it was so remote from the actuality of their lives. Now, in order to maintain their political and economic positions in the face of the civil rights and anti-colonial movements, they were quick to appease these anti-Western forces by abandoning the last remnants of the classical tradition.
The Ordeal of the Christian Tradition
The Christian tradition also came under assault in the 1960s, and the Enlightenment was again at the intellectual and ideological center of the attack. The Enlightenment had always proposed reason and science as the means of making sense of the world. Many of its adherents were possessed by an animus (actually the sin of pride) to overthrow all traditional authority, both secular and religious, and to appropriate all authority for themselves. This drove them to use reason and science in a biased way to deny any Biblical and spiritual basis for truth, thereby denigrating the Christian religion.
This animus had existed in the Enlightenment tradition since its origin. However, in the 1960s there was a massive expansion in the number of students in secular universities and also a massive expansion of popular (actually pagan) culture promulgated by secular media. The Enlightenment mentality had penetrated much of the elite at the beginning of the industrial age. Now, at the beginning of the information age, it expanded its dominion over much of the young. These intellectual and cultural developments were reinforced by developments in technology, such as the sudden availability of new contraceptive methods, and in the economy, such as the sudden entry of large numbers of women into the new full-time jobs produced by the information economy. This, in turn, resulted in a momentous political development: the rise of a powerful feminist movement. When contraceptive technologies proved insufficient, abortion became the movement’s central focus.
Each of these developments, which surged in the 1960s and continue today, contravene the teachings of the Christian religion. Western elites justified them as the progressive fulfillment of Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality; from a Biblical perspective, though, they are just new manifestations of the ancient forces of pride and rebellion.
The assault on the Christian religion has produced changes in the ethnic structures of America and Europe. In the United States, a series of Supreme Court decisions erected a massive and radically new wall between church and state, in effect, driving traditional Christianity from the public square. This development is related to the collapse of the Protestant (WASP) American intellectual and legal elite and its replacement by Jews, who constitute the new “elite.” Meanwhile, in Europe, large-scale immigration from Muslim countries began in the 1960s and Muslims now comprise 5-10 percent of the population of many European countries.
Although the forces assaulting the Christian tradition have operated throughout the West, the effects have been different in Europe and America. In Europe, the Christian churches had been bound up with the traditional political and social authorities. As these authorities declined with the spread of liberal democracy and free markets, the Christian churches declined along with them. By contrast, in America the large number of different denominations, independent of the state and each other, meant that almost from the origins of the U.S. there was a kind of religious democracy and market. If a particular church seemed to be bound up with a discredited and declining political or social authority, Christians in America, could easily move to a new church, while keeping the essentials of the Christian religion. This helps to explain why Christianity is much more vital today in America than it is in Europe. The American elites have rejected it, but the Christian religion is meaningful and central to large sections of the population.
The Dominance of the Enlightenment Tradition
The only Western tradition accepted by the political, intellectual, and economic elites of the West is the Enlightenment. For American political and economic elites, this largely means the British (or Anglo-American) Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the liberty of individuals, institutionalized in liberal democracy and free markets. For European political, intellectual, and economic elites, and for the American intellectual elite located in academia and the media, this largely means the French (or Continental) Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the rationalism of elites institutionalized in bureaucratic authority and the credentialed society. Together, these elites promote the contemporary version of the Enlightenment project. They are intent upon imposing it around the world--and upon eliminating any vestige of the other Western traditions--the classical and the Christian.
The rejection of the Christian faith by Western elites does not mean they have rejected all faiths. Despite the claims and conceits of rationalists and scientists, every human being believes in some things that cannot be proven, and therefore cannot be established by reason, or that cannot be seen, and therefore cannot be established by science, and that, therefore, have to be taken on faith. Since the coming of the Enlightenment, Western elites have adhered to a variety of secularist and universalist faiths, which have, in effect, been religions without God. Kenneth Minogue has identified these as (1) the idea of progress, (2) Marxism, and (3) "Olympianism," which is the contemporary belief that an enlightened intellectual elite can and should bring about "human betterment ... on a global scale by forcing the peoples of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of appropriate human rights." As Minogue demonstrates, each of these secular religions has identified Christianity as its enemy. Indeed, the Olympianism that dominates today sees the very idea of Western civilization to be an obstacle to its grand global and universalist project.
The universalist ideology of Olympian elites is largely consistent with, and perhaps reflective of, the expanding interests of global corporations. During the first half of the Cold War, American corporations found their most attractive business opportunities in Europe or other Western countries. During the second half of the Cold War, American multinational corporations expanded into non-Western regions. Finally, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the preferred arena for American multinational corporations became the entire world. For multinational global corporations, it became important to be identified with ideas and ideals that were progressive and global, not traditional and Western.
The ideal economic arena has been redefined from Western to global, the ideal society from Western to multicultural, and the ideal political system from Western to transnational. In this new world, a universal empire could be called global governance; a universal religion simply “human rights”.
From the Enlightenment Tradition to Post-Western Civilization
Historians usually date the beginning of the modern era at the end of the 15th century; the Italian Renaissance and the European explorations of the non-European world were major movements that inaugurated and shaped the new era. They were soon followed by others, such as the Reformation and the scientific exploration of the natural world. The postmodern era seems to have begun at the end of the 20th century, making the modern era just about half a millennium in length.
The modern era can be seen as the Western era: the defining movements originated in Europe, and Europeans spread, even imposed, themselves over the rest of the world. Similarly, the postmodern era can be seen as the post-Western era, with most of the Western traditions not only rejected by non-Western societies, but abandoned by the elites of Western societies as well. All of the elements of the postmodern movement originated in Europe (particularly in France), where they could be seen as logical extensions from the French Enlightenment, and postmodern ideologues have engaged in a compulsive anti-Western project in both Europe and America; they have been joined by their post-colonial counterparts in the non-Western world.
Together, they form a grand alliance against Western civilization.
The principal enemy is the contemporary version of the Enlightenment, especially the French Enlightenment. Because of its universalist pretensions and illusions, its adherents have made the people of the West indiscriminate about other cultures and unconfident about their own. They have made the West disoriented and vulnerable to assault from the East, especially from Islam. This assault may come from attacks by networks of Islamic terrorists or it may come from members of the large and alienated Muslim communities now in the West. For Western civilization, Islam is merely a disease of the skin; the Enlightenment has mutated into a disease of the heart.
Defenders of the Faith: The Role of Liberals, Conservatives, and Neo-Conservatives
Who stands to defend Western civilization in its authenticity and fullness? Certainly not liberals. Those in the intellectual sector are largely multiculturalists; those in the business sector are largely globalists; and those in the political sector largely represent these business and intellectual views. All adhere to the universalist ideology. Liberals have never liked tradition anyway; they only accept their own tradition, the Enlightenment, conceiving of it as “progressive,” not "traditional."
One would expect conservatives to like and support tradition. But among purported conservatives, it is important to make a distinction between traditional and neo- conservatives. From their origins, be it as followers of Leon Trotsky or of Leo Strauss, neoconservatives have seen the Christian tradition as alien, even threatening. Their view of the classical tradition has been formed by the decidedly non-traditional interpretation of classical philosophy given by Strauss. The only Western tradition that neoconservatives want to defend is the Enlightenment. In recent years, they have advanced it in the rest of the world through the enforcement of a kind of American empire. This is not a conservative project but a radical and revolutionary one.
The true defenders of the Western traditions will be the traditional conservatives. They are able to recognize that the central and crucial tradition of Western civilization is the Christian tradition, which has carried on the best elements of the classical tradition, while subordinating them to a higher Biblical truth. Christianity kept the other Western traditions in balance. Perhaps in our time it is the calling of those few traditional conservatives found within the educated elite to reach out to the large numbers of Christians within the wider population, to help deepen their understanding of the major issues before us and give voice to their Christian – Western – convictions.
The protagonists of the contemporary version of the Enlightenment may think they will create a universal civilization abroad and at home, but the evidence is accumulating that they have instead opened the doors to the barbarians, without (terrorism) and within (paganism).
The best defense against the new barbarians will be found in the Christian religion. With it, Western civilization became the most creative, indeed the highest, civilization in human history. With a revival of the Christian tradition, Western civilization would not only prevail over the new barbarians but become more truly civilized.
James Kurth is a professor at Swarthmore College. A version of this essay appeared in Intercollegiate Review.