Civilizations come and civilizations go. While some prove capable of inner renewal, there’s no guarantee that any given culture will maintain itself over long periods of time. Today we continue to admire the achievements of Greece and Rome. As distinct living cultures, however, they’ve been dead for centuries.
Many of us think of civilizational failure in terms of a society’s inability to withstand sudden external encounters. The sun-worshiping human-sacrificing slave-owning Aztec world, for instance, quickly crumbled before Hernán Cortés, a handful of Spanish conquistadors, and his native allies, and, perhaps above all, European-borne diseases. Given enough violence, superior technology, and the will to use it, an entire culture can be seriously destabilized, if not swept aside. Yet ever since Edward Gibbon’s multi-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s been impossible to downplay the role of internal vicissitudes in facilitating civilizational degeneration.
More than one person, I suspect, has been wondering lately about this issue of civilizational decline with regard to the West. Whether it’s Planned Parenthood’s diabolical activities, America’s de facto capitulation to Iran, Western governments’ failure to eradicate the cancer that is ISIS, or the same governments’ general unwillingness to overhaul their dysfunctional welfare systems, it’s harder and harder to deny that something deeper is seriously awry.
We often conceptualize such subterranean shifts as institutional problems. The visible deterioration of rule of law in America and Western Europe is one such example. But while these matter, it’s arguable that more primordial forces are at work. In the West’s case, the first may be summed up in one word: fear.
The fear presently haunting the West manifests itself in many forms. Numerous opinion-polls underscore, for instance, that Americans are worried that their children won’t enjoy the same living-standards that they have. Many Europeans are apprehensive about the Muslim minorities that live in their midst, and angst about some such Muslims’ embrace of jihadist ways.
Fear makes people do strange things. It persuades some to applaud the populist offerings of a Donald Trump. Others engage in denial by repeating, mantra-like, that all cultures are equally valuable and there’s nothing to worry about. But if there’s anything redeemable about the societies created by Marxism, National Socialism, Maoism, or Islamic jihadism, it’s not obvious to me.
Yet others respond to the prevailing unease by insisting that the appropriate response is more-of-the-same. This was on full-display in a recent address by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. After conceding the EU’s ineptness in the face of serious external and internal challenges, Juncker insisted that the solution was “more Europe” (code for more top-down direction by Europe’s largely-unaccountable political class and even less accountable bureaucracies) and “solidarity” (which, practically-speaking, amounts to the same thing in most European politicians’ minds).
And, yes, fear often causes people to identify particular groups as somehow responsible for everyone else’s problems. The renascent anti-Semitism that increasingly pollutes many European societies is perhaps the most visible instance of this. As Walter Russell Mead recently observed, “Countries where Jews are uncomfortable are places where a lot of other things are going seriously wrong.”
Closely associated with fear’s role in the West’s internal corrosion is the problem of self-loathing. It’s hardly a secret that many professors in contemporary Western universities have been inculcating students in rather negative views of Western culture for several generations. Prominent examples include the casual dismissal of America’s Founders as white-male-slave-owners, and the insistence that profound institutional successes such as constitutionalism are “bourgeois-constructs” that merely legitimize systematic injustices. Then there are the efforts to “de-Westernize” educational curricula. One recent (failed) attempt was that of France’s Socialist Education Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, to discourage high-school students from learning Latin, ancient Greek, or German, while simultaneously forcing them to study Islamic history.
Every society needs to be self-critical if it is to confess to serious evils and avoid repeating mistakes. For the West, slavery (hardly an exclusively Western phenomenon) is a clear example. Acknowledging such facts, however, is quite different from denigrating Western civilization as one long history of oppression.
There’s also no good reason to actively ignore the West’s historical accomplishments. These range from the aforementioned rule of law to the development of history’s greatest poverty-reducing machine (otherwise known as the market economy), the music of Mozart, the enhancement of the scientific method, and technologies that have eradicated diseases that once limited average lifespans to 30 years of age. To say that such undertakings occurred in the West is simply the truth. It doesn’t amount to belittling other societies.
Antipathy towards a culture by its direct beneficiaries doesn’t, however, just happen. It’s invariably fueled by self-doubt. In the West’s case, this particularly concerns two factors that decisively shaped its very being. The first concerns religion.
Christianity is the faith to which most Westerners (at least nominally) adhere. And while its history contains many shameful episodes, Christianity also exerted a decisive influence upon the West by synthesizing Jewish wisdom, Roman law, and Greek philosophy. Unfortunately in our own time, most of the West’s senior Christian leaders seem reticent to talk about Judeo-Christian contributions to Western civilization, save in the vaguest terms.
Leaving aside the sentimentalism that inevitably flows from their habitual separation of compassion from reason, many such religious leaders appear quite anxious to address topics about which they have no particular expertise qua religious leaders. Perhaps this comes from wanting to be “relevant.” But when the desire to be relevant or a “player” in Brussels or Washington, D.C. makes religious leaders reticent to speak about (or apparently embarrassed by) their faith’s core teachings, it’s often symptomatic of an inner ambiguity about whether they believe that faith is true.
Related to this is the manifest doubt throughout the West concerning the value of a second major influence upon its development: i.e., the seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenments and modernity more generally.
You can find widespread anti-modernity sentiment across the current political spectrum. It ranges from a type of radical traditionalist who yearns for guilds and small villages to the far-more numerous environmental activists proclaiming imminent apocalyptic doom. What such disparate groups often share is a somewhat romantic view of the pre-modern Western world, and a consequent predisposition to forget — or not care — that, for all their undoubted strengths, life for millions of people in pre-modern societies was also, to cite Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Not everything that flowed from the different Enlightenments was sweetness-and-light. Their tendency to encourage hyper-specialization in the pursuit of knowledge, for example, helps explain why many contemporary economists apparently possess a freshman’s knowledge of philosophy, while some philosophers appear oblivious to Adam Smith’s most basic insights. Likewise, the reduction of all forms of rationality to empirical reason is just one instance of philosophes taking a powerful tool and making the serious mistake of absolutizing it. But neither Promethean exaggerations of the possibilities opened up by modern technology and economic creativity, nor techno-utopian tendencies to invest all one’s hopes in such things, are reasons to be flippant about the genuine moral and material benefits realized through modernity.
Of course, it’s quite possible for societies to be materially prosperous but culturally adrift. And that’s precisely where the West finds itself. Economically speaking, it remains extremely well-off. Nevertheless, the West has rarely appeared more uncertain of itself and the worth of its patrimony. But when the historian Arnold Toynbee observed that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” he didn’t just mean that the most serious threats come from within. His deeper point was that redeeming a civilization is largely a question of will.
Upon that ever-faltering will, it seems, the West’s long-term fate presently rests.
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