The West, the rest, and the universal human condition

One of the most ironic features of intellectual life in the modern world is the use of key Western concepts to undermine Western culture. One particularly outstanding example of this irony is the use of the concept of diversity by the critics of Western Civilization. In their emphasis on diversity and their acceptance of the idea that diversity is a good in itself, these critics are continuing a long Western tradition of accepting what is best in other cultures and grafting those elements onto itself. In their use of the concept of diversity, however, these same critics of Western Civilization are seeking to displace and usurp the authority and importance of the great minds of the Western tradition.

Western Civilization is itself an amalgamation of the Jewish and Greek cultures within the context of Christianity in Roman and northern European cultures. In addition, several of these cultures were themselves amalgamations of other earlier or contemporary civilizations. The Jews, for instance, borrowed heavily from their Babylonian, Persian, and Egyptian neighbors while adding their own uniquely Hebraic elements to form their culture. The Greeks also borrowed frequently from their neighbors and showed an interest in the ideas of other nations. Herodotus, for example, dedicates a significant portion of his Histories to explaining the customs, religions, and histories of non-Greek peoples, including the Egyptians (Book II), the Persians, Indians, Arabs, and Babylonians (Book III), and the Scythians and other peoples who lived to the north of Greece (Book IV). The Romans, similarly, borrowed heavily from each nation which they conquered, assuming its gods into their pantheon and taking a stance of toleration and even accommodation toward any unique customs. In particular, the massive Roman borrowing from the Greeks permanently reshaped many of the most important aspects of Roman culture and forced Romans such as Vergil, in his Aeneid, to attempt to discern a place for the Romans in the ancient and venerable history of the Greeks. The Aeneid in part represents an attempt to demonstrate through artistic anachronism an earlier marriage of the Greek and Roman civilizations than the actual historical events indicate.

In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, geographer Jared Diamond has convincingly argued that one primary reason for the success of Europe in the development of the technological and scientific knowledge which would enable it to exert its power and influence over the rest of the world for centuries was its geography, which facilitated the rapid transmission of new ideas very quickly. Because of its geography, says Diamond, Europe essentially acted like a sponge, taking in what was best in the developments of all surrounding civilizations and cultivating them to even greater development through the combination of ideas of divergent origins. While Diamond’s theory borders too closely on environmental determinism, there can be little doubt that Europe, through its openness to foreign ideas and its unique ability to bring those ideas together, found the strength that made Western Civilization uniquely powerful in a variety of ways. A telling point of comparison is ancient and medieval China. While Chinese civilization flourished and was admired, even if only from afar and certainly while only partially understood, by Europeans of the Middle Ages, it was quickly surpassed by Europeans in both content and influence. The clear reasons for the eventual floundering of Chinese civilization are the relative geographic isolation of China in comparison with nations of equivalent stature and an internal conservatism which forbade organic development and greeted outside influence with xenophobic hostility.

The result of these differences in attitude towards and ability to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas on the intellectual lives of Europe and China respectively is indicative of the great strength of the Western position. The result of China’s resistance to change and influence was the maintenance of an antiquated governmental and cultural scheme which collapsed in the years before World War II at the hands of insurgents advocating philosophies, such as democracy and communism, which originated in the West. Confucius’s Analects, for example, while interesting as a relic from the past and, in certain elements, as an example of the universality of the human experience, is of less applicability in China today than is Plato’s Republic in a country whose official name is the People’s Republic of China and whose official economic ideology, communism, originated in the mind of Karl Marx, a German-born Jewish atheist who lived in Great Britain and borrowed heavily from biblical (especially New Testament) eschatology.

If this is true even in modern China, it is all the more true in the modern United States. If the critics of Western Civilization wish to give other civilizations their due, the place to start is with the classics of Western Civilization, which, because of their embrace of diversity, contain the most complete expression of the universal human condition. It is only when this universal human condition is first explored that one can begin to appreciate and understand the particularities of human experience in all of its varied forms.

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