Historical causation

In his discussion of the factors in historical causation, Christopher Dawson identified four primary factors, “(1) race, i.e., the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e., the geographic factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e., the economic factor,” and, finally, (4) “thought, or the psychological factor.” Each of these factors has received some special emphasis at some epoch in the history of thought on historical causation. It is Dawson’s unique contribution to the field of thought on historical causation, however, to highlight the psychological factor as the decisive factor in the movements of history, as the human factor which unites and, in a sense, governs and directs the others.

Race, or the genetic factor, is the factor of historical causation which has received the greatest emphasis in the modern era, though it is by no means unique to the modern era. Aristotle, for example, says of “the poets” that “they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.” It was in the modern era, however, that race came to be identified by certain thinkers as the most central aspect of historical causation. The most extreme forms of the position which places race as the central determinative factor in historical causation have largely collapsed under the weight of the atrocities these theories have led to. For example, Alexander H. Stephen’s theory of the natural servility of those of African descent became an ex post facto justification for the existence of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. The most infamous example is the theory, generally associated with the Nazis but adopted more widely by eugenicists of various political stripes near the turn of the 20th century, of a malignancy transmitted via the blood of particular ethnic groups, an idea which counts the Holocaust among its consequences. Although undue focus upon the genetic factor in historical causation has largely been discredited through its own horrendous consequences, this theory has returned with renewed vigor in unexpected places, as among those who argue that an innate predisposition toward certain sexual behaviors implies the necessity of social acceptance of said behaviors.

A panicked reaction against the consequences of the racialist theory of historical causation has led to a renewed emphasis upon the two other material factors, the geographic and the economic. The geographic factor undoubtedly has the longest pedigree of the two. In his History, for example, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, linked the origins of Egyptian culture, including their language and religion, to the geography of the land they inhabited and its environment. One of the most popular of the modern reiterations of this ancient idea of geographic determinism is that of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel. In his 1997 book and eponymous 2005 television documentary series, Diamond sets out to answer a question put to him by a native of New Guinea, though perhaps more succinctly articulated nearly a century prior by W. E. B. Du Bois in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa?” In the wake of the racialist ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Diamond merely frantically replaces one set of material factors (genes) with another (geography), arguing eloquently but not persuasively for an exclusion of the human factor from the central position.

The economic factor of historical causation is of a decidedly modern origin. Its origins are contemporaneous with the rise of race to prominence as the central factor in historical causation. Unlike race, however, the economic factor has maintained its popularity as a material explanation for historical causation to the present day. Its most well-known and vociferous exponent, Karl Marx, argued that “the life-process of society … is based on the process of material production.” Having fixed economics as the final definitive factor in historical causation, Marx proceeded to dismiss all other aspects of a society, including its religious and political systems, insisting that far from possessing any causative or explanatory power they themselves were merely the derivative products of the economic factor. Marx’s explanation of all history through economic factors proved convincing enough to win over a great many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who, fairly late in his life, attempted to answer his question through applying the Marxist theory of material dialectic to race relations in the modern world.

Like the racial and geographic theories, however, Marx’s theory of economic causation in history reduces history to the merely material. Positing race, geography, or economy as the central causative factor in history displaces human life and its unique features, rational thought and spiritual insight, from their due place of centrality. This reduction to the merely material is largely a modern phenomenon. Even among those ancient thinkers who identified material factors of causation, there was rarely an outright exclusion of the human factor. Plato, for example, in his Laws, placed what is perhaps an undue emphasis on the geographic factor in his contention that a city near a “sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country” requires “some mighty saviour … and lawgivers more than mortal, if … [it] were ever to have a chance of preserving … [itself] from degeneracy and discordance of manners.” Yet even in this statement of the great effect of the geographic factor upon a state, Plato evinces a belief in the human factor of a “mighty saviour” and “lawgivers more than mortal” as the most decisive factor in the shaping of a people’s history.

It is precisely such great men whom Christopher Dawson pointed to as the most important factor in historical causation, reminding the modern world that it is not so much man who is subject to the material factors of race, geography, and economy, as it is man who works within the confines of these factors to reshape them and create new and great cultures. “Behind every civilization there is a vision,” he writes in his Progress and Religion, “a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or which may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker.” Underlying historical causation, says Dawson, creating and giving impulse to material factors is the human factor. Behind every great movement in history one will not find, if followed to its roots, a gene, a mountain, or an exchange of goods. Instead, one will discover the human will.

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest
All that I have written thus far in this series of posts is not to say that Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the native religious and philosophical traditions of China and India are not valuable, nor that any other aspect of their indigenous traditions are not worthy of study. On the contrary, each of the cultures of the world contains and is a commentary upon some unique aspect of the common human experience. What has led to the success of the West over these other cultures, and what separates it from them as uniquely important, is that Western Civilization never took on the parochial nature of, for example, Indian or Chinese thought. Because it has been since its conception the product of a confluence of diverse ideas and cultures and has remained throughout its history uniquely open to outside influences, Western Civilization reflects not merely one aspect of the common human experience but the purest expression of the universal human condition. Rather than a closed, merely European phenomena, the genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in a blustering attack on Christian heretics, “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”, he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Western Civilization demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians, who have been the primary shapers of Western Civilization through the course of most of its history, generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

In short, while the applicability of the great bulk of Confucius’s ideas remains isolated from the experience of most people in the world and these ideas are antiquated even in modern China, the ideas of Confucius’s Greek contemporaries Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle remain as vital and significant as they were when first formulated nearly 2400 years ago. Importantly, the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle possess equal vitality and significance not only in modern Greece but also in modern China. It is the West’s primeval embrace of diversity and its outward-looking philosophy, perhaps most encapsulated in the Christian idea of the Incarnation of Christ, that have made this possible. This is one of the great ironies which inheres in the thought of those who wish to undermine education in Western Civilization in favor of a multicultural approach. Their very openness to foreign ideas is one of the fundamental components and ultimate strengths of Western Civilization itself. They have, however, confused this strength for a weakness and made it into a point of attack by turning it on its head.

 

Notes
1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

 

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 5: The Restoration of Western Civilization

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

 

The inevitable ramifications of the propagation of a combined ignorance of and hostility toward Western Civilization among the inheritors of that civilization are disastrous. A person who is so entirely out of touch with the sources of his own ideas and the various institutions around him is a person who is alienated from self and from society. He is unable to understand either of them. More than that, the individual who is ignorant of and hostile to his own culture cannot help but be ignorant of and hostile to other cultures. He cannot understand them on their own terms nor appreciate them for their own merits. His alienation has fostered within him a radical individualism which allows him to see himself, contrary to objective reality, as an isolated cell rather than a part of a larger whole: a community, a society, a nation, a culture, a civilization, or even mankind itself. He only accepts, and in fact he only understands, that with which he agrees. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons the architects of the Common Core have chosen so many modern texts which represent the experience of immigrants to the United States or, more often, second-generation Americans, who write with a hostility toward their newly adopted nation and its traditions while there is a dearth of material listed in their recommendations which can be said to be authentically representative of the native literary and intellectual traditions of the civilizations from which these immigrants have come.

The obsessive focus on “global perspectives,” in the terminology of the Michigan Department of Education, ignores a key aspect of the contemporary global situation, namely, the worldwide predominance of ideas and institutions whose origins are deeply rooted in the history of Western Civilization. China, a rising world power and the most populous nation on earth, provides an outstanding example. The current official name of China is the People’s Republic of China, a nomenclature which reflects the reality of their adoption of Western political and economic ideas. Their political and economic system is a mixture of the free market ideas which originated in early modern Britain; the ideas of Karl Marx, a German-born Jewish immigrant to Britain; and the democratic and republican political ideals of the Greeks and Romans. The native tradition of Confucianism, which dominated political, economic, and social thought in China for millennia plays no role outside of certain lasting and largely unconscious vestiges in custom and perspective. In the popular uprisings which overturned traditional Chinese government and culture in the first half of the twentieth century, the Chinese largely discarded and destroyed their own Confucian cultural heritage, intentionally reforming their nation along a Western model.

The same is true in large part in India, another rising world power and the second most populous nation in the world. One of the great historical ironies of the twentieth century is the overwhelming inspiration ideas with Western origins provided to the nationalists and anti-colonialists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in India, where the leaders of the nationalist movement were almost to a man educated in Western schools, or in Western-style schools in India. The most famous leader of the independence movement in India, Mohandas Gandhi, for example, received his primary and secondary education in schools administered by the British government. All but one year of his post-secondary education was completed at University College London.

In his 1959 The Movement of World Revolution, Christopher Dawson provides an illuminating statement by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, one of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, to this effect:

In the first place [says Panikkar] the system of higher education in English provided India with a class imbued with social purposes foreign to Hindu thought. The continuity and persistence of those purposes achieved the socio-religious revolution on which the life of modern India is based. While British administration did little or nothing to emancipate the spirit, to extinguish the prejudices, to eradicate the ravages of ignorant custom and pernicious superstition, the New Learning which came to India through its introduction to the English language on a nation-wide scale undoubtedly did all this. Indeed it may be argued that the essential contradiction of the British rule in India lay in this: the constituted government upheld the validity of customs, maintained and administered laws which denied the principles of social justice, refused to legislate for changes urgently called for by society, watched with suspicion the movement of liberal ideas, while the officially sponsored and subsidized educational system was undermining everything that the Government sought to uphold. … In the educational system the Government created and maintained an opposition to itself in a place where its own methods were ineffectual.

The mining of the ancient fortress of Hindu custom was a major achievement, for the reason that it was uniformly spread all over India. Had the new education been through the vernacular languages, the emphasis of the movement would have been different from province to province. … There would have been no “master plan” of change, and instead of the Hindu community being unified, it would have split into as many units as there are languages in India. … From this development India was saved by the common medium of education which Macauly introduced into India.

In the second place it is a point of major significance in the evolution of India as a single nation that this uniform system of education throughout India through a single language produced a like-mindedness on which it was possible to build. That it gave India a common language for political thinking and action is of less importance than the creation of this like-mindedness, this community of thought, feeling and ideas which created the Indian nationality.1

It was the exposure to Western thought through the medium of the English language, in other words, which made the Indian nationalist movement possible. The Western focus on social responsibility and political action, with origins in Greece and in Judaism, inspired the Indian nationalists. The unity of thought and expression brought about by the common language, both in words and ideas, in which they were educated made their unified movement possible. Today, India is rightly proud of its great past, displaying, for example, the symbol of the Emperor Asoka, the ancient king who unified India almost 2300 years ago, on their national flag. They are also a nation with a government and a burgeoning economy centered in sciences and technologies which all originate in the history and thought of Western Civilization.

 

Notes

1 Sardar P.K. Panikkar, quoted in Christopher Dawson, The Movement of World Revolution (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959), 124-126.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 1: Western Civilization and Higher Education

“One of the chief defects of modern education has been its failure to find an adequate method for the study of our own civilization.”1 So wrote Christopher Dawson in 1961, almost precisely at the inception of the trends in thought about education and culture which would not only further exacerbate this pre-existing problem but, in an attempt to pretend that the problem did not exist at all, would ignore it altogether, thus allowing a minor illness to ripen into a full-blown plague. While Dawson sought to reform the way in which the study of Western Civilization was approached in schools, he could still, in 1961, take it for granted that all primary and secondary school students in the United States would be inducted into the history, thought, and culture of Western Civilization. He could still, at that time, assume that all American college undergraduates would be required to take at least a course in Western Civilization and would be exposed through other classes to the great literary, artistic, philosophical, scientific, and other products of that culture, which is, in fact, their culture. In the same paragraph, Dawson laments the dominance in educational institutions of the twin forces of “the democratic utilitarianism of compulsory state education, on the one hand, and … scientific specialization, on the other.”2 These two forces have continued to dominate American education in the more than half a century since Dawson wrote his Crisis of Western Education. The result has been that the crisis has reached such proportions that each new graduating class of students is further restricted within a field of technical specialization and further alienated from their heritage as the children of Western Civilization and citizens of the United States.

In colleges throughout the United States, courses in Western Civilization, once required for majors in all areas of study, have not only ceased to exist as a requirement but have ceased to exist altogether. In a study published in May 2011, the National Association of Scholars documented the decline of Western Civilization courses in American colleges beginning in 1964.3 They found that throughout both public and private institutions of higher learning across the United States, including top-ranked universities, a survey course in Western Civilization has all but gone extinct as a requirement for undergraduates. Very few even require such a course for students majoring in history. Instead, the trend has been to replace the study of Western Civilization with a class dedicated to a more general study of world history, downplaying the importance of Western Civilization and downgrading it to the status of just one civilization among many.

When universities do choose to teach their students about Western Civilization, it generally comes packaged with vitriolic criticism. While Harvard University offers no introductory course in Western Civilization to its undergraduates, for example, it does offer a graduate course targeted to its teaching fellows whose title is “Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy.” The description of the course from Harvard’s course catalogue states its purpose without equivocation:

The purpose of this graduate seminar is to get Teaching Fellows and other graduates to engage with the historiographical and pedagogical challenges of the General Education course, Societies of the World 19: Western Ascendancy. Courses in Western Civilization are nowadays widely seen as outmoded and excessively Eurocentric. The aim of SW 19 is to address questions of global economic and political divergence in a fresh way, taking advantage of more recent literature on economic history, for example.4

The trend in favor of the degradation of Western Civilization has penetrated academia so deeply that those institutions which have resisted the trend have become the targets of governmental organizations dedicated to enforcing educational homogeneity. Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan, for example, has documented his institution’s struggle against government agencies tasked with the imposition of conformity to current trends his book Liberty and Learning. One example he provides concerns the Michigan Department of Education’s criticism of Hillsdale’s stated mission to act as “a trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual heritage from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”5 The Michigan Department of Education insisted, with the threat that it would refuse to issue teaching certifications to graduates of Hillsdale, that Hillsdale College reform its introductory courses in Western Civilization, which Hillsdale requires for all undergraduates in any major, so that the “intent is to point out the limitation to Western culture.”6 The Department asserted, in addition, that “the Hillsdale program, based on the principles of Western culture, does not incorporate global perspectives by design. It is unclear how to resolve this weakness.”7 In other words, Hillsdale College’s focus “on the principles of Western culture” is, in the eyes of the state of Michigan, a “weakness” that must be “resolve[d]” in order to incorporate a more multicultural approach, to the detriment of both Western Civilization as a course of study and to the detriment of the students who are receiving this education.

 

Notes

1 Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 119.

2 Ibid.

3 Glenn Ricketts, Peter W. Wood, Stephen H. Balch, and Ashely Thorne, “The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, The Disappearance of Western Civilization from the American Undergraduate Curriculum,” National Association of Scholars (May 2011) http://www.nas.org/articles/The_Vanishing_West_1964-2010.

4 “History 2921 – Western Ascendancy: Historiography and Pedagogy: Seminar,” Harvard University Course Catalogue: 2013-2014.

5 Larry P. Arnn, Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education (Hillsdale: Hillsdale College Press, 2010), 53.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

Defining Western Civilization: Christendom By Any Other Name

There can be little doubt that Western Civilization is and will for the foreseeable future remain the dominant civilization of the world. The nations of Western Civilization have, over the past several centuries, spread their languages, their cultures, their ideologies, and their political rule to every continent. Despite the decline of Europe, the home of this civilization for the bulk of its lifespan thus far, the ideas of the West continue to be the major shaping influences of the modern world, though the focal points of that world have since moved to North America and are now moving to Asia. Ideas such as communism, democracy, and human rights are finding new homes in India, China, and Japan, far from their birthplaces in Germany, Greece, and Italy. While this renders the term “Western Civilization,” with its directional emphasis, a quaint anachronism, the ideas themselves have taken on a renewed vigor in their current host nations. The first step toward understanding the reasons for the dominance of Western Civilization and for responding to its movement into new and foreign terrain is defining Western Civilization itself.

To define Western Civilization, the term itself must, in a sense, be dismissed. It is clearly not merely “Western,” meaning European, but rather universal in its embrace and pertinence. The “Western” idea of liberty is equally true and meaningful in both France and China. A close look at the history of Western Civilization even before its globalization in the modern era reveals that it has never been strictly “Western.” Its most ancient ancestors, in fact, lie altogether outside of the borders of Europe. The genetics of Western Civilization reveal that it is and has been since its inception an amalgam of peoples and cultures, often with widely divergent worldviews and geographies.

Ancient Greece is generally, and rightly, credited as the birthplace of many distinctively Western ideas, including its political and philosophical systems, its art and literature, its science and medicine, and much else. The Greeks themselves, however, often credited their forebears among the Egyptians and the Babylonians as the progenitors of a great deal of their knowledge. A sizeable portion of this credit is undeserved and may be attributed to the desire, common until fairly recently, to link one’s original ideas with the respectability of antiquity;1 these attributions, however, do demonstrate a Greek admiration for and imitation of the knowledge of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

Fittingly, these two nations also figure prominently among the shaping influences upon the other great early strand in the DNA of Western Civilization, the Jews. Genesis 11:31 claims the Mesopotamian city of Ur as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, and the stories that make up much of the Jewish scriptures exhibit a common origin with or perhaps an improvement upon the traditional stories of Mesopotamia, such as the creation story of the Enuma Elish and the flood story of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Similarly, Jewish law reflects an improved and universalized application of the rule of lex talionis evident in Mesopotamian law codes such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.2 Jewish influence by the Egyptians is demonstrated in the Jews’ own record in the Book of Exodus of their period of enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent escape therefrom.

The commingling of these two cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, began in earnest with the conquest of the Israelite lands by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Although the relationship between the two was often a tumultuous one, as in the suppression of a distinctively Jewish identity under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the subsequent revolt of the Jews against Seleucid Greek rule under the Maccabees, it nonetheless bore spectacular fruit, particularly in the Roman period. The production of the Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language and the Jewish-Hellenic synthesis philosophy of Philo of Alexandria are two noteworthy early examples among many. By far the most important fruit of this contact between the Greek and Jewish cultural systems was the Christian Church. Early Christians employed Greek language and ideas to convey the events of the life of a Jewish man and their understanding of the significance of those events, which they saw as the culmination of the history and hopes of the Jewish people. When the early Christian author Tertullian wrote in his blustering attack on Christian heretics “what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” he had hoped for a negative response.3 Had he stopped to consider the origins of his own faith, however, or had access to its later developments, he would have heard his question resoundingly answered to the contrary of his expectations. The Christian Church, and Christians more generally, would continue this grand synthesis of the Greek and the Jewish throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating along with them a number of other cultures as well, most notably the Germanic culture of the Northern European peoples. Indeed, as Christopher Dawson has described it, Western Civilization is the product of “several peoples, composed of different racial elements, all co-operating in the development of a common cultural heritage.”4

When using the term “Western Civilization” one is referring to a great amalgam of cultures and peoples, ideas and worldviews, including but by no means limited to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Germans, all brought together within the framework of Christianity. Early Christian writers, the great majority of whom were Romans writing in the Greek language, were fond of bragging about the expansion of their religion well outside of the bounds of the Roman Empire among the various barbarian nations which surrounded it. They were not, of course, conscious of the great civilization which would be forged by the unity they were bringing to these peoples. Christianity was able to provide a framework which united such disparate cultures while sustaining their local customs because of its emphasis on one particular and central idea, namely, the Incarnation. As Dawson explains, Western Civilization’s “religious ideal,” unlike that of the Chinese, Indian, and other great civilizations, “has not been the worship of timeless and changeless perfection, but a spirit that strives to incorporate itself in humanity and to change the world.”5 Western Civilization has had the marked tendency to regard all knowledge as worthy and to absorb this knowledge into itself, further accreting ever more peoples and their traditions while widening its own civilizational embrace. This is why theories of the dominance of Western Civilization which have seen race or, more recently, geography as the primary impetus fall far short of possessing full explanatory power.

Jared Diamond’s thesis in his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, that the success of the West in comparison with other cultures is the result of European geography’s ability to absorb and combine elements from surrounding civilizations fails to account for a number points which must be considered. Diamond’s thesis, for example, does not account for the history of locations such as Alexandria, Egypt, which was a center for the combination, incubation, and distribution of ideas in Western Civilization but has since fallen into stagnation after being acquired and enculturated by another civilization. More importantly, his theory ignores altogether the human factor, or what Dawson calls the “psychological factor,” the place of people and their ideas, which is the primary factor in the shaping of a civilization.6 It was the “psychological factor” of the Christian belief in the Incarnation which provided the glue to hold together such divergent and disparate peoples and traditions as those of which Western Civilization consists.

From an early point, and perhaps because of its dual parentage in Greek and Jewish civilizations, Christians demonstrated a unique openness to the beliefs and practices of a variety of peoples. In the words of the late historian Roland N. Stromberg, “no other civilization … has ever possessed the capacity for change that ours has shown. This was probably the result of its complex inheritance, which came to it from several sources.”7 With some exceptions (such as Tertullian, quoted previously), Christians generally viewed their faith not only as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations, but as the completion of the philosophies of non-Jews as well. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr unequivocally asserted that Christian “doctrines … appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul.”8 From this centrality of the Incarnation, Justin was able to simultaneously assert that the body, reason, and soul of man, which were taken on and redeemed by God in the Incarnation, were also given by God to man as tools for man’s use in acquiring wisdom and virtue.9 With this foundation in the Incarnation and its implications, Justin found it acceptable to commend a number of ideas of the Platonists, the Stoics, the Greek poets, and others as both wise in themselves and consonant with Christian teaching.10 This Christian openness to foreign ideas continued throughout the history of Western Civilization and allowed it to both absorb ideas from outside, such as the medieval Islamic translations of and commentaries upon Aristotelian texts, as well as find new homes in a stunning variety of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups, transforming each of these to meet its own requirements while not displacing their native heritages.

From the foregoing, a definition of Western Civilization can be formulated which removes the misguided focus on geography and favors instead a more complete understanding of the history and nature of the civilization itself. Western Civilization is not strictly European or entirely Western. It is, rather, that collection of disparate cultures which has united itself around the fundamental notion of the Incarnation. Western Civilization is, in short, Christendom.

The immediate objection to such a formulation is the observation that Western Civilization has, beginning with the Enlightenment, entered a period of turning away from its Christian heritage which has resulted in the modern so-called post-Christian societies of Europe and the emergent post-Christian societies of North America. With such a turn to secularism in the former domains of Christendom and with such nations as India and China, which are not now and never have been majority Christian nations, taking on and internalizing ideas which originated in the West, some may see the designation of Western Civilization as Christendom as unnecessary and antiquated. To adopt such a position, however, is to ignore or to be ignorant of the overwhelming influence Christianity has had upon the formation of this civilization. As Dawson points out,

In fact, no civilization, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last nine hundred years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilization is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world.11

Although Christianity may be in the process of becoming a minority religion even within the historical borders of Christendom and although the ideas of Christendom are now put into practice with more vigor and among nations with far larger populations in lands yet unbaptized, the force of Christianity in the shaping of Western Civilization cannot be ignored or downplayed. Even the very ideas which are replacing traditional Christian religiosity among those living within Christendom’s native lands are the product, or perhaps the byproduct, of Christianity. Scientific materialism, for example, would hardly be a tenable worldview without the process of the development of scientific thought in the West, a process which largely occurred not only at the hands and in the minds of believing Christians but also, and more importantly, as a result of the impact of Christian ideas. The Christian scholastics of the Middle Ages, for example, in their attempts to reconcile the contents of the Christian faith with the philosophy of Aristotle, “laid a solid foundation of logical thought on which later science could build.”12 The early giant of the Scientific Revolution, Galileo Galilei, was himself inspired and driven by his belief that “this grand book, the universe, … is written in the language of mathematics.”13 This Platonic notion refracted through the lens of his medieval Christian heritage drove Galileo to attempt to formulate mathematical proofs for Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. There are, in addition, more subtle ways in which Christianity made modern science and its sickly cousin, philosophical naturalism, possible; for example, the idea of monotheism renders the cosmos intelligible as natural forces are freed from the provenance of various competing deities and instead placed under the providence of a single divine entity, thereby imbuing the universe with an orderliness and meaningfulness it could not formerly possess.

Whatever Western Civilization may become in the future, it remains the product of Christianity and is as yet inseparable from that foundation. That many of its members are turning away from that foundation and that other civilizations are attempting to adopt its ideas in a piecemeal manner without also adopting that foundation is a challenge Western Civilization is only now beginning to face for the first time. How radically Western Civilization will be altered, whether its products can survive outside of their natural habitat and without the food sources they have hitherto depended upon, and, indeed, whether Western Civilization can survive these upheavals at all are yet to be seen. Until that time, Western Civilization remains what it has been since its inception two thousand years ago in the incipient stage of that great synthesis of Judaism and Greece; it is Christendom.

Notes

1 The attribution of the Babylonians as the source of the astronomical knowledge which enabled Thales of Miletus’s famous prediction of the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, for example, is almost certainly false. See Dmitri Panchenko, “Thales Prediction of a Solar Eclipse,” in Journal for the History of Astronomy (November, 1994): 275-288.

2 Where the two most notably diverge and where the Jewish law exhibits an improvement over the other Mesopotamian law codes, like that of Hammurabi, is in its application of the law to all people. Leviticus 24:22, for example, makes explicit that there will be one law which applies to all people. Whereas Hammurabi prescribes lex talionis for offenses among equals, the Jewish law prescribes this standard for nearly all offenses by any party against any party. The difference is undoubtedly the result of the previous improvement of the Jewish creation story, in which man is created as a child (in his “image” and “likeness,” according to Genesis 1:26-27) of God and his co-operator, over the Mesopotamian, in which man is created as the slave of the gods. This Jewish emphasis on equality would enter deeply into the DNA of Western Civilization.

3 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” 7.

4 Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), 399.

5 Christopher Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” in Jacques Maritain, Peter Wust, and Christopher Dawson, Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 228.

6 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

7 Roland N. Stromberg, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 8-9.

8 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” 10.

9 Ibid., 7.

10 Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” 20.

11 Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 23.

12 Stromberg, 32.

13 Galileo, The Assayer.