Some preliminary thoughts on the European elections that conclude today. I apologize for the lack of structure here, but I wanted to offer some initial thoughts. Perhaps I’ll put this together a bit more coherently later, after the final results are in.
I think the first thing it is important to point out is that we should not be mistaken about what we are witnessing: we are watching the dismantling of the 70+ year post-WWII European order of peace and democracy. While the final results are not in, all predictions are that the far-right nationalist-populist parties are in for a big win in this election. These parties are frighteningly similar to their early twentieth-century predecessors in the National Socialists/Nazis, Fascists, and similar groups. Many of their leaders consciously quote, imitate, and model themselves on the early 20th century nationalists. Italy’s Salvini, for example, has quoted Mussolini with approval on several occasions. People like this are already in charge in Hungary, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, Poland, and elsewhere and have come disturbingly close to victory in countries like France. What they are arguing in favor of is an end to the European unity that has been based on a shared economy, a shared belief in liberal democracy, and a shared need for security since the end of World War II.
During one of my visits to Europe several years ago, I was able to travel through Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France over several days without ever stopping at a border or having to change currency. As I crossed each border, I was amazed (and still am) at how Europe had changed. These same borders which could now be freely crossed had once hosted the slaughter of millions of young men in the trenches. All of the mass delusions of nationalism they had fought, killed, suffered, and died for, one hoped, were long gone.
But then came the economic collapse of 2008 and the migrant crisis of the 2010s. And, with them, fear. And the far right parties, which had attained single digits in election after election latched onto this fear, just as their Nazi and Fascist predecessors did in the first half of the twentieth century. They used the fear of economic troubles and the fear of others to create a movement based in bizarre conspiracy theories (see Salvini’s rhetoric about the plan of Belgian bureaucrats to replace Europeans with a race of slaves) and identity politics (see, for example, the “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” nonsense of Britain’s May). Of course, fear is always irrational, but the fears that are being manipulated here are irrational in an extreme way; they depart from reality and enter in the realm of fantasy.
In addition to rightwing nuts manipulating these irrational fears, I believe the election of Trump in the United States plays a significant role in the current dismantling of Europe. The great strength of the United States has always been that it is a large and diverse nation separated from the rest of the world by an ocean. As a result, it has been able to play a role in world affairs that puts it in some sense outside of and even above the usual waves. We weathered the two most devastating wars in the history of the world with no damage to our mainland–in fact, with a strengthened economic and military position. As a result of the US’s ability to stand apart from the rest of the world, the President of the United States became the “leader of the free world”– a figure who is able to stand above the morass of world politics and act as a symbol of democratic values worldwide. Yes, often hypocritically–to talk of freedom while maintaining an apartheid regime in the American South, for example, is surely rank hypocrisy–but the symbolic nature of the US persisted nonetheless. America’s willingness to pay the big bills for the defense of both France and Germany (through NATO), for example, is what makes it possible for that border to be as it is today: open and free, rather than as it was just a century ago: trenches, barbwire, and bombs.
Unfortunately, it was our very strength–our ability to stand apart–that became our weakness. The relative isolation of the US and its central role in world politics makes it possible for Americans to be a uniquely myopic people. If you think this isn’t so, turn on the TV sometime to any American news network and count the number of stories about a country other than the US, then turn to a major news network in some other country (the BBC or Al Jazeera for example) and count how many news stories are about other countries. The rest of the world spends a lot more time thinking about the rest of the world. Most Americans, on the other hand, probably have no idea that there are important elections being held in Europe today or for the last several days.
This myopia made it possible for our own nationalist-populist nut to manipulate our own fears about immigration and economics. Most Americans don’t think about the rest of the world, have no awareness of it, and don’t travel outside the US. Only about a third of Americans even hold a passport (and, not surprisingly, passport holders tend to skew to the left). We elected a shrill, bumbling nincompoop who repeated “America First” and “Make America Great Again” over and over again without considering the consequences.
The consequence is that there is now no leader of the free world. There is no figure who stands above the morass. Some people have suggested that Germany’s Merkel has inherited the title. She hasn’t. She may be the last leader of a great nation still defending the validity–the necessity–of the post-WWII order, but she is in the thick of it. Germany, by its very geography, is in the center of things and always will be.
So what are we left with? Screaming, incompetent demagogues peddling conspiracy theories and snake oil. The future is bleak indeed. If we must be afraid of something, let’s be afraid of ourselves and our propensity to make terrible self-destructive decisions based on irrational fears.
This book is “MythBusters” for history. In his tour of the history of Western Civilization from its inception in ancient Greek and Jewish thought, through their combination in the cauldron of medieval Christianity, and finally emerging as full-blown modernity, Stark smashes nearly every myth about the history of the West that has developed since the Enlightenment. The hatred of Christianity which began in the Enlightenment and became Western self-hatred in the 19th and 20th centuries is finally put to rest.
Stark begins with the Greeks and the Jews, who, as he exhibits, developed a way of viewing the cosmos as rational and therefore intelligible and predictable. He then proceeds to Rome, which he credits with not much else but the invention of concrete. He moves through the Middle Ages, dispelling the false notions that the Church stifled science (on the contrary, Christianity made modern science possible), that the Crusades were a horrible imperialistic war against Islam (on the contrary, they were a series of defensive wars which were waged with the express purpose of protecting Christians against Muslim tyranny, and accomplished this goal), and many others. Finally, he moves on to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern world, exposing all of the various falsehoods which have become commonplaces about each of these eras along the way.
Stark’s master thesis is that the West’s greatest strength is freedom. The Greeks, specifically the Athenians, were able to develop the great cultural and philosophical productions with which they are rightly credited because they had the intellectual freedom to do so. The Romans, on the other hand, developed little and more or less slavishly imitated the Greeks because of the stifling tyranny of the emperors and their associates. The fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages once again brought freedom, which resulted in a remarkable burst of creative energy, culminating in the rise of modern science and technology. Britain gained an early lead over the rest of Europe because of its economic and social freedom, but was eventually outdone by the United States, which granted even greater degrees of both. Freedom is the key to Western success, says Stark, and the steady erosion of this freedom today is a threat to the continuation of this success.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in a clear and concise history of Western Civilization and how the West came to dominate the modern world in all areas of human endeavor. This is, put simply, the finest, because most honest and complete, introduction to the history of the West that I have yet read.
Stromberg’s treatment of modern European intellectual history is one of the best books I have yet read on the subject. He is thorough while not overwhelming in his treatment of each of the philosophical movements he discusses. He writes in a manner that keeps the interesting, provides relevant detail, directs to additional reading for those especially interested, and yet remains approachable to the non-expert. His assessments are also quite fair, even when it is clear he disagrees with the particular philosophical school being discussed.
I especially appreciate the wide range of his knowledge. Because he is so widely and deeply read in the ideas of Europeans in the last several centuries, he is able to draw together movements, individuals, and ways of thinking among which it might otherwise be difficult to discern an association. This ability to see and explain the relationships in modern intellectual history is a great help in discovering the origins and developments of the various modes of thinking and the particular ideas which they produced.
Stromberg’s assessment of the current state of affairs in thought provides some fascinating insight and some rather heartening prognoses. While it is clear that Western Civilization has entered a period of decline, Stromberg points out the other periods in its history at which it seemed Western Civilization was in serious trouble and points ahead to the hopeful possibilities for the future.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy, in modern history, in the state of the world and how it got where it is now, and, of course, anyone interested in modern European (or American) intellectual history. I can think of no worthier introduction to the subject.
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.
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.