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Western-civilizationCivilizations 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; however, as distinct living cultures, 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-born 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 have 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 is 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.

western civilizationThere’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 thirty 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from American Spectator (October 2015). 

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26 replies to this post
  1. Though attempting to allow for self-criticism, the very beginning of this article betrayed its purpose. By referring to Greece and Rome in an admiring way, that is by looking up to two empires, there is the assumption that what makes the empire strong cannot be wrong. Here we are overlooking the possibility that the very nature of empire itself, not the internal errors and inefficiencies that come with any such venture, could be the problem. For while assuming that what makes our empire strong is right, we have overlooked how becoming an empire itself is possibly contributing to our demise by creating a list of enemies that eventually becomes to long to battle.

    And if we are going to look at fear, why not also mention how we responded to 9-11? Our response then was to externalize evil (a.k.a., terrorism) and thus maintaining many of the same conditions that moved terrorists to hate and attack us in the first place. So we could respond with our strong suit, we were told that the terrorists back then attacked us because of our freedoms, But how was it that our freedom to choose between cheering for the Red Sox or Yankees or our freedom to choose between eating hamburgers or fried chicken moved people to sacrifice their own lives to try to destroy ours? How is it that those freedoms inspired more hate than our history and then current actions in the region did? Remember that that history and those actions included the overthrowing of gov’ts, support for tyrannical regimes that served our economic and strategic interests, and support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine,

    The critical question we are facing that Rome faced is not whether we will return to what made us strong. No. The question is do we know how to change so that we can survive. The terrorist attacks over the past couple of days in Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris as well as this year’s ongoing attacks in Kenya answer that question with a ‘NO!’

    • Bravo Mr. Day, we keep on letting the terrorists win. Can there be any doubt that ISIS would not exist, without the Iraq War?

      Terrorist incidents should be subject to criminal justice and nothing more. If we would ignore the chest-pounding that happens overseas, that is what would make us truly free and safe.

      • Tom,
        One of my sources, Jason Burke’s book Al-Qaeda: The True Story Of Radical Islam recommends what you just recommended. And I fully agree with it. Thank you.

      • Iraq, had a relatively stable, democratically elected Gov’t when George Bush left office. This according to Barak Obama himself. Also, ISIS wasn’t a factor. They were “JV”, again Barak Obama’s own words. This outlook presumably formulated his decision to end the Iraq war, and pull out American troops, even though this was at odds with his military advisors.

        For what it’s worth, during the Iraq invasion, France only experienced 3 terrorist attacks, killing 2 individuals. The frequency of attacks leading up to the war were much higher, and the number of attacks AFTER the war were much, much, higher, with over 150 dead so far. There were no terrorist attacks on U.S. civilians, or soil during Bush’s term in office after 9/11.

        According to Barak Obama himself, the Iraq war seemed to have been a success in stabilizing the country, and as far as keeping westerners safe, it appears that his urgency in ending the war, was NOT the correct course of action.

        • George,
          Iraq was not that stable when Bush left office. For one thing, the invasion ignited a bitter sectarian conflict that just didn’t arise after Obama took office. The problem here is that people in the region knew what was going to happen if we invaded and we did it anyway. In addition, the Bush administration tried to force SOFA on the Iraqi gov’t and they refused.

          Both administrations have allowed the Shiite gov’t to abuse their power. The American prisons where they kept enemy combatants relied on torture and even killed captives. Note that ISIS’s leader was one of the victims of those prisions and he is now treating others with the brutality he experienced from the US. And the country was artificially united. In addition, we were in the midst of an occupation that we could not afford then and are still paying the price for now.

          As for terrorism here, Bush’s administration didn’t stop the terrorist attack of 9/11. That attack was in response to past Middle East policies that saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. And there were no terror attacks between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. However, considering that that invasion drew terrorists into the country, we have that invasion to at least blame in part for ISIS. And if memory serves, the anthrax scare that occurred after 9-11 could be classified as a terrorist attack. In addition, the shoe bomb attempt was a terrorist attack that was thwarted but not because of Bush and his policies. And, terrorism and the recruiting of terrorism signficiantly increased with that invasion.

          See, classifying Iraq as being stable from a Western perspective is inadequate. We are paying the price for that invasion right now. You remember, the invasion where we were both bringing democracy to Iraq while making it the battlefront for terrorism because Iraqis democratically volunteered their nation to be the front lines in the war on terror.

    • “And if we are going to look at fear, why not also mention how we responded to 9-11? Our response then was to externalize evil”

      Which of course was exactly the RIGHT response … Except for those loons who think 9/11 was an “Inside job”.

      And thus we have the moral corruption of the left wing. It goes all the way back to Genesis where the first leftist, the snake in the Garden of Eden, tried (and succeeded) in corrupting humanity right at the very start. The upshot of the snake’s message to Eve was “God isn’t telling you the truth, or at least not the whole truth”. And the upshot of THAT was to say, in essence, “Don’t trust God, but rather trust me instead”.

      • Eric,
        While you are using the Left as scapegoat for all of the world’s ills, what you recommended as the right response to 9-11 has not been producing the results either of us want. This year’s attacks in Kenya as well as the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad that just occurred show that our 9-11 response has not only failed to make progress, we might be in a worse predicament and more vulnerable than before. That is because this new state includes the trillions we have added to the national debt in taking your approach.

        So why vent in an unspecified manner against the Left especially when the course of action you seemed to support has been tried and is failing? Why be the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying? BTW, we do agree on one thing. We disagree that 9-11 was an inside job.

      • Yer darn tootin’, Day… and lest these fellers forget, when the “mujahedeen” guerillas were fighting the Russkies, we were all in with arming them, a/k/a Taliban, the same way we armed Hussein just to stiff-arm the Iranians! These people have seen the movie over and over, they know about our election cycles and our changing of deals based on a new expediency e.g. our word has been rendered worthless.

    • Mr. Day,

      Your comment seems to imply that ISIS, and Al Qaeda terrorists have a much more thorough, and accurate, understanding of American foreign policy, and it’s effects around the world, than Americans do. And, more astonishingly, that their response on 9/11, and in Paris, were quite appropriate.

      • Indeed, our relentless bombing of ISIS territory led directly to the Paris attacks. Did bombing of North Vietnam gain submission? If this reality was hard for some to discern for some, it was confirmed by the statement from ISIS, which said that if we do not stop bombing them there will be more attacks.

        So this means you would rather bomb people on the other side of the world where we have no genuine interest, than assure our safety here?

        • First of all, the attacks in Paris weren’t carried out by Syrian’s, although at least one was, they weren’t carried out by Iraqi’s, nor were they Jordanians, or Iranians, they were carried out by a terrorist organization with no affiliation with any Gov’t in the middle east. ISIS is spokes group for no one. They are the aggressors for seizing territory, not the ones who are “relentlessly bombing” them. 9/11 demonstrated that we very much have a genuine interest in what goes on in the middle east, and it may be unfortunate, but bombing people on the other side of the world IS the best way to ensure our safety. If ISIS has a beef with anyone, it should be Al Qaeda, not the American people.

          • Eric,
            The only legitimacy ISIS has is that of having anger. Their terrorism has no legitimacy. But we should note that not having legitimate reasons to conduct terrorist attacks never stopped terrorism when terrorists have legitimate reasons for being angry.

      • George,
        Americans have little idea of what American foreign policies are because, in the words of my former colleagues who were from other nations, our news is too filtered to know the truth.

  2. Our approach to terrorism has worked because there have been no more major terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11. While I’m not a huge fan of Jeb Bush, he had the correct response to Donald Trump when he said (of his brother) “He kept us safe”. Hard to argue with that.

    But there is a larger issue here, and that is the left wing’s diabolical efforts to confuse good and evil. The attacks of 9/11 were evil, PERIOD. To try to water this down and imply that the US somehow “Had it coming” is just plain disgusting, but that is what the left wing routinely does.

    Let me just be clear so there is no misunderstanding. I believe the left wing is not only the most evil thing than HAS existed, it’s probably the most evil thing that CAN exist. In the battle between Heaven and Hell, the left wing is clearly on the side of the devil. It has given us international Communism with its death toll of tens of millions and a worldwide abortion industry that has killed untold millions more. In the US it has aggressively driven God out of the public schools and indeed the public square generally. The left wing agenda is consistently rotten and corrupt across the board.

  3. Eric,
    So it doesn’t matter if the world burns, as long as there are no more attacks in the US, we have success?

    And tell me, since I am a member of the left, what specific confusions am I causing.

    • “And tell me, since I am a member of the left, what specific confusions am I causing.”

      I was talking about the left wing as a whole, and I was quite specific about the moral evil they have spread, and the vastness of that evil. As long as you identify as part of that movement, you are part of the problem and not the solution.

      • Eric,
        Can’t I say the same about the Right as a whole and the materialism fostered and embraced by its emphasis on property rights? Is it true that the Right counts property rights as being more important than people? And if such is the case, then we see how the Right tells its followers to love the world in ways advised against by John in his first epistle (I John 2:15ff).

        And while the left can’t be confused with the Puritans regarding sexual ethics, some of the challenges it gives to Capitalism are very legitimate.

        BTW, we should remember that neither the Right nor the Left are monoliths.

        • “Is it true that the Right counts property rights as being more important than people? ”


          Plus, it is interesting that the left wing can only defend itself by slandering others. It cannot defend itself, the mass murders, the police states, the embrace of soul hating atheism, abortion, and so forth.

          One advantage of the conservative religious perspective is, in general, a healthy sense of one’s own shortcomings, both as an individual and as a nation/society. Capitalism, democracy, free speech, all have their limitations and disadvantages. But these are the disadvantages of systems created by morally imperfect humans. But the political left seems to be almost incapable of self-criticism. All you have to do is hear a typical Obama speech to see this. Puffed up with self-regard and self-importance and almost completely lacking in any sense of humility.

          • Eric,
            Your answer to the question would have surprised Martin Luther King. When in the name of property rights we allow corporations to poison the environment, pay poverty wages, own and operate sweatshop factories, to regard and treat many of their employees as disposable objects, and so on, your ‘no’ does not look that firm.

            Also, the left is not a monolith. And it certainly defends itself without slander simply by standing for justice for both workers and the vulnerable. In the meantime, corporations, with bipartisan support, find tax havens and bribe gov’t into writing laws that are favorbale.

            And if Conservatism has such a healthy idea of their own shortcomings, why to they imitate the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying when they describe the left. After all, look at your comments above when you describe the left.

            And yes, many Leftists are just as guilty in acting like the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying. Hopefully, we could provide a muniscule example of disagreeing with each other while showing each other the proper respect each of us deserves.

  4. There is a science-fiction short story,t he name of which currently escapes me, in which the Last Republican and the Last Communist — as doddering old men — face off in a world which doesn’t understand either of their concerns. Nor cares about those concerns. The two Oldsters die in mortal combat, and the society which rejects them goes to war over the refusal of another tribe to plant trees.
    Which is to say, the categories we in the West use in our thinking may not be the eternal verities we assume they are. (But, if they are not, it will usher in a world which has no place for the likes of moi.)

  5. I am new here. What I enjoy reading the comments here? I see ideas be exchanged without ripping the other person. No fools here. Great job of sharing ideas that are well thought out and worded with respect. All of you have knowledge of what you talk about. So refreshing.

  6. “Eric,
    The only legitimacy ISIS has is that of having anger. Their terrorism has no legitimacy. But we should note that not having legitimate reasons to conduct terrorist attacks never stopped terrorism when terrorists have legitimate reasons for being angry.”

    This is nonsense. Everyone feels anger at one time or another. Children angry at parents, parents angry at children, siblings and married couples angry at each other, workers angry at bosses, criminals angry at police and judges, the list goes on and on. That terrorists are somehow “Special” because they are angry is just ridiculous!

  7. “Eric,
    Your answer to the question would have surprised Martin Luther King. When in the name of property rights we allow corporations to poison the environment, pay poverty wages, own and operate sweatshop factories, to regard and treat many of their employees as disposable objects, and so on, your ‘no’ does not look that firm.”

    Actually, it does. True free market economics grants equal rights to employers and employees. You are not forced to take a job any more than any business is forced to hire you. And wages are based on what your work is worth. And if you don’t like it, you are free to quit any time you like, regardless of how much this inconveniences your boss or his company. Your view of business comes straight from the Karl Marx school of freedom hating propaganda.

    “Also, the left is not a monolith. ”

    Actually, it pretty much is. Granted, the severity level is different, but it is all based on collectivism as opposed to individual freedom.

    • If I may, I think you are assuming Mr. Day’s philosophy and failing to see the value of this criticism, of encapsulating of all conservative values into a false totem of private property… although how we got onto the topic I am not sure… 🙂 .

      I do not think it is collectivism he is espousing or he would not be interested in coaching us here. He is correct to point out the problem conservatives tend to have which places them in a self-defeating quandary today: failing to re-envisage the third type of ownership under God, e.g. no ownership at all or rather, land held IN COMMON by the people a refuge against goverrnment and enterprise which is not rationalized through the state e.g. England (the root of our modern system) formerly had the Commons prior to imperial/capital/neoliberal age. This land was seized by the Crown as one of the first steps of imperial/capital/neoliberal age we suffer from, and it seems to me a primary reason that those most religious fled to America in the first place.

    • Eric,
      A true free market means two things: 1) no gov’t interference except that gov’t can prevent #2; and 2) no monopolies that give some businesses unfair advantages over the other. In a free market, there are no rights guaranteed to the employee. Rather, employees are not to be protected by minimum wage or other regulations. What we have now for those protective regulations is due to activism, not a free market.

      Second, wages are based on worth? How? Who determines that worth? Is it only the employer? There is an assumption of a black box that determines fair wages. We are told that a free market automatically produces fair wages. But then why are many of those wages so low that people require government assistance to survive? These are called poverty wages.

      Of course, the answer to the fair wages question is the law of supply and demand. And the implication is that this law is like a law in the natural sciences like the law of gravity. But what with the globalization of labor, because the supply of labor increases, the worth of the work a person working here is acknowledged drops regardless of the quality of this person’s work. And it can drop to either the person keeping his/her job could be paid poverty wages or has dropped so that the job is offshored. And the only new factor introduced was the increased supply of labor. And note who benefits and who suffers in this free market determination of the worth of one’s work.

      Now what freedom am I opposing here? Is it the freedom for the employer to regard the employee as a disposable object with no intrinsic value? Where is the worth and freedom for the employee who lost their job because new workers are allowed to work in sweatshop factories that save the employer money?

      Freedom that knows no responsibility results in fostering a socio-pathic regard for others. So compare that lack of regard for others with Karl Marx’s alleged hatred of unspecified freedoms.

      Finally, Martin Luther King Jr. worked against poverty wages. In fact, he was assassinated while opposing the poverty wages Memphis garbage collectors were being paid by the city.

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