Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Western Civilization: Catholic and Conservative Approaches

Western civilization is something that is dear to the heart of any orthodox Catholic. A large part of the crises of the modern world consists in the fact that our civilization seems to have forgotten its heritage and in a sense committed cultural suicide. It is interesting to note that if you spend any time reading conservative publications or listening to conservative pundits, you will hear the phrase "Western civilization" thrown around a lot as well. On the surface, these conservatives say a lot of things about "Western" civilization that a Catholic could agree with: that it is a good, that it must be protected, that it transmits everything valuable from our forefathers, that there is a culture war on today, etc.

But further reading and digging into what exactly is meant by "Western" culture reveals that the Western culture the political neo-cons are so gaga about is not really the same Western culture the Catholic is concerned with restoring. Many of the secular defenders of "Western civilization", such as Mark Levin and Sean Hannity for example, see Western tradition as being embodied in the principles of the United States and having their origin in the Enlightenment. The source of our civilization, for these pundits, is not Catholicism or the united Christendom of the Middle Ages but the ideals of men like Rousseau, Jefferson, Locke and Thomas Paine. Occasionally there is a reference to Greece and Rome as important contributors, but by and large you will find the opinion that the greatness of Western civilization begins with the modern period.

Lest I make this observation without properly giving examples, let us consider three. The first time I noticed this emphasis on the Enlightenment as the origin of Western civilization was in the famous book Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom (1987). In this book Bloom points out the degenerate nature of modern culture and the bankruptcy of American institutions in truly educating students. He blasts relativism and modernity unrelentlessly and according to some fired the first shot in "culture wars" of the past several decades. Yet if Bloom calls the modern American lifestyle degenerate and our educational system bankrupt, what is the standard to which he is comparing it? One finds this standard in the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Bloom quotes extensively throughout as one of the founders of Western cultural thought.

Though he cannot really be called a conservative, another critic of the modern age who adopts this idea is famed cultural historian Jacques Barzun, who penned his famous From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life in the mid-1990's when he was close to ninety years old (by the way, he is still alive and is 102). This book purports to trace the fate of Western civilization from its origin to, in barzun's opinion, its collapse into mediocrity in the modern age; hence the title, From Dawn to Decadence. Where exactly does Barzun put the "dawn" of Western civilization? Not at the Enlightenment, but with Martin Luther at the Protestant Revolt. Thoug Barzun, like Bloom, will go on to see Western cultural blossom and grow during the Enlightenment, he sees its origins in the ideals of the Protestant Revolt, specifically with Luther's rejection of ecclesiastical authority and the idea of religious liberty (which is ironic because those of us who know Luther know that he was no fan of religious liberty). For Barzun, Western civilization emerged out of the mire of the Middle Ages during the Reformation, grew into maturity at the Enlightenment and fell into decadence in the period after World War I. Everything good about the world (including reason, scientific advancement, political ideals and capitalism) Barzun attributes to the Enlightenment.

As a third example of this conservative idea of Western civilization as being embodied in the Enlightenment, we could quote any one of the string of conservative professors and speakers who are regularly featured in the publication Imprimis, which many of you are probably familiar with. Imprimis is a monthly publication put out by the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College of Hillsdale, Michigan, only an hour south of me. It boasts a readership of 1.8 million and is given out for free to anyone who signs up for it.

This month's issue featured an article by Hillsdale professor Dr. Victor David Hanson, a Distinguished Fellow in History at the college. In his article on "Western warfare" in the 21st century we find some interesting definitions of what he means when he talks about "Western civilization" and the future of "Western culture". Notice what he omits in his definition of our cultural heritage:

[W]hat do we mean by the West? Roughly speaking, we refer to the culture that originated in Greece, spread to Rome, permeated Northern Europe, was incorporated by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, spread through British expansionism, and is associated today primarily with Europe, the United States, and the former commonwealth countries of Britain...(source)

Wait a minute, where did it come from? Let's look at that again: we refer to the culture that originated in Greece, spread to Rome, permeated Northern Europe, was incorporated by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, spread through British expansionism. Was there not any other stages between the Anglo-Saxons and British expansionism? The Anglo-Saxon tradition, at best, can be said to be dominant from the 6th century to the 12th century, and British expansionism didn't begin in earnest until at least 1600. That leaves out everything from around 1100 to 1600; i.e., the Middle Ages.

Notice also the Anglo-centric view of Western civilization - why does he say the culture of Greece and Rome "permeated northern Europe" and then went into Britain? What about Spain, France and Italy? Didn't they share in Western civilization? I think it is ridiculous to speak of the Western tradition as "permeating" northern Europe while leaving out any mention of France and Italy. Those, of course, were the countries most wedded to Catholicism in the Middle Ages.

He also defines Western ideals based largely in the context of the Enlightenment:

And what are Western ideas? This question is disputed, but I think we know them when we see them. They include a commitment to constitutional or limited government, freedom of the individual, religious freedom in a sense that precludes religious tyranny, respect for property rights, faith in free markets, and an openness to rationalism or to the explanation of natural phenomena through reason (source).

Not all of these are bad or anything a Catholic would necessarily disagree with, but we cannot deny that they are all ideals associated with the Enlightenment. Constitutional government? Free markets? Rationalism? These are not the characteristics of the Middle Ages, to be sure. Like many other conservatives, Dr. Hanson sees the origin of Western civilization as bound up with the ideals of the 17th and 18th centuries, the same period that gave us the French Revolution, anti-clericalism, Deism and ant-supernatural rationalism. For many conservatives, this period of the glory of Western civilization.

So why is this important? Maybe it's not, but it is of interest, especially if we find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder at times with conservatives in defense of "Western" ideals. So what is so valuable about Western civilization to these conservatives? I mentioned Mark Levin earlier; on his show he regularly discusses the blessings that Western civilization has brought about, which he sees as concomitant with capitalism. Some of these blessings of Western civilization are the abundance of wealth in the world today, the high standard of living, the technological advancements of the modern age, and the "liberty" enjoyed by Americans. In other words, these are all purely material benefits. Many of these "benefits" I do not even think are unqualified benefits at all. The highest level of prosperity ever seen in the history of the world? Also the highest level of materialism, which no one can deny is a result of consumerism. Sometimes, when I hear Levin talking about what his ideal of "Western" civilization has procured, I think that some of these things are responsible for the cultural quagmire we are now in.

Then what is Western civilization, from a Catholic viewpoint? For me the glory of Western civilization is not in the writings of Locke and the principles of the Constitution but in the courts of Charlemagne and the cathedrals of Chartes and Notre Dame; it is not found in the radical liberty proposed by Martin Luther but by the harmonious relation between faith and reason as found in Aquinas; it is not in the cold rationalism of the Deists but in the mystic spirituality of the saints; not in the imposing neo-classical hulks of Washington D.C. but in the splendid gothic works that still dot Europe.

For the Catholic, the Middle Ages embodies Western civilization, which is a religious and cultural ideal;, complete with the union of throne and altar; for those mentioned above, Western civilization is a reaction against that ideal. For the Catholic, Western civilization declines with Luther; for the political conservative Western civilization begins with him. For the Catholic, everything bad about the world comes after 1500 while for those above, everything valuable is found in those unhappy centuries after Luther. For one the standard is a united Christendom under the popes; for others it is the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment principles of government. For one it is a religious ideal, for others a secular and political one. For me, Western civilization means nothing other than Christendom. For some, Western civilization is what is built up on the ruins of Christendom.

I think this distinction is very important, and we need to keep it in mind. Those who advocate a return to "Western" tradition are not really our friends if they are referring to this secular concept of the West as found in the Enlightenment. This view of Western civilization is completely divorced from Catholicism, as evidenced by Dr. Hanson referring to the largely pagan nations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as "Western" also because they have adopted "Western ways"; i.e., capitalism. I for one am not praying and fighting to save the anti-Christ ideals of the Enlightenment, but to promote Christianity and a Christian culture, poltically, socially and economically. I refuse to allow "Western civilization" become a code-phrase for American capitalism.

But let us remember that there is no civilization at all without religion, no culture without cult, and no Western civilization without Roman Catholicism. Our point of reference should not be the Enlightenment, one of the most decadent and wicked periods of human intellectual history, but in the beautiful unity of spiritual and temporal that was the glory of the Middle Ages.


Stan said...

I completely agree with you. But I am sad to say that modern people (maybe except for some small remnants in France and Spain) have no idea what a truly Catholic state, like in the Middle Ages, means.

This is the state of things in Europe, in America there was never a Catholic state, everything began after the revolt of Luther, so no wonder people perceive anti-Western values as Western.

So, they perceive monarchy as a tyranny or absolutism at best, which is clearly not Catholic view monarchy and not Catholic (organic, hierarchical) society.

You are the first American that I am aware of, that gets the idea. Then, in my opinion, you have your mission to spread the true idea of Catholic society, Catholic state and Catholic monarchy in the US. These are probably the only means of overcoming the alienation of modern man who no longer knows his place in the society.

The empire of Charlemagne and later the Holy Roman Empire, France, Italy in their golden age are good and relatively well-known models of Catholic states. I am edified when I read the chronicle of bishop Thietmar, although he's not highly regarded in my native Poland for obvious reasons.

There's a good typology of civilizations by Prof. Feliks Koneczny, but I'm afraid it would be hard to find in English (what I found, http://www.scribd.com/doc/4464979/ON-THE-PLURALITY-OF-CIVILIZATIONS-Feliks-Koneczny-Entire-Book - is not exactly the book I mean). English Wkipedia gets it wrong (as usual).

CO said...


More precisely, "western civilization" is now almost a purely political phrase to distinguish "friendly" and "non-friendly" countries. This is similar to the phrase "liberal", which is now hijacked, in the US at least, to mean "progressive". (Progressives promoting abortion is not liberty, but I digress.) Even the word "capitalism", which Boniface appears to disavow, has little to do with the practice that we call capitalism (corporatism would be significantly better description). Enough on this...

Please don't forget the strong scholastic component of Catholic culture; being Catholic does not require rejecting human ingenuity and discovery (cf. Modern Islam). Rather, we are called to improve the human condition in whatever manner we are capable. The gifts we have in 2009 are amazing (ex. My friend's very premature but thriving daughter); but just like any age, these gifts can be misused.

In my particular case, I have a strong affinity to the Spanish Scholastics (School of Salamanca) around the 15 and 1600s. Studying the foundations of economics (that would be Austrian economics, not this voodoo stuff nowadays) introduced me to their works. Their defense of Catholic thought against the Reformation is still relevant, even when buried by 400 years. Personally, I see theology/philosophy after the Spanish Scholastics period as mostly a wasteland.

Bottom line: For a definition of Western Civilization (notice the lack of quotes), I choose early 17th century Catholic monks in Spain.

Leo Wong said...

Barzun's book is not about Western Civilization from its origins but about the "Modern Era" - 1500 to the Present. The title of the first chapter, "The West Torn Apart," tells you that there was a West before 1500.

Boniface said...

Leo- Sure, that was the title of the first chapter and he does talk about the sundering of western Christdendom. But the whole book makes plain that he sees everything good in western culture as coming around since the Reformation - in the thought of Luther, first, and then of the Enlightenment philosophes. That's why he chooses to start his book at the Reformation, and why the book is titled "From DAWN to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life." The Dawn of western cultural life is, for him, with the Reformation and what followed.

Anonymous said...

Our Enemies also base their beliefs of the "enlightened reason". Consider, for example, Friedrich Engles in his "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific".

"The great men, who in France prepared men's minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever, Religion, natural science, society, political institutions, everything, was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason, or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything..... Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung int the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything now past was viewed with only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man."

He speaks about how this revolution "completely collapsed". And speaks of the evils that resulted from this:
[Freedom of property] as far as the small capitalists and peasant proprietors were concerned, became "freedom from property." The development of industry upon a capitalistic basis made poverty and misery the working masses conditions of existence of society. Cash payment became more and more... the sole nexus between man and man. The number of crimes increased from year to year. Formerly, the feudal vices had openly stalked about in broad daylight; though not eradicated, they were now at any rate thrust into the background. In their stead, the bourgeois vices, hitherto practised n secret, began to blossom all the more luxuriantly. Trade became to a greater and greater extent cheating. The 'fraternity' of the revolutionary motto was realized in the chicanery and revalries of the battle of competition. Oppression by force was replaced by corruption; the sword, as the social lever, by gold. The right of the first night was transferred from the feudal lords to the bourgeois manufactures. Prostitution increased to an extent never heard of. Marriage itself remained, as before, the legally recognized form, the official cloak of prostitution, and, moreover, was supplemented by rich crops of adultery."

Engles while noting all the problems with pure reason did not find reason to be the problem but Capitalism to be the problem. It all stems from the Lockeian notion of the "blank slate" theory. It is important to note that it is Locke who is the originator of this theory, for it is his 2nd treatise on government that is the basis of our Constitutional Government. Locke then is the philosopher, (among others), who is loved by both the Conservatives and the Liberals.

Anonymous said...


The Blank Slate theory is essentially that man is what he is because of outward forces acting upon him. The poor man, for example, steals because he is choosing this perceived good but because he is oppressed. Whatever is socially, politically, or economically given to man is what makes the man what he is. Therefore St. Thomas is only religious because his "age" was religious. Man only accept monarchy because it is the rule of the "age". Freewill is implicitly denied in that man is not wholly free to accept or reject his age, not even those 'glorious thinkers' of the 'enlightenment'.

The goal of communism is to destroy all existing society, (religion, morals, families, et cetera), in order to establish a new and perfect society based upon "reason" so that man might be a perfect man. It seeks to destroy all political institutions, (the Church, the state, the family), so that it can end all political conflict and make a new freer man. It also seeks, most of all, economic equality, because if all men have the same amount of goods then there will be no oppression and thus man will be able be perfectly free to follow reason, not his prejudices. A powerful central authority is necessary at the 'beginning' in order to form the perfect man who, once formed and dominate in society, will naturally govern himself by pure reason and justice and render the state obsolete.

John Lennons "Imagine" is a good overview of the Communist Creed:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

(No religion and no society to form us to live for tomorrow and thus bind us and oppress us.)

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

(If their is no countries (or property) their is nothing to fight over and thus we can all live in peace. (For war is unnecessary.))

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

(Economic equality will lead to freedom from all desires for more and instead form a "brotherhood of man" ('liberty, equality, fraternity' anyone?). We will all "share the world".)

Of course this is an over simplified view of communism but I hope I have sufficiently shown that our enemies as well as our friends both share the same philosophers. We are friends with them not because we agree with them on principle but on effect.

I shall conclude of Engles:
The proletariat seized the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat... gives their socialized character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the state dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social orginazation, becomes at the same time lord over Nature, his own master - free.
To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat.

Leo Wong said...

"Logic as an antidote to loose inference was helped in the Middle Ages by the use of the international language, not Latin, but Medieval Latin, a medium of exact expression, simplified in syntax and enriched in vocabulary. The modern tongues owe to it the subject-verb-predicate form of sentence and most of the abstract terms used in science, philosophy, government, business, and daily intercourse."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hanson is right about South Korea -- South Korea is not "largely pagan."

That country is either majority or plurality Christian. Although among this number, the majority again is made up of Protestants (reputedly the largest "mega-church" in the world is in Seoul, Korea with about 100,000 members), Catholicism has gained strength in the recent years as many Evangelicals have grown weary of the entrepreneurial form of heresy and have begun to respect the tradition and continuity of the Catholic orthodoxy.

South Korea is, of course, not a part of the West -- it has very strong and persistent native traditions and history that form its culture, but it has absorbed and assimilated much of Western values (whether one defines "Western" in the "neo-con" way or your way).

There are even orthodox Catholics who think that Confucianism as a philosophy is quite conducive to Catholicism.

Barbara Huet de Guerville said...

Hannity isn't a poster-boy for conservatives knowledgeable about the Enlightenment or the French Revolution. The destruction of the monasteries/abbeys, the Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, the civil wars in the Vendée and Bretagne (read Balzac's Les Chouans, Sean?).
Glad you brought up Imagine. John Lennon is admired by Fr. Robert Barron. This wouldn't be a problem except that the good father is doing a series called Catholicism.
You might want to take a look at his Website: www.wordonfire.org and offer your expertise. He's an admirer of Jacques Maritain - yes, Saul Alinsky's pal!
My heroes are Pierre Duhem, Fr. Stanley Jaki, and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange: "They go to 'the masters of modern thought to convert then to the faith and they finish by being converted by them."

Daniel Schlichting said...

In Schwiekart and Allen's "A Patriot's History of the U.S." the point is made that the American founders disagreed with the Enlightenment thinkers (esp. Hobbes and Locke)on a fundamental notion: artificial vs. natural establishment of government. Locke, Hobbes, and (later) Rousseau claim government is a human-made artifice imposed over our natural state to better protect life, liberty and prosperity making government more easily malleable by human effort even to the point of changing fundamental principles. But our founders saw formation of government as deriving from our natural state under God; that there are fundamental principles of governance that are beyond human artifice; that "we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights." That is why we have the Bill of Rights. That is why there was the debate over the tyranny of the majority and the founding of a republic, not a literal democracy. Our founders did not agree with the "blank-slate" origin of government from which we can do whatever appeals to our human reason. Certain fundamental rights, coming from our creator, are part of our nature, and thus are natural and cannot be abrogated by artificial constructs.

Further, our founders recognized that this republic cannot stand without the foundation of an informed and moral population; (ergo, the 1st ammendment) not propsitions with which many enlightenment thinkers would wholly agree. Our founders were certainly influenced by Enlightenment thinkers but at least as equally were they influenced by the Gospel.

I agree that the Reformation and Enlightenment had many flaws and have resulted in some horrific consequences and I also agree that the High Middle Ages were the zenith of Western Civilization. But there are many Enlightenment and even Reformation ideas we do not disagree with. And further, the founders were not strictly children of the Enlightenment or Reformation (lest we defend "tabula rasa"). They made something new. They made something original.

I argue that our forefathers established something in our nation closer to the Christendom of the High Middle Ages than we find any where else since the Avignon popes. Christendom aspired to a separation of the temporal and spiritual powers from Gelasius to the Renaissance with the Church as supreme authority over all moral issues. Given the fact that the Avignon Papacy, the Renaissance Popes, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment all happened and that the Church lost its moral authority in the West, it seems to me the founding fathers did the best they could to establish a temporal power on a moral basis.

I am not so quick to reject the Enlightenment; we can be discerning: "Whatever is true ... if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8)." Whatever is true is ours.

Do we have a crude popular culture that exhibits an abuse of freedom? Yes. Are there idols created by capitalism? Yes. Are there those in our society fighting for "freedom from religion" perverting the original intent of "freedom of religion?" Yes. Do not our enemies seem to be winning the culture wars? Maybe. So is not America morally bankrupt? I say, that is not a question we should be concerned to answer. Whether we are winning or losing does not give us the excuse to give up the fight. I believe we have the tools within our nation under our constitution under God to wage this fight without appealing to a return to 12th Century Christendom. It is going to have to be 21st Century Christendom, and it will have to assume the the last 900 years unto itself.

"This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life. (Lk 1)"

Where has this promise been kept more than in America?