Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Direction in which History Flows

As generation after generation of students move through the familiar Western Civilization curriculum, they encounter both the micro and the macro: both the details of individual persons and events, but also the broad sweep of history over millennia. The specific data about the people and places fuels the big picture, while the big picture gives a context and a direction - a teleology - to those concrete individuals.

Although many in contemporary academia now dismiss Western Civilization, or even condemn it, a larger historical understanding informs an appreciation of the West. That which we call Western Civilization is the emergence and clarification in history of two concepts: liberty and the individual. Scholar Jacques Ellul writes:

Here is where the contribution of the West comes in. As I have indicated, in this slow, subconscious, spontaneous historical process no one has ever set the goal in advance, no one has said what he was seeking, or even expressed what he was about. But it was precisely the meaning of the whole process that the West discovered (not through sociological research, but in the form of a proclamation); the West gave expression to what man — every man — was seeking. The West turned the whole human project into a conscious, deliberate business. It set the goal and called it freedom, or, at a later date, individual freedom. It gave direction to all the forces that were working in obscure ways, and brought to light the value that gave history its meaning. Thereby, man became man.

The West made explicit freedom as a goal and as a value. The Hebrew mega-text provides us not only with the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, but another from captivity in Babylon. Throughout the Pentateuch, Moses chips away at the institution of slavery - ascribing rights to slaves, and finally limiting a person's time as a slave to a finite number of years. Slavery is being diminished, liberty expanded, and the process set into motion will inevitably yield the abolition of slavery.

To understand the westernness of this step, consider how odd it would have seemed to a Babylonian or an Egyptian to say that a slave had any form of "rights" - yet Moses does precisely this, and in so doing, delivers a blow which places a fatal crack into the foundation of slavery.

The West attempted to apply in a conscious, methodical way the implications of freedom. The Jews were the first to make freedom the key to history and to the whole created order. From the very beginning their God was the God who liberates; his great deeds flowed from a will to give freedom to his people and thereby to all mankind. This God himself, moreover, was understood to be sovereignly free (freedom here was often confused with arbitrariness or with omnipotence). This was something radically new, a discovery with explosive possibilities. The God who was utterly free had nothing in common with the gods of eastern and western religions; he was different precisely because of his autonomy.

Independence is one aspect of individualism and freedom; the Greeks understood this, and their failure to unite the cities of Greece into a nation-state or empire was actually their victory in the name of independence. Although certainly imperfectly conducted - Greek government in Athens during the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B.C. was nothing like modern Western republics with their freely elected representatives and universal suffrage - the Greeks nonetheless articulated a new concept of citizenship in which the citizen was more than the property of the monarch. Even if the Greeks limited citizenship to small segment of the city's residents, they still structured the cooperation of the citizens in such a way as to ensure the city's sovereignty over itself, and the citizen's sovereignty over himself.

It is in this understanding that the steps taken by Cleisthenes, Solon, and Draco emerge not as random bits of progress, but as the systematic unfolding of a larger concept - the direction history took. Even Pericles with his insincere propaganda, and Thucydides who sees realistically through Athenian hypocrisy, existed, and could have existed only, in this larger cultural current.

The next step in the same movement saw the Greeks affirming both intellectual and political liberty. They consciously formulated the rules for a genuinely free kind of thinking, the conditions for human freedom, and the forms a free society could take. Other peoples were already living in cities, but none of them had fought so zealously for the freedom of the city in relation to other cities, and for the freedom of the citizen within the city.

Ellul goes on to make the claim that even the Roman wars of conquest were expressions of liberty. Although we are tempted to think that he must be mistaken, if we entertain his hypothesis, we note that Julius Caesar did begin the practice, followed later by some of the emperors, of granting full legal status to many in the newly-acquired provinces. True, this had, at least in part, a self-serving motive: they were less likely to rebel and more likely to cooperate, having been made complete Roman citizens. But it is also true that these new citizens were made heirs to the traditions of the Roman Republic, and the notions of senatorial representation and due process were thus spread into distant parts of the globe. As a result of Rome, people in remote places learned to demand fair treatment through the normal judicial system, especially as a citizen's entitlement.

The Romans took the third step by inventing civil and institutional liberty and making political freedom the key to their entire politics. Even the conquests of the Romans were truly an unhypocritical expression of their intention of freeing peoples who were subject to dictatorships and tyrannies the Romans judged degrading. It is in the light of that basic thrust that we must continue to read Roman history. Economic motives undoubtedly also played a role, but a secondary one; to make economic causes the sole norm for interpreting history is in the proper sense superficial and inadequate. You can not write history on the basis of your suspicions! If you do, you only project your own fantasies.

That these grand ideals were imperfectly implemented does not compromise their value, and does not eliminate the West's significance. Nobody will argue that Western Civilization is perfect. But against those who claim that it is worthless, who claim that it is a source only of oppression and violence, and who claim that it must not be taught but only despised in our schools and universities, we must argue that the West contributed its peculiar values to the world. The West has been guilty of slavery, as has the rest of the world; but only the West exercised a self-critique, condemned itself for such slavery, and sought to abolish slavery. Governments in the West have, at times, been guilty of torture, as have governments in the rest of the world; but only in the West did the idea occur that torture was wrong or immoral - and only in the West could that idea occur, because it was an extension of the idea of the individual. Torture is a violation of the individual - in other societies, the individual was regarded as merely an atom, like every other atom, in the structure of society; the individual was merely a segment in the undifferentiated mass of humanity. In those societies, it would not occur to anyone that torture was wrong, and in fact, such societies conducted their torture in public as an acknowledged part of their legal systems. Only in the West was torture forced into hiding. Only in the West is there massive public outrage when torture is discovered in its hiding places.

I am well aware, of course, that in each concrete case there was darkness as well as light, that liberty led to wars and conquests, that it rested on a base of slavery. I am not concerned here, however, with the excellence or defects of the concrete forms freedom took; I am simply trying to say (as others have before me) that at the beginning of western history we find the awareness, the explanation, the proclamation of freedom as the meaning and goal of history.

In the grand sweep of history, then, we can see in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac, in the narrative in which for the first time, an individual decides not to commit human sacrifice - we see in chrysalis form the notion that each human life has some dignity, dignity which demands respect. In the Mesopotamian societies of the Ancient Near East, human sacrifice was ubiquitous and unquestioned; as part of fertility religions, it was understood as being done for the common good. How odd, how antisocial, Abraham's rejection of human sacrifice must have seemed to his neighbors. But it is the font from which flow all our modern notions of human rights and the distinctively Western notion that each human life is valuable.

In this meta-historical narrative, almost Hegelian in scope, we see in Moses, in embryonic form, the struggle for freedom as slaves leave Egypt, and the effort to construct a just society as the laws given at Sinai hint at a society in which men and women are moving toward legal equality, hint at the final complete abolition of slavery, and do more than hint at the establishment of a legal due process. While Hammurabi legislated consequences for an unfaithful wife, Moses prohibited infidelity by either spouse equally. While Hammurabi saw a slave as the owner's property and gave the owner complete power over the slave, Moses prohibited the slaveowner from either beating or killing the slave - and Moses imposed a deadline by which slavery must end. While Hammurabi was content to issue a sentence based on nothing more than a bald accusation, Moses required two or more witnesses. While Hammurabi relied on trial by ordeal, Moses described the particulars of impartiality in judicial proceedings.

Between Moses and Abraham, then, a seed was planted in the soil of history. The germination and growth of that seed is the story of Western Civilization.

No one has ever set his sights as intensely on freedom as did the Jews and Greeks and Romans, the peoples who represented the entire West and furthered its progress. In so doing, they gave expression to what the whole of mankind was confusedly seeking. In the process we can see a progressive approach to the ever more concrete: from the Jews to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the Romans there is no growth in consciousness, but there is the ongoing search for more concrete answers to the question of how freedom can be brought from the realm of ideas and incarnated in institutions, behavior, thinking, and so on.

The desire for liberty is to some extent innate in all people, but in the West, that desire became conscious, that desire became concrete, and that desire became precisely articulated. The desire to be recognized as an individual is to some extent inborn in all humans, but in the West, recognition of the individual became a stated goal, became a communal value, and became part of the cultural identity of the West. These are the peculiar characteristics of Western Civilization.

Today the whole world has become the heir of the West, and we Westerners now have a twofold heritage: we are heirs to the evil the West has done to the rest of the world, but at the same time we are heirs to our forefathers' consciousness of freedom and to the goals of freedom they set for themselves. Others peoples, too, are heirs to the evil that has been inflicted on them, but now they have also inherited the consciousness of and desire for freedom. Everything they do today and everything they seek is an expression of what the western world has taught them.

As the rest of the world accuses the West, it makes accusations which are based on ideas which came exclusively from the West. If the West is called to account for the brutality of Europe's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonization efforts, from whom did the plaintiffs learn that brutality is wrong? The West. If those colonization efforts are indicted as having violated the human rights or civil rights of the natives, from whom did learn about such rights? The West.

It is no random coincidence that Gandhi's education, the education which enabled him to lead a stellar anti-colonial movement, was an education centered on documents like the Magna Carta, and centered on texts like John Locke's.

Yet Western Civilization is dismissed, not only by the non-Western cultures from other parts of the world, but by many scholars who engage in a bizarre form of cultural self-hatred. Why the demand that students not learn about Shakespeare and Mozart, about Aquinas and Michelangelo? Why the demand that Western Civilization be presented as only oppressive and violent? Why the demand that, instead of learning about non-Western cultures, students are taught merely to praise them?

As to the motives of such academics and their anti-Western demands, we can only speculate. Perhaps some Oedipal complex writ large; perhaps out of ignorance.

Whatever the causes behind such antipathy to the West, reason finds arguments to justify such hatred of the West neither persuasive nor plausible. Reason finds the West, like the East, far from perfect. But reason also finds the West to be the sole source of concepts which have worked to pull humanity away from that which is degrading, and toward that which dignifies human life, that which honors human life, and that which respects human life.