Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Give Civilization a Chance!

Among the various trends found in academia is worldview, held by enough scholars to be influential, that Western Civilization is overvalued and overemphasized, and the students would be best served by deemphasizing the West. In concrete terms, this manifests itself in demands that English departments at universities stop offering courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens; that art departments stop teaching Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer; that music departments stop teaching Mozart and Bach.

Given that this trend is found almost exclusively in universities in Europe and North America, this worldview amounts to a form of collective self-hatred. Generalizing, this view claims that West's effect on the world is primarily oppressive, and the best we can do is to minimize the West to allow the rest of the world its freedom. It is taken as axiomatic by these scholars that anything which is not the product of Western Civilization is a priori superior to anything which is produced by Western Civilization.

To notion that the writings of John Locke and Edmund Burke should be ignored, to the notion that the ideas of Kant and Leibniz do not merit attention, to the notion that George Washington and Samuel Adams unleashed oppression instead of liberty - to these notions, French scholar Jacques Ellul responds:

Enough of that sort of thing! I wish only to remind the reader that the West has given the world a certain number of values, movements, and orientations that no one else has provided. No one else has done quite what the West has done. I wish also to remind the reader that the whole world is living, and living almost exclusively, by these values, ideas, and stimuli. There is nothing original about the "new" thing that is coming into existence in China or Latin America or Africa: it is all the fruit and direct consequence of what the West has given the world.

All civilizations - both Western and Eastern - make contributions which merit study. It is, however, duplicitous to use the word 'multicultural' as it is used in many schools and colleges. Those who most loudly proclaim their affection for things "multicultural" have in fact no interest in any culture: while despising and ignoring the West, they in fact have no desire for serious study of other cultures. This is demonstrated by their willingness to lump together under the heading "non-Western" all the civilizations for which they allegedly hold such great affection.

It is, in fact, among the champions of Western Civilization that one finds those most willing to study and appreciate other civilizations. It was in the German universities of the nineteenth century that the most energetic and numerous investigations were made into topics such as Sanskrit philology and Tibetan literature. In American universities of the twentieth century, study of the Ethiopian language Ge'ez declined precisely in proportion to the rise of this so-called multiculturalism.

The value of other civilizations is not lessened in saying that the West has formulated a worldview which other civilizations now use both to shape their own self-concepts and to criticize the West. Ellul continues:

In the fifties it was fashionable to say that "the third world is now entering upon the stage of history." The point was not, of course, to deny that Africa or Japan had a history. What the cliche was saying, and rightly saying, was that these peoples were now participating in the creative freedom of history and the dialectic of the historical process. Another way of putting it is that the West had now set the whole world in motion. It had released a tidal wave that would perhaps eventually drown it. There had been great changes in the past and vast migrations of peoples; there had been planless quests for power and the building of gigantic empires that collapsed overnight. The West represented something entirely new because it set the world in movement in every area and at every level; it represented, that is, a coherent approach to reality. Everything — ideas, armies, the state, philosophy, rational methods, and social organization — conspired in the global change the West had initiated.

In East Asia, encounters with the West have been the turning points in the development of those civilizations. China and Japan will never again return to a mindset in which no alternative to imperial rule is even conceivable.

It is not for me to judge whether all this was a good thing or bad. I simply observe that the entire initiative came from the West, that everything began there. I simply observe that the peoples of the world had abided in relative ignorance and a hieratic repose until the encounter with the West set them on their journey.

Prior to encounters with the West, not only the rulers, but also the Chinese and Japanese societies themselves viewed the common population as an undifferentiated mass. Thousands and millions of peasants were conceptualized as identical and interchangeable, not only for all practical purposes, but also philosophically as well. The peculiarly Western idea of the individual changed the working dynamics of these societies. Before the encounters with the West, narratives, both factual and fictional, were content to speak of "a peasant" with no further descriptor; the West will replace this generic character with the concrete and unique individual.

Please, then, don't deafen us with talk about the greatness of Chinese or Japanese civilization. These civilizations existed indeed, but in a larval or embryonic state; they were approximations, essays. They always related to only one sector of the human or social totality and tended to be static and immobile. Because the West was motivated by the ideal of freedom and had discovered the individual, it alone launched society in its entirety on its present course.

We can honestly give the West its due credit for its peculiar discoveries and values - the dignity of the individual, the quest for liberty, the equal value of each human life - without disparaging other civilizations. We can freely acknowledge Confucius as a rival of, and in some cases the superior of, Aristotle. Not only was he temporally prior to Aristotle; he made some of the same analyses about the fundamental relationships out of which larger and more complex societies are constructed, and in some cases, he made them more accurately.

When we consider the ubiquitous praise for Gandhi, it must be remembered that he began his career as a supporter of the caste system in India, and resented the British for not maintaining the strict separation of the castes. Studying in England from 1888 to 1891, Gandhi was not comfortable in British society and did not particularly enjoy it, but he was excited by the ideas of John Locke and Edmund Burke, by the Magna Carta, and by the English Bill of Rights of 1689. It was in England that Gandhi was introduced, not only to the study of the New Testament, but to the study of the Hindu Bhagavadgita. It was among the English that Gandhi developed a taste for Hinduism.

In South Africa, Gandhi made his mark as a civil rights leader by applying those British icons to the concrete situations in which he found himself. Gandhi became Gandhi by working out the implications of John Locke and Edmund Burke and the Magna Carta. Ellul writes:

Again, don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that European science was superior to Chinese science, nor European armies to Japanese armies; I am not saying that the Christian religion was superior to Buddhism or Confucianism; I am not saying that the French or English political system was superior to that of the Han dynasty. I am saying only that the West discovered what no one else had discovered; freedom and the individual, and that this discovery later set everything else in motion. Even the most solidly established religions could not help changing under the influence. We must remember that the Hinduism which drew such an enthusiastic response from English spinsters in 1930 and is today inspiring the young with revolutionary fervor, represents a modernization of the Hindu tradition through contact with the West. What an incredible experience the world has undergone due to the West!

Although the West has maintained itself as a leader in economics, in the natural sciences, and in technology, these are mere byproducts to those core values which make the West uniquely what it is. To codify freedom or liberty as a value is a specifically Western habit. In ancient Mesopotamia, generations of peasants were born, worked, and died without leaving a trace. In the early Middle Ages, in Europe, the practice began of recording names and dates, births and baptisms, weddings and funerals. Each individual was given the dignity of having a name recorded in the community's books. This is the distinctively Western practice of respecting the individual, or, as Ellul phrases it,

It was not economic power or sudden technological advances that made the West what it is. These played a role, no doubt, but a negligible one in comparison with the great change the discovery of freedom and the individual — that represents the goal and desire implicit in the history of all civilizations. That is why, in speaking of the West, I unhesitatingly single out freedom from the whole range of values. After all, we find justice, equality, and peace everywhere. Every civilization that has attained a certain level has claimed to be a civilization of justice or peace. But which of them has ever spoken of the individual? Which of them has been reflectively conscious of freedom as a value?

In a complex and schizophrenic dialectic, the West's products are working against each other: for, at the same time, it was both advancing the ideas of liberty and individualism, and yet occasionally engaging in the very opposites: enslavement and mass socialization. The civilization which taught the rest of the world to seek and value freedom was caught violating that freedom; the civilization that taught about the dignity of the individual was treating individuals as interchangeable machine parts. The West's own words have come back to haunt the West. Only a critique formulated by the West's own values could be so devastating to the West.

The decisive role of the West's discovery of freedom and the individual is beyond question, but the discovery has brought with it two tragic consequences. First, the very works of the West now pass judgment on it. For, having proclaimed freedom and the individual, the West played false in dealing with other peoples. It subjected, conquered, and exploited them, even while it went on talking about freedom. It made the other peoples conscious of their enslavement by intensifying that enslavement and calling it freedom. It destroyed the social structures of tribes and clans, turned men into isolated atoms, and shaped them into a worldwide proletariat, and all the time kept on talking of the great dignity of the individual: his autonomy, his power to decide for himself, his capacity for choice, his complex and many-sided reality.

In refining such a critique of the West, the rest of the world is becoming ever more like the West. The day may yet come when the East is more Western than the West.