One of the most difficult things to do when determining the strengths and weaknesses of Western Civilization — which has come under fire of late by many who see it as the cause of nothing but years of persecution and misery for millions of human beings — is to balance the pros against the cons. We might begin with the cons, as they are most interesting. At the top of my list would be the Spanish Inquisition about which the always reliable Wikipedia has this to say:
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The “Spanish Inquisition” may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Spanish Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.
Gruesome, to say the least — even if the numbers of those burned alive in public auto-da-fes in the name of Christ are exaggerated. But one might add to this list the Protestant persecutions and execution of witches and heretics as well as the many wars fought by various factions of a Church which was founded on love.
And while we must realize that the history of the Christian Church is not the whole of the history of Western Civilization which began with the pre-Socratics, we must wonder why such a civilization that could have produced such horrors — not ignoring the Holocaust that took the lives of millions of Jews, the murder of millions of Russians during the Second World War by the Nazis, and the dropping of bombs on civilians in Germany and Japan by the Allies — should be preserved and allowed to survive. And we mustn’t forget the slave trade and the genocide that accompanied the take-over of the North American continent.
Arnold Toynbee tells us that civilizations come and go; they have a lifetime and the expire just as do those who comprise the members of those civilizations. Ours is clearly enduring what Toynbee called a “time of troubles” and seems to be gasping for breath — especially as growing numbers of those historically devoted to preserving Western Civilization in the colleges and universities have turned against it. But why should we be concerned, given the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of civilization when we know that many people who we have always regarded as “uncivilized” seem now to be in many ways superior to those who regard themselves as “civilized” people?
Ignoring for the moment that fact that many of the images of the delights of “uncivilized” people are romantic nonsense with little or no basis in historical fact, there are a number of reasons to fight to save Western Civilization. If we simply regard the benefits that have come to humankind as a result of Western Civilization the list would be impressive indeed. It must start with Roman law, civil discourse, a growing awareness of universal human rights together with the extraordinary works of art, music, literature, sculpture, philosophy and science all of which owe their origins to the brilliant people who have lived during that period we associate with Western Civilization, many of the art works centering around the passion of Christ. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film-making genius put it well when he noted that:
“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”
Thus we do wander around bleating like sheep about nothing more important than ourselves. Our art shrinks to the level of the merely personal. We strive to eliminate all suffering because we fail to see that through suffering we might grow as human beings. And this is a sure sign of the “time of troubles” that Toynbee notes is associated with the demise of civilizations. We live shallow lives, and in the process seem to have lost our creative abilities as we worry not about others and about the future but about ourselves now. This suggests that the present civilization may well be replaced by another that will almost certainly have as many atrocities — given the nature of human beings — and fewer of the great works noted above. The best we can hope for, I strongly suspect, is something very closely resembling Huxley’s Brave New World peopled by citizens who find their narrow pleasure-seeking lives worth the price of greatness that we must, like it or not, associate with Western Civilization at its height.
Doesn’t bode well for humanity, does it?
If this civilization doesn’t survive it will almost certainly be replaced by another — if Toynbee is to be believed. As I say, I suppose the best we can hope for in that scenario is the Brave New World of Huxley, or something very much like that. The problem for humankind and the animals on this planet is global warming. I believe global warming is on a collision course with exploding human populations.
Hugh, I love your title, but some of the text overstates a demise. We are seeing a lot of attacks on freedoms, but one of the things I noticed, is the ones doing the attacking want their freedoms, but want to control that of others. The push back is what happened with the Women’s March, which was a global initiative. They said we have had enough of your BS. The western world needs to galvanize a grass roots more to say our rights matter.
The western democracies are far from perfect, but one of their saving graces is their ability to change. In several, the rights of women, slaves, people of color, LGBT, etc. have improved. I think this is the “arc toward truth” MLK spoke of. But, we need to speak to our challenges – Jim Crow was not right then, nor is right now. Anti-Semitism was not right then and is not right now.
So, people like the US President who loves extreme and authoritarian leaders, need to be continually questioned and challenged when the lie, bully and demean. We need to tell our leaders in Congress that we know you know the President lies more than he does not and does not deal in good faith. So, what are you going to do about it? This is how we save civilization, at least in my simple view.
I speak from within the citadel that has traditionally fought to preserve Western Civilization and which has been taken over by the barbarians. I will address some of the things you write about above in an upcoming post. You speak about the moral climate which is not precisely the same thing as Western Civilization — though it is certainly a part of it. But, as you know, I am not as sanguine as you are. So be it!!
Hugh, I have my less than sanguine moments. We have survived bigger threats than this one, but that does not make it more tolerable. Keith
The US for all its sins, has made an effort to create alliances like NATO to encourage a better direction vs the inevitably of discontent, wars. But then comes a new face who has no knowledge of US or world history who thinks that maintaining these alliances, is a waste of time.
We’re battling against this foolish thinking but it will be a fight worth waging.
Indeed it is!
Without wishing to seem like the party-pooper, it seems to me that the human race, primarily led by western civilization, is hellbent and determined to lead to its own extinction, either through disregard of the environment by placing profit above caring for the earth, or by means of nuclear proliferation — too many itchy fingers have buttons these days. I agree with you that western civilization has led to much beauty in the form of art, music, literature, architecture, and has led to governments by, for and of the people that, for a time at least, seemed to work better than any. But the human greed got out of hand and all that has been accomplished is, I fear, in serious jeopardy. If we continue to ignore the painfully obvious, then not only will western civilization perish, but it will take the rest of life with it.
Not, mind you, that I think we have passed the point of no return and that our destruction is inevitable. But the people in the western civilization must act, must be willing to make sacrifices, must take the threats that face our civilization seriously … and soon.
I’m not sure you’re talking about Western Civilization — which is in its death throes. You seem to be speaking about humanity itself. I will have more to say about this soon. Stay tuned!!
Hi Jill and Hugh,
Even if we could indeed manage to find some ingenious ways to stave off an ecological crisis or environmental holoccaust, we are still very much going to face certain latent, intractable and/or escalating issues and dilemmas. In a few decades or even much sooner, we could indeed end up with the futuristic scenario as depicted in my post published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/facing-the-noise-music-playgrounds-for-biophobic-citizens/