by George Weigel
In his book “Without Roots,” Pope Benedict XVI deplored the addiction to historical self-deprecation rampant at the higher altitudes of European cultural and intellectual life: a tendency to see in the history of the West only “the despicable and the destructive.”
The same problem exists on this side of the Atlantic; in our universities and among our cultural taste-makers, the healthy western habit of moral, cultural, and political self-critique can dissipate into forms of self-loathing. Perhaps a civilization can afford to think of its past as pathology when it has no competitors. That is manifestly not the case today, when the West is being challenged by radical Islamist jihadism and by the new and market-improved authoritarianism of China.
So, a question: What’s right about the West, about this unique civilizational enterprise formed by the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — biblical religion, rationality, and the idea of a law-governed polity?
1) Openness. Thanks to its belief in the power of reason and its commitment to a search for truth unconstrained by political power, taboo, or the whims of false gods, the West has evolved the most open civilization in human history. As British philosopher Roger Scruton neatly put it, life in the West is an open book; it’s too often a closed ledger elsewhere.
2) Freedom. Over many centuries, the West thought its way through to the idea of the inalienable dignity and worth of every human life.
That commitment to the dignity of the individual gave birth, in turn, to western ideas of freedom — freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom’s defense as the primary function of government. The world now swears allegiance to the idea of “human rights”; that idea was born in the West. So was the idea that slavery — an ancient human institution — is an abomination. So was the idea that women enjoy full political and legal equality with men.
3) Knowledge: The Bible gave the West the idea of a God who imprinted his reason onto his creation; the Greeks gave the West the idea of the unflinching quest for truth. Put the two together and you get other great western inventions: universities, libraries, research institutes, and schools open to all. The West’s thirst for knowledge, coupled with its commitment to openness and freedom of discussion, produced the scientific method and the scientific revolution; thus virtually every major invention of the past half-millennium has come from the West. If we live longer, healthier, less painful lives today than human beings did a thousand years ago, we can thank the
West’s scientific and technological creativity, which is a function of western culture.
4) Generosity. In addition to ending the slave trade, abolishing slavery, and enfranchising women, the West has produced virtually every major humanitarian initiative in modern history, from the Red Cross to Doctors Without Borders, from the green revolution to the eradication of river blindness, from care for the mentally and physically handicapped to the abrogation of forced marriage. The modern human rights movement has taken root in many cultures, but it is motored primarily by the West — which is also the source of the overwhelming proportion of development aid for the world’s poor.
5) Beauty. Many cultures produce beautiful things; only the West has produced Mozart, Bach, Michelangelo, Dante, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare. Absent a humanistic culture, you’re just not going to find the intensity of human grandeur and human weakness found, for example, in a Caravaggio painting or a Bernini sculpture.
6) Humor. The West is singularly capable of making fun of itself — sometimes, to be sure, in vulgar ways. Still, that impulse to mock pretension and false piety, to cut the mighty down to size with a joke, is a sound one. Humor keeps things open, keeps things human, and nurtures in the West a capacity for healthy self-criticism.
That the world’s migration patterns tend to work in one direction — from the rest to the West — is not an accident. Six reasons why have been noted here; more could be added. So — have you said something nice about your civilization today?
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: (303) 715-3215.