The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2014

SHORT COURSES
Page 2 of 4
Western Civilization, Our Tradition

+++

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta, 1945

Beyond the threat of internal decline, “the West” has also been understood to require defense against threats arising externally, in international conflict. By invoking loyalty to the West as a whole, one may make “one’s own” the political concerns of other peoples who are not fellow citizens of one’s nation-state. In other words, the West is a basis or rationale for “natural” alliance in time of war. Thus, the British during the First World War were eager for that conflict to be seen by their potential allies as one pitting the liberal and civilized traditions of the West against invading hordes from the East, “the Hun.” In this way, isolationist America and unenthusiastic Commonwealth countries could be brought into the conflict as allies in the common defense of (Western) civilization itself—rather than in defense of British imperial interests. The inclusion of the Soviet Union among the Allies of the Second World War tended to obstruct recourse to the language of the West, but even still, both Churchill and De Gaulle in their wartime speeches spoke of the defense of “liberal and Christian civilization,” a good short description of the meaning of the West in contrast with Nazi barbarism. With the Nazi defeat and the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the defense of the West could serve as the basis for the NATO alliance against the totalitarian barbarism of the Eastern Bloc.

It was in the context of the Cold War that the West became an especially important concept for a nascent American conservatism. Given that context, the term carried in the first instance both geostrategic and economic connotations—mirroring the fact that our Soviet Communist adversaries understood economics to be at the “base” of all political, cultural, and spiritual life. Thus, despite its cultural dissimilarities, Japan could be understood to stand among the “Western” nations, since it was a free-market democracy and a U.S. ally (having been reconstructed as such by the Americans after World War II), while Spain under Franco might be understood to stand outside the West, since it was not (yet) a NATO member, nor a democracy. During the Cold War, the world was more or less neatly divided between the Communist Eastern Bloc, the so-called Western alliance (NATO), and those nations which held themselves to be Non-Aligned.

Yet throughout the Cold War period, conservative thinkers worked to reach a deeper level of analysis of the manifold crises of the twentieth century. Many, following Eric Voegelin, concluded that Soviet communism was an extreme instance of “Gnostic revolt”—in effect, a characteristic heresy within the Western experience, rather than something arising from outside the West. If the “armed doctrine” threatening the West was itself a bastard child of the West’s own traditions, however, then the defense of the West began not on the tense military frontier dividing the two Germanies; rather, the defense of the West must begin with an effort to educate Western publics about the orthodox strains of the Western heritage. But what exactly were the “orthodox” traditions of the West?

+++

Standard nineteenth-century accounts of Western civilization understood the West to have four roots. Athens stood emblematically as the source of the West’s philosophical traditions. Jerusalem was the source of the West’s religious traditions. Rome was the source of the West’s legal traditions. And Germany—the German forests, in which had dwelt the Gothic tribes—was the source of the peculiarly Western spirit of liberty, contract, and self-government. In such an account, the West was in effect an alternative, secularized name for “Western Christendom.” Christianity, after all, had absorbed ancient philosophy; the church had displaced the Roman Empire as a universal jurisdiction; and the Goths were converted. In such an account, Christianity is the primary “marker” of the West, and so Rome, the eternal city, might be understood as the main taproot among the other, lesser roots. Such an account had, and continues to have, a particular appeal for traditionalist conservatives: the West they seek to defend is readily recognizable as Christendom. As a result, such conservatism has tended to have a high opinion of medieval civilization, finding within it a privileged cultural synthesis that remains normative, and so standing in a critical relationship to certain features of the contemporary world. Such a conservatism also searches in the Middle Ages for the origins of many Western institutions and practices that are often mistaken for modern innovations. The source of the West’s dynamism, for example, is found to be the church.

The first major challenge to this traditional account of the West occurred during the First World War: for the purposes of that war, Germany had to be located outside the West, and so a rich literature on the Gothic dimensions of the Western experience was lost. As a result, we would in time no longer be able to understand what Montesquieu, for example, meant when he praised England for having retained its Gothic constitution; we would no longer feel the intuitive force of Hegel’s arguments concerning the special world-historical role of “German freedom.” Western liberty would have to be extracted from other and perhaps less adequate sources.

St. Peter's Square, Rome

In America, moreover, a Jerusalem-Athens-Rome account of the West was usually thought unsatisfactory, since it tended to confer primacy to Roman Catholicism as the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem—something most non-Catholics were not prepared to concede. Protestants and others understood “liberty of conscience” and the protection of the “private judgment” of the individual to be singularly “Western” achievements, responsible for the West’s special dynamism during the modern period—and these were believed to follow only from the Reformation’s repudiation of Roman “obscurantism,” and even Roman “despotism.”

Many American conservatives were therefore attracted to Leo Strauss’s articulation of the West’s Great Tradition as one of Jerusalem and Athens in irresolvable tension. This account had something to offer everyone. Catholics could read Strauss and supply Rome as the arena in which this tension had been worked out in history. Jews could appreciate an account of the West in which the religion of the Old Testament was understood to have priority over the New. Post-Barthian Protestants could resonate with the either-or existential choice between Athens and Jerusalem that Strauss posited as the fate of every thinking man.

For all of that, Strauss’s own choice was for Athens, not Jerusalem: Athens is the taproot in his account of the West, reaching deeper than other, lesser roots. For most neoconservative followers of Strauss, therefore, free inquiry and Socratic enlightenment are the primary “markers” of the West. The West they seek to defend is not Christendom, but rather the civilization that philosophy built and in which universal reason has its home: in other words, the civilization of modern liberal democracy. (It must be noted at once that Straussians traditionally have had a lively awareness of the fragility of the modern liberal regime; in this they differ from nineteenth-century Whig triumphalists, and they share something important with other conservative defenders of the West.)

Related to this Straussian account of the primacy of Western philosophy are those libertarian or classical liberal conservatives—perhaps the majority of American conservatives—for whom the free-market economy, with its abundant prosperity and constant technological innovation, constitutes the characteristic Western excellence. With some exceptions, such conservatives tend to identify the West with the “modern civilization” that arose in the eighteenth century as the project of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment—and often, it is said, in self-conscious rejection of earlier traditions. Whereas Straussians give priority to the modern political order, libertarians and classical liberals give priority to the modern economic order.

A host of conservative debates and areas of research arise from these contentions over the essence of Western civilization. Was modernity really achieved only in rejection of the West’s older heritage? Or is modernity a fruit of earlier Western traditions and institutions? (Or, more fundamentally, is modernity to be regarded simply as an unproblematic “achievement”?) Are modern Western institutions self-subsistent? Or do such institutions depend upon cultural prerequisites that may be undermined by modern life? If the West is identified exclusively with the modern and the cosmopolitan, is America in fact the only or the “most” Western nation? And if Socratic enlightenment, free markets, and modernity in general are truly universals, is the particular Western history that led to their achievement merely a husk that may be discarded once we have entered the stage of a truly universal civilization?

Page 2 of 4

Library of Modern Thinkers

Amazon.com Logo

By clicking the logo above to shop Amazon.com, every purchase helps to support ISI.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute • 3901 Centerville Rd. • Wilmington, Delaware 19807-1938 • www.isi.org
Please direct all inquiries regarding First Principles to firstprinciples@isi.org.