The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

REFERENCE DESK
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West, The
Mark C. Henrie - 05/25/11

In Protestant-dominated America, moreover, a Jerusalem-Athens-Rome account of the West was generally thought unsatisfactory, since it conferred primacy to Roman Catholicism as the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem—something non-Catholics were not prepared to do. Many American conservatives were therefore attracted to Leo Strauss’s articulation of the West’s 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-Kierkegaardian 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 this account of the West. For the neoconservative followers of Strauss, therefore, Socratic enlightenment is the primary “marker” of the West. The West they seek to defend is not Christendom, but rather the civilization that enlightenment built and in which universal reason has its home: in other words, the civilization of liberalism.

Of course, enlightenment reason is not a “quasi-universal” to be defended on its own particular terms. It is a universal, simply. The neoconservative champions of an America understood not as the youngest daughter of the West but rather as “the first universal nation” are therefore engaged in a project that more closely resembles the other progressive ideologies which have characterized the modern age than it resembles traditional conservatism. Consequently, it is noteworthy that in the current “war on terror,” in which Western societies confront the ancient threat from the East—Islam—we nevertheless hear little from prominent neoconservatives about the defense of the West.

Further Reading
  • Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950.
  • Evans, M. Stanton. The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1996.
  • Gress, David. From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. New York: Free Press, 1998.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. New York: Knopf, 1926.
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