The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2018

Western Civilization, Our Tradition

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

Conservatism is distinguished from other modern political movements in that it concerns memory more than desire; it is primarily defensive, not progressive. The conservative seeks to hold fast to that which is good—and experienced as such—whereas other political movements, tendencies, and ideologies reach for a posited good, one that is not yet possessed. Characteristically, the imagined goods of modern progressive or leftist ideologies are conceived to be “universal” values (such as liberty, equality, and fraternity), whereas the goods and values defended by conservatives are more readily understood as contingent particulars. There does not appear to be a single substance knowable as Tradition per se, but rather many historical traditions, great and small, each making a claim for allegiance and conservation on its own particular terms. As a result, while there may be a Socialist International or a Communist International—one may even speak of a Liberal International—there has never been a Conservative International.

Return of Odysseus by Claude Lorrain

There is, however, one “quasi-universal” that conservatives of many nations, and American conservatives among them, have understood themselves to be conserving: the West. Obviously, the very word indicates that this good or value is not truly universal: it excludes, at least, the East. On the other hand, insofar as the term denotes a civilization transcending in space any particular Western state, transcending in time the history of any particular Western nation, and transcending in intellectual scope or catholicity any particular Western philosophy or doctrine, “the West” stretches toward a kind of universality. To speak of the West is to speak of something cosmopolitan, and yet not deracinated. If it is not an eternal essence, then perhaps it is something sempiternal. The defense of the West is close to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in the modern world—yet the definition of the West and the identification of the threats to it is also a source of disagreement among conservatives of various sorts.


That the West is approached by modern conservatives with solicitude for its vulnerabilities is an artifact of the time of troubles that was the twentieth century. Earlier and particularly nineteenth-century presumptions about the West were nearly always whiggish celebrations of the historically “inevitable” progress of Western European civilization to its rightful place in the imperial sun: “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set, / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” was a British invocation, but it summed up a more general sense that the West was simply “the best”—and destined for indefinite global dominion. That confidence, however, was profoundly shaken by the civilizational self-immolation of the First World War. For many on the Left, the carnage of the Great War was evidence of the structural flaws of Western “bourgeois democracy,” requiring the remedy of revolution. For conservatives, however, the conflict powerfully tempered any disposition to celebrate our civilization’s achievements with a pronounced sense of challenge and threat.

Against whom or what is it, then, that the West finds itself in need of defense? Two general forms of threat may be identified. First, over the course of the twentieth century it was frequently contended that the West must be defended from internal decay or decline. Conservative reflection on this theme was prompted in the first instance by an engagement with the thought of Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West was a publishing sensation in Germany and Europe immediately after the First World War. In a resonant, even poetic, though not altogether scientific manner, this prophet of pessimism argued that civilizations are organic wholes organized around a High Culture with a particular “Soul.” Civilizations throughout history have risen and fallen in a pattern of birth, growth, apex, decline, and death—and our Western civilization is no different.

In Spengler’s view, the West was clearly in the last phase of its civilizational life: the “Soul” was no longer animating the body. The telltale signs of a High Culture’s decay included skepticism, materialism, scientism, and the fall of philosophy into mere academicism on the one hand, and urbanization, vulgar democracy, the rule of the rich, and eventually caesarism and bureaucracy on the other hand. The cataclysm of the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century seemed to many to lend plausibility to the contention that the civilization of Western Europe (and its diaspora in the New World) was now entering its “twilight.”

World War I trench, 1917

While Spengler himself held that the roughly thousand-year civilizational life-cycle was a fact of nature beyond man’s ability to control or modify—in short, that our civilization’s decline was inevitable and irreversible—this was not the lesson conservatives took from his work. Conservatism, after all, was accustomed to resisting the “tides” of history; indeed, conservatism often specialized in imagining ways to “turn back the clock.” Far from leading to an acquiescence in pessimism, therefore, Spenglerian gloom served as a rallying cry, a call both to action and to reflection: if the sources of decay and decline could be uncovered, perhaps they could also be reversed.

Another writer whose thoughts on the rise and fall of civilizations colored conservative understandings of the West’s predicament was the philosophical historian Arnold Toynbee. Writing primarily in the 1950s, Toynbee developed a universal history of civilizations in terms of challenge and response. The challenge might be physical (e.g., the cultivation of nearly inarable land), civil-social (an internal intellectual crisis or religio-political faction), or external (the pressure of another civilization). Whatever the case, the response of a healthy and growing civilization depended upon the efforts of creative minorities able to meet the challenge. (In the absence of any challenges whatsoever, civilizations tended simply to decay.) The signs of civilizational decline, in turn, were a ruling minority turned in on itself and on its past glories—no longer creative—and the construction of a “Universal State” that acted to smother dissent and discontentment among an emergent “Proletariat.”

While Toynbee’s work was by no means accepted uncritically, conservatives did find many points of agreement. Toynbee, for example, tended to highlight religion as a source of recurring civilizational renewal, and conservatives too saw in religion a source of hope for the West. Toynbee’s “Universal State” and “Proletariat,” moreover, had something in common with the centralizing “collectivism” and emerging “mass society” of the twentieth century, against both of which conservatives had set themselves: perhaps, through conservative efforts, the West could retain or regain its individualistic spirit and so continue to nurture creative minorities. Most significantly, Toynbee was no determinist. There was no set date for the West’s demise; all depended on particular human choices and human actions. And, Toynbee admonished, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” It was up to conservatives to forestall, through acts of cultural recovery, the West’s apparently suicidal tendencies.

The theme of a moral crisis of the West, one requiring a concerted and creative response, has remained a staple of conservative argument for more than half a century. It is noteworthy that what are taken by Spengler, Toynbee, and many conservatives as the indicators of civilizational decline—a coolly skeptical stance toward religious claims, the sensual delights of an urbane materialism, the democratization of society, the rational administration of a bureaucracy, the growth of a cosmopolitan “Universal State,” the burgeoning of novel liberties—have been understood by others as signs of civilizational flourishing and progress. The experiences of the first half of the twentieth century taught conservatives to doubt the solidity and sustainability of such phenomena in the absence of vibrant cultural foundations. Hence, in recent years, conservative initiatives in the culture wars constitute a continuing effort to arrest internal tendencies toward decline within Western civilization.


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?


Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, 1987

Such questions became urgent in the decade between the fall of Soviet communism in 1989–91 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No longer facing an Eastern Bloc, the contours and boundaries of the West were thrown into doubt. Indeed, many observers—and not a few conservatives among them—followed Francis Fukuyama in concluding that we had reached the “End of History,” with liberal democracy (the characteristically Western political regime, but one with putatively global application) everywhere triumphant, and rightly so. Under Fukuyama’s tutelage, we witnessed the return of a version of the older Whig narrative, now in a new, quasi-Marxist or quasi-Hegelian guise: where before it had been said that communism was the inevitable “wave of the future,” it was now held that there was something inevitable about the triumph of liberal democracy. The West’s triumph was the triumph of humanity itself, a universal triumph.

At the same time, the 1990s were the decade of American conservatism’s acute struggle with multiculturalism in the academy. Despite numerous conservative caveats and objections, the locus classicus of conservative arguments against multicultural relativism was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a best-seller with enormous influence. Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss, and the peculiar feature of his intervention in the academic wars over the “canon” of texts to be studied in the university was his stipulation that the Great Books of the West were to be preferred only on account of their philosophic universality. In other words, the only rational basis for allegiance to the West was the West’s own allegiance to universal, Socratic questioning. Anything less would be a species of mere ethnocentrism.

As globalization—the universalization of Western business practices and popular culture—gathered strength in the 1990s, the “facts on the ground” lent further credence to an understanding of the West as a universal civilization openly available to all. America, as the “first universal nation,” seemed to stand as the West’s (and the world’s) vanguard and model.


World Trade Center, before Sept 11, 2001

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought a jolting return to History. Suddenly, we were confronted anew by the most traditional enemy from the East: Islam—or at least elements from within Islam that were intent to resist the rise of a universal civilization built on Western foundations. Shortly after Fukuyama had published his work on the “end of history” (1989, 1992) Samuel Huntington had published an article (1993) and later a book (1996) arguing that, after the Cold War, international conflict would no longer be nationalist (as had been the case in the nineteenth century), nor ideological (as had been the case in the twentieth), but would instead center around a “clash of civilizations.” That is, cultural identities and antagonisms would play a major role in relations among states. Presciently, he observed that Islam in particular has “bloody borders”—a greatly disproportionate number of the ongoing conflicts in the world involve Muslims. September 11 appeared to prove Huntington’s analysis more cogent than Fukuyama’s: there would be no escape from the burden of history, and ideas and institutions could not be discussed apart from culture.

The situation remains unsettled intellectually, however. On the one hand, the attraction of a universal modern civilization equally available to all remains great—and so many conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are inclined to understand the emergent terrorist threat either as a species of totalitarian ideology (assimilating it to the experience of the twentieth century, as with the use of the term “Islamofascism,” to be defeated by force of arms) or else as a kind of historical backwardness (something “medieval”) that is susceptible to being “modernized” out of existence through the processes and practices of enlightenment, that is, through the application of “democracy.” In either view, the West’s history remains a universal history, confronting inevitable road bumps—albeit sometimes large ones—on the road to inevitable future triumph.

On the other hand, the confrontation with jihad (to say nothing of the spectacular recent rise of China) is beginning to force a reacquaintance with the particularities or non-universal elements of the West. Not least, we begin to appreciate more fully that Western ideals and institutions depend at least to some extent on cultural foundations that are the possession of historically Western peoples—and so we view with alarm the demographics of contemporary Europe, the cradle of the West, with a burgeoning Muslim minority amidst a dwindling native population. Even if the West is less universal than we have lately thought, it is still good, still ours, and still in need of a defense.

A Short Course in Western Civilization

Lesson 1: What is the West?

  1. Robert Royal, “Who Put the West in Western Civilization?”
    1. Are there ideas or concepts that are common to the West continuously from ancient Greece to the present day?
    2. What does it mean to be “a blessing to the human race”? Was or is the West a blessing to humankind?
  2. Michael W. Tkacz, “The Multicultural West: Ethnicity and the Intellectual Foundations of Western Civilization”
    1. What are the similarities and differences between Tkacz’s portrayal of the West and Royal’s?
    2. Why does Tkacz include medieval Islam in the Western tradition? Do you think this inclusion is appropriate?

Summary question: Do Royal and Tkacz agree on what characterizes the West? Is this Western character static or dynamic, and how or why?

Lesson 2: Athens and Jerusalem

  1. Tertullian, The Prescription against Heretics, VI-VIII
    1. What is the scope of Tertullian’s rejection of Athens? Does the rejection of Athens mean a loss of philosophy and science?
    2. What is the view of human reasoning about the divine in this selection, esp. chapter VI? Could this reasoning know anything about the divine? Is reason at all valuable in discussing ultimate things?
  2. Jeffrey Hart, “What is the ‘West’?”
    1. In what does Hart’s reconciliation of Athens and Jerusalem consist? Is it a sensible argument? Why or why not?
    2. How are Hart’s and Tertullian’s respective depictions of Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17) similar and different?

Summary question: Compare the Jerusalem of Tertullian and the Jerusalem of Hart. What role does Jesus have in each of them? What part do Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have in relation to the Jesus of each author?

Lesson 3: Is modernity the West’s child?

  1. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?”
    1. What is the “Rouseauian spirit,” and how does Kuehnelt-Leddihn see it manifested in America? Is it a spirit characteristic of America?
    2. Is America in Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s sense still more “medieval” than is Western Europe today? Does American religion match up with any of the medieval strands of religion mentioned in the article?
  2. Thomas Molnar, “The Essence of Modernity”
    1. Are modernity’s problems uniquely modern? That is, do these problems have precursors? What is peculiarly modern about modernity?
    2. Is a non-mechanistic (in Molnar’s sense) physical science possible?

Summary question: What accounts of man and his nature do we find advanced or—at least—described by Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Molnar? Are any of these accounts peculiar to modernity, and if so, why?

Lesson 4: Religion in the modern West

  1. Russell Kirk, “Civilization without Religion?”
    1. If culture comes form cultus, from what cultus (take this term in a broad sense) does modern American culture arise?
    2. Around what would Kirk’s “remnant” form itself?
  2. Remi Brague, “Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?”
    1. Discuss the differences between Western conscience and Islamic law. Is the difference between Brague’s “laocracy” and his “ummacracy” meaningful, and if so, why?
    2. Can a regime that separates conscience from divinity respect human rights?

Summary question: Is religion needful to the West; why or why not? Is Christianity, specifically, essential to the West? What are the implications?

Lesson 5: The West and Islam

  1. Jude Dougherty, “Indestructible Islam”
    1. How have Muslim-Christian interaction, exchange, and conflict historically taken place? Has this history been determined by each group’s theology?
    2. Is the chief difference between Christianity and Islam their treatment of women?
  2. Roger Scruton, “The Political Problem of Islam”
    1. Is there a difference between law originating in “divine command,” as per Scruton’s Islam, and a Western conception of natural law, whether Thomas’ or Hobbes’? Why or why not?
    2. For a Muslim thinker not using Ibn Khaldun’s admittedly novel separation between a divine political order and a secular political order, is shari’a a “confiscation of the political”?

Summary question: Is the existence of Islam in a Western constitutional republic fundamentally incompatible with modern liberal democracy?

Lesson 6: The philosophy of Western history

  1. Glenn N. Schram, “Western Civilization in the Light of the Philosophy of History”
    1. Should we speak of civilizations as possessing souls or undergoing life-cycles? Why or why not?
    2. Are there political ideologies or ideas in currency in the contemporary West that are not Gnostic?
  2. R.F. Baum, “Notes on Progress and Historical Recurrence”
    1. Are philosophical naturalism and the idea of progress necessarily linked?
    2. Are Christianity and philosophical progressivism diametrically opposed? If so, what is Christianity’s proper “philosophy of history”?

Summary question: Is a true philosophy of history possible?

Lesson 7: Is the West dead or alive?

  1. Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Past and Future of Western Thought”
    1. Is faith in democracy or progress the same as “belief in the Virgin of Lourdes”? How is a “vision of human life as historicity” similar to or different from traditional “mere Christianity”?
    2. Did the French Revolution produce a genuine peripateia in the West?
  2. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart”
    1. In the thirty years since this address, do Solzhenitsyn’s claims still ring true?
    2. What is a prosperous nation supposed to do about its prosperity? Will prosperity inevitably produce the weak-willed people Solzhenitsyn believes live in the modern West?

Summary question: What ails the modern West? Is it the same thing that ailed it when Ortega wrote? When Solzhenitsyn wrote?

Ten Essential Resources on Western Civilization
(in recommended order of reading):

  1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
  2. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History
  3. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History
  4. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics
  5. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe
  6. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West
  7. David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents
  8. Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization
  9. Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”
  10. Philip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do about It

Five essential ISI lectures on Western civilization

  1. Peter Kreeft, “On the Shoulders of Giants: Learning from the Great Minds of the Past”
  2. Michael Platt, “The Young, the Good, and the West”
  3. Alan C. Kors, “Did Western Civilization Survive the Twentieth Century?”
  4. Robert Royal, “The Importance of Religion to the Development of the West”
  5. Bernard Lewis, “Islam and the West”

Browse more books related to Western civilization here.

View or listen to more lectures related to Western civilization here.

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