I have been pondering this question, particularly in light of the demise of Western Civilization course requirements on university campuses across the nation. We are told that these classes are elitist, that they promote only the West and shun the rest, and we need to be more inclusive, study all civilizations equally. (Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem if all were actually studied; but in many schools, the student chooses, and often neglects Western histories when left on his own.)
In my reading and unraveling, there appears to be an odd word game at play here. To be sure there are many civilizations throughout the world and in time, and this meaning of the word “civilization,” that is, any society of people and their culture, recognizes this. All are worthy of study.
What is more to the point, however, is how to conserve those aspects of a civilization we find valuable and necessary, i.e. those ideals of the Western world, going back to Athens, that we find crucial to free peoples today. Many of these aspects, these roots and ideals, are found in other cultures in varying degrees, planted by the West through colonialism. This is not being elitist or exclusionary. It is simply true.
Clearly there are aspects of civilizations that we might not want to encourage on our shores. The tyrannies of the Islamic State and of the Communist State come to mind; repressive and corrupt governments come to mind. We are not keen on beheadings and lawlessness and military dictators. We like free elections and freedom to travel and own property. Western democracies are (or should be) favored because liberty, limited and representative government, free speech, the freedom to worship and assemble, the rule of law, are lauded as ideals.
What happens when we fail to teach our children the history of these ideals found in the development of the Western world? What happens to our electorate when we say North Korea and Iran have equally good forms of government and pose no threat?
In my ponderings, I’ve come up with a working definition of civilization, which one of my characters poses in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, a story about the borders of civilization and the wilderness:
A civilized society is a culture in which the common good is desired and advanced, but individual life and liberty protected, in which the natural world is controlled but cultivated and cared for, in which respectful debate is fostered and slander discouraged, in which social charity is promoted, yet private property protected, in which the rule of law and representative government work to provide peace at home and to defend our borders.
A cousin to the question of civilization is the question of the Christian influence in Western Civilization’s development. They are interwoven, for Christianity’s inherent belief in progress, of bettering oneself and one’s community, as well as the value of the individual, spurred Western Civilization forward. The work ethic was largely a Christian ethos that has become secular through time. Eastern civilizations did not develop in this way, for life was circular and determined by fate; one worshiped one’s ancestors and was not so concerned with one’s descendants; happiness was to deny the real world and retreat into a mystical present.
Christianity, in its theology of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, recognized that at that moment man turned away from God, to make himself godlike. Instead of godlike, however, he became primitive, savage. By recognizing this original sin, Christianity claimed that God saved man from himself, and death, through God’s Incarnation; man was shown sacrificial love. The Judeo-Christian tradition, i.e. the Western tradition, embraced the ideals of honor, sacrifice, communal charity, protection of life, liberty, and yes, claimed a path to happiness, not just its pursuit. The idea of the noble savage, a romantic primitivism embraced since the eighteenth century (from Rousseau, Mead, Marx, and Engels to Karen Armstrong), does not hold up to reality. The natural world is a wild world, one that humans must tame, just as we must tame the wildness within our own hearts.
Aristotle is quoted as saying, “the purpose of politics is not to make living together possible, but to make living well possible.” It is most certainly both. And these are also purposes of Western Civilization, to create a culture that cultivates freedom of expression through word and image, one that encourages our nobler side, our more sacrificial and heroic side, one that teaches us to love. It does this by ensuring peace and prosperity, and by passing on these ideals to the next generation.