Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
Is Western Civilization Really Best?
The widespread assumption that peoples of many nations are growing ever more like twenty-first-century Euro-Americans, that these are identical with Western civilization, and that something like Western civilization is mankind’s future may well be the biggest barrier to understanding our world. In fact, the most important question of all, whether the West can remain the West, is as uncertain as how other civilizations may develop.
Confidence in universal, permanent Westernization is supported by appearances. Anyone traveling across the continents notices diminishing differences in how disparate peoples dress and in the technology they use in daily life. Until the late twentieth century, it was commonplace to consider the development and use of technology to be Western civilization’s defining feature. Whereas National Geographic’s 1934 article on the city of Peking describes a transportation system that relied substantially on camels, visitors to Beijing in our time ride from the airport on a ten-lane highway choked with cars and trucks indistinguishable from those of Paris or Los Angeles. India and Pakistan export physicians to America and build nuclear weapons. So does Iran. From Singapore to Senegal, people have shed distinctive clothing for the same shirts, pants, jackets, and sneakers to be found on any American street. Everywhere, one hears the same words: “freedom,” “human rights.”
But this does not mean that Western civilization is triumphant.
The use of technology by barbarians bred and raised in the West as well as elsewhere warns us to distinguish between the capacity to manipulate things and even symbols, and sets of ideas as well as habits of the mind and heart. In short, civilization trumps computing capacity. Indeed, while persons raised in non- Western civilizations have learned to work calculus problems as well as Westerners, while their automobiles and nuclear weapons might surpass the West’s, the more important fact remains that their civilizations did not enable bright minds to notice electricity, to conceive carburetors, to imagine atoms, or to understand the “Golden Rule.”
Similarly, upbringing and technical training in the West does not necessarily convey its civilization’s fundamentals or guarantee against barbarism. Indeed, it has not done so.
It’s Not the Practices, It’s the Peculiarities
More importantly, we have learned that the words we hear from persons outside of Western civilization do not have the same meaning as they do to those within it. They do not because, for example, the word “freedom” cannot mean the same thing among people who believe that all men are created equal as it does among those who do not. Nor can the expression “human rights” mean the same thing to those who believe that mere humanity overrides all of the many differences and contentions among humans, and to those who do not. Moreover, civilization bounds the habits of hearts and minds: though rulers in other civilizations may adhere to the rule of law, only Western civilization has ever explained why doing so is right ipso facto.
In short, Western civilization, like all others, is defined not by outward practices but by intellectual-moral qualities peculiar to itself. Those qualities make each of the world’s civilizations an intellectual-moral universe that can be understood only in its own terms. The intellectual-moral propositions that make the West the West are particular and exclusive to our civilization. They are indefensible, incomprehensible nonsense except in terms of the Bible’s Old and New Testaments and of Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings—in short, the heritage of Jerusalem and Athens.
Whether and to what extent the West itself may retain these qualities and that heritage is an open question.
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