skip to Main Content

On the Foundations of Western Civilization

On The Foundations Of Western Civilization

With customary severity, Nietzsche counselled his readers, “Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.” As with many of Nietzsche’s precepts, this is a difficult one by which to abide, particularly for the good denizens of Western modernity — the very people Nietzsche wrote for and against.

The contemporary penchant to yield to remorse is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in that distinctly Western institution: the university. In its halls one will hear Western Civilization decried in no uncertain terms. Judged guilty of sexism, racism, imperialism, and the like and found to be animated by a latent genocidal passion that manifests itself not only in the destruction of other peoples, but in the suicidal annihilation of its own, the crimes of Western Civilization are so multitudinous that history scarcely seems capable of containing them. Year in and year out, students and faculty alike engage in a collective and expiatory undertaking by trying to dispel the pallid specters that for far too long have haunted the halls of academia: those incorrigible dead white males. Condemned thus, the standing of Western Civilization in the academy and beyond has declined precipitously over the past half century.

In this interminable trial, it is not simply that a second act of folly (remorse) has been added to the first (the litany of misdeeds that the West is guilty of); what compounds the second act’s folly is that the remorse, while not wholly unwarranted, seems largely misdirected. The crimes for which the West is held accountable are not simply Western crimes or to put it differently, the sins of Western man are not unique to him; they are not Western sins, but human sins. In this sense, the sin of Western man is decidedly unoriginal.

To substantiate this point, one can take any of the sins that the West is guilty of and qualify it with something other than Western. African slavery. Islamic imperialism. Japanese racism. Indian sexism. Comanche bellicosity. In each of these pairings, there is no logical or cultural inconsistency. Nor can the West be faulted for these baleful qualifiers, as though it were only after these cultures came in contact with the West that their Edenic states collapsed. The bloodlust of the Aztecs, who each year ritually sacrificed thousands of men, women, and children, was not triggered by the insatiable bloodlust of the Conquistadors.

A fixation on the failings of the West is doubly pernicious, for not only does it tend to extenuate or conceal the transgressions of other cultures; it also veils the virtues of its own. Not the least of these virtues is the ability to recognize its wrongs and what is more, the willingness to rectify them. As the French author, Pascal Bruckner, remarked of his native continent, “It is a machine for both producing evil and for containing it. The peculiar genius of Europe is that it is aware of its dark areas; it knows only too well what ails it and how fragile are the barriers that separate it from its own ignominy.”

Might this not be the point of departure when examining critically the spirit of the West?  Judgments of the West ought not to be determined by the abominations one discovers in its historical record, for in every people’s past there are abominations to be disinterred. What should prove far more determinative, at least when comparing the West with other cultures, is that there inheres in it – in a manner that is unique or at least to a degree that is exceptional – the capacity and propensity to acknowledge evil and overcome it. On this understanding, by way of example, what should arrest one’s attention is not that the West, like virtually every other civilization throughout history, employed slavery, but that it and it alone engendered a movement to abolish that peculiar institution.

None of this is meant to absolve the West of its culpability, nor to expunge or even mitigate its criminal record. To “the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime” (Churchill) the West has contributed its fair, or perhaps unfair share. But if one judiciously reflects on those contributions, it is unclear that they are in some way damning or if they are, how other civilizations are spared a similar fate. This is not meant as a moral equivalence. It is not to dismiss the crimes of the West because other cultures are likewise impeachable; because the skeletons in their historical closets are no less horrifying. It is to say that if the West is deserving of condemnation, then so too are other cultures, not relationally, but independently; not when weighed vis-à-vis the West, but when gauged fairly by any properly functioning moral or intellectual compass. Or if one denies that such a compass exists, then certainly by the same compass that is used to determine the errancies of the West.

How does one excoriate slavery in the new world and exonerate it in the aboriginal one? It is true that the hypocrisy of a people that simultaneously keeps slaves and extols the unalienable rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness among them — with which all individuals have been endowed, is particularly egregious. But does that render slavery in the hands of a less hypocritical people more acceptable? Can the fact that slavery in the Ottoman Empire ended only with the fall of that Empire, i.e., in the aftermath of the First World War, be excused by the absence of an Ottoman declaration of independence? Is that the denouement to which moral relativism points? Is it enough to evade moral censure simply to refrain from acknowledging an action’s immorality?

One should be wary of affirming the relativism that reposes in this posture, for if one does, by what logic can one excuse the Ottoman Turk and not the Southern plantation owner? It is with commensurately spurious logic that the West is singled out for condemnation. That the West is guilty there is no doubt; its history is littered with horrors. But what history is not? Rousseau’s noble savage is but a myth. Civilization and savagery are not coetaneous.

A genuine appreciation for this invites a revaluation. Instead of condemning the West for committing crimes of which virtually no civilization is innocent, perhaps it would be more fitting to consider those characteristics to which no other civilization can lay claim. If not its enormities, what then distinguishes the West? What merits, if not celebration, then at least a judicious appraisal of the sort that too often is found wanting in the precipitate and uncompromising denunciations of the West that pervade the present age?

In addressing these questions, my method will be modern, to the extent that I take my bearings from the understanding that, as Hobbes held, “a thing is best known from its constituents.” In going back, it is not to the state of nature I return, for the question with which I am concerned is not the one that impelled the likes of Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau to repair to that originary state. The question that animated their musings was, what is man? The much more limited question that animates mine is, what is Western man? In addressing this question, I am not obliged to probe those “very far off” of which Rousseau spoke in his Second Discourse; it is enough to return to those well-established foundations of Western Civilization: Athens and Jerusalem.

This method, it is worth adding, owes more to Tocqueville and Nietzsche than it does to Marx and Braudel. The physicality of those two ancient and enduring cities is a matter of tangential import. Athens and Jerusalem signify something that is irreducible to geography. The verity of Paul Hazard’s reflection regarding the intellectual life of Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries transcends those spatial and temporal confines:

As we study the birth of their ideas, or at least their changing form; as we follow them along their road, noting how feebly they began, but how they gathered strength and boldness as they we went along; as we note their successive victories and their crowning triumph we are forced to the conviction that it is not material advantages, but moral and intellectual forces that govern the life of man.

What then do Athens and Jerusalem signify? Generically, they connote philosophy and religion. But this affords little in the way of clarification for philosophy and religion are hardly unique to the West. While the claim that philosophy was born in ancient Greece is tenable if dubious, the notion that religion was birthed in Jerusalem is neither tenable nor dubious (because the falseness of it is beyond doubt). Instead of philosophy and religion, one could substitute reason and revelation with corresponding accuracy and want of clarity. Here the inverse problem obtains. While revelation, in origin, is largely Western (the case of Zoroastrianism confounds this and that of Islam complicates it), reason itself is not a brainchild of the West. When philosophers defined man as the rational animal, their definition was not of Western man.

Preliminarily, one thing to note is the conjunction. It is not Athens or Jerusalem, but Athens and Jerusalem. Perhaps the unfolding of history would have been less convulsive had they not been conjoined thus. But conjoined in this manner they were and it is these discrepant elements, united in a precarious partnership and tempestuous marriage, that spawned Western Civilization. Any effort to understand the West in terms of only one of these partners is bound to be shortsighted. But any effort to understand the union without comprehending its constituent parts is also likely to prove misguided. From each city the West inherited something defining, something distinct, something to which we all, not least those who are so bent on upbraiding the West, owe a great deal. What then does the West owe to Athens and Jerusalem?

To associate Athens with reason is not to claim that reason was born in Athens — or for that matter, anywhere else on the Greek peninsula. Man, the rational animal, did not spring from the agora like Athena from the head of Zeus. But it was in Athens — or ancient Greece more broadly — that reason assumed a level of prominence hitherto unknown. This revolution did not begin with Socrates, that world historical figure as Hegel likened him, but with the conveniently labeled pre-Socratics. It was they who placed in the heavens the philosophy that Socrates famously brought down to earth.

It is with Thales of Miletus that the rational cornerstone of Western Civilization was laid. Thales is perhaps best remembered for postulating that the essence of all matter, the basic element of which the cosmos is composed, is water. The idea is easy to deride: if such nonsense is the cornerstone then Western Civilization deserves to flounder, not flourish. But Thales’s approach is seismic for a couple of reasons.

For one, Thales endeavored to understand nature on its own terms. Or to put it differently, he distinguished, at least tacitly, between the natural and supernatural. A charge that is frequently levelled by those who wish to erode well-worn Eurocentric conceits is that science, broadly speaking, existed before the foundation of the West. This no doubt is true. In mathematics and astronomy, the Egyptians and Babylonians had achieved veritable wonders long before Thales contemplated the cosmos and it is inconceivable that the pre-Socratics could have accomplished what they did in the absence of those advances. But notwithstanding this, the science of these Near Eastern cultures bore more in common with Homeric poetry than it did with science as we understand it, to the extent that the world of the Babylonians and Egyptians was inhabited and animated by, as Horace put it, monstrous gods. In some ways their science was more mythic than scientific or rather the explanations of the phenomena they observed were grounded in myth rather than science or reason.

With Thales and his successors, the gods by and large are banished from nature. The argument being put forward here is not antitheistic; it is not a hatred of the divine that impels one to appreciate the importance of this reorientation. Strange as it may sound, nature is something that had to be discovered and it was the Greeks who in effect discovered it. Nature derives from the Latin natura which itself is derived from the Greek word physis, roughly meaning growth or birth. As Leo Strauss noted, there is no word for nature in the Hebrew Bible. Nature is contrasted with custom or law. Each people has its own customs, but nature, what is by nature, what is natural, is something that transcends the particularity of each people. Each people has its own way of speaking, its own language, but speech is natural to human beings. That universality is not perceived, so to speak, naturally.

The consequence of this can be realized by considering Thales’s explanation for earthquakes. According to Thales, earthquakes occur when the planet rocks back and forth on the water upon which it sits or floats. What is noteworthy about Thales’s explanation is that there is no divine agency involved. Moreover, the explanation is one that accounts for all earthquakes, not this or that particular one. On the Homeric, i.e., pre-Socratic, understanding, earthquakes were caused by Poseidon, who enjoyed the apt appellation “Earth Shaker.” Odysseus, who blinded Poseidon’s cyclopean son, knew all too well the earth-shaking repercussions that result from provoking the Neptunian god. Thales’s wisdom would have sounded like folly to a member of the Homeric age, though its aqueous undercurrents may have been a saving grace. But it was a wisdom that, at least in principle, was translatable.

How does one convey the Homeric explanation for earthquakes to an Egyptian or Babylonian who does not believe in Poseidon? Of an Assyrian girl who was unkind to horses, one might say, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “what is Poseidon to her or she to Poseidon, that he should frighten her?” The Homeric understanding is one that is rooted in Greek custom and thus cannot, by any transcultural measure, be controverted or corroborated. Thales, conversely, proffers an explanation that is intended to be true for all people, one devoid of divine support which can be apprehended by that latent faculty with which all people are endued —reason. This is even more evident with the theories of Thales’s successors, such as Anaximander’s cosmology, which generally is credited with being the first attempt at a mechanical view of the Universe, or better yet, Democritus’s atomism, which posits that the basic building blocks of all matter, of all life, are atoms. Atoms, unlike Poseidon and his Olympian kin, are not Greek.

The communicability of ideas gives rise to another phenomenon so central to the West, one that might be qualified as the critical spirit. When everything is a matter of custom, standards and incentives for engaging with the ideas of others are wanting. On what grounds does a devotee of the Upanishads and an adherent of Hesiod debate the origin of all things? How does a Greek, save for force or conviction, refute the belief that an egg was born out of nothingness? How does a Hindu counter the claim that “first of all there came Chaos?” But even apart from the means for debating such notions, for proving or disproving them, there is no impetus to do so. Greek myth is rife with inconsistencies, of which the Greeks seemed to be, if not unaware, then entirely unconcerned. The inconsistencies are not only inter-authorial, e.g. in the case of the respective depictions of Electra in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, but intra-authorial, as in the case of Hesiod: in the Theogony, he attributes the fall of man to Prometheus and that punitive gift, Pandora, but in Works and Days, the degeneration of man is recounted in the five declivitous ages in which Prometheus and Pandora play no part. These discrepant versions coexist, without any effort to reconcile them.

This changes with the pre-Socratics. With the turn from myth to reason, there is an effort to arrive at a more cohesive and coherent view. In trying to grasp the world rationally, as opposed to mythically, competing views cannot coincide. Heraclitus and Parmenides cannot both be right. Either everything is in flux or everything is unchanging. The principle of contradiction is a rational principle, not a religious one. There is no obligation to comply with the prescripts of reason when reason remains subordinate to custom or faith. In turning to reason, one allows for the possibility — to the extent that reason is a product of nature and not custom — of that which heretofore had not existed: a universal dialogue. As Aristotle argued, scientific knowledge concerns “universal and necessary truths” and ipso facto, such knowledge is demonstrable and, moreover, teachable.

For Aristotle, as intimated by the fact that this pronouncement is found in his book on ethics, such knowledge did not appertain strictly to the natural or material world. In the moral and ethical realm, one could ascertain truths that were both universal and necessary. That science (philosophy) concerned itself with the realm of values and did not limit its investigations to facts, signifies a profound disjunction from earlier scientific thinkers, to say nothing of later ones.

This disjunction was effected not by Aristotle, but by Socrates, who, as Cicero famously remarked, “first brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil.” In doing so, he became, in Nietzsche’s words, “the one turning point and vortex of so-called world history.” How did this revolution come about?

In the Phaedo, Socrates recounts his second sailing when he reoriented his thinking and thereupon reoriented the course of humanity. He recalls to Cebes that when he was young, he had “an extraordinary passion for that branch of learning which is called natural science [for he] thought it would be marvelous to know the causes for which each thing comes and continues and ceases to be.” He was especially delighted to learn of Anaxagoras’s theory that Mind “produces order and is the cause of everything.” But when he understood the details of that theory, he became disillusioned with it and with natural philosophy (science) more broadly. What Socrates hoped to learn from Anaxagoras, something about which Anaxagoras had nothing to say, was the best and worst or more simply put, “the common good of all.”

Socrates’s gripe with his antecedents boils down to the charge that their knowledge was useless. As Nietzsche put it, “that which Thales and Anaxagoras know would normally be termed out of the ordinary, miraculous, difficult, divine, but useless, because to them it had nothing to do with humane goods.” The pertinence of science to the human world was limited; its weight, trivial. To a Greek who was undividedly wed to his polis, of what consequence was it that the first element was water or that atoms were indivisible?

If philosophy had no bearing on the life of man, if it could yield nothing more than determining that the principle of life is water or that the material cause of things is air, then it was useless. For Socrates, the real merit of rational discourse was not to uncover the nature of the material world, but the nature of the human one and for Socrates, man cannot be reduced to matter.  In a manner of speaking, it was not matter that mattered — or that mattered most.

“Socratic philosophy,” Nietzsche proclaimed, “is absolutely practical: it is hostile to all knowledge unconnected to ethical implications.” On this understanding, the personage portrayed in Aristophanes’ The Clouds is the anti-Socrates. The question no longer is what is being, what is matter, what is motion (to say nothing of out of which end does a gnat toot) but what is justice, what is piety, what is courage, what is the good. And not what is Greek justice or Persian piety or Assyrian courage, but what is justice — and so forth — simply. For the first time, philosophy is intended to impress its stamp on the character of human life. To overstate the momentousness of this reorientation would be difficult.

For one, the Socratic turn brings about the possibility of achieving a sense of right and wrong irrespective of time and place. If all human affairs rest upon custom or convention, if there is no natural law above the positive one, on what authority does one impugn the conduct of those whose customs are not one’s own? Perhaps the most forceful alternative to the notion that such a transcendent justice exists is the one Thrasymachus averred in the Republic — the idea that justice is the advantage of the stronger or, more colloquially put, that might makes right. One need not be a paladin of natural law to be troubled with this notion or to appreciate the significance of the Socratic quest to divine the form, the essential character of justice and other humane goods.

Socrates set out to do for the moral realm what the pre-Socratics labored to do for the material one: to secure, through reason, knowledge that is communicable; to arrive at truths that are universal and necessary. Without this turn to reason, it is difficult to conceive how one people, for example, can refute or dispute the creation myths of another. And so too with customs, conventions, laws, morals, and the like.

Moreover, the Socratic approach is at once liberating and leveling. Liberating insofar as it dissolves or at least attenuates the strictures of the past; levelling insofar as it permits everyone, whatever their rank or status, to employ its method. The levelling effects of reason were exemplified by Socrates, who, notwithstanding his plebeian stock, was able to challenge the convictions of his aristocratic peers. A less politically correct but no less illustrative example of reason’s levelling propensities is afforded by Nietzsche:

A Jew … in keeping with the business circles and the past of his people, is least of all used to being believed. Consider Jewish scholars in this light: All of them have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know, with that they are bound to win even where they encounter race and class prejudices and where one does not like to believe them. For nothing is more democratic than logic; it is no respecter of persons and makes no distinction between crooked and straight noses.

Notwithstanding the levelling powers of reason, ancient Athens remained a rigidly stratified place. To be sure, at some level, Athens was a veritable democracy, in many ways considerably more democratic than contemporary democracies. As Donald Kagan wrote, “Athenian citizenship granted full and active participation in every decision of the state without regard to wealth or class.” Nevertheless, the circle of non-citizens was significantly circumscribed. Citizenship was limited to native-born, adult males who had completed their military training, meaning that an overwhelming majority of the people was proscribed from citizenship and the privileges it conferred. This silent majority included children, women, metics (foreigners or resident aliens), and slaves, including former ones. When these non-citizens were accounted for, it is estimated that somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population were citizens. Slaves comprised the largest part of the population, with most estimates putting the number at a little over 100,000, meaning that there were three to four slaves for every citizen. In view of this, perhaps Athenian citizens were not so much members of a democracy as they were, to employ Tocqueville’s apt phrase, an “aristocracy of masters.”

The undemocratic nature of Athenian democracy reflects a fundamental precept of the ancient Greeks: All men are not created equal. This insight into the character of man was rooted in the teleological conception of nature that obtained in the classical world.

The Greek word telos denotes “end” as in goal or purpose. Teleology is the study of purpose or design in nature; or it is the doctrine that maintains such purpose or design inheres in nature.  The classic example, attributed to Aristotle, used to demonstrate the existence of such design is the acorn. By nature, an acorn strives to become a mighty oak tree. An acorn that fails to do so has failed to actualize its potentiality; it has failed to reach the end toward which nature impelled it; it is, in a word, deficient. And as with acorns, so too with human beings. According to Plato and Aristotle, the end toward which human beings are directed is the development of reason or understanding.

But just as human beings are not commensurately strong or fast or agile, not all human beings are commensurately wise. Just as many acorns fail to actualize their potentiality (they fail to become oak trees), many people fail to actualize their potentiality (they fail to become truly rational or enlightened human beings).

This explains why ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle viewed democracy so unfavorably. In their minds, democracy — the rule of the demos (the people) — was equivalent to the rule of the unwise. Because the aim of the political community was not simply to ensure that its members live, that is, survive, but to encourage them to live well, that is, to live the good life, democracy was unnatural. The fickle inclinations that tend to inundate democracies and guide, or rather, misguide them, precluded, or at least severely compromised the possibility that human beings could achieve the good life — a life governed not by passion or appetite, but by reason.

It is an image of such a life, or rather the image of a city in which such a life can flourish, that Plato immemorially delineates in the Republic. That city, ruled by the wise, is the very antithesis of a democracy. Yet notwithstanding its hierarchical constitution, the truly just city does enjoy some (radically) egalitarian features, not the least of which is that the distinction between male and female is all but abolished. The same education, the same jobs, the same opportunities are open to men and women alike. What distinguishes one person from another is not birth or gender, but merit. And really it is merit — one’s potential or rather the ability to achieve one’s potential — that determines one’s worth. It would not be going too far to say that the innate value of a human being was nigh nil.

What illustrates this most forcefully is not a feature of the just city itself, but rather an episode that precedes its establishment. The founding of the just city will require, in effect, the takeover of an actual city and the banishment from it of everyone over the age of ten. The wherefore is that the philosophers, whose ascension to power is the necessary condition for the just city’s reification and preservation, will need to stamp upon the people the proper education and presumably people who have been improperly educated for more than ten years are no longer properly educable.

The feasibility of such a feat is, at best, dubious. In the long arc of history, the pen may be mightier than the sword, but swords would be needed to take over a city and dispossess its denizens and the prospect of a band of sword-wielding philosophers besieging a city is so farcical that, on the face of it, the scenario is more befitting a Monty Python sketch than a Platonic dialogue. But practicability aside, the very notion indicates that human beings are, by nature, exploitable or that there is no inherent value to being human. As Stanley Rosen spelled out:

It is not hard to understand that this step [rustication of people over ten] could be taken only through the slaughter of all parents, but even if we take the statement literally, we must note that Socrates has no pity or concern for the expelled citizenry and no hesitation in depriving them of their children. In order to establish a just city, the ultimate act of injustice is required.

There is an argument to be made that the Republic is not so much a blueprint for establishing the truly just regime as it is a cautionary tale to dissuade people from ever attempting to establish such a regime. The end cannot justify the means, namely the inhumanely coercive efforts (means) needed to straighten the “crooked timber” that is man (end). But whatever Plato’s intentions may have been, the fact remains that on the ancient understanding, the individual was without value, at least intrinsically. Aristotle makes this plain when he refers to the slave as a possession, as a human being who, by nature, does not belong to himself, and as a living tool. The only difference between a slave and, say, a hammer is that one is animate the other inanimate. On this understanding there seems to be no substantive difference between a slave and an ox. Indeed, a slave shares more in common with an ox than he does with the master who possesses them both. It is hardly any wonder then that not only was slavery a fixed feature of the ancient world, but that even for the prodigiously disputatious Greeks, its abolition was never a matter of serious contemplation.

Enter Jerusalem. Christianity did not abolish slavery — in fact, it spent too much of its history accommodating it — but it planted a seed, the germination of which led to the abolition of slavery; an abolition that, as the case of the Greeks suggests, reason alone may never have achieved.

Christianity turned the Greek world on its rational head. The primacy of reason was replaced with that of revelation; logic was supplanted by faith; and the natural inequality that underlay the world of ancient Greece — and indeed, all ancient worlds — was superseded by a natural or rather supernatural, i.e., divine, equality: the equality of souls before God.

The earliest surviving writings about Jesus are those of Saul of Tarsus, better known to posterity as St. Paul. Initially a fervent persecutor of Christians, Paul, after God’s resurrected Son appeared to him, became an apostle, one who would prove to be epochal. As Larry Siedentop asseverated, “it is hardly too much to say that Paul invented Christianity as a religion.” Interestingly, if we take authorities like Diarmaid MacCulloch at their word, Paul has little to impart about what the earthly Jesus taught. His preoccupation is with a transfigured Jesus as revealed to him on the road to Damascus: Christ the redeemer, who gives new life to all those who believe in him; who liberates — from sin, from death, from the earthly veil of tears — those who put their faith in him. In Paul’s telling, man’s fulfillment is not achieved through the development of reason, which, according to the Greeks, was achieved dialogically, communally (man uniquely is a political animal), but through an act of love, an act of faith, which, far from being communal or political, is deeply personal. To have faith, one does not need to deliberate about the nature of it. It is enough to believe. And everyone who believes is set free (Acts 13:39).  Paul’s is a wisdom for all. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

Those today who display their godlessness as a badge of honor should not let their incredulity or want of faith detract from the significance of Paul’s message. Here was a promise of freedom that, to all but a very select few, had been inconceivable heretofore; a promise predicated on a principle of equality that had been so roundly repudiated in both theory and practice that its mere entertainment must have signified a level of folly bordering on lunacy. Where before were slaves, women, and barbarians the equals of free, civilized men?

This promise convulsed society in ways too myriad to document here, given the limited time, space, and learning that I currently have at my disposal. What I would like to draw attention to is the immaterial, protracted, and in some ways almost imperceptible changes effected by this message. But for those interested in more tangible and immediate results, perhaps the adduction of a few examples will suffice.

Civic euergetism was a practice in the Mediterranean world common during the Hellenistic period whereby wealthy members would disburse their riches among the community. This was not charity; rather it was almost a civic duty that redounded to the glory of the benefactor and resulted in all sorts of festivals and entertainment for the citizenry. This civic liberality did nothing to alleviate the misfortunes of those — citizens or otherwise — whose lives were ones of unremitting penury and toil. Christianity revolutionized this practice. The rich, instead of being concerned about their glory in this life, became concerned about their salvation in the next. Compassion became the impetus for their munificence and those who benefited from it were not strictly their fellow citizens, but the poor who lived within their communities and beyond.

Christianity reconceptualized the meaning of heroism and permitted people who previously were consigned to oblivion an opportunity in death to be immortalized as heroes. Pre-Christian heroes belonged exclusively to the nobility and almost no less exclusively were male: Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus, Heracles. The early Christian heroes, who sacrificed their lives for their faith and whose blood became the seed of the Church, belonged exclusively to no rank; gender was not a bar to donning the crown of martyrdom. Men died beside women; free persons beside slaves. It was an eminently democratic model of heroism.

For those unable to glean anything uplifting in a model of heroism that, while open to all, involved the ghastly torture and grisly deaths of its heroes and heroines, Christianity opened doors to all not just in death, but in life as well. The monastic life in particular afforded an opportunity for people, again regardless of social rank and gender, to obtain an education and acquire considerable prestige and influence within the Christian community. It was thanks to those who were committed to the monastic life that literacy, learning and classical literature were preserved during the Dark Ages, which for a millennia retarded the advance of Western Civilization. As Diarmaid MacCulloch observed, “the survival of European civilization would have been inconceivable without monasteries and nunneries.”

These tangible benefits affected particular communities or groups of people, but the teachings of Christianity worked in such a way that humanity en masse would be changed forever. Today, these changes are taken for granted, as is the teaching so central to Christianity and so decisive in bringing about these changes — that before God, we are all equal. It is fashionable to subtract God from the equation, but even without that infinite factor, the result remains the same: there is no natural rank or hierarchy; no one is born the master of another; everyone comes into this world with a value that is intrinsic and equivalent.

To be sure, inequalities still persist, but the present-day inequalities that frequently provoke so much outrage and against which so many routinely rail are not the sort of inequalities that prevailed in earlier days. Few appreciated this more, and more perspicaciously, than Alexis de Tocqueville.

Upon coming to America, Tocqueville noted that nothing struck him “more vividly than the equality of conditions.” This observation tends to raise hackles in students who read Democracy in America, which is an inauspicious start to the study of the work, seeing that it occurs in the book’s opening pages. How could Tocqueville be struck by the equality of conditions in America at a time when Native Americans were being dispossessed of their lands and African Americans dispossessed of their liberty?

Tocqueville’s perspicuity was remarkable and he was hardly so obtuse as to fail to see the inequalities and injustices that afflicted the fledgling American republic. He wrote eloquently about the nobility of America’s indigenous peoples and their tragic fate, as well as the maltreatment of its slave population, which so grievously pained him. But for Tocqueville, those were anomalies of the new age that would be resolved and eradicated in due course. The fact remains that even in spite of these gross inequalities, conditions were more equal in Tocqueville’s day than they had been at any time prior and that equality, as Tocqueville prevised, only would accrue with the passage of time.

To properly grasp Tocqueville’s insight, one must understand that it is not the equality of material conditions about which Tocqueville writes, but rather a more immaterial equality, one that, once it has advanced far enough, lends itself to the conceit that there is but a single humanity. Before the advent of the democratic age, it was as though there existed, in Tocqueville’s words, “two distinct humanities,” one comprising the few, the other the many.  At some level, that distinction endures, as conventional analyses of the 1% and 99% suggest, but that level in the age of democracy is, comparatively, profoundly superficial.

Two examples will help elucidate Tocqueville’s point, one provided by Tocqueville himself, the other taken from the history of Tocqueville’s native France. To begin with the latter, the year is 1627, about a decade into the Thirty Years War. La Rochelle, a Huguenot stronghold on the west coast, had, through a series of revolts, earned the wrath of the Catholic King, Louis XIII, and his brilliant and implacable minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Late in the summer of ’27, Royal forces commenced a siege that, owing to the city’s redoubtable fortifications and provisions, would last for over a year. During that time, the city’s population was reduced by more than 80%, dwindling from 27,000 at the start of hostilities to 5,000 at the time of its surrender. As provisions ran out, the city’s inhabitants began consuming the domesticated animals within the city’s walls — horses, dogs, cats — and when those were depleted, turned their attention to more pestilential ones — mice and rats. People boiled belts, boots, and other leather objects and consumed the resulting bouillon in a desperate bid to nourish themselves. At one point during the protracted siege, the Marquis de Feuquières, a lieutenant general in the royal army, was captured in a skirmish and imprisoned inside the city. Throughout the entire time of his confinement, as the city’s inhabitants succumbed to starvation and disease, victuals — including “roast duckling, green peas and strawberries, pastries and copious helpings of venison, lamb, and beef” — were carried into the city under a flag of truce and dutifully delivered to the Marquis. As Aldous Huxley, who recounts this incident in his book Grey Eminence, commented, “To us, the whole episode seems almost unthinkably odd; but in the seventeenth century, we must remember, it was axiomatic that a person of quality was different in kind from ordinary people and must be treated accordingly.”

The other example also takes us back to 17th century France, this time to Brittany, where  Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, better known to posterity as the Marquise de Sévigné, resided and composed many of the letters for which she is celebrated to this day in France. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville turns to the Marquise to substantiate his point about the growing equality of conditions and to illumine the emphatically undemocratic mindset that belonged to the aristocracy. To this end, he cites a letter from the Marquise to her daughter, penned at the time an oppressive tax was imposed upon the lower classes of Brittany. The missive, which begins with the Marquise playfully chiding her daughter, quickly turns to “the news from Rennes.” Without the least hint of sympathy, the mother relates the tribulations of the “miserable people” who have been expelled from the town “without knowing where to go, having neither food nor any place to lodge.” She writes of a fiddler who was broken on the wheel and quartered with his pieces “exposed in the four corners of the town” and dryly notes that the hangings will begin tomorrow after which she promptly turns to news of the weather. It was as though she were recounting a play for which she did not care very much and not the actual suffering and torturing of human beings which she witnessed personally.

Tocqueville had no illusions about what happened to the lower classes of Brittany in the year 1675. “These tumultuous movements were repressed with an unexampled atrocity.” But notwithstanding the gross insensitivity exhibited in the Marquise’s letter, Tocqueville understood that Madame de Sévigné was not a “selfish and barbaric creature.” It was not an active antipathy for the lower orders that incited her to relate their sufferings as she did, but rather the genuine inability to comprehend their suffering. “Madame de Sévigné did not clearly conceive what it was to suffer when one was not a gentleman.” A pithier, but no less illustrative example, also provided by Tocqueville, involves “Mme Duchatelet, who according to Voltaire’s secretary, felt no embarrassment at undressing in front of her servants, not considering it really proven that valets are men.”

This mindset, predicated on the understanding that there were distinct humanities, that humans were not all of the same kind, was subverted by Christian teaching. As the aforementioned examples attest, that subversion was effected slowly, which should come as no surprise. Rome was not built in a day nor did the democratic age dawn overnight. But indisputably, that subversion was effected. There is a reason why, as Huxley noted, the episode of the Marquis must strike people today as almost unthinkably odd. And as for the Marquise, consider one of those commercials in which the viewer is told that for a dollar a day a child can be fed and lifted from abject poverty. These commercials showcase images of children who are hungry and half-naked and alternately appear wretched and adorable. Viewers tend to find those images moving. What allows them to connect with those children? In the 17th century, an aristocrat could not comprehend the agonies endured by members of the lower classes when that aristocrat beheld those agonies firsthand. Today people see an image of some child half-way around the world whom they never encountered and never will encounter and feel for them; they commiserate; they do not necessarily have experience of such suffering, but they understand it enough to sympathize, to suffer at the sight of it, and to want to end it. Why? According to Tocqueville, it is because the distance between man and man has been reduced appreciably. And while by no means the sole cause, perhaps nothing has been more instrumental in effacing that distance than Christianity.

Much of this seems lost on contemporary critics of the West, who inveigh against the iniquities and inequities that inhere in Western Civilization while paying virtually no heed to the virtues of that civilization. Those virtues that are so widely exalted today — tolerance, compassion, equality, commitment to reason or rational discourse — are not given. They are the products of a historical process that can be traced back to a time when ideas about the primacy of reason and equality of souls gained ascendancy and in so doing, attenuated the ligatures of tradition, custom, myth, creed, caste, and the like.

It is conceivable that one might prop these values upon different foundations, but that does not appear to be the aim of those who denounce and deconstruct the West. Their approach to sustaining values appears to be in keeping with the modern approach in general. The crux of that approach, as Nietzsche exposed, is to preserve biblical morality while abandoning biblical faith. In the academy and beyond, people want to preserve Western values while undermining Western foundations. This only can lead to a debasement of those values and indeed, already has. For evidence, one need look no further than the “safe spaces” that have proliferated on college campuses across the West.

Within the halls of the academy — a place devoted to higher learning, whose doors are barred to none — an environment is being institutionalized that is fundamentally adverse to the animating principles of the academy and the West more broadly. In an effort to shield students from all sorts of perceived harms and traumas, words and ideas are being proscribed and students are being embraced and excluded on the basis of criteria that ought to be considered odious by everyone who thinks the content of a person’s character is more important than the color of a person’s skin.

None of this bodes well for the future of the academy, nor for the West at large. As the historian C. Vann Woodward affirmed, “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” What the current atmosphere that permeates the academy clearly demonstrates is that it is antithetical to that history.

Intellectual growth and discovery are hallmarks of the West, not incidental hallmarks, but ones that develop logically, one might say naturally, as a result of the values that repose at the heart of that civilization. It is lamentable that the very institution once devoted to fostering that growth and furthering that discovery has so heedlessly forsaken its charge. In doing so, it beckons a civilizational decline and the recrudescence of a darker age. Perhaps without an adequate grasp of the foundations upon which Western Civilization rests, it cannot be otherwise.


This piece was originally published in The Dorchester Review, Volume 9 Number 1 (Spring/Summer 2019).

David EisenbergDavid Eisenberg

David Eisenberg

David A. Eisenberg is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eureka College. He received his B.A. from Trinity College in Connecticut and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. His online writings have appeared at The Fortnightly Review, Front Porch Republic, Merion West, Public Discourse, and The Agonist, among other places. His first book, provisionally entitled All Things Being Equal: Nietzsche and Tocqueville on Humanity's Democratization, is slated to be published in 2021 (Lexington Books).

Back To Top