New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his April 21 piece The Crisis of Western Civ, has opened a serious debate on the collapse of confidence in western civilization. His stunning conclusion: “These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive.”
Brooks notes that this cultural pessimism is most fully developed in our institutions of higher learning. For several decades, our universities have stopped teaching western history as a progressive narrative of human liberation and begun blaming the West for all the ills of the world.
He points out that students in our universities are increasingly intolerant, indoctrinated with a poisonous cocktail of negativity. They are taught that western civilization is immoral, the source of colonial oppression, and directly responsible for spoiling the environment as well as creating all manner of economic, social and gender inequality.
A few decades ago, westerners believed themselves to be the forefront of a new humanistic world order. The western cultural narrative, dating from Classical Greece 2,500 years ago, through the Roman Republic, England’s Magna Carta and the Enlightenment, was championed as a unique fount of liberty and individual freedom.
What’s happened to demonize the West?
The truth is demonization of the West is nothing new. The problem began with the Enlightenment. The 18th century Enlightenment was an intellectual transition point, an ideological bridge between the despotic feudal past and the modern world. The Enlightenment awoke a sleep populist giant by painting a futuristic picture of society in liberty and freedom.
Yet, however liberating the Enlightenment may have been in the realm of thought, at the time it instantly created an intellectual gap, between the world as was (monarchial despotism) and what ought to be (Enlightenment’s ideal).
Three major Enlightenment philosophers tried to fill this intellectual gap. In doing so, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau essentially cast the modern world’s intellectual frame of reference. Their perspectives continue to influence public debate in the 21st century.
Rousseau (1712-1778), the famous French philosopher, is responsible for much of the negativity about western civilization, then and now. Rousseau was a tormented soul, crushed by the inequality and cruelty of pre-revolutionary France. The father of Romanticism, he’s famous for saying, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” In Rousseau’s “state of nature,” humanity is all innocence and social perfection. But this Romantic perspective also implies a dark certainty. If the natural state of humanity (in the absence of restraint) is perfect liberty, then society itself must, by definition, be the source of human suffering – the oppressor of humanity’s natural freedom.
For Rousseau, the very presence of inequality implies restraint, in fact, active oppression. Romantics feel morally compelled to right the wrong, which means attacking the oppressive establishment. True Romantics are driven by passion, deep emotions uninformed by thought. For instance, a Romantic would be reduced to tears by the sight of a lonely street kid but would be completely indifferent to well-considered programs for improving the lot of the homeless.
Regrettably, this philosophical disease has infected many university professors, environmental activists and stridently intolerant youth.
Locke (1632-1704), on the other hand, had a more pragmatic perspective on the “state of nature.” Far from being a state of perfection, Locke appreciated that in the absence of society, humanity descended into chaos.
For Locke, society, as imperfect as it may be, was the source of order, from which social improvement was possible if individuals were allowed to pursue their self-interest in consort with the uniquely human capacity for reason. Locke has been called the father of Liberalism; his ideas laid the groundwork for the modern progressive agenda, which has facilitated the advance of democracy and social equality.
Regrettably, it seems our modern philosophical orientation has shifted from the pragmatic Locke to activist Rousseau. What happened?
Perhaps we’ve become too technocratic, trapped in the digital present. We seem to have lost our historical memory and degraded the study of real philosophy. The bad news is that we’ll be forced to repeat the mistakes of the past because we refuse to acknowledge our history.
Young Romantics will soon discover a hard truth: civilizations need reinforcement and the sober application of reason. In demonizing western civilization so readily, they could be extinguishing the very foundations of their future.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.