The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, (Part 5)
The Decline & Rebirth of the West
Part 5 of 5
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
Leiden: Brill, 2011
10. The Legacy of the Indo-Europeans: The Construction of Modern Western Political Order
We have already had occasion several times to discuss how the Indo-European aristocratic warrior spirit is, in fact, the true origin of democratic institutions and doctrines of “rights.” Our thumotic, barbarian ancestors would never accept the rule of tyrants, and demanded to “have a say,” to be recognized. Democracy is simply the application of this principle beyond the aristocratic class. Exactly how that process took place is a very complicated story. But we need to take a closer look at it, however brief and inadequate – as it will (amongst other things) allow us to discern the process by which the contributions of aristocratic warriors to civilization came to be forgotten – as well as the process by which Western uniqueness came to be denied.
I have already mentioned that the basis for Athenian democracy was a pre-existing aristocratic system of a “council of nobles,” and that many of the most prominent figures in Athenian democratic politics were of noble birth. In Rome we see a similar pattern. The Roman Republic was preceded by a period of tyranny, which was eventually replaced by a group of aristocrats. These men constituted the leading figures in the Republic, and they ruled in the name of liberty – which meant, freedom from absolute monarchs. As Duchesne correctly points out, without this group of Aristocrats, there would have been no Republic, and all that followed it, both for good and for ill.
Eventually, the Romans dropped their emphasis upon heredity as a source of aristocratic virtue, and instead created a system in which individuals could prove their virtue and move up in the world through competition. One could argue that this is in fact more in keeping with the ancient, barbaric Indo-European spirit: nobility is really all about deeds and spirit, not who one’s father happened to be. In fact, so broadminded were the Romans that they offered limited citizenship to freed slaves, and full citizenship to their descendants. By the time of the early Empire, in fact, the majority of Roman citizens were descended from slaves (!).
In the Medieval period, the aristocratic principle of sovereignty was central to the feudal system of government – just as it had been in the days of the barbarians. The nobles had autonomy within their sphere, and the king was expected to respect the rights of his nobles and to consult them. And the nobles demanded quite a lot of their kings, the Magna Carta of 1215 being only the most famous example (other, similar documents were imposed on kings throughout Europe). Duchesne refers as well to the Medieval “warren of jurisdictions” – duchies, baronies, bishoprics, counties, guilds, monasteries, universities – which effectively meant that no one man or group of men had authority over all. (Consider by contrast the centralized “Oriental despotism” of China.)
All of this laid the groundwork for the development of parliamentary government out of the feudal system. As Duchesne notes, drawing on the work of Marc Bloch, it was only in those lands that had been governed by a system of aristocratic councils that representative, parliamentary government arose. (It didn’t happen, for example, in Japan, where the submission of the noble vassals to their lord was total.) And we see rising to prominence all over Europe three “estates” that demanded a voice: the nobles, clergy, and “townsmen” (or middle class). As Duchesne puts it, “the privileges of the aristocracy were not antithetical to the idea of bourgeois ‘rights’ and ‘liberties’ but were instead their original inspiration and precedent” (p. 483).
The increasing commercialization of early modern Europe meant that the power of merchants and bankers – of the middle class – steadily grew. In Dumézilian terms, what occurred was a gradual shift to the rule of the “third function” – even if, on the surface, it was still those of noble birth who ruled officially. And with this change in power relationships came a change in the Zeitgeist. Increasingly it was no longer the values of the nobility (“honor”) or the church (“piety”) that mattered, but rather the values of the middle class: industriousness, utility, sociability, affability, cleanliness, “likeableness,” “niceness,” etc.
As societies turned more toward commerce and the values and interests of merchants and bankers, the more the purpose of society was seen as the promotion of peace, order, and security. Enter Thomas Hobbes, who argued precisely that this was the only legitimate purpose of political order – deriving the humdrum values of bourgeois shopkeepers deductively from an Epicurean metaphysics (the part of Leviathan that nobody reads). Hobbes’s stated intention was to reign in the aristocratic desire for “vainglory” that threatened peace and security, and therefore the free flow of commerce. For “vainglory” simply read thumos. Hobbes’s theory of the “social contract” – which expresses what is in fact the distilled essence of the modern social and political outlook – was constructed in conscious opposition to the thumotic virtue that was the foundation of Western greatness itself.
Of course, one can’t really eliminate thumos – and there will always be certain men who are particularly gifted with it. So, what the modern world does is to channel that thumos into activities that do not threaten it. Men are encouraged to become “economic warriors” doing battle with others to see who can build and sell the biggest and best mousetrap. No real man is ever truly satisfied by this – but the society offers him money and pharmaceutical drugs to kill the pain. The most thumotic are encouraged to go into the military to “fight for democracy.” Not for glory – only to keep the peace.
With this rechanneling of thumos also came a reconception of it. When thumos was put to work for economic ends, it became confused with the pursuit of self-interest. In other words, if one looks at the economic warriors busily competing with one another and hooting and hollering at their latest sale or acquisition, it certainly looks like all that is going on here is a bunch of greedy ex-frat boys seeking their selfish benefit. In fact, of course, this is exactly how the slave types (in Nietzsche’s sense) saw the masters of old. They did not see that what was really at work, under the surface, was the pursuit of an ideal – the desire for honor and prestige.
In the modern period, the slave perspective on thumos has become the dominant perspective – and even the self-understanding of most genuinely thumotic men. Thumos has simply been conflated with appetite, and seen as on a par with the desires for food, sex, and comfort. The connection of thumos to the pursuit of an ideal – in fact, to the negation or mastery of appetite – has been completely lost. And so Duchesne writes, on the very last page of his book: “Accordingly, to the degree that the spirited part of the Western soul was suppressed by the ethical demands of modern democratic liberalism, rechanneled intro economic inventiveness, or confounded with bodily appetites, it became increasingly difficult for scholars to attribute the restlessness of the West to this part of the soul” (p. 488).
In other words, the reason why our revisionists must understand everything in economic terms, seeing, for example, even the Indo-European migrations as responses to “scarcity,” is that they are modern men who have effectively been neutered. (Duchesne puts it more politely.) They simply do not know the thumotic part of the soul. There is no place for it in their understanding of human motivations. One sees this even in modern science, where the evolutionary biologists insist that the thumotic pursuit of recognition simply must reduce to a desire to attract mates or accumulate material resources. It simply does not occur to them that there might be some fundamental difference between human beings and earthworms, and that there might be a part of the human being that rises above – indeed, that negates – the purely natural. And how could this to occur to them? The only world they have ever personally known is dominated by an ethos nicely summed up by the rapper Ice Cube: “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”
11. Concluding Reflections
And yet, even within the most modern of Western men – yes, even within our politically correct revisionists – we still see some glimmer of the old, Indo-European thumotic nature. One sees this, of course, in the polemical nature of their scholarship. And, as Duchesne points out, their critique of the West embodies the perennial Western negativity about itself, and Western “self-doubt.” This may be the hardest point for Right Wing critics of the Left to understand. The suicidal self-hatred of Western Left Wingers is something that seems utterly mad, and defies explanation. I’ve spoken to many a conservative who has expressed utter consternation over this. The important thing to understand is that the anti-Western animus of the Left may be foolish, dishonest, and disastrous – but it is not un-Western.
From the beginning – if Duchesne is correct – we have been animated by a spirit of individualism that has involved the willingness to negate even the desire for life in order to achieve the ideal. We have been willing to risk everything, in other words, for individual autonomy, and for our vision of what is right. This is the source of everything great about us, but it is simultaneously our tragic flaw. It seems to lead, in many Westerners, to a form of madness in which one comes to believe that freedom means emancipation from all limits whatsoever. And so we modern Westerners now believe that we are not just capable of taming or channeling our animal desires, but of giving birth to ourselves.
We believe that we can free ourselves from history, from culture, from biology, even from the limits of time and space. We deny heredity, natural inequality, upper limits on physical and mental development, ethnic and national characters, and even the difference between the sexes. We want to “have it all” and be all, or anything. But, of course, this really amounts to being nothing all. And that really is our goal: the apotheosis of the Western spirit. To be absolutely free of all limits and all otherness; to be free of anything not chosen by the autonomous self. To be free, in fact, of identity. Pico understood us correctly: we Westerners are the animal with no nature – or at least we think that we are. And this realization, in fact, is what Hegel saw standing at the end of history. All of history for Hegel was the coming into being, through (Western) humanity of Aristotle’s God: the being who is utterly and completely independent, self-sufficient, and undetermined; spinning in an eternal bliss of pure and perfect self-relatedness.
But, of course, this is complete insanity. It is true enough that we are able to negate our animal nature in the name of an ideal, or to channel our animal drives. But we are not free to be anything we like. The very ability to react against our animal drives has its basis in factors – biological and cultural – that we have not chosen. And the obvious truth is that we haven’t freed ourselves from history, culture, and biology. We have only fooled ourselves into thinking that we have, or that it is possible. Intrinsic, immutable human characteristics continue to exist – as well as intrinsic, immutable human inequalities. The madness of the West is not that it has removed these things, but that it thinks it has. And this madness may well lead to its destruction.
As a perfect illustration of how one cannot escape one’s nature and one’s history, consider the Left Wingers Duchesne crosses swords with. Whether we tarry with the p.c. historians or sociologists at Ivy League schools, or with the garden-variety liberals of Berkeley, or with the Democratic power brokers of Washington, D.C., or with the Labour organizers of London, we will find a people as deeply invested in Eurocentrism as Rudyard Kipling.
I know that this will seem to be an incredible claim. But consider: while those on the Left spend a great deal of time today speaking about “diversity,” in reality they are only willing to affirm those aspects of other cultures that do not conflict with the ideals of Western liberalism. Other cultures may enter into the great, multicultural project – but they may not exhibit (as many do) sexism, misogyny, or homophobia – or engage in such practices as arranged marriages, duels, honor killings, or clitoridectomy. Western liberals are in fact perfectly prepared to welcome individuals from cultures that practice these things – but most see it as their mission to enlighten them and get them to stop.
The left wing “celebration of diversity” amounts, in the end, to a celebration of culture in its external and superficial forms. In other words, to Western liberals “multiculturalism” winds up amounting simply to such things as different costumes, music, styles of dance, languages, and food. The real guts of the different cultures – how they view the world, how they view the divine, how they view men and women – have to be nipped and tucked (or even excised entirely) to bring them into conformity with Western liberalism.
Thus, the hidden agenda of so-called “multiculturalism” is really the “Enlightenment,” or rather Europeanization, of all peoples. Now, I would venture to say that virtually no Western liberals are consciously aware of this. The obvious reason is that for the most part they are unable to see the culture of liberalism as uniquely Western – and thus they do not perceive that they have any Western identity at all. They see themselves as cosmopolitans; citizens of the world. They have no qualms about “helping” others to become like themselves, because they think that what they are really doing is merely helping those others to become truly human (to “realize their human potential”).
As Duchesne discusses at length, they have unconsciously taken European traits and values as simply “human” and projected them onto the rest of the world. It is thus possible for them to both “celebrate diversity” and, for example, give condescending lectures to Muslims about women’s rights. They do not perceive this as imposing their culture onto others, because they do not even perceive their culture as their culture; they see it as a “universal humanity” that others may need a little help to fully actualize. And it is their mission to help them to do so! (And one of our Western characteristics is that we must always have a mission in order to justify our existence.) The unification of all peoples, an end to war and strife, universal respect for rights, universal political enlightenment. It’s the end of history, and it’s all decked out in a coat of many colors. But there is but one lily-white Western mono-culture underneath. And the ultimate irony is that that mono-culture is spread by self-hating Westerners who condemn their culture because they think it has failed to live up to ideals that are, in fact, the invention of Westerners.
Of course, it is not just the Leftists who exhibit these tendencies – who want to civilize the planet by spreading a Western culture they do not even recognize as Western. Conservatives are playing the same game (especially the recent variety of “neo-conservatives”). It seems not to matter who is in charge. We are always in the business of exporting our “timeless ideals.” Always forcing others to be free. Always celebrating otherness by imposing a “humanitarian” sameness. It seems that we Westerners simply cannot escape our Westerness, regardless of our political affiliation.
So what is the cure for this peculiar brand of madness? Here we have to be careful, because some of the cures proposed by Right Wingers are, in fact, worse than the disease. A cure is worse than the disease when it kills the patient. And some have proposed alternations to our self-conception and way of life that are profoundly anti-Western. For example, it is true that one of our problems is that we lack unity. So some of us look to non-Western countries like North Korea, take note of their impressive unity, and yearn for something similar. But we must keep squarely in mind that though our individualism, our passion for freedom, our self-criticism, and our bellicose nature have indeed, it seems, produced some pretty problematic results – nevertheless this is us. This is who we are.
Whoever would seek to save the West must not seek to change what is fundamentally Western about us. Indeed, such an aim is doomed to failure. So what is the answer? It is just possible, of course, that there may not be one. It is just possible that Western man is indeed a tragic figure, and his story a tale with no happy ending possible. This was Spengler’s position, in fact. And we must confront it. In the final analysis, we might just be a people whose incomparable greatness was made possible by traits that eventually doomed it.
Of course, if we adopt this pessimistic outlook we are bound to make Spengler’s prophecy a self-fulfilling one. So I would like to suggest an alternative. It deserves to be discussed at greater length, but I will merely sketch it out here. Fittingly, I will take my inspiration from Hegel. The thinker who revealed to us the beginning of Western history, its course, and its alleged end may also be able to provide us with a way to a new beginning.
In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel deals with different conceptions of freedom. Most philosophers and ordinary people take freedom to mean “lack of constraint,” and to be the opposite of “determination.” But, good dialectician that he was, Hegel argues that this conception rests upon a false dichotomy. If freedom means lack of determination, then freedom is completely impossible. All of us are born into a determinate set of cultural, social, geographical, and historical circumstances. We don’t choose these things, but they shape who we are – often in ways we are oblivious to (as my earlier discussion of Eurocentric Leftists illustrates).
But Hegel argues that this fact is not something we should mourn – because this “determination” is merely the set of conditions that makes possible our freedom. As I remarked earlier, freedom is always freedom within a context; “freedom of choice” means freedom, within a certain context, to select from a number of options. The context always defines what the options are – even the option you may dream up, that no one else has realized or thought to choose. And all sorts of factors define and make possible a context, factors over which we have no control. So, for example, that I was born in this country as opposed to that one, to this sort of family, in this time period, etc., undeniably limits me – but it defines a context in which I may make choices and, indeed, realize myself as the sort of being I am.
Now, suppose someone responds to this by saying “Yes, but I didn’t get to choose the context I was thrust into, or to define what my choices are. Therefore I’m not free.” This is simply not a reasonable position, however, for it demands the impossible – and thus sets up an impossible, chimerical notion of freedom. Hegel’s real answer to this, however, is to say that we are always fully and absolutely free so long as we recognize that the “limiting factors” in our lives are in fact the conditions for our self-realization; the conditions for such freedom as we have, in other words. The man who sees these conditions as merely alien and “oppressive” will feel himself unfree. If, on the other hand, he is able to recognize how his unchosen context has made it possible for him to be the man he is, with the choices and possibilities arrayed before him, he will not see these factors as limiting. If, in other words, he chooses the unchosen then he remains a fully autonomous individual. Hegel’s provocative way of putting this is to say that we must “will our determination.”
And this might be the way to save Western man. We cannot change the fact that what we seek is autonomy — to conquer the other, to penetrate, to know, and to control. But the next step in the historical development of Western self-understanding may be to recognize the absolute necessity and immutability of the conditions that make our nature possible. And to affirm them: to will them, to choose them. Hegel, in The Philosophy of Right, spoke exclusively of willing the social conditions that make possible our freedom. But let us expend this to include biological, and other conditions. Thus, for example, the cure for the West’s radical feminism is for the feminist to recognize that the biological conditions that make her a woman – with a woman’s mind, emotions, and drives – cannot be denied and are not an oppressive “other.” They are the parameters within which she can realize who she is and seek satisfaction in life. No one can be free of some set of parameters or other; life is about realizing ourselves and our potentials within those parameters.
Hegel was right about history: the telos of (Western) history really is our coming to consciousness of ourselves. But, contra Hegel’s followers, we are not at the end of history. In fact, we are going through a stage of history in which we are still profoundly deluded in our self-understanding. And it is having disastrous consequences. The next phase of the historical dialectic, if there is one, will be the antithesis of the present: We Westerners will recognize the futility and destructiveness of denying our nature; of denying the unchosen conditions – biological, cultural, historical, social – that make us who we are. And we will choose instead to affirm those conditions. This is no defeat for us, and no rejection of what makes us uniquely Western. It is the action of a fully self-aware and autonomous being. It is the Western spirit come to complete and perfect consciousness of itself: as unique, as a being of a specific nature which it simply cannot escape. And who would want to escape such a glorious nature?
So what then? That is a uniquely Western question. For the West, there is always something yet to come, some adventure to be had. Well, willing the conditions for our freedom doesn’t mean the same thing as making peace with the world. No, we Westerners are determined to strive – to be restless. It is only this fact about ourselves that we must make peace with, and affirm. And so we will go forward to new adventures, conquering new territories (literally and metaphorically). But this time it will be with full consciousness of who we are – and pride in who we are. The end of history comes when we achieve this absolute self-consciousness and stop deluding ourselves, and denying ourselves. But the “end” of our history is only the beginning, for it is truly the point at which we come into full possession of ourselves and our possibilities. And those possibilities are limitless and will remain so, if we live and act always in the knowledge of who we are.
The above reflections go beyond what Duchesne says in The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, but they are inspired by it. If you have made it to the end of this very long essay, I think you will understand why I regard this as such a brilliant and important book. Duchesne stands on the shoulders of giants like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but this book both synthesizes their ideas, and supplements them with new and important insights. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is a book that has come along at just the right time. It helps us to see ourselves very clearly – our glories and our faults, and the conditions that make these possible. In short, it is an important chapter in the unfolding phenomenology of the Western spirit. And it may just help to usher in that next stage of history, in which we truly realize and embrace who we are.