With COVID-19 spreading everywhere, these are unsettling times. All of us are self-isolating and cut off from the normal routines of social life and work.
A byproduct of this unsettling new reality is that we are being more or less forced to spend a lot of time alone with just ourselves. But that’s not so bad. Actually, it’s an opportunity to reflect a little more deeply on the meaning of our lives, and in the midst of so much uncertainty to be thankful, even to celebrate who we are and what defines us as a people.
In my previous two articles for The Epoch Times, I took aim at how modern multicultural and globalist policies have been undermining the deep-culture distinctiveness of the West in an effort to persuade us—even to shame us—into believing that who we are is nothing special.
But I say enough is enough. The insightful U.S. critic Irving Babbitt warned 100 years ago that if we forget who we are, if a civilization begins to drift, the direction is always downward. So I have decided to fight back, and do my bit to stop the drift.
In this article, I want to celebrate some of the precious gifts of our civilization, without apology. Because no matter how you look at it, from ancient times until now—shortcomings, mistakes, and disasters notwithstanding—our system for producing human flourishing is plainly one of the most successful ever created.
Our Great Political System
Let’s begin with the fact that with the exception of the Roman Peace that lasted more than two centuries (27 B.C. to 180 A.D.), no political system in human history has ever produced as successful a combination of national and international peace and prosperity within and between nations sharing the same system.
It’s basically a freedom system bounded by policy and law that, with a vulnerable reliability, guarantees lawful individual liberty, specified rights to private property, free association, more or less free speech, lawful free enterprise, regulated trade, defendable borders, and equality before the law. The various totalitarian attempts to replace this system with dictatorship, whether of the national socialist (fascist) or international socialist (communist) variety, have consistently produced chaos and death for millions, and disaster for themselves.
And when it comes to the longstanding dream of all people to exercise some control over those who govern them? The modern Western system culminates in the most important and hard-won right of all—unbelievable, actually: the right to “throw the scoundrels out.” And oh, what a beloved right that is! It’s the people’s bloodless mechanism for correcting their own and their leaders’ past mistakes and starting afresh; for counting heads instead of breaking them; and a precious gift of our ancestors, to be venerated.
We forget too readily that this right, in turn, is rooted in the most revolutionary idea of all: that the people have rights and duties that are independent of whatever human rule—or ruler—under which they happen to find themselves. These rights are grounded in human nature, and in our specifically Western familial, moral, and religious convictions, as enshrined in our constitutional documents, common law, and traditions.
These began as a claim and ideal of ancient Greek and Roman “natural law,” as reflected in dramatic works such as Sophocles’s “Antigone,” and as spelled out so clearly in the philosophical works of such as Cicero.
They then spread as a Christian ideal, where we learn that this kind of law is “written on the heart.” This was, in turn, brilliantly expounded by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (and by Hugo Grotius in the 17th) as the first international “law of nations.”
Perhaps the crowning legal achievement of the West is the belief—much maligned by modern progressives, but lying deep in our legal tradition—that natural law is above, and superior, to mere human law, and so when the former is transgressed, the latter must be held to account. Aquinas taught that “lex iniusta non est lex”—“an unjust law is not a law”—and therefore, though it may be called a law, isn’t morally binding. It was precisely his natural-law standard that was invoked by the judges at Nuremberg to convict Hitler’s henchmen who, but for this, would have been freed of all war crimes. The judges laid it down that a mere human law loses all obligatory power if it violates the generally recognized principles of international law, or the natural law.
Further, and despite all that may be reproached of our unique and intentionally limited, checked, and balanced Western political system—whether a republic such as the United States of America, or a constitutional monarchy such as England and the modern nations that began as her colonies—our right to express our individual views through elected representatives, who, in turn, are checked by a loyal opposition (in the monarchies), or by an alternatively loyal or disloyal one (in republican systems, such as in the United States), and by a region-based senate system (so that majorities cannot trample minorities) … why, the whole jumble is a superior crowning glory that’s served as a legal and constitutional repellent of dictators and despots for centuries.
Our Great Legal System
Basic English individual liberties and rights to protection from arbitrary power and state interference were enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215, and though always under threat and with a precarious endurance, have been defended and improved ever since.
Ronald Reagan was correct: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
It needs criticism and ongoing improvement, but as compared to the legal systems of other cultures? No contest! To just a handful of jurists and political philosophers of the British tradition (think of the enormous and continuing influence of Edward Coke and of Blackstone’s “Commentaries”), and to many fine jurists since, we owe our powerful arguments against excessive statism, as well as the myriad common-law rights we too often take for granted, including respect for life as reflected in our harsh laws against murder, arson, rape, and even suicide (which used to be called self-murder).
The historian Alan Macfarlane has shown that as compared to the late arrival of such rights in other nations, the English people and all those nations spawned by England have enjoyed specific rights to private property and inheritance since the 12th century, hundreds of years before those living in other cultures (many of which even today do not have such firm rights).
On top of all this is the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty (summed up in “Blackstone’s ratio”: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”). And to be judged by a jury of peers or an independent judge, with a right of appeal to a higher court, is another constitutional gift of our ancestors.
As mentioned, other than Rome at the height of her glory (from whence the West has absorbed much in the way of legal practice) no other system has ever provided citizens with such a cornucopia of legal rights and freedoms. The practical reality is that in all nations that have thrown in their lot with the West, citizens are presumed free by birth and by inherited right, and the main function of law is not to tell them what they must do—the totalitarian preference—but only what they can’t do.
There is a huge difference between a law that says, “Go anywhere you want, but stay off the grass,” and one that says, “You are only allowed to walk on public sidewalks.” Western citizens must stand proudly in defense of their liberty-based laws and rights. They are products of a unique and highly particular inheritance and civilization, like no other.
Our Great Freedom System
Especially to be praised are what I call “the tools of freedom and wealth creation,” bits of which have arisen sporadically in other cultures. After all, most human beings are natural traders. But as a complete system? Only in the West. On this note, the word “capitalism” should be mothballed, simply because it’s too often a slur-term of the left.
All private and public systems employ capital to advantage, including totalitarian ones (in fact, they love capital. They just don’t want you to have any). The real engine of our economic success is not capital. It’s “free enterprise.”
Compared to all other systems—communism, socialism, fascism, and yes, even so-called democratic socialism Bernie Sanders-style (all of which are top-down statist systems)—ours is quite amazing. Its focus is the flourishing of free individual initiative under the same rules for all. It’s a system that supplies the ordinary citizen with largely unrestricted free choice in daily commercial life with respect to how to spend the fruits of personal labor and invention. It’s a kind of “dollar democracy,” under which millions of very ordinary people voluntarily make or break those who serve their needs and wants.
Notwithstanding the huge debt burdens carried by so many democracies, and the fact that all government debt is really deferred taxation, what I have called our Freedom System is still mostly that.
It’s a superior system of free enterprise, private property rights, common-law rights, contractual rights, equal justice for all, protection against force and fraud, and investment opportunities large and small that enable the vast majority of people to freely guide their own lives economically, to their own ends, by their own means, in a culture more or less free of normative corruption. It’s a superior, universally-duplicable system that we owe … to what? To our unique cultural history and those who fashioned it, and to nothing, and no one else.
No other culture in the history of the world has ever produced a system as successful. And that’s why so many other people have been adopting our system.
Our Great Philosophical, Literary, Aesthetic Tradition
The contributions to human life, understanding, and enrichment by many other cultures have of course been impressive in their own right—Asian, African, Indian, etc.—and are properly and vigorously to be celebrated by those raised in their embrace. But they’re not my culture. So, like billions of others, I am ineradicably biased in being able authentically to discuss and defend only one deep culture—my own.
In my 20s, I lived in France for a year—“vive la différence!” I loved it, and am still fluent in French. I also lived in Japan for a half-year, and loved that, too, and can still speak a little Japanese. But I got hooked by luminous feelings of Western origin very young when singing solo parts to Handel’s Messiah, and reading moving poetry, plays, and novels by great English authors.
You don’t possess a deep culture. It possesses you. I remember so clearly a cold winter’s night lying in the dark on my futon in Tokyo, thousands of miles from home, listening to my little pocket radio. I was trying to understand a little of the Japanese chatter and music a bit alien to my ears, when suddenly, I got hijacked by the West. A heart-achingly mournful “fado” song by Amalia Rodrigues, a famous Portuguese singer, simply claimed me. I was overcome by a sudden powerful emotion as the West and all it meant in my forlorn night took possession of me. Soul-penetration. A piercing of the heart. The next morning, I booked a ticket home.
The first thing I did when I got back was to find a recording of her song.
For many reasons—too many to recount here—I am persuaded that the cumulative human search for goodness, truth, and beauty in our tradition is unique (as are all traditions, after all), something to marvel at and defend, and that the recent root and branch attack upon it—mostly by privileged, overeducated progressive radicals wandering in a riot of sanctimonious repudiation of all things Western—ought to be energetically rebuffed. That’s what I am doing.
I have tried to find equivalents to the work of the greatest Western artists, thinkers, and writers, only to conclude—and I enjoy vigorously debating this point—that when we consider the whole 2,500-year span, there is simply no other civilization past or present that has produced works of the human mind and heart—of philosophy, literature, music, and art—quite as grand and fruitful of human flourishing as those of the Western tradition.
From Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Descartes and Kant, and onward; from the indelible beauty of the King James Bible to the soaring architecture of Westminster and Chartres, angelic choir voices descending; to the glorious music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Tchaikovsky—and so many others; to our great English literature, from “Beowulf,” to the “Canterbury Tales,” to the incomparable works of William Shakespeare above all, whose turns of phrase and genius are simply inexplicable and a gift to all mankind; to Keats and his “Ode to a Nightingale,” Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” Yeats’s “Among School Children,” and for me, in the embodiment of a dreamy mythic childhood on a farm, Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”:
Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
And of course, let us include all that other very fine French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature over the ages, and more, old and new, all the fine poetry, and the novel form, from Cervantes, Fielding, Dickens, Tolstoy, Balzac, and Dostoevsky, to Joyce and Faulkner, Lawrence, and Mann (I haven’t kept up with the moderns).
And then, all those gorgeous sculptures and paintings—the stunning Winged Victory of Samothrace (by an unknown Greek artist two centuries before Christ. Unknown! At a time when no other culture had anything comparable. Not even close). And then … Michelangelo’s gorgeous statue of David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Pietà, and all of Rembrandt, Turner, much of Van Gogh, many of the French Impressionists, and yes—a lot of Canada’s fine Group of Seven—so much stunning painting and sculpture.
I simply can’t look at Rodin’s mournful work “The Burghers of Calais,” without feeling the personal agony of those chiseled subjects, frozen in their painful beauty. Oh, my heart.
And, of course, our lofty English language—of all languages, the most ample, most flexible, the most free and open to innovation (because the least policed!)—has, especially because of our culture of adaptive freedom, become the new “lingua franca” of the entire world.
Open and ample? I once heard a famous professor of French linguistics in a Stanford University lecture boast that he could find all, or part, of every word of the French language, somewhere in the English language. Flexible? Resourceful? No language has over the past millennium absorbed and made its own so many thousands of words from other cultures.
“The Oxford English Dictionary” is a record of this vast process. It’s still the largest and most astonishing glory of all the world’s dictionaries, the miraculous endeavor of its assembly after more than a century of freely contributed labor by language-lovers all over the world, a signal tribute to one people’s love of their culture and language.
Our Great Judeo-Christian Tradition
At the root of all cultural and moral systems a distinct theology may always be discovered, even if buried, camouflaged, or frozen, so to speak. Even anti-God secular humanism boasts of itself as “a religion” (“Humanist Manifesto,” 1933).
So here, I will only say that despite so many faults and wrong turns, burnings, crusades, and so on, the theology of love and moral self-examination, we find at the heart of Christendom seems quite fundamental as the basis for a sound national culture and morality. I like the Christian insistence on individual moral responsibility, on the sacred right to life of all human beings (though, in recent times, for adult convenience, almost all nominally Christian nations have denied this to the unborn), on the essential goodness of creation, on the equal liberty and rights of all, and on the call for universal love.
Indeed, the notion of individualism itself, as historian Larry Siedentop has shown in “Inventing the Individual” (2014), has arisen not from secular liberal theorists, as most of us have been falsely taught, but from the universalism first preached by Saint Paul and subsequently developed by the Canon Lawyers of the Middle Ages. Even modern democracy has a root in the councils of the Christian church. It was Innocent III who stated at the third Lateran Council in 1215: “That which affects all should be decided by all.”
How unusual and unprecedented, among the nations of the world, that was.
Perhaps the most politically relevant aspect of Christendom from its very beginning is the foundational belief attributed to Jesus himself, that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 21:21). Even diehard atheists and libertarians ought to love him for that. That’s another foundation of the natural law ethic described above, a saying that, for as long as it survives, drives a wedge between free people everywhere and all totalitarian forms of power, past and present.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the architects of modern totalitarian ideology, hated Jesus for saying that, because it created what he called the “two heads of the eagle” of power, blocking the unity of state power by calling it always to account.
This is surely the chief political legacy of Jesus to all mankind—and one invoked almost solely by citizens of the West. It stands all political power on its head by turning the governed into perpetual moral judges of their governors. I don’t think the democratic systems of the Western world, so many centuries in development, and regardless of how secular they may be today, could have evolved in the way they have without that original admonition.
Because Christianity is uniquely rooted in a belief in absolutes—which is to say, in the existence of discoverable universal truth—we have been culturally gifted the belief that we live in a universe of profound (and discoverable) meaning. This belief has, in turn, unleashed a cornucopia of near-miraculous scientific and technological development, for the reason that no people or culture will search for absolute truth if they believe there is none to be found. It explains why so many other cultures rooted in other theologies have never developed much, or have lain dormant for centuries, only now importing or copying the vibrant technologies and inventions of the West.
In terms of worldwide patents issued on a per-capita national basis, nations of a Judeo-Christian origin dominate.
Beginning with the University of Bologna in 1088, Christendom was responsible for the creation of the world’s first true universities, and for a great many of the best universities since, for many of the world’s great hospitals, and, of course, for countless national and global charitable organizations. The Christian communities and citizens of the West tend to be universally more freely charitable than their secular counterparts in the West, or anywhere else. I say “freely” because they give of their own free will, and aren’t commanded to do this by state or church. A great many of the private international organizations that help the poor and less developed of the world are also of Christian origin.
In these, as in so many things, the West, my deep culture, has never had an equal—and it still doesn’t.
This is a truth of which to be proud, and to defend.
William Gairdner is an author who lives near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree” (2015). His website is WilliamGairdner.ca
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.