What Makes the West Great?

February 21, 2021

Where do we begin contemplating what makes Western Civilization “great”? Some liberal peers might, and they certainly have, made the counterargument that such a question presupposes a superiority, one that is no surprise to a “Euro-centrically obsessed” “civilization,” if even such a society could be called a civilization without barbarizing others. This sensitivity obviously misses the mark. But the question is really asking how did we get here?

The truth is that there is no cause. Some attribute the West’s rise to religious tolerance, capitalism, political shifts, the philosophies of Enlightenment, and all the factors and contents in between. It seems to make more sense, however, admitting that there was no singular cause to the economic, technological, and social prosperity and advances that have occurred, at lightning speed, in only the last 300 years. It also makes sense to avoid the determinist and reductionist logic that too many academics fall into when they set out to make some broader cynical point on their ideologically obsessed pursuit to paint the history of Western Civilization, along with its contents (eg. Christianity; capitalism; constitutional liberty; individual rights) as being unique harbingers and innovators in the evil mechanisms of slavery, misogyny, exploitation, and much else. Most times— if not all the time— these don’t just miss the mark, proof unto themselves of historical ignorance, but are just excuses to make the case for socially inept and pseudo-moralistic policies and narratives that perpetuate the same structures they purport to be champions at fighting.

Realizing that others have done extensive research and well-acclaimed work on this subject, this here only serves as a starting point, simple as it may seem, of a few lineages (the religious, economic, and political) that can be traced from what gave rise to Western Civilization as we have come to know it. There are many connections we can draw and, though they may never be complete or definite, these are, in brief summary, the connections I prefer. I would be remiss not to credit this entire article to whose work I am indebted to— Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West”. Much of these ideas here were best explicated by him; I’ve condensed some of his parts and chapters to suffice my intention here. To make a brief case for the West by virtue of some of its key attributes.

We have long accepted the idea of a ‘separation between church and state’. Most times it seems like the phrase is commonly used to justify an argument for one social issue or another, reminding the ‘religious bigots’ that their views on liberty are oppressive to the general population and have no place in political discussion— as though the ‘state’ in that phrase is the only area politics is allowed to sieve through. Of course, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong that those who use the phrase in that childish capacity probably don’t know where it even comes from. Perhaps they believe it’s enshrined in the Constitution— that document that is only sometimes worth reciting, but other times condemned as discriminately evil, racist, and whitewashed. Or perhaps it comes from the mouth of Thomas Jefferson, that slave-owning bigot that did nothing for this nation but give us a phrase that we can use to justify our own cause as we see fit. In reality, it was neither.

“Separation of Church and State” was coined by Baptists who fought for religious tolerance in Virginia in 1786, whose official state religion was then Episcopalian. Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedoms consequently gave that religious freedom to many: Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Pagans. But the full history of this separation spans nearly 1800 years before that. The consequence of the idea that there is a separation between these two entities was the emergent possibility for the West’s prosperity that other civilizations otherwise did not possess. Consider this passage by Jonah Goldberg:

“Jesus said that his followers should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, establishing that there were, in fact, two realms, which Saint Augustine called the “City of Man” and the “City of God.” The City of Man was for temporal rulers, the City of God for ecclesiastical ones. When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Church remained in Rome as a religious authority. This established the principle that the Church would serve as the conscience for the realm. This really was a significant advance, creating one of the first and most important mental divisions of labor in the Western mind. Jesus’s admonition of separating the realm of faith and the realm of rulers was an imperfect arrangement, to be sure, but this distinction served as an important check on the arbitrary rule of kings by introducing the idea that even rulers were answerable to a higher law. This was in marked contrast with Chinese emperors and Islamic sultans. While Christians had to render unto Caesars, Muhammad played the role of both Caesar and Jesus, and the political system he left behind recognized no space between secular and religious authority. Without that space, institutional pluralism and the division of meaning are impossible.”

In the West, however, that pluralism and division of meaning was achieved. The argument can be easily made that America flourished because of it. This was no easy feat and religious tolerance has a history unto itself. In the context of the West, i.e. between Catholics and Protestants, the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was less theological and more a result of militaristic exhaustion. But whatever the case, without this pluralism and tolerance, it’s hard to say whether capitalism (or any economic prosperity to this extent) would have been ripe to emerge. The system required a lot more than economic organization and concept to have come into existence. Language and acceptance was a prerequisite to its success. So, before capitalism could develop, the language that was hostile to it needed to collapse. Deirdre McCloskey in “Creative Destruction vs. The New Industrial State”, wrote “The economy is nothing without the words supporting it.”

As mentioned above, even Jesus separated the pursuit of God from the pursuit of riches, claiming that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, saying this when he asked a man to give up his riches that he may follow him. The Catholic Church had also followed suit. According to Joseph Schumpeter, it wasn’t until around the seventeenth century that this hostility collapsed. Economic and spiritual ethics of Protestantism are one major example of the break in the common anti-money rhetoric.

Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” contrasts Catholics and Protestants, arguing that the ethics of the latter, insofar as they believed wealth to be a sign of virtue and favor from God, diverged from their Catholic farmer counterparts that were less inclined to pursue riches. Of course, this is a simplification, but the break from the Catholic Church signified an important shift in the Western landscape. England’s religious history can’t be overstated here. After all, it was a series of religious struggles that eventually led to a constitutional monarchy.

In fact, England plays a special role, not only in the birth of capitalism, but also, according to Oxford University medieval historian James Campbell, constitutional liberty seems to have important beginnings there. Firstly, contrary to the rest of Western Europe, which abided by the deductive Roman law, England was home to Common law, where people were not subjected to codifications that determined the outcome of their case; rather, judgments were made empirically and on precedence, not by arbiters of the state. Private property had roots in common law as well, so that feudalism in England, unlike in its neighboring European countries, wasn’t tied to kinship. Rather than leave land to their children, landowners were more likely to sell or leave their land to strangers. “Marx and Engels claim in The Communist Manifesto that capitalism ‘has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.’ But as Francis Fukuyama observes, that was demonstrably untrue in England. Centuries before Marx’s hated bourgeoisie, the English were treating “family” land as just another commodity” (Goldberg).

Ironically, hereditary caste was also weak in England. The effects of Magna Carta and The Glorious Revolution served as two reminders and checks on the monarch’s power, the former which subjected rulers and government to be held responsible under the same law as the common man, and the latter which formally staged England as a constitutional monarchy.

This could easily turn into a history of England and her role in birthing modernity, capitalism, limited government, and eventually America herself. It should be somewhat clear at this point of England’s exceptionalism when we talk about the factors that led to Western prosperity. But again, there was no one cause.

So far, it’s sensible why economic advances were coupled with religious tolerance and political shifts that allowed for liberties that, prior to the seventeenth century, had yet to emerge. The separation of church and state, with its long hostility to capital and money established the language that both discouraged the pursuit of money, but also set the stage for government limitation. Perhaps it is this limitation that allowed for capitalism to emerge; or the Protestant ethic that Weber illustrates; or the exceptionalism of England, whose history of Common law reinforced that idea of constitutional liberty.

While this isn’t a defense of capitalism, it’s importance in Western prosperity, as it affects not only the economic, but technological and social, can’t be overstated. Often, there are arguments being made on its moral deficiencies, and those are equally as valid. Capitalism’s affect on the social realm should not be lost on anyone insofar as we can be concerned with sexual objectification, industrial alienation, and outsourcing and exploitation, just to name a few. The issue with studying these topics is that they are way too often regarded as symptomatic of capitalism which only confabulates a causal relation between capitalism and the current state of affairs.

Slavery, imperialism, and exploitation are academically, and therefore bearing the stain of leftist dogma, attributed to the creation and sustenance of capitalism, but this is simply unfounded. “If capitalism is dependent on the sort of mass-scale exploitation implicit in slavery and imperialism, why did capitalism take so long to materialize? The ancient Chinese, Persians, Romans, and Aztecs all had empires and slaves, yet none were capitalist.” None of these are indicative or unique of capitalism or Western society, but were part of human societies for many thousands of years. It therefore stands to reason that any original and critical analysis of Western Civilization worth its salt would decentralize the West as the harbinger of these things.

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