Strap-in, folks – this is a rather longer post than usual…
I figured that if I’m going to write about maintaining and preserving Western Civilization, broadly defined, I ought to have a little more to go on than my (pitifully limited, curse my illiberal education!) innate knowledge of the subject. And so I picked-up The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization in the hopes I would gain some insights that are, let’s just say, not exactly compatible with those of people who believe that Western Civilization is a blight on humanity that needs to be eliminated – you know, like the faculty of Harvard, and whatnot.
The author, a Princeton grad by way of UNC, an unapologetic conservative Catholic, is formerly a tenured professor at Providence College who grew very dissatisfied with the ever-increasing leftist bent of the school and left (again, a tenured position), though under some duress. Dr. Esolen, currently teaching at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts and a senior editor of Touchstone, is not a fan of “diversity”, claiming that, as it’s practiced today, “diversity” is “governed entirely by a monotonous and predictable list of current political concerns.” He and I are likely to not see eye-to-eye on everything, but on this we are utterly and perfectly compatible. The book was utterly crucified by typical leftists at GoodReads which is hardly disqualifying, but does caution as to the almost-certain slant of the content.
The work begins, unsurprisingly, with a background into the ground-breaking civilization of ancient Greece, credited with the birthplace of philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge in general. The critiques of the Greeks fall mainly around their (somewhat) loose sexual practices (for example, while homosexuality was considered sinful and unmanly, pederasty was more-or-less widely practiced). For Greek society as well the State is given a prominent role, though not nearly as much a role as in modern times. The Greek archipelago allowed a great deal of autonomy to the city-states within their empire, which all (more-or-less) co-existed with a live-and-let-live attitude. Greece is rightly identified as the birthplace of western civilization, and it is impossible to overestimate how much impact this culture has had on the West through the centuries, even to lesser extent, today. We are not better off for the distance we have put between us and this culture.
Moving across the Ionian and Adriatic Seas from Greece to Rome we see a very different model of governance being employed. In Rome, the family is considered sacred and central to society and, in particular, the father is given the role of patriarch. Rome was a thus patriarchal society, and a highly successful one at that, lasting more than a 1500-years in some form or another. Roman society, through the strong family influence, placed a tremendous value on tradition and was highly skeptical of innovation of any sort, which was reflected in their governmental structures, designed as if to make gridlock the order of the day. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the Romans innovated in the arts and sciences in a way that moderns cannot rival even with our advanced technologies. Though patriarchal, Roman society offered rights and privileges to women that was rivaled nowhere else in the world at the time save, perhaps, the Hebrew culture in Israel (which is discussed next). If men ran society, women ran the homes, and again, homes were holy for Rome. The Roman republic and early empire thrived on a conservative social structure and politics that revered wisdom over rashness, age over youth, and saw the beauty in the ordinary rather than the extraordinary; this was a substantial innovation from Greek culture and is credited (correctly, I believe) with giving Rome it’s longevity.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and as the empire grew (and grew rich beyond reason for the time) people lost touch with the old, successful ways and began to “innovate” – and they eventually “innovated” themselves into being regularly sacked and, finally in the west during the 5th century of the so-called “common era”, overrun for the last time by the Visigoths, “barbarian” tribes from modern-day Germany who were, by then, far more Roman than were the Romans themselves. The Eastern empire would survive for some centuries longer, but the fall of Rome was certainly a turning-point in the arc of western civilization, one that in many ways we are still recovering from.
Interesting thought about Israel, in that it is in almost all worldly measures an utterly unremarkable nation. But for something truly unique about Israel we would probably pay it no more consideration that most westerners give to, say, Oman or Yemen – other otherwise unremarkable Semitic nations. But the one thing that makes Israel truly different is that Hashem of the Hebrews was a sole deity that transcended nature and all that is seen, and that concept was not only truly unique in the world at the time but remains largely so to this day. Israel thus changed the course of world history and had a more profound influence on Western Civilization than any other single nation on the planet.
The early church (with an emphasis on the word early) is credited with spreading several very key cultural innovations not only throughout Europe but the world as a whole, and these are certainly politically incorrect, though compelling, examples (elevating the status of women, spread of charity, monastic life building local communities, etc.). Esolen provides a unique and important perspective on many of these activities, particularly the missionary work which is seen as largely “imperialistic” among the PC set these days. The overall view presented of the early church is indeed very different from that forwarded by most in our “enlightened” modern age, and in these contexts it seems utterly ludicrous to be judging 2nd through 5th century organizations by the ever-evolving standards of 21st century “wokeness”.
Acknowledging that the early Medieval period (typically defined as 400-1000 CE) was rather brutal and harsh, the aftermath of the collapse of relative peace, prosperity and security of the Roman Empire, coupled with a period of global cooling that caused several (and often multi-year long) periods of crop failures, Esolen presents a picture of the High Middle Ages that is in stark contrast to that most people are taught. The High Middle Ages are presented not as a period of brutal oppression, principally sanctioned if not directed by the Church, but rather as a period of rebirth, rediscovery, and reapplication of many of the principles that were abandoned after the collapse of Rome. Here, monastic life is shown to develop communities whereby people could gather to escape solitary, subsistence living. The rise of trade and craft guilds happened during this period, and some of the most fantastic structures created since the high-point of Rome began to arise, the gothic Cathedrals that became the center of town life. These were the bright spots of the age – the cities were cramped and dirty and the far country was too sparsely populated to be effective communities.
The Renaissance (also at times referred to as the Late Middle Ages) could never have happened, or at minimum not at all how and when it happened, without the developments of the often-called “Dark Ages” period of the High Middle Ages (1000-1450 CE). The Renaissance (generally, 1450-1575 or so) itself is also starkly portrayed in contrast to what is generally “known” about it, as a time of brutal infighting, corruption in the Church (so much for the criticism that the author is writing an apologia) and a precursor to the period that Esolen reserves his most harsh criticism for to this point – the Enlightenment.
Beginning with perhaps the most famous definition of “Enlightenment” from Kant (first paragraph in the linked article), Esolen takes a sledgehammer and blowtorch to the uniformly positive and idyllic vision most have of the Enlightenment period. Man has a drive, it seems, to worship Something that is etched into our consciousness from birth. But if Something is not available, because we must (as Kant demands) “cast off the bonds of our self-imposed tutelage”, then man is going to worship… something – and often as not, as the Enlightenment progressed, that “something” became Hobbes’ Leviathan, The State. For Esolen therefore, the Enlightenment, far from “freeing us of our bonds”, is instead the start of our descent into the slavery of State Worship; a period that, clearly, is far from over in the late-Summer of 2020.
The chapter on the Enlightenment is an absolute stem-winder on many levels, which includes a somewhat detailed (as detailed as can be expected) and compelling account of the development of the American system, from the Pilgrims to the Revolution. The chapter concludes with an introduction to some powerful thinkers who tried (unsuccessfully, it seem) to “Save Reason From Itself” – among them are Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Johnson. Esolen’s summary quoting Burke (p. 238 in my copy) is worth placing here in total…
Burke’s Reflections is a bracing guide to every foolish exaggeration of the Enlightenment, now taken-up and enshrined as holy law in our social sciences, that counts voters and tabulates incomes but cannot understand the heart of man: “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place.” It banishes the affections but not the appetite, as we now know. We moderns do not often love our country, but we do want a lot from it, in tens and twenties. The country requires the same favor from our hands, in twenties and fifties.P. 238
This history of the nineteenth century is presented as one of blistering technological progress (truly, it’s rivaled only by the first-half of the 20th for the most dizzying pace of technological progress in human history), but one in which the seeds were sewn for the bloodiest century we’ve (yet?) seen (the aforementioned 20th). Philosophy descends into Romanticism as the industrial revolution starts to roar, before further devolving into fascism and Marxism at the end of the century. In many ways, the Romantic Age continued the “progress” of the Enlightenment era most Romantics (especially early in the century) were highly critical of – particularly in the nearly-outright rejection of objective truth, moral absolutes, agreed and cultural values, and especially tradition. Romanticism is also generally associated with the belief in the Perfectibility of Man, starkly in contrast with the conservative and traditionalist views associated with the previously accepted fallen nature of Man. Thus, Man becomes the central focus of all and the State, charged with developing Man into “perfection”, supplants the role of Deity. There were notable critiques of the Romantics, mostly coming from the newly-emergent Left (Marx, etc.), who objected to the rise of nationalist tendencies inspired by, among others, Rousseau.
While the Industrial Revolution certainly ushered-in the marvelous technological progress we enjoy today, with its subsequent benefits (in many cases, though not uniformly and certainly not at first) to our physical persons, Esolen posits that this has come at the loss of our Soul as well as all of the emotional, intangible parts of our being. “Progress” as an end unto itself, ignoring for a moment whether there are some areas that we ought not dare to “progress” into, ignoring history, tradition, faith, community, etc. was always more likely to lead down a dark road than the “golden age” promoted by its apologists. When one stops asking the question “ought we to do this?” in lieu of only asking “can we do this?” then it is a virtual certainty that humanity will eventually be brought to the level of machine. Marx and others would exploit this by (as did many advocates of “free markets” in direct opposition to Marx) reducing Man to “economic man” and seeing all the world as a struggle between the classes. That it was a spectacular misreading of history, particularly western history, did not preclude Marx’s philosophy from being adopted on perhaps a wider scale than even he imagined possible – to utterly tragic consequences during the 20th Century and beyond. Man, divorced from his civilization, his heritage, his traditions, and his community is, it turns out, capable of a great many things – not all of them in any way good, beautiful, or truthful.
Factor-in the widespread adoption of some form of liberal democracy and the weak societies they create, with these weak societies bowing to the State in lieu of Deity, and you have a powder-keg with a lit fuse. The appeal to the lowest common denominator is always a dangerous path for civilization, and we were primed to head down this road at faster speeds than ever before possible thanks to all of this technological progress.
The treatment of the “modern” era is precisely what you would expect at this point – a quite harsh at times indictment of a stupid, lazy, self-absorbed “culture” that has forgotten who it is and has lost any connection to its past glory, intentionally. While calling-out specific examples of individuals whose work certainly pushed us along the way (Hefner, Kinsey, Sanger, etc.) and calls-out several specific events that mark turning-points in our ongoing decline (Women’s Suffrage, The Pill, etc.), the principal indictments are reserved for the ideologies who (successfully) destroyed the family and replaced Church with State. The pursuit of the good, beautiful, and true is deemed to be “racist” or “sexist” and instead anything found to be consistent with the (ever-evolving) “standards” of supporting the current cultural zeitgeist is to be lauded and praised. Tradition is similarly found to be “classist” or “cis-gendered” and must be eliminated. And with a government-monopoly on primary and secondary “education”, which becomes progressively more boring, rote, and made-up as they go (an education based upon the Classics long-ago jettisoned in favor of something more “in tune with the times”) several generations of people so programmed now don’t even seem to be interested in understanding where they came from, what is their heritage, and why it matters.
Though ending on a hopeful note, I do not share the author’s optimism that Western Civilization will undergo a rebirth in the West. Indeed, it may be reborn elsewhere, and true there are plenty of nationalists beginning to awake from a long soma-induced slumber to realize that something is terribly, horribly wrong (and even correctly identifying the problems). But it is perhaps my somewhat pessimistic nature that leads me to conclude that we are, perhaps, too far down the road to hell.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization is a great primer for anyone looking to get a high-level view of this fascinating and globally-unique 2500-year history.