What Is the “West”?

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

In the aftermath of September 11, the term civilized nations suddenly began to be widely used. Of course, even before that date everyone knew that England and France were civilized and that Syria and Rwanda were not. But it was not polite to raise the difference, much less to dwell on it. The character of the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon killed all that, clarifying thought. Multiculturalism died an overdue death on September 11. Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban rendered it untenable. I thought of the title of a major work by Jean-Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness. Yes, an encounter with Nothingness can sharpen the edges of Being. On September 11, we experienced pure negation and as a consequence, I think, a renewed vibration of Being.

In my recent book, Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education, I tried to find a formulation that would reach deeply into the unique essence of the Western mind, explaining, at least in part, the astounding success and transforming energy that have made the West supreme among the various powers of the earth. The Declaration of Independence asked only for American political equality among those powers; for example, that it be agreed that there was no natural right for Americans to be governed from abroad. The American Revolution established that principle. Economic and military equality was established late in the nineteenth century and has been vastly exceeded. But with America preeminent, the West as a whole remains immensely stronger than any combination of powers that could be raised against it.

To a considerable degree, however, I undertook Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe in response to the perception that our general culture has—our people have—little notion of where we came from or who we are and why. So many of us are sleepwalking through time. And further, that the academy, once a repository of civilizational knowledge, has largely abandoned that function—or, worse, is busily negating it.

Martin Heidegger called the condition I am describing an "emptying of Being"—a draining away of seriousness, intensity, gravity, self-definition. A throwaway, disposable culture encourages a flickering, twilight life.

But though tens of millions are surrounded by this environment, and hardly know anything better, even they, if encouraged to reflect on it, can come to realize that the symbols with which Western culture declares itself are spectacularly different from the symbols offered by other cultures and civilizations. If we think, for example, of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, Salisbury Cathedral, the cyclotron, or those white churches of New England with their needlelike steeples pointing toward eternity—we know immediately that they reflect something very different from what lies behind the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City.

The West is dynamic, exciting. China is static, only now struggling to shake off centuries of suffocating stasis.

The eminent Yale sinologist Jonathan Spence observed recently that the life of a rural Chinese was no different in 1900 from that of a rural Chinese a thousand years before. That is why Tennyson wrote, "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle [millennium] of Cathay." But there is a lesion of Being in the West because there is a draining away of memory.

Reflect upon yourself as a human individual living concretely and irreversibly in time. Suppose there began to be subtracted from your consciousness all memory, all the experiences of childhood and after, all the stories you have read or been told. You would not know who you are. You would be dumbfounded, alone in the cosmos. This would be a catastrophic lesion of Being. A civilization can begin to have an experience analogous to that, as it sinks into forgetfulness. I began Smiling through the CulturalCatastrophe with three epigraphs, whose pertinence to what follows will be immediately recognized.

A people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.

—Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man.

—Christopher Dawson

To lose what is not a waste land is the very condition of being in a waste land.

—Lyndall Gordon (on T. S. Eliot)

Our individual memories consist of multiple experiences, impressions, and countless stories. I think it was in kindergarten that I became aware of history and heroism through a child’s jingle: "In the year fourteen hundred and ninety-two, / Columbus crossed the the ocean blue." At about the same time I became aware of loss and sorrow: "Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, / And no one knows where to find them." That distantly began to tune my sensibility for sunt lachrimae rerum (there are tears at the heart of all human existence).

But we also have attempts at stories of vast reach that attempt to pull it all together. Gibbon tried to account for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in an attempt to warn the British Empire against a similar fate. Leopold von Ranke sought to capture the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" (as in itself it actually was), a heroic project. The great Thomas Babington Macaulay, one of our greatest storytellers, saw the meaning of history as embodied in England’s journey toward Protestantism, parliamentary democracy, and material progress. There is historical and analytical truth in all of these accounts and in many others.

If I could hear one series of lectures, and only one, it would be those on history at the University of Berlin delivered by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His book Lectures on the Philosophy of History no doubt fails to convey his life-changing charisma. It was produced from student lecture notes, which were looked over and corrected by the master. But the notes are not his lectures as they were experienced.

Hegel taught that the idea of history is the actualization of freedom in the historical process. He traced this from the evidence of prehistoric tribes through the great archaic empires, through Athens and Rome, the Renaissance, and down to the modern state. He thought that it was in the nature of the human mind to proliferate options, hence the transformations toward freedom.

He thought that the nation-states of the Europe he knew were the highest actualization of freedom, so far. When he saw Napoleon and his army marching through Berlin toward the battle of Jena, he thought that Napoleon carried the French Enlightenment in his saddle bags and was carrying it eastward. Hegel may have been right. If Napoleon had indeed brought the Enlightenment to the darkness of the Russian steppes, who knows how history might have been changed for the better.

Hegel nowadays receives bad grades from some because of his high valuation of the nation-state. But there is much truth in his teaching. Observe what happens when the state is weak, or almost nonexistent, as in Africa and the Middle East. This results in Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all. Life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

Against the actuality of the state and its merits, bien pensants prefer international parliaments of man, Leagues of Nations, United Nations, without pausing to notice how vaporous such efforts so far have been.

But Hegel is so persuaded of the inevitability of freedom that his teaching, in my opinion, lacks not only a recognition of struggle, chance, courage, and combat but also a sense of the radical tensions that underlie the emergence of freedom in the actual civilization of the West.

So after considerable meditation and study I chose as master narrative the one that was there very early, way back beyond Hegel, indeed from the earliest Christian centuries. And this master narrative in my judgment "covers the facts," or almost all of them.

The master narrative that seems to me to "cover the facts" has been called "Athens and Jerusalem." Those proper nouns stand for Greek philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the spiritual aspiration of Jerusalem.

"Athens" stands for the view that truth is discovered through theintellect.

"Jerusalem" stands for the view that truth is delivered through the insights of recognized genius.

"Athens" stands for cognition, philosophy, and science.

"Jerusalem" stands for the spiritual aspiration to holiness, or purity of soul.

So far as I know, the first major figure to use the expression "Athens and Jerusalem" as I use it here was Tertullian (160?–230 a.d.?), a church father who demanded to know "What is Athens to Jerusalem?" He wanted to exclude Greek philosophy from the Christian perspective. He was opposed by Clement of Alexandria (150–220 a.d.) and Origen (185?–234 a.d.), who argued that Greek philosophy was neutral or damaging, depending on how it was used. It could be a valuable tool. After all, nature was part of the creation. Within the church Clement and Origen won, and Tertullian lost. One consequence was that philosophy and science were institutionalized in Western universities. Thus Aquinas taught that grace completes but does not contradict nature. Athens and Jerusalem became recognized components of the Western mind from the earliest days.

Of course I was reminded of the "Athens" and "Jerusalem" dialectic in important works by Matthew Arnold, Nietzsche, and Leo Strauss but most recently by a pregnant observation Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia made in his excellent book Hamlet: "The conflict between the classical and the Christian has been central to Western civiliation, and has produced the basis for both its proudest and most deeply problematical moments."

In Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe, I argue that Athens and Jerusalem remain at the core of Western Being—not Confucius, not Buddha, certainly not Mohammed. In the first part of my book I examine the foundations of Athens and Jerusalem. I begin with the Iliad and the story of Moses, two great bronze age epics of, respectively, Athens and Jerusalem. I then describe how Socrates and Jesus purified and typified the tendencies of Athens and Jerusalem, going on to consider the synthesis undertaken by Saint Paul, a rabbi (Jerusalem) who spoke Greek and was well-versed in Greek culture (Athens). In the second part of my book I examine the way the tension between Athens and Jerusalem animates the entire Western literary and intellectual tradition, discussing, among other exemplars of the Western tradition, Dante, Shakespeare, Moliere, Voltaire, Dostoeyevski, and the American, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby.

Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe represents a primer, an introductory course in Western civilization itself. But I also intend the book as an argument, an assertion that it is the tension between Athens and Jerusalem that generates the peculiar and powerful energy of the West. There is tension between the goal of knowing through intellect and the goal of spiritual aspiration to holiness. They are not incompatible, but they are not altogether compatible either. Off at the edge, do we place our final bet on intellect or on inspired insight that has been confirmed by experience? Both have claims. There are immensely powerful intensities behind who we actually are. And they are unique in human history.

I hope that there are 10,000 assistant professors out there in, as F. Scott Fitzgerald called it, "the dark fields of the republic," who are tired of Victim Studies, Film Studies, Cultural Studies, and other trivial ways of wasting money and time and not only wasting time but actively destroying memory.

If they read and heed my book, we can all smile through the cultural catastrophe.