Sunday, April 09, 2006

The West Is The Best:
The Grecaian-Judeo-Christian Tradition

An excellent article from Wafa Sultan appears at the website Annaqed today. Here's an excerpt:

In reacting to the Islamists’ ongoing cartoon Jihad, most commentators have focused on the issue of free speech. This is natural, and necessary, since eradication of free speech is the most immediate risk; and certainly without free speech there can be no defending other values.

Nevertheless it is also vital to take a step back and to view the events as part of a larger pattern, a pattern which poses a grave threat to our core Western values and system of government –- and to their primary consequence and beneficiary: the free individual.

To see why, and to appreciate what we stand to lose, we must begin by understanding what is meant by “Western”. Let us be clear that “Western” refers to a set of ideas -- it is not a racial or ethnic epithet. Anyone can embrace the ideas, just as anyone can reject them, regardless of his race, country of birth, or upbringing. Thus we can speak of Japan and Hong Kong having adopted “Western” principles as accurately as we can speak of Canada having done so.

In the broadest and most essentialized sense, the term “Western” denotes a set of fundamental ideas first discovered and adopted by the ancient Greeks. It was they who, for the first time in history, challenged the age-old notion that only the life of a society’s rulers and/or priests was important -- to instead assert that every man’s life is of crucial value.

It was they who turned their focus from an obsession with death and the after-life -- to instead seek success and joy in this life. It was they who dispensed with all-encompassing superstition and from cowering before the supernatural –- to instead assert that the world was knowable, that no question was off-limits, and that the questioning mind was among the most revered of attributes.

Finally, and as a consequence of all the others, it was they who cast away the resignation of living as unhappy subjects in an unknowable world -- to instead realize that with freedom to live, happiness on earth was possible for every man.

These groundbreaking ideas led to an unheralded flourishing of man and an outpouring of man’s achievements, both spiritual and material. Few, if any, periods in history can rival the developments and accomplishments made by the ancient Greeks in arts, science, mathematics, humanities, medicine, athletics and general living conditions.

And it is for this reason that “Western” ideas and values are rightfully described as life-affirming: for they lead to man’s freedom to pursue success and happiness in this life.

Historically, the transmission and implementation of Western ideas, the so-called Western tradition, was rocky and uneven at best, and its biggest opponent was always authority and dogmatic faith. In fact, during the Dark Ages, Western tradition was nearly extinguished by Christianity, whose irrational doctrines rejected the importance of the individual’s happiness on earth and of the existence of a knowable world; to instead preach abject self-denial in this world and salvation in a mystical after-life.

Not until men reacquainted themselves with ancient Greek ideas did they find themselves back on the “Western” track; and only then did they turn away from blind faith, question and reject the Church and its authority, and eventually produce the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and modern Western society.

Concomitant with the emergence and development of Western ideas came man’s political desire to form societies which would allow him to achieve the promise of these ideas: individual joy and happiness on earth. Defining and building such societies was an arduous task, one much more difficult than it might seem in hindsight, but by fits and starts, Westerners rose to the challenge.

And thus, was born, America. The country that has at the center of its ethos that the Pursuit of Happiness is a God-given right dispensed to all men equally.

Go read the rest of Wafa's article. It's a doozy. As Fjordman said the other day in his excellent article on the decline of the West, our best apologists these days are immigrants (Wafa Sultan, Hirsi Ali, Iba Warraq, Dr. John Sentamu, etc.) who see the great opportunities here and have set out to explain to us why our values and traditions are so important to the world.

Now, Wafa is right in saying that the West learned Democracy from the Greecian tradition. But, the truth is, we have picked and choosed from the Greeks, and we have done so with the mind of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One of the most important things about the new Western Tradition, as developed by Europe, and America, is its separation of church and state. Holding this as a sacred political principle has allowed the public to choose its own beliefs, which means that religious doctrines must thrive in the marketplace of ideas. Overall, this is a good thing, because it serves for the advancement of the cause of Freedom in the lives of individuals, but also because, ultimately, it means that the relationship of individual humans to their God, necessarily will become more direct and personal.

Why is this a good thing? What does this mean to those who, in their Freedom, choose no religion?

Well, what it means is that centralized religious authorities have less power to argue for radical ideas, and less ability to gain political power, in order to implement those radical ideas.

Here is an excerpt from George Weigel writing on the subject of

Anglo-Americans are often taught that the roots of modern democracy can be found in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which secured parliamentary supremacy against toyal absolutism in what would become Great Britain. Continental Europe often imagines Democracy begining in 1789, with the French Revolution. The remarkable civilizational story told by Christopher Dawson and Peter Brown suggests, however, that these readings are myopic, nearsighted.

For the way that the Christian civilization of the Middle settled certain struggles between the Catholic Church and the public authorities of the day taught "Europe" lessons that would later be applied to the defense of what we call "human rights" and the democratic project.

Additionally, I think that the very fact that the Kings and Queens of Europe were not the final end of government but that, instead, even the King had to answer to a higher authority, must have helped give birth to the idea that monarchy, nor any government, is not the ultimate authority.

George Weigel cites the investiture controversy wherein Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) was argued with King Henry IV as to who had the power to nominate Bishops:

It was a theological and legal argument fraught with historic consequences. The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, knelt in the snow at Canossa, doing penance before Gregory VII; Henry later drove Gregory out of Rome and into exile in Salerno, where he died; the controversy continued. But, when the political and ecclesiastical dust settled, European civilization had learned some things from the struggle between pope and emperor - or, between church and state.

Maybe, we should move on to Thomas Aquinas next. Not today, though. Not enough time.