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My civilisation is better than yours

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

Am I the only one who finds the Ramsay Western civilisation controversy unedifying? As I read the warring op-eds I am reminded of those heated, yet futile, undergraduate arguments which Monty Python and others satirised so well.

Picture John Cleese and Michael Palin on a stage. Cleese says in his best Basil Fawlty voice, ‘my civilisation is better than yours’. Palin replies, ‘no, my civilisation is superior’. They go back and forth like this for some minutes. After a while Cleese looks at his watch and says, ‘thank you Michael, I have a class to teach’. Palin replies, ‘Oh yes, I do too’.  ‘Same time next week?’, Palin suggests before both academics leave the room.

Yes, this is an exaggeration but not a ridiculous one. The dispute, or at least much of it, has had this flavour. The arguments have tended to take place at two levels.

We’ve seen a rerun of the ‘what’s the West done for me lately’ debate. Protagonists fall into the expected camps: the black-armband brigade, which appears to be the dominant one in many of our institutions, naturally emphasise the negatives. They put the West, whatever this means, under the microscope and find it wanting. Yes, there have been achievements, but these are outweighed by so much exploitation, racism and despoliation of the environment. (An oddity is why these people do not apply the same microscope to other cultures).

But on the other side there are the cheerleaders.  For them, the West’s story is one of unrelieved triumph. They fill their columns with a check-list of cultural, scientific and economic achievements and downplay or ignore the darker parts of this story. Fascism and Communism are passed over in silence, for example.  Plato’s Republic, arguably a blueprint for totalitarianism, is not mentioned. These are all part of our heritage.

I am firmly in the pro-West camp.  But tub-thumping triumphalism in defence of the West strikes me as unpersuasive. Is this how Socrates, the Stoics and Edmund Burke would have made their case if given the chance? Barracking plays well with some but does it persuade anyone else? Does it win the argument in the minds of the jury: the large body of people who like to weigh arguments, to give both sides a fair hearing?

If subjecting civilisations to report card treatment is not helpful, the second kind of contribution we are seeing is no better.

This can be summed up as the ‘what is the West’ debate. While superficially more sophisticated, this argument does not lead anywhere. The typical contribution here will be from an academic who explains that there is no Western civilisation as such. They argue that if you look closely, cultural, scientific and even economic boundaries mean very little. Is Christianity a Western or Eastern religion? Didn’t Islam have its Enlightenment while the West was mired in the Dark Ages? And what about the rich Chinese philosophical tradition? Each civilisation has left its mark on others, they conclude, just as each is at least partly the product of others.

This line of argument does not get us anywhere. While civilisational boundaries are by definition arbitrary they do have meaning. When we say there is no such thing as Western civilisation something important is lost. Relativism, taken too far, is a recipe for nihilism. In our hearts and minds, the idea of the West means something. This is true whether we love or hate it. This is no illusion.

So where does this leave us?  I would suggest that the key question is not what we study but rather how we go about it.  When we look at our history, ethics, politics and aesthetics, what is our point of departure? What is at the very centre of our thought? For the best thinkers in the Western tradition, it is the individual. The thinking, feeling, self-aware, free, responsible and utterly unique man or woman.  The man or woman made in the image of God (if you are religious) and therefore possessed of a dignity, profundity and yes, mystery, which cannot ever be completely penetrated. Man as an end in himself.  Man as the touchstone for all our thinking about society. This perspective runs through Western thought but has fallen out of favour at various times. It is also found in non-Western traditions.

I would contrast this with the reductionist approach. The idea that man is no more than the sum of his parts: an aggregation of organs held together by so much bodily scaffolding. An entity which responds, Pavlov like, to given external stimuli (or unconscious biases). Man as a one-dimensional, entirely determined by-product of their class, race, ethnicity or gender. This reductionist view is also part of the Western tradition. In some of its manifestations, it reflects an over-reach of the natural sciences: the idea that we can understand man by dissecting him, by pulling him apart to see how he works. In other respects it is an over-reach of the social sciences: a legacy of Marxian and other points of view which put the collective, the group, in place of the individual.

Each perspective, once adopted, leads in starkly different directions. Individualist thinkers privilege freedom and autonomy. Reductionists lean toward determinism. Both are concerned with order, but for reductionists this must be imposed from above whereas individualists recognise spontaneous, voluntary bonds (political, economic and family). Individualism, in both its religious and humanist variants, teaches us humility. No man, or group of men, can attain perfect knowledge. No man, or group of men, can possess a monopoly of wisdom.   Given this, discussion and debate, and even scepticism and challenge, are to be encouraged not condemned. Reductionism, in contrast, tends to discount what the untrained man or woman can know.

When I was at university, admittedly some time ago, the reductionist perspective dominated. That appears still to be the case today. It is sustained by an alliance of sorts between naive natural scientists and arts faculty academics. Both groups are hostile to methodological individualism, which is seen as antiquated and inconsistent with modern scholarship. A ‘great books’ degree, which by definition challenges the fads and preoccupations of modern teaching, is anathema to them.

No wonder the seemingly harmless Ramsey proposal has triggered such a hostile reaction. Some would argue that this is a noble defence of academic freedom.  To me, it looks more like an establishment protecting its patch. After all, students might be tempted by a fresh take on Western civilisation. They may find Shakespeare’s Hamlet more interesting than Karl Marx’s one-dimensional stereotypes.

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