Sunday 19 December 2010

Should Western Civilization be saved? (even if it could be saved)


It is purportedly the baseline belief of the Secular Right that the major goal of conservative or reactionary politics should be to 'save' Western Civilization.

Yet this is not a coherent belief, nor is it possible, nor is it desirable.


Western Civilization is not a 'First Thing' as C.S. Lewis defined it; it is not a primary aim: it is a secondary outcome.

Western Civilization is not the kind of thing that can be 'saved', or defended, or anything else.

Whatever 'it' is (whatever 'Western Civilization' legitimately includes or excludes) nobody created Western Civilization on purpose - it is a by-product.

And, as Lewis said in his essay 'First and Second Things' (see link above) - if you do try to aim directly at attaining or defending a Second Thing as if it was a First Thing, then you will both fail to achieve and save it; and also end by actively destroying it.


The big problem is that it is precisely Western Civilization which created Communism, Socialism, Liberalism, and Political Correctness; 'modern art'; 'human rights'; pacifism - it is Western Civilization which is destroying itself.

The counter currents have always been there - at least since the Great Schism of a millennium since - and the counter-current has now overwhelmed the main current.


The self-destroying aspects of the West have always been there, and they permeate or are woven-into the whole.

Western Civilization has always been changing -  not merely superficially, but deeply. It has never been stable - not even for two generations in a row.

The West is continually becoming more abstract, more specialized, less Christian. 

There is no evidence that The West ever could be stable - and everything suggests the opposite.


Furthermore, all of those abstract attributes which the Secular Right wants to preserve in Western Civilization are complicit in the decline: freedom of choice/selfishness; democracy/ mob rule; freedom of consciousness/ secularism; philosophy-science/ rational bureaucracy; art/ subversion; freedom of lifestyle/ moral inversion; kindness/ cowardice; an open and accessible mass media/ the primacy of virtual reality ... the whole lot.


The West is perpetually in transition: it has no essence: it is evolutionary.

Those who set out their stall on defending 'Western Civilization' are therefore either defending a process (markets, democracy, 'the Open Society'), and an evolutionary process which might lead anywhere, including to self-destruction of Western Civilization (as, in my opinion, it already has)....

Or else they are really defending some other bottom line entity that is not Western Civilization and would quite likely dispense with Western Civilization at some point in the future: e.g. a nation or group of nations, a race, a ruling lineage (e.g. of monarchs, or castes)... the preservation of which might well necessitate at some point dispensing with what are currently 'Western values'.

In other words, if you favour a process (like democracy, sexual freedom) you must be prepared to sacrifice an entity (like a nation or a race): if you favour an entity you must be prepared to dispense with processes.

So, I am saying that it is strictly nonsense - and destructive nonsense - to claim to be defending Western Civilization.


People can only get away with this absurd claim to be defending Western Civilization (get away with it in their own minds, as much as the public arena) because Western Civilization is so obviously collapsing so fast; and because this process is being accelerated by an evil, blind and insane politically correct elite who apparently must be opposed - somehow - although with little chance of short-term success. 

But the Secular Right is trying to keep its cake and to eat it: to retain the residual and declining bits of modernity, the counter-currents that it personally values (especially sexual freedom); but at the same time to dispense with what is now the (dominant) flow of modernity.


So, there is a pressing need for defence of the Western social system against imminent threats to survival, and to fight the present and future-looming succession of political crisis - each of opens Western nations to their enemies and any of which is sufficient to destroy it.

(Indeed, a major source of conflict on the reactionary right is which of the many lethal problems approaching the West will be the first actually to kill the West. There are so many dangers of such great dangerousness, that we don't really know which is the most pressingly dangerous!)

But deeper than this is the relentless and almost-wholly successful use of  distraction and indifference to deal with the existential realities of the human condition, the use of media technologies and virtual realities as an alternative to having meaning and purpose in life.

The Secular Right is, I am afraid, merely Saruman attempting to use Sauron's Ring to fight Sauron; all its tactics to defend what it regards good are simultaneously (but in other places) strengthening the forces of destruction.


There is enough to suggest that the Left is indeed the main line of a Western Civilization which is pre-programmed to self-destruction; while the Right is merely imposing temporary corrections which save the West in the short term but only at the cost of entrenching its long-term and underlying errors.

The West cannot be saved.

There is nothing to save; and anyway The West has self-destruction built-in, woven-in, pervasive.

How can you save something which so much wants to kill itself?

Take your eye off Western Civilization for just a moment and it will be swinging from the rafters with its own belt around its neck...



sykes.1 said...

The idea that Western Civilization is inherently unstable and self-destructive is the most interesting political idea I have met in my 67 year lifetime. Right now it seems plausible.

So what in your opinion might be a stable system?

Bruce Charlton said...

We will revert to what came before modernity: either pagan tribalism (probably small scale, sub-nation state), or monotheistic theocracy (mostly Islamic or Christian).

My preference and hope is for Byzantine-style Orthodox theocracy; but I am not optimistic that this will prevail (except for Russia, maybe).

Chuck said...

"Those who set out their stall on defending 'Western Civilization' are therefore either defending a process (markets, democracy, 'the Open Society'), and an evolutionary process which might lead anywhere, including to self-destruction of Western Civilization (as, in my opinion, it already has)...."

You're setting up a false alternative: the West as process or some traditional aspect of the West (i.e the West as something).

The idea is that the West is an organic system and organic systems are both process and things. Organic systems evolve, but they evolve in the sense of ontogeny (development) as opposed to phylogeny (change through selection).

Accordingly, the present evolutionary path is destructive not because it involves change per se -- change qua development is fine -- but because it involved a transmutation and a lose of continuity.

Think of it this way. Imagine you said: "I want to defend my life."

Now imagine I replied:

"What does that mean? By defending your life, either you mean you want to defend some form of your life, which is not your life, but a mere instance of it, or you mean you want to defend change, which makes no sense, because with change there is nothing to defend, just something to be open to.

Obviously, I want to defend some process which is marked by continuity. My opposition to my transmuting and ceasing to be, is not an opposition to development and evolving (in the classical sense of L. evolvere to unroll)

My being is defined by a changing while remaining the same. For this to happen there needs to be relative continuity. People who defend the West are defending some way or ways so to keep continuity.

Chuck said...

"The West is perpetually in transition: it has no essence: it is evolutionary."

You might be right that the West is built to self destruct, but this does not mean that all civilizations are or that the way of civilizations is self destruction.

An example of development would be the transition from the Greco-Roman West to the Christian-Roman West to the modern West. An example of transformation would be the Greco-Roman West to Byzantium to the Greater Middle East. With the former there is some sense of continuation, amidst change. This in not the case with the latter.

As for race and nations, some -- and to some extent I agree -- argue that cultural-genetic continuation is what allows for civilization to continue.

The Left's original opposition to 'racism' (i.e. the belief that race and culture were tied together) was in response to the conservative argument that racial-cultural preservation was necessary for the preservation of a civilization. Now that it's clear that 'assimilation' doesn't work, the Left has decided to redefine the West as "Open" and "Universal."

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for your comments.

However, I don't think your argument in the first comment works - do you? I think the metaphysical problem as stated is a version of the Greek philosophical argument which was (more or less) solved by Aristotle Aquinas (within philosophical terms) - but in a different way than this.

I suppose my answer would be that a real civilization must be the variable consequence of an unchanging essence. The Byzantine Empire was Christian, Orthodox, with a particular idea of how God was mediated by the Emperor; and how ritual in this world was a representation of a heavenly ideal. This essence was what survived so many centuries.

But most 'civilizations' have been rather arbitrarily delimited transitions. A civilization which does not reproduce itself (and, often, is unable to reproduce itself - is indeed trying to *change* itself - as is ours) is not really a civilization - it is not really an entity at all.

Re: your second comment - I think there are many things going on in relation to 'race' (variously conceptualized) - and there is such a rapid rate of change, so little agreement, so much dishonesty and rhetoric - that I find it hard to summarize.

What strikes me is the incoherence of Leftist politics since it became 'anti' instead of 'pro' - such that any attempt to base policy on 'anti-racism' will in reality be inverted-racist.

(Something similar applies to the previous leftist ideal of 'egalitarianism' - which was analyzed in terms of class. In practice this was merely an inverted, and nonsensical, inversion of the class system. Attempts to operationalize egalitarianism in terms of communist economics led merely to inefficient centralized bureaucracy or 'nationalization' as a supposedly ideal form of economics - an ideal which in fact nobody believed-in. Of course, centralized bureaucracy remains the dominant form of political leftism - but now with a moral/ cultural rather than an economic rationale.)

Then the denial that this is the case generates endemic dishonesty and concealment, and the communications systems of society - very rapidly - become utterly corrupted.

What fascinates me is how the ruling intellectual elite have gone along with, led or been swept along by such obvious nonsense (literally non-sense). I was one of those swept along, and this blog is mostly about trying to understand my former self.

My primary conclusion is that the only bulwark against the process is religious; and that in fact the process can only fully be understood religiously, theologically - not philosophically or scientifically.

The best understanding I have encountered comes from Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the work of Father Seraphim Rose.

Theodore Harvey said...

This post is very interesting to me as a monarchist, and I'm pretty sure I agree with it. Most defenders of "Western Civilization" are primarily defending (to varying degrees) the legacies of the American and French Revolutions. To a large extent that revolutionary legacy ("Freedom," "Republicanism," "Democracy," "Equality," "Progress," etc.) has become "Western Civilization" in the popular mind, for "conservatives" at least as much as for "liberals." So how much loyalty to present-day "Western Civ" can someone like me who rejects and condemns those revolutions and their ideology truly be said to have?

Theodore Harvey said...

Oh, and I'd like to add that while I'm culturally Western myself, I'd feel closer to a Hindu nationalist dedicated to restoring the monarchy in Nepal than to an American Christian who thinks kings are a useless anachronism.

Bruce Charlton said...


I would describe myself as a monarchist on the Byzantine model - that the monarch should be divinely chosen in the context of a devout Christian society. In this fallen world mistakes can be made in the succession, and when they are made they need to be rectified.

Although inevitably flawed, this 'system' (which is actually the opposite of a system!) worked well enough to keep the Byzantine Emire going for many hundreds of years, and maintained its devoutness at a remarkably high pitch.

Ken said...

"The Byzantine Empire was Christian, Orthodox, with a particular idea of how God was mediated by the Emperor [...] This essence was what survived so many centuries".

Hmmm, was the Church subordinate to the Byzantine Emperor from the beginning ? I've read that it was only as the result of the Emperors massive and revolutionary assertion of State authority over that of the Church (ie Byzantine Iconoclasm)that the Emperor achieved the status you assert is the essence of the Byzantine civilization. Previously the Church of the Byzantine Empire was rather similar to that of the Church in the West, (ie it became a rival center of authority).
The Roman State and Genetic Pacification

Rollory said...

"There is no evidence that The West ever could be stable - and everything suggests the opposite."

The West as a whole, maybe. Parts of it however were completely stable for a very long time. My grandmother tells me about how the peasants used to leave their tools in the fields, with absolutely no doubt that there could be any problem in doing so. That doesn't happen in an unstable situation. They stopped doing that, after 1945 - apparently nobody articulated exactly why, but everybody sensed it wasn't a good idea anymore.

Also, if by "Secular Right" you mean the likes of Instapundit or Hot Air, no argument. Instapundit is a classic example of a right-liberal. I don't think there's any evidence the farther-right people - the ones with ideas that give polite society the vapors - are trying to have cake and eat it too; there's a definite willingness to jettison all sorts of baggage while trying ot nail down exactly what the first principles are or should be.

As for the Byzantines, being a nationalist and a chauvinist I would just like to point out that they are hardly the only model; the line of French kings lasted with unbroken legitimacy for about the same total length of time as that of the emperors, and with rather more success - the empire was either stagnant or shrinking the entire time, but France was dynamic and alive. Even the Revolution didn't inevitably have to proceed and end the way it did.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ken - the specific details about the relationship between the Emperor and the Church are probably too complex for a comment.

But the Emperor was a very elevated layman - not a priest nor a god; he was the Vice-Gerent/ Vice-Regent of God, and intermediary between Christ and the world (representing each to the other), sometimes called the thirteenth Apostle.

He was not a priest and therefore had no direct authority in the Chruch, but appointed the Patriarch of Constantinople (I think also the other main Patriarchs), and could call ecumenical councils at which he would preside.

The Church could, however, act against the Emperor - could excommunicate him for example. The Patriarch who did this could then be replaced by the Emperor - but it had an effect nonetheless.

I don't know how exactly this would need to be copied to get similar results (the Russians explicity copied for several generations, before Peter the 'Great' destroyed it); but on the whole the arrangement kept the Church and State together without either swallowing-up the other.

Meanwhile in the West the conflict between international Pope and national King/ international Emperor was continual and destabilizing.

I also have a gut level preference for Byzantine society over Medieval Western society: the Byzantime was more devout, positive and joyful, as well as being extraordinarily tough.


Another factor in the Byzantine empire was the very important role of eunuchs in the state bureaucracy - I don't know whether they were vital, but they might have been, but if so this is a hard lesson to swallow!

Having a privileged eunuch class (who could not become the Emperor but could take any other office, including Patriarch and supreme general) seemed to yield - in *some* ways - the best of both worlds of an effective administration that did not expand cancerously as does ours in the West.

I guess that to have a long term and powerful bureaucracy there must be a high and irreversible price to pay for the privelege of joining it... somewhat like becoming a eunuch, but maybe not exactly that...


Bruce Charlton said...

@Rollory - most of this blog is meant to back up what sound like rather wild assertions! I have been on this trajectory myself, from libertarian right to religious right, and am trying to understand the steps.

The secular right want to maintain the basic thrust of modernity - which is for continual specialization of function and continual growth - as I wrote in this book a mere 8 years ago! - - in the book we argue from a pro-modernization, secular and libertarian perspective.

My understanding now is that modernization has effects which I did not acknowledge, and that it is anti-human (I sort of knew this all the time, but since I was an atheist I didn't have any particular understanding or regard for the human as such: I thought it was a temporary historical accident).

But modernity leads to short-termism, selfishness, meaninglessness, and (after a while) to dishonesty, wichful thinking and all sorts of other massive and ineradicable problems which I gather under the political correctness label.

What seemed like a temporary pendulum swing into New Left insanity in the late 1960s is actually a phenomenon which goes from strength to strength. There is no sign of it stopping, and quite the reverse.

Eventually the modernizing societies will so weaken themselves, so remove their own legitimacy, that anyone who wants power and is prepared to make sacrifices to get it, will simply take it - as is happening. Modernity will then (is now) expend its efforts on legitimating whatever happens.

In a nutshell, I am saying that political correctness is built-into modernity, and has been growing for hundreds of years. It is not superficial, and not amenable to a few reforming 'tweaks' - such as are advocated by the secular right. The secualr right in practice is merely slower PC, but lacking the ideological drive of PC.

So that modernity = PC and the real alternative is something like Byzantine 'theocracy', or (perhaps more probably) Islam.

Rollory said...

Do you have a concise definition of modernity, or do you want me to go read your book?

Technological civilization is not a bad thing. Running water and dentistry and DDT and being able to feed one's self without requiring a life of backbreaking labor are good things. I am not convinced that these sorts of things are unavoidably tangled with the social changes that have accompanied them - very similar social changes accompanied the fading days of Rome or the Caliphate or Greece in the interregnum before the Romans took over. When I think "modernity", those technological improvements are the things I think of. I like them, and I don't think a sane social order is incompatible with them.

(Things like birth control pills are a product of technology but are inherently disruptive and destructive. A sane society would refuse to countenance such things on a wide scale - would be ABLE to refuse to countenance such things. Having the ability to do something doesn't mean one chooses to do it; this has always been true.)

Bruce Charlton said...

I did you a concise definition of modernity - "continual specialization of function and continual growth" but maybe it was too concise?

I understand your point - it would be nice, in many ways, if we could have the good bits of modernity but not the bad.

However, it seems clear that we are not prepared to take the tough decisions necessary for this to happen.

It isn't going to happen. Everywhere in the world, almost simultaneously, the good aspects of modernity are being actively destroyed by bureaucracy, by parasitism, by regulation - by a thousand mechanisms.

High Art? Gone. Science? Gone. technological capability? Sadly diminished. Civil peace? Going. Military capability? Sadly diminished.

Honesty, virtue and beauty are all in decline.

What is thriving? Bureaucracy, distraction and mass dependency.

Why this bizarre situation? Well, that is what this blog is mostly about.

Rollory said...

"continual specialization of function and continual growth""

Ok, I missed that.

I don't see how that is specifically "modern", though. Any organic system tends to go through that process - structure grows until it overwhelms and chokes out the original impulse, and then the system dies.

Bruce Charlton said...

You might as well skim quickly through the book - it is very short!

Mark Tully said...

Excellent post. I have had a secret desire that the right embrace the fact that the left has destroyed custom and tradition since 1) the left's problem has always been inconsistency; they destroy the natural order while claiming to be a more natural politics - meaning that they cannot survive their own critique and 2) the destruction of custom allows the right to have a new vantage point from which to create a politics devoid of the errors of the past.

My main annoyance has been people trying to turn back the clock to a past that created the present without addressing these problems. Fantastic post!

Anonymous said...

"That doesn't happen in an unstable situation. They stopped doing that, after 1945 - apparently nobody articulated exactly why, but everybody sensed it wasn't a good idea anymore."

When I was a kid, thirty-something years ago, in my Southern European country, my parent's house door was open. Everybody could get into my house. Nobody thought about thieves.

After some years, a lock was installed on the door. After some more years, the door became reinforce. Now, besides the door being reinforced, the house has an automatic alarm system that you have to disable every time you get into the house: otherwise the police comes.

I know that all this was necessary but I cannot help longing for the open door and the society who made it possible.