The title of Andrew Hamilton’s article on the brouhaha over the Australian National University’s refusal to develop a degree in Western Civilisation with the Ramsay Centre certainly worked on me. Posing the question “What is Western Civilisation anyway?” to a browbeaten, white, conservative, Catholic grandfather is a bit like asking your average Kiwi, “What is New Zealand Rugby anyway?”, given the employment of expatriate coaches and the massive contribution of Pacific Islanders.
Slowly extracting the porcelain shards of a crushed coffee cup from my hand, I took a deep breath and read the article. What a disappointment! I found myself agreeing with many of the points made. However, there was still the sneer to address. Ignoring the light dusting of ad hominem, the occasional non sequitur, and some subtle question-begging, one encounters a polemical strategy akin to the fallacy of definitional retreat. But does Hamilton really think that the very thing he finds wanting has no identity?
Contrary to his disdain, the “sonorous phrase, Western Civilisation” is self-explanatory. His specious series of “ifs”, erecting supposedly academic roadblocks against the term, is trivial. External influences obviously came into play over the millennia – including Islam, Buddhism, and Manichaeism. That’s the nature of civilisation. But the Eightfold Path and the Koran are not part of the Western Canon, while the writings of Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, and Vargas Llosa are. None of Hamilton’s queries detracts from the understanding that Western Civilisation is the product of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.
Geographically, the seedbed of Western Civilisation was Europe, of which the earliest known mention is in Herodotus, referring to the lands westward from the Hellespont. Europe extends from the Urals to Ireland, and Sicily to Scandinavia. And without Christian victories at Tours, Las Navas de Tolosa, Malta, Lepanto, and Vienna, Western Civilisation would mean something completely different.
The word civilisation comes from the Latin word for city, distinguishing city dwellers from nomadic tribes. Tribal life is governed by the conventions of one’s own kind, but in a city, the cosmopolitan mix of people requires obedience to formal laws, usually reflecting the mores of the dominant culture.
So civilisation is the establishment of socio-political and economic standards that enable settled multicultural community, specialisation, leisure, education, and progress in the arts and sciences. Civilisations typically include different cultures e.g. Athens and Sparta in Greek civilisation, Confucian and Buddhist cultures in Chinese civilisation, and of course the many different cultures that contribute to American civilisation.
Barbarism, which Jose Ortega y Gasset saw as “the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made”, is misconstrued as the antonym of civilisation. All civilisations, have in some degree been guilty of barbarism: Inca blood sacrifice, jihadist beheadings, and Nazi Death Camps are obvious examples, but abortion, sex trafficking, and environmental degradation are also barbaric in the suffering they cause. Ultimately, a civilisation must be judged by the worldview that informs it.
The crimes of the West are many, but Western Civilisation is defined by ideals that condemn those crimes: respect for the dignity of all people as made in the image of God; respect for human freedom, understood as a freedom for excellence as opposed to a freedom of indifference; respect for human reason, seeking truth and enabling compassionate relationships through rational dialogue; respect for the potential of every human being and the justice and education that nurture it; and respect for human responsibility, and the honesty and goodwill that implies.
Western nations have often betrayed these standards, and secular Modernity, a philosophically-untenable distortion of them, has spawned all manner of ideologies, from Marxism to Nazism, and the moral confusion that mocks our world today. Significantly, in its persistent attempts to silence the great truth-seeking tradition, Modernity is considered accountable only by virtue of the principles undergirding Western Civilisation. In its current decrepitude, with the perverse utopian fantasies and inhumane prescriptions of Modernity wreaking havoc, the only way the Western world will be saved is by restoring its foundational principles.
If the Ramsay Centre sees Western Civilisation as the now-discredited Enlightenment Project, it deserves to fail. If its critics also understand Western Civilisation in its Modern guise, they are attacking a straw man, but alas, we all know their target is the Christian worldview, without which Western Civilisation is meaningless.
Christianity is not a Western thing; it is a call to all humankind that originated in Israel. That it became the essential component of the worldview of Western Civilisation, and the philosophy, art, architecture, music, science, and technology, as well as the socio-political, and economic dispositions that flowed from that worldview, is plain to both its admirers and its most vocal critics.
Nor is science a Western thing; it is a human thing, seen in all cultures to some degree. That it became a self-sustaining, supra-national, collaborative project, with a clearly defined empiriometric method, was the achievement of Medieval Christendom in Europe, as the work of men like Grosseteste, Buridan, and Oresme, the foundation builders for Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, makes plain.
Hamilton invites people to “take their pick” from the worldviews on offer. And take their pick they do – the flow of refugees and migrants is inexorably westward. They want better lives and make “value judgments” acknowledging that such will be found in Manchester, Munich, or Melbourne, as opposed to Mosul, Mumbai, or Maputo. Civilizations are manifestly not equal, otherwise, there would be no standards and nothing to debate.
I was born an eleventh-generation African of Afrikaner stock and raised in an Anglophile colonial society that taught me to see Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky as essential parts of my heritage, and I witnessed the corresponding value of that heritage for the Bantu people in whose midst we lived. It opened my mind to culturally alien literary classics like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Analects of Confucius, and the Bhagavad Gita, and convinced me that it was a blessing for all people.