“Western civilisation” shouldn’t be a contentious concept. If “civilisation” refers to the communal arrangements of relatively large or dense populations, broadly affiliated by enduring practices, rules and beliefs, and embellished and facilitated by characteristic arts, techniques and individuals, then that term seems uncontroversial. No one objects to the study of Chinese, Persian, Mesopotamian, Arab, Indian, Aztec, Inca or classical Greek civilisations.
As for “Western”, we are happy to speak of Western Australia, or the Western Isles of Scotland. Something being west of something else doesn’t seem intrinsically objectionable. We all have to be west of somewhere. Europe is west of Asia and the Middle East (although north of Africa). It has a civilisation with distinctive features and inheritances (although some of these derive from its closest neighbours). The Americas are west of Europe and in turn inherited many of these features, and “Euro-American civilisation” is a bit of a mouthful, as well as incomplete seen from New Zealand and points west.
Furthermore, many of these distinctive features are recognised worldwide as uncontroversially “Western”, as opposed to Chinese, Aztec and so on. Homer and Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, Jane Austen and Joan of Arc, Plato and NATO, Beethoven and Bartok, Leonardo and Picasso, the Parthenon and the Pantheon, Napoleon and Julius Caesar, Botticelli’s Venus and the Mona Lisa, the Roman empire and Christianity, the Enlightenment and its revolutionary American, French, industrial and scientific heirs, democracy and human rights. Most educated Chinese people, for example, would recognise much of this list as “Western”, are interested in its features, and where feasible would like to photograph themselves standing in front of one of them.
“Civilisation” is an unremarkable concept, then, and so is “Western”. But there’s a nuclear reaction when the two are put together. The idea of “Western civilisation” is contentious. Criticism of it is constant, and is of two kinds. The first comes mainly from scholars and intellectuals, who offer some version of the argument that the concept is empty or meaningless. The second criticism (censure, really) is of the thing, “The West” and all its works. In its domestic or endogenous form this also comes mainly from intellectuals, less scholarly ones on the whole, including especially students. But there is also an exogenous form, from people all over the world with radical non-Western or anti-Western attitudes and agendas, either covert or overt. Taking the two broader types of criticism together: either Western civilisation is nothing, or it is wicked. Either it doesn’t exist, or it shouldn’t.
The denial of its existence is an example of a common intellectual propensity to scrutinise some familiar object more and more closely until the object itself disappears, as under a microscope. Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger led quantum physics into seeing the visible world as fundamentally made of invisible energy. The harder scholars look at “Western civilisation”, the more fine-grained their analysis becomes, the less aware they are of the larger entity. Instead, they see its important sources and analogues in the Middle East or Africa (if Egypt is Africa), or the Arab scholars of the so-called “early middle ages” (a golden age for them) who were such vital transmitters of Greek thought to Europe. They see “Europe” and “the West” as concepts with identifiable provenance, so that almost by definition they once “didn’t exist”. They see the concept as embracing so many dissimilar or conflicting elements that it has no real meaning any more. They have difficulties with calling its essential elements “Western”, properly speaking (Christianity arose in the Middle East and so many of its adherents are now African or Asian). Above all, they can’t see “Western civilisation” as having any single, essential defining feature.
These are all valuable arguments, taken separately. They derive from a peculiarly modern hybrid of philosophical scepticism and scientific empiricism, both immensely helpful—and distinctively “Western”—ways of scrutinising received opinion: so long as they are used with discrimination. Unfortunately both are prone to extremism in the form of a denial of ordinary experience. To adapt Dr Johnson’s rebuttal of Bishop Berkeley: George of the Quantum Jungle may know that the tree is really a wave-function, or even suspect sometimes (as a lapsed idealist) that it does not exist when he’s not there to see it; but he’d better watch out for it all the same.
The other major type of criticism, on the contrary, argues that Western civilisation is not only real, but liable to mug your grandmother. A recent column in the Stanford Daily warned that reviving the university’s Western civilisation course, now moribund like most such courses in the United States, would mean “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilisations”. The list of distinctive Western features mentioned above, from this point of view, would include Hitler but not Goethe; genocidal imperialism but not democracy; racism but not multiculturalism; the burning of the Summer Palace but not the building of the Winter Palace; slavery but not abolition; misogyny but not amour courtois; crusades but not cathedrals; narcissistic consumerism but not rational choice; capitalist greed but not free markets; environmental destruction but not green activism; vested interests but not inclusiveness: and so on.
The West is the real “evil empire”. According to the endogenous or Western critics mentioned above, it is a place of barbarism; according to the exogenous or non-Western ones, it is a place of decadence, and the endogenous critics are themselves symptoms of this condition, which is contagious. Taken together, these two views resemble Oscar Wilde’s of America: that it had passed straight from barbarism to decadence without any intervening period of civilisation.
The non-Western critics aren’t entirely wrong in seeing that strain of Western self-criticism (or self-censure) as contagiously decadent. It has mutated out of a more generalised anti-civilisation attitude, with ancient roots in both classical misanthropy and the Christian doctrine of original sin. It derives in its modern distorted form from Rousseau via Nietzsche (and indeed Wilde, who was a bit of a Nietzschean in his own quiet way). From this perspective any civilisation at all is necessarily built on hypocrisy and oppression. Homo homini lupus est, “man is a wolf to man”; and the larger the pack the more lupine its behaviour. So says the misanthropist, and he has a point. Without faith we are fallen creatures, savage wolves. So say St Paul and Augustine, and they have a point too. But the modern anti-civilisation view sees only the wolf and never the lamb: never the good shepherd.
Sometimes the circle closes, and those who deny “Western civilisation” merge with those who hate it. It is unreal and it is evil. Cognitive dissonance is not unusual. Like Alice’s White Queen, many people believe six impossible things before breakfast. But in some cases, as Humpty Dumpty points out soon after, it’s no longer a question of the absurd things people can do with words or ideas—only of “who is to be master”. This is not logical or ontological any more: it’s ideological. This dissonant cross-breed is the most implacable form of all hostile criticism of “Western civilisation” because the true ideologue cannot see that the enemy even exists other than as an ideological construct. All politics is ideological, all ideology is political, and there is nothing else—no private space or identity at all (Orwell’s central insight in Nineteen Eighty-Four).
There is also a sophisticated, declinist variant of the barbaric-decadent position: call it the Spenglerian gambit. Instead of saying that Western civilisation exists but it shouldn’t, this variant says that it should but it doesn’t, or at any rate soon won’t. For Oswald Spengler, writing his Decline of the West at the time of the First World War, civilisation is what happens when a culture loses its vitality, as had already happened, he thought, in the tragic, Faustian West. Just as “decadent” and “declining” mean “falling down” and “sloping down”, so the First World War marked an epochal decline in Western self-belief and ushered in a celebrated era of decadence. This is an Hegelian attitude to history, except that where Hegel thought humanity had found its apotheosis in the Prussian state providentially inhabited by Hegel (Francis Fukuyama also thought he stood at such a point, although he doesn’t think so any more), Spengler and his heirs think they live after some imaginary noontime, in the twilight of the gods, the Abendland of their civilisation—or at least, of their culture. These critics have no objection to cultural studies, by the way. Just as long as you don’t call it a civilisation. Or bang on about its “values”.
So there’s a huge market for views that “Western civilisation”, far from being uncontentious, is a contradiction, a monster, a non-entity or an anachronism. If you wanted to design courses on this subject, you could easily devote half a dozen to pointing out that it wasn’t a real or proper subject for a course. There will always be ignorant people who persist in thinking that there is a thing called “Western civilisation”, and that it has been a Good Thing, on the whole: so they will always need to be told that there isn’t, and it hasn’t. Impossible not to think of John Cleese in The Life of Brian irritably dismissing the objections of his fellow activists in the Judaean People’s Revolutionary Front: “apart from … antibiotics, antiseptics, disinfectants and indeed all modern medicine; eradication or reduction of ancient endemic diseases and perinatal mortality; rule of and equality before the law; electricity; the internet; unprecedented equality between the sexes; representative democracy and separation of powers; two industrial revolutions; worldwide transport and telecommunications systems; religious tolerance and separation of church and state; the abolition of slavery; liberal individualism; open markets; vastly increased average prosperity, health and longevity: and of course all the aforementioned artists and thinkers … what has Western civilisation ever done for us?”
If you were establishing a Centre for Western Civilisation, or a BA in the subject, those awkward Judaean People’s Revolutionary Front cadres might give you grounds for hope, despite all the criticism. Returning to Alice, you might think of the disappearing American “Western civ” courses as a kind of Cheshire cat: the body may vanish, but the smile lingers on. Or perhaps as Schrödinger’s cat: Western civ is dead in a box, but also at the same time very much alive. Yes, there have been terrible crimes and abuses—as with any civilisation, and any large-scale human enterprise at all. Man is a wolf to man. There are evil people. But we’ve heard about all that ad nauseam: now let’s hear the other side. The concept of Western civilisation is a bit nebulous, as you’d expect with such a vast geographical and chronological range of languages, cultures, religious denominations and value systems. But there’s a family resemblance. We recognise its features, its “cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces”, as well as its sewers and dark alleys. As Augustine said about time, we all know what it is, we all live with it, even if we can’t say what it is.
And in this case we do all live with it, including in Australia: but we can and should say quite a lot. This is no “insubstantial pageant fading”. The very terms its critics use to attack “Western civilisation”, sceptical, empirical, political, are the terms it has taught them. The chambers and spaces they march and protest in, the institutions they condemn, are the ones it has built and opened and maintained for them. The liberal tolerance they sneer at is what tolerates their sneers, where other civilisations would have imprisoned them, and do. Its openness to the whole world, to new experience, its adventurous spirit of discovery and curiosity, its desire “to strive, to seek, to find”, and yes, its capacity to criticise itself, are what has distinguished this civilisation from others. Its very variety of cultures and values, so often incompatible and conflicted, has also given it a hybrid toughness, a capacity to adapt and assimilate, to tolerate and include. Millions of non-Westerners (including some who think it is wicked) want nothing more than to live in it, while Westerners lucky enough to have it as a birthright take it for granted. How we would miss it if it really didn’t exist! It may not be a perfect model for a fully inclusive or genuinely liberal human civilisation, one neither repressive nor prodigal, but truly magnanimous. Still, it may be the closest we’ve yet come, as a species.
No doubt you noticed that the words it and its appeared many times in the previous paragraphs. Aha, cry the sceptical-empirical crowd: there’s the rub. There is no “it”, no essence. And as for the political crowd, any mention of an “It” will horrify them: here is the Stephen King monster. That grin … surely not a cat but an evil clown … oh God, it’s getting out of the box!
The same answer works in both cases: “it” isn’t an It. There is no essence and there is no monster: only grammar. It is a pronoun; “Western civilisation” is a handy phrase referring to a very large and dynamic collection of multifarious but still associated practices, artefacts and ideas. Taking a BA in Western Civilisation would be like exploring the world’s most interactive museum, a tour opening out towards an almost infinite variety of affiliated models for living together or alone, more or less successfully. No monsters, except those bred by the sleep of reason. No essence, any more than a long piece of rope has a single thread running all the way through it: but it may have long sequences or patterns of threads of the same colour, and still it’s one rope, and when it takes you all the way to the summit, you will find that the whole point, the meaning, was in the climb.
All of which is to say that by its very nature an educational enterprise or space should not be a political or ideological one. Clamouring about “upholding white supremacy” is as overwrought and anachronistic as asking whether classicists ran the British Empire along Roman models, or whether conversely imperialist attitudes ran the classics (yes, this myopic controversy is currently a thing in some academic circles). How many angels can you persuade to dance on the head of your pin? All the noise merely prevents a generation of young people from hearing the “music of humanity” as played by one of its great orchestras—and from themselves learning to play (yes, of course, there are other orchestras: by all means listen to those too: but how many can one person actually belong to?).
Over 2500 years of philosophy and literature, of buildings, paintings and music: the value-dissolving dilemmas of tragedy, the formal resolutions of architecture, the clarifying scrutiny of logic, the agonies, ecstasies and quiet reassurances of religious faith (and doubt), the competing claims of social obligation and individual fulfilment: why should a few current, crude political obsessions (almost fantasies: “the heart’s grown brutal from the fare”) deny school leavers, or indeed older students, access to this vast centuries-long conversation about the meaning of life—of their own lives? Let them find the values they need for themselves, induce them from the texts, ideas, arts and institutions they study. That in-duction is an e-ducation: a leading in and a leading forth: a finding within a text which is at the same time a finding within oneself.
Let the students find out whether there is or isn’t a thread, or a pattern of threads, running from Pericles’s funeral oration to Justinian’s Corpus to Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to the Declaration of the Rights of Man; or for that matter from Lysistrata to the Declaration of the Rights of Woman; or from Helen of Troy to Dido to Héloïse to Anna Karenina: or from Milton’s Satan to Anakin Skywalker: or right through the Bible and out into much of our literature and art. In doing so, in encountering so many other voices emphatically unlike theirs and yet still able to speak to their common condition, they will also be finding out what their own values are and where they have come from, including as Australians: and that a shallow fixation on the present and its irritable discontents doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all that has been thought about value and meaning, courage and wisdom, anger and revenge, prudence and judgment, hope and despair, freedom and serfdom, remorse and forgiveness, gratitude and envy, democrats and aristocrats, oligarchs and monarchs, revolution and restoration, beauty and truth and love, in the many constituent cultures of our civilisation across the ages and across the world.
This isn’t the kind of education Australian arts faculties have been able to offer for quite some time, if ever. Our single-discipline-with-outside-major model is British, indeed Scottish, not American. But it isn’t working any more for undergraduates in the humanities. The research- and rankings-driven, relentlessly vocational agendas of our universities mean that arts academics are forced to teach their research in order to justify their existence. This makes it hard to create integrated teaching degrees with coherent, overarching disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to an assemblage of research programs with teaching spinoffs (however fine the research or teaching). At the same time the inspiring big picture and great ideas curricula which have changed so many lives in liberal arts colleges are out of the question.
These massified post-Dawkins institutions can’t afford the small, intensive, high-quality classes which alone make such integration and inspiration possible: the kind of close attention to a complex pattern of thought which alone enables genuine critical judgment. Imagine if a university had the funding to enable classes of just half a dozen top-flight students, many of them on scholarships, embarking on the kind of education described above. Now if only someone could make that kind of learning possible …
Simon Haines is CEO of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in Sydney and Professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong