Few people can coherently and succinctly describe the essence of Western culture, the core meaning and significance of what came to be known as the West. Young Westerners tend to define their own culture in terms of McDonald’s and Monsanto, the two world wars, Nazi death camps and the transatlantic slave trade. It is therefore no surprise that many are ridden with disillusionment, guilt, absence of coherent cultural identity, even hatred for the West. This is my attempt to distil the essence of Western culture, to re-trace the great historical insights that illuminate the world and direct our conscience towards it.
The defining features of the West are rationalism—the commitment to reason as the ultimate cultural norm; humanism—the idea that humanity is intrinsically valuable; and secularism—the only known instance of systematic secularism that has ever existed.
The most critical transformation in the development of the West was, arguably, the discovery of the fundamental laws of logic, also known as the Laws of Thought, by Aristotle (384–322 BC). Every instance of thought is conditional on meaningful content, which in turn entails some underlying set of rules for discerning sense from nonsense. The most fundamental rules, without which meaning could not exist even on the subjective level, are the three laws of classical logic: the law of non-contradiction (no statement can be both true and false at the same time and in the same context), identity (at any given time, everything is absolutely identical only to itself) and the excluded middle (every statement must be either true or false, or be composed of parts that are either true or false). “So what,” one might say, “I might be contradicting myself but I don’t care as long as I get what I want.” The problem with this position is that by even thinking about what I want I already apply the law of identity, and by acting with the intention to get what I want I must act consistently and unambiguously towards a goal, otherwise my actions could not reliably achieve the desired result. We unavoidably affirm the fundamental laws of logic simply by acting intentionally, but action need not be perfectly rational in order to count as intentional.
Comprehensive understanding of the fundamental laws of logic and the recognition that all thought must abide by these rules if it is to make sense has allowed us to detect errors in our reasoning, to identify and rapidly resolve any points of conceptual resistance in the sequence of our creative endeavours. Moreover, it has given the West a means of understanding complex, multidimensional problems in a systematic manner that by far exceeds in scope what could be managed by trial and error or with the linear narrative-structure of mythology that was prevalent among the primitives. For this reason it may be said that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is the true bible of the West, a revolutionary event in the history of human thought that has laid the foundations for modern science and technology, and facilitated systematic, non-violent resolution of conflict which has in turn resulted in a greater capacity for creative participation of individuals in organised group efforts.
The second critical transformation took place nearly two millennia later. In the late eighteenth century Immanuel Kant, in the great Aristotelian tradition, examined some logical consequences of the seemingly universal commitment to self-interest. If I value my own existence and the capacity for rational action (in the Aristotelian sense), does that rationally commit me to act in a privileged way towards other rational beings? It is generally understood that “when Kant refers to our humanity, he has our rational capacities in mind. Our humanity, according to Kant, simply is our (distinctively human) capacity for self-directed rational behaviour” (Markovits 2014, 83). Kant said that (1998, 4:389) “when [moral philosophy] is applied to the human being it does not borrow the least thing from acquaintance with him (from anthropology) but gives to him, as a rational being, laws a priori”.
Christine Korsgaard (2009), building on the work of Kant, has developed a system of ethics combining the premise that rational agency is conditional on social-reflexivity (seeing others as beings of the same ontological kind) and the idea of “integrity” of consciousness. “The function of the normative principles of the will,” writes Korsgaard (1996, 229), “is to bring integrity and therefore unity—and therefore, really, existence—to the acting self.” The relevant sense of the term “integrity” combines both ethical and ontological aspects: integrity of conduct and self-integration of a unified, individual being. “When an action cannot be performed without loss of some fundamental part of one’s identity” (Ibid. 102) we become fragmented and thus progressively lose our capacity for conscious, rational action. This, in turn, is a metaphysical death of the self. The relevant normative imperative is therefore: if we value our existence as conscious rational agents then we are rationally committed, in self-interest, to act in such a way as to avoid losing our integrity.
The second step is Korsgaard’s argument was to show that we identify as Human (in the Kantian sense specified above) only by regarding the humanity of others in the same way we regard our own humanity. Social-reflexivity or reciprocal recognition of personal value is then of ontological importance to all agents, creating a system of mutually dependent interests. This still essentially Kantian approach was inadequate in at least one respect: self-consciousness involves much more than just recognition of other rational agents as rational agents. The status of rational agency is not self-evident but, rather, is inferred from phenomenological content. This does not undermine Korsgaard’s theory but merely calls for an extension of the argument from “integrity” to other properties. Incidentally, earlier work in phenomenology has already demonstrated that the condition of reflexivity applies to every aspect of conscious identity.
Thomas Nagel (1974, 436) has argued that for an organism to have “conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism”. More generally, the question of “what it is like to be me” exemplifies a fundamental property of self-consciousness, and it cannot be meaningfully answered just in terms of the atomic “me”, as “I am me” or “I am like me”, without falling prey to circular reasoning, solipsism or triviality. Unless I can compare myself to something else there is literally nothing like “being me”, or at least no sense to the belief that I am a definite something. Moreover, every meaningful aspect of my identity entails awareness that in that particular respect I am in fact like someone or something else. This is a permanent feature of being a conscious individual, a subject. Consequently, if my actions or attitude would negate any common property or the moral status of other individuals who are like me, I would be undermining my ontological integrity and my own moral status. Whatever I value about myself I am rationally committed to respect in others, or I stand to lose it myself. This is the essence of the Western, rationalistic conception of universal ethics based on the socially-reflexive ontology of rational agents and on self-interest. No other culture has realised this concept before. At the cultural level, as Westerners, we are imbued with secular ethics even if we individually cannot reproduce the philosophical arguments in support of it.
Among other traditional cultures the idea of universal humanity either does not exist, moral status being limited to members of the native religious order, culture or tribe, or is not explicitly defined in phenomenological terms, allowing for unlimited exclusions. Where metaphysical universality is dogmatically asserted, as in Buddhism and Hinduism, it is logically negated by their denial of individuality or agential autonomy as real properties. In Buddhism there is no moral status (let alone “universal” moral status) because there is no individual self (anātman); individuality is unreal, humanity is unreal, the world is unreal, the very distinction between self and non-self is unreal. While certain rules of conduct are asserted in relation to such unreal individuals within their unreal world, these belong to the unreal world and are therefore also unreal. In Hinduism the scope of unreality excludes only the true self (Ātman) and the absolute (Brahman), which are distinct from the allegedly unreal autonomous corporeal individuality (Maya). Moreover, all non-rationalistic conceptions of universal humanity and the associated ethics are contingent on acceptance of the relevant dogma, and are therefore not universally normative.
Western rationalism and humanism have nowadays been internalised, to various degrees, by all nations. Apart from the natural world and the content of museums, everything of secular value that we see around us, our capacity to openly deliberate and question established ideas, to offend and be tolerated nonetheless, the sense that people of other races should have moral status, that slavery is repugnant … this is the West, and uniquely so. The post-Enlightenment West has given aboriginal people everywhere the greatest gift one can imagine: it has endowed them with objective humanity. The Western idea of humanity is a secular, non-contingent moral status that extends beyond tribal, cultural and religious boundaries. Until the Age of Enlightenment this status did not exist, and yet today we take it for granted, as if it always had meaning. It has slowly permeated the intellectual and political circles and was subsequently passed onto the colonies, to all conquered indigenous tribes who until then were often regarded as subhuman, or even as animals. Indigenous people everywhere, insofar as they internalised Western culture, also began to see themselves as belonging to this universality, as having a fundamental connection to all other tribes, including those they had conquered or were conquered by. Kant’s discovery changed the world, ushering in the age of modernity.
It is not a trivial matter that Western secularism, that is, secularism per se, is an inherently Christian form of secularism. Two thousand years of Christian programming, sacramental trauma and Original Sin cannot be just “switched off” merely by not believing in God. The ending of Christianity as the dominant force in Europe, as Thomas Altizer writes in Godhead and the Nothing:
impacted upon the world as a whole, initiating a new and comprehensive secularism, yet that secularism can be and has been understood as being in essential continuity with the Christendom that generated it, and just as it is only Christianity among the world religions which has released a true or full secularization, it is only Christianity which has embodied both interiorly and historically a deep and ultimate dichotomy … between sin and grace, wherein grace is realized as penetrating into the deepest depths of sin. (Altizer 2003, 5)
It is therefore a form of secularism still infused with Christian primordial guilt and conscience which are “merely secularised”, dethroned after the allegorical death of God and reconfigured by means of reason into Humanist Ethics. The symbolic meaning imparted by Christ’s crucifixion, the Death of God, may be precisely that Salvation is possible only if God is dead; that is, when we accept that we are utterly alone, with no one out there to answer our prayers. This idea was famously explored by Friedrich Nietzsche in his quasi-biblical masterpiece Thus Spake Zarathustra. Upon the death of God, Man must undergo three metamorphoses of the spirit, the first being transcendence of physical hardship (Metamorphosis of the Camel), the second being transcendence of the fear of death (Metamorphosis of the Lion), and the final metamorphosis being that of a Child, symbolising rebirth as a higher being.
The idea of constructive nothingness in the place of God is not uniquely Western. An equally famous representation of the “absence” of God is found in the Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid Attar, describing the quest of the birds to find their mythical king, the Phoenix, or Simurgh. A multitude of birds set out to find Simurgh’s abode, beyond seven valleys, the crossing of which demands renunciation of all dogma, knowledge, desire, division and time. Many birds perish in the process, others abandon the quest, and only thirty birds manage to reach Simurgh’s dwelling on the peak of a mountain, only to find it empty. They then realise that their number corresponds to the etymological root of the name Simurgh, meaning “thirty birds”. By putting every aspect of their being to the test of purity, they found out who they truly were, that they were Simurgh.
What can we make of the above two representations of the absence of God with respect to Christian secularism? I suggest that the premise of Christ “dying for our sins” should be understood as “God died so that we may sin, with impunity”, because only when everything is permitted we will find out who we really are, to what levels of depravity we are willing to stoop, or rise above.
Western secularism is infused with the primordial, inherent guilt stemming from the Christian conception of Original Sin. The purging of primordial guilt is possible only by facing the test of absolute freedom, by assuming absolute responsibility for who we are, which, in our essence, is a cumulative result of all our thoughts and actions. The secular world is then an unlikely embodiment of God’s justice. The inhuman things we do dehumanise us, turn us into animals and ultimately to stone. Consider the HBO series Westworld, where humans are free to commit any depravity they feel like on completely lifelike human replicants, and those who do indulge in cruelty become metaphysically trapped in this artificial construct, beginning to resemble the lifeless robots as they progressively self-dehumanise and ultimately perish, without care. Is this not akin to a cultural enactment of the Judgment Day? A process that culminates in an eschatological purge and consolidation of humanity?
Metaphorically speaking, the secular West is the second coming of Christ, transmuted into the duality of absolute moral freedom and the a priori rules of reason. Liberated by Aristotelian rationality and secularism from pre-modern dogma, it became the only cultural sphere which is in principle open to unbounded introspection. Western rationalism and humanism have democratised the Enlightenment, making it accessible to all rational beings on the condition of systematic understanding, making human action more rational and rationally ethical. Its perfect application is limited only by our individual imperfections.
Michael Kowalik wrote on “The Logical Limits to Rights to Abortion” in the September issue.
Altizer, Thomas. Godhead and the Nothing. State University of New York Press, 2003.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Korsgaard, Christine. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Korsgaard, Christine M. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Markovits, Julia. Moral Reason. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Nagel, Thomas. “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, 1974.