What is Western Civilisation?

There is a common belief among modern people that if something cannot be clearly delineated and defined, it doesn’t exist. This has been the motivation for rubbishing ideas of nationality, of personality types, even of sex. While sex can be and is defined very specifically, the mere existence of rare exceptions, like intersex people, seems to the young modern enough to discount the idea of the sexual binary completely. This is a falsehood. The world is a complex with place, there always exists shades of grey, but if one wants to learn anything about the world, one must settle for imperfect definitions. In the case of sex, in a scientific study of reproduction, what value would it be to say that all humans are different and some, it is unclear whom, can produce children while others cannot? Of course, it is clear which humans can produce children, and to discount the definition of those people just because one in a thousand may straddle the boundary would be nonsensical. The sexual binary is one of the most accurate classifications we can make in biology; the creation of imperfect classifications can go much further. Take, for example, species. Scientists define the line between two species when one cannot mate with the other and produce fertile young. This is arbitrary at best, but is made more ridiculous when one considers Zimmer’s gulls. Simplified, each breed of gull can procreate with the next breed along, in a ring around the Arctic. However, the species at the extremities of this ring cannot breed with one another. They must be regarded separate species, but where along this ring is the divide? How could all these breeds of gull be split into two or more groups without breaking the definition of species?

This follows on to the subject of this article. The fact that the definition of species is spurious does not make it useless. It also does not, in anyway, mean there is no difference between a donkey and a dolphin. Despite the confusion in the minutiae, on the macro scale it is very clear what is the same and what is not. I started with this point because civilisations, much like nations and races and political ideologies, are difficult to define. They change over time and they blend into their neighbours. Where one person may see a civilisation, another might see five, another might see it as a part of a greater whole. This indefiniteness does not destroy the idea of civilisation. Civilisations exist and, while countries like Turkey may appear to straddle a line between Western and Islamic, that does not invalidate the concept. In a similar way to defining species, the borders may be grey but compare Bologna to Baghdad and there is no longer any confusion.

What this vagueness does mean, however, is that everyone’s definitions tend to differ a little. No one will ever clearly define Western civilisation in a way that everyone else in the world will concur with. However, to try to defend the West, we must first try at least to get a clear idea of what it is we are defending and that requires creating a definition, regardless how futile that task may be. The temptation when creating a definition like this is always to concentrate on points like democracy and personal freedoms. I think that is a mistake. There are many countries, such as Japan, that have democracy but treat it completely differently to us; they are free, but they tend towards group behaviour anyway. For example, while Singapore has a democracy, the People’s Action Party have been in power for over 60 years and are showing no signs of faltering; they received over 60% of the vote in 2020. While Singapore has Western institutions, it is Confucian principles that guide the people.

The invocation of Confucius should serve as a guide. Far Eastern civilisation is built on his teachings and those of legalism. Whether he was created by the culture or the culture was created by him it is impossible to say, but the result is a people that believe in the collective, strong government, harsh punishment, social cohesion. What is the origin of our, individualistic, moralistic world view? Who is our Confucius?

The answer can only be Christ, or at least St Paul and the early Church’s teachings on Christ. The West is usually defined by ‘enlightenment values’, but these themselves were born of Christianity. The desire for equality (Galatians 3:28 - There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus), to maintain a ‘live and let live’ attitude (Matthew 7:1 - Judge not, that you be not judged), for a justice system not based in punishment (Romans 12:19 - Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God); all these cultural phenomena have their origin in Christianity. Even the very idea of religion, separate and independent of the state (Mark 12:17 - Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's) lies in Christianity. This allows us to define the borders of Western civilisation with tremendous accuracy. The West is Christendom.

I will cover this point in more depth as I write further articles, but this definition is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it dispels the idea, unless you’re Christian, that these Western values are in some way just ‘modern’ values. There has been a tendency, which the West has always had, to attempt to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world. This usually means the forcing of our morality onto societies that don’t share it, somehow sure of its superiority despite not believing that it has been ordained by God. Efforts by secular scholars over the years to prove our morality empirically have all been failures. Our society is not utilitarian; people are still often disgusted by the implications of it and, even ignoring that, utilitarianism is built on the acknowledgement that human beings have fundamental and equal worth, something that comes from Christianity itself and is an idea far from ubiquitous worldwide. We cannot say that our society has a ‘natural’ morality either; to do so we would have to say that all other moral systems in the world had somehow evolved ‘unnaturally’ and ours, through sheer coincidence, did not. In fact, when one looks at the behaviour of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, it must be observed that our system may be the least ‘natural’ of all.

Secondly, it highlights the difficulties inherent in ‘modernisation’ or ‘reformation’ of societies that are different from our own. When Japan modernised, they did not accept the West wholesale. They took those institutions they thought useful, but most of the attitudes that built these institutions were not imported. This rejection, which has happened all over the world, makes it difficult to argue for the temporal superiority of our morals. It seems that ours is just one of many, and other confident civilisations are more than capable of rebuffing our cultural invasions. When this is applied to a civilisation like Islam, it reveals very quickly why we have failed so spectacularly to bring them to the light. It also explains why we have thus far failed to modernise Islam. We aren’t trying to ‘modernise’ it; we are trying to Christianise it.

Finally, if we accept that the West and Christendom are largely indistinguishable, it makes the increasingly secularised future quite frightening to consider. Without the anchor of our civilisation, where will we go? The Nazis tried to form a morality around Nature, on the science of Darwinism and ‘might is right’. The Communists tried to form a morality around Utilitarianism, where they attempted to minimise suffering at the expense of family, justice, agency and most other things that people love. Both sound nightmarish to most subjects in Christendom. Perhaps we should have a little more respect for the code of conduct that hasn’t steered us too wrong so far.

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