I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Western civilization disparaged, in everything from street talk to written screeds to intellectual circles. It would have to be thousands of times at least. In fact, it’s something that people (including people who should know better) repeat endlessly, always confident that they’ll receive a pat on the back for it.
Criticizing the West passes for enlightenment these days.
Except that it’s false. Western civilization (and by that I mean European civilization and its offshoots, from the breakup of the Western Roman Empire to today… the civilization based upon Judeo-Christian ethics and scientific progress) is, by far, the most productive in human history. To criticize it in broad terms is not a sign of enlightenment, but of delusion.
Let Us Begin
Have you ever seen the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice? The scuole (and there were several in Venice) were what we call “confraternities”: voluntary associations of Christian lay people, most commonly merchants, who promoted charitable works.
Take a look at their main room on the second floor of the scuola:
This room (and there’s more in this scuola) wasn’t built by rulers celebrating their own magnificence or even a religion celebrating its magnificence(( Though they did authorize it.)). It came from individuals in a charity league.
What you’re seeing are the fruits of commerce, Christian ethics, and civilizational self-confidence. The art in this building is stunning. So much so that you need a mirror to carry around for viewing the ceiling: Your neck couldn’t take all the craning it would have to do to see even a fraction of it.
Here’s the interior of a church in Rome called San Giovanni in Laterno:
These sculptures are amazing, and again, this is just one part of a larger building.
Here are just a few of Bernini’s sculptures that you can find in a museum set in the middle of a park in Rome:
And please trust me; you need to see these things in person to really appreciate them.
The Point Here
I could go on, and I will in future columns (though spread out over time). The real point here is not that the people of the West are inherently superior. It’s that they had a civilization that permitted their talents to function. Often, the critical moments came when the talented people were young, and developing their talents required the society to keep doors open to them long before they reached anything resembling full growth.
Western civilization, as Aristotle might have put it, provided a set of ideas, and a people molded by them, in which talented lives found sufficient scope to produce wonders.
Western civilization never had a monopoly on human greatness – all humans are potentially great – but this culture, this shared set of ideas, was an environment especially suited to the thriving of talent… a nurturing condition in which great talents and works could thrive and did thrive.
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As it turns out, history was never too hard to understand; they just told you the wrong story.
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12 thoughts on “Celebrating Western Civilization, Part 1”
Paul, all those paintings, sculptures and buildings were financed by Catholic Church which got money by robbing and oppressing hard working peasants. I remember your post that Catholic Church promotes pedophilia by celibacy. Just imagine what priests did to children in XV-XVI century when nobody could control and prosecute them.
I was going to write a polite commentary here, but your post above turned me away from it.
Sorry for being rude but Catholic Church is very hot topic.
And they certainly have done many nasty things. But it’s necessary to not go too far blaming the Church. The reality is much more complex.
I was raised as a Catholic in Europe and know few priests. It’s something unimaginable to me when I hear what Catholics do to children in USA. It’s important to mention that not only clergy should be blamed but also churchgoers because they are fully aware and accept that practices. I had only one bad encounter with priest. When I was like 13yr old and had religion class he asked: If someone will beat you, will he be still your friend? All class except me answered no. Instead asking me to explain my stance he too me in front of all pupils punched me, humiliated and asked class: am I still his friend?
Wow… that’s horrific. My condolences.
And yes, what has gone on in the American Catholic Church (and Canadian, and…) is beyond despicable.
Stop using term Judeo-Christian ethics because such animal doesn’t exists and can’t exists.
For example, Koneczny claimed that in the Latin civilization, ethics is the source of law. If some laws are not ethical, then they are changed. Government is judged on the basis of its adherence to ethics. The law is of dual nature, divided into public and private spheres. Religion is autonomous, independent and separated from the state. Individuality, self-rule and decentralization are highly valued. Knowledge is empirical.
The Jewish civilization considers the law most important. The law (Torah) is the source of ethics. The law cannot be changed. However, the same law can be differently interpreted, which leads to ethical relativism. Similarly to the Brahmin or Hindu civilization, it is sacral, with religion playing a central role. According to Koneczny, one of the elements of Jewish civilization is a belief in the superior role of one nation or race. Communist states, despite their atheism, are also products of Jewish civilization.
“Stop using term Judeo-Christian ethics because such animal doesn’t exists and can’t exists…”
Sorry, pal, you don’t got to tell other people what to think and say. Either get over it or go away.
Ok, be so kind and explain to me what does Judeo-Christian ethics mean? I always thought that Jews and Christians share different values.
Fair enough. Peter:
Judeo-Christian ethics means a belief that what we do matters, that the creator cares about justice and not about power, that this creator disregards the powerful and looks toward the powerless, that we are individuals, that self-reference (integrity) is the proper measure of a man or woman, and that human life can (and will) be much better in the future than it is now.
Roughly stated, of course. These beliefs are found in the Hebrew scriptures and well as the Greek, and they have been part of both religions, however imperfectly practised.
Thank you. I must admit I didn’t think about that this way. I rather focused on cultural features which are totally different in Judaism and Christianity.
My pleasure, Peter. I’ll have an article on the subject posting October 23.
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