Why is Western civilization worth studying?

By any standard, the intellectual, moral, religious, political, economic, scientific, technological, artistic, architectural and literary achievements of the West are extraordinary. It would be foolish not to study them, examine their roots and explore the complex relationships among them. [S]tudents are … inheritors of these achievements. Their culture—and, thus, their lives—have been shaped by them. They deserve to understand them. And if they are to maintain all that is worth maintaining … and pass along to their own children a vibrant and healthy culture, they need to understand them.

What about Western civilization is unique?

Science as we know it could not have developed outside the West. It is a great gift of the West to the entire world. Moreover, ideas of natural law, republican government, civil rights and liberties, and the dignity, inviolability, and fundamental freedom of the individual are fundamentally Western insights. These, too, are gifts to the world. Many of these insights were hard-won. Some might yet be lost. Certainly, they have not always been honoured or fully respected by the people of the West. Still, they are exceptional achievements.

How important are Judaism and Christianity to the maintenance of Western civilization?

If there were no Judaism, there would be no Christianity. There is a profound sense in which Christianity is the “other” Jewish religion emerging from the transformations in Jewish faith and practice that resulted from the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem.

If there were no Judaism, there would be no Christianity. There is a profound sense in which Christianity is the “other” Jewish religion emerging from the transformations in Jewish faith and practice that resulted from the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem.

Can these achievements be maintained if Jewish and Christian faith collapses in the West? Can Western ideals and institutions flourish when utterly severed from their religious roots? Frankly, I doubt it. We will know for sure before too long. Much of Europe today is engaged in a vast experiment that will tell us whether cultural and political achievements whose historical roots are in religion can be sustained and nurtured in a cultural and political milieu of extreme secularism.

How do the more secular ideas of the Enlightenment fit into the foundations of the West?

Certainly, Enlightenment thinkers made important contributions to the Western tradition, particularly in the advancement of personal and political liberty. The “secularism” of the Enlightenment is, however, frequently exaggerated.

First, it is worth noting that there was no single Enlightenment, but several different Enlightenments. Some Enlightenment, or proto-Enlightenment thinkers—especially among the French—were hostile to Christianity and religion generally; others were not. Some Enlightenments were infected with anti-religious zealotry—again, the French Enlightenment especially—others, such as the Scottish Enlightenment, much less so.

Second, there were important Enlightenment figures who developed and built on the classic Christian understanding of a legitimate realm of the secular. Of course, Christianity is opposed to secularism as an anti-religious ideology that seeks to drive religion from the public sphere and, in its more radical forms, to eliminate religious faith altogether. Christianity does not, however, oppose the idea of the secular or the idea of a legitimate secular domain. Moreover, classic Christianity is not fideistic. It holds, rather, that faith and reason are mutually supportive, and equally necessary to a rich and accurate understanding of our condition as human persons.

In our own time, this conviction was reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II in the opening sentence of his great encyclical on the relationship of faith and reason, Fides et Ratio. There, the late pontiff said that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth.” This is entirely compatible with what is noblest and best in Enlightenment thought.

Self-mastery is important because it is a basic, irreducible dimension of the well-being and fulfilment of rational creatures—and, as Aristotle taught, we human beings are just that: creatures whose nature is rational. Moreover, self-mastery—the capacity to exercise rational control over one’s emotions, passions, and desires and direct them toward good and upright ends—is indispensable to the project of self-government.

If we believe in the ideal of free persons who participate as equal citizens in the project of self-government, if we believe in the dignity and rights of the individual in a regime of ordered liberty, then we must dedicate ourselves to educating young people for self-mastery. A political regime of self-government can only be sustained among people who are capable of governing themselves. People incapable of self-mastery will quickly prove to be unfit for self-government.

The idea of self-mastery seems opposite from everything that is promulgated today. Do you think self-mastery has any appeal for today’s students?

As a teacher, I have faith in our young people. They are capable of rising to meet great challenges, if only we, their elders, are willing to issue those challenges and point the way. Fundamentally, the problem is not with their generation, it is with ours. It was our generation [the “Generation of ’68”] that lost faith, not only faith in God, in any meaningful sense, but faith in man—in reason, in beauty, in truth, in moral, aesthetic and intellectual standards of any type, in the very ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. We are the generation that produced widespread slavery to “recreational” drugs, a sexual revolution that has had devastating consequences for millions of children—especially in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our society—and the col-lapse of intellectual standards.

True, the result is a culture in which young people have been cultivated to identify “authenticity” with acting on one’s feelings and desires, whatever they happen to be. But that is not set in stone. We really can challenge our children and our students to have higher aspirations and to lead richer, nobler lives.

Do you see the study of Western civilization enabling students to realize what is at stake?

In my experience as a teacher—and as a student myself—I find that the more deeply people understand Western civilization and its achievements, the more profoundly they appreciate them. So, it seems to me, in the face of contemporary challenges to Western ideals and institutions, there is nothing more urgent than deepening the understanding of our people of the traditions of faith, thought, and social and political life that made the West.

Does this mean that we should neglect the study of non-Western traditions or denigrate their achievements? No. That would be a decidedly un-Western thing to do, since a cardinal tenet of Western philosophy is to embrace truth and value wherever they are to be found. We mustn’t fear teaching our young people about other cultures, but we should not disdain to teach them about their own.

What would you say are the flaws or shortcomings in Western thought that might benefit from the study of other cultures?

It is a tenet of Western thought that the whole world—indeed, the whole of reality—is to be explored, investigated, reflected about, and to the maximum possible extent understood. Furthermore, wisdom is to be cherished, no matter its source. That is why ethnocentrism and chauvinism are antithetical to the Western tradition. And so, there is much to be gained from engagement with Islam, for example, and the great religions of the East, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The West is truer to itself when it is open to such engagement.

This article is an abridgement of a recent interview conducted by Carol Iannone. It first appeared online in Academic Questions on 27 January 2012, at Springerlink.com. It has been abridged and reprinted under the Open Access terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.