Rants and Raves

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Western Civilization and its Discontents: Part 1

As I indicated in my last post, the fact that a great many of the most privileged members of our country and our civilization hate and resent it is beyond dispute. Their words and, more importantly, their actions give them away no matter how much they protest. An observer from the hypothetical "man from Mars" point of view would have to consider this seriously weird, if not insane.

Why on earth would people who are arguably the luckiest individuals in the history of the human race, hate and resent their good fortune?

High-minded explanations have been advanced, usually involving guilt for the quality and comfort of their lives in the face of the poverty and misery of so many others on earth, the crimes of America in particular and the West in general, etc. None of these explanations are satisfactory and I will deal with them in another place.

Two men, living centuries apart, may have foreseen the course of our civilization. Francis Bacon defined the scale of honors available to men as members of a society and Abraham Lincoln foresaw what the thirst for those honors would do to it.

"The true marshalling of the degrees of sovereign honor, are these: In the first place are conditores imperiorum, founders of states and commonwealths; such as were Romulus, Cyrus, Caesar, Ottoman, Ismael. In the second place are legislatores, lawgivers; which are also called second founders, or perpetui principes, because they govern by their ordinances after they are gone; such were Lycurgus, Solon, Justinian, Eadgar, Alphonsus of Castile, the Wise, that made the Siete Partidas. In the third place are liberatores, or salvatores, such as compound the long miseries of civil wars, or deliver their countries from servitude of strangers or tyrants; as Augustus Caesar, Vespasianus, Aurelianus, Theodoricus, King Henry the Seventh of England, King Henry the Fourth of France. In the fourth place are propagatores or propugnatores imperii; such as in honorable wars enlarge their territories, or make noble defence against invaders. And in the last place are patres patriae; which reign justly, and make the times good wherein they live. Both which last kinds need no examples, they are in such number."

Francis Bacon; On Honor

"That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it: - their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful: and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen."

Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Liceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838

Any deep study of world history shows that Western Civilization is indeed exceptional, and that America is the most extreme exemplar of what is unique in that civilization. No one seriously disputes this. There are those who say that America is uniquely guilty and destructive but no one says that America is overrated and made too much of, whether for good or ill.

That very uniqueness raises a disturbing question, is it stable in the long run? Civilization is about ten thousand years old, but industrial-technological civilization is only centuries old. Free, open and democratic civilization, as opposed to the “brute simplicity of Caesarism”, seems to both foster it and be dependant on it for any great degree of population. It cannot yet be taken for granted that this kind of civilization can maintain itself as long as earlier forms have.

A lot of space in The Federalist Papers is devoted to explaining why Montesquie’s contention that a republic can only be stable on a small scale did not apply to the proposed United States of America. While the experiment has succeeded to a degree even the Founders may not have anticipated, we have now arrived at point where we have a more-or-less republican form of government and a population of about three hundred million. This is without precedent in history and there is nothing to indicate that this state is stable in the long run.

So given the unprecedented bounty of wealth and freedom of our civilization, and the uncertainty of its permanence, why is it hated by the people who most benefit from it?

The answer seems to be, because they did not create it themselves.


  • At 3:16 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    A small but important cavil: America is not a civilisation, as your post seems to state, but merely the most important (or the most central) part of one.

  • At 3:40 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    See the paragraph just under the Lincoln quote.

  • At 5:35 PM, Blogger Askinstoo said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 6:28 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I just deleted an ADVERTISEMENT someone posted to my blog. There is a special place in hell reserved for people who do this. It's right next to the telephone solicitors...

  • At 10:03 PM, Blogger Mollie said…

    How about this: there is, in human DNA, a close association of Boredom with Distemper.

    We are rich, we are bored.

    I remember asking myself (and others) why is it, when young people are bored, why don't they go out and do something NICE; but now, they go out and shoplift or break a window.

    Well, maybe it is hardwired in us, to destroy when we are bored.

  • At 8:29 PM, Blogger tcobb said…

    I suspect that much of it is due to the fact that the US is so very individualistic, and most people there really don't tend to care very much about what other people think as to how they should live their lives or the degree of deference they should show their "betters." But people in positions of wealth (mainly those who inherited it rather than earning it) and prestige somehow assume that people should pay strict attention to what they say and should obey and agree with them. And when they do not it must be because there is something fundamentally wrong with the common people and the very culture that spawned them.

    That's my two cents on the subject.

  • At 6:05 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    An excellent point that I will likely touch on later. It was previously quite fashionable for the very wealthy to ape the lifestyle and manners of the European aristocracy - even to the extent of marrying their children into it. But notice how they have to play those games among themselves because folks in America just don't take they seriously when they do.


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