The vitality of Western civilisation
- March 1, 2023
- Andrew Ehrhardt
Throughout history, humans have expressed pessimism about the present and future prospects of society. Today is no different, but reframing our thinking may help us come to terms with our own age of alarm.
Hyperbole drives our age of alarmism. Of most concern is an exaggerated and overly emotional rhetoric in what should be more thoughtful realms of discourse. One of our leading public intellectuals, the historian Timothy Snyder, described in the pages of Foreign Affairs what he saw as the gravity of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The slow response of Western governments to the Russian invasion, he claims, ‘shows how close the West came to conceding the tradition of democracy’. This view is not so much a cause as a symptom of a collective mindset, one that sees recent history as a series of life-altering inflection points. This is set against a more general feeling that the world, to say nothing of the United States, is entering — or perhaps has already been experiencing — a period of political and cultural turbulence with no clear escape. It has never been so bad, we cry out, as we experience a global pandemic and increasing domestic political polarisation, or witness atrocities carried out by the Russian military and North Korean missiles violating Japanese airspace.
But it is worth pausing in this mental maelstrom to ask if these times are indeed exceptional in historical terms, whether it is reality itself or the perception of reality that drives these near-apocalyptic prognoses, and what a certain type of historical perspective might offer us in this period of trepidation.
In works of history and literature, we observe individuals consistently displaying pessimism about the present and future prospects of their society. As the Visigoths laid siege to Rome in late August of 410AD, Roman citizens despaired of what had become of their city and empire. The feeling of collective decline was one of the catalysts for Saint Augustine’s City of God , 22 volumes that sought to convince Christians of the righteousness of their faith in a time of tumult.
A thousand years on, we see cases of Europeans in the mid-seventeenth century wholly cynical about their societies, even after the heady, liberating, and optimistic decades of what we now refer to as the Renaissance. Around the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, there appeared numerous cyclical theories of history, which charted and prophesied the rise and decline of societies. The majority of these were efforts by leading thinkers to make sense of the tectonic political, religious, and intellectual movements around them.
The nineteenth century was similar. Despite technological advances that transformed science, industry, and communications, there were writers expressing profound concern about the direction of societies and nations. ‘The world is drawing to a close,’ wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire in 1851. Likewise, there were dour predictions from other giants of literature, from the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky to the German Thomas Mann. The latter’s first novel, Buddenbrooks, released in 1901, was written, he later recalled, with the idea of following ‘the psychology of the spent life-force and portray the spiritual sophistication and aesthetic inspiration that accompany biological decay’.
There are countless examples of such writing in political and academic circles, too. In Walter Lippmann’s celebrated Drift and Mastery, written in 1914 when he was just 24, there were warnings of impending decline and proposals for dealing with new realities of industry and technology. The ‘crisis of modernity’ was a familiar refrain from some of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, including Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss. Each writer, from varying perspectives and for different reasons, described what they saw as the moral and spiritual decline of Western society. The conservative German philosopher and theologian Karl Lowith noted a peculiar tendency as he tried to make sense of his own time. ‘People are always looking for better times, either expecting them from the future or projecting them into the past because they are afflicted with the evils of the present,’ he surmised. The English Fabian Leonard Woolf put it more plainly, and described his view of historical process. He wrote in 1916 of:
the historically false view which men invariably take of the present. It is almost impossible not to believe that each to-day is the end of the world. Our own short era seems invariably to be in the history of the world a culmination either of progress or dissolution. But in history there are really no culminations and no cataclysms; there is only a feeble dribble of progress, sagging first to one side and then to the other, but always dribbling a little in one direction.
Setting aside this and other philosophies of history, we might ask a more general question: whether part of being modern — of existing in the present — is believing, from time to time, and in different forms and intensity, that one’s society is in crisis. If so, is this seemingly inescapable perception beneficial or detrimental to society itself?
It may seem paradoxical, but such a perception, provided it is moderate and not needlessly cataclysmic, can provide a healthy stimulus. It requires, however, a certain mental adjustment in the way we think about society and the process of history. A useful window into, and perhaps out of, our present condition can be pieced together through three European historians of the twentieth century: Arnold Toynbee, Pieter Geyl, and Benedetto Croce. Though different in nationality, outlook, interest, and claim, each offers a valuable lens for contemporary thinking around politics and culture in the Western world.
First, each man saw the idea of civilisation as a useful and purposeful metric of international history. ‘Civilisations are the greatest and the rarest achievements of human society,’ Toynbee told an audience at the University of Oxford in 1920. Over the next three decades, he would become the doyen of twentieth-century civilisation studies, publishing 12 volumes charting the rise and disintegration of 21 distinct civilizations, and even appearing on the cover of Time in 1947. There are many problems with Toynbee’s overarching arguments, which have been criticised by historians and scholars since the first volumes appeared in 1934. Yet still, the breadth and depth of his erudition and his imaginative analysis of complex phenomena continue to turn up stimulating gems of insight.
One is his idea of ‘challenge and response’, which becomes the key factor in the genesis and development of civilisations, and, by extension, responsible for the movement of history. ‘A society,’ he writes , ‘is confronted in the course of its life by a succession of problems … the presentation of each problem is a challenge to undergo an ordeal.’ The majority of these challenges are internal, he posits, though he did place emphasis on ordeals caused by external forces, for example, a military invasion or natural disaster. More telling was the question of whether individuals were willing and able to respond creatively to such challenges. Toynbee did not escape criticism on this point. Fernand Braudel thought the notion of challenge and response to be ‘common sense,’ even taking into account the great number of challenges not taken up throughout history. Others saw in Toynbee’s idea an ‘anthropomorphic’ concept. ‘Challenge and response may be valid in the life of each individual,’ wrote Hugh Kearney, ‘but it is excessive simplification when applied to the life of a society or an institution.’
Another of Toynbee’s critics was the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl. Viewing Toynbee’s grand scheme as too simplistic, he nonetheless considered the idea of civilisations responding to challenges as a key driver of history. In the late 1950s, a period that many in the West now consider to be the high watermark of the post-Second World War success story, Geyl addressed a growing theme within European capitals — namely, the decline of purpose and energy within Western societies. ‘The great problem of our day is that of the salvation of Western civilisation,’ he lamented. But where a number of famous public intellectuals of the period, including Toynbee and his British colleague Geoffrey Barraclough, warned of a dire future for the Western world, Geyl was more sanguine. Something he referred to as the ‘Vitality of Western Civilisation,’ he told students at the University of Utrecht, was necessary in this atmosphere of cynicism.
Here Geyl emphasised what he saw as the most important characteristic of Western culture, namely the ideal of liberty. It was a view that brought him close to the thought of one of the great, if recently overlooked, thinkers of the twentieth century, the Italian Benedetto Croce. Like Toynbee and Geyl, Croce was conscious of the traditions and experience of Western civilisation, including its successes and horrors, its self-conscious reflections and its inspired renewals. ‘Human history is the history of man’s laborious efforts to adjust himself to new conditions and thereby to adjust the conditions to himself, so as to be able to put his heart into utilising them and living worthily,’ he wrote in 1925
In 1932, writing in Foreign Affairs, Croce, much like Timothy Snyder today, lamented what seemed to be a collective perception of civilisational decline. Communism, for Croce, posed a great challenge for liberalism writ large, and it had led to a new ‘chorus of pessimism and decadence … this time announcing the decline of western civilisation and of the human race itself’. Croce, however, remained optimistic, provided that individuals and societies — or civilisations — remained conscious of their own historical development, and crucially, the path of the concept of liberty therein:
Not ‘a history of the future’ (as the old thinkers used to define prophecy), but a history of the past which is summed up in the present, is what we need for our work, for our action. And what we need most at the moment is to examine, or at least to review, those ideals which are generally accepted today. We must discover whether they contain the power to dissolve or surpass or correct the ideals which we ourselves hold; so that thereafter we may change or modify our ideals, and in any event reestablish [sic] them upon a surer, sounder foundation.
As was always the case for Croce — and for Toynbee and Geyl as well — historical understanding and consciousness, particularly around key ideals within civilisation, was indispensable for present and future action.
Where does this leave us today? As a start, we might consider whether the term civilisation still holds any meaning. Its modern conception in international affairs has been poisoned by readings, some accurate, many not, of Samuel Huntington’s work in the mid-1990s. To use the word in any genuine sense, as former head of policy planning in the US State Department, Kiron Skinner, tried to do in the spring of 2019, is to invite suspicion of ethnic, racial, and religious division, and worse, superiority. But should we moderns see in the term civilisation an empty or perverse quality? Could it be that some great scholars who were advocates of the civilisational unit, from Toynbee and Braudel to Margaret Mead and Robert Cox, were completely misguided?
It doesn’t help that the term has its modern origins in certain strands of eighteenth-century Western thought; specifically the word ‘civility’ and the verb ‘to civilise.’ These questionable terms were often used to distinguish Western society from other cultures , and included the notions of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarity.’ This understanding saw civilisation as a process, as opposed to a more static form of categorisation. This notion was still used into the nineteenth century, as was a more singular version: the evolution of humanity. ‘The cause of civilisation is not that of any one country, but all of mankind,’ wrote George Harris in 1861. But into the twentieth century, partly through the tracts of Oswald Spengler and Toynbee, the term came to be used more to describe large and distinct societies which had grown up over time. In 1968 the anthropologist Margaret Mead held to a similar description. ‘Civilisation … is not simply a word of approval, as one would say ‘he is uncivilised,’ but it is a technical description of a particular kind of social system that makes a particular kind of culture possible.’
Not everyone accepted this view. The French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote in the decades after the Second World War that the category was growing obsolete. ‘We are discovering both the limited validity of the concept of civilisation and the need to transcend that concept,’ he said. The world around him had doubtless become more interconnected and interdependent, a reality that has only increased. Globalisation, a concept both lauded and maligned in the last decade, attests to this reality. Is it perhaps better, as Aron subtly indicated, to speak of ‘humanity’ or ‘human civilisation’ instead?
A contemporary of Aron, Braudel saw more relevance in an older conception of civilisation, all the while acknowledging its nebulous nature. ‘No two people agree on how the distinction is to be drawn,’ he wrote in 1994. ‘It varies from country to country, and within one country from period to period, and from one author to another.’ To make it even more perplexing, such units, for example Western civilisation, might comprise a number of smaller civilisations, including Mexican, Polish, French, or American. The concept is fluid, yet there is something to be said for its ability to capture larger geographic, economic, political, cultural, and moral characteristics of societies throughout history. It is a concept that is at once confusing and enlightening, a frustration for the mechanical mind but stimulating for more historical, philosophical, and artful ways of thinking. ‘Civilisation is something we carry in our heads which guides our understanding of the world,’ Robert Cox wrote, ‘and for different peoples this understanding is different.’
It is this concept that might, in our own age of alarm, help us reframe our mental paradigm. For not only is the civilisational unit of analysis useful, it may also help us to adjust our expectations, to begin viewing crises as the norm and not the exception, something to be overcome with historically-inspired humility and not cataclysmic resignation. In speaking of Western civilisation, for example, we do not claim superiority, righteousness, or progress, but rather cultural distinction, which is itself constantly changing in its diverse and multi-layered political, economic, social, and spiritual forms. Because such change is inherent in civilisations, the concept is impossible to grasp without an historical sensibility . Such a perspective tethers us to the past, including both horrid and pleasant precedents, while forcing individuals and groups to reflect on this experience as they move forward.
Within this framework, we might also borrow from the arguments of Geyl and Croce, to see in the historic concept of liberty a living ideal in need of adaptation and modification in the face of changing realities. This is an internal as much as an external challenge for Western civilisation. The modern concept of liberty must be forged as much against the backdrop of zealots espousing, say, Christian nationalism on American and European stages as it is against authoritarian foreign powers. Such a profound collective activity is daunting, but in this process, we might find comfort in belonging, as we do, to a long and winding stream of human history, one in which challenges to certain civilisations demand not resignation and despair, but reflection, organisation, and action.