Whence arose the might of Western Civilization? And whither did it depart? The latest essay from JLH supplies some thoughts on these and other questions about our parlous times.
I begin with a quote from The Kafir’s latest essay: “So we are going to see a very painful and brutal death of the finest achievement of man: Western Civilization.” My first thoughts on reading this were:
|1)||How did “we” manage this achievement?|
|2)||Why are we going to watch it die?
A facile answer to question 1) is: The Judaeo-Christian heritage, regarded by T. S. Eliot as the indispensable bedrock of our civilization; leavened by the bright spirit of the Renaissance. A more complicated and less idealistic answer lies in the nature of vigorous civilizations.
Exploration, Discovery, Adventure, Profit
Lest we forget, the Christian half of that heritage did not “drop like the gentle rain from heaven.” Charlemagne/Charles the Great/Karl der Grosse — credited with founding The Holy Roman Empire (famously described later as “not holy, not Roman and not an empire”) out of a riot of fractious Germanic and other tribes — was a Frankish warrior for Christ. Somewhat to his east, the continental cousins of the Saxons who had once invaded (immigrated and infiltrated?) Britain were reluctant to accept the blessings of Christianity — Woden and company were good enough for them. So Charlemagne was forced to mount a number of campaigns — first to convert them, the hard way, and then to remind them forcefully now and then that they had converted and could not un-convert. Which earned him the sobriquet “Karl, der Sachsenschlächter” — “Charles, the Saxon-Butcher.”
Later and further north, the great and successful Viking and then converted Christian Olaf Tryggvason earned the title “Saint Olaf” by his ruthless progression up the coast of Norway, demanding of each municipality that it convert to Christianity and consequently accept him as its king. According to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, those that resisted had their uses. After their inevitable defeat, some of them were sent on to the next town or city with the adjuration to surrender and avoid unpleasantness. The message was emphasized by the fact that those who brought it were without a nose, an ear, a hand or some other part.
The Vikings have been described by one Scandinavian scholar as “entrepreneurs”, and they did have some of the qualities of an independent, no-holds-barred, small-business capitalist. With the investment of one good ship and a crew of willing shareholders, an enterprise could be launched. They did not just raid for profit, they also traded. (One item prized in Rome was amber with an insect trapped forever inside.) Although often described in horrifying terms by the victims of their raids and depredations, they also exemplify those qualities which explain the later success and expansion of “the West” — Exploration, Discovery, Adventure, Profit.
The Viking Age extended from ca. 793 to 1066. That is, from seven years before Charlemagne received the first imperial crown from the hands of Pope Leo III, to the culminating “Viking” invasion of England, when the Saxon King Harald Godwinson fought off the invasion of the Viking, Harald Hardrada, in the north, then rushed south, only to be killed at the calamitous Battle of Hastings, won by William the Conqueror of Normandy — from the line of Rollo (Hrólfr) the Viking, who had settled and expanded the continental province eventually named for the Norsemen.
The European spirit of adventure and exploration did not begin or end with the Viking Age. St. Brendan’s 6th-century journey from Ireland to Iceland prefaced those of Eric the Red, Leif Ericsson and others in the 10th and 11th centuries to Iceland, Greenland and North America in search of new places to settle. Then the 13th and 14th century journeys of Marco Polo and others in search of the spices and silk of Asia. Then the proliferation of exploratory voyages by the seafaring peoples of the Atlantic coast, beginning in the 14th and 15th centuries. So began the true marriage of adventure and exploration with commerce and conquest. Large and small empires were formed by Holland, Belgium, France, Britain, Portugal and Spain, with tentacles encompassing the Western Hemisphere, much of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, portions of Asia and the scattered lands of the Pacific.
What was it that made these intrepid adventurers so irresistible? They had large and powerful sailing ships, loaded with the armaments necessary to defend themselves against their European competitors. The initial armed clash with an African or American or other indigenous people may have had some of the quality of Hitler’s panzer corps confronted by the valiant and futile charge of the Polish cavalry. Not that the natives were necessarily meek and peaceful. They just did not yet have a parity in armaments. For instance, the Afro-wearing Hedandoa warriors of the Sudan, toasted as fearsome fighters by Rudyard Kipling:
So ’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ’eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ’ere ‘s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air—
You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!
European nations intruded in many places in search of profit — treasure, slaves, exclusive trade agreements, mining rights, safe ports of call, trade routes to the interior. They were in their own way as entrepreneurial as the Vikings. (Could we call this ”state-sponsored capitalism”?) But sometimes continuing profit is only possible with control. With control comes a necessity to administer, and with administration comes an injection of the ruling culture into the subject culture, and often an osmotic effect in the opposite direction. Any such structure requires mortar to hold the bricks of the new structure in place, just as Charlemagne and Olaf demolished the diverse pagan cults and substituted a unified structure bound by the mortar of Christianity.
All charitable intentions notwithstanding, the effect of substituting one system of values for another is far beyond the moral benefits perceived by the dominant culture. One concerned English aristocrat tried to explain this by creating a short fable. Imagine, she said, that a mother elephant is walking carelessly through the jungle and inadvertently steps on a mother partridge, killing her instantly. She is so plagued by guilt that she feels the need to make restitution for her careless act, which has left the partridge’s eggs orphaned. So to make up for the loss of their mother, she sits on them. That is, even the best-intentioned imposition of one morality or tradition on another can be destructive.
A prime example may be found in a play — based on an actual incident in Nigeria — that had great success on Broadway: Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman,” in which the interference with a ritual suicide by a horrified British official accomplishes not only the death of the original intended suicide, but also of his Westernized son, to say nothing of the cosmic damage wrought both on native beliefs and on those struggling with the pangs of Christian conversion.
Honesty requires us to admit that the motives of “our” colonialism were not simply to bring civilization and the one true faith to the “pore benighted ’eathen,” but to control resources, to monopolize trade, that is, to turn a profit. Perhaps the indigenous peoples would have been better off if we had left them alone. They could have gone on killing and conquering each other with the same enthusiasm, but somewhat less efficiency. And, as the history of Shaka Zulu suggests, even without gunpowder, they would have improved on that, too. Perhaps they also would have found a cure for typhoid, malaria and AIDS, and created their own version of the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps not.
What drove our predecessors to these voyages was, admittedly, a spirit of adventure and a “capitalist” impulse to find something, or somewhere, better, and bring it home. It was in that respect different from the impetus for the fearsome incursions of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, in that its main motivation was not conquest for conquest’s sake. That does not excuse their excesses, but it separates them from a single-minded drive to dominate and destroy, with less than no regard for the humanity of the enemy — one exemplified most recently by ISIS. Ruthless and bloody-minded though they could be, our ancestors at least aspired to human sympathies, ergo the aristocratic lady’s elephant story and the reception of Wole Soyinka’s play.
That same, restless spirit of inquiry and quest for more also percolated through Europeans at home in Europe, creating both wealth and energy, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment on which we place so much emphasis as the foundation of a free and just society. The transformation wrought by an up-swelling of musical, artistic, literary, philosophical and political creativity was just as unplanned, inevitable and massive as the transformation of Europe’s relationship to the greater world wrought by its adventurous sallies into the unknown. And ultimately even more universal in its reach.
Where did those thousands of French, Russians and residents of other European nations come from — the ones who died like flies on the fields of Napoleon’s battles? How did Spain, with an assist from Portugal, manage to invade, overrun and acculturate nearly two-thirds of an entire hemisphere? How did Britain manage to field armies on four continents at the height of its empire, to say nothing of founding the nation of Australia out of the overflow from the prison hulks on the Thames? And how did it “rule the waves” of the seven seas with a navy mightier than any seen before? Where did all the sailors come from? Please don’t tell me about impressment and other ruthless tactics to fill the crews. I know that. Just tell me how Europe produced the wealth of population that allowed these massive endeavors. Is this the Europe that now looks forward to ethnic suffocation by means of immigration and alien fertility?
After surviving the Black Plague, the unforgiving religious wars and other catastrophes, what was the life force that produced the masses of humanity necessary to go out into the world and wager their lives on a dangerous endeavor? We could use some of that today!
There is also a corollary to Exploration, Discovery, Adventure and Profit. Remember Kipling’s “pore benighted ’eathen”? Well, guess what cause this particular “heathen” was fighting for? He was a part of the army of Muhammad Ahmad, who had proclaimed himself “Mahdi” — the figure whose appearance and reign will redeem Islam and usher in the end of the world. Two of the clashes with this “army of dervishes and natives” resulted in defeats for the armies of the British Empire and its allies, and one in the rare breaking of the British military square. It also emphasized another significant and fateful development for the peoples of Black Africa.
Parallel to and preceding the European incursions from the western and then the southern coast, another penetration was (had been) taking place from the north, in some cases directly across the desert, and along the eastern coast. Arabic and Berber traders, raiders and settlers arrived, bringing the message of Islam: the destined submission to the one, true God. Such proselytizing was the impetus for the so-called “Fulani Jihad” which blazed across the western savannah in the 19th century, killing and converting. Long after the Crusades had failed to reclaim the Holy Land from the clutches of Islamic conquest, Exploration, Discovery, Adventure and Profit was rubbing elbows with Destiny, Conquest, Dominion and Dhimmitude.
Thus, what are now the two largest religious populations of the world were forming up, side-by-side and head-to head. Given a few centuries’ head start, Christianity is still somewhat in the lead world-wide. This must be galling for the militant spiritual-cum-military leaders of the Islamic world. But the problem can be solved — forcible conversions, wholesale takeovers, mass executions, invasive immigration and a burgeoning birth rate. It all cuts down the advantage. And even in a perfect, parasitic, Islamic world, there will always have to be some dhimmis; not because they have a right to exist, but because they are necessary to keep the economy humming and the jizya flowing. Furthermore, Islam has not found it necessary to outlaw slavery, which still exists in at least some parts of the Islamic world.
The actions of the invading Europeans are explained by their drive to constantly find new paths to wealth and commerce, while salving their consciences by referencing the blessings of “civilization” and the message of Christianity. Islamic invaders in every corner of the world offer the simpler, straightforward assertion that, eventually, the whole world must be subject to their God. Who needs profit when you have the Prophet? One essential difference between them is exemplified by their definition of “martyr.” The prototypical Christian martyr’s faith is proven by the joyous affirmation of belief and expectation of an everlasting reward in heaven, even while being burned, beheaded, mauled by lions. crucified or shot full of arrows. The prototypical Islamic martyr, on the other hand, is distinguished by a joyful slaughter of others and the expectation of an everlasting reward from an apparently bloodthirsty deity.
In fact, these differing definitions of martyrdom reflect how adherents of the two religions may perceive their sacred writings, traditions and legends. Christ taught humility, forbearance, forgiveness and turning the other cheek. A teaching that is aspired to, but often honored more in the breach. Mohammed taught revenge, domination and ruthless extirpation. A teaching that is honored literally and unapologetically.
Another difference is the official attitude toward “empire.” The official and unofficial Islamic attitude toward the lands and peoples they have subdued and/or extinguished is “It is our destiny, and yours.” What kind of reaction could a Gandhi expect if he led a peaceful movement to free his people in, let us say, Sudan, whose southern citizens endured 40+ years of genocidal civil war to Islamize and Arabize them? (To say nothing of the “guerrilla war” against the black Muslims of Darfur.) Now declared independent, after prolonged pressure from the “world,” i.e., the West, the people of Southern Sudan live in “peace” with the regime and its supporters. And without the attention of the “world,” they would quickly disappear into the mists of history.
Notwithstanding Gandhi’s success against the British Raj, it is the West that is assumed by its own internal critics to be the worst offender. Everyone is aware of the negative official and unofficial Western attitude toward everything from Columbus’s unethical intrusion into the New World to the invasion of Iraq (excluding, of course, WWII, where the enemy was the Nazis — whose heirs live on as conservatives, Zionists, anti-Islamists and members of the NRA).
Even as the West has backed away from its conquests, leaving them to local control and often offering a helping hand in the difficult business of becoming independent, there is not the slightest suggestion that Turkey might give back a bit of ancient Armenia — let alone admit to genocide; or that Albania or Bosnia might be compensated for the havoc that was wrought by the forcible conversion of their Christian populations. Far from redress for atrocities committed against the once populous Christian settlements of the Middle East, there is an ongoing effort to stamp them out.
Whether we are still “Christian” or just conscious of our past, can we be less tough-minded and determined than the Crusaders who perished in a largely futile effort to preserve the heartland of their religion, and the land of origin of our prized heritage? Can we be less courageous than those first sailors who set off into the unknown, to sail — for all they knew — off the edge of the world?
A Sickness Unto Death
Can we? Well, that depends on who we are now.
In a university somewhere in America in the mid-1950s, a philosophy seminar was offered to a small number of seniors from varied disciplines. Entrance was approved only after a personal interview with the professor. The course was called “War and Peace” and the reading ranged from Tolstoy’s mammoth novel to John Hersey’s Hiroshima. The most memorable session in the course began with the teacher declaring that the topic for the day was “Defend War”.
At first, no one spoke. Then there were a few half-hearted explanations of why it was necessary to go to war to combat evil. But that, the instructor reminded them, was not the assignment. Eventually, an economics major talked with increasing fluency about the technological and economic advances caused by war, and the end benefits to at least some of the participants. After a shocked silence, he was roundly attacked for such a callous analysis. Some of the class debated him vigorously, and others less so. But he never had any defenders.
To some in the class, this was a colossal waste of time. For others, it became a clarifying moment in their thinking about a subject that had seemed to have only one side to it. WWII had engendered a black-and-white view of some things. The years after 1945 had begun to blur the contrasts.
Europe, and its allies and dependents around the globe, had engulfed nearly the entire world in a mammoth conflict that had ended scarcely ten years before this course was offered. A revolutionary view of society had arisen, eventually labeled Marxism, and had been put into practice in various forms. One version of socialism found a home in the Soviet Union as Communism, while the German version chose to follow its own, nationalized path as National Socialism.
What had not long before been a squabbling collection of acquisitive, adventurous and colonizing nations appeared to explode from within. Blitzkrieg tore across the continent, until the powerful reaction set in, after which the homeland of Nazism was defeated, occupied and allowed to rebuild along with its equally devastated neighbors. And where Hitler’s armies had powered across borders with armored columns and airpower, Stalin’s massive military oozed and elbowed its way into occupation of half of Europe, while the “West” looked on. Proponents of democracy around the world faced the realization of a Pyrrhic victory. And the siren song of universal cooperation first sung in the League of Nations was heard again in the United Nations.
This was the schizophrenic world outside the seminar room. Free enterprise, free speech, freedom as a way of life in one-half of the Western world, and the consciousness that the other half was living in a cage. Unparalleled prosperity contrasted with schoolchildren practicing duck-and-cover in an age of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The driving, frenetic distraction of rock-and-roll masking a doomsday cult of better-red-than-dead.
And “as we slept,” those who feared everything and loved their comfort and position more than anything bonded with those whose hard-nosed religion was the dismantling of the unjust, capitalist West so that better people might govern better. Free enterprise and free speech were joined by free love and freedom from religion. Departments and schools of education — those havens of mediocrity — sent their emissaries out to transform the unruly education system, from academe at the top to kindergarten at the bottom.
Gradually, the younger generations learned what the older ones never knew: The government loves you — religion and capitalism do not. Being “exceptional” is tantamount to aggressive behavior. If no one else is strong enough to punish us for our arrogance, it is a matter of conscience for us to do it ourselves. We have sinned as no one has ever sinned before — and the proof is that we have too much.
If this is indeed a “matter of conscience,“ then it almost seems as if Shakespeare had peered into the future and heard the mewling of a bewildered, infantilized and suicidal civilization:
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all.
And thus the Native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought.
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.
Is this why the energy has leaked out of us — why “enterprises of great pitch and moment have turned awry and lost the name of action”? Is this really “conscience” calling us to penance? Or is it the malign working of anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, anti-Enlightenment lowlifes in league with immigrating/invading agents of an age-old hijra — both of them shielded by those who will do anything to preserve their lives in their rose-colored bubble? Are we so undone by the overt and covert actions of those three groups that we are prepared to abjure our ancestors in a way no other civilization has done?
Just think, once the Swedish longships provoked terror wherever they went. Now Swedish girls dye their blonde hair black to lessen their attractiveness to the new, Islamic owners of the night. And when did the rest of us lose our mojo? When did the catchword change from: “We have met the enemy and he is ours” to: “We have met the enemy and he is bigger than we are”?
The proto-communists among us, the Good People whose maudlin hope is to assuage the blood-hunger of the piranhas by casting bread upon the waters, the jihadist enablers, and a government composed of all three have brought us to that of state of despair and self-denial analogous to Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death. The cure for which is a leap of faith — be it religious, philosophical, political or just personal.
Faith in what? you ask. Let’s face it, the world our ancestors inhabited, like the one we inhabit right now, has always been a rough neighborhood. It’s not the kind of place where you get a good conduct medal for trying hard, or a badge for smiling nicely. It’s do or die. I say that we can have faith that our ancestors were no worse, and in most cases a lot better, than anyone else’s ancestors. And that goes for us too.
Out of all the mincing do-gooders and weaselly backstabbers and fifth column infiltrators and apparatchik bureaucrats, let one of them show us anyone who has done better, or more, for the world they live in. Enough guilt-trips from people who know no shame. As Popeye liked to say: “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” And in a world filled with the misdeeds of the truly evil and the truly venal, that should d–n well be enough.
If anyone finds this disquisition to be “micro-aggressive,” then I have failed. It was meant to be macro-.
Note: Morituri Salutamus, meaning “we who are about to die salute you” in Latin, was reportedly spoken to Caesar by gladiators at the games in Rome. It was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as the title of a poem written on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the class of 1825 at Bowdoin College, Maine.