Western Civilization - Now What?
The mood in the Western world today is somewhat strange. Against an arguably uplifting backdrop – a lasting peace, extended life expectancy, a steadily decreasing violent crime rate, rising education levels, greater social tolerance, a continuous flow of innovations making life ever more comfortable – there is a general sense of unease and a diminishing confidence in the future. Many authors have offered explanations for this malaise in the civilization, analyzing it from various angles: political, economic, religious, psychological or environmental. But these explanations, as pertinent and convincing as they are, appear to come short of identifying what underlies the present state of Western civilization.
After having unified itself through Christianity, produced the Scientific Revolution, launched the Industrial Revolution, dazzled humanity with its artistic masterpieces, and developed democracy, the West is having doubts about its future. Government is deemed increasingly ineffective, consumed by a never-ending struggle between opposing parties, rather than focused on devising and implementing strategies that will benefit society lastingly. Christianity, the traditional religion, is no longer the spiritual framework of existence to a majority of Westerners. This essay has the ambition to offer an explanation of this particular state Western civilization finds itself in, and a possible remedy to it.
1)The present state: horizontality
The Western world today is characterized by horizontality. Horizontality arose from the Scientific Revolution and its mechanistic concept of nature, which infused Western culture thanks to its success in explaining natural phenomenon. The mechanistic concept of nature transformed nature from being subject to the will of God to being governed by fixed laws. It was horizontal in that nature no longer depended on the will of some supernatural agent above and beyond it. Following the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers extended this concept of a horizontal and independent physical reality to the human world, and arrived at a horizontal concept of humanity: human beings are naturally equal, and they should govern themselves rather than be governed by a ruler above and separate from them. Horizontality has had two main effects in Western civilization: the birth of democracy and the fading of spiritual transcendence.
The Enlightenment philosophers drew a conclusion from the notion that all human beings are naturally equal. Their logical conclusion was that all human beings should have equal rights. They named those rights as natural or human rights. These include liberty, equality before the law, freedom of expression, freedom of association, property rights and equal political rights. Equal political rights mean equal right to run for elections, equal right to vote at elections, and equal voting power in elections (one person’s vote has the same weight as another person’s vote). This set of fundamental rights are now universally approved in Western society and deeply embedded in Western minds.
Democracy is the product of the equality of political rights. It is therefore firmly established in Western societies. But the Western world would be mistaken if it thought that because it is the most powerful civilization in the world today with its technical superiority, its political system is vindicated, or that its political system is a condition of its material success. In fact, historically, the technical supremacy of the Western world well preceded the development of democracy. The Scientific Revolution, which started in 1543 with Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and was achieved in 1687 with Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, took place in a Europe with non-democratic political systems: kingdoms, duchies, principalities and empires. Significant material and technical development followed and just before 1800 for the United States and in the middle of the 1800s for most European countries, various forms of democracy were adopted. And most of these were far from full democracies at the time, as a large part of society was not allowed to vote. After the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment came about with its new ideas and ideals centered around the principle of equality which would mature into the political system that is democracy. I argue that one of the three equalities of right on which democracy is based, namely the equality of voting power, is misguided. Not grounding the political system in a correct understanding of social organizations makes democracy in its current form unsustainable over the long run.
The ‘bottom-up’ approach to strategic decisions in an organization rarely works. The ‘top-down’ approach is the only way an organization can be effective over the long run. Competences, abilities, experience as well as information are not the same between the top, the executive level, and the bottom, the production level. In an army for example, those in command have different competences, skills and knowledge from the soldiers on the ground. They also have aggregate information relevant to their scope of decision which soldiers don’t have. Soldiers, for lack of relevant competences and information, cannot be put in charge of strategic decisions; that would be disastrous in the conduct of war. But this is in essence what happens in a democratic political system. In a democracy, someone who does not have the competences, experience or knowledge suited to make strategic decisions for society, takes part on an equal footing with someone who does to the political process that sets society’s strategy. Electing leaders in a representative democracy doesn’t solve the problem because the leaders must at least to some extent mirror the electorate since the electorate selects them. The lack of competences, experience and knowledge in the electorate are reflected in the policies on which candidates run their campaign. And once elected, the leaders must strive to implement the policies they ran on – otherwise they won’t be re-elected.
The development of democracy transformed the Western world in a very profound and positive way. It emancipated people from unfair and authoritarian regimes. This development happened gradually, with women gaining the right to vote only around 1920 in most Western countries. For some countries, full democracy became effective even later when all minorities were granted the right to vote and stand elections. Including everyone in the political process, not discriminating people based on gender, race, wealth or other arbitrary characteristics, has been a prodigious progress for humankind. However, along with the unfairness of prior political regimes, democracy also removed one element that is required in order to maintain an effective social organization: verticality. It abandoned a key social principle that breeds and sustains success.
Businesses soundly are still organized vertically, and this is a cornerstone of their achievements. Their ability to bring about a high level of innovation and efficiency depends on this verticality, on this top-down approach. Companies and corporations are the main drivers of Western civilization’s success today. However, they have nowhere near the scale of society. Their number of employees is very small compared to society’s total population. For this reason, they cannot provide verticality at the scale of society. Moreover, as they deal mostly with commercial and economic matters, they are not much involved in important and strategic areas such as education, scientific research, defense, justice, infrastructures and long-term planning.
The fading of spiritual transcendence
In the absence of modern science and its explanation of the workings of the natural world, including the origins of the human species, the founders of Judaism, the religion preceding Christianity, conceived transcendence as a personal deity. God created the world, and he was personal which meant that he could communicate with humans. His message to them was to explain why they existed and what the purpose of life was. The founders of Judaism wrote ‘holy scriptures’ laying out the contract between God and the Jewish people. This gave life a superior overarching meaning beyond day-to-day survival and beyond the very short span of life. The central element tying humans to God was morality. God was conceived as the source of morality, and morality was the vehicle through which humans could fulfill their purpose on Earth. Christianity, having its source in Judaism, also tied humans to God through morality. Morality and its ultimate form, love, were seen by early Christians as the answer to the question of life’s purpose. A lapse in morality was the reason for ‘the Fall’, the reason why humans are mortals living on Earth rather than immortals living with God. Morality was also the path to follow in order to regain the privilege and felicity of being united with the creator. By worshiping God and behaving at the highest moral standard, humans would get God’s blessing on Earth and join him in the afterlife. This provided the meaning of human existence.
Morality was central because it was critical to the survival of a small and vulnerable Jewish people compared to its much bigger neighbors. A breakdown of morality was a great risk to society’s strength and unity. Society relied on the existence and respect of a moral code for its strength and unity. Besides, morality benefits any society as it raises the level of trust between people and strengthens the bonds of society. The fact that the meaning of life set out by a religion aligns with the interest of its people is not a reason to doubt the tenets of the religion. That a very important principle to society and society’s transcendence were aligned is in fact highly rational. Why would God make a contract with his people that would be against their interest? What kind of God would that be? A contract centered on morality was a perfectly rational explanation of human existence and human condition. Without scientific knowledge and with morality so important to society, a transcendent God who the first humans had disobeyed and who would welcome them again in his realm with the condition that they behave impeccably, was a very plausible answer to the question of the meaning of life.
The other major reality of those times, one that continued for many centuries, was the brevity of life. Deadly diseases, epidemics, poor living conditions, wars, crimes – all meant that death was ever-present and ubiquitous in society. A person who continued to live until old age was an exception. Living under the shadow of death was the rule. As a response, God offered everlasting life in return for moral exemplarity.
In summary, the tenets of Judaism and Christianity were answers to the most pressing problems of the time, giving credible reasons for these problems and the way to address them, thereby providing the meaning of existence. Then Christianity, a small sect from Judea, grew and developed throughout the Roman Empire where the official religion inherited from Ancient Greece was nearing the end of its life. Christianity embraced the entire natural world in a single view, the ‘creation’, thereby unifying natural phenomena, and the transcendent being, God, was the sole cause behind all existence. This encompassing view was a great ‘advance’ from the Greek mythology in which multiple gods were responsible for multiple aspects of nature – sea, time, earth, sky, wind, light, etc. The Greco-Roman religion had become difficult to believe, increasingly considered a collection of myths, just as with Christianity today.
As a result of the Scientific Revolution which made nature no longer dependent on the will of a supernatural being but moved by its own forces and governed by its own laws, the transcendent Christian god started losing its influence and fading from the front stage of Western societies. The new horizontal way of looking at nature, using mathematical tools, yielded extraordinary results, and over the four centuries following the start of the Scientific Revolution, it debunked Christian explanations of the origins of Earth, of life and of humanity itself. In addition, the immense technical progress made since the beginning of the modern era in the Western world has made immoral conduct less able to destabilize society to the point of threatening its viability. Major advances in material conditions and the resulting diminished likelihood of imminent death have also made human beings less volatile. As a result, the subject of morality has become less critical to human society, and for this reason, morality has been secularized, no longer linked to the sacred. The moral explanatory power of our existence has thus vanished. Moral-centric transcendence has gradually disappeared from a Western world transformed by technical progress and the individual empowerment that has come with it, rendering the strong norms of conduct imposed from above no longer necessary. Westerners also gradually came to understand the rationale behind moral conduct and the relativity of it to a certain extent, history showing that moral standards evolve as new material conditions and social conditions arise. This increasingly has pushed morality into the sphere of scientific inquiry, similarly to nature which is studied and explained by the natural sciences and no longer by religion. Evolutionary biology and neuroscience are making progress in understanding moral behavior and moral judgement. On the issue of the shortness of life, progress in agriculture, food safety, sanitation, medicine and general material living conditions have been so great and so transformative that today someone in the Western world can expect to live 80 years. This is a dramatic change from the past, even as recently as two centuries ago. The absence of major war in the Western world is also a significant change from the past. As a result, the answers upon which Christianity was built are no longer relevant, and thus no longer persuasive. Today, Christianity is by all accounts dying, a ghost of its former self with dwindling active members and persuasive power. It is now widely considered a myth. Its purported miracles have become irremediably unbelievable for most people. This means that its return to a central position in society is unthinkable. As the Christian religion is fading, Westerners find themselves wobbling in a spiritual vacuum.
There are some who think that humanity should rid itself of transcendence altogether, jumping to the conclusion that transcendence has been discredited and is an unnecessary fantasy. But transcendence is a fundamental dimension of existence, and a relation to it, a relation to a particular expression of it, is a profound aspiration of human beings. Denying this side of human existence is like denying the tails side of a coin. The crisis of religion in the West is not the prelude to an a-spiritual civilization. It is important not to confuse the means of expressing and maintaining the spiritual dimension (e.g. Christianity) with the spiritual dimension itself (transcendence). The means are transient, passing, limited in time as with all human enterprises, but the end is universal and timeless, a fundamental dimension of human existence. As the idiom goes, one must not throw the baby – transcendence – out with the bathwater – expression of transcendence in a given religion or spirituality. The expressions of transcendence observed across space and time, plentiful and rich, are vehicles for this universal dimension of existence. What we now call myths were transcendence expressed in specific contexts, times and societies. They were the vehicles through which transcendence was made present and effective in society.
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