President Trump’s outspoken defense of Western civilization in his July 2017 Warsaw speech was a pointed reminder that one troubling characteristic of our time is the ongoing assault on the very idea of the West. This is most vividly manifested in the relentless use of physical violence by jihadists determined to terrorize us first into acquiescence and, eventually, submission.
Nor, however, is there a shortage of efforts to dismantle Western culture from within. Sometimes this occurs through focusing on real evils committed by Westerners, such as slavery, while studiously ignoring or denigrating the West’s impressive achievements. On other occasions, the West’s deepest roots are condemned as inherently oppressive, burdensome legacies bequeathed by dead, white, logocentric men.
One effect of these attacks is that they force us to clarify what is central to Western culture. Clearly Western civilization isn’t primarily about geography. Would anyone suggest that a southern hemisphere country such as Australia or a Middle Eastern state like Israel is not part of the West because each exists outside North America and Europe?
We move onto firmer ground when we start listing accomplishments that can only be described as products of the West. No one would designate the Rule of Benedict, Magna Carta, Michelangelo’s “David,” Mozart’s “Coronation Mass,” Plato’s Gorgias, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, Jefferson’s Monticello, or Shakespeare’s Richard III as representative of Japanese, Persian, or Tibetan culture. Likewise, would anyone seriously question that ideas such as the rule of law, limited government, and the distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms, have developed and received their fullest expression in Western societies rather than Javanese or Arab cultures?
These things, however, are essentially derivative. They proceed from specific philosophical and religious commitments without which the West as we know it could never have developed. When those foundations are shaken, we should not be surprised that all that is built on them starts to falter.
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