“Western civilization. It’s been around for a while, but suddenly everybody is talking about it. Some are anxious to save it; others are happy to see it go.
But what exactly is Western civilization? Is it the great cathedrals of Europe or the Nazi concentration camps? Is it the freedoms secured in the US Constitution or chattel slavery? Life-saving medicines or poison gas? The left likes to focus on the bad—genocide, slavery, environmental destruction. But those have been present in every civilization from time immemorial. The positives are unique to the West—religious tolerance, abolition of slavery, universal human rights, the development of the scientific method: these are accomplishments of a scope and scale that only the West can claim.
These aren’t the only achievements that make the West special and uniquely successful. As Western thought evolved, it secured the rights of women and minorities, lifted billions of people out of poverty, and invented most of the modern world.
Progress hasn’t been a straight line, of course. But the arc of history is clear. The obvious proof is that the world is overwhelmingly Western. And, with few exceptions, those parts of the world that aren’t aspire to be.
Why? Why has Western civilization been so successful?
There are many reasons, but the best place to start is with the teachings and philosophies that emerged from two ancient cities: Jerusalem and Athens.
Jerusalem represents religious revelation as manifested in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the beliefs that a good God created an ordered universe and that this God demands moral behavior from His paramount creation, man.
The other city, Athens, represents reason and logic as expressed by the great Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle and many others.
These two ways of thinking—revelation and reason—live in constant tension.
Judeo-Christian religion posits that there are certain fundamental truths handed down to us by a transcendent being. We didn’t invent these truths; we received them from God. The rules He lays down for us are vital for building a functioning, moral civilization and for leading a happy life.
Greek thinking posits that we only know truth by what we observe, test, and measure. It is not faith, but fact, that drives our understanding and exploration of the universe.
Western civilization, and only Western civilization, has found a way to balance both religious belief and human reason. Here’s how the balance works. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that God created an ordered universe, and that we have an obligation to try to make the world better. This offers us purpose and suggests that history moves forward. Most pagan religions taught the opposite: that the universe is illogical and random, and that history is cyclical. History just endlessly repeats itself—in which case, why bother to innovate or create anything new?…”
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