Thursday, October 21, 2004

What Distinguishes the West

A previous post concerned that which distinguishes Islamism from its enemies. But what distinguishes us?

The societies which flourish in the civilized parts of the world, collectively known as "the West", rest on three pillars: Civil society, the rule of law, and respect for the rights of the individual.

Civil society depends on the plurality of institutions within a polity. Rather than subsume all under the state (which is subsumed under the autarch or an oligarchy), the state is only one amongst many aggregate entities within the culture. Families, churches, corporations, clubs, autonomous local government — if the individual is an element in a multitude of sets, he is more likely to flourish. Great power is less likely to concentrate when there are many groups to claim the allegiance of a person. Civil society arose gradually in Europe from the Greeks and the Romans in the interplay of pagan culture with the state and later the Church. None of it was intentional; its independence was surely cursed by monarchs down the centuries.

The rule of law is a shared understanding that the rules binding citizens outlive individual rulers. A just and liberal society can be conceived of without democracy; it cannot exist without the rule of law. The law was handed down to the Jews, who passed the concept on to the West.

Individual rights are premised on the existence of individuals in a society. We in the West are so accustomed to the idea that it is hard to conceive of societies which do not really recognize the individual as we know it. The tribe, the clan, the patrimony with its honor — membership in these is not voluntary, and all can take precedence over the individual. This is true of those cultures which form the core of the Great Islamic Jihad.

When and where was the individual invented? This is an interesting topic which will be covered in a later post.


Towering Barbarian said...

I would start with Greece although a good case may be made for Israel as well.

Baron Bodissey said...

Barbarian, you anticipate me correctly! My thesis will be that the hybridization of Jewish and Greek culture in the West allowed for the invention of the individual. Stay tuned...

jj mollo said...

Another component you have overlooked are certain aspects of culture that make all these things work -- for one, honesty as a default option, owed to all people, even those outside the family, clan and even outside the faith.

For a theory about the origin of the individual, you should read a strange but fascinating book, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". It is very readable, though scholarly, and probably wrong in its principle assertions, but highly thought-provoking.

Baron Bodissey said...

jj -- I have read the book (though quite a while ago), and it is undoubtedly influencing me as I write these posts. My ideas are not original; I just enjoy creating a new synthesis based on the thoughts of others.

Your points are well-taken. I posit "three pillars" in order to discuss three major points about our Western culture; there are many more that could be described. In fact, any divisions must be somewhat arbitrary: so many currents from so many sources mix in the West; how can one separate them?