No reason to taint our faith in Western culture

Aug 22, 2020 | Read

The Australian newspaper’s Inquirer section today published an edited extract of a Ramsay lecture delivered by UK Historian Professor Andrew Roberts.
To listen to the lecture click here.
For the full article as it appears on The Australian newspaper website click here.

We all know the joke that Mahatma Gandhi supposedly made when he was asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, ‘I think it might be a good idea.’ The gag is apocryphal, in fact, first appearing two decades after his death, but very many people have taken it literally, arguing that there really is no such thing as Western Civilisation, from ideologues such as Noam Chomsky to the activists of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford University who have succeeded in pulling down the statue of the benefactor of the Rhodes Scholarships from Oriel College.

This belief that Western Civilisation is at heart uniquely morally defective has recently been exemplified by the New York Times’ inane and wildly historically inaccurate ‘1619 Project’, which essentially attempts to present the entirety of American history from the Plymouth Rock to today solely through the prism of race and slavery. ‘America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made it One,’ was the headline of one essay in the New York Times Magazine launching the Project, alongside, ‘American Capitalism is Brutal: You Can Trace That to the Plantation’ and ‘How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.’ When no fewer than twelve – in the circumstances very brave – American Civil War historians sent a letter itemising all the myriad factual errors in the Project’s founding document, the New York Times refused to print it, yet the Project plans to create and distribute school curriculums that will ‘re-center’ America’s memory.

None of this would amount to much if only schools and colleges in Britain, America, Australia and across the English-speaking peoples were not so keen to apologise for and deny Western Civilization, and to abolish or dumb down the teaching of important aspects of it. The classics faculty at Oxford University, to take one example of many, has recently recommended that Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid be removed from the syllabus in ancient literature, history, and philosophy, giving as their reason the difference in recent exam results between male and female undergraduates, and the difference in expertise in Latin and Greek between privately and publicly-educated students.  One of the supposed guardians of the discipline are therefore willing to put social experimentation before the best possible teaching of the Humanities, a disgraceful position to have been adopted by Britain’s second-best university.                            

Yet instead of apologizing for Western Civilisation, we should still believe in it and be proud of it. For all that we must of course take proper cognizance of other cultures, in terms of both its sheer quality and quantity the legacy of Western one is unsurpassed in human history. We are deliberately underplaying the greatest contributions made to poetry, architecture, philosophy, music and art by ignoring that fact, often simply in order to try to feel less guilty about Imperialism, Colonialism and Slavery, even though the last was a moral crime committed by only a minority of some few people’s great-great-great grandparents.

As a result, future generations cannot be certain that they will be taught about the overwhelmingly positive aspects of Western Civilisation. They might not now be shown the crucial interconnection between, for example, the chapel by Giotto at Padua, which articulates the complex scholasticism of St Augustine in paint; Machiavelli’s The Prince, the first work of modern political theory; Botticelli’s Primavera, the quintessence of Renaissance humanism in a single painting; the works of Theresa of Aquila and Descartes, which wrestle with the proof of discrete individual identity; Beethoven’s symphonies, arguably the most complex and profound orchestral works ever written, and Shakespeare, whose plays Harold Bloom has pointed out ‘remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually.’ Even if they are taught about these things individually, they will not be connected in a context that makes it clear how important they are to Western Civilisation.

What the old Western Civ university courses really did was to root a people in their past and their values. The trajectory of Western culture was shown to have run from Greece via Rome to  Christendom, infused by Judaic ideas and morality along the way via Jerusalem, but then detouring briefly through the Dark Ages, recovering in the Renaissance, which led to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and thus the scientific, rational and politically liberated culture of Europe and European America. ‘From Plato to Nato’, as the catchphrase went.

At the centre of this transference of values across time and space was democracy, of which Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ The generations who grew up knowing that truth, rather than weltering in guilt and self-doubt about ‘false-consciousness’ and so on, were the lucky ones, because they were allowed to study the glories of Western Civilisation in a way that was unembarrassed, unashamed, and not saddled with accusations of guilt in a centuries-old crime that had absolutely nothing to do with them. They could learn about the best of their civilisation, and how it benefited – and continues to benefit – Mankind.

As Ian Jenkins, the senior curator of the Ancient Greek collection at the British Museum, put it in his book on the Elgin Marbles – somewhat politically correctly entitled The Parthenon Sculptures  – ‘Human figures in the frieze are more than mere portraits of the Athenian people of the day. Rather they represent a timeless humanity, one which transcends the present to encompass a universal vision of an ideal society.’ The Parthenon itself set out the architectural laws of proportion which still obtain to this day, and later in the book Jenkins points out how the sculptures ‘transcend national boundaries and epitomize universal and enduring values of excellence.’ It was no coincidence that interest in them permeated the Western Enlightenments of the eighteenth century.

While the Parthenon was being built, Pericles contrasted the openness and moderation of Athenian civic life with the militaristic, secretive, dictatorial Spartans in his Funeral Speech of 430BC, and this struck a chord with the Enlightenment thinkers of twenty-three centuries later, just as it should continue to with us today, reminding us why Western values are indeed superior to those that actuate the leaders of modern China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and  Zimbabwe. And yes, we know that the architect Phidias employed slaves and metic foreigners in building the Parthenon, not just Athenian freemen.

‘Carved around the middle of the 5th century BC,’ writes Neil McGregor, former Director of the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles ‘are the product of a creative culture that is credited with the invention of such aspects of modern Western civilization as democracy, philosophy, history, medicine, poetry and drama.’ Of course no-one is claiming that ancient Oriental, Persian and Arab civilizations did not have all of those listed – except democracy, which they did not then and most still do not today – and no-one suggests that South Sea Islanders, the Aztecs and Incas, Ancient Egyptians or the Khmer Empire that build Angkor Wat for the god Vishnu did not have  their own worthy civilizations too.

‘From the constitution drafted by the founding father of the American republic to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill,’ Jenkins writes, ‘many have found inspiration for their brand of human liberalism , and for a doctrine of the open society, in the Funeral Speech of Pericles.’ If Pericles had lost an election or was ostracized in the annual vote of Athenians, he would have stood down from office in the same way that Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Scott Morrison  and Emmanuel Macron would after a defeat in a free and fair election in their countries, whereas that is inconceivable in many totalitarian countries not infused by the ethics of the West.

Christianity, too, for all its intolerance and occasional obscurantism and obnoxious iconoclasm, has been overall an enormous force for good in the world. The Sermon on the Mount was, as Churchill put it, ‘the last word in ethics’. Christians abolished Slavery in the 1830s (or three decades later in America’s case), whereas outside Christendom the practice survived for much longer, and identifiable versions of it still exist in some non-Christian and anti-Christian countries today.

The abolition of Slavery did not merely happen by votes in Parliament and proclamations from presidents, it was fought for by (and against) Christians with much blood spilt on both sides. That would not have happened without the Judeo-Christian values that are so central to Western Civilization.

That is ultimately why we should still believe in Western Civilization, not apologize for it, why it should be proselytized around the world, and certainly taught as a discrete discipline in our schools and universities.  

Professor Andrew Roberts is a Visiting Fellow at Stanford University and Visiting Professor at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. This is an edited extract of a Ramsay lecture based on a National Review article broadcast today by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation at