The Crisis in the 21st Century – I. The Dissolution of the West
Since the intellectual dominance of Greek thought and the imperial strength of Rome, the Western world has held a loose but unified spirit. It is not as though disagreements have not occurred, as though conflicts have not been bloody and hateful; but there have always been common underlying principles upon which even the most diverse of Western states could agree. The Greeks of antiquity fought with one another incessantly, and yet united with little hesitation against the Persians. Whatever the differences between Spartans and Thessalonians and Athenians, there was a nigh impregnable agreement that death is better than servitude. That might seem a foregone conclusion to a man living in a democratic republic in which the word “freedom” is belted out with such frequency and carelessness that its meaning is nigh extirpated. To the ancient world, however, slavery and subjugation were the norm; the stronger dominated the weaker, and that was the way it was supposed to be. Greece, as a whole, did not agree with the rest of the world.
Such unity of thought cannot be explained away by mere geographical proximity; is it fully answered by the histories of neither Herodotus nor Thucydides. Certainly the fact that they shared a peninsula contributed to their cohesion, and doubtlessly history provides many clues and indications as to why they stood together. But their mutual recognition of the goodness of freedom came from a simple observation: man is meant to be free, so much so that it is right to die in defense of freedom.
It is not as though this idea, the inherent nobility of fortitude in defense of that which is right, namely freedom, occurred simultaneously to every Greek all at once; but it was articulated, put-forth, and introduced into the intersubjective consciousness of the whole peninsula, occasionally rejected but mostly accepted, to varying degrees. The idea permeates the histories and literature: it fills the gap between every line of The Iliad. And yet it is merely one of the many virtuous inclinations germinated in Greece that has developed throughout the maturation of the West, all of which are founded upon a single belief: the belief in the good.
Thus, even before the age of Christendom, there was a dominant set of objective naturally discerned values by which all men were judged. The historical Aristides was a man who “guided his public life by the rule of justice.”1 Contrariwise, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero were men of such tyrannical nature that the histories written contemporaneously of their lives were “falsified through terror.”2 Breaches of those values by individuals or by whole societies led ultimately to ostracism – even if it only fully manifested itself posthumously – or political capitulation. Courage, prudence, wisdom, temperance, justice, magnanimity, good judgment, continence, friendliness, and truthfulness were respected at the very least as ideals and often as realities. Yet in a subtle and prolonged convocation of bad ideas, these virtues, the foundations of Western civilization, have been ostensibly undermined and replaced with corrosive viciousness; relativistic rationalization has been substituted for reason. The grounds of this subversion were furrowed by the Protestant Revolution and the seeds planted by the modern philosophers; but it was not until the 20th century that they collectively bloomed into a sad and misshapen garden, a repulsive parody of the earthly paradise. To be courageous is no longer to stand up for what is right regardless of the cost, to be a person who “when he does take a risk he is without regard for his life, on the ground that it is not on just any terms that life is worth living,”3 but to seek one’s own desires regardless of what stands in the way. For instance, in a June 16, 2009 blog post on the New York Times “Motherlode,” a young woman who, having become pregnant while preparing to enter graduate school and had become a feature of the blog wrote in to say the following:
“Once I came to the decision to terminate the pregnancy, so much of the guilt and sadness I’d been feeling melted away. I felt happy for the first time since finding out and I feel like my family is supportive of my decision. I’m focusing on the child I’ll have in a few years from now with someone I feel safe with and supported by. The life of that child will be infinitely better than this one and, sometimes, I wonder if such a miserable, lonely woman could even have a healthy child. There’s more to being a good birth mother than avoiding alcohol and eating right and I just don’t know if I have it. I’m a responsible girl but maybe that means knowing when you’ve put too much on yourself and it won’t work out.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve given up. I didn’t want to go down without a fight, I wanted to be a tough mother who braved the world for her child. But maybe that’s the truly selfish decision, to expect my baby to understand why there’s no father and no money and no time to spend with mom. How could I raise a confident child under those circumstances? I know it’s been done but I want to do better — that’s the future I envision for myself.
If I get my degree then maybe the path it will take me on will lead me to work on women’s issues. Maybe one day I’ll make a million dollars and start a scholarship program for pregnant graduate students. I can’t believe that nothing good can come of this, I know I’ll do something right one of these days.”
Like most blogs, “Motherlode” allows comments. Sadly, pitifully, the words of those who responded to this young woman were riddled with nonsensical, blindly ideological affirmations of the young woman’s so-called “bravery.” Pursuing one’s own desires and obliterating a defenseless life which stands in the way is the furthest thing from courage; it is unequivocal cowardice and unmitigated selfishness.4
Would that the asseverative perversions of virtue ended there; alas, they run throughout. To be just is no longer to enforce righteousness in giving each man his due, in distribution or by rectification, but rather to ensure that no man is offended by the actions of another by irrationally and relativistically erected legalism. To be prudent is to manage one’s own affairs without being unwillingly beholden whatsoever to any other, to break the ties that bind. To be wise is to be a successful sophist of modern media; primarily by attacking the Church and promoting some radical agenda which lacks reason but strongly endorses someone or another’s rights to something entirely unnatural. To be continent is to sleep with no more than one person at a time. To be truthful is to be true to oneself. As a result, Western society no longer stands unified, for in place of the sovereign values which united its peoples, each man rules himself absolutely.
In spite of this fracture, however, there is reason to hope. The house that is the Western intellectual tradition is a beautiful house. As G.K. Chesterton writes in the opening line of The Everlasting Man: “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the sample place.”5 The West has certainly walked rather far from home in the past hundred years, and especially in the last sixty. Let it be hoped that soon, it will arrive home; and with a fresh perspective, see the beauty of the home that, despite its rejection, despite the ostensible replacement of virtue and wisdom and goodness with malice and stupidity and vice, still stands as strong as ever.
1 Plutarch. Lives. Trans. Dryden. Danbury: Grolier Enterprises Corp., 1995: 104.
2 Tacitus. The Complete Works. Trans. Church and Brodribb. New York: Random House, 1942: 3.
3 Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Sachs. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2002: 69.
4 Belkin, Lisa. Choosing Not to Keep the Baby ; H/T: AmericanPapist.com
5 Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993: 9.