In 1900, most citizens of the West felt tremendous pride and confidence in their civilization. There was a strong sense, common to Americans and British, to Europeans and Canadians, to Australians and New Zealanders, of belonging to a vigorous, expanding, progressive, and exciting civilization, the best ever.
Today, that sense has gone. Why? Not because of economics, external events, or external enemies. Despite the horrors of the first half of the last century, by most objective standards Western civilization has, since 1900, made great material, military, medical, scientific, and even political progress. Westerners stopped killing and torturing each other. Western civilization saw off its two most deadly and horrific enemies, the Nazis and the communists, both of whom had been incubated in the West. If there is a crisis of the West – and we say there is – it is internally generated. It lies in the West’s collapse in self-confidence. It lies in Western heads. It lies in ideas.
We see an excess of doubt in reaction to a previous excess of certainty. We think self-doubt, both personal and collective, is eroding our civilization and harming our ability to do good. We propose a new consensus that is intellectually defensible and allows us all to move forward to extend the best of the West’s unique and stunningly successful heritage.
Western civilization has thrived more than any other civilization in the past or present – it has been much more successful in economic, military, and political terms, in science and technology, in the arts, and in enhancing its citizens’ health, wealth, longevity, and even, probably, their happiness. For all its many manifest and serious faults, the West attaches more importance than other civilizations have done or do to the sanctity and dignity of human life.
A large degree of the West’s success can be traced to six principal “ideas” or “success factors” – Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism, and individualism. Of course, other selections of what makes the West different and dominant could be made. But careful examination of the six ideas reveals well enough the character and peculiarities of Western civilization. It also enables us to see, despite all the successes, what is behind the widespread lack of confidence in the West.
The six pillars of Western civilization
First-century Christianity was a highly original, strange religion. It proclaimed a personal God who cared about everyone, regardless of status, nationality, or gender. It required its adherents to take responsibility to improve their lives and help the under-dog. It held that God could power the lives of individuals, leading eventually to the view of Athanasius, the fourth-century theologian, that “God became man in order that we could become God.”
From the dawn of Western civilization to the early years of the twentieth century, the history of the West was also driven by another idea – that of increasingly prevalent optimism about humanity and confidence in our ability continually to improve the world. Optimism led to activism – actions designed to increase our understanding and control of the natural world. Optimism has always been pre-eminently a Western trait. As psychologist Richard Nisbett says:
“To the Asian, the world is a complex place … subject more to collective than to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place … highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed.”
The third of our pillars is science. More than any of the other five success factors, the triumph of science explains the West’s current enormous lead over other civilizations in technology, innovation, living standards, and military might. Scientific achievement since 1900 has been more far reaching in both intellectual and practical terms than at any other time, crowning six centuries of amazing discoveries about nature and the universe. The achievements and discoveries were, and continue to be, overwhelmingly Western.
Fourth, economic growth. About two hundred years ago, rather suddenly in historical terms, economic growth in the West became unstoppable. The history of mankind up to that point had been one of modest or zero growth. Population and living standards were flattened by nature, above all by hunger and disease. Between 1750 and 1820, England entered the machine age. Machines brought automatic growth, a novel phenomenon. With the steam engine and industry, growth spread rapidly throughout the West. The arrival of self-extending growth is arguably the most important change in human history, making humanity a biological success, able to live long and safe lives and multiply numbers and living standards enormously.
The fifth distinguishing characteristic of the West’s culture is liberalism. A liberal society is one which is not only fully democratic, but where there is a spirit of freedom, fairness, and respect for all citizens. Liberal civilization, compared to other civilizations, attaches greater importance to the sanctity and dignity of human life, to the education of all its people, to equality of opportunity, to the freedom of the individual and the full development of his or her talents, to the elimination of prejudice against individuals and groups, to the promotion of science and the arts, to the invention of better, cheaper, and more convenient products, to the relief of suffering, and to the essential equality of all humankind. Liberal society is not institutionally corrupt, or cruel; it is not ruled by the police or the military; it is not hierarchical or bureaucratic. Power in liberal societies is decentralized. There is freedom of the press and other media; freedom for business to operate freely, constrained only by requirements of honesty and humane standards; and tolerance of unconventional behavior as long as it does not harm others. The government is subordinate to the rule of law. The state exists to serve citizens, to increase their health and wealth, and to protect them from arbitrary force and oppression of any kind. Liberal societies do not believe in military glory; war is a last resort, primarily for self-protection. In practice, liberal states almost never declare war on other liberal states.
Individualism is our sixth and final success factor. If there is one defining quality of the West, which its protagonists and antagonists agree is central to its character, it is individualism. The rise and rise of individualism is the motif running through Western history from Christianity, to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the growth of the modern economy and modern society. Western individualism has no similar roots in any other civilization.
Doubts about the six pillars – and doubts about the doubts
The six pillars of Western civilization have one clear common characteristic. They have all been the subject of increasing doubts, some for the past few centuries, some more recently. Belief in some form of Christianity was pretty much universal up to the sixteenth century; now a large proportion of the population, especially in Europe, are agnostics, atheists, or devotees of non-Christian religions. Optimism is no longer prevalent, because the roots of optimism – belief that creation and humankind are ultimately good, and that history is the story of human progress – have withered. Belief in science has been undermined in the last century by science making the world harder to understand, and by evidence that science has raped the planet and given us weapons of mass destruction. Liberalism has few enthusiastic believers today, weakened by the sense that many members of society are “victims” and therefore not responsible for their actions, and by the new heresy of “liberal imperialism”, which believes in imposing democracy by force. Finally, individualism is very unpopular with many in the West, particularly amongst intellectuals, for its alleged tendency to fragment and atomize society.
If there is no longer a clear consensus about the virtues of the West’s distinctive values, we think there are only two possible results. Either we wallow in doubt and division, and eventually evolve into a very different – almost certainly much less attractive – civilization. Or we recover our nerve and our beliefs and move on to a more sophisticated view of our heritage, which nonetheless preserves its essential positive attributes.
For the truth is that doubts about the West’s main ideas have been vastly overplayed. It is possible to re-state the essential ideas in a way that intelligent people of goodwill can rally around.
The liberating spirit of early Christianity; its invention of the inner self; its stress on individualization, rejection of authority, and love in personal relationships; its demands for compassion and equality for the downtrodden; and its promotion of self-discipline and self- improvement, is something that should appeal to all Westerners. Christianity has burst the banks of the Church, even of all religion. A sense of responsibility derived from thinking for oneself, and emerging from one’s own struggles in life, is likely to be deeper than one derived from obedience to authority, and, whatever one’s beliefs, to be closer to the spirit of Jesus.
Optimism and pessimism are fancies, not facts. “Realistic optimism” can best be seen as a duty. Only by believing that it is possible to improve our selves and the world is it possible to do so.
Science and reason are essential for the best forms of civilization. Belief in science is no less and no more than commitment to truth, as best we can establish and understand it. There can be no open and healthy civilization without commitment to truth and debate, based on reason, experimentation, and the scientific method.
There is a problem with economic growth. In spawning machine-based economies, the West may have led the world to the brink of ecological suicide. But a society without growth is both unimaginable and undesirable. The answer lies in the replacement of industrial capitalism with what we call “the personalized economy”, a process that is very well advanced in the United States and United Kingdom. The personalized economy is based on individual imagination, and uses far fewer finite resources than industrial capitalism. The “green nightmare” can be solved. “All” it requires is a hugely greater sense of the urgency and importance of doing so.
Liberalism can be renewed. There is no finer political philosophy yet devised, and there may never be. To excite people, though, liberalism constantly needs to find new horizons, new causes, new ways to advance compassion and community through the political process. Why should this task be beyond us all?
The dangers of individualism are exaggerated. In the shift from hierarchical society to personalized society, individualists can and do build personal reciprocity and local community. Individualists create far more than they destroy. Individualism has always been, and still is, ethically exacting and gregarious. The basic character of Europeans and Americans is unlimited personal striving and aspiration. Westerners invented personal responsibility, the concept of the self, personality, and the obligation of self-differentiation. They are world-improvers and self-improvers, driven by passion and relentless energy. To be sure, individualism cannot be allowed to descend into selfishness and the isolation of the individual from society. But individualism originated from ancient Greek and early Christian influences, and the codes of behaviour thus evolved were far more demanding of individuals than any previously devised. Individualism and the service of society are deeply entwined.
Western civilization has reached a fork. Down one road, the road currently bearing more traffic, lies doubt, cynicism, unmitigated selfishness, indifference, re-centralization, and aggression – attributes both advocated and practiced by different elements in society, yet wholly supportive of their apparent opposites. This road could take many forms, from anarchy to neo-fascism, environment collapse to a new American empire. All such forms, however, would mark the end of Western civilization as the democratic and individualistic ideal Europeans and Americans have imagined, nurtured, and drawn closer to over hundreds of years. Western civilization will not be destroyed by our enemies; but it may be destroyed by ourselves.
Down the other road lies a recovery of nerve; confidence in our selves and our culture; emotional unity within America and within Europe, and between Europe and America, and with other European settlements; a society and civilization comprising a billion responsible individuals, bound together not by authority or coercion or unquestioned traditional beliefs, but by self-discovered and self-validated attitudes of personal striving, optimism, reason, compassion, equality, individualism, and mutual identity. This road is well paved and brightly lit; travelling it is not that hard. But it requires a change of direction.
There can of course never be complete certainty about anything. But however unfashionable, confidence in well-verified ideas – notions that have moved mountains in the past – seems to us sensible. One near-certainty is that confidence in the ideas behind the Western heritage will produce a more attractive society than indulgently strutting our doubts.
Richard Koch is an entrepreneur and author of the best-seller, The 80/20 Principle. Chris Smith was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 1997 to 2001, and is now Visiting professor at the University of the Arts and runs the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme. Suicide of the West is published by Continuum.