"The West," as we all know, won the Cold War. Many have attributed this triumph not to the West's military superiority over the Soviet Union, but to the strength of its institutions, i.e. liberal democracy and capitalism. When the Berlin Wall fell, optimists concluded that the West, having emerged victorious from the twilight struggle with communism, would see its "values" expand over the face of the globe. As Francis Fukuyama wrote in his 1991 essay (later expanded into a book) "The End of History?" only by accommodating the ways of the West could the rest of the world extricate itself from the "mire" of history.
Fukuyama's essay called forth a number of responses, most notably Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's vision of a coming "clash of civilizations." Huntington especially objected to Fukuyama's suggestion that with the collapse of the last ideological rival to liberal democracy, Western values would be universally accepted throughout the world at large. For Huntington, the West is only one of eight civilizations or cultures, raising the possibility that far from declining in the future, conflict would take on a cultural aspect. Indeed, an implication of Huntington's thesis is that the future could manifest itself as the "West against the rest."
All of this, of course begs the question: what, exactly, is the West? David Gress sets out to answer this question in his provocative new book, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. Mr. Gress observes that when most people talk about the West, they have in mind democracy and free markets. Based on this understanding, defenders of the West argue that the in the future, societies and cultures will converge toward a beneficent democratic and capitalist norm. Detractors define the West by the same qualities, but denounce it as the legacy of Eurocentrism: exploitative, patriarchal, and racist an evil culture that deserves no future and is destined to be replaced by multiculturalism and feminism.
The problem, says Mr. Gress, is that this understanding of the West is superficial and therefore incorrect. It is not enough to know that the West is democratic and capitalist, Mr. Gress claims. These features are manifestations of an underlying, paradoxical, and unique civilizational identity. To truly understand the West one must know how democracy and capitalism emerged and why. Accordingly, he sets out to retrieve the more complex meaning of the West as it evolved over two millennia.
According to Mr. Gress, the West most Americans have encountered is the one presented in college "Western Civilization" courses. These courses arose in the aftermath of World War I as a way of providing a liberal education for returning soldiers and for assimilating immigrants. Dubbed the "Grand Narrative" by Mr. Gress, the story told by these courses presented the West as the seamless progress of liberty and individual rights from their origins in Periclean Athens to their culmination in liberal American democracy.
Versions of the Grand Narrative were advanced by such educators as John Herman Randall of Columbia and Mortimer Adler and Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago. Will Durant popularized a variation of the Grand Narrative for three generations of interested citizens with his multi-volume The Story of Civilization.
For a half century, the Grand Narrative succeeded in assimilating students and citizens into a single cultural tradition. These generations included those who fought World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. But in the 1960s, the West of the Grand Narrative came under attack, first from radicals who accused it of elitism, and later from multiculturalists who demonized it as, "of all civilizations, uniquely rapacious, racist, sexist, exploitative, environmentally destructive, and hostile to all human dignity. It was unredeemable. Only if the West went down to destruction could the rest of the human race hope to survive."
Mr. Gress's provocative thesis is that the critics of the Grand Narrative were right but for the wrong reason: the Grand Narrative was inadequate not because it was exclusive, chauvinistic, or politically incorrect, but "because it defined the West as modernity and its core, liberty, as an abstract principle derived from the Greeks and transported, outside time, to its modern resurrection in the Enlightenment and in twentieth-century liberal American democracy."
According to the author, the Grand Narrative described an ahistorical West of progress and morality that, "torn from its moorings in religion and in the actual practice of imperfect liberties, proved defenseless when called on its faults." The moral relativism and political correctness pilloried by the late Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind were particularly egregious manifestations of this defenselessness.
Mr. Gress seeks to redefine the real West in terms of certain critical conflicts and interactions: Greece with Rome; both with Christianity; and all three with the concept of "heroic freedom" imported by the Germanic tribes that settled in parts of the former Roman Empire. In thus redefining the West, he repudiates four staples of the Grand Narrative.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Gress's most controversial claim is that the West did not begin with the Greeks. The real West, he contends, began in the fourth century when the Roman Empire was Christianized. The character of the West was essentially established by the eleventh century, culminating in the medieval synthesis of Christianity and classical Greek and Germanic culture. In other words, Greek philosophy and political ideas were grafted on to an already existing Christian West. This synthesis Mr. Gress calls the "Old West."
Second, Mr. Gress argues that liberty emerged from this synthesis not as a result of planning and foresight but by accident. The balance of power in Europe prevented the rise of a permanent empire, and political liberty began to emerge where rulers could not exercise total control. Mr. Gress argues that it was in these "niches of freedom" that partial forms of liberty were established, providing incentives for people to work, save, and invest without fear of expropriation. Over time, these factors gave rise to the "New West," the synthesis of political liberty, property rights, and economic development.
Third, although it is the New West of democracy, capitalism, and science not the Old West of Christian morality, Germanic heroic freedom, and classical Greek virtue that most people have in mind when they speak of the West today, Mr. Gress argues that the New West cannot survive if it does not maintain its connection with the Old. As the American Founders understood and even today's liberals have come to recognize, liberty without virtue is untenable in the long run.
Finally, Mr. Gress rejects the claim that Western ideas are universal, i.e. appropriate for all the peoples of the world. On this issue he joins Samuel Huntington in rejecting Francis Fukuyama. If he means by Western ideas the "values" arising from the superficial West that he has just demolished he is, of course, correct. Moreover, as Allan Bloom also demonstrated, the attempt to universalize the "values" of the superficial West capitalism and egalitarianism disconnected from morality and religion actually undermines the West by unleashing multiculturalism and relativism.
But if he means the universal principles that arise from the organic as opposed to the superficial West, he necessarily places himself at odds with the American Founders, who firmly believed that the principles informing the creation of the United States, as articulated in, e.g. the Declaration of Independence, applied potentially to all human beings. The Founders generally agreed that human beings have "natural ends" that are conducive to happiness, among which are safety, liberty, and property. Following Blackstone, they believed that all men possessed certain natural rights, but that only certain constitutions secured them.
This, it seems to me, is the proper claim on behalf of the real West: that liberty firmly anchored in virtue and morality most accords with human nature and therefore most conduces to human happiness. To dispute the Founders' reformulation of Aristotle's argument that there are things that are by nature right for human beings is to accept the logic of moral relativism.
This objection notwithstanding, From Plato to NATO is an insightful and impressive work. Mr. Gress especially is to be commended for reminding the adherents of the New West of their debt to Christianity and the Germanic heroic ethos. Those who would defend the West must understand what it is they are defending. Mr. Gress demonstrates that all too often, this is not the case.