What Makes Western Civilization Different?

By: Lipton Matthews

Believing that Western civilization is not unique is a fashionable sentiment. Today many argue that the West has no distinctive traits. However, critics suggest that individualism, freedom and human rights are innately Western constructs. Yet there is more to the West than its history of freedom. Western civilization is easily rejuvenated by creative elements. Throughout history, other cultures have relied on new knowledge to justify old beliefs, but Westerners have consistently allowed foreign ideas to unleash their revolutionary potential.

During the medieval ages, for example, the Latin West was mesmerized by the teachings of Islamic scholars. Such knowledge was appropriated to create novel intellectual inquiries. Historian Peter O’brien offers a glimpse of this spectacular development: “The knowledge transmitted to Latin Christendom via Islamic civilization touched and upset virtually every discipline. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, devoted the lion’s share of his scholarly attention to wrestling with theological and epistemological quandaries stemming from Arab philosophy…Lettered Europeans scrambled to absorb this torrent of new knowledge pouring in from their rivals. Those who could, journeyed to loci of Islamic erudition. “Since at present the instruction of the Arabs…is made available to all in Toledo,” explained Daniel of Morley, “I hastened there to attend the lectures of the most learned philosophers in the world.” Both Adelard of Bath and Ramón Llull travelled to the Levant to learn Arabic, study Arab texts and carry the newly acquired knowledge back to Europe.”

Earlier in his text, O’brien recounted evidence that may suggest that Western civilization is not unusual in this regard: “Cultivated Muslims embraced ancient learning. Not only did they preserve and venerate the works of Greek masters such as Plato, Aristotle and Euclid that were lost to the Latins, Islamic and Jewish sages the likes of Musa al-Khwârizmî, al-Farabi, al-Ghazzali, Abu Ma’shar (Albumasar), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroës), and Maimonides augmented and improved the inherited storehouse of knowledge.”

But what O’Brien failed to say is that the Islamic Golden Age was inspired by a few dissident Muslims who were influenced by Hindu, Greek, and Persian learning. Furthermore, Christian intellectuals who were trained by the scholars at Jundi Shapur played a crucial role in translating ancient texts. It was only in the West that intellectual revolutions became a permanent fixture. Notwithstanding the brilliance of some Muslim scholars in the Islamic faith, reason is intertwined with revelation. Up until the nineteenth-century the principle of natural causality was denied by Muslim intellectuals. Whereas though Christians believed that natural laws were instituted by God – there was the expectation that one would explore the natural world without resorting to religion.

The destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate by the Mongols negatively affected the course of science in the Islamic world, but nonetheless there was already a revival of traditional schools that were hostile to scientific inquiry prior to the invasion. Islam lacked a culture able to sustain the passionate debates that would lead to continuous revolutions. Ali. A Allawi in the Crisis of Islamic Civilization lucidly explains the tension between Islam and non-theological reasoning: “The Arabic word “individual”- al -fard – does not have the commonly understood implication of a purposeful being, imbued with the power of rational choice…The power of choice and will granted to the individual is more to do with the fact of acquiring these from God, at the point of a specific action or decision – the so-called iktisab – rather than the powers themselves which are not innate to natural freedoms or rights…Therefore to claim the right and responsibility of autonomous action without reference to the source of these in God is an affront, and is discourteous to the terms of the relationship between human beings and God…None of the free thinking schools in classical Islam – such as the Mu’tazila – could ever entertain the idea of breaking the God-Man relationship and the validity of revelation, in spite of their espousal of a rationalist philosophy.”

Similarly, the Chinese are excessively praised for their successes during the Song Dynasty. Using Chinese history as a case study, multiculturalists often posit that the West is not peculiar. Although as David Landes informs readers, the Chinese did in fact build a great civilization, but under the spell of hubris they shunned foreign technologies thinking that outsiders could not enrich a superior culture: “Along with Chinese indifference to technology went imperviousness to European science. The Jesuits and other Christian clerics brought in not only clocks but (sometimes obsolete) knowledge and ideas. Some of this was of interest to the court: in particular, astronomy and techniques of celestial observation were extremely valuable to a ruler who claimed a monopoly of the calendar and used his mastery of time to impose on the society as a whole…Little of this got beyond Peking, however, and the pride some took in the new learning was soon countered by a nativist reaction that reached back to long forgotten work of earlier periods. One leader of this return to the sources, Wen Ting (1635–1721), examined the texts of mathematicians who had worked under the Song dynasty (10th–13th centuries) and proclaimed that the Jesuits had not brought much in the way of innovation.”

Unlike countless societies Western civilization is willing to admit when its culture requires regeneration from outside forces, and this is a major reason for its dynamism. Had the West not been a self-critical society there is no doubt that it would have stagnated like other areas of the world. Another interesting point about the West is the centrality of the idea of progress. Because Western culture is self-reflective it can objectively judge the true state of society. As such, innovation often trumps traditionalism. The Renaissance, for example, repudiated much of medieval scholasticism.

Yet one cannot discuss the concept of progress in Western civilization without examining its link to the Christian notion of linear time. Contrary to the Greeks, Chinese, and other civilizations, Christianity asserts that time will not revert to older cycles. Based on this reasoning, society can only go forward. Obviously, developments can either be progressive or regressive, but one must always strive to attain progressive ends by not returning to the ignorance and superstition of the past. In short, despite the rantings of multiculturalists Western civilization is indeed special.

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