National Catholic Register


Saving the West from the New Barbarians

BY Robert R. Reilly

August 22-28, 1999 Issue | Posted 8/22/99 at 2:00 PM


Few would dispute that Western civilization is in trouble. Despite its riches and power, it is declining both morally and demographically. This is a matter of more than parochial concern. Western civilization belongs to everyone because it is the only civilization that addresses itself, not just to itself, but to all human beings of whatever religious, cultural, or national origins. Western civilization seeks universal truth and invites all to examine its premises.

Because of its openness, Western civilization has spread throughout much of the world. Though it has had its share of conquest by force of arms, its real appeal is its invitation for all men to reason together as means of finding common ground. Today, its principles are under attack in the very place that gave them birth—the West. These principles must be defended, not because they are Western, but because they are true. Their loss would be a catastrophe not only for the West but for the world.

The greatest advances in Western civilization came about through the general grasp of great insights concerning God, man and nature: monotheism, philosophy, the centrality of the family in society, the sanctity of the individual, and the rule of law. At the foundation of Western civilization, Greek philosophy made a number of momentous discoveries: that the mind can know things, as distinct from having opinions about them; that objective reality exists; that there seems some purpose implied in its design; and that this purpose has to do with what man calls “the good.”

‘The Good’

Aristotle said that “the good” that all men naturally seek is happiness—achieved through a life of virtue. Jewish and Christian revelation taught that “the good” has a transcendent source and is to be found in God himself, in whom man will find complete fulfillment. In their souls, all people are ordered to “the good” in the same way. This is what is meant by human nature. Human nature enables man to acknowledge another person as a fellow human being. This act of recognition is the basis of Western civilization. We have forever since called barbarian those who either are incapable of seeing another person as a human being or who refuse to do so.

Western civilization was the vehicle for imparting these fundamental truths about the human condition. When healthy, a civilization works at both the conscious and subliminal levels. The custom and ceremony of daily life subliminally engender the good moral habits necessary to a healthy society through what is generally called culture. At the very least, a person responded to these influences by being “cornered into virtue.”

The consequences of the erosion of civilization at this level are unfortunately abundant in Western society: endemic divorce, illegitimacy, functional illiteracy, child abuse, abortion, rampant sexual disease, drug abuse, pornography, and a culture coarsened by a stream of vulgarity in popular entertainment. The first and most vulnerable victims of this barbarous bombardment have been children, robbed of innocence and grace, and the orderly homes in which such things must be nurtured.

The rebarbarianization of man in the 20th century took place through highly codified ideologies that offered new paths to secular salvation in communism and Nazism, both challenges that arose within Western civilization. Likewise, our dehumanization today is not the result of external forces but of internal decay. However, it is not the product of a new belief, but of a lack of belief; not of an acceptance, but of a rejection.

The New Original Sin

As composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote, “the old original sin was one of knowledge, the new original sin is one of non-acknowledgment.” It is the refusal to acknowledge anything outside the operation of the human will—most especially “the good” toward which the soul is ordered. The new barbarian is not interested in conforming his mind to reality but in conforming reality to his wishes. For him, the goal of freedom is not the truth, but more freedom.

The new barbarian will not accept as real any rational end that could constitute a limitation on his freedom, including those very “limitations” that define what human is. As a result, the new barbarian, like the old, has no capacity to recognize another person as a human being, or even to differentiate between the human and the animal. The loss of this capacity has brought upon us the nowtoo-familiar culture of death.

The first sign of a barbarian is a lack of self-knowledge—an unawareness of his own barbarousness. Many of today's intellectuals and cultural gatekeepers would be at a complete loss to define the difference between the human and the nonhuman, between civilization and barbarism. In fact, many would think it highly insensitive to suggest that there is a difference between the two.

The recent appointment of Peter Singer to the chair of bioethics at Princeton University illustrates this point. Professor Singer thinks that animals have rights and that newborn, handicapped babies do not. You must not eat meat, but you can kill a child. The most impressive thing about his teachings, which seem to be a mix of 19th-century utilitarianism and Darwinism, is how much you would have to not know in order to hold them. To my knowledge, Singer has never explained why animals have never spoken up for animal rights, nor why they have never observed them themselves, especially the carnivores.

When faced with the uproar over Singer's appointment to Princeton's ironically named “Center for Human Values,” Princeton President Harold Shapiro made the extraordinary defense that what matters is not Singer's ideas, but whether they can be rationally defended.

The question does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Shapiro: Can one make a rational case that there is no essential distinction between a man and an animal, when it is precisely the use of reason that differentiates the two? In other words, the very act of making the case reasonably would disprove it.

The problem with this massive moral and intellectual breakdown is that the repetition of anything evil breeds a familiarity which blunts one's sensibility to eyil.

Modern Crusades

Taken to its extreme, prolonged indulgence in any evil kills not only the soul, but the soul's awareness of its own death. Conscience is gradually erased, and replaced by feelings of self-righteousness, which inspire sanctimonious “crusades” for, say, pornography, drugs, pedophilia, abortion, euthanasia and other forms of moral “liberation.” While the acceptance of these rationalizations is devastating for an individual, for a civilization it is catastrophic. This is the reason that civilizations in decline are unaware of their own demise.

Appeals to tradition to restore our world will not work because Western traditions have lost much of their power to compel. Today, one cannot sustain the good life, in its pre-libertine sense, without constant reflection upon first principles. One must actively resist the corrosive influences in the media, in politics, in education, in every form of entertainment, even in some pulpits. In order to do this, what was once imbibed in the traditional home or learned by osmosis through custom must be known explicitly and consciously. We must recover those first principles upon which the great traditions of Western civilization were built, principles which emanated from the answers to the most important questions. We must then advance those contemporary cultural endeavors that reflect these answers in enduring forms of literature, music, architecture and the other arts.

Ultimately, a spiritual and moral decline can be countered only by a spiritual and moral revival. It must start, however, with the recovery of reason, with reason aware of what is beyond itself. It should begin with reason's assent to the very real possibility of the Transcendent.

What starts in reason can often end in faith, because faith is reasonable. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, this point carries great political import as well. He said, “Despotism can govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”

We need not lose heart at the magnitude of the task. Our spiritual ancestors faced similar trials. We can turn to them for the spirit that is required of us now.

In the fifth century B.C., Nehemiah exhorted the Jews: “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burnt down. Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer” (Nehemiah 2:17).

Robert R. Reilly, chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization, writes from Washington, D.C.