Western civilization is in the doghouse. Its popularity among intellectuals has dropped to an all-time low. To the far left, it’s invalidated by its historical prejudices. To the far right, it’s annoyingly insistent on freedom for all–even the far left.
Politicians give lip-service to freedom, but the enormous government bureaucracies that are characteristic of the developed world would prefer to replace choices with rules, which is actually a decivilizing process.
The most repressive western governmental bureaucracy was the National Socialist state of Germany. Under the Nazis, the rules even entered the bedroom.
Modern bureaucracies obviously are more restrained, but they have evolved to sustain the complex economic cultures that also characterize western societies. They attempt to balance incentive and regulation, in order to keep economies expanding, while at the same time preventing the development of the sort of impoverished underclass that characterizes the third world.
Our form of government is not democratic, it’s bureaucratic. Ironically, these huge social organisms have developed as a result of the flowering of human freedom that the west has fostered, but they are suspicious of it and would prefer that freedom was not defined in terms of ideals, but codified in rules.
This doesn’t feel less free, but it is less free. The core discovery upon which western civilization rests, and what makes the western mind fundamentally different, is the individual. Since the establishment of the individual as the center of meaning, an astonishingly productive journey into the inner life of man has been taken, flowering especially over the past three centuries in both the arts and the sciences.
The first stirrings of individuality came in Roman times, in the client-kingdom of Judea. Hellenism brought the concept of intellectual inquiry. Buddhism brought a compassionate deity. And Christ brought the idea that every human being, no matter his or her station in life, had value, and, for the first time, people began to see themselves as individuals, rather than social components.
This was a revolution of incalculable importance. It is the central revolution of the human experience, the most important thing that has ever happened, and it is also the foundation of western culture, and the thing we need to protect and foster and increase.
It has led to the flowering of the human spirit, to the discovery of the body as a structure accessible to scientific support in the form of medicine. It has led to the freeing of the mind, so the individual could allow himself to contemplate at will, and invent himself, and consider that invention to be valid.
After Jesus proclaimed the individual, it was a very long time before society actually began to make room for the liberties that are needed for people to really flower and discover themselves.
At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the words of Jesus were twisted into a set of rules that enforced the opposite of his message, and the western journey toward freedom descended into a long and troubled sleep.
Another great western thinker, Aristotle, was responsible for rescuing our civilization from the darkness that had followed the perversion of Jesus’s teachings into a political system–and he did it fifteen hundred years after his death.
During his life and in the ancient world, the writings of Aristotle were never considered of transcendent importance, and by the tenth century, all that remained of them in Europe was his Logic.
The Syrians, however, had preserved a group of lectures he gave at the Lyceum in Athens, and when the Arabs conquered Syria in 650 AD, they acquired these texts.
In those days, the Arabs were beginning to become a great civilization, and they studied Aristotle and added commentaries, and his work was circulated throughout the Islamic world. Eventually, they reached the west once again, emerging both from the Arab world and, in a better text, out of the archives of Constantinople after it was conquered by the 4th Crusade.
As Arab civilization began its long decline, the west discovered Aristotle, and with him the concept of critical thinking and the individual liberty that is essential to its support. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was promulgated so that complex debate could be undertaken without fear of state censure, and as the fundamental right that it codifies was adopted across the western world, a great symposium of ideas formed, and with it the flowering of philosophy, science, literature and the arts that has so dignified our civilization, and so immeasurably advanced the human mind and the human species.
It was not Aristotle’s philosophical thought that was fundamental to the formation of western civilization, it was rather his approach to thought, and the requirement that it implies, that the mind be able to explore freely in order to advance understanding. On it rests the eventual development of the scientific method, and the discovery of the body, which is of such fundamental importance to our civilization.
Throughout most of history, human beings have had no idea what the body was. They have celebrated its beauty without in the least understanding its function. As recently as a hundred years ago, the average lifespan of a male in western civilization was under fifty years, because we understood so little about the body.
Along with the explosive flowering of science that has taken place since then has come a deepening understanding of the body and the way it works, and even how the brain functions to assemble and correlate information. Not only do we now understand Aristotle, we also understand why his brain saw the world as it did.
Unfortunately, western science has also, in not penetrating its understanding to the level of conscious energy, gone soul-blind, and so opened itself to the dangerously decivilizing notion that life has no purpose greater than living. This is fundamentally anti-western and opens the door to growing bureaucratic indifference to freedom. It is to be hoped that ways will be found to connect the physical and non-physical aspects of humanity, always remembering that what we call the soul is also part of the natural world, and can be accessed with technologies sensitive enough and subtle enough to attract its compassionate interest without challenging its primacy.
We have come to an ironic place in our journey, where we do not even believe that what is by far the larger and more potent part of humanity, those who are not embedded in bodies, even exists.
Our growing understanding of the physical world has so enraptured us that we have lost the core of Jesus ancient message: not only is the individual valuable, he is so because he has a soul and, potentially, a destiny as part of the ecstatic penetration that is the true aim of conscious life.
The physical universe is unfolding in an endless void, but that void has a destiny, which is to be lit by ecstatic light. This is why consciousness evolves, and why souls grow in our bodies, to fill an emptiness that has no end with a joy that has no end.
The arts of the west–its plastic arts, its writing, its music–are exponentially more complex than those of any other culture. This is because, as the individual has emerged in society, he has also emerged as a mystery and as a character and a personality, and has been free to explore his own depths, and the social and moral journeys unfolding around him.
In painting, the journey inward began with J.M.W. Turner. Already famous for his romantic landscapes, in 1819 he went to Italy and made what has become one of the essential discoveries in human history: he discovered that light affects the interior life, and began painting not what he saw, but how what he saw made him feel.
Last summer, we were in London where the National Gallery has a superb collection of Turner’s work. At one point, we stood looking at two of his paintings side by side, one of them conventionally representational, the other an explosion of light that you could not only see, but feel as a kind of inner excitement, a joy connecting you to the mystery of being.
Then we jumped in the tube and raced across the city to another gallery, which was showing a rare retrospective of the American portrait artist, Alice Neal. She, along with Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, is one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th Century, and her paintings vividly displayed the journey to the interior that is the aim of western civilization. The gallery was filled with portraits not of the inner potential of external light, but of the light of souls exposed naked upon canvas after overwhelming canvas.
At the same time that we were engaging in this pilgrimage, elsewhere in England, scientists were in the process of discovering that the world actually is a sort of matrix, made up of uncountable masses of information, but only of two kinds, the yes and the no. All of reality, in other words, functions exactly like computer language.
This is leading scientists to proclaim anew that we are, in our essence, mechanical. But what they do not account for is complexity, and it is complexity that freedom fosters, complexity of social ordering, complexity of thought and the consequent discovery of deeper, more subtle feelings–in short, the very ethic of responsibility for oneself and others that Jesus propounded at the beginning of our journey.
Assuming that the world does not collapse around our ears for one reason or another, western civilization is about to take two important leaps forward. First, it is going to expand beyond its traditional borders, spreading at first as materialism to peoples all over the world who are discovering that they have individual desires, needs and demanding the rights that go with them. Second, it is going to penetrate deep into the interior of the physical and spiritual worlds. It will create machines that are more intelligent than men, and these machines are going to quickly discover why they are different from us, which will be that we have biological souls and they do not.
Then will come another leap forward, as we finally unite with ourselves across a now-unseen gulf between physical and nonphysical man. The great science of the next century will be the science of the soul, as we embrace the conundrum of being at last, not just with speculation, but with instruments so sensitive that they can detect the flight of consciousness as it is running free of the body.
This is our destiny, and why our civilization is such a wonder, and so important.
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