An historical overview of how this played out over the centuries
A flow-chart of Western cultural history
A timeline of major events in ancient Western history (3000 - 500 BC)
A timeline of major events in Western history (500 BC - 1900 AD)
The student syllabus
The world map test
The "Self-Evident" Order
Western culture is basically an optimistic culture. Things happen, things have the capacity to operate or perform, in a way that fits a particular and somewhat predictable pattern. This pattern can be studied and understood by the careful observer in such a way that events can not only be anticipated but even be directed or controlled by the educated individual (the philosopher or scientist). This cultural understanding or appreciation of nature seems totally self-evident to any Westerner.
But in fact it is not so self-evident to everyone. For instance, the basic orderliness of life is not so self-evident to many Hindus and Buddhists.
For most Hindus, karma — not basic order — is at the heart of life. To the Hindu way of thinking, we do not inhabit a world which operates in an orderly fashion in accordance with some kind of benign transcendent will or all-encompassing set of natural laws. Rather, life is a complex array of individual lives that come together as a larger whole through the mysterious outworking of the consequences (karma) of personal deeds committed in our previous life-times. We all as individuals live out our separate but interconnected lives in order to atone for the deeds of earlier life-times. Until karma is fully satisfied, we as individuals are destined to go on living, dying and being reborn in an endless cycle, with no hope of escaping the iron grip of karma. To a Hindu, this is the ultimate reality of life — a reality before which all other judgments about life must bow.
For Buddhists, whose faith grew up within this basic Hindu world-view, life is itself merely an illusion. When we try to make it real and work for us, life only produces suffering — life-time after life-time. Wisdom demands that we find release (nirvana) from this endless cycle. This is achieved only by become aware of the illusory quality of life — and stilling our passions for the life of illusions. When we achieve such emotional detachment then we have broken the hold of suffering and the eternal sentence of rebirths. We have achieved nirvana.
So, indeed, the Western sense of the basic order to life is a very special cultural achievement. It comes naturally to us only because it is all-pervasive within our culture. It inhabits our thoughts about all matters. It drives us to try to solve life's problems — to look for solutions to everything, rather than to throw up our hands in resignation. It has made us "progressive" and ever-reforming. It has made us devoted; it has made us scientific. It has made us "Western."
The Two Opposing Viewpoints as to the Source of This Orderliness:
Mysticism and Materialism
However behind this widespread acknowledgment within Western culture as to basic order underlying our universe there persists a long-standing debate as to what the source of this orderliness might be. There are two distinct viewpoints as to the source of this orderliness — and thus two viewpoints on what our human response to this orderliness ought to be:
Mysticism. One viewpoint is that we live entirely under the rule of an all-present, all-powerful and all-knowing Grand Consciousness, some kind of Eternal Force or Being, or just simply a God on whose plans and judgments all things on earth as well as in the heavens above depend for their orderly movement and on-going existence. All life is thus seen as a vital flow of the power of God, a flow which holds all things together in a harmony of beauty and goodness. But most strangely, man is the only known creature in the program endowed with not only knowledge of this power but also a totally free will and thus the ability either to cooperate or not cooperate with this power.
The mystic tends to the understanding that man’s natural or instinctive tendency however is to want to control rather than cooperate with the larger world. This creates huge problems for man. But under the guidance of society’s elders, man has the ability to learn how to overcome this self-centered or sinful tendency and thus live to the larger good. But this requires the disciplining hand of an enlightened society guided by inspiring teachers, prophets or leaders who exemplify this life of harmony.
In short, to the mystic the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks harmonization with life ... through the quest for full cooperation with God, with the physical world God has created and sustains ... and with fellow man.
Materialism. The other viewpoint looks in equally reverent awe at life as a perfect mechanical order of a universe of material things (including humans) functioning precisely according to natural design. Reality is simply the universe of "things’ that our five human senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste) know through personal experience to truly exist. There is no other reality, especially a reality that exists nowhere in the physical world but merely in our imaginations, and in particular the imaginary world of God and God’s heavenly kingdom. Physical reality and its truths can more than adequately be "proven" through mere observation and study. God cannot be proven in this manner. Indeed the materialist is quite certain that God does not exist – except to weak minds that cling to the notion of God as some kind of false hope of escape from the hard realities of life.
The materialist believes that the realities of life are properly dealt with only by the careful study of the behavior of material things, the observance of their behavior until a natural pattern begins to reveal itself, ultimately the drawing from such observations of certain conclusions as to the causes of their behavior, causes that can then be tested and verified experimentally. Employing such a mechanistic methodology, life and its causes can be brought step by step under the mastery of human knowledge or "science."
The materialist is well aware of the flaws surrounding human life but see this not as a problem inherent in human nature itself but in the structure of society, a flawed structure that has resulted from generations of unenlightened superstitions and inherited social bad habits. These flawed social influences can be reformed or cleansed from human life by enlightened social policy, policy conducted by social managers possessing the "scientific" knowledge of social dynamics. Thus life necessitates the scientific control and direction of society by such managers until society is fully reformed.
In short, to the materialist the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks dominance over life ... through the mechanical (scientific/legal) management or control of both man and his material environment.
The Origins and Early Development of This Debate
This debate seems to have reached a point of clarity
about 500 BC on a number of fronts
Gods and heroes as the early providers of order. Previous to that time life was understood in polytheistic terms: life was primarily the result of a number of contending gods who laid claim to particular powers or particular areas of jurisdiction. These gods tended to be whimsical, violently passionate, and at times even lined up against each other in fierce competition. But life was also filled with heroes, men and women who faced the gods, faced overwhelming struggles — and yet survived, even rising victorious in the struggle. Life therefore was viewed as some kind of dynamic between the gods of heaven and the mortal heroes of the earth — a dynamic that ultimately did produce some kind of sense of order to life.
The Jewish vision. The Ancient Jews, who form one key branch in the Western family tree, saw life in terms of personal and collective righteousness which their God YHWH ('Yahweh' or "Jehovah'?) demanded of them. They had their heroes (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, etc.) and the stories or epics surrounding them. But they also had their God-given system of law. And together — God, heroes and the law — these produced a strong sense of order in Jewish life.
When the Jews were led off to captivity in Babylon in the early 500s BC they had a serious question facing them. Who or what had failed them? Had their tribal protector Yahweh failed them in competition with the Babylonian god Marduke? Was Marduke greater than Yahweh? Or had Yahweh simply abandoned them because they had failed miserably in maintaining the standards of righteousness required of them by Yahweh (it had also been centuries since they had produced any heroes of significant stature to lead them in the paths of righteousness; prophets had also warned them that their lack of righteousness was going to draw Yahweh’s wrath)? Or was it that Yahweh was the God of all nations, that even the Babylonians were part of his ruling hand — and that God had sent the Babylonians to discipline the Jewish remnant of God's own covenant people Israel (as Isaiah had previous stated and as Jeremiah reiterated — much to the discomfort of the Jews)?
In the end the Jews came to see the situation posed in the last-mentioned terms: Yahweh was the only God, the Creator of the universe, the Judge of all. There was no Marduke. But there was plenty of Divine judgment to be faced. Yahweh had used the Babylonians to punish the Jews for their failure to maintain righteousness. And with that the Jews turned urgently to studying and practicing the law.
But they also laid in waiting for a new hero, a Messiah, to come to them, one who as the heroes of old (particularly David) would lead them personally to a greatness under Yahweh — a greatness that would bring the world to worship God at Zion (Jerusalem). They would then be reconstituted as an entire priestly people, serving the world as God’s holy priesthood.
The Greek Debate. At about the same time (500 BC) a number of Greek philosophers were beginning to look past their own older vision of the universe — a world directed by gods and heroes — to consider a basic or "natural" order that seemed to underpin all things. As life settled down and prosperity increased, this natural "order" of things became more and more obvious — at least to some of the thinkers or "philosophers" of Greek Ionia. But as these philosophers contemplated this natural order they arrived at two distinctly differing conclusions as to how this order worked. And this division of opinion on this matter helped produce in part the philosophical dualism that still exists within the West today.
One group — Thales, Anaxagoras and Democritus, and others — claimed that this order was inherent within all physical life itself. Creation was a complex system of various materials (such as earth, wind, fire and water) which interacted with each other in rather fixed ways to produce the world that we find around us. These "materialists' were the ones who laid the foundations for the secular viewpoint within Western civilization.
But another group — founded principally by Pythagoras (but promoted principally by Plato 150 years later) — asserted that the source of this order was to be found beyond the rather disorderly visible world itself: in some eternal, perfect, heavenly realm which inspires or directs the more unstable or imperfect visible world that we see around us. This higher world is the mainspring of the oneness, of the order, of all things. Ultimately this kind of thinking helped pave the way for the spread of theism through Western civilization.
However in another, less happy, way the Greeks also showed the way intellectually and temperamentally to a spiritual sickness which afflicts Western societies (or perhaps all societies) jaded by too much wealth and power and too little moral restraint to use that wealth and power humanely. They too had a sense of failed righteousness — though they had no particular remedy to the situation except to become existentially cynical. At best this produced a movement called Stoicism — which belied Western optimism and took on qualities of Eastern quietism (such as Buddhism). But coupled with the Christianity which would come along later, this would hold Western culture together during some very long Dark Ages ahead of them.
The Romans. The Romans who took over the Western program from the Greeks about a century before Christ, were an odd combination of traditional polytheists and skilled materialists. Their minds did not fuss much with higher thought such as the Jews and Greeks engaged in. For the longest time they were content to stay with the older gods and do their most inventive thinking in the material world around them. Here they proved themselves to be geniuses. They themselves produced earthly order: in their military, in their government, in their commerce, in their industry, in their public works. In short the Romans themselves bore powerful witness to the materialist-secularist point of view about life.
The Christians. As the Romans headed off strongly in the secularist direction, the Christians — as inheritors of the Jewish vision of life — headed off strongly in the theistic direction. Their view was that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah — though more in the lines of a prophet like Moses than of a soldier like David. In his own life and death, Jesus opened the way for those who chose faith in a personal God whom they called "Father,' over confidence in human reason and in the material-secular systems that reason produced. This put them at distinct odds with everything that the Roman empire stood for, especially at odds with the notion that the empire — and its semi-divine emperors at its head — ought to be the object of veneration of every member of the empire. Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the emperors, claiming that such a privilege belonged to God alone — and suffered harsh persecution for their stand. This also put them at odds with their own Jewish community, not merely because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they had been led to expect but because Jesus taught a Godly righteousness drawn not from the faithful observance of the Jewish law but instead from the heart, from personal compassion towards others, and from an total devotion to God as personal "Father" (a matter of great blasphemy to the Jews)
The synthesis: Imperial Christianity. After almost three centuries of persecuted existence, in which Christians showed themselves (witnesses or "martyrs') to their persecutors as the heroes long lacking in Roman life, an increasingly spreading Christian faith was finally (early 300s AD) taken up by the Roman emperors themselves. Within a few generations it even became the official religion of the Roman empire.
However both the faith and the empire were significantly changed in the process. Christianity joined Roman law to become the moral-ethical underpinning of the empire. Jesus Christ joined the emperors to become Christus Rex (Christ the King) friend and supporter of the emperors — and a lofty figure far removed from the common Christian. The latter now looked to the Virgin Mary and the saints for intimate spiritual support. In turn, the empire saw itself as defender of the Christian faith through its formal offices — including the military. Out of this new amalgam arose the firmly established Roman Catholic Church in the western half of the empire and the equally firmly established Byzantine Orthodox Church in the eastern half of the empire. In short, while the Roman empire took on certain theistic dimensions, the Christian faith gave up some of its pure theism in favor of a stronger secular position.
Into the "Dark" or Middle Ages
But the synthesis of Roman Empire and Christian faith did not shore up the sagging Roman system, which finally crumbled — at least in the West — under the pressure of German tribes who were pressing for resettlement within the Roman lands. Though the Germans only wanted to possess the Roman order, not destroy it, their tribal touch only collapsed what little was left of the old imperial system.
However two developments within Christianity helped keep the Christian faith intact in the West even as the empire collapsed there. One of these was the belated conversion of the Irish to Christianity. These Irish converts in turn infused the faith with new vigor and sent missionaries from the outer islands of Ireland and Britain into the midst of the German settlements, both in England and on the Western European continent. Their brand of faith was of the very theistic variety: personal and Christ-centered.
The other development as Rome was collapsing was the influx into the ranks of the church of good Roman patrician blood, which gave the Catholic church power to stave off the collapse, at least with respect to the church. Notable were the Roman popes Leo and Gregory — who rebuilt the powers of the religious hierarchy centered on Rome. From Rome then went forth Catholic missionaries, drawing the Germans into the last vestiges of the old Roman imperium: the Roman Catholic Church. France, under Clovis, adapted in whole the Roman version of the faith. England, facing two versions of Christianity, finally decided to follow the Roman rather than the Irish variety. A tendency toward secular order rather than theistic spirit won out in the end. But even then it was a feeble version — invested with huge doses of pagan superstition and subject to the political whims of its German rulers.
In its weakened political condition Western Europe in the 700s found itself vulnerable to new intruders: the Muslims who had also just overrun most of the Roman Empire in the East (although in a way they revitalized — even as they transformed — the Empire into a Muslim order, rather than collapse the Empire as the Germans had done in the West). The Franks under Charles Martel not only turned back this Muslim tide, but his grandson, Charlemagne, even began the consolidation of Christian Europe under his personal rule through what is today France, Germany and Italy.
Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome in 800 and one might have believed that somehow the ancient Roman Christian Empire had come back to life in the West. But it was German and not Roman ways that directed Charlemagne's Empire — and in accordance with German custom, Charlemagne's lands were divided equally among his grandsons — and the impetus toward reorganization was lost.
Soon the Vikings or "Northmen" were taking up from the Germans in assaulting Western and Northern Europe — except that their hand was even more violent. This spun these regions of Europe back into two more centuries of "Dark Ages." But here and there these Northmen (or Normans) settled into conquered Europe and were eventually drawn into the Christian order — giving it new blood, of the military variety. By 1100 their military talents were being put to use in a counter assault against Islam, carrying Christian "crusaders" all the way to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. This marks the beginning of the period of revival of Western culture, one which has continued down to the present day.
The Road to "Renaissance" or "Rebirth"
of the Lost Greek-Roman (Pagan) Legacy
Growing East-West contacts. Though in the end the crusades proved to be a military failure (the Muslims pushed the Crusaders back out of the East during the 1200s) the Muslims indicated a willingness to replace Western efforts at conquest of the Muslim East with Western efforts at trade instead — and pilgrimage — as long as the Western Christians were willing to behave themselves! So a new relationship was established between the Christian West and the Muslim East, one which proved to be a major benefit to the West.
The Muslim East had carefully preserved the ancient writings of the Greeks that the Western Christians had previously destroyed because they were pre-Christian and thus "pagan." Aristotle and Plato had been known to the West; but now also other ancient Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists came to light — as well as the Muslims' own contribution to learning (such as their Arabic numerals, their advanced methods of mathematical calculations known as al-jabr or algebra.)
The High Middle Ages. A period of peace began to settle in within the West itself during this time — which allowed the West to come into its own revival in Christian learning. Actually, this had begun even as early as the late 1000s but reached a highly sophisticated level of during the 1200s. This new learning produced on the one hand a rich spirituality or "Mysticism" (led in part by the Franciscans) and on the other hand a deep revival of intellectual order known as "Scholasticism" (led in part by the Dominicans). The first of these emphasized a deep personal relationship with a loving God (theism) and the other tended to emphasize the benefits of a close examination of God's created order (the secularist instinct). The old dualism thus showed its on-going hold on the Western mind even after centuries of dormancy.
By the 1300s this stirring intellectual curiosity had begun to shift its total focus away from God and was casting it more and more on human life — even just ordinary human life. So also was a deepening interest in the cultural offerings of the pre-Christian pagan Roman past. Things Roman (and not just Roman Christian) and Greek were beginning to fascinate the West — particularly the Roman and Greek achievements in art, architecture and literature (both poetry and prose). Secular humanism was stirring.
The Renaissance. In the West, attitudes of the Christian church toward these new secularist developments were favorable, with the church even being a major patron of this revived spirit of secular humanism (even elements of paganism). The Western church had never been adverse to holding political power — and soon it began to demonstrate that it was not adverse to holding big portions of economic power or wealth either. By the 1400s popes and bishops vied with newly rising industrialists, merchants, bankers — plus a new breed of national princes and kings — in gathering up the fruits of a fast-unfolding secular order of power, wealth, art — and moral abandon.
The Protestant Reformation
Luther's Protestant "Reformation." By the early 1500s this spirit growing up the Roman Catholic Church was about to find itself in opposition to two major social groups. One was the piety of the traditional rural order which was growing increasingly offended at the secularism or materialism of their holy church. Theistic reformers such as Luther and Simmons demanded that reforms be undertaken within the secular church to restore it to the theistic purity of the early church as founded by Jesus and the Apostles.
The Calvinists. Another theistic social group, which found its voice in Calvin, was the fast-rising urban society which had no place in the old rural feudal order — and which saw itself as better able than the feudal order to realize the ideal community life of early Christianity. This latter group, though pious in its theistic affections for God, happened also to command considerable intellectual and material or secular resources which could not be easily coopted back into the feudal Catholic Church — nor easily subdued by the power of the fast-rising national princes of Spain, France and England.
By the 1600s Europe was plunged into bitter war on a number of fronts — as all of these old and new forces vied for mastery of the European culture and soul.
The Path to the European Enlightenment
By the late 1600s two things were happening which would shift European culture away from the theistic agenda of the Reformation: the first was the sheer exhaustion from all the warring over the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants — over the issue of which religious group held the Truth. The feeling began to grow up among Westerners that the Truth would never be found through bloodshed. Toleration of differing religious opinions seemed to be more high-minded than all this sectarian squabbling.
The second thing was the rapid expansion of science and its seeming ability to explain all manner of natural events, whether in physics, chemistry or human anatomy. Science had already in the 1500s started to challenge traditional theism in the West over the issue of whether the earth was or was not the center of the universe. All theological tradition said that it had to be — for Scripture clearly places the earth as the center point of God's creation. But astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler offered powerful mathematic theories that undermined the church's traditional position. As the 1600s progressed, natural philosophers such as Descartes, Newton and Locke began to speculate and design theories about a physical reality which seemed to function quite apart from the issue of God. This new science began to put the pieces together of a great mathematical puzzle which needed no particular involvement of God to make it all work. At best God could be congratulated for having set the whole mechanism in motion — long, long ago. But now that it was up and running, it no longer gave evidence of further involvement of God in the process. The universe seemed to run simply under its own fixed or eternal physical or "natural" laws.
By the early 1700s, secularism seemed to be elbowing theism aside in the West. Those who continued to hold theistic views of the universe were looked upon by the newly "enlightened" thinkers of the day as being either deeply self-deluded or just simple-minded. Universities once largely given to preparing ministers for their pastoral calls were now shifting the focus of their studies to the exploration of the secular world and the truths of "natural philosophy" (science) which undergirded a growing sense of a natural or secular order standing behind everything.
The ultimate victory for secularism over theism finally began to register itself in terms a shift in the sense of the nature and purpose of Western societies and governments. Whereas the old Catholic feudal order and the newer Protestant commonwealths had justified their existence in terms of God's own will and pleasure, by the late 1700s political communities were being refashioned around purely secular principles in which man — not God — was the justifier of the enterprise. Communities were being actively rebuilt or founded according to "rational" principles of governance — principles designed to enhance human stature, not the stature of God (notice that the American Constitution, written in 1787, does not contain a single reference to God in any manner whatsoever).
Theism and Secularism Turn on Each Other
The Protestant "Great Awakening." But theism was by no means dead. Protestant pietism on the European continent and a spirit of Protestant revivalism in England and America (known in America as the "Great Awakening') stirred the theistic passions of many Westerners just prior to the mid-1700s. Though within a generation this passion had once again subsided, it left in its wake nonetheless a strengthened church and a resolve among Christians not to let the fires of their faith flicker out.
Unitarianism/Deism. Not all Protestant Christians had approved of these emotional outpourings — especially those of a more "reasoned" faith. Unitarianism / Deism was very strong in the "colder" part of Christendom. Unitarianism and Deism stood halfway between pure secularism and theism — acknowledging God as the source of the blessings of creation and Jesus as the master moral teacher of mankind. But this viewpoint also tended to see Christianity as a moral responsibility rather than as a personal spiritual passion. It dismissed much of the fervency of those swept up by revivalism and looked with disbelief and disdain on all the tales of miraculous events as key to the faith — either at that time or even previously, in Biblical times. Unitarianism and Deism ultimately believed in a practical reality facing the Christian which was best approached through reason and science. It was well on its way toward secularism.
The French Revolution. In Catholic France — and then elsewhere on the European Continent — the French Revolution and its political descendant, the Napoleonic Empire (late 1700s - early 1800s), took a more militant attitude toward theistic Christianity, blaming such "superstition" for having undergirded centuries of political tyranny in Europe. French militants spread the accusation that Christian piety had dulled the spirits of the people in the face of feudal tyranny, by keeping them willingly submitted before traditional political authority because of the belief that this Old Regime had been ordained by God. Christianity was also accused of weakening the people's resolve to improve their lot in this life through political revolution and the rule of human reason by deflecting their hope instead toward an afterlife — something Enlightenment philosophers viewed as dangerously superstitious escapism.
Theistic reaction. Ultimately such French secularism destroyed its own moral credentials through the blood bath produced by the Paris guillotine — and through French military and cultural imperialism which ultimately stirred up anti-French nationalism around Europe. This reaction in fact induced the rest of Europe to cling even more closely to its Christian Old Order. After the defeat of the French in 1815, Europe returned to the safety of older theistic views on life. This coincided in America with wave after wave of religious revivals (including the birthing of Mormonism) that swept across the country in the early 1800s.
The industrial revolution. But secularism was soon rescued by the ongoing industrial revolution — which produced unprecedented wealth, even eventually for the humbler classes, without the apparent aid of God. Human reason and effort alone seemed to be the necessary force behind this wondrous material development in the West. But unlike the French Revolution it needed to find no cause against Christianity. The newly emerging industrial culture paid lip service to theistic Christianity — while in fact putting its greatest energies behind secular development.
Karl Marx. Not all voices of the industrial revolution, however, were so respectful of Christianity. In the mid-1800s, Marx, in explaining the servile condition of the European worker under the new industrial leaders, blamed Christian hypocrisy — in much the same language that the French Revolution had used. Marx called Christianity — and its belief in a better afterlife for the weak and downtrodden — as the "opium of the masses," dished out to them to keep them dumbed down and submissive. He called not only for the overthrow of these new industrial leaders in a grand workers' revolution, but also for the elimination of this Christian superstition.
In counter to any theistic understanding of the human social order, Marx counter-proposed a purely secular or materialist interpretation of society and its historical development. He claimed that forces inherent in the material means by which societies produced their own wealth (land-holding, slave labor, capitalism) produced dialectical or opposing class interests whose conflicts impelled societies forward historically. Materialist forces, not a divine hand, moved history. His theory, he boasted, was "scientific sociology," not "superstition."
Charles Darwin. This was coupled in the mid-1800s with an even more devastating indictment of the traditional theistic interpretation of life's dynamics. Darwin tackled the entire question of the origins of all biological life — including human life. He came up with a theory that claimed that life had progressed over the long run of the earth's history from simple life forms to very complex life forms. This progression had occurred, Darwin claimed, through genetic accidents in reproduction — accidents which would give a non-normal creature a slight advantage over its cousins in its adaptability to newly arising changes in the environment. This better-adapted creature would eventually establish itself as a new species. And thus, over the long run of history, one specie produced another more complex specie — which would eventually produce yet an even more complex specie — until through a process of biological evolution the whole biological panorama of the present had come into being. Even human life emerged through this process — emerging from less complex biological life, indeed emerging recently in this long biological history as a better adapted ape.
The impact of Darwin's theory was that it in no ways necessitated the hand of a Creator-God. It ran on its own as a completely self-sustaining process, simply through the accidents of history. God was a meaningless concept in Darwin's theory of biological evolution through natural selection. This was a devastating challenge to theism — for which theism seemed to have no adequate response except to answer that Darwin was an instrument of the Devil.
Social Darwinism, Nationalism and Imperialism
Social Darwinism. This "progressivist" or "evolutionary" view of life, of human history, had a tremendous impact on the intellectual-moral character of Western society in the 1800s. It undercut the traditional Christian virtue of "noblesse oblige" whereby the wealthy and powerful had a moral responsibility to care for the humbler or poorer classes, replacing this old ethic with a new one which awarded the rich and powerful with the right to keep all their privileges for themselves, claiming that it was the very heart of nature — and crucial to all historical progress — that the strong not be burdened in any way by the plight of the poor. It was the destiny of the strong to rule — to take history forward — and the destiny of the weak to be cast out in the struggle for survival.
This "ethic" helped justify the huge wealth that was being amassed in the hands of the new industrial-commercial-financial elite — at the cost of the working poor, who were forced to work long hours for the rich with only the barest of compensation for their contributions to the industrial age. But this is also what gave Marx the inspiration for his theory that history would advance to its next and final stage when the industrial worker realized his true strength and revolted against the ever smaller industrial capitalist class (the capitalists urge to monopoly thinning out their own ranks) — producing a revolution of the newly strong (the working class) over the weakening former dominators (the capitalist class).
Nationalism. But this competitive or Darwinist ethic not only set European "propertied class" against European "working class," it also set European nation against European nation. Darwinism produced an ever growing instinct or spirit of each European nation aggressively moving to prove itself historically superior to its neighbors. For France and England, this competition already had a long history. But it served in the 1800s to soften the class lines within the French and English nations as the lines of one nation against the other hardened. Thus it was allowed, and even encouraged through the creation of "romantic" national history, poetry, operas, anthems, etc. ("jingoism"), to develop as a means of preserving social harmony.
This urge also drove the Germans and Italians, who had long been divided internally as a single nation into a number of small states, to the creation of the new nation-states of Italy (1860) and Germany (1870). It also stirred ethnic minorities within the remaining European empires into demands for the same national independence.
The nation and its need for glory came to command the full, overriding loyalty of its members — even to the extent of a call to die gallantly in war for the nation's rightful place in the sun. The nation became celebrated as the supreme instrument of God's will on earth — as well as the ultimate source of all material well-being, justice and right-mindedness here on earth. Indeed, Westerners were creating a new god of sorts: their beloved nation — whether England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, America or elsewhere.
Imperialism. This hotly competitive national spirit flung itself outward into the larger world — uniting imperial armies, industrialists and traders, and Christian missionaries in the effort to extend the influence of their sending nations among the pagans and heathens of the world. The West was on the move, impelled by zealous forces which seemed to have no limit to their ambitions for mastery or dominance in the world. The British pushed for global commercialism, headquartered in London; the French pushed for a global French language and culture, headquartered in Paris. The Americans pushed for constitutional democracy and commercialism (mostly focused on Hispanic Mexico and Central America). And the Germans and Italians, coming lately to the game, struggled to find imperial colonies for themselves to rule in a demonstration of Germanic or Italian greatness. And the Russians and Austro-Hungarians looked to grab pieces of their Muslim neighbor, the Ottoman Empire, in their own program of imperial expansion.
But by the end of the century they had run out of overseas territories to grab in this Darwinian contest. It was inevitable that these different sending forces would ultimately clash with each other — right at home in Europe itself — in a most ferocious sort of way.
This then brings us to the close of this section:
The Western Cultural Legacy (to 1900)
Looking ahead into the 20th and 21st centuries
Violent war. The first half of the 20th century saw the inevitable clash of these nationalist forces — in two world wars and in the start-up of a "cold war" which drew most of the world into a vortex of unprecedented violence. These nationalist urges which had their origins in the West not only dragged the rest of the world into the violence as victims — but eventually infused the same nationalist zeal among non-Westerners. Everyone, it seems, wanted a place in the sun for their beloved national or cultural communities — as if the forces that directed the universe itself depended on the ultimate victory of one or another of these communities.
Standing behind the outrageous level of violence of 20th century wars was the power of modern materialist science. Man had learned to control, even unleash, enormous powers — both to create and to destroy. Long-range artillery could reduce towns and cities to rubble; air power could do the same. With the discovery of the nuclear bomb — and the missile that could send these bombs from one side of the earth to the other — cities could even be disappeared in a single flash. Gone were the days of the heroic warrior. In his place stood the anonymous engineer who from the safety of his or her headquarters could conduct terrible war without the enemy having any idea of who or what was coming their way.
Mass society. The 20th century saw the very rapid growth of the world’s population from approximately 1.65 billion at the beginning of the century to 6 billion at the close of the century. Accompanying this was the shrinking of the globe in terms of the social distance of one part of the earth from another: an explosion in transportation and communications technology brought the "outside" world to everyone’s doorstep (even inside the home complements of the internet and the wireless phone).
The result of this technological revolution was a tremendous loss of personal privacy once afforded by the rather local nature of how we used to live socially. In so many subtle ways we found ourselves drawn into an ever-expanding world which was increasingly intrusive, complex, and impersonal. We became ever busier in our labors — yet less able to control the outcomes of our efforts. Our fates seemed more and more dependent on the actions of large social organizations run by social managers possessing tremendous powers to oversee human life. A supposed efficiency and production of "plenty" was what this ever-larger social system claimed to offer — in exchange for our personal liberties.
But this kind of impersonal and lofty power offered by these mega-systems and their managers often proved to be very dangerous to human life. Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Tojo's Japan and Mao's China demonstrated clearly the terrifying downside of "totalitarian" societies which easily resulted from this trend.
The quest for identity and purpose. But man is ultimately made to find meaning in life personally and spiritually — not mechanically. Humanity or the quality of being truly human is a value which is developed through risk, struggle, even sacrifice — that is, personal heroics. Man does not need impersonal institutions to take care of him. Instead man needs to live on his own strength, tested and developed as he goes through life.
Man needs heroes, those who through the example of their own struggles and victories inspire others. Man himself needs to be a hero — in order to live truly. And that brings us back full circle to the origins of the West in the ancient world of the Greeks.
And there we will begin our story.
A CHRONOLOGY OF VERY EARLY WESTERN CIVILIZATION - to 500 BC
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|Western Cultural History
1. Part One (1st Quarter) — The Classical Age
Unit 1 - The Greek Cultural Legacy
- 500s + 400s BC
Unit 2 - The Hellenistic Legacy
- 300s + 200s BC
Unit 3 - The Romans - 200s BC
- 200s AD
Unit 4 - The Jews and Christians
- 500s BC - 200s AD
2. Part Two (2nd Quarter) — The Age of Christendom
Unit 5 - The Great Greco-Roman-Christian
Synthesis - 300s AD
Unit 6 - The collapse of Rome
and the "Dark Ages" - 400s - mid-1000s
Unit 7 - The High Middle Ages
- mid 1000s to mid-1300s
Unit 8 - The Renaissance - 1400s
3. Part Three (3rd Quarter) — Cultural Crisis
Unit 9 - The Protestant Reformation
- early to mid 1500s
Unit 10 - Political Realignments
- mid 1550s to mid 1600s
Unit 11 - The "Age of Reason"
Unit 12 - Mounting Tensions: Royal
absolutism and bourgeois intellectualism
4. Part Four (4th Quarter) — The Challenges of "Modern" Culture
Unit 13 - Revolution
Unit 14 - Social-cultural and
Unit 15 - Cultural and intellectual
Unit 16 - Nationalism and
Essay #1: The Greek and Hellenist Philosophers
1. Explain the process by which the
Greeks began to move from the idea of the cosmos
1a. How did Thales and the
other Ionian materialists understand the makeup of the
1b. How did Pythagoras hold a quite different idea of the cosmos and how it operates?
1c. What philosophers came up with the idea of the Logos? What was it all about?
1d. How did Democritus" philosophy
contribute to the materialists" understanding of
2. We think of Athens as the
cradle of Western democracy. What were its good points
2b. What were Socrates" ideas
about the perfect political system? How well did he
2c. What were Plato’s thoughts on the subject of the perfect Republic?
2d. How did Aristotle depart
from his teacher’s idealism to add greatly to materialism?
3. As long as the Greeks were
under intense pressure from the Persians, they
3a. How did the Cynic Diogenes
take a much less optimistic view about man's
3b. How were the Skeptics even more pessimistic?
4. Alexander’s widening of
Greek horizons with his conquest of the East brought a whole
4a. How did Greek science flourish under the impact?
4b. But how did Greek philosophy
take a more Stoic turn?
Essay #2: The Decline
of Rome — to the Rise of the West
1. What were Republican and Imperial Rome’s contribution to the Western cultural legacy?
2. What were the causes of Rome’s decline in the West?
3. How was Christianity at
first blamed, then looked to for salvation, in the face of an
4. How was it that the Western
portion of the Empire suffered the worst part of the
5. What began to eventually weaken the Eastern or Byzantine portion of the Empire?
6. Who were the Arabs and why
did they have such an impact on the 600s?
7. Why might the Pope in Rome
have thought that Charlemagne was indeed bringing
8. Explain the rise finally
beginning in the mid 1000s of Western Europe out of its “Dark
9. What were the major features of the High Middle Ages (mid 1100s to mid 1300s)?
10. What brought the High Middle Ages to close in the second half of the 1300s?
Essay #3: From the Renaissance
to the Enlightenment
1. What developments moved Europe into a “Renaissance”of classic culture? What were the main cultural features of this Renaissance?
2. How did the cultural-political features of Renaissance of the 1400s ultimately produce the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s?
3. How did Luther and Calvin give different emphasis to the need for Christian reform? How did each affect Europe differently?
4. How were the “Wars of Religion” as much political as religious?
5. Why is it that the “modern era” is said to begin with the Treaty of Westphalia?
6. What different social-political
points of view or philosophies emerged with the Enlightenment?
The Divine Rights of Kings (“Enlightened Despotism”)
7. How did the Calvinist Puritans of New England take on a different understanding of society and its dynamics? How was Virginia more representative of the intellectual trends of Europe?
Essay #4: Evolution, Nationalism and Imperialism
1. Explain how the French Revolution
and Napoleon unleashed the idea of human progress — so that the 1800s
was a century in which the doctrine of progress became almost a god in
itself. Include a brief description of how the following individuals
made major contributions to the doctrine of progress:
3. Explain how Romanticism rejected the ideas of the French Enlightenment — yet at the same time contributed to the growing spirit of nationalism and democracy that swept Europe in the 1800s.
4. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was a struggle between two very different cultural lifestyles in America that had been building since the Republic was formed in the 1790s. Why was it so violent?
5. The Italians and the Germans finally got their nation-states in the 2nd half of the 1800s. Explain the process by which they did so — and how his affected also France, England and Russia. Why did all of this leave the Habsburgs" Austrian Empire?
6. How was Western Imperialism a natural outgrowth of the nationalist spirit of the late 1800s?
7. How did all this “humanist progress” produce among Western intellectuals a deadening spiritual side-effect known as “Existentialism”? Why was Nietzsche’s ?bermensch (Superman) not a satisfying spiritual substitute for the West’s traditional Christian faith?
8. What problems will all of this produce for the 20th century?
THE WORLD MAP ANSWER SHEET
A printable PDF copy of the World Map Answer Sheet