How the West Changed the World for the Better

Bust of Plato in the library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
Its achievements were built on Jerusalem and Athens — revelation and reason.

Last week a white supremacist murdered 50 innocent Muslims in a brutal terror attack he livestreamed to Facebook. This emissary of evil then released a manifesto outlining his philosophy — and his goals. He wanted, he said, to tear apart civilization through racial and political conflict. His goal: to defend “the West.”

But what did he mean by “the West”? He meant racial supremacy of whites. He explicitly derided “the myth of the individual” and the “sovereignty of private property.” He spat at democracy. He scoffed at capitalism and tore into conservatism, which had surrendered to these concepts.

Unfortunately, the terrorist’s view of “the West” isn’t limited to white supremacists. It’s echoed by intersectional critics of the West, who suggest that Western civilization truly is founded in racial hegemony rather than eternal concepts of truth. In this view, Western civilization is inherently racist, sexist, and bigoted — rooted in hierarchies of power, to be torn down through tribal division. The West, they say, doesn’t exist: It’s a mythos of white power, imbibed by white supremacists.

But that’s not right, obviously. Western civilization does exist, and it is responsible for the vast majority of human gains in history. Thanks to the West, billions of human beings no longer suffer in abject poverty; thanks to the West, democracy is seen as both the moral and the practical default position for aspiring governments; thanks to the West, individualism has been able to gain ground against the natural tribalism endemic to human beings. The history of the West isn’t a history of unalloyed greatness: It is replete with suffering and tyranny and slavery and misery. But all of those evils are present in every civilization historically. The question is why the West changed the world.

The West changed the world because the West isn’t based in tribal notions of race but on creedal notions — the same notions rejected by the Christchurch terrorist. As I discuss in my new book, The Right Side of History, the West is important only because the philosophy of the West — the ever-shifting balance between Greek reason and Judeo-Christian values — provides the foundation for those gains. We haven’t always lived up to the highest principles of either Judeo-Christian morality or Greek reason — but by acknowledging the importance of both, and building a civilization on the tension between the two, the world has been bettered.

The West was built on Jerusalem and Athens — revelation and reason. Thanks to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the West accepted certain foundational principles: that the universe is a logical place, established by a reasoning God; that human beings have moral duty not out of pragmatism but out of principle; that human beings have the capacity and obligation to better their world; that every human being is created in the image of God.

Thanks to Greek tradition, the West accepted other foundation principles: the belief that our purpose lies in our use of reason and that the universe could be discovered and understood by the human mind.

The West broadened the application of Judeo-Christian principles more and more widely over time by applying Greek reason, resulting in the birth of science, human rights, free speech, and free markets. Whenever the West abandoned Judeo-Christian values, the West fell into secular tyranny; whenever the West abandoned Greek reason, the West fell into theocratic tyranny. The balance between reason and revelation gave us meaning and purpose — and with that meaning and purpose came prosperity.

The West is worth defending from those who would define it down to racial solidarity. If we don’t, tribalism will reign supreme once more, bringing the bloody ruin it has always brought, grinding the principles we all hold dear into the dust.

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