Three ages of Western history summarised

By Lorenzo

In the Ancient period, the dominant ideal was to ennoble life (to seek glory).

In the Medieval period, the dominant ideal was to sanctify life (to seek salvation).

In the Modern era, the dominant ideal is to expand life (to live long and prosper).

The ideal of the previous era never entirely dies, but becomes part of the cognitive context in which the later ideal operates. 

These thoughts struck me while reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic. A book I found alternatively intriguing and frustrating.

The Ancient period generated both the aristocratic-heroic notion of seeking glory and the philosophical notion of seeking knowing virtue. These are both hierarchical notions of meaning and purpose in life. In a different way, so is seeking salvation. It may be open to all, but it is a journey Godwards, so a journey metaphysically upwards, towards the highest point in the “great chain of being“.

Social framing

In the Greek polis there is the participation in the city-community and glory within (and beyond) it. From the persuasion, disputation and rhetoric of polis politics came the philosophers, who came to seek a universal wisdom and virtue. The Jewish idea was to follow God, but was not a universal idea, it was a matter of being the Chosen People.

Then along comes Christianity, which marries the universalism of the philosophers to the God-focus of the Jews within the rule of a city (Rome) that had become a quasi-universal law-for-all Empire; an Empire that was both the apotheosis and the stagnation of the Classical World.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the triumph of Christian universalism creates the medieval world of Latin Christendom. But that universalism breaks apart in the Reformation and the Wars of Religion–the aspiration and claim remains, but the experienced reality becomes very different.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Revolution produces a universalism of truth. But that is not a hierarchical notion in the same way–it may seek to winnow out truthful understanding from misleading dross, but it is outward-looking rather than upward-directed.

Along comes the Enlightenment; a reaction against murderous and hugely destructive religious strife, but a re-engagement with philosophy and Classical thought inspired by the burgeoning success of science. This in a society where the aristocratic ideal had been re-invigorated as one of leadership in military and political life along with patronage and appreciation of art and culture.

Political revolutions

The Parliamentary tradition coming out of medieval history gets a commercial re-invigoration with the Glorious Revolution and again, with more of a Classical gloss, in the American Revolution. While both were grounded in claims about the British tradition, the already somewhat multi-ethnic American colonies began to articulate more universal notions–most notably in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Though the US Constitution stressed commonality rather than universality:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Revolution which talked rather more in terms of universality was the French Revolution and those that descended from it. Or, as it was put in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (pdf):

The representatives of the French People, formed into a National Assembly, considering ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man …  

Article first: Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on considerations of the common good.

Article 2: The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.

The French Revolution became based on the politics of virtue which led, of course, straight to the politics of the guillotine. For virtue can not be negotiated over, it can only be adhered to, or not; and to be the “enemy” of virtue is to be the enemy of humanity.

Judged to be insufficiently virtuous

Hannah Arendt once asked why folk so often ignored the American Revolution, which succeeded, but extolled the French Revolution, which failed. A major reason is that intellectuals and academics–typically not being responsible for anything except their own work–have not much to contribute to the politics of negotiating liberty. But they can define “virtue” more easily than anyone else while being–precisely due to that lack of responsibility–far more “virtuous” than anyone else. So, of course, they find the politics of virtue so attractive.

Moreover, in societies where commercial interests were relatively weak, revolutionary activity was much more likely to be grounded in the intelligentsia than in the sort of propertied folk who drove the  Glorious and American Revolutions. Hence the sad litany of failed “Revolutions of Virtue”, with their tyrannies and mass murders.

Mass politics

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, and revenue and politics became so much about the capital/labour ratio (where capital is the produced means of production)–rather than, as it had been before, the land/labour constraint (with a trade-in-luxury-goods add-on)–the Western world led the world into an age of mass politics.

Mass politics in its universalist forms being the politics of humanity. But, as Manent asks, how do you define humanity? A much more fraught issue than it might appear. What of past generations? What of future ones? Do we accept that everything with a human face is human? Or “fully” or “properly” human. (Lots of people don’t accept that; not really.) Are the vast majority of people even, in any real sense, visible to us?

Poland divided between the Counter-Enlightenment and the Radical Enlightenment

The struggle between the Sceptical Enlightenment (of negotiated liberty); the Radical Enlightenment (of a humanity made virtuous); and the Counter-Enlightenment (extolling the particular) flows directly out of the fraught politics of humanity (and the reactions to it). The Dictators’ War (1939-1945) was all about that struggle, which saw the defeat of the Third Reich; the state which personified the Counter-Enlightenment. Just as the Cold War was about the struggle between the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments, as personified in their two Revolutionary super-states–the USA and the USSR.

Sceptical v Radical Enlightenment

Contemporary confusions

The triumph of the Sceptical Enlightenment, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and China’s switch to “socialism with Chinese features” (i.e. capitalism), was supposed to be the End of History. But the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment resonated with the Islamic revival (its own form of the politics of virtue) to produce the jihadi movement while Euroskepticism and Putin have come along to remind us that the Counter-Enlightenment’s extolling of the particular can still have appeal. Often for quite understandable reasons.

The jihadis confound us; not only because religious motives (such as clearly expressed here as mass killing following the example of the Prophet) are mysterious to our overwhelmingly secular intelligentsia and commenters, but also because the goal of virtuous harmony seems very Radical Enlightenment, but the jihadis particularist atavism is much more like the Counter Enlightenment in its most violent form. Or, as Algerian journalist Mohamed Sifaoui puts it:

the Muslim fundamentalists are our extreme right.

Expatriate Algerian activist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas expressed a similar sentiment back in 1993:

Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement, it is a political movement. It is the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. Yes, it is a populist movement, which therefore gives it legitimacy. But we should never forget that Hitler was a populist. Hitler was elected. It is the Fascism of today.

The jihadis are especially confounding for Western progressives, as they fit really not at all into the oppressed-oppressor narrative of progressivist politics–they are non-Westerners (so inherently “oppressed”) but seek to be oppressors (up to, and including, being slave-owners [pdf]).  All this mostly within the confounding complexity of the Middle East (though a complexity not so different than Europe during, say, the Thirty Years War, but with extra unfamiliarity).

So, not quite the end of history. But not quite not, either. Democracy–the politics of the sovereign people–is still the overwhelmingly preferred political system in polls around the world (including the Islamic world). The Emancipation Sequence–the politics of common humanity–has proved to be a somewhat exportable product. Violence continues its long-term decline, albeit with some upward spikes.

The paradox of politics–that we need the state to product us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous social predator–was never going to go away. But the framing of that paradox has changed profoundly; and overwhelmingly for the better.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud].

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