A few thoughts on a society that forgets its roots and believes its history is settled.
In a couple of posts* I have touched a little bit on the notion that in the West we have grown very far removed from our own culture by our ignorance of its sources. But why, have I been asked, is it necessarily so important to keep those roots constantly in mind? Why is a culture something that at almost all costs should be preserved?
There is a fairly straightforward answer to these questions: Culture and its sources should be preserved at almost any cost because they are things that are larger than we are. When young Westerners sympathize with various radical Islamic groups, they do so not primarily because, as some would have it, they have suffered economic marginalization at the hands of an evil Western society. Evidence, in fact, points to the fact that a large and growing proportion of Western recruits and sympathizers of e.g. ISIS come from the middle class, or that, at least, the full socio-economic spectrum is represented among them. Rather, they join or sympathize with these groups because the Western society in which they live has failed to provide them with something that is larger than they are.
Well-meaning Westerners believe that we need only provide more jobs and less economic discrimination for such youngsters to embrace the West and reject radicalism. But the force of culture and the human search for larger meaning are often at least as powerful as the stability of a regular paycheck. To provide those youngsters with something larger than they, Western society must come to recall again what it largely forgot in the 1960s and 70s, namely its own roots. When culture – that which is greater than our own selves – is forgotten, a narcissistic attitude centered on the notion of the self develops (the idea of “self” is, in the main, a Platonic hallucination, but this is another matter). But this self-obsession, brought to its logical continuation by the rise of social media, where no thought is thought and no feeling felt that is not broadcast to all and sundry, only masks the natural human desire of being part of something greater, of historical events, of heroism, of struggle. This is where those cultures that have not forgotten themselves step in to fill the vacuum. People of the lower social strata are often too busy scraping by a living to worry much about these things. It is usually the better off who have time to ponder the meaning of things.** They therefore become easier targets for those radical ideologies seeking to exploit that human desire for meaning. The situation is exacerbated by a sort of pre-feminist ideal in which both young men and young women are attracted to the warrior type, who represents virility and courage in the face of the feminized Western man (though this ideal may also be called post-feminist, since it is a result of and backlash to the saturation of the feminization of Western society). For this reason, especially young Europeans seek a new God, since the Christian European one is thoroughly dead, and they find him in that place where God is still God, namely in those lands where radical ideologies hold sway, where they see that there are struggles in which they could invest themselves, at least on the mental level if not physically.
This is part of the reason why it is naïve to presume, as many philosophers over the last few decades have done, that liberal Western-style democracy entails a sort of end of history (and purely coincidentally, of course, any philosopher’s “end of history” happens to coincide quite perfectly with his own existence, as was the case for Hegel, Marx, Fukuyama, and others). Any success will always be taken to its extreme, and there will always be a backlash, and the struggle will recommence, in one form or other. This is why we must never take democracy and our core values for granted. If we do, which we do by forgetting the ancient cultures that produced that democracy and those values, then we will begin to lose them, since the next generation will no longer be inspired by them and will therefore reject them – even though, naturally, they will have no idea about what exactly it is they are rejecting. It is this ignorance on our part that makes it incomprehensible to us that other peoples and cultures can desire things fundamentally different from those we desire. One sometimes sees silly memes and statements to the effect that all Abrahamic religions and their important individuals (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed) essentially preach the same thing, namely love of one’s neighbor, whereas a wee bit of education about the religious texts and about the cultures that evolved from and in symbiosis with them would instruct us that this is absolute nonsense. There are very real differences between religions and between cultural philosophies, and those differences play themselves out in a very concrete way in the modern world, just as they have in the past and will continue to do in the future. Without any understanding of these crucial ideological distinctions, we will not succeed in preserving our core values (such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, and conscience, equality of the sexes, and much else), and this failure is already apparent in much of Western Europe. Ascribing this manifest failure to social marginalization and poverty will not do.
What would do, however, or what would at least be a start, would be to introduce the young to the beauty of Western art. The creative force, its expression and evolution, is the most loving act in which human beings can engage. To engage with tonality, the full orchestra, the contrapposto, chiaroscuro, metopes, skyscrapers, poetry and prose, and the iambic pentameter is to engage with Western beauty and to cherish its ideals, for all these innovations, and many others, arose from a tradition of dissent, open debate, and the free exchange of ideas, which are also Western phenomena (wherever they are found outside of the West it is mainly because of Westernization). To engage in this beauty, in this love, is to carry our civilization forward.
** And thus oikophobia arises within the leisure class, something I discussed in the series on oikophobia: Oikophobia in Greek Antiquity, Oikophobia in Roman Antiquity, and Oikophobia in American History; for the definition of oikophobia, see the first blog entry, On Two Types of Cultural Decadence.