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What is the West?

What is the West?

10 Mins
October 18, 2010

September 2001 -- From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. By David Gress (New York: The Free Press, 1998. 624 pp. $30.00).  Buy it Amazon .

David Gress's subtitle seems to indicate that he has but one set of opponents—those who are hostile to "the idea of the West." In fact, though, his main title points with irony to a second set of opponents: those who boost the idea of the West by propounding a "Grand Narrative" of the West's development "from Plato to NATO." In many ways, Gress believes, the second prepared the ground for the first.

As Gress tells the tale, the Grand Narrative began at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, following World War I, when progressive historians decided to teach returning doughboys what they had been fighting for. The answer took the form of sweeping survey courses, which explained that the values of Western Civilization—rationality, personal choice, and the brotherhood of mankind—had begun as seeds in classical Greece, come to flower in the Renaissance, and finally reached fruition in the liberal, twentieth-century democracies of Europe and America. At the time, the supreme product of this trend was Wilsonian democracy, but the Western fruit continued to ripen, into Roosevelt's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, and Kennedy's Camelot: truly, Plato to NATO.

Ironically, however, the liberal historians who told the Grand Narrative had no sooner found its apotheosis in the Kennedy administration than the whole tale came under fire. In the 1960s, postmodernists attacked the Grand Narrative as a lie. The West, they said, had never lived up to its ideals—indeed, had never even tried to live up to its ideals—but had used those ideals only as a rhetorical cover for oppressing people at home and abroad.

This war about the history of the West is what Gress examines in Plato to NATO, meanwhile giving his own views on that history and on how it should be told.


Gress's chief complaint against the Grand Narrative is its isolation of "Magic Moments," such as the trial of Socrates, and its transmutation of them into stages in the evolution of twentieth-century liberalism. Artistically, of course, one is free to interpret such moments as adumbrations of liberalism. But the historian must see these incidents in their historical context. Socrates did not drink hemlock so that James Joyce could publish Ulysses in America, and to understand his death as the remote seed of the modern attack on censorship is untrue to Socrates and untrue to the actual history of a free press.To understand history correctly, Gress believes, one must identify political-cultural spheres and their most significant variations over time and space. Thus, to oppose the Grand Narrative's "idea of the West," Gress undertakes his own analysis. "The history of the West," he says

will emerge in this book as the story of two great syntheses, the synthesis of ancient, Christian,

and Germanic cultures in the era known as late antiquity, and the synthesis of liberty, reason,

and development—or democracy, science, and capitalism—that defined modernity. The central

argument of this book is that these two syntheses were not mutually exclusive but part of a

continuous story; that the second, modern synthesis grew out of the first and could not have

happened without it (p. 48).


In the Grand Narrative, the centuries of late antiquity (500 to 700) and the centuries of the Old West (700 to 1500) are frequently combined and then dismissed as "a thousand years of darkness" brought on by Christianity. Gress sees the matter quite differently. In essence, he sees a pre-West, divided into four eras: Greek civilization, Roman civilization, Christianized Roman civilization, and Germano-Roman civilization.

The first three stages are familiar; the fourth less so. In Gress's telling, Rome did not "collapse"; it was simply crushed into barbarism by German warlords and their bands. For that was the political structure of the Germans in A.D. 400: numerous non-hereditary "kings," each with their "comrades," the former reigning only so long as they kept winning; and the latter choosing another leader after his death. When the last Roman emperor of the West was ousted, the result of the Germanic invasions was 200 years of near-anarchy, during which classical culture fled to monasteries on the farther shores of Ireland and England.

Geographically, the Old West began when the conceptual dividing line between the East and the West was moved from the Aegean (where it had been since the battle of Marathon) to the Adriatic. The first stimulus, appropriately enough, involved the integration of mind and body. In 725, the Roman Emperor Leo III (resident in Constantinople but still, nominally, ruler of Italy) "decided to forbid religious images on the grounds that they were sacrilegious and detracted worship from its proper object, the invisible Deity." (193) Pope Gregory II resisted, and when the emperor sent soldiers to kill the pope the Roman populace rose up to defend him and their right to employ images. Meanwhile, under the leadership of St. Boniface, the highly learned English missionaries were proselytizing in Saxon areas and fomenting an alliance between the papacy and Charles Martel. The Old West was born politically when in the 750s Pope Stephen II went along with this plot, specifically, when he broke with the Byzantine emperor, transferred the Church's loyalties to the Carolingians, and persuaded them to unite with the remnants of classical-Christian culture. With that, the Greek-speaking half of the empire became part of "the East."

The eight centuries of the Old West that began circa 700, with the ascendancy of the Carolingians, laid the foundations for the principal values of the New West that emerged after 1500: democracy and liberty; economic development and the market; reason and science. The first pair has the deepest roots. The classical world left behind an ideal of a West ruled by an emperor and a pope, an ideal that endured in one form or another until the overthrow of Napoleon in 1815. The Germanic world, by contrast, rested on numerous tribal kings supported by their free companions.

Once the Germanic kings had been Westernized, however, they strove to realize the ideal of an imperial order. None succeeded except Charlemagne (742-814), but during their struggles the kings had to compete for the hearts, minds, and energies of the West's peoples by proffering them liberties. So, Gress says:

The dreams of empire and universal dominion of Old Western rulers and thinkers were part

and parcel of their identity, of the synthesis of Roman, Christian, and Germanic culture. And

the great paradox of this Old Western universalism was that it never succeeded, and that the

very attempts to make it succeed promoted that which undermined it—the Western idea of

political and social freedom (171).

The second pair of values—economic development and the market—also arose during the first half of the Old West, when monks abandoned the classical denigration of work. The result was an explosion of innovative technology that multiplied productivity, freed the West from a massive dependence on human muscle-power, and improved domestic life. From these came a vast increase in food, an improvement in health, and a consequent growth in population, trade, and markets, which laid the groundwork for further expansion in the second half of the Old West. Citing Douglass North and Robert Thomas's The Rise of the Western World, Gress writes: "Population growth in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries 'created a foundation for the enormously expanded trade, stimulating specialization in production, extending the basis for commerce, reducing transaction costs and encouraging more use of the market mechanism to exploit specialized resource endowment'" (268-69).

The third pair of values—reason and science—came last, as the first half of the Old West was ending (circa A.D.1000). Then it was that increased wealth provided by the boom in production and trade created genuine cities, where the cathedral schools begun under Charlemagne could blossom into universities. A substantial number of scholars flourished in the 1000s. But their output was as nothing to that volcano of learning, speculation, investigation, and recovery of classical texts which took place in the 1100s and which is known to history as the twelfth-century renaissance. In the 1200s came a purification of the Aristotelian texts prompted by Albert the Great and employed to great effect by his student, Thomas Aquinas. The Thomistic system's embrace of reason, in turn, prompted a revival of science in the 1300s, led by Robert Grosseteste and carried forth by such students as Roger Bacon.


As noted above, Gress cites familiar values in characterizing the New West that emerged in 1500: reason and science; liberty and democracy; economic development and capitalism. But Gress does not believe these values came to shape the New West because people, beginning in 1500, realized that such values were suited to human nature. Rather, he holds, the values emerged from the Old West as the result of highly contingent historical circumstances and thereby gave rise to the New West. Only after the values had been achieved and (tenuously) institutionalized did philosophers, reflecting on them, discover the roots of such values in human nature.

From this viewpoint, Gress defines two sets of theorizers about the New West. The first he terms "the skeptical Enlightenment" (p. 293), and it supposedly includes the eighteenth-century political and historical theorists of Great Britain and American, plus (very importantly) Montesquieu. For these theorists, the West's values arose slowly, through the glacial evolution of practices and institutions. Yet those practices and institutions can earily be undermined by doubt, decadence, or despotism. Thus, the most importantfact about the West's values is their fragility. As a result, reform should proceed slowly, in order that cultural and political leaders may be sure their reforms will not destroy what has been so laboriously gained.

The other set of theorizers—including Voltaire, Rousseau, and most the French revolutionaries—Gress calls "the radical Enlightenment." Members of this group believe that the New West emerged from the Old West by conquest. The New West's values characterize it because men and especially thinkers have, since 1500, rebelled against faith and superstition, oppression and monarchs, routine and feudalism. As a result, reform should proceed by further and more profound rebellions, eradicating as rapidly as possible what remains the Old West , for it still threatens to subvert the New.

As one might expect from this description, Gress thinks that the radical Enlightenment also pioneered the Grand Narrative approach to history. He notes, for example, that Voltaire exempted only four eras from his general condemnation of the past: Greece in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.; Rome in the first century B.C.; the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century; and the age of Louis XIV.


From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, the New West severely undermined itself. First, increasingly, it accepted the radical Enlightenment's viewpoint and judged itself a civilization pledged to the rapid—almost instantaneous—perfection of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. At the same time, defenders of capitalism accepted the judgment that theirs was not a morally defensible order, but was justified only by the efficient production of material wealth. Lastly, Westerners became confused about the nature of freedom and began to think of it as self-realization rather than liberty. The result was a deeply weakened civilization.

At the end of this period (that is, in the 1950s and 1960s), there grew up a movement in academia that radically criticized the liberals' Plato-to-NATO perspective. Adopting a utopian stance, this movement (which included the New Left, Vietnam protesters, Cold-War revisionists, ban-the-bomb groups, feminists, the black movement, and so forth) said that the ideals the West had supposedly been striving to achieve for 2500 years were a sham. They had never been characteristics of the West, nor had the power structures of the West ever sought to realize them. And as for the twentieth-century celebrants of the Plato-to-NATO view, the New Frontier liberals, they were the worst hypocrites of all—smugly congratulating themselves on their liberalism while they extolled a racist, sexist, imperialist, militarist, exploitative America.

Out of this conflict, Gress says, four new "teams" of thinkers had emerged by the 1990s. Closest to the 1960s' viewpoint were the postmodernists, although their reliance on radical epistemology makes them even more post-Enlightenment than the Marxoid New Left. Very different from the postmodernists and often possessed of an Enlightenment outlook were the universalists, such as Francis Fukuyama, who extolled the New West and wished to remake the world in its image. Communitarians, who wished to "moderate" the values New West, made up a third team and probably come closest to the viewpoint Objectivists call "pre-Enlightenment." The fourth team might be thought of as the converse of the universalists, or the existentialist version of the postmodernists. It too saw the Western, Enlightenment values of rationality, liberalism, and capitalism as triumphant but (unlike the universalists) found that a cause for despair: Gress's example is Vaclav Havel, whose frequent invocations of Heidegger's more religious utterances suggests how hard it is to decide whether this group is properly conceived of as pre-Enlightenment or Post-Enlightenment.

Gress has interesting things to say against each of these groups, but it is when commenting on the universalists that he is most original. This "team," he says, holds that the values of the New West—reason, democracy, and capitalism—are universal and therefore can be used to create a truly global civilization. Moreover, the adoption of these values is bound to happen, sooner or later, for they are now recognized as constituting the only viable value system. To this, Gress replies that the fundamental values of the New West are indeed universalizable and exportable. But he also agrees with Fukuyama's great critic, Samuel P. Huntington, about the importance of civilizations. The values of the New West are exportable, Gress says, but the West is not. That is, the West was the first civilization to become modern, but not because it was the first society in which people saw the virtues of modern values. It became modern because of the Old West, and its modern values are sustained as products of the Old West. Export modern values to a different civilization, and they will retain their value. But they will not create a Western civilization. To take a simple example, capitalism in the New West is highly individualistic and contractual, because the Christian religion of the Old West was focused on free will and personal salvation. But export capitalism to a more traditional society, with a family-oriented religion, and capitalism might take the form of large commercial clans, tightly bound together by intermarriage and tacit codes of behavior.


David Gress's Plato to NATO raises a number of fascinating questions. First, have thinkers of an Enlightenment or modernist orientation given sufficient study to history, in light of the data it provides for philosophy? Being empiricists, they surely should seek to test their philosophical conclusions, insofar as that can be done, by looking for confirmatory and (more importantly) disconfirmatory evidence in the past. For example, what is one to make of the way Gress and the authors he cites characterize the Old West, and specifically the first half of the Old West (A.D. 700 to A.D. 1100)? Was it in fact period in which the Christian culture of the monasteries liberated reason for productive as well as contemplative ends? In which numerous important technological discoveries were made, freeing the West from near-total dependence on human muscle power? In which the accumulation of liberties began? In which the rapid recovery of classical texts began? In which, two and a half centuries before Thomas Aquinas, the foundations were laid for a vigorous revival of reason in the Aristotelian sense? This is far from the way Enlightenment thinkers have typically characterized the "Dark Ages." But would it make a difference to an Enlightenment outlook if Gress's characterization were accurate? If so, why? And if not, why not?

A second question that arises out of Gress's history has to do with the philosophy of history. And to what extent should one seek out ideas and philosophies as the causes that lie behind a civilization's practices and institutions? To what extent should one look upon ideas and philosophies as the conceptualizations and justifications of changes that have been introduced for quite different reasons? For example, did slavery yield to serfdom in Europe because Christianity frowned on enslaving members of one's own religion? Or because it was not profitable for a lord to maintain and supervise slaves in the multiple, highly skilled tasks of a self-sufficient manor? Did Christians claim the right not to be slaves and demand the higher status of serfdom? Or did lords grant them the more profitable status of serfs, and only later find that people claimed the right not to be degraded by enslavement?

A third question, related to the second, concerns the reform programs of what Gress calls the skeptical and radical versions of the Enlightenment. People who differ about how the world works will differ about how to change the world. If superior practices and institutions have generally arisen through short-term trial and error tactics, backed by coalitions of ideologically differing groups, then perhaps reformers who want to advance the values of the New West should place a premium on people who possess the prudent arts of dialogue and collaboration. On the other hand, if the world generally advances by ideological revolutions that convert people to new ideologies and therefore to radical transformations in practices and institutions, perhaps reformers should place a premium on people who possess the charismatic arts of exhortation and leadership.

Plato to NATO is a frustrating work, ill-written and ill-organized. But for all that it is a highly suggestive work, pointing the way to a radically new understanding of the ideals we call Western: where they came from, against whom they now must be sustained, and how that work should be carried out.

This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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