Western Civilization as Perennial Tension

Civilization is described in many different ways involving language, history, religion, culture and self-identity that human groupings may share, but it can only be defined as a comprehensive, self-sustaining, meaning-conferring mode of existence of such groupings in history. For a collective subject such as a civilization to confer meaning to its constituent members it must imbue them with or propose to them, explicitly or implicitly, a grand purpose or aim – a final cause – around which life is organized.

Western Civilization is an entity far more encompassing than the European Enlightenment, even though most people tend to identify Western Civilization with the Enlightenment culture that emerged in Western Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

As a continuous living entity, Western Civilization is far wider both chronologically and geographically than the European Enlightenment. Moreover both the origin and the end-point of Western Civilization remain puzzles that continue to defy analysis. Its origin is marked by two events that took place in the eastern Mediterranean in the last quarter of 12th century B.C.: the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and the Trojan War. Its end-point is the formation of the American Republic, a post-Westphalian and anti-Westphalian type of state.

The Exodus and the Trojan War triggered two powerful, perennially interacting, meaning-conferring literary traditions. One is the tradition of the Torah, of a community (the Jewish people) formed by covenant with a provident but demanding deity (Yahweh). The other is the tradition of the Homeric epics: the Iliad, the story of an individual’s (Achilles’s) enraged rebellion against political authority (Agamemnon) and the Odyssey, the story of another individual (Odysseus = “hated by the gods”) who depended on his wiles to overcome adversity.

The history of Western Civilization is an iteration of successive metaphors of the creative tension between these two archetypes, the Biblical and the Homeric or “Athens and Jerusalem.” These metaphors range from the sublime to the bestial, from the tragic to the comical, from the noble to the banal, in pairs of mutually exclusive but equally venerated ideals: the one and the many; the collective and the individual; togetherness and solitude; conformity and defiance; consensus and challenge; group thinking and out-of-the-box thinking; cooperation and competition.

Until the arrival of the American Republic, the tension between these two archetypes produced either bloody conflicts or dominance of one over the other in alteration: God’s judges over fragmented people; kings over God’s judges; God’s prophets over kings; city-states over universal empire; universal empire over city-states; universal religious communities over fragmented empire; universal religious empire over fragmented secular communities; and so on.

In the American Republic these archetypal tensions, instead of reproducing the perennial cycle of violent conflict, domination and subjugation, were for the first time in 3,000 years harnessed into a constitutional scheme of mutual complementarity.  The harnessing was imperfect to be sure, as the issue of slavery and the resulting civil war showed, but it abides to date: the creative tensions remain, sharp and often inflamed, passionate and often exaggerated, but always creative and always resulting in surprising new self-discoveries of both the collective American subject and its constituent individual subjects. The original pattern of emigration and settlement that formed the civil society which culminated in the American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution was driven by a comprehensive repudiation of both the legal concept and the practice of the sovereign state that emerged from Western Europe’s Thirty Years War and was codified in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

The Westphalian sovereign state requires no legitimizing principle other than its own sovereignty – a notion repugnant to American political tastes then and now. But the American Republic is a post-Westphalian and anti-Westphalian state in precisely the sense that it requires a specific legitimizing principle which stands above the sovereignty of the state: the inalienable right of civil society (The People) to define the common good (“pursuit of happiness”) and to create institutions to which it assigns responsibilities and confers limited and revocable authorities needed for the pursuit and administration of that common good.

Much of the political folly of the 20th and 21st century is due to the mistaken notion – on both sides of the Atlantic – that the US is just another Westphalian nation-state. It is not.

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