The era of European Enlightenment, essentially in decline since the outbreak of World War One in 1914, is drawing to an end in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. This end is marked by the collapse of the Westphalian sovereign nation-state – the type of political organization associated with the European Enlightenment.
The purpose of the postings in Leto Postscripts is to explore the reasons why the European Enlightenment has exhausted its possibilities, and to inquire into the potential future pathways that Western Civilization may choose to follow in future and still remain “Western Civilization” in its essence.
These explorations and inquiries will likely be wide ranging and perhaps rambling on occasion, but they will be guided by three overarching assumptions:
First assumption: Western Civilization is an entity far more encompassing than the (mostly North) European Enlightenment of the late 16th and early 17th centuries AD. Chronologically and geographically it starts in the last quarter of the 12th century BC with two events, Exodus and Trojan War. It reaches its apex first with the establishment of the United States as a post-Westphalian and anti-Westphalian state in the 18th century and subsequently with the U.S.’s global dominance in the first half of the 20th century. From the last quarter of the 20th century to date, Western civilization supplants all other world civilizations as humanity’s sole surviving meaning-conferring system and becomes the global civilization.
Second assumption: The post-9/11 international tensions of the 21st century are clashes within the now globally established Western civilization and not a “Clash of Civilizations.” These clashes reflect the breakdown in the meaning-conferring mechanisms of the Enlightenment version of Western civilization. To wit: China’s challenge to the West is the clash of interests between industrial and post-industrial versions of western capitalism. Russia’s and Islam’s challenges are similar in that they are clashes between the West’s own God-centered pre-Enlightenment ethical outlook and its post-Enlightenment God-neutral and God-hostile outlook. What appear as revivals of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam are simply politically sponsored movements designed to exploit Enlightenment’s own meaning-conferring vacuum.
Third assumption: Behind the symptoms of the present crisis in Western civilization is the post-2008 debt crisis or, more properly, the credit crisis. Financial debt/credit is merely a special case of the complex nexus of trust relations on which are founded the social obligations/honors that constitute civilized living. Behind the financial debt crisis is a crisis in broadly understood social trust among individuals and institutions and behind this type of crisis in trust is a generalized decline of character formation. Finally, behind the decline of character formation is a crisis in the way a civilization forms its world-image, i.e. the way it performs its meaning-conferring function.