Today, of course, is the day when we honor the many servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country. But for what exactly did they die? We are often told that they were defending our freedom. But most of the recent wars the U.S. has fought involved conflicts in foreign countries. In many cases these countries did not have a tradition of democracy. So what exactly was it that we were defending? “American values?” But what are they?
Not too long ago Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens asked the question, “Do we still want the west?” He told of how in the late 1980’s Stanford University did away with its required Western Civilization course. An attempt was made last year to bring the course back, but the students voted it down by a 6 to 1 margin (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2017).
Stephens went on in his op-ed piece to say “There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself – often in freshman Western Civ classes.” But today do we even know what a “civilization” is, let alone Western civilization? What does it mean to be “civilized”?
The word “civilized” comes from the Latin adjective “civilis,” which in turn is related to the noun “civis,” which means a citizen. A “civis” was a member of a “civitas,” a union of people in an organized community. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero described a “civitas” or state this way: there are “societies and groups of men, united by law and right, which are called states (civitates)” (On the Commonwealth, VI.13).
The earliest form of civilization was a city state. Thousands of years ago various groups of people chose to give up their nomadic existence as hunter-gatherers and chose instead to live in settled communities. Early city states arose in lower Mesopotamia (Sumeria) and then others spread across the ancient Near East. Eventually some city states became more powerful than others and developed into large empires.
But life in a settled community requires some form of social organization. A sociologist could argue that even primitive tribal societies have at least some form of social organization, and of course they are right. But life in a settled community requires something more formal and elaborate. First of all there must be an organized government with written laws and records. This is why Cicero defined a “civitas” as a group of people “united by law and right.” Written laws and records, in turn, require a written language. Moreover in a civilized society there is likely to be economic specialization, with different people pursuing different trades. This, in turn, requires some form of trade and commerce.
But in order for any of this to happen there must also be something else. There must be a willingness on the part of the citizens to cooperate and work together. In order for this to happen there must be shared values and a shared vision. There must be the social skills necessary for people to work together at the practical level. And all of this requires some sort of educational system to transfer these values and skills from one generation to another.
In short, a civilized requires social norms – rules to govern human behavior. These include formal, written laws against criminal activity, as well as customary rules that govern everyday behavior. This includes common everyday rules of etiquette – people are expected to treat each other with courtesy and respect. They must be polite with each other.
The Greeks called these social norms ethoi, from which we get our English word “ethics,” and the Romans called them “mores,” from which we get our English word “morals.” In either case the words refer to accustomed habits or regular practices. It is the way people are expected to behave in a civilized society, and it is what enables human beings to live and work together harmoniously.
Nor must the role of religion in all of this be overlooked. Most civilized societies have a form of civil religion, the role of which is to reinforce the mores of society by encouraging people to look beyond their own individual self-interest and to see a larger reality. The individual comes to see himself as a part of a larger whole, and this helps motivate him to cooperate with the other members of society.
All of which brings us back to Mr. Stephens’ article. Do we still believe in Western civilization? Mr. Stephens says that it was once understood that Western civilization’s “moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility . . . It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and the superiority of its political ideals . . .And it believed all of this was worth defending – in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields.”
And what happened to Western civilization? It collapsed during the 20th Century. Radical philosophers attacked belief in universal truths and moral absolutes. The counter culture of the late 1960’s rejected social norms of every kind. Established institutions were seen as artificial and corrupt, and “back to nature” was the cry. Free speech and free love were the order of the day. Then came radical feminism’s rejection of gender roles, along with no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, and finally same-sex marriage. In our consumer oriented society we have rejected social norms of every kind, and believe we are entitled to engage in almost any kind of behavior that suits us, be it rude and crude, vulgar and bizarre. In short, we have rejected the very premise of civilized life – that there are social norms which ought to be observed in order for organized human society to function smoothly. In a word, we have become uncivilized.
What does the future hold? None but God can see. But it is hard to see how American democracy can survive in a sea of social chaos. Has Western civilization has become an anachronism in a post-modern world?