The Glory of Western Civilization

October 22, 2010 at 9:34 pm (By Amba)

The core discovery upon which western civilization rests, and what makes the western mind fundamentally different, is the individual, and, since the establishment of the individual as the center of meaning, the astonishingly productive journey into the inner life of man that has been taken over the past three centuries by both the arts and science. […]

This was a revolution of incalculable importance. It is the central revolution of the human experience, the most important thing that has ever happened, and it is also the foundation of western culture, and the thing we need to protect and foster and increase.

~ Whitley Strieber

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34 Comments

  1. Donna B. said,

    “Unfortunately, western science has also, in not penetrating its understanding to the level of conscious energy, gone soul-blind, and so opened itself to the dangerously decivilizing notion that life has no purpose greater than living. ”

    True, if living is defined merely as cells capable of dividing. And it’s tempting… oh so tempting to think we humans have a greater potential. And that leads us to thinking perhaps we have a greater purpose. And what would that purpose be?

    That’s the question religions have been trying to answer for… as long as humans have been able to think.

    We are searching for meaning in our lives and we demand that meaning to be lofty, above us, beyond us, outside us, and most importantly — something we cannot destroy:

    “The physical universe is unfolding in an endless void, but that void has a destiny, which is to be lit by ecstatic light. This is why consciousness evolves, and why souls grow in our bodies, to fill an emptiness that has no end with a joy that has no end.”

    Every time a kitten is born, it is the recreation of its parents… same as every time a child is born. We — all of us including our individual cells — were created to re-create.

    And that line of thinking ultimately leads one to something resembling Mormon theology, or perhaps Jonathan Livingston Seagull, perpetually searching for the tree of life. Life eternal, or learning eternal.

    “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” — 23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. ”

    The “materialists” often maligned in various ways by some commenters here are also searching for a form of life eternal — it’s just couched in more pragmatic and somewhat more humble terms such as increasing lifespan or life extension.

    Both extremes of searchers for life eternal easily forgo the sheer joy in living… in creating and re-creating — copying, imitating, discarding, learning. Living.

    Man is most cruel to man and beast when he perceives a purpose to his life or a destination for mankind.

  2. amba12 said,

    Man is most cruel to man and beast when he perceives a purpose to his life or a destination for mankind.

    That’s true, I think. I’ve wondered if it is because the certainty which which such purposes are discerned is an overcompensation for knowing deep down that we really don’t know, for sure.

  3. Peter Hoh said,

    Man is most cruel to man and beast when he perceives a purpose to his life or a destination for mankind.

    And yet, a sense that our life has a purpose beyond ourselves also drives people to great acts of selflessness.

  4. Donna B. said,

    “And yet, a sense that our life has a purpose beyond ourselves also drives people to great acts of selflessness.”

    I’m not sure that is true. Selflessness may be another facet of the dark jewel of man being cruel to man… this instance to himself. It also depends on how one defines selflessness. If I throw myself in front of a train to save the life of my child, I am acting selfishly by preserving my genetic future. This selfishness is applicable even if the child is not mine – because the child is human. Preservation of my species.

    True selflessness would be throwing myself in front of the train to save a chicken. That’s not going to happen.

  5. Peter Hoh said,

    People have risked their lives to save an animal. And not a pet, either.

    How about putting one’s life at risk to save another, unrelated person? Giving a relative stranger a kidney? Pulling a stranger from a fiery wreck? Standing in front of a tank?

  6. Peter Hoh said,

    Socrates, dying for an idea. Or did he die for an ideal?

  7. amba12 said,

    True selflessness would be throwing myself in front of the train to save a chicken. That’s not going to happen.

    Some Peta members might. Jacques got a newsletter from an organization devoted to chicken rescue.

    Or is it only great predators we sacrifice ourselves to/for? (Grizzly Man, the trainer killed by an orca)

  8. amba12 said,

    One of our best friends, a veterinarian my age (late 40s at the time), was killed swerving to avoid hitting a deer on a country road in Pennsylvania the night before New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s or so. To be precise, he lived 10 days in a coma before dying.

    Of course, the proximate cause of his death was not his compassion but his casually macho unfastened seat belt. The cops said he could have walked or driven away from the light pole he hit had he been wearing it. Instead, he went through the windshield. I always, always, fasten my seat belt and make my front-seat passengers fasten theirs in his memory.

    But still.

  9. Donna B. said,

    Suicide bombers possibly feel they are acting with great selflessness, because they have been taught that the way they die will give meaning to their lives. Martyrdom almost always contains some degree of selfishness.

    As for people who risk their lives, most don’t go into such situations knowing they WILL die; though they accept the risk that they might. Some are adrenaline junkies who need the high. The guy who pulls a stranger from a fiery wreck may do it because he thinks he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t try.

    I contend that there is selfishness in every act of supposed selflessness. Jesus was probably in on that resurrection plan and that knowledge makes the crucifixion — his dying for our sins — a ploy rather than a selfless act.

    Amba – it’s hard not to swerve when you see any obstacle on the road, though not swerving is supposed to be the safest reaction over all.

  10. Icepick said,

    What happened to Randy’s posts?

  11. wj said,

    Man is most cruel to man and beast when he perceives a purpose to his life or a destination for mankind.

    But Man is also most kind to man and beast in those circumstances (as some of the other comments at least imply). It might be more accurate to say that Man goes further (towards kindness or cruelty) when he feels there is a higher purpose to his actions. In short, it amplifies tendencies which are already present.

    To take the obvious example, religious belief can lead to saintly behavior. Or it can lead towards crusade or jihad. So whether you think belief (religious or otherwise) is a Good Thing largely depends on whether you think that people are, on balance, inclined to do good or evil.

  12. realpc920 said,

    “As recently as a hundred years ago, the average lifespan of a male in western civilization was under fifty years, because we understood so little about the body.”

    No.

  13. realpc920 said,

    I don’t agree that western civilization was based on the discovery of the individual, or that Jesus’ message was about the individual. I think western civilization resulted from people traveling and encountering different world views and ideas. This led to skepticism and inquiry, which does not occur when you are only exposed to one set of ideas.

    People have always known that they were individuals, and at the same time components in a social system.

    Jesus was not trying to glorify the individual, and neither was Buddha. They were both interested in higher level consciousness — and that is a place where there is NO DIFFERENCE between the individual component and the whole!

  14. Peter Hoh said,

    Our advances in medicine added some years to the average lifespan, but the biggest increases in lifespan are probably the result of public health initiatives. Clean water, sanitation. You know, the boring, communitarian things that we take for granted.

  15. realpc920 said,

    No the increased lifespan is mostly because of decreased infant mortality. And we really don’t know how long people lived — if they survived childhood — in various ancient and primitive cultures. Now lives are saved by antibiotics — but infectious epidemics are much more likely in crowded modern societies. We really cannot say that modern medicine has greatly improved health. It does help with certain emergency situations, where surgery and painkillers are needed. It can save some lives. But I don’t think it has improved health or extended the lifespan very much.

    I am always saying this, but may as well keep on repeating myself. Modern science and technology are not making our lives safer and healthier and more pleasant. They have made our world incredibly dangerous and filthy. At the same time, we can’t help being creative and messing with nature. So here we are, always on the edge of disaster. And one of the ironies is that so many people believe we are making progress towards utopia.

  16. realpc920 said,

    “Along with the explosive flowering of science that has taken place since then has come a deepening understanding of the body and the way it works, and even how the brain functions to assemble and correlate information. Not only do we now understand Aristotle, we also understand why his brain saw the world as it did.”

    I’m sorry, but this guy goes WAY beyond reality in promoting his worldview. We most certainly DO NOT understand how the brain works!

  17. realpc920 said,

    “scientists were in the process of discovering that the world actually is a sort of matrix, made up of uncountable masses of information, but only of two kinds, the yes and the no. All of reality, in other words, functions exactly like computer language.”

    Well that is what I believe. I don’t think scientists have “discovered” it though. Some scientists believe it, others don’t.

  18. realpc920 said,

    “This is leading scientists to proclaim anew that we are, in our essence, mechanical.”

    NO! I should read the whole thing and then comment. Sorry.

  19. realpc920 said,

    “western civilization … is going to penetrate deep into the interior of the physical and spiritual worlds. It will create machines that are more intelligent than men, and these machines are going to quickly discover why they are different from us, which will be that we have biological souls and they do not.”

    This is all just the wildest speculation. And perfectly wrong, because intelligent machines will not ever be created. Ok if someone wants to believe that, but don’t state it like a fact when you have absolutely no evidence or reasons.

    “and these machines are going to quickly discover why they are different from us, which will be that we have biological souls and they do not.”

    What is a biological soul?

    I think he mistakes his personal feelings and preferences for factual reality. His intellect seems to weave everything together into something that fits his personality, without regard for facts.

    But lots of people have done that.

  20. amba12 said,

    I think he mistakes his personal feelings and preferences for factual reality. His intellect seems to weave everything together into something that fits his personality, without regard for facts.

    But lots of people have done that.

    Don’t we all do that?

  21. realpc920 said,

    “Don’t we all do that?”

    Yes but to different degrees. I just got a feeling while reading it that he would say whatever he feels is correct, without questioning it. We need to have an inner critic that questions us, before giving everyone else a chance. But if we are very immersed in a mythology, then we don’t question our beliefs. The idea that modern science has greatly extended our lives, understands how our brains work, and will create intelligent machines — all these re taken for granted in the various progressives mythologies. I spot those right away because I spent a lot of time questioning and analyzing them. I spent years and years focused on those questions, and I found out that most of it is pure myth.

    When I say something is “pure myth” I mean there are no facts underlying the belief. Something could be a myth and also true.

  22. amba12 said,

    Knowing Whitley I suspect he is being poetic, extravagant and speculative. I doubt he would say he knows or believes all that to be literally true.

    Anyway, I quoted the part I quoted because it sounded so transcendently American, or Americanly transcendent.

  23. realpc920 said,

    Ok, he is probably not trying to be scientific. And I just got set off by those statements about understanding the brain, extending life, etc. I was not responding to the main point.

  24. realpc920 said,

    Also, as you probably know, I am always critical of western civilization. When I see someone raving about it, I usually disagree with them on several levels. I think western civilization is like a fun adventure movie, and also a tragedy and a horror. The universe is having some fun, but we’re having a difficult time with it. Even the ones who fit perfectly into this culture are probably suffering in some ways. And i always criticize the mythology that has no scientific basis at all, but people are so sure it’s true they never wonder about it.

  25. PatHMV said,

    When we talk about “the individual” we have a tendency to mentally think of it in terms of selfishness. Glorifying the individual, to many people, is to focus on each individual maximizing themselves.

    I think Christ DID promote individualism, but not the “rugged individualist, every man for himself” individualism. When Christ said that what you do to the least of these, you do to me, he was promoting the importance of the individual human being. When he tells the shepherd to leave the 99 to rescue the 1, he is emphasizing the importance of the individual. But in neither case is he promoting self-absorbtion, self-importance, or even too much self-awareness.

    I think many people in our society today fail to understand this distinction.

  26. Icepick said,

    I’m still wondering about what happened to Randy’s posts. Am I the only ones not seeing the two he put up the other day?

  27. Randy said,

    No ‘pick, you aren’t the only one. I meant them to be humorous and took them down when I realized all of them (there were actually three, another posted after you commented) were conveying an unintended message. I apologize to you and Donna B. (and whoever else) for that, but I was tired and cranky that night.

  28. Donna B. said,

    #11 – wj, I don’t disagree but I think it would be simplistic to assume that good or evil exist separately. I suggest that either in its “pure” state is impossible and that striving for a “pure” state almost always ends up on the evil side of the ledger. But if it was pure evil being attempted, it is always foiled by some good intervening as well.

    #25 – PatHMV, I agree. I also think that a certain degree of individual selfishness is required for survival of the group. Otherwise, cultish behavior takes over and something like Jonestown results. I’m fond of Barzun’s “Dawn to Decadence” history that identifies themes and swings in cultural ideals, including individualism, emancipation, primitivism… and I need to re-read that book, I think!

    #24 – realpc – and what cultural idea – past, present, real, or imaginary is better than western civilization?

  29. amba12 said,

    Pat, I agree. Creation is always an individual act. I’ve read science papers pointing out that individual fish or spiders, never mind mice, have different personalities. Have you ever had a dog or cat that reminded you of any other? Not even grains of sand are mass produced. As great as it is to recognize this, no created thing or being should become an idol, not the self and not a celebrity or leader.

    Donna, you’re making me want to read that book.

  30. Donna B. said,

    I highly recommend it:
    http://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Decadence-Western-Cultural-Present/dp/0060928832/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287976932&sr=1-1

    It’s not an easy read. And it’s long. I literally plowed my way through it the first time because I refused to be “defeated” by a mere book. Or so I told myself. I certainly enjoyed it and learned more the 2nd and 3rd readings, which were not necessarily from front to back.

    In my family, it’s a good recommendation for a book if it keeps disappearing. So far, I’ve “lost” three copies of this one.

  31. amba12 said,

    In my family, it’s a good recommendation for a book if it keeps disappearing.

    Ha!

  32. realpc said,

    “Glorifying the individual, to many people, is to focus on each individual maximizing themselves.”

    And that neglects the fact that we are individuals and at the same time components in a larger system. We have an ego, but focusing on the ego and forgetting you are part of something greater leads to disaster. And focusing on the something greater and forgetting about the self is a mistake also.

    I don’t think it’s true that western civilization discovered the individual. It’s true we have more egotism and alienation now, but that’s because we lost our tribal context. People always knew they were individuals with unique personalities.

    The main difference between now and earlier times is the technology explosion, that started gradually hundreds of years ago and really took off recently. It got started because of certain ideas coming together, and then it built on itself.

    We are amazed by our technology and it’s natural to mistake technology for godlike power, which can solve any problem.

    For example, I saw a TV show on Alzheimer’s disease. It showed how terrible it is, and then of course explained that scientists are working on finding a cure. It is taken for granted that scientists can find a cure for anything, if they try hard enough and spend enough money.

    But only certain infectious diseases can be cured or prevented by modern medicine. Most diseases are just as incurable as ever.

    It’s like the search in physics for the basic components of matter, or the decoding of DNA in biology. It’s always assumed it will happen, and the only question is when.

    BUT NONE OF THAT IS TRUE. Just because we have technology doesn’t mean we can cure most diseases, or understand DNA, or figure out what matter is made out of.

    We are not godlike, just an animal with technology.

  33. amba12 said,

    It is taken for granted that scientists can find a cure for anything, if they try hard enough and spend enough money.

    Four decades and $200 billion spent on cancer research — and what they came to understand is that cancer is too complex to be understood.

  34. realpc said,

    “Four decades and $200 billion spent on cancer research — and what they came to understand is that cancer is too complex to be understood.”

    You are the only person I know who knows, or is able to admit, that Amba.

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