Florence, Italy. Western Civilization surely seems to be ’standing on the shoulders of giants’ as Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton both once put it describing their own sizeable debts to previous achievements in science. They’re of course themselves seen as giants, not for belonging to some class of ’perfect people’ which they were not, far from it. One severely hampered by ALS making him unable to speak without the aid of machines, the other partially blinded by superstition and the futile quest to forge base metals into gold. It’s for what they managed to overcome in spite of these ailments, of both body and mind, that ultimately made them great.
Western Civilization itself must also be judged by it’s own ability to overcome difficulties, in spite of what also might seem terrible about it. The alternative being the most common state of the last 250.000 or so years of our species existence, namely no civilization at all. There are no doubt prequels to this state of oblivion, like the totalitarian rule where fundamentalist ideology renders the ability to ’live and let live’ practically impossible. This finally leads a society to one of two possible outcomes, either it implodes from this deeply corrupting force to the intellect or it manages to try again, throwing nonsense out the door, forcing itself back into a more constructive balance with other cultures and ideas.
With all it’s inherent hypocrisy, pollution, crime and injustice, Western Civilization still appears to be based on certain guiding principles, significant in how they’ve all in some way allowed for a process of improving cultural exchange, sprung out of the many failures of those that went before. This is especially true of the lessons from the classical world. The increasing stability that slowly began lifting Europe out of the Dark Ages eventually brought about a tipping point. A moment of clarity that finally made the recovery of ancient knowledge possible. Thus, ideas from antiquity were reborn, after being perhaps slightly improved by Christian ethics, but more importantly no longer plagued by the many obstacles set up by religious dogmatism during previous millennia. A revival of free thought and science began, using mankind itself as measurement instead of some almighty celestial dictator of the mind. Out of the gloom came first the Renaissance, followed by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and finally the development of liberal democracy and the modern Western World.
After this civilization has turned increasingly to post-modernism and self-doubt following what probably was the worst catastrophy since the Black Death – the World Wars of the 20th century – it might be more important than ever to keep the tradition of honoring past heroes of the human intellect. The West of course still celebrates the human spirit, our universal rights and great works of art, but it’s difficult not to notice how we’ve also turned our attention elsewhere. A culture seemingly more and more preoccupied with sports results, non-news, tv-series, and celebrities. This is a product of a cynical, ruthless form of commercialism. Advertising that doesn’t care if it gives us health problems with artificial diets and lack of exercise. People nowadays are still glued to their TV’s in a way that lets a few select corporations dictate much of what shapes our world views along with what products and culture to consume. At the same time the internet offers a new level of connectivity and some have long ago stopped watching the endless stream of programs like american idol or the latest sit coms. Many are probably now divided between chatting and connecting on the internet on the one hand, perhaps reading up on the occational favourite subject on wikipedia and posting a picture of our family on facebook or instagram, while on the other still watching the same lopsided tv-news and the latest predictably boring films from America. We should not forget that if we wanted to we could also use both our cultural institutions as well as the internet to hear Mozart’s Magic Flute or an audiobook of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick.
The media and the entertainment industry seems always ready to cater to the assumed need to numb our brains, rather than to lift our spirits. Much of the grey noise surrounding us seems to deliberately talk down to us, trying to find our lowest common denominator. This is of course beacause that’s how money is made. With a distortet view of ourselves by this constant supply of often useless information, advertising and gossip, we’re increasingly unaware of who we really are and where we actually came from. The current decline, practically across the board in academic fields is then less surprising. This in turn deepens unemployment figures, social turmoil, and a wave of xenophobia has began circulating again with new vigour in the West. Ideas previously thought to have been long since refuted by the lessons of history, adding further to the confusion.
Could voices from the past then still offer us a helping hand, guiding us in shaping the road ahead towards a more tolerant, enlightened, prosperous, healthy and revitalized global civilization? A civilization that at a few crucial points along the way was helped to advance it’s own range of possibilities and sense of freedom by the spirit of inquiry, fair competition, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise. This libertarian pluralism and humanism at the core of Western Civilization must be protected, both against cultural relativism, political ideology and economic stagnation now threatening the very notion of a balanced mind aquiring such a thing as a classical education. We should celebrate our freedoms by excersising them better, using the examples set by the giants in our past. Otherwise it might all dissapear one day as has happened many times before.
Song: Hide Away by Hands Of Doom
Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2014