Ted Malloch: What’s at Stake in 2018
America has created institutions of government, economy, and law that provide unprecedented freedom for its people and a body of natural scientific knowledge and technological achievement that together make possible a level of health and material prosperity undreamed of in earlier times and unknown outside the West and the areas it has influenced.
Do we fully appreciate this?
This is what is at stake, right now.
Forces on the Left seek to destroy the very roots of our culture and the foundation of the rule of law and market economies.
We should not let them.
I think the late novelist, V. S. Naipaul, born in Trinidad of Indian parents, is right to speak of the modern world as “our universal civilization” shaped chiefly by the West and its exemplar, America.
Most people around the world who know of them want to benefit from the achievements of our science, medicine and technology.
Increasingly, they also want to participate in our political freedom and enjoy our economic prosperity.
The evidence suggests, moreover, that a society cannot achieve the full benefits of this technology or freedom without a commitment to reason and objectivity as essential to knowledge and to the political freedom that sustains it and helps it move forward.
The primacy of reason and the pursuit of objectivity, therefore, both characteristic of American experience, seem to be essential for the achievement of the desired goals political and economic — anywhere in the world but best exemplified in American exceptionalism.
The civilization of the West embodied by America, however, was not the result of some inevitable process through which other cultures will automatically pass.
It emerged from a unique history in which chance and providence often played a vital part.
The institutions and ideas, therefore, that provide for our freedom and improvement in the material conditions of life can not take root and flourish without an understanding of how they came about (Our Founding) and what challenges they have had to surmount.
Non-Western people who wish to share in the things that characterize modernity will need to study the ideas and history of Western civilization to achieve what they want, and Westerners, particularly Americans, who wish to preserve them must do the same.
The many civilizations adopted by the human race have shared basic characteristics.
Most have tended toward cultural uniformity and stability; reason, though employed for all sorts of practical purposes in some of these cultures, lacked independence from religion and the high status to challenge the most basic received ideas; the standard form of government has been monarchy; outside the West, republics have been unknown; rulers have been thought to be divine or the appointed spokesmen for divinity; religious and political institutions and beliefs have been thoroughly intertwined in a mutually supportive unified structure; government has not been subject to secular, reasoned analysis; it has rested on religious authority and power; the concept of individual freedom has had little or no importance.
The first and sharpest break with this common human experience came in ancient Greece.
The Greek city-states were republics, not democracies.
Differences in wealth among their citizens were relatively small. There were no kings with the wealth to hire mercenary soldiers, so the citizens did their own fighting.
As independent defenders of the common safety and interest, they demanded a role in the most important political decisions; in this way, for the first time, political life came to be shared by a large portion of the people, and participation in political life was highly valued.
Such states needed no bureaucracy, for there were no vast royal or state holdings that needed management and not much economic surplus to support a bureaucratic-political class.
There was no separate caste of priests and little concern with existence after death. In this varied, dynamic, secular, and remarkably free context there arose for the first time a speculative natural philosophy based on observation and reason, the root of modern natural science and of philosophy, free to investigate or ignore other authority.
What most sets the Greeks apart is their view of the world.
Where other peoples have seen sameness and continuity, the Greeks and the heirs of their way of thinking (us) have tended to notice disjunctions and to make distinctions.
The Greek way of looking at things requires a change from the use of blind faith, poetry, and intuition to a reliance on reason.
It permits a continuing rational inquiry into the nature of reality; unlike mystical insights, scientific theories cannot be arrived at by meditation alone but require accurate observations of the world and reasoning of a kind that other human beings can criticize, analyse, modify, and correct.
That was the beginning of the liberation and enthronement of reason, to whose searching examination the Greeks thereafter exposed everything they perceived—natural, human, and divine.
From the time they formed their republics until they were conquered by alien empires, the Greeks also rejected monarchy of any kind.
They thought that a human being functioning in his full capacity must live as a free man in an autonomous polis ruled by laws that were the product of the political community and not of an arbitrary fiat from some man or god.
These are ideas about law and justice that have not flourished outside the Western tradition.
The Greeks, however, combined a unique sense of mankind’s high place in the natural order and the possibilities it provided with a painful understanding of its limitations. These views were immersed with Christianity in the centuries that followed.
This is the tragic vision of the human condition that characterized classical civilization.
To cope with it, they urged human beings to restrain their overarching ambitions. Inscribed at Apollo’s temple at Delphi were the slogans “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess,” meaning “know your own limitations as a fallible mortal and exercise moderation.”
Beyond these exhortations, they relied on a good but limited political regime to enable human beings to fulfil the capacities that were part of their nature, to train them in virtue and restrain them from vice. Aristotle made the point neatly:
As man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst when separated from law and justice. For injustice is most dangerous when it is armed, and man, armed by nature with good sense and virtue, may use them for entirely opposite ends. Therefore, when he is without virtue man is the most unscrupulous and savage of the animals.
The justice needed to control this dark side of human nature can be found only in a well-ordered society of free people who govern themselves.
Which brings us to the urgent need today, namely Common Sense principles that are critical to limited government, support for a free market and to building great, enterprising companies in a prosperous and growing economy.
All this is at stake as America, indeed most of the West, bends to the siren song of creeping socialism, cultural Marxism and closes off its cherished patrimony: the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian inheritance.
We cannot let this pass.
We need to defend it, uphold it; and this is the role of conservatism: tradition, custom and faith—the very things the Left so despises.
Their hatred for America and for reason is clear to see. Do not let them steal power. The consequences loom large.
Indeed, much is at stake.