The Rise and Decline of the West

The emergence of the West as a political, economic and philosophical force is principally a story of the history of Western Europe.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, these peoples reverted to a subsistence economy which in turn imposed strict limits on the organisation and the extent of power. Authority among the barbarian peoples must long have been a matter of only local and personal loyalties on which a warrior leader could draw on in defending his own. War-bands enlarged themselves into small kingdoms on this basis but for a long time nothing more.

Nevertheless, the story of Europe begins with these little pagan conglomerates. They were the first European states. Through them the barbarians were to be civilised and the major civilising agency was Christianity. It was a matter of great significance that the Franks, a people who sprawled over much of Western Germany, the Rhineland and Northern France came to be ruled by a king, Clovis, who adopted Roman Christianity and enforced it in what had been Roman Gaul. In the course of time all the barbarian settlements of Western Europe were subsumed into Christian states. By the end of the seventh century Roman Christianity dominated Western Europe.

Showing the significance of the relationship between the Church and the emerging leaders in Europe, Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope himself on Christmas day 800. Despite the raids from the Vikings from the North, Charlemagne, largely as a result of his prowess as a warrior consolidated and extended the Frankish territories. Charlemagne threw himself into fostering the life of the Church. But as well as this, Charlemagne encouraged learning. He encouraged and protected scholars and gathered learned men from foreign lands to transcribe sacred texts.

But this consolidation of peoples resulting from the influence of the Church and emerging rulers was never perceived as a geographic enterprise. The notion of Europe had not yet appeared. The collective term that developed and was generally accepted was “Christendom”. By 1500 Christendom was deemed to comprise those lands governed by Christian rulers.

(It should be emphasised however, that there was a very deep separation between ‘this’ Christendom and the ‘other’ Christendom of the Eastern churches and the Byzantine Empire. This division was rooted in the cultural difference of the Greek east and Latin west of the old Roman Empire and institutionalised by Diocletian and Constantine. This schism driven by geographical and ethnic differences was further exacerbated by theological differences.)

To excel in this world, (the Western Christendom), it was necessary to understand Latin. All the classical texts, including those preserving the wisdom of the Greek and Roman empires which had been kept alive by the Arabs, were written in Latin. These texts took it for granted that the heart of civilisation was to be found in Christianity and classical culture.

Interestingly, the first historical figure to challenge the dominance of Latin, was the English king Alfred, who insisted on the translation of the most influential classical texts into English. Alfred himself translated a number of significant texts including the works of the philosopher Boethius, a history of the ancient world by Orosius and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Now, as I have written previously, although this emerging Europe was basically Christian, it found creative ways to accommodate some of the trappings of the pre-Christian religions which probably aided the ease of its propagation into those communities. For example the Barbarian practice of a mid-winter festival, cult worship at a sacred place and popular rituals could all be tolerated by accepting them into the Christian conceptual framework.

However the arrival of Pope Gregory VII commenced an attempt to enforce greater rigour on believers. Hildebrand, as he was known before his investiture, was one of the great revolutionaries of European history. Gregory came into conflict with the kings and emperors of Europe by insisting that only the Church could invest an abbot or a bishop, a function which the kings had previously performed. Gregory finally prevailed but it left an uneasy tension between church and state.

Gregory had not only intended to assert the independence of the church but to assert its superiority over the lay world. Paradoxically Gregory’s act pushed European history in the direction of freedom by emphasising the different roles of the church and the state. Temporarily the church held the upper hand.

There now came a period where the church experienced growing authority. An expanding papal bureaucracy gave a new cohesion and central direction to its affairs.

The new universities which first appeared in the thirteenth century were clerical corporations and all education was in clerical hands.

Laymen and clergy alike took for granted the claims of the church to the custody of unique truths. The quarrels between church and state were largely about practical applications.

But with the growing power of the church emerged another symptom of the human frailty of the church hierarchy. From the thirteenth century we hear much more about the persecution of heresy.

(Dare I pause for a moment and draw a parallel with the life of Muhammad? During his Mecca phase, where he had little authority and no power, he preached tolerance. Once he moved to Medina and achieved great power and authority, his preachings became progressively more militant and less tolerant. Once the Catholic Church had cemented its power and authority in Europe it acted similarly.)

Christianity now demanded strict adherence to the belief system imposed by its powerful, reactionary hierarchy. This intolerance has seldom been seen in Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism or Shintoism, but seems largely manifested by the so-called “religions of the Book”, viz. Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

As Christianity thrived, its foot soldiers multiplied. There were more clergy, nuns and monks. Most cities were dominated by the tower or steeple of their church or cathedral.

Conventional belief was reinforced and extended by modern printing initiated by Gutenberg.

But then the Christian orthodoxy was challenged by Martin Luther. Luther rejected some of the prime tenets of the Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the Catholic view on indulgences as he understood it to be, that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money. Luther taught that salvation and, consequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin.

We would be tempted to think that a reformer, such as Luther, would be a progressive thinker. But Luther was a man of the Middle Ages and he would have abhorred the values of the modern world. Like many of his contemporaries, he jeered at Copernicus for daring to postulate that the earth revolved around the sun. But among his achievements was to make the Christian dogma more accessible to lay members by translating the bible into the languages of the believers. This tended to make the Christian church more egalitarian and less elitist and paved the way for the later movements towards individual responsibilities and freedoms.

There now began in Europe a movement towards safeguarding the rights of the individual. It developed into a movement that promoted variety and pluralism, and a wide acceptance that men and women might make different choices of personal and social goals.

But the success of the Middle Ages in Europe might be initially measured by more tangible things. By 1500 western Europe was supporting a far greater population than ever before. According to C McEvedy and R Jones in their Atlas of World Population History, by this time there were some eighty million Europeans. This outcome was achieved despite a series of calamities in the fourteenth century (including “the Black Death”) which had dramatically reduced the population of Europe. This achievement was largely due to increased agricultural production resulting from basic technology improvements and the opening up of more tracts of fertile land. These advances ensured the increase of European wealth ahead of all other current civilisations.

With growing wealth and industry, labour became scarce. A serf who ran away from his master’s estate would more than likely find employment. Feudal society began to crumble and individuals began to achieve more independence and freedom.

Towns began to proliferate, facilitating trade and service provision. Ports developed to accommodate the growing import and export of goods. But major cities like Venice, Florence or Bruges had more than economic significance. They provided a variety of experience unknown in the Dark Ages and developed into rich cultural and artistic centres. They became the platform for what has come to be known as the Renaissance.

Now whilst Europe became a consolidation of Christian states, it had been challenged by Islam. Muslims had made incursions in a number of places in Europe, but the most dramatic was its occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.

In 711, the Muslims launched an invasion of Spain from North Africa. The Muslim occupation didn’t end until 1492 when Islam was in retreat before a Christian reconquest.

Contrary to what we might think today about Islam, the conquest of Spain actually brought many benefits. There were enlightened displays of tolerance that allowed both Muslims and Christians to prosper together. The Muslims brought with them Arabic versions of Greek books enabling Europeans to become acquainted with the wisdom of the ancients. Moreover they had recorded not only Greek but Persian and Indian science translated into Arabic. They created enlightened cultural centres in Cordoba and Seville. This incursion of Islam into Europe left a residue of scientific, mathematical and cultural benefits. (For example it enabled Arabic numerals to replace Roman numerals which greatly facilitated the ease of arithmetical computations). In his book The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, G Mandisi argues that the development of the scholastic method so crucial in the evolution of the European university has itself been traced to origins in Islamic legal studies.

The Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Catholic Christian Spaniards ushered in an era of great intolerance. Popular and official persecution of Muslims, Jews and Moriscos (converted Moors) began well before the Reconquest was complete. The final passage was played out in January 1492 when Granada surrendered to the army of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. In the same year, Jews who refused to be baptised were expelled. Despite earlier promises to respect the rights of the Muslim subjects of the Catholic Monarchs, ten years later the Muslims of Castile were compelled to go into exile if they didn’t accept baptism. Probably, at this stage the Spanish thought their struggle with Islam was complete. They couldn’t foretell the dramatic developments of six hundred years further into their future.

By this stage the Christian kingdoms of Europe had largely consolidated into stable states. Consequently from this rather solid platform they began to cast their eyes more broadly. Thus began a phase of exploration and colonisation that was unprecedented before. There are a few notable exceptions (the Chinese and to a lesser extent the Arbs for example), but it is fair to say the majority of exploration of the world was carried out by Europeans. What is more these voyages of discovery were the beginning of a new era resulting in a world-wide expansion by Europeans which created an outright, albeit temporary, European economic and political dominion of the globe.

Already by the fifteenth century European people had proven records of maritime enterprise.

British Historian, J M Roberts writes:

Besides the Venetians and the Genoese, who had long dominated the Black Sea, Levant and Eastern Mediterranean there were the spectacularly enterprising Catalans from the medieval kingdom of Aragon. In northern waters, too, well-established trades had long existed. The Hansa merchants had linked the Baltic to the Rhineland and the English were used to bringing their wine from Gascony. So were laid the foundations of confidence on which an age of expansion was to be built.

This increasing confidence was aided in development of maritime technology. Though the magnetic compass was first invented in China it was further enhanced by the Europeans. Improving cartography made maps more reliable. Ship construction techniques progressed providing more robust vessels suited to long ocean voyages. Finally, as the race to plunder and/or colonise other lands heated up ships were more likely to encounter rivals and therefore needed to be able to defend themselves. Improvements in the manufacture of cannon and firearms turned European ships into floating artillery platforms.

The race to find sea routes between Europe and the East was also made imperative by the continuing conflict between Western Europe and Islam. The presence of hostile Muslims in Northern Africa and the Middle East meant that the most direct routes between Europe and Southern Asia were denied the Europeans. Inevitably the Europeans began to dream of a sea-route to the fabled “Spice Islands” of the East Indies, which would necessitate sailing around the southern tip of Africa into the unknown waters of the Indian Ocean.

It is fitting to lump the work of these great explorers and navigators into the great transformation of European culture that we have come to call the Renaissance. It expresses the same intellectual and spiritual vigour as say, Leonardo, or the many other creative artists and inventors of that time.

It seems unlikely that what has become known as “The Great Age of Discovery” was initiated in a small country on the western fringes of Europe – Portugal. Here, under the patronage of Prince Henry “The Navigator” Vasco De Gama became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail to India.

Christopher Columbus under the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain sailed off in the other direction and discovered the Americas.

Thirty years later, the Portuguese Captain, Ferdinand Magellan in charge of a Spanish ship set off to circumnavigate the world. Although Magellan was killed in what is now the Philippines, his crew successfully completed the journey. This event had great symbolism for it indicated that any country on the globe could be accessible to the Navies of Europe.

The Spanish meantime, in their search for riches, conquered Peru, Mexico and the southeast and southwest of North America.

In a few centuries the major European countries including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Holland and Germany had taken control of large tracts of North America, South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, parts of southeast Asia and sundry smaller conquests.

Europe now had a huge purchase on the world. For example, the British conquests which served to make up the British Empire were far greater and more geographically dispersed than those of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great.

Europe’s ascent to world dominion took more than four century. But even more important than the lands discovered, the economic and political advances, it was the progression of ideas that essentially set Europe apart.

In 1500, in spite of some innovations, Europe was largely living on a stock of ideas that had been stable for centuries. The prime sources of these ideas were threefold:

  1. The classical heritage of Greece and Rome,
  2. The Barbarian cultures of the Dark Ages from which it derived many social relationships, and much of the law and custom ruling daily life, and
  3. Christianity

As time went by all these bases underpinning European society came to be questioned because of the social and scientific questioning arising from that period popularly called “The Enlightenment”. The progress of knowledge in Europe is far too complex and intensive to be properly addressed in a short essay. Let me give you a summary of such influences as outlined by British Historian, J M Roberts, whom I quoted previously.

Roberts maintained that there were four changes which we owe to the Enlightenment which were particularly influential in changing minds and attitudes in Europe.

One was a new emphasis and encouragement given to science and the manipulation of the natural world – in itself a very complicated subject, because many ‘enlightened’ attitudes themselves grow from an increasing awareness of what science had uncovered; the relation of the two is reciprocal.

The second must be a new scepticism, a reinforcement of the old self-critical faculty in western civilisation but this time in a way that began to sap formal religious belief.

The third great change was that the Enlightenment helped people want to be more humane.

Finally, and most important of all, was something to which all these three changes themselves contributed, the growth of the idea that Progress was normal.

But nothing is simple in the history of ideas; to separate any of these four changes from the other (or from much else) is only tolerable because a story has to be organised if it is to be understood.

The scientific progress unleashed by the Enlightenment was astounding. The road to knowledge commenced by the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, led to Newton, Einstein and the Quantum Theorists, with many significant, but lesser players along the way.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the idea that Nature was essentially knowable had come to be accepted by the more educated. “Laws of Nature” became increasingly taken for granted. They displaced in men’s minds the old primacy of the laws of God and the action of Providence.

Scientific progress inevitably caused friction with the Church. To begin with most scientists felt comfortable enough that they were merely coming to understand the working of God’s marvellous machine – the universe. Surely, they reasoned the observation that there were in fact Laws of Nature, implied that there must be a Law-Maker.

Darwin posed the greatest challenge to Christianity. He posited that life on earth had evolved over billions of years and had not been directly created by God as outlined in Genesis.

I have written on these subjects many times before. Suffice is to say that Europe led a scientific revolution that in the end challenged the Christian orthodoxy that had originally bound it as a geographic and political entity.

But the defining characteristics of the West, whilst influenced by scientific progress, geographical expansionism, and religious factors, were most certainly its social and political development. Closely linked to the scientific progress outlined above, was a growing notion among the educated in the West that there was the possibility of developing “sciences of Man”.

The dilemma that had to be addressed was that the rise of the market economy, the dissolution of traditional communities and the growth of religious scepticism, had left Western societies floundering with regard to what should underpin modern society and form it should derive its moral authority.

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, was one of the early thinkers who tried to make sense of Mankind in society. Hobbes assessment of humanity was essentially a pessimistic one. He believed that human beings were largely motivated by self-interest. As a result he famously stated that human existence could only be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”! In such a society it was appropriate for individuals to transfer some of the unfettered liberty they possess in their natural state in return for safety. To this end he proposed that citizens transfer some of their rights to a central power that he called the “Commonwealth” which is able to enforce laws benefitting the collective welfare of citizens by punishment of offenders.

The thinking of the French thinkers, Voltaire and Rousseau paved the way for a more optimistic view of Mankind.

The key to Rousseau’s thinking was that motives were important. Decisions on political, social, educational and personal issues must be based on noble, moral motives. It was not what you did but your motive for doing it that mattered. Rousseau, in this way, was advancing an intensely personal approach to viewing the world. He advocated the principles of individual conscience and personal faith as a way of engaging with society. He struggled to ensure that egotism and self-interest were put aside in advancing the cause of Mankind. For Rousseau humans find self-fulfilment not through the assertion of self-interest but in the performance of social roles.

There is not an opportunity in this short essay to explore the contributions of other philosophers to the emergent Western society, but substantial contributions were made by Locke, Hume, Bentham and Mill, Spinoza, Kant and others. But never far away from their thinking was the tension between individual freedom and the role of the State.

By 1800 the foundations of the modern disciplines of sociology, anthropology and economics were in place. In contrast to the past change was now often actively pursued. A civilisation was developing that was more enterprising, adaptable and confident than any that had preceded it. The Industrial Revolution as well as providing greater wealth resulted in demographic changes such that more and more people migrated from rural areas into the city. The growth of cities, in itself, facilitated discussion and debate about social and political matters which accelerated change in these critical areas.

Other significant events also had their impact on how we would come to be governed, not the least being the American and French Revolutions.

A certain arrogance emerged from these developments. In 1802 the Edinburgh Review asserted that “Europe is the light of the world, and the ark of knowledge.” It went on to add that “upon the welfare of Europe hangs the destiny of the most remote and savage people”.

Western civilisation was concisely summed up by Fitzjames Stephen, who was a British administrator in India.

The essential parts of European civilisation are peace, order, the supremacy of law, the prevention of crime, the redress of wrong, the enforcement of contracts, the development and the concentration of the military force of the state, the construction of public works, the collection and expenditure of the revenue required for these objects in such a way as to promote to the utmost the public interest, interfering as little as possible with the comfort or wealth of the inhabitants, and improvement of the people.

Whilst, as we saw earlier, the Christian tradition was instrumental in consolidating the peoples of Western Europe thus enabling political and economic development, the rapid material progress of the West was accompanied by a growing secularism.

Kenan Malik points out:

The death of God only made sense against the background of a new kind of faith: faith in humans being capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. It was that faith that drove enlightenment humanism and the optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century that faith too, had begun to be eaten away. The history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the Depression and the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further gnaw away at enlightenment hope.

It seems to me that Western civilisation probably climaxed in the twentieth century. By then of course Western civilisation not only encompassed Western Europe but the various countries whose political systems had been spawned by Western Europe resulting in liberal democracies. (This included the countries of the old British Empire, viz. The United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada among others.) Indeed because of its great wealth and influence, the USA has usurped the role of Western Europe as the leader of the West. (Which is a frightening prospect for a USA led by an irrational Donald Trump!)

In the twentieth century Western countries largely attained universal suffrage, women’s rights, protection for racial and religious minorities, universal access to basic education and health services, progressive taxation, and sustained economic development.

Now I have not written this essay to improve your knowledge of history but to point out what a long and difficult struggle it has been to achieve and defend the basic freedoms we often take for granted. (It was alarming a little while ago to read that young people in Australia do not believe that democracy is an especially beneficial form of government!) These freedoms are vulnerable and seem to me to be already in decline.

One factor aiding this decline is the new Islamic invasion of Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims displaced by the conflict in their Middle Eastern homelands are flooding into Europe. One can only admire the generosity of spirit of the Europeans for this great act of altruism, but it has put many of the typical values of Western society under threat. Many of these immigrants are displaced young men. No doubt they are attracted by wealth and peace of European societies, but they cannot resist trying to impose on those societies their own belief systems which were what ultimately caused their own societies to be poor and troubled. The Europeans have allowed them, under misguided notions of tolerance, to set up their own enclaves that seek to promote Sharia law, subjugation of women and theocracy. They cannot understand that Western progress was largely enabled by the proper separation of church and state.

The only Muslim countries to successfully make that transition are Indonesia and Malaysia. The resurgence of fundamentalist Islam in Malaysia is rapidly eroding that separation. And it will take a great deal of courage from Indonesian politicians to prevent the same recidivist decline.

But more broadly the West is facing another challenge to its liberal democracies.

In any functioning democracy there is a tension between the rights of the individual and the legitimate role of government in intervening in society. It seems to me that in recent decades we have been far too much inclined to subjugate individual rights to the concerns for minorities. Vocal minorities seem destined to be overly protected at the expense of the freedoms of ordinary citizens.

This irrational response by governments has encouraged the dysfunctional burgeoning of identity politics.

If we take look at the stories in our daily newspapers that conclusion seems obvious.

Why else would Australian politics be dominated for months on end by the issue of same sex marriage? Our country is currently suffering from little economic development, high unemployment, increasing indebtedness, soaring energy prices, legitimate concerns about threats from North Korea, and many other issues of considerable import, but we are mired in a dispute that most Australians believe is a peripheral issue.

Or take a look at indigenous affairs. Despite the fact that in remote indigenous drug and alcohol abuse is rife, domestic violence is prevalent, children are systematically subject to sexual abuse, unemployment is endemic, and suicide rates are burgeoning, all we want to talk about is the Recognition Referendum. Those other issues are too hard and if we talk about them we might give offense to some indigenous people.

When these attitudes are taken to the extreme the state seems to feel it needs to intervene to prosecute the most trivial issues.

Brendan O’Neill recently wrote:

Nanny staters tell us what to eat. Bureaucrats tut-tut over parenting styles. Pen-pushing officials myopically police where we can drink, when we can smoke, whether kids can set up lemonade stands.

People are viewed as vulnerable, easily harmed by words, and needing continued re-education to avoid being racist, misogynistic, eco-unfriendly scourges of the earth.

It is now a concern, as the incomparable Bill Leak found out with his insightful cartoons, that telling the truth is difficult. We risk invoking the wrath of the law if someone takes offence, however irrationally, from what we say or write. Instead of encouraging people to be more psychologically robust and deal with the world as it is, the law infantilises them and encourages them to portray themselves as victims. These probably well-meaning but misguided interventions are eroding our basic freedoms.

Western democracies now seem to have lost their way. Whereas once we expected our political leaders to make decisions that benefitted the majority in the long term, our minorities have become so influential and vocal our leaders are not prepared to make any decisions that might make anyone worse off. As a result the majority suffer and short-term populism trumps long-term pragmatism.

So it seems to me that the real progress that Western societies have made over centuries might be on the wane. At the same time our much vaunted freedoms are on the decline. Could it be that the triumph of the West has peaked?

5 Replies to “The Rise and Decline of the West”

  1. Thank you Ted, well said, I agree with almost everything you said, bit scary…………..Yours Jack

  2. Brilliant analysis of our world today – and how it came to be.
    Interesting how the western countries seem to be bogged down by secondary issues, unable to get to the real source of their problems.
    Weak leaders too at the moment, do not help either.
    Weak western countries seem unable to face their ‘downfall’ as the noisy minorities loudly cloud the issues with their hidden agendas, mainly to punish and bring down ‘white racist imperialists’ for their past sins, and capitalism.

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