Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Occidental Difference

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Occidental Difference

Article excerpt

The Occidental Difference WHAT Is THE WEST? by PHILIPPE NEMO Duquesne University Press, 155 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by David Gress

BACK IN THE LATE 1970s, Philippe Nemo was one of a group of young French philosophy graduates who turned against what was called the Generation of 1968. The intellectual culture of France was dominated in those days by a radical Marxist left that insisted liberal democracy was the fount of evil in the world-and universal revolution, spearheaded by intellectuals and students, was the only sure road to justice, peace, and an end to exploitation. Nemo's group, which labeled itself " the new philosophers," included such diverse figures as Bernard-Henry Lévy and André Glucksmann. It is not unfair to say that however famous others in the group became, Nemo had the most important things to say.

The question Nemo poses in What Is the West? is this: By what series of historical encounters did Western civilization become the combination of "the rule of law, democracy, intellectual liberties, critical rationality, science, and economic freedom founded on private property?" The West evolved as a series of elements joined in a synthesis greater than its parts. Christianity, Nemo asserts, entered not as a religion but as an "ethical spirit within secular society." The West was never coterminous with its faith. Always the believers found themselves in a world they had partly made and partly inherited from the classical past Always they were challenged to adapt to what they believed to be the exigencies of a political and social world they respected too much to want to subordinate to a theocracy.

The story begins with the Greeks, who invented scientific speculation and the ideal of the city, in which "individual lives are no longer submerged in a vast sea of humanity.... Each person now has individuality and character." To this-a point of capital importance-the Romans added their "invention of private law," whereby they "invented the individual human person."

The next stage, of course, is Christianity or, rather, the impact of biblical religion and spirituality on ancient culture, an impact that was crucial in transforming that culture into what we call medieval. Biblical religion introduced an ethical and an eschatological revolution, "cherishing the individual, morally responsible human being, by emphasizing human individuality as desired and created by God for all eternity." But, Nemo adds, that ethical revolution "might never have bestowed such theological significance on the individual person had these beliefs not taken root in a society that had already granted importance to the human ego." Without Christianity, there is no civilization of human rights, but without the Greek city, Greek science, and Roman law, there is no Christendom.

Nemo here uncovers a fundamental logic of western civilization. The West is a civilization of borrowings and mixtures, whose result, never fixed and never self-satisfied, is more than a mere function of those borrowings. The West, in fact, as Nemo's colleague and friend Rémi Brague has written, is by definition a "secondary" culture, a culture of followers who know they are followers. Neither Greek political philosophy nor Christianity were western inventions, yet their confluence created the West

Nemo is too good a scholar to point to any one encounter as the decisive one; all were necessary. He does, however, make a justified and welcome case that the so-called Papal Revolution of the late eleventh to thirteenth centuries was a time of remarkable and unusual ferment, and one on which modern democracy, science, and hope for progress directly rest. The Papal Revolution was, on the outside, the successful attempt to prevent temporal rulers from controlling church appointments and, as such, a struggle for libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church. As Nemo reminds us, on the outcome of that struggle rests the modern separation of church and state and hence, ultimately, democracy itself. …

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