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Part II: Religion in a Westernizing World

11. The Ascendancy of the Modern Western Civilization

The spread of the Modern Western Civilization over the face of the planet has been the most prominent single feature in the history of Mankind during the last four or five centuries.

The expansion of one society into the domains of its contemporaries was something that had happened already, more than once, in the Age of the Civilizations. For example, the two societies of an earlier generation to which the Western Civilization was affiliated had both expanded in their day to opposite extremities of the Old World and beyond. The Canaanite Civilization still lives on in a Jewish diasporà that has crossed the Atlantic and seeded itself in the Americas. The same civilization’s eastward trek across the breadth of the Continent is commemorated, in the Temple of Heaven at Peking, in the letters of the Aramaic Alphabet—here written vertically instead of horizontally—in which the Manchu and Mongol versions of the trilingual inscriptions are recorded side by side with the Chinese. As for the Graeco-Roman Civilization, it was carried eastwards as far as Japan in the Greek style of visual art that had been adopted by the Mahāyāna in North-Western India, while it was carried westwards as far as Hadrian’s Wall by Roman arms. The civilization of the pastoral nomads, again, spread all over the Eurasian Steppe, as is attested by the uniformity of ‘the Animal Style’ of Scythian art in the great western bay of the Steppe and in the great northern loop of the Yellow River, while its penetration into the adjoining domains of the sedentary civilizations is attested by the uniformity of the Sarmatian style of military equipment as this is portrayed in Chinese terra-cotta figurines of the T’ang Age and on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The expansion of the Modern Western Civilization has been unique, not in being far-flung, but in being literally worldwide. The Eurasian nomads conquered all but the outer rind of the Old World by ranging on horseback over grasslands and deserts that were as conductive as rivers and seas. Within seventy-one years of Chingis Khan’s first eruption from the Steppe in A.D. 1209, the Mongols had conquered China, the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin, Persia, and ‘Irāq; imposed their suzerainty on Burma and Russia; and raided Japan, India, Syria, Silesia, and Hungary. In the thirteenth century of the Christian Era the steppe-borne nomad Mongol cavalry had indeed a wide range; yet they were outranged by the sedentary Westerners when these, from the fifteenth century onwards, mastered the still more conductive medium of the Ocean through their invention of a new type of sailing-ship that was able to keep the sea continuously for months on end.1 This Ocean-faring Modern Western four-masted or three-masted square-rigged sailing-ship made the expansion of the Modern Western Civilization literally ubiquitous, because it gave Western mariners access to all coasts, including those of the Americas and the Antipodes. The steppe-borne horse had conveyed its nomad rider to the back doors of all the civilizations of the Old World; the Ocean-borne ship conveyed its Western navigator to the front doors of all the civilizations on the face of the planet.

The Modern Western sailing-ship was the instrument and the symbol of the West’s ascendancy in the World during a Modern Age of Western history that came to an end between about A.D. 1860 and A.D. 1890. In its independence of the land, this sailing-ship was superior to its land-bound supplanter the post-Modern Western steamship; and in A.D. 1956 the Ocean on which the Western sailing-ship and the Western steamship had been successively launched had not been put out of use by the post-Modern Western conquest of the Air, as the Steppe had been put out of use by the Modern Western conquest of the Ocean. Aircraft could not perform the ship’s function of carrying staple goods in bulk at a price that the traffic could bear; and, since the Industrial Revolution, this ponderous traffic had come to be one of the necessities of a Westernizing World’s economic life. The Modern Western sailing-ship was the vehicle that had created the possibility of world-unity in the literal sense of uniting the whole Human Race, throughout the habitable area of the planet’s surface, into a single society; and in our day, when we have seen the nineteenth-century clipper disappear from off the face of the seas, we have also seen the possibility created by its fifteenth-century prototype become a certainty. In A.D. 1956 it was already unquestionable that the social unification of Mankind was going to come to pass. The question that still remained open was not what was going to happen but merely how an inevitable consummation was going to be reached.

In the fifteenth century of the Christian Era, when the Western Civilization, equipped with its new instrument the Modern Western sailing-ship, set out on its world-wide career of expansion, it was still a civilization of the same type as its contemporaries in other parts of the Old World: an Eastern Orthodox Christendom in South-East Europe and Anatolia; a branch of this same Eastern Orthodox Christendom in Russia; a Turco-Persian Islamic Civilization stretching from South-East Europe to India; an Arabic Islamic Civilization stretching from Morocco to Indonesia; a Hindu Civilization in India and Indonesia; an East Asian Civilization in China; and a branch of this same East Asian Civilization in Korea and Japan. Every one of these Old-World civilizations of the third generation, including the Western, had taken shape within a social ‘chrysalis’ provided by a society of a different species—a higher religion—and in the fifteenth century of the Christian Era all of them, again including the Western, were still living within an inherited traditional religious framework, both social and spiritual. In this typical feature, which was manifestly an important one, Western Christendom was a civilization of the same character as its sister civilizations in the Old World at the time when the West made its first impact, over the Ocean, on all other living civilizations in both the Old World and the New. At this stage the West was peculiar only in its mobility, in which it had now surpassed even the Eurasian nomads.

This common characteristic of being set in the framework of a higher religion made fifteenth-century and sixteenth-century Western Christendom familiar to its contemporaries in the Old World and at the same time repulsive to them. It was familiar because of its traditional religious setting. It was repulsive because Western Christianity was a different religion—and, being a Judaic religion, was also a militantly rival one—to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which were the religious frameworks of the other living civilizations in the Old World.

In the seventeenth century of the Christian Era, however, when the West’s mastery of the Ocean was now firmly established, and when consequently the West had already become the potential master of the World, the West went through a revolution that had been by far the greatest in its history down to A.D. 1956. In the seventeenth century the Western Civilization broke out of its traditional Western Christian chrysalis and abstracted from it a new secular version of itself, in which Religion was replaced by Technology as Western Man’s paramount interest and pursuit. This domestic spiritual revolution in the West quickly precipitated a corresponding revolution in the other civilizations’ attitude towards the alien Western Civilization that was pressing hard upon them. These two seventeenth-century revolutions are examined more closely in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth chapters of this book. The purpose of the present chapter is simply to outline the plot of the historical drama with which the whole of this second part of the book is concerned. At this point we have merely to note that the effect of the seventeenth-century secularization of the Western Civilization on the attitude of the non-Western civilizations was to remove the previous obstacle to a reception of the Western Civilization by them. In consequence, the whole of the non-Western World had become deeply committed to the Late Modern secularized version of the Western Civilization by the middle of the twentieth century; and so, when a secularized Western Society was overtaken, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, by a spiritual crisis, this Western malaise made an impact on a technologically Westernizing World.

There is one salient feature of the Late Modern Western Civilization that has already begun to look strange to us in the current early chapter of our post-Modern Age of Western history, and this strange salient feature is Late Modern Western Man’s supreme self-assurance. From the later decades of the seventeenth century of the Christian Era down to August 1014, Late Modern Western Man assumed that the secularized version of his ancestral civilization which he had now abstracted from its traditional Western Christian religious chrysalis was the last word in Civilization in two senses. He assumed that this was the mature and perfect form of Civilized Society: Civilization with a capital ‘C’ (for he now dismissed the other living civilizations as being ‘semi-civilized’, and the original unsecularized version of his own Western Civilization as being ‘medieval’). He also assumed that his latterday secularized Western Civilization was definitive in the sense of being, not merely perfect, but permanent. ‘A lily of a day’2 may be perfect without being permanent, but ‘Civilization’ was credited by its Western exponents with both these attributes of divinity: it was deemed to have come to stay for ever and to be immune against the destruction that had overtaken so many primitive and semi-civilized cultures in the past.

The abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame; republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times. In peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals; in war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and indecisive contests.3

Gibbon’s assurance was amazing to Westerners reading this passage in A.D. 1956; yet readers who had already been grownup in August 1914 could remember in 1956 that, down to 1914, they themselves had still seen the Western Civilization’s prospects with Gibbon’s eyes—in disregard of warnings that had been uttered, before Gibbon’s day and long before theirs, by the sceptical-minded seventeenth-century Western heralds of a self-confident Late Modern Western Age.4

Since A.D. 1914 we have come to realize that our Late Modern Western secularized civilization has not, after all, distinguished itself from all its predecessors by having achieved perfection, and therefore has also not distinguished itself from them by having achieved immunity against destruction. We have realized that, in discarding, in the seventeenth century, the doctrine of Original Sin together with the rest of the West’s Christian religious heritage, Western Man did not slough off Original Sin itself. Mr. Lightheart merely steamed off the label from a packet that still stayed strapped as fast as ever to his shoulders; and the sequel to this facile operation has shown how little warrant Lightheart had for feeling himself superior to that old-fashioned pilgrim, Christian. In removing the label from the load, Lightheart fancied that he had dispensed himself from Christian’s corvée; and so, when Christian’s long travail was rewarded at last by his release from his burden, Lightheart was still left carrying his burden unawares.

This persistence of Original Sin in a secularized Western Society was dumbly attested by the everyday private experience of every Western man and woman in every generation. Yet it has required the public atrocities committed by children of our Western Civilization in our lifetime to extort from us the recognition that Original Sin is still alive in Western Man. The pioneer explorations made by our post-Modern Western psychologists into the subconscious depths of the Human Psyche have now begun to make us aware again, as our forefathers were aware down to the earlier decades of the seventeenth century, how strong and how formidable Man’s Original Sin is.

This addition of a psychic dimension to our scientific knowledge, following on the heels of appalling unforeseen public events, has compelled us to address ourselves again to one of Mankind’s major perennial tasks—the struggle with Original Sin—which we have ignored and neglected for more than 300 years; and we have had to resume the struggle in circumstances which, in one important point, are more formidable than any with which the children of the Western or any other civilization have ever been faced in the past. Down to the outbreak of the Western Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century of the Christian Era, the narrowness of the limits of Man’s command over Non-Human Nature set correspondingly narrow limits to the force of the ‘drive’ that Man was able to put into his acts, either for good or for evil. But now, as a double-edged reward for our transference of our treasure from Religion to Technology, we have made such unprecedented technological progress during these last 200 years that our actions have come to have the ‘drive’ of atomic energy behind them. Our wickedness is not more wicked, and our goodness not more good, than the conduct of our pre-industrial forefathers was. But the practical consequences of our actions, whether bad or good, are now far more serious. No doubt it was always true that ‘the wages of Sin is Death’;5 but today, when we find ourselves once again forced by events to face, and grapple with, Sin, the truth of St. Paul’s warning cannot be ignored. This manifest deadliness of our evil acts in an Atomic Age is a ground both for fear and for hope: for fear, because we may bring destruction on ourselves; for hope, because we cannot now blind ourselves to this possibility, and may therefore be moved, by our awareness of our danger, to repent and to mend our ways. This twentieth-century spiritual crisis in the West would have been momentous in itself, even if it had merely been a local domestic Western affair. Its momentousness is magnified tenfold by a consequence of the literally world-wide expansion of the Western Civilization and of its progressive reception, in its secularized form, by the non-Western majority of the Human Race. The West’s present spiritual crisis is also the World’s. During the last quarter of a millennium, one non-Western civilization after another has received our secularized Western Civilization. Most of them have received it reluctantly, in spite of finding it repellent; and the consideration that has overcome their distaste has been the supposition that this disagreeable alien way of life to which they were painfully adapting themselves really was what it purported to be: a Civilization that was definitive in the sense of being both perfect and permanent, as our Western Civilization looked to Gibbon and still looked to us in our time down to A.D. 1914. Yet the non-Western civilizations had no sooner discarded their own cultural heritages, with their traditional religious frameworks, and adopted our secularized Western Civilization instead, than they found that this adopted civilization was not, after all, the definitive way of life that they had credulously believed it to be on the strength of the contemporary West’s own naïve belief in itself.

Thus the non-Western majority of Mankind, after having put itself through one spiritual revolution—the process of conversion from its hereditary civilizations to a secularized Western Civilization—has now immediately found itself plunged into a second spiritual revolution of which it had had no foreboding. It has adopted the secularized Western Civilization just in time to find itself involved in the West’s unexpected twentieth-century spiritual crisis. Thus the West has played on the World, in all good faith, an unintentional trick. It has sold to the World a civilization that has turned out not to be what either the seller or the buyers believed it to be at the time of the sale. This mishap seems likely to make the twentieth-century spiritual crisis even more distressing to the Westernizing majority of Mankind than it is to the Western minority; and this distress may generate bitterness.

At the same time, these non-Western converts to the Western Civilization bring with them hope as well as fear; for they come trailing some still undiscarded clouds of glory from their own religious heritages, which they have abandoned a shorter time ago than the West has abandoned its Christian religious heritage. These undiscarded elements in the religious heritages of the non-Western majority of Mankind have now been brought, by the process of Westernization, into the World’s common stock of spiritual treasure; and perhaps they may work together with the surviving remnant of Western Christianity to re-introduce the discarded religious element into a Western Civilization that has now become the common civilization of all Mankind, for better or for worse.

This hope kindled into a flame in the writer’s heart on the 13th October 1953, when, on the eve of a Round Table Conference convened by the Council of Europe in Rome, he was making a long-meditated pilgrimage to the Sacro Speco: the cave on the rocky flank of a ravine, beyond Subiaco, where Saint Benedict is traditionally believed to have spent his years of spiritual travail as an anchorite before receiving and accepting his call to Monte Cassino. Here was the primal germ-cell of Western Christendom; and, as the pilgrim read the moving Latin inscription in which Pope Pius IX had recorded the names of all the lands, stretching away to the ends of the Earth, that had been evangelized by a spiritual impetus issuing from this hallowed spot, he prayed that the spirit which had once created a Western Christian Civilization out of the chaos of the Dark Age might return to re-consecrate a latterday Westernizing World.

11 Annexe: Seventeenth—Century Forebodings of the Spiritual Price of the Seventeenth—Century Revulsion from Religious Fanaticism

The spiritual vacuum that was to be the price of the seventeenth-century revulsion from religious fanaticism was foreseen and deplored in the seventh decade of the seventeenth century by a clergyman of the Episcopalian Established Church of England who was the first secretary of the Royal Society, and in the last decade of the same century by a French Huguenot refugee in Amsterdam who was the forerunner of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists.

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will be soon chac’d out of the World by the remembrance of the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it. And, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet the real authority of that too is apparently decaying.… This is the present state of Christendom. It is now impossible to spread the same clouds over the World again: the universal disposition of this age is bent upon a rational religion.…

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have bin negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have bin driven on this profaneness by the late extravagant excesses of enthusiasm. The infinit pretences to inspiration, and immediat communion with God, that have abounded in this age, have carry’d several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter—who would not have bin so exorbitant if the others had kept within more moderate bounds.… From hence it may be gather’d that the way to reduce a real and sober sense of religion is, not by indeavoring to cast a veil of darkness again over the minds of men, but chiefly by allaying the violence of spiritual madness, and that the one extreme will decreas proportionably to the less’ning of the other.

It is apparent to all that the influence which Christianity once obtain’d on mens minds is prodigiously decay’d. The generality of Christendom is now well-nigh arriv’d at that fatal condition which did immediatly precede the destruction of the worships of the Ancient World, when the face of Religion in their public assemblies was quite different from that apprehension which men had concerning it in privat: in public they observ’d its rules with much solemnity, but in privat regarded it not at all. It is difficult to declare by what means and degrees we are come to this dangerous point; but this is certain, that the spiritual vices of this age have well-nigh contributed as much towards it as the carnal; and, for these, the most efficacious remedy that Man of himself can use is not so much the sublime part of divinity as its intelligible and natural and practicable doctrines.6

There is a very widespread feeling that the same people who, in our age, have dispersed the darkness that the Schoolmen had spread all over Europe have multiplied the number of the ‘tough-minded’ spirits (les esprits forts) and have opened the door to Atheism or to Scepticism or to a disbelief in the crucial mysteries of Christianity. The study of philosophy is not held solely responsible for the growth of irreligion; literature shares the blame; for it is contended that Atheism did not begin to declare itself in France before the reign of Francis I, and that it began to make its appearance in Italy at the time of the floruit of the Humanists.7

The seventeenth-century Western advocates of tolerant-mindedness were aware that the overthrow of a theology imposed by authority would bring to light the limitations of the powers of the human reason. No doubt, they are sometimes inwardly rejoicing in revolutionary changes which they are affecting to deplore. In an age in which the free expression of sceptical opinions in matters of religion had not yet quite ceased to be dangerous, eironeia, in the Socratic sense of a use of words with an innuendo running counter to their ostensible meaning, was a convenient intellectual weapon to use in the cause of enlightenment, and Bayle was a pre-Gibbonian adept in this Gibbonian art. But a series of passages in Bayle’s Dictionaire, in which the price of enlightenment is pointed out, seem to reveal an oscillation between irony and earnestness in the spirit in which Bayle is making this point.

In the following passages the spirit of irony is manifestly predominant.

Since the mysteries of the Gospel are of a supernatural order, they cannot and must not be subjected to the rules of natural light. They are not made for being exposed to the test of philosophical disputations. Their greatness and sublimity forbid them to undergo this ordeal. It would be contrary to the nature of things that they should come out from such a combat as the victors. Their essential character is to be an object of Faith, not an object of Scientific Knowledge.8

Roman Catholics and Protestants make war on one another over innumerable articles of religion, but they agree on the point of holding [with one accord] that the mysteries of the Gospel are above Reason.… From this it necessarily follows that it is impossible to solve the difficulties raised by the philosophers, and consequently that a disputation conducted exclusively in the light of our natural human intelligence will always end unfavourably for the theologians, and that these will find themselves compelled to give ground and to take shelter under the canon of supernatural light. It is evident that the Reason would never be capable of attaining something that is above it. So it must be admitted that the Reason cannot supply answers to its own objections, and accordingly that these objections will hold the field so long as we do not have recourse to the authority of God and do not bow to the necessity of surrendering our understandings to an obedience to [the dictates of] the Faith.9

This is how those who want to make Theology subject to Philosophy ought to be instructed in their proper duty. They should be shown the absurdity of the consequences to which their method leads, and by this road they should be led back to one of the principles of Christian humility, namely, that metaphysical notions ought not to be taken as our rule for judging the conduct of God, instead of our conforming our views, as we ought, to the oracles of Scripture.10

On the other hand, in the following passages in which the same point is made, Bayle would appear to be at any rate more than half in earnest.

Our Reason is capable of nothing but the creation of a universal confusion and universal doubt: it has no sooner built up a system than it shows you the means of knocking it down. It is a veritable Penelope, who unpicks during the night the tapestry that she has woven during the day. Accordingly, the best use that one can make of philosophical studies is to recognise that it is a way that leads astray, and that we ought to look for another guide, which we shall find in the light of Revelation.11

Man’s lot is so unfortunately placed that those lights which deliver him from one evil precipitate him into another. Cast out ignorance and barbarism, and you will overthrow superstition.… But, in the act of illuminating men’s minds in regard to these [mental] disorders, you will be inspiring them with a passion for examining everything, they will apply the fine tooth-comb, and they will go into such subtleties that they will find nothing that will content their wretched Reason.12

  • 1.

    See A Study of History, vol. ix, pp. 364–8.

  • 2.

    Ben Jonson.

  • 3.

    Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chap. xxxviii, ad fin.: ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’—written, probably in A.D. 1781 (the year of Cornwall’s capitulation at Yorktown), by a British subject who fancied himself to be an arch-sceptic.

  • 4.

    See Chapter 11, Annexe, below.

  • 5.

    Rom. vi. 23.

  • 6.

    Sprat, Tho., The History of the Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London 1667, Martyn), pp. 366–76.

  • 7.

    Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., iv. 2688a, s.v. Takiddin.

  • 8.

    Ibid., iv. 2991, II Éclaircissement.

  • 9.

    Ibid., iv. 2990, II Éclaircissement.

  • 10.

    Ibid., iii. 2128 a, s.v. Origène.

  • 11.

    Ibid., i. 700 b, s.v. Bunel.

  • 12.

    ibid., iv. 2688 b, s.v. Takiddin.