Friday, July 16, 2021

The Lost History of Western Civilization

Stanley Kurtz's The Lost History of Western Civilization came out just before the Pandemic, and thus did not receive the attention it deserved. It is the length of a small book, available for free at the National Association of Scholars website. I bring it out here so you can have it for quick reference. The introduction is simple and forceful.  A sample

The Western tradition is the source of America’s founding principles and constitutional system. That is the most important reason for civic-minded citizens to study it. And while America has been shaped by the particularities of Western civilization, the liberal principles nurtured by this tradition represent our best hope for national reconciliation across boundaries of race, ethnicity, and religion. This report can be read as an argument against those on either the right or the left who associate Western civilization with “white identity politics.” The distinctive idea that emerged in the West—to be taken up into what we used to call the American Creed—is that a polity based on the principles of liberty and equality belongs to all citizens, as individuals, regardless of race, faith, ethnicity, or national origin. This is the way out of the trap we have fallen into. How we lost our way is the subject of this report.

But the text of the document tracing the history of the West is thorough, avoiding cliches and hackneyed phrases.

Nonetheless, the transition from “Christendom” to “Europe” was significant. And if anyone could be said to have “invented” not Europe itself, but the emerging modern conception of European civilization, it was Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu, who did it 170 years before the First World War.

Montesquieu is famed as the Enlightenment thinker whose 1748 work, The Spirit of the Laws, bequeathed to America’s Founders the principle of the separation of powers. Yet The Spirit of the Laws was also the first systematic comparative study of world civilizations.25 By articulating a disciplined contrast with Asia, Montesquieu became the first modern thinker to set out a systematic vision of Europe as a cultural and political entity with a history of its own.26

With China, Japan, India, the Near East, Turkey and Russia ruled by ‘despotic’ regimes, Montesquieu saw that political liberty was confined to Western Europe. To explain that liberty, he referenced the character of Christianity, the social effects of commerce, the relative separation of religion and state, and the rule of law. In short, Montesquieu developed the core themes of a typical 20th century Western Civilization course in 1748.

He was also preoccupied by England’s differences from Europe as a whole: its passion for liberty, its religious freedom and the proliferation of sects this gave rise to, as well as the cultural impact of its remarkably advanced commerce. England for Montesquieu played the “exceptional” role that America (or the Anglo-American tradition) took on in later narratives of Western Civilization.

One stop shopping, really.


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