Thursday, April 21, 2011

The West's Success: 'Caesarean Section'?

Julius Caesar
(Image from Wikipedia)

Not so long ago, I blogged about Niall Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the Rest, which I've not read, of course, but I did read up on Ferguson's views and learned about his 'killer apps' -- as readers will recall.

More recently, my friend Malcolm Pollack blogged on Ferguson's report from China (which may appear in his book), posting a passage on what a scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences wrote about the West's success:
We were asked to look into what accounted for . . . the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion. Christianity.
I had posted some words on this quote myself, so I was ready to discuss it some more if anyone should express interest. Others do appear interested, for Malcolm noted that Dennis Mangan is also curious about the passage. Malcolm even posted a comment to Mangan's blog entry on the topic:
I wondered if the Chinese scholar himself had said any more about why this should be so: about what, exactly it was about Christianity that they thought best explained. As it turns out, the next line of the quoted passage reads . . . "The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this" . . . . I'd still like to know more. In what way, specifically -- by what mechanism -- did these scholars think that Christian morality accounted for the West's flamboyant (and flamboyantly capitalistic!) success?

There are two parts to this. First, the "emergence of capitalism". What about Christian morality uniquely fosters capitalism?

Then there's the "transition to democratic politics". Implicit in this is the remarkable assertion (for a Chinese scholar to make in public, at least) that democracy is a key factor in our global domination. And of course Christianity explicitly distinguishes between God and Caesar. But again: why do you suppose the Chinese Academy of the Social Science concluded that Christian morality is more conducive to democracy than to collective socialism?
I don't know why this academy drew this conclusion, but I have my own theory about how Christianity contributed to the West's secular success, and I think that this success turns upon the point noted by Malcolm, the crucial distinction between God and Caesar, so I commented:
I think that embedded in Christianity -- it's there in the foundational texts -- is a distinction between the sacred and the secular, and thus religion and state, in which the secular is allowed its legitimate place, a distinction that enabled the development of secular laws not subject to religious control, and therefore amendable according to what would work pragmatically, the long-term result being the rise of a powerful, free society that rested upon religiously based legitimacy and was therefore free from religious challenge . . . in principle.

How do other religions compare?

Islam is surely the prime example of a religion that refuses legitimacy to the secular, and look at the results.

Even Confucianism -- let's take it as a religion -- imposes a morally based system of ritual upon all of society, including the state, from which no detail escapes.

I leave a full comparison to these and other religions as homework.

One might object that this analysis implies that not Christianity, but rather its absence, is responsible for the power of the West. That objection fails to grasp that this outcome was the consequence of a deeply Christian principle, the already noted distinction between God and Caesar.

Or so I think . . .
In other words, the West's success rests upon a religiously sanctioned absence of religion, an absence that depends upon a particular religion, specifically Christianity, for the divinely granted condition that provides the absence its legitimacy, the condition being that so long as God gets what is owed Him, Caesar gets what is owed him.

The operative question is that of what, in both cases, is owed, which is where things get complicated, but in principle . . .

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At 6:28 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Or, maybe, the West' success depends on the Roman, then the 'Celtic' power lust. The Christian religion just was so 'lucky' as to be joined / used by Emperor Constantine.
From then on, the two destinies have been linked, the "distinction between the sacred and the secular" referring to the different roles (Pope, Emperor etc.), but within a shared mind-set.

'Hard-boiled' Christianity, in se, would lead to to opposition to the secular world, rather than to the legitimacy of it.

This, as a counter-conjecture, nothing more.

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The hard-boiled Christians could withdraw from the secular world, but they had no right to dictate its rules.

As for the lust for power, that's surely a universal character in human nature and would thus apply everywhere.

(Celtic . . . or Germanic?)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:26 AM, Blogger Scott said...

I would think the sucess of the Greek and Roman civilizations pre-Christianity would have to call this idea into question - since Christianity was an adopted thought system - not an original offspring.

I'd think it would be better to get back to the political system or a more general idea of democracy that happened to fit well with Christianity.

I've read scholars look for democratic ideals within Confucianism and elsewhere in the East, but I don't know if anybody other than the Greeks and later Romans had the thoughts and put them into practice in their governments more than them.

And it was the general view of democracy that linked the pre-Christian West with the post- and with later developments including our contemporary times.

Lastly, when we look at times where the West has least lived up to the ideals of democracy, we find periods of great decline rather than growth....

I am not saying Christianity wasn't a key influence in the West's rise and staying power, but the growth of world power pre-dated the implanting of Christianity...

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But when we speak of the West's success, we're usually thinking of the modern West. The West made an unprecedented leap in knowledge and power beginning in the early modern period and left all other civilizations behind. My theory is that this was possible because Christianity left the secular world relatively free of religious restrictions, which enabled the secular West to take off.

I agree that this isn't the whole story, but I'm dealing with a very general theme, comparing civilizations as a whole.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:59 AM, Blogger Scott said...

Maybe the level of restrictions (religious or otherwise) are tied to the form of government -- with democracy (more power truly resting with the individuals - or maybe with at least power diffuse at the top) at one end of the pole and dictatorship (secular or religious) at the other.

I tend to look at the modern period as an extension of the golden ages of Rome and Greece after the period of the Middle Age when tyranny (or chaos) was more the order of the day than democratic or republican ideals.

We could try to extend this thought to the church itself - with the Reformation being a movement to break the holding of too much power in the hands of just one man or an oligarchy.

Under an oligarchy, one that can extend its power through the whole of the organization, restrictions are more easily placed on the governed.

It's a thought.....

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Scott said...

I should have added - with the Reformation not only breaking the power of the church but possibly helping allow the growth of things that made the Modern Age -- like the Industrial Revolution, scientific inquiry, economic theory, and so on...

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Democracy certainly helps, along with free speech and other rights, for these assist in ensuring a greater flow of information and more analysis from various perspectives, all of which enable faster and more efficient self-correction.

My point is that these developments are possible if the secular realm is granted its legitimate autonomy.

Of course, I wouldn't maintain that Christianity has only this 'negative' role to play. Christian views on human nature and its imperfections also contributed to a more realistic view of what is humanly achievable. A lot could be said on this point, but it's not the particular point that I'm concerned with in today's blog entry.

Rather, I want us to appreciate the ironic sense in which a religion can legitimate a realm relatively free of religion -- in the case of Christianity, at any rate.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, the Reformation is important in empowering the individual, but the Medieval Church is also important for its sythesis of faith and reason, a very significant aspect of Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:22 PM, Blogger dhr said...

As for the lust for power, that's surely a universal character

Not that universal. Inuit or Amazonian small tribes etc. never dreamt of conquering the world, nor did they (on their own) develop a world-dangerous technology. Violence is everywhere, but this kind of impulse is not. For some reason.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If true, that might simply mean that those peoples and tribes were too weak or the environment not conducive to conquest (rather than that they were 'noble savages').

Or I might be wrong. There's always a first time . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:30 PM, Blogger dhr said...

that might simply mean that those peoples and tribes were too weak or the environment not conducive to conquest

Yep, that's a widespread and reasonable explanation. Though this solution probably cannot explain everything, and after 2,000 years no historian has found a ultimate one, as far as I know.
From a Schopenhauerean standpoint, probably things simply happen "like that" without a further reason.

"The" question is about the relationship of the conquering peoples to the Christian faith: did Christianity enhance this attitude (see modern controversies)? Or, vice versa, did it somehow curb it (see Church Fathers)? Etc.

Boh! Keine Ahnung.

N.B. Starting right now for my home town, where Mom got an old pc. Hope will be able to keep on following these discussions, from tonight to April 30.


At 4:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christianity was certainly utilized as legitimation for conquest, though I think this to have been a misapplication, but the jury is still out on that one.

Happy Easter to you, too. May the Easter Bunny bring many eggs (but where does he get them?).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:27 AM, Anonymous dhr said...


unfortunately I won't be able to follow your posts during these holidays (currently taking advantage of a friend's pc)

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're still commenting on this entry, Dario?! I've already gone on to more fascinating and important topics . . . like the untimely death of my TI-34.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't mind backtracking from your nostalgic epitaph to the TI-34, I'd like to know your thoughts about Medieval laws against usury and reliance on Jewish banking networks to fund European economic and military expansion. Would European development have been delayed without the vital role filled by its religious minority whose close ties crossed national boundaries? This question seeks not to negate but modify the premise of this post. Perhaps the modern West's prosperity owes to its Judeo-Christian and not just Christian heritage.


At 6:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What it points to, in part, is that the freedom of the secular realm was never entirely uncontested. Religion generally seeks to aggrandize -- as does the secular realm.

But Christianity cannot legitimately rule over the secular world, based on its founder's distinction between God and Caesar and what is owed to each, so the secular world has a foundation upon which to build.

The room left for Jews in the medieval world fits this pattern, I think, as they were allowed to work within the secular realm in ways not even open to Christians initially, but which became more open over time -- and could grow more open due to the sacred/secular distinction.

Jeffery Hodges

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