March 25, 2008

Will Western civilization survive the disappearance of Westerners? That’s what the secularized elites of the EU and the US are betting, and it’s the unacknowledged premise of the latest thick volume of Whig history, Worlds at War, by Anthony Pagden. In a learned review, Adam Kirsch of The New York Sun does an excellent job of summing up the book’s essence—saving me the trouble. I worked my way through this book last month—it was one of the more interesting on offer at the tiny English language bookstore in Trastevere. I’ve been meaning to write about, but didn’t relish the effort of distilling this 625-page history of 2,500 years of history in a daily blog. Kirsch has done it for me, so I will quote him. Kirsch also overlooked the book’s chief flaws, so he hasn’t stolen my thunder.

According to Kirsch:

Mr. Pagden often sounds like a Whig historian, chronicling the triumph of progress over its stubborn enemies. His method is to retell some of the most famous chapters in European history, from ancient Greece to World War I, in each case focusing on the conflict between a variously defined Europe and a variously defined Asia. These events come down to us heavily encrusted with myth: From the Persian Wars to the Crusades to Lawrence of Arabia, they are stories Europe has used to explain itself to itself….  [Pagden] seems to want to revive the power of these myths in order to restore ideological confidence to an apathetic Western public.

“Progress,” on Pagden’s view, consists primarily in the elevation of the individual over against any institutions which might seek to limit his freedom of action—particularly in matters of sex, money, and religion. Not that Pagden is particularly keen, oddly enough on any of the three—not in any deep or meaningful sense. On religion, Pagden is openly and admittedly hostile—a kind of late 19th century village atheist, who tosses off easy scorn for any religious belief, with Christianity earning his sharpest barbs. While he has no patience for Islam, either, Pagden shows his particular bias against Christianity by portraying the Crusades as virtually an eruption of psychopathic, unmotivated violence among a continent of dirty, feuding, superstitious Europeans—unleashed against a civilized and tolerant Dar-Al-Islam preoccupied with advancing science, bathing regularly, and growing lovely Toledo oranges. The brutal Islamic conquests of ancient Christian lands from Egypt to Spain (and later, up to the gates of Vienna), and the grinding oppression suffered by “dhimmis” in the midst of this Islamic empire—Christians were probably still a majority in the Middle East when the 1st Crusade was launched—go almost unmentioned. In his silliest swipe at Christianity, Pagden dares to assert that humanitarian activity of the NGO sort which exists throughout the world—such as Doctors Without Borders—is one of the many good fruits of secularization. Is it possible that Pagden does not know that Christian churches are STILL the leading providers of cheap or free health care to the poor around the world today?  I suppose it is. This is one of the facts in this book that could have used some checking—and so, I might add, could the spelling. It’s depressing to shell out 25 Euros for a hardcover from Random House and find in it dozens of typos.

Nor is Pagden particularly insightful on the growth of the market economy, or the social preconditions that make its survival possible—namely, mutual trust, thrift, and the loving provision for future generations. Instead, the rise of a global market economy appears to be merely an epiphenomenon, an inevitable side-effect, of the growth of science and the decline of faith (Pagden draws an utterly simplistic picture of the necessary connection between the two). He has little of interest to say about economics, as a result—not even about the connection between economic and personal freedom. So libertarians will find this book a yawn,

But this long book’s hollowness can really be sounded when you pound not on the boardroom door, but the bedroom’s. Given that this book is about the qualified (but inevitable) triumph of Western secular individualism, it’s shocking that Pagden never addresses the realities of demography—the fact that plummeting birth rates in Europe, alongside soaring birth rates in the Islamic world (and Islamic subcultures in the West) threaten to replace the population of the West with non-Westerners. How successful is a culture which plans to leave behind no descendants?

For all that he tut-tuts about Islamic fundamentalism, Pagden seems quite unworried that his Whig world is threatened in any serious sense by cultural competition from within or without. Like every form of religious faith, this one will dissolve in the corrosive bath of modern liberalism and libertinism; it’s only a matter of time before Islamic girls in France will toss of their hijabs and don the latest trampy outfits from Benetton—and then all shall be well. But what, the pestiferous conservative must ask, if that religion proves tougher than you think? What if it takes hundreds of years for Whiggery to rot out the inside of Islam, as it did the core of Christendom? Even if Pagden is right in the long run that mankind prefers consumer profligacy to progeny, and Mammon to God or Allah, what about the medium term? How will Europe fare for the hundreds of years it takes for the rise of a French Arab Voltaire—and more importantly, a De Sade—to “enlighten” individuals about their “rational self-interest?” If Pagden had grandchildren who’d have to live in Eurabia, would his book be quite so blase?

What Pagden, like every Whig, misses, is the fact that the individual is a poor and paltry thing. His rationales for happiness, cut off from the massive encyclopedia of timeless truths and practical wisdom we call tradition, will always lead him astray. Thinking “rationally,” from a purely individual perspective, having children seems like rather a dumb idea. Having more than one or two is a disaster. Given access to modern contraceptives, in the absence of ethical injunctions or cultural pressures to the contrary, modern “individuals” will calculate that their net satisfaction in life will more diminished than enhanced by a medium or largish family. The self-sacrifice, deferred gratification, planning and occasional penury imposed by reproduction are real—and for a true Whig, impossible to justify. As a result, Whigs and their civilizations will breed themselves out of existence. Even from a Darwinian viewpoint, this seems like a maladaptive mutation. 

If the most our secular West has to leave behind is an ideology that promises to corrupt and geld its conquerors, it’s hard to see in this a triumph. At best, it’s a scorched-earth policy.


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