“The West is the best.”—Jim Morrison
One of the truly frustrating aspects of our all-too modern and post-modern era is how easily radicals dismiss anything to do with western civilization as a racialist celebration of “whiteness” and of Caucasians. To believe such a thing, one must first believe that “races” actually exist, something no scientist worth her or his salt would believe. Yet, even assuming that such a thing as “race” does exist, where does it matter in terms of history?
There are, of course, relatively simple ways to blow this objection to western civilization as “white civilization” to smithereens, but few are willing to accept the corrective, preferring the easy lie to the more complex truth. One only has to imagine St. Augustine of Hippo, arguably one of the two or three greatest citizens of western civilization, to realize how absurd the whole “whiteness” or “white supremacy” argument is.
The father of the Reformation and a Roman Catholic saint, Augustine serves as the most importance nexus between the ancient and medieval worlds, his magisterial “City of God” serving as the handbook of the Middle Ages. Importantly for our argument, though, St. Augustine was also from Hippo, a region of North Africa.
Certainly, we can only imagine his visage with uncertainty. Did he look like a Sicilian, a Spartan, an Italian, an Arab, or an Ethiopian? We have no concrete records of the physical attributes of the man, and history has interpreted him in a variety of ways. In the Renaissance, of course, Botticelli portrayed him as a dark-complexioned Roman. But most black Roman Catholics in America have chosen to portray him as an Ethiopian. In the end, of course, does it really matter what he looked like? Not in the least.
Today’s Racial Categories Are Fake, Leftist Constructs
In his own extensive and scholarly work, sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) claimed that racial categories—in any way we recognize—did not exist in the ancient or medieval West. One might speak of city, family, people, or ethnicity, but skin color rarely if ever had anything to do with it.
Ample documents from Homer’s mythology to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” should reveal much about skin color should such things have mattered, but they rarely did. Instead, Nisbet assured us, the fascination about one’s skin color comes only in the modern world, generally with what historian Mark Kalthoff and others have labeled scientism, not science.
“This affliction of the mind,” Nisbet wrote, “in both its malign and benign forms, is a product of modernity.” Further, he argued, whatever divisions did exist in the “ancient and medieval worlds, they were not based upon belief in some phylogenetic odium that resisted all spiritual and cultural influence.”
Theories of evolution and, especially, progressivism added the horror of “racism” to the West. American Progressives, in particular, where willing to sacrifice almost everything—including social stability, individual dignity, and the truth—to make American culture lily white, to “yank the hyphen out of hyphenated Americans,” and to “cleanse” the American population through eugenics, birth control, and abortion.
Progressivism, by its very essence, though, is the exact opposite and, indeed, the overturning of the traditional understandings of the West. One of the most prominent American Progressives of the last century put it horrifically in his influential 1914 book, “The Old World in the New”:
These oxlike men are descendants of those who always stayed behind.… To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type. I have seen gatherings of the foreign dashboard in which narrow and sloping floor heads were the rule. The shortness and smallness of the crania were very noticeable. There was much facial asymmetry. Among the women, beauty, aside from the fleeting, epidermal bloom of girlhood, was quite lacking. In every face there was something wrong—lipstick, mouth course, upper lip too long, cheek–bones too high, chin poorly formed, the bridge of the nose hollowed, the base of the nose tilted, or else the whole face prognathous. There were so many sugar–loaf heads, moon–faces, slit mouths, lantern–Jaws, and goose–bill noses that one might imagine a malicious jinn had amused himself by casting human beings in a set of skew–molds discarded by the Creator.
In direct contrast, the real West began, intellectually, with a desire to find unity in all things, despite the particular manifestations of a thing. In terms of thought, the West began with a group of men—soon to be labeled philosophers, lovers of wisdom—in and near the Aegean town of Miletus, the point of intersection between the Occident and the Orient.
There, around 510BC, the philosophers attempted to figure out what the primary matter of the universe was and how it held all things together. Some guessed the primary matter was air, others water, and still others soil. But, Heraclitus believed it to be fire.
With no word to describe exactly what he meant, he employed the term “Logos,” meaning imagination, speech, fire, and word. “It belongs to all people,” Heraclitus assured his audience, thus allowing one to know himself and “to think rightly.”
Still, Heraclitus worried that all were trapped in the cycles of what was common to all. Just as there is always a spring, a summer, a fall, and a water, so too is there a birth, a middle age, and a death. Natural, to be sure, but tyrannical? After all, he lamented, “the road up is the road down,” and the cycles of life and nature never end.
The West Is About Universal Truths for All People
Socrates, the Stoics, Cicero, and the early Christians all maintained the Logos, with none more important than saints John and Paul. Imagine, for a moment, the relief of John’s audience when he wrote in his gospel, the Logos (word) “is the light which lighteth up every man.” Note, there is no asterisk here, only a universal quality. Or, think about how many Greek anxieties St. Paul solved when he wrote:
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him. And he is before all, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he may hold the primacy: Because in him, it hath well pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell; And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven.
Every vital question the Greek philosophers asked, St. Paul answered in his letter to the Christians of Colossae.
Indeed, Christ came not at any point, but in the “fullness of time,” when three distinct cultures intersected, again proving that history was vital to God’s plan. Christ, coming in the “fullness of time,” was born into a Hellenistic Jewish culture, controlled militarily and politically by the Roman Empire, and divided, theologically, among several Jewish schools of thought.
The Incarnation allows the church, the representative of the City of God on earth, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it, “to gather His Saints.” Christian loyalty, then, can be to no nation primarily, but to the universal, Christian church, no matter how divided its body might be. Among those saints, there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew, neither black nor white, but all made one in His unity.
The Second Founding of the West
The second founding of the West came a full 30 years after Heraclitus described the Logos, in 480s, when the Spartans resisted Persian (Oriental) tyranny. Herodotus described it well:
But Xerxes was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors.
The Greeks—organized in units by their respective towns—continued to fight, despite suffering severe wounds and being greatly outnumbered. After days of battering, the Greeks decided to break up their defense. Some would stay, others would return to their city-states to warn them and to help them prepare for a defense.
The Spartans, under the leadership of King Leonidas, decided to stay. The Oracle had prophesized either greatness or ruin for them, and they believed they would attain the former through sacrifice. Should they flee to defend their homes, Leonidas believed, all would be lost.
Allied with the Thespians, who refused to abandon the Spartans, Leonidas and 300 men made their last stand. They drove themselves to the heart of the narrow pass at Thermopylae. There, they freely drove themselves into the Persians, mostly conscripts, being forced to fight by bullwhips at their backs. Leonidas threw himself into the invading force and died quickly.
Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans. The hillock whereof I speak is at the entrance of the straits, where the stone lion stands which was set up in honour of Leonidas. Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the other resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missiles.
Overwhelmed by the numbers of Persians, the Greeks fell quickly. As they did, they continued to fight, inspired by one officer declaring “If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.” The mission at Thermopylae was vital to the defense of Greece itself. For, as Leonidas and his 300 Spartans sacrificed their lives, attempting to hold the pass at Thermopylae against the horde of Persian invaders, Athens had time to prepare a defense. When the last Greek died, the West was born.
“But we must surely admit that there were spiritual issues in the struggle between the Persians and the Greeks,” historian Christopher Dawson Dawson wrote in 1942, “and so it is today though the issues for us are not so simple as for the men who fought at Thermopylae and Plataeae.”
The next time someone tells you that the West is about whiteness or racial superiority, remind them of several things: 1) that race is a modern construct, the fruits of progressivism; 2) that one of the greatest Westerners, St. Augustine, was an African; 3) that Heraclitus sought only unity; and 4) that the Spartans gave everything for dignity greater than any one people. You may very well fail to persuade them, but, at the very least, you can befuddle them.
Bradley Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American studies and professor of history at Hillsdale College. Author of several biographies, he is also the co-founder and editor-at-large of The Imaginative Conservative.