An Australian philanthropist has caused a row by leaving a vast sum of money to promote the teaching of “western civilisation” in universities. Universities love benefactions, and two jumped at the offer. But many academics loathe the proposal: to them it smacks of racism, imperialism and claims to ethnic or cultural superiority. Students agitate to “decolonise the curriculum” and there are now tours of British museums and art galleries designed to trace “the history of empire and genocide”; participants wear badges with the slogan “Display it like you stole it”.
In my own university, Cambridge, once-popular courses called “The Expansion of Europe” and “The West and the Third World” have long been replaced by a decentred “World History”. Simon Schama and Mary Beard now celebrate not “Civilisation” in their BBC TV series but “Civilisations”. Some of this is modish destruction of straw men. Some has serious intellectual purpose. Often it is a valuable enrichment and a salutary recognition of the achievements of others.
Nevertheless, there is an important thing called western civilisation, defined by history, not geography. It is the sum total of our laws, our values, our arts, our institutions, of the habits of mind and heart that enable us to live, fairly harmoniously, together: to trust each other (to some extent); to look out for each other (sometimes grudgingly); to understand each other (sometimes imperfectly); even to tell jokes about each other.
These are great and rare achievements. If I were Chinese, or Indian, or Japanese, I would argue the same — that the best aspects of my civilisation need to be cherished and taught. This in no way involves disparaging others or cutting oneself off from the wider world. A society cannot just pull up its civilisational roots and choose some other value system; remember the disastrous attempt to create “Soviet Man”. But you can weaken your civilisation by neglecting it and despising it, and we have arguably gone too far along that road already.
This is not to say that we should be uncritical of our inherited values, blind to past misdeeds, or resistant to all change. Indeed, western civilisation has always been quarrelsome, diverse and flexible. Some major civilisations trace themselves back to a single immutable source: Confucius, or Muhammad, or the Buddha. But the West has no single ideology, no single scripture, no single prophet. It is indebted to ancient Greece for the foundations of its philosophy, partly transmitted by Arabic scholars; to ancient Rome and medieval England for its two great legal systems; to the 17th-century scientific revolution and the 18th-century Enlightenment for much of its modernity — themselves stimulated by contacts with the rest of the world. So western civilisation cannot be, by its very nature, wholly stable, wholly orthodox or wholly united. Its diversity, eclecticism and capacity for evolution are defining characteristics.
The great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and historian David Hume said loftily that we owed our advances to “a great measure of accident with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight”. The western civilisation we have inherited is the result of a painful, slow, dangerous, accidental and faltering invention of a set of rules for life, the best we have managed over many centuries, and certainly in need of constant maintenance and improvement, but also worth defending and proclaiming.
Is there a core of ideas, practices and institutions that provide a bedrock? Most of us would perhaps optimistically say yes, and even agree broadly on what they are. We would say tolerance; largely an invention of the 18th century. Then rationality and the scientific method; also largely from the 17th and 18th centuries, but with a link back to ancient Greece. We would probably say “the rule of law”, which derives from the ancient world and the Middle Ages. We would surely too say “democracy”, although only a 19th and even 20th-century development, with distant links to the Greek and Roman republics. We would also say “equality”, or at least some notion of equality before the law, or equality of opportunity as an ideal: that too goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries. We would probably also say things like rights, justice, fairness, which we could trace back to the Middle Ages and to documents such as Magna Carta. And deep in the foundations are Judeo-Christian principles: charity, love, peace, justice, forgiveness.
Of course, these are the ideals, which we fail to put fully into practice. But very few of them could we openly reject, and those who have rejected them (we might think of the Bolsheviks and the Nazis) only ever had a short, although catastrophic, influence on history.
So what’s the problem? Simply that our attachment in practice to the principles we think we hold is fraying. If we routinely denigrate “western” values, we weaken solidarity and promote indifference to political principles and institutions. We encourage intransigent assertions of entitlement and magnified claims to victimhood — two sides of the same coin, and two of the most annoying symptoms of demoralisation.
We have dangerously undermined free thought, free speech, equality before the law and the right to a fair trial: “western” values that would not long ago have been considered sacrosanct. If all of a sudden we have a chilly sense of our civilisation under threat, the fault is largely our own.