What Is the West?
by Philippe Nemo
Duquesne University Press,
155 pages, $18.95

Back in the late 1970s, Philippe Nemo was one of a group of young French philosophy graduates who turned against what was called the Generation of 1968. The intellectual culture of France was dominated in those days by a radical Marxist left that insisted liberal democracy was the fount of evil in the world-and universal revolution, spearheaded by intellectuals and students, was the only sure road to justice, peace, and an end to exploitation. Nemo’s group, which labeled itself “the new philosophers,” included such diverse figures as Bernard-Henry Lévy and André Glucksmann. It is not unfair to say that however famous others in the group became, Nemo had the most important things to say.

The question Nemo poses in What Is the West? is this: By what series of historical encounters did Western civilization become the combination of “the rule of law, democracy, intellectual liberties, critical rationality, science, and economic freedom founded on private property?” The West evolved as a series of elements joined in a synthesis greater than its parts. Christianity, Nemo asserts, entered not as a religion but as an “ethical spirit within secular society.” The West was never coterminous with its faith. Always the believers found themselves in a world they had partly made and partly inherited from the classical past. Always they were challenged to adapt to what they believed to be the exigencies of a political and social world they respected too much to want to subordinate to a theocracy.

The story begins with the Greeks, who invented scientific speculation and the ideal of the city, in which “individual lives are no longer submerged in a vast sea of humanity . . . . Each person now has individuality and character.” To this-a point of capital importance-the Romans added their “invention of private law,” whereby they “invented the individual human person.”

The next stage, of course, is Christianity or, rather, the impact of biblical religion and spirituality on ancient culture, an impact that was crucial in transforming that culture into what we call medieval. Biblical religion introduced an ethical and an eschatological revolution, “cherishing the individual, morally responsible human being, by emphasizing human individuality as desired and created by God for all eternity.” But, Nemo adds, that ethical revolution “might never have bestowed such theological significance on the individual person had these beliefs not taken root in a society that had already granted importance to the human ego.” Without Christianity, there is no civilization of human rights, but without the Greek city, Greek science, and Roman law, there is no Christendom.

Nemo here uncovers a fundamental logic of western civilization. The West is a civilization of borrowings and mixtures, whose result, never fixed and never self-satisfied, is more than a mere function of those borrowings. The West, in fact, as Nemo’s colleague and friend Rmi Brague has written, is by definition a “secondary” culture, a culture of followers who know they are followers. Neither Greek political philosophy nor Christianity were western inventions, yet their confluence created the West.

Nemo is too good a scholar to point to any one encounter as the decisive one; all were necessary. He does, however, make a justified and welcome case that the so-called Papal Revolution of the late eleventh to thirteenth centuries was a time of remarkable and unusual ferment, and one on which modern democracy, science, and hope for progress directly rest. The Papal Revolution was, on the outside, the successful attempt to prevent temporal rulers from controlling church appointments and, as such, a struggle for libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church. As Nemo reminds us, on the outcome of that struggle rests the modern separation of church and state and hence, ultimately, democracy itself.

But even more important was the story of what the great thinkers, St. Anselm in particular, wrought. This was to rehabilitate, legitimate, and encourage human action in the world, including political action. By formulating the concepts of atonement and purgatory, Anselm made it possible, indeed necessary, to think that “human action in the world makes sense again, since all works, although finite, make their way into the reckoning. Even the most insignificant act can shift the balance from negative to positive. This insight and change of outlook eliminate in one fell swoop the profound superstition of the Middle Ages.” As a result, men came to hope and believe in the “process of developing every power and resource available to human nature and human reason in order to use them in the fulfillment of the ethical and eschatological ideals of the Bible.”

In recounting the Papal Revolution and its theological corollaries, Nemo is making yet another important point about the frame of mind and the reasoning of those who brought about the changes. Many fashionable thinkers are fond of saying that the medieval and modern West got all its valuable intellectual resources from the Greeks via the Arabs, who, unlike the benighted Catholic Europeans, had the wit to preserve Greek philosophy and medicine. Nemo does not deny that important wisdom came to Europe via the Arabs, but, as he says, that is “less significant than the spirit that charged these texts with meaning, then renewed them, to the extent of overseeing a new beginning for science in the world.” The spirit in which that wisdom was sought and used is the point, and this spirit was western, not Arab or even Greek.
Christianity in its Anselmian form sanctified human action and human reason. “From this moment on, civilization becomes a synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem . . . . Faith expresses itself through the flowering of human nature,” the insight immortalized by Dante in the greatest poem of the West, the Divine Comedy. Without this medieval breakthrough, modern science, modern secular reason, and modern political democracy were unthinkable. In Nemo’s reading, the Protestant Reformation, whatever its political and economic repercussions, merely developed a logic and an understanding of human action and reason already launched by Anselm.

Protestants might object to getting such short shrift, and, indeed, if Nemo’s essay has a weakness it is that he does not seem to know exactly what to make of the Reformers. Instead, Nemo moves quickly to his fifth “miracle,” the liberal and democratic reforms of the Enlightenment, especially its American and British versions, which resulted in the modern western world and “extended . . . the aim of the Papal Revolution, namely the improvement of the world through the application of science and law.”

Linking modern democracy so strongly to political and theological developments of the twelfth century is perhaps Nemo’s most daring argument. He disagrees not only with the secularists but also with most Christian and liberal progressives in tracing the most characteristically modern western manifestations to these medieval changes rather than to the usual sources given, the Renaissance or the radical Enlightenment.

Modern democracy began to take root when “social elites realized that a pluralist order in the realm of the constitution, as well as in intellectual and scientific pursuits, was useful.” Thus it is also not true, as many economic historians insist, that first came capitalism, then democracy. As another contemporary French scholar, Jean Baechler, has consistently asserted, freedom came first, then economic development, and Nemo shows why. For Baechler, the freedom was primarily political and consisted in the niches of liberty permitted by the competition of political forces in geopolitically fragmented Europe. Nemo shows that more important than these political niches was the intellectual breakthrough of the Papal Revolution, which approved the use of reason or, more precisely, distinguished the proper use of man’s God-given reason from the false.

Holding democracy to be a result of how Christianity evolved in the West, Nemo is equally firm in holding that modern totalitarianism was not the evil essence of the West. The West, in this semi-Marxist view, is characterized by power and exploitation, democracy being merely a sham. Totalitarianism was simply the West without the mask. Any decent political philosophy that rejects totalitarianism must, in this widespread interpretation, also reject much of the West. In both elite ideology and much popular common wisdom, modern totalitarianism and Christianity are lumped together as bad, authoritarian, inhuman ideologies of unnatural constraint that must be rejected, and, since they were western, the rejection takes the form of multiculturalism and liberal guilt.

The final stage of Nemo’s historical analysis is to ask whether western culture is universal now and, if so, what that means. “Does modernization require westernization?” asks the Indian-born economist Deepak Lal. Nemo remains agnostic but suggests that we need not wait for the final answer, if any, to the question of what the West is today and what it should do to survive. He proposes, therefore, a “western union” of the United States and such other states as can bring themselves to recognize a western identity consisting of the elements Nemo has described.

Unfortunately, such a western union, which Nemo conceives of as more a moral and intellectual force than a political alliance, has few chances as long as Europe is run by people who think Catholics are dangerous in power and as long as the United States still suffers under an elite that, even when it acknowledges religion, continues to follow a multiculturalist creed in which the only good values are universal ones and in which the ultimate sin is to think the West really has anything to offer.

A western union of a different sort may, however, be possible: a union of citizens who can see the justice and truth of Nemo’s account and who understand the West as he sketches it, not as the result of expropriations and imperialism, of barbarity and exploitation, but as the result of an evolving spirit characterized, in its productive and creative phases, by openness resting on a strong intrinsic faith. Had the West not first been Christian, it could never have become the modern dynamic West. Christianity, its formative element, needed the Anselmian revolution to become the kind of society-shaping religion needed for the borrowings to be attractive and for the borrowers to be able to use them and build on them.

Among Nemo’s many virtues is that he writes clearly and vividly. This is not a virtue of many of his compatriots but French philosophers and historians used to have a great tradition of forceful, clear writing, and Nemo is of that tradition. Another great value of his exposition is that he understands how the logic of human liberty is not just spiritual or just political but is spiritual, political, and economic at the same time. Nemo belongs to the deeper tradition that understands human action as a whole.

David Gress is the author of From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. He is currently based in Denmark, where he is cultural commentator for the daily Jyllands-Posten.