Is the West Worth Saving?
“In the war against the West, there have been many periods when the odds were against the survival of our civilisation.”
Sometimes the struggle to defend Western civilisation can seem dispiriting, even pointless. In December 2014, the Turner Prize was awarded to a film, “It for Others”, by the Irish video-maker Duncan Campbell. The fact that this already discredited institution had plumbed new depths of mediocrity with Campbell’s sub-Marxist agitprop prompted several critics to wonder whether the Turner should be wound up, or become triennial rather than annual. But the question now being asked of the Turner applies to much of contemporary Western culture: will any of it last?
The artefacts, music and books that are approved by the cultural establishment will certainly not endure. Compare the tedium of the pygmies who invoke Turner’s name with a masterpiece by the man himself: Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino, sold by the Earl of Rosebery at Sotheby’s last month for £30 million, breaking the record not only for a Turner but for any British artist before 1900. A couple of years ago, to be sure, the art market valued Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud at three times as much, while Damien Hirst is estimated to have made more than £200 million. From Turner to the Turner Prize: what a falling-off was there. If this is what Western civilisation has come to, is it still worth saving?
The answer, perhaps, is that the greatest achievements of the West have often emerged from periods of chaos. Some 750 years ago, the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, later celebrated as “Doctor Mirabilis”, was commissioned by Pope Clement IV to offer him all the remedies that philosophy could provide for the dangers that threatened Christendom. What were those dangers? The Emperor Frederick II, who had dominated the Continent from Sicily to the Baltic, had died in 1250 and with him the dream of a united Europe, to be replaced by nascent nation states such as France and England. The Crusades had run into the sand, as the Mamluks — former slave warriors — reduced one stronghold after another and precipitated an early hostage crisis by capturing the French King, the later St Louis. Meanwhile, an even greater threat had arisen further East: the Mongols. Genghis Khan and his clan overran Asia and Russia, then surged into Europe and the Middle East. In 1258 they captured and depopulated Baghdad, then the largest city in the world — a defeat from which Islamic culture has never fully recovered.
Friar Roger learned a great deal about this from Franciscan missionaries such as William of Rubruck. Bacon’s vast oeuvre embraced geography, mathematics, optics and much more, but he is remembered above all for his advocacy of experimental science. Together with Robert Grosseteste, his patron, Bacon is the father of Anglo-Saxon empiricism and with only slight exaggeration has been called the first scientist. Yet the historian Amanda Power, who has recently reinterpreted his writings for Pope Clement, argues that they were written in the expectation of an impending apocalypse, with Bacon mobilising the intellectual resources at his disposal to deal with the onslaught of Antichrist. The Tartars and the Mamluks, Gog and Magog, were to be confronted with the scientific arsenal of Christendom. His experiments include the first Western description of gunpowder and his geographical calculations made possible the voyage of Christopher Columbus two centuries later.
I have in front of me a copy of Fr. Rogeri Bacon Opera Quaedam Hactenus Inedita, the first edition of his Opus Minor, Opus Tertium and Compendium Philosophiae, “published by the authority of Her Majesty’s Treasury, under the direction of the Master of the Rolls”, edited by J.S. Brewer, Professor at King’s College, London, in 1859. It is a magnificent volume, demonstrating Victorian England’s commitment to scholarship. The reason for that commitment, however, becomes clear when one recalls what else was happening as Friar Roger was writing these treatises for the Pope. In 1265 Simon de Montfort summoned his Great Parliament, the first to include representatives of every shire and borough in the land, elected by ordinary freeholders, not only knights. From the crisis of Christendom that gave birth to Bacon’s experimental and mathematical science, there also emerged parliamentary democracy. Victorians were well aware of the significance of this juxtaposition; that is why they were happy to pay for Bacon’s works to be edited.
What do we conclude from this? In the war against the West, there have been many periods when the odds were against the survival of our civilisation. These have almost always also been its most productive epochs. This year we shall celebrate Magna Carta, the prototype of the rule of law. It too was the child of strife, a period when royal authority had collapsed. The freedom of the press really dates from the Civil War of the 17th century. The slave trade was abolished by Parliament in 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. One could multiply such examples, but the general point is this: precisely when Western civilisation seems to be most threatened from within and without, it proves its resilience and its genius.
For this reason, among others, we should not despair of the artistic inanities of our time. Nor should we be discouraged by the political weakness and inertia we see all around us. The United States, whose retreat is chronicled by George Weigel in this issue, has a unique capacity for recovery. So too does Britain, despite all the self-inflicted damage diagnosed by Douglas Murray, Nick Cohen and others. Let the enemies of the West do their worst: one day soon, the lion will roar and the eagle will soar.