The two foundations of Western civilization

The argument is getting more heated. Which is more important in the founding of Western civilization; the Judeo-Christian tradition or the Greco-Roman tradition?

The majority of us who have met on Front Page Magazine are God-fearing. We understandably view a world that has removed the recognition of God as a world without a soul, a world capable of any evil. We have witnessed this in the twentieth century, and we see it today.

A minority of readers have no use, they think, for God. Mankind has no need for fairytales; all ethics can be derived through the use of reason alone; religion has crippled human progress; it is time for humanity to grow up. These individuals, I note ironically, argue their positions with the fervor of evangelists, quoting the hallowed Ayn Rand and her disciples.

These are polemical positions. Is there any evidence that Western civilization required both its traditional foundations to thrive? I would argue yes.

What did the Greco-Roman world give us? Not much but an inquiring mind, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, navigation, engineering, organization, civil law, a republic, and so on. This world also gave us infanticide and crucifixion. Is that a small price to pay for progress?

Working from home has given us more time for highbrow entertainment. I have become strongly focused recently on the great world epics: the Iliad and Odyssey; the Ramayana and Mahabharata (India); the Journey to the West (China); the Thousand and One Arabian Nights; and so on. Recently, we watched mini-series adaptations of the Odyssey, and the 1001 Nights.

The Odyssey gave us a glimpse into the mind of the Greco-Roman world, and any other polytheist or animist society. The Greek gods (paralleling the Roman and Norse gods) are a quarrelsome, fractious bunch. The best hope of humans is to play one off against the other, and hope they do not find you when they are in a bad mood. In such a chaotic intellectual environment, “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” were surprising achievements.

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian worldview is based on the recognition of one and only one God, Who created the world through His word. Although He is transcendent – “My ways are not your ways; your thoughts are not My thoughts” – His world is subject to one law; one law for nature and one law for man. With one exception: God gave an extra portion of law to Israel, over and above the universal Noahide laws for all mankind.

It would seem very easy for a monotheist society to become dogmatic and stagnant. The early Jewish and Christian societies showed little interest in science.

The results were interesting when the Greco-Roman world collided with the Judeo-Christian world some 2000 years ago. As detailed in the story of Chanukah, some Jews became enamored of the glories of Greek society. More fascinating to me is the gradually increasing interest shown by Roman citizens in both Judaism and Christianity. Clearly, the grandeur of their empire had little to offer spiritually.

Edward Gibbon famously blamed Christianity in part for the fall of the Roman Empire. Well, that, or maybe sexual perversity (against which Christianity would have fought), lead in the pipes of Rome corroding Roman brains and organs, open borders, and global cooling reducing crops.

The champions of objectivism in the Front Page Magazine comments section describe the Renaissance as the light of classical civilization bursting forth from the dogmatic Christian cage of the “Dark Ages”. Those same allegedly dark ages produced Muslim, Jewish (Maimonides), and Christian (Aquinas) philosophers who reconciled monotheism with Aristotle, as well as one of my favorite books: Duties of the Heart.

The Renaissance was the first step, but not the only step, in the birth of the modern world. The second step was the voyages of discovery. The third indispensable step was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, for all his flawed anti-Semitism, was the seminal figure in establishing the right of a man to think for himself – as part of his religious expression. It is hard to imagine the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo making much headway in Europe without the Reformation.

Sir Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest minds of human history, understood at a profound level the intertwining of scientific and theological thought. Two hundred years later, Laplace, in discussion with a much wiser Napoleon, casually dismissed the interconnection that Newton understood.

Napoleon was intellectually smarter than some people realize. He proved a very interesting theorem about elementary geometry, one that could be understood by any high school student, but was never proven or even known by even the ancient Greek geometers.

Laplace was explaining to Napoleon his nebular hypothesis for the formation of the solar system, a version of which is accepted by today’s astronomers. Napoleon was familiar with Newton’s attribution of every physical law to God. Napoleon asked Laplace where was God in Laplace’s theory. Laplace replied, “I do not need that hypothesis.”

However, even the agnostic Einstein could not avoid reference to the divine, as modern physics and astronomy have crawled to the very edge of reality, peered over the edge, and seen only the transcendent.

It is the creative tension between the Greco-Roman world and the Judeo-Christian world that has synthesized the greatest civilization in world history.

4 thoughts on “The two foundations of Western civilization

  1. LaPlace didn’t like “that hypothesis”.? That’s very interesting. Consider that today’s Left … and even some that are theoretically not on the Left like those who believe in Ayn Rand’s philosophy like it is a theology … consider theology to be merely another scientific theorem.

    You probably saw some of my exchanges with THX 1138 on Frontpage Magazine. To him (who closes almost every one of his posts with an Ayn Rand quote), Rand’s philosophy has the power and nature of a theology. Disagree with Ms.Rand at your own peril.

    This was the last post I made to Mr. THX, before Disqus lowered the “boom” on FPM:

    ‘ THX said: ‘You’re a modern, highly secularized, Christian without being aware of
    it. You have one foot in this world, you take this world as real, you
    take it seriously, but you also have a foot in your FAITH in a
    supernatural Kingdom of Christ. You’re not a fully serious Christian,
    fully dedicated and invested in the complete Christian Gospel and
    cosmology.’

    I REPLIED: ‘Please don’t tell me “what I am”. I know what I am. I am a man who could have made a fortune in the secular world … note that I’ve made a lot of money, anyway. Indeed, there was a time when I had the opportunity to have my name linked with operatic greats such as Caruso, Pavarotti, and Domingo. But I chose another path.

    Today, I make a modest income as a professor of philosophy and theology at a Southern Baptist university. Of all the things that I have done, in my life, this is the most satisfying. Of all the places I have gone, my two trips to Israel … walking in the footsteps of the Christ, Himself, in the land that God gave to the Jewish people … are the most memorable.

    So why don’t I argue the philosophy of Ayn Rand with you? In my experience, the followers of this woman cannot be debated with, in a reasonable and logical fashion. It is an exercise in utter futility.

    You make good points, sir, and you make very bad points. It is for you to go back over the philosophy that you have made your own, and discover what these errors are.'”

    Surak, I know this post didn’t fully address the issues you raise in your blogpost. However, the de-platforming of FPM left me rather barren of insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly, there is no discussion with the followers of objectivism. It truly is a religion in a sociological sense. I say this with deep appreciation of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. It is peculiar when objectivists quote their leader rather than speak in their own voice.

      You and I may speak frequently in Biblical trope, but not as a method of argumentation. If I say, “The writing is on the wall”, or “Biden has feet of clay”, you understand the meaning.

      I think Rand’s understanding of religion was shallow, for someone claiming to be a philosopher. Objectivism does not imply materialism. God is the most Objective entity possible – arguably the only objective entity.

      Liked by 1 person

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