Introduction: Two Different Paths
1. The Jewish Legacy
2. Ancient Greek Society and Culture
4. The Formation of Christendom
5. Early Medieval Europe
6. Islam and the West
7. The Rise of Feudal Europe
8. The High Middle Ages
9. The Renaissance and Reformation
10. The Age of Exploration ... And Global Western Expansion
11. The "Modernizing" of the West
12. Nationalism and Imperialism
13. The West Bleeds
14. The Cold War ... And Europe's Humiliation
15. American Leadership Stumbles ... Then Revives
16. American Leadership Stumbles Again
17. The West and the World Today
The "self evident" order. Western culture is basically an optimistic culture. Things happen, things have the capacity to operate or perform, in a way that fits a particular and somewhat predictable pattern. This pattern can be studied and understood by the careful observer in such a way that events can not only be anticipated but even be directed or controlled by the educated individual (the philosopher or scientist). This cultural understanding or appreciation of "nature" seems totally self-evident to any Westerner.
But in fact it is not so self-evident to everyone. For instance, the basic orderliness of life is not so self-evident to many Hindus and Buddhists. For most Hindus, karma – not basic order – is at the heart of life. To the Hindu way of thinking, we do not inhabit a world which operates in an orderly fashion in accordance with some kind of benign transcendent will or all-encompassing set of natural laws. Rather, life is a complex array of individual lives that come together as a larger whole through the mysterious outworking of the consequences (karma) of personal deeds committed in our previous life times. We all as individuals live out our separate but interconnected lives in order to atone for the deeds of earlier life times. Until karma is fully satisfied, we as individuals are destined to go on living, dying and being reborn in an endless cycle, with no hope of escaping the iron grip of karma. To a Hindu, this is the ultimate reality of life – a reality before which all other judgments about life must bow.
For Buddhists, whose faith grew up within this basic Hindu world view, life is itself merely an illusion. When we try to make it real and work for us, life only produces suffering – life time after life time. Wisdom demands that we find release (nirvana) from this endless cycle. This is achieved only by becoming aware of the illusory quality of life – and stilling our passions for the life of illusions. When we achieve such emotional detachment then we have broken the hold of suffering and the eternal sentence of rebirths. We have achieved nirvana.
So, indeed, the Western sense of the basic order to life is a very special cultural achievement. It comes naturally to us only because it is all pervasive within our culture. It inhabits our thoughts about all matters. It drives us to try to solve life's problems – to look for solutions to everything, rather than to throw up our hands in resignation. It has made us "progressive" and ever-reforming. It has made us devoted; it has made us scientific. It has made us "Western."
The two opposing viewpoints. However behind this widespread acknowledgment within Western culture as to basic order underlying our universe there persists a long standing debate as to what the source of this orderliness might be. There are two distinct viewpoints as to the source of this orderliness – and thus two viewpoints on what our human response to this orderliness ought to be.
Mysticism. One viewpoint is that we live entirely under the rule of an all present, all powerful and all knowing Grand Consciousness, some kind of Eternal Force or Being, or just simply a "God" on whose plans and judgments all things on earth as well as in the heavens above depend for their orderly movement and on going existence. All life is thus seen as a vital flow of the power of God, a flow which holds all things together in a harmony of beauty and goodness. But most strangely, man is the only known creature in the program endowed with not only knowledge of this power but also a totally free will and thus the ability either to cooperate or not cooperate with this power.
The mystic tends to the understanding that man's natural or instinctive tendency however is to want to control rather than cooperate with the larger world. This creates huge problems for man. But under the guidance of society's elders, man has the ability to learn how to overcome this self-centered or sinful tendency and thus live to the larger good. But this requires the disciplining hand of an enlightened society guided by inspiring teachers, prophets or leaders who exemplify this life of harmony. In short, to the mystic the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks harmonization with life ... through the quest for full cooperation with God, with the physical world God has created and sustains ... and with fellow man.
Materialism. The other viewpoint looks in equally reverent awe at life as a perfect mechanical order of a universe of material things (including humans) functioning precisely according to natural design. Reality is simply the universe of "things" that our five human senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste) know through personal experience to truly exist. There is no other reality, especially a reality that exists nowhere in the physical world but merely in our imaginations, and in particular the imaginary world of God and God's heavenly kingdom. Physical reality and its truths can more than adequately be "proven" through mere observation and study. God cannot be proven in this manner. Indeed, the materialist is quite certain that God does not exist – except to weak minds that cling to the notion of God as some kind of false hope of escape from the hard realities of life.
The materialist believes that the realities of life are properly dealt with only by the careful study of the behavior of material things, the observance of their behavior until a natural pattern begins to reveal itself, and ultimately the drawing from such observations of certain conclusions as to the causes of their behavior, causes that can then be tested and verified experimentally. Employing such a mechanistic methodology, life and its causes can be brought step by step under the mastery of human knowledge or "science."
The materialist is well aware of the flaws surrounding human life but see this not as a problem inherent in human nature itself but in the structure of society, a flawed structure that has resulted from generations of unenlightened superstitions and inherited social bad habits. These flawed social influences can be reformed or cleansed from human life by enlightened social policy, policy conducted by social managers possessing the "scientific" knowledge of social dynamics. Thus life necessitates the scientific control and direction of society by such managers until society is fully reformed.
In short, to the materialist the goal of life tends to be one in which a person seeks dominance over life ... through the mechanical (scientific/legal) management or control of both man and his material environment.
The "Axial Age." This debate seems to have reached a point of clarity about 500 BC – some kind of key pivotal or "Axial Age" – on a number of fronts. Previous to that time, life was understood in polytheistic terms: life was primarily the result of a number of contending gods who laid claim to particular powers or particular areas of jurisdiction. These gods tended to be whimsical, violently passionate, and at times even lined up against each other in fierce competition. But life was also filled with heroes, men and women who faced the gods, faced overwhelming struggles – and yet survived, even rising victorious in the struggle. Life therefore was viewed as some kind of dynamic between the gods of heaven and the mortal heroes of the earth – a dynamic that ultimately did produce some kind of sense of order to life.
But it was at a strange point in history (500 BC) that a deep sense of a singularity about life and its driving force began to come into human understanding of our world and its ways. And it would most mysteriously impact not just one or two but instead many of the world's cultures in those days.
One of those social groups, that of the ancient Jews – the last surviving tribe of the original twelve Hebrew tribes – was particularly impacted by this discovery ... and would come to form one of the key branches in the Western culture's family tree. Prior to the Axial Age, the Jews as Hebrews or Israelites had already long understood life in terms of personal and collective righteousness which their God YHWH ("Yahweh" or "Jehovah"?) demanded of the Hebrews. They had their earlier Israelite heroes (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, etc.) and the stories or epics surrounding them set before them as examples they should follow. And they also had their YHWH-given system (by way of the prophet Moses) of very precise social laws to discipline them. And together – God, heroes and the Mosaic law – these produced a strong sense of order in Jewish life.
However, when the Jews were led off to captivity in Babylon in the early 500s BC, they had a serious question facing them. Who or what had failed them? Had their tribal protector YHWH failed them in competition with the Babylonian god Marduk? Was Marduk greater than YHWH? Or had YHWH simply abandoned them because they had failed miserably in maintaining the standards of righteousness required of them by YHWH (it had also been centuries since they had produced any heroes of significant stature to lead them in the paths of righteousness; prophets had also warned them that their lack of righteousness was going to draw Yahweh's wrath)? Or was it that YHWH was the God of all nations, that even the Babylonians were part of his ruling hand – and that God had sent the Babylonians to discipline the Jewish remnant of God's own covenant people Israel … as Isaiah had previous stated and as Jeremiah reiterated – much to the discomfort of the Jews?
In the end the Jews came to see the situation posed in the last-mentioned terms: YHWH was the only God, the Creator of the universe, the Judge of all. There was no Marduk. But there was plenty of Divine judgment to be faced. YHWH had used the Babylonians to punish the Jews for their failure to maintain righteousness. And with that, the Jews turned urgently to studying and practicing God's laws revealed to their people through previous heroes and prophets (again, most importantly Moses).
But they also laid in waiting for a new hero, a divinely-anointed Messiah, to come to them, one who as the heroes of old (particularly David, who had lived centuries earlier, in and around the year 1000 BC) would lead them personally to a greatness under YHWH – a greatness that would bring the world to worship God at Zion (Jerusalem). They would then be reconstituted as an entirely priestly people, serving the world as God's holy priesthood.
At about the same time (500 BC), a number of Greek philosophers were beginning to look past their own older vision of the universe – a world directed by gods and heroes – to consider a basic or "natural" order that seemed to underpin all things. As life settled down and prosperity increased, this natural "order" of things became more and more obvious – at least to some of the thinkers or "philosophers" of Greek Ionia. But as these philosophers contemplated this natural order, they arrived at two distinctly differing conclusions as to how this order worked. And this division of opinion on this matter helped produce in part the philosophical dualism that still exists within the West today.
One group – Thales, Anaxagoras and Democritus, and others – claimed that this order was inherent within all physical life itself. Creation was a complex system of various materials (such as earth, wind, fire and water) which interacted with each other in rather fixed ways to produce the world that we find around us. These "materialist-mechanists" were the ones who laid the foundations for the Secular viewpoint within Western civilization.
But another group – founded principally by Pythagoras (but promoted principally by Plato 150 years later) – asserted that the source of this order was to be found beyond the rather disorderly visible world itself: in some eternal, perfect, heavenly realm which inspires or directs the more unstable or imperfect visible world that we see around us. This higher world is the mainspring of the oneness, of the order, of all things.
Ultimately this kind of thinking helped pave the way for the spread of mystical theism (belief in a supreme deity or God) through Western civilization.
Perhaps these insights would have been lost in time ... except that a very young Greek-Macedonian, Alexander, managed to pull the foolishly divisive Greek city-states together for the task of finally ending the constant Persian threat coming from the East. In fact, Alexander took his Macedonian-Greek soldiers on a mission of conquest that reached Greek cultural power all the way into central Asia ... and left in the Eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Greece, by way of Mesopotamia, Syria and Asian Minor (modern Turkey) a Greek cultural dominance that would last for centuries. And this Greek legacy would certainly also impact deeply and permanently the world to the West in Central and Western Europe.
However, in another, less happy, way the Greeks, over time, also showed the way intellectually and temperamentally to a spiritual sickness which repeatedly afflicted Western societies (actually, which afflicts all societies at some point) jaded by too much wealth and power ... and too little moral restraint to use that wealth and power humanely. The Greeks in time too had a sense of failed righteousness – though they had no particular remedy to the situation ... except to become existentially cynical. At best this produced a movement called Stoicism – which belied Western optimism and took on qualities of Eastern quietism (such as Buddhism). But coupled with the Christianity which would come along later, this would hold Western culture together during some very long Dark Ages ahead of them.
The Romans, who took over the Western program from the Greeks about a century before Christ, were an odd combination of traditional polytheists and skilled materialists. Their minds did not fuss much with higher thought such as the Jews and Greeks engaged in. For the longest time the Romans were content to stay with the older gods and do their most inventive thinking in the material world around them. Here they proved themselves to be geniuses. They themselves produced a highly sophisticated secular social order: in their military, in their government, in their commerce, in their industry, in their public works. In short, the Romans themselves bore powerful witness to the materialist-mechanist or secularist point of view about life.
And they were lavish in the way they first employed that power, actually inviting peoples they had conquered to join them in their Roman expansion program ... offering even citizenship to such people – provided that they come under and defend Rome's carefully defined legal system that governed all Roman affairs.
But such success brought deep social changes in the economic structuring of Roman society ... so that some Romans grew increasingly wealthy – at a time that the population of the common working class expanded rapidly ... and became increasingly poor on a per capita basis. This invited efforts to "reform" Rome's fundamental constitution – the opening up of the constitution merely allowing the disputes among the contending social classes to deepen ... as each vied with the other to formulate the "correct" new social order. The situation got so bad that finally Roman generals (imperators) were called on to pacify a deeply divided Rome.
Tragically, from this point on, authoritarian military authority, not democratic citizen patriotism became the driving force holding Rome on course. Little by little Rome's "Republic," directed by its citizens, became Rome's "Empire," controlled by its dominating generals or imperators (from which "empire" derives its name) backed up by their loyal legions or troops. That worked fairly well for a while in bringing some degree of order to Roman life ... at least as long as these emperors were of strong personal character and morally self-disciplined.
Unfortunately, Rome would lose such disciplined leadership, as sleazier individuals were brought to power by their supporting military legions – or sometimes just by the assassination-prone Pretorian Guard (palace guard) that was supposed to be protecting these emperors. For Rome, by the 200s AD (after Christ) the turnover of emperors was horribly rapid (and disgusting to behold). Rome was in deep trouble.
Jesus of Nazareth - The Christ. As the Romans headed deeper into the age of Empire, taking on an increasingly Secularist or non-theistic, even amoral view of life in general, a rapidly growing group of "Christians" – as inheritors of the Jewish vision of life – headed off strongly in the theistic or mystical direction. Their view was that their leader or "savior," Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed the long awaited Jewish "Messiah" (Hebrew) or "Christ" (Greek) – though more along the lines of a prophet like Moses than of a soldier like David.
In his own life and death, Jesus opened the way to a life of glory for those who chose to go that way ... through a deep faith in the personal guidance and nurture of the one-and-only God, whom Jesus termed as Abba (Father) … as opposed to relying on their own human reason and in the workings of a materialist-mechanist or secular social system that human reason always seeks to build.
This put the early Christians at distinct odds with everything that the Roman Empire had come to stand for, especially at odds with the notion that the Empire – and its semi-divine emperors at its head – ought to be the object of veneration of every member of the Empire. Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the emperors, claiming that such a privilege belonged to God alone – and suffered harsh persecution for their stand.
This also put them at odds with their own Jewish community, not merely because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that most of the Jews had been led to expect, but because Jesus taught a Godly righteousness drawn not from the faithful observance of the Jewish law but instead a righteousness drawn from the heart, from personal compassion towards others, and from a total devotion to God as Abba (a term of great blasphemy to "proper" Jews … because it was actually a term of familiarity more on the order of "Daddy"!)
The synthesis: Imperial Christianity or "Christendom." During almost three centuries of persecuted existence, Christian "martyrs" (or "witnesses") revealed themselves to fellow Romans as possessors of an amazingly high moral character and personal bravery – long missing in Roman life. So impressive was their Christian faith that eventually (early 300s AD) this very Christian faith was taken up personally by the Roman rulers themselves. Within a few generations (certainly by the end of the 300s AD) it even became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
However, both the faith and the Empire were significantly changed in the process of Christianity becoming thus officially "Romanized." Christianity joined Roman law to become the moral-ethical underpinning of the Empire. Jesus Christ was moved up alongside the emperors in status … to become Christus Rex (Christ the King), friend and supporter of the emperors – and at this point a lofty figure quite removed from the common Christian. The latter now looked to the Virgin Mary and the saints for more intimate or personal spiritual support.
In turn, the Empire saw itself as defender of the Christian faith through a variety of formal offices – including the military. Out of this new amalgam arose the firmly-established Roman Catholic Church in the western half of the empire and the equally firmly-established Byzantine Orthodox Church in the eastern half of the empire.
In short, while the Roman Empire took on certain theistic dimensions, the Christian faith gave up some of its pure theism in favor of a stronger political and even somewhat Secular religious position.*
[*Footnote: "Secular religious position" may sound like a contradiction in terms, because in today's America, Secularism is treated as simply "scientific fact" ... meaning, built on "hard reality" - and not on mere "superstition" (as Secularists typically see those who look to an unseen God to direct life). Actually Secularism is no less a religion than any other "worldview" or system of social and personal belief that instructs people about the basics of life, about the forces that stand behind the very good – and the very bad – in life ... and thus about what the people must do to make their world a positive place for themselves. That's what all religions do, whether of the theistic (God-believing) or Secular (not-God-believing or atheistic) variety. Indeed, the origin of the word "religion" comes from the Latin "religio" which originally referred to the various moral responsibilities (including proper respect to or worship of the gods) which people had to take on in facing the many challenges and demands of life.
Unfortunately, America's Federal Courts have blinded themselves to this fact ... in order to promote atheistic Secularism as America's fundamental worldview or religion - in opposition to America's traditional reliance on Christianity as its fundamental worldview. This is a very critical social-cultural matter which, by the very clear directive of the Constitution's First Amendment, was supposed to have been left exclusively to the American people themselves to decide ... not one to be imposed on American society by a mere handful of Secular-minded – and thus supposedly more socially-scientifically "enlightened" – lawyers in black robes.]
But the synthesis of Roman Empire and Christian faith did not shore up the sagging Roman system, which finally crumbled – at least in the West – under the pressure of Germanic tribes who were pressing for resettlement within the Roman lands. Though the tribesmen only wanted to possess the Roman order, not destroy it, their tribal touch only collapsed what little was left of the old imperial system.
However, two developments within Christianity helped keep the Christian faith intact in the West, even as the Empire collapsed there. One of these was the belated conversion of the Irish to Christianity, complements of the British missionary Patrick (mid-400s). These Irish converts in turn infused the faith with new vigor and sent missionaries (500s and 600s) from the outer island of Ireland into the midst of the Germanic settlements, both in England and on the Western European continent. Their brand of faith was of the very theistic variety: personal and Christ-centered.
The other development as Rome was collapsing was the influx into the ranks of the church of good Roman patrician blood, which gave the Catholic church sufficient political expertise to thus be able to stave off the Roman collapse, at least with respect to the Roman church itself. Notable were the Roman popes Leo (mid-400s) and Gregory (late 500s) – who rebuilt the powers of the religious hierarchy centered on Rome. From Rome then went forth Catholic missionaries, drawing the Germanic tribes into the last standing institution of the old Roman imperium: the Roman Catholic Church. The Franks (France), under Clovis (late 400s), adapted in whole the Roman version of the faith. Saxon England, facing two versions of Christianity, finally (mid-600s) decided to follow the Roman rather than the Irish variety. Thus a tendency of Christianity toward political or secular order rather than a personally theistic spirit won out in the end. But even then it was a feeble version – invested with huge doses of pagan superstition and subject to the political whims of the Germanic rulers.
In its weakened political condition Western Europe in the 700s found itself vulnerable to new intruders: the Muslims who had also just overrun most of the Roman Empire in the East (although in a way the Muslims revitalized – even as they transformed – the Eastern Empire into a quite prosperous Muslim order, rather than collapse those lands into poverty as the Germans had done in the West).
But very significantly, the Franks under Charles Martel not only turned back this Muslim tide when it tried to enter deeply into Western Christian territory, but his grandson, Charlemagne, even began the consolidation of Christian Western Europe under his personal rule through what is today France, Germany and Italy (Spain, however, was lost to Muslim domination for centuries).
Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome in 800, and one might have believed that somehow the ancient Roman Christian Empire had come back to life in the West. But it was Germanic and not Roman ways that directed Charlemagne's Empire – and in accordance with Germanic custom, Charlemagne's lands were divided equally among his grandsons – and the impetus toward reorganization was lost.
Soon the Vikings or "Northmen" were taking up from the Germans in assaulting Western and Northern Europe – except that their hand was even more violent. This spun these regions of Europe back into two more centuries of "Dark Ages." But here and there, these Northmen (or Normans) settled into conquered Europe and were eventually drawn into the Christian order – giving it new blood, of the military variety. By 1100 their military talents were being put to use in a counter assault against Islam, carrying Christian "crusaders" all the way to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. This marks the beginning of the period of revival of Western culture, one which has continued down to the present day.
Growing East West contacts. Though in the end the crusades proved to be a military failure (the Muslims pushed the Crusaders back out of the East during the 1200s), the Muslims indicated a willingness to replace Western efforts at conquest of the Muslim East with Western efforts at trade instead – and pilgrimage – as long as the Western Christians were willing to behave themselves! So a new relationship was established between the Christian West and the Muslim East, one which proved to be a major benefit to the West.
The Muslim East had carefully preserved the ancient writings of the Greeks that the Western Christians had previously destroyed because they were pre Christian and thus "pagan." Aristotle and Plato had been known to the West; but now also other ancient Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists came to light – as well as the Muslims' own contribution to learning (such as their Arabic numerals and their advanced methods of mathematical calculation known as al-jabr or algebra.)
The High Middle Ages. A period of peace began to settle in within the West itself during this time – which allowed the West to come into its own revival in Christian learning. Actually, this had begun even as early as the late 1000s but reached a highly sophisticated level of during the 1200s. This new learning produced on the one hand a rich spirituality or "Mysticism" (led in part by the Franciscans) and on the other hand a deep revival of intellectual order known as "Scholasticism" (led in part by the Dominicans). The first of these emphasized a deep personal relationship with a loving God (theism) and the other tended to emphasize the benefits of a close examination of God's created order (the secularist instinct). The old dualism thus showed its on-going hold on the Western mind even after centuries of dormancy.
By the 1300s this stirring intellectual curiosity had begun to shift its total focus away from God and was casting it more and more on human life – even just ordinary human life. So also was a deepening interest in the cultural offerings of the pre-Christian pagan Roman past. Things Roman (and not just Roman Christian) and Greek were beginning to fascinate the West – particularly the Roman and Greek achievements in art, architecture and literature (both poetry and prose). Secular humanism was stirring.
The Renaissance. In the West, attitudes of the Christian church toward these new secularist developments were actually favorable, with the church even being a major patron of this revived spirit of secular humanism (even elements of paganism).
Also … the Western church had never been averse to holding political power – and soon it began to demonstrate that it was not averse to holding big portions of economic power or wealth either. By the 1400s popes and bishops vied with newly rising industrialists, merchants, bankers – plus a new breed of national princes and kings – in gathering up the fruits of a fast unfolding secular order of power, wealth, art – and moral abandon.
The Protestant Reformation. But the awakening spirit of the Renaissance also stirred the hearts of some serious Christian reformers who realized how far the Christian community had wandered from the original Christian foundations laid out by Christ and the early Church 1500 years earlier … and protested loudly (thus "Protestants") in their demand for deep religious – and consequently political – reform (thus a true "Reformation") to take place within the Christian community.
An early leader in the Protestant Reformation was the German monk Luther … who was able to escape the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church and its powerful Spanish protector, Charles Habsburg … because Luther gained the protection of some German feudal lords who had their own political motives in supporting Luther. Thus Luther would go no further than theological reform in his protest … standing with these rulers in opposing any political reforms which might have undercut the feudal system protecting Luther.
Another theistic social group, which followed the lead of the Swiss reformer, John Calvin (mid-1500s), found its political-social roots in Northern Europe's fast rising urban society (urban Italy stayed strongly within the traditional Catholic political camp). These Calvinist reformers had no interest in supporting the old rural feudal order, instead seeing themselves as better able than the rural feudal order to realize the ideal community life of early Christianity. These Calvinists, though mystically pious in their theistic affections for God, happened also to command considerable intellectual and material or secular resources, resources which allowed them to fend off the efforts of the feudal Catholic Church to bring them back under the Roman order – as the Roman Church looked to the fast rising princes of Spain, France, England, etc., to defend its political-social position in the heart of European culture.
But those rising monarchs, for political reasons of their own, would soon choose sides in this new political-religious battle ... some supporting the Catholic Church, some supporting of the Protestant Reform effort. The situation soon turned very ugly. By the early 1600s, continental Europe found itself completely absorbed in an ongoing and very bitter "religious" war on a number of fronts – as all of these old and new forces vied for mastery of the European culture and soul.
The discovery of the enormous wealth that could be acquired simply through trade with the outlying world was a big part of the dynamic producing the European Renaissance. Thus there was a huge scramble of the various European powers to acquire that wealth.
From their position on the Atlantic coastline, the Portuguese had step by step discovered by the end of the 1400s a direct route South around Africa to the wealth of the East – all the way to India. Not to be outdone by their Portuguese neighbors, the Spanish monarchs sought that same wealth at the same time by instead heading West across the Atlantic … under the assumption that this would also bring them to the wealth of the East. But instead the Spanish discovered a huge continent lying in the way, one full of "Indian"* gold – which the Spanish greedily plundered, destroying American-Indian civilization … and making the Spanish very rich and politically powerful in the process.
[*Footnote: The inhabitants of this land would be termed "Indians" because the inhabitants of this new land were darker skinned, the way Indians were reputed to be, confirming in the mind of Spain's explorer Columbus that he had reached India. The name would stick even though it was soon discovered that this was not India but instead a new continent.]
Indeed, during the 1500s, Spain pretty much dominated European affairs.
At the same time, Portugal and Spain – soon joined by the French, English and Dutch – took an interest in actually developing trading communities, even colonies in the larger world that had just come under discovery. For Spain and Portugal, their role in the New World would remain largely administrative, placing over the conquered Indian population Spanish political, social, cultural and religious rule … with only a minimum amount of racial intermix (most Portuguese and Spanish lords chose to enjoy their wealth back at home in Europe).
Thus with the increasing importance of the religious wars shaking Europe during the 1600s, religious ambitions accompanied Europe's continuing quest for commercial wealth … in the way the later entrants into the exploration game – the French, English and Dutch – went at their global expansion.
For the French, the planting of their French language and Catholic culture became key objectives in their exploration of the New World (principally Canada and the Mississippi River Basin).
For the Dutch, commercial interests in the New World (the Middle States of the North American Atlantic coastline) were actually accompanied by a wide religious tolerance, as the Dutch tried to keep the bitter religious contention out of their American "New Netherland" settlement.
For the English, their first venture in "Virginia" (1607) was entirely commercial … as England itself was trying to stay entirely out of the religious wars shaking the European continent. But Protestant religious refugees from an increasingly religiously-stressed England would soon (1620s and 1630s) join England's settlement efforts in the New World … when a large group of English Protestants, termed "Puritans," planted a deeply Calvinist-inspired Christian Reform community in "New England," just north of the Dutch settlement.
But these two differing English motivations would present some serious social-moral problems for England's New World colonies – urban (and rather "democratic") religious purists to the North … and transplanted feudal aristocrats (and their vast fields worked by an equally vast number of dependent, even enslaved, workers) to the South. This cultural-moral distinction would eventually (the mid-1800s) bring this transplanted English-speaking community to a brutal Civil War.
Meanwhile, by the late-1700s, England, now termed "Britain", was seemingly outpacing its European commercial rivals in the way it was putting itself in domination of the political-social structure of the vast sub-continent of India … an operation conducted by its commercial agent, the British East India Company, which entered into a vast number of commercial treaties with the local princes or rajas supposedly governing India – also offering British "protection" of those rajas in the process. At the same time, the Company worked hard to keep its French and Dutch rivals out of what it increasingly saw as its own Indian domain. Thus the roots of the soon-great British Empire were being laid out.
The path to the European Enlightenment. Meanwhile, back in Europe itself, by the late 1600s two things were happening which would shift European culture strongly away from the religious agenda of the Reformation: the first was the sheer exhaustion of Westerners from all the warring over the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants – over the issue of which religious group held the Truth. The feeling began to grow up among Westerners that the Truth would never be found through such bloodshed. Toleration of differing religious opinions seemed to be more high-minded than all this sectarian squabbling.
The second thing was the rapid expansion of science (termed at the time "natural philosophy") and its seeming ability to explain all manner of natural events, whether in physics, chemistry or human anatomy.
Science had already in the 1500s started to challenge traditional theism in the West over the issue of whether the earth was or was not the center of the universe. All theological tradition said that it had to be – for Scripture clearly places the earth as the center point of God's creation. But astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler offered powerful mathematic theories that undermined the church's traditional position.
As the 1600s progressed, natural philosophers such as Descartes, Newton and Locke began to speculate and design theories about a physical reality which seemed to function quite apart from the issue of God. This new science began to put the pieces together of a great mathematical puzzle which needed no particular involvement of God to make it all work. At best God could be congratulated for having set the whole mechanism in motion – long, long ago. But now that it was up and running, it no longer gave evidence of further involvement of God in the process. The universe seemed to run simply under its own fixed or eternal physical or "natural" laws.
By the early 1700s, secularism seemed to be elbowing theism aside in the West. Those who continued to hold theistic views of the universe were looked upon by the newly "enlightened" thinkers of the day as being either deeply self-deluded or just simple minded. Universities once given to preparing ministers for their pastoral calls were now shifting the focus of their studies to the exploration of the secular world and the truths of "natural philosophy" (modern science) which undergirded a growing sense of a natural or secular order standing behind everything.
At the same time, the ultimate victory for secularism over theism began to register itself in terms of a shift in the sense of the nature and purpose of Western societies and governments. Whereas the old Catholic feudal order and the newer Protestant commonwealths had justified their existence in terms of God's own will and pleasure, by the late 1700s political communities were being refashioned around purely secular principles in which man – not God – was the justifier of the enterprise. Communities were being actively rebuilt or founded according to "rational" principles of governance – principles designed to enhance human stature, not the stature of God (notice that the American Constitution, written in 1787, does not contain a single reference to God in any manner whatsoever).
The Protestant "Great Awakening." But theism was by no means dead. Protestant pietism on the European continent and a spirit of Protestant revivalism in England and America (known in America as the "Great Awakening") stirred the theistic passions of many Westerners just prior to the mid-1700s. Though within a generation this passion had once again subsided, it left in its wake nonetheless a strengthened church and a resolve among Christians not to let the fires of their faith flicker out.
Unitarianism/Deism. Not all Protestant Christians had approved of these emotional outpourings – especially those of a more "reasoned" Christian faith. Unitarianism and Deism stood halfway between pure secularism and theism – acknowledging God as the source of the blessings of creation and Jesus as the master moral teacher of mankind. But this viewpoint also tended to see Christianity as a moral responsibility rather than as a personal spiritual passion. It dismissed much of the fervency of those swept up by revivalism and looked with disbelief and disdain on all the tales of miraculous events as key to the faith – either at that particular time or even previously, in Biblical times. Unitarianism and Deism ultimately believed in a practical reality facing the Christian which was best approached through reason and science. It was well on its way toward secularism.
The French Revolution. In Catholic France – and then elsewhere on the European Continent – the French Revolution which broke out in the late-1700s took a more militant attitude toward theistic Christianity, blaming such "superstition" for having undergirded centuries of political tyranny in Europe. French militants spread the accusation that Christian piety had dulled the spirits of the people in the face of feudal tyranny, by keeping them willingly submitted before traditional political authority because of the belief that this Old Regime had been ordained by God. Christianity was also accused of weakening the people's resolve to improve their lot in this life through political revolution and the rule of human reason by deflecting their hope instead toward a heavenly afterlife – something Enlightenment philosophers viewed as dangerously superstitious escapism.
Reaction. Ultimately such French secularism destroyed its own moral credentials through the blood bath produced by the Paris guillotine – as French intellectuals, after having slaughtered the former ruling class, turned on each other (the early 1790s) in their quest to "rebuild" France around amore "rational" order ... an order they seemed to be unable to agree on. Indeed, their use of "reason" merely deepened their mutual opposition. Soon they actually took to slaughtering each other (the mid-1790s). This was a very ugly display of intellectual arrogance … and social blindness.
Then, the cultural imperialism undertaken in the early 1800s by France's new dictator, Napoleon – undertaken in order to refocus French militancy away from France itself and outward, toward France's neighbors – ultimately stirred up anti French nationalism around Europe. Indeed, the French dynamic was helping the common people of Europe discover the vital importance of their own linguistic or national heritage … the Germans, the Italians, the Poles – indeed, virtually every distinct linguistic community. Nationalism was quickly replacing the idea of a "catholic" or universal order underpinning Europe.
This reaction to French intellectual or secular-rational haughtiness in fact also induced many Europeans to cling even more closely to their traditional Christian faith (though not necessarily its traditional Christian political order). Thus, after the defeat of the French in 1815, Europe returned to the emotional security offered by the older theistic views on life. This coincided in America with wave after wave of yet another round of religious revivals (including the birthing of Mormonism) that swept across the country in the early 1800s. And the Rome-based Catholic Church would attempt to discipline itself according to stricter moral-theological standards.
The industrial revolution. But "rational" Secularism was soon rescued by the ongoing industrial revolution – a revolution which, in its rapid development during the course of the 1800s, produced unprecedented wealth, not just for its industrial owners, but even eventually for the humbler classes. And it did so without the apparent aid of God. Human reason and human effort again seemed to be the necessary force behind this wondrous material development in the West.
But unlike the French Revolution, it generally (Marxism excepted) found no cause against Christianity. The newly emerging industrial culture paid lip service to theistic Christianity – while in fact putting its greatest energies behind secular development.
Darwinism and Marxism. Such "progress" could at times appear to be quite brutal … as a Darwinist spirit gave moral justification for the way the industrial revolution seemed to play only to the material and social benefit of the rising industrial-financial class … at a deep financial and emotional cost to the newly expanding industrial working class. But according to such Darwinist logic, it was through just such empowering of the strong and dismissing of the weak that progress was ever achieved. And it all seemed morally justified in the way Darwin himself "demonstrated" through his own research how life on this planet evolved from the simplest of forms to the intricate complexities of today highly developed world, through an amoral process of "survival of the fittest" (actually, Spencer's, not Darwin's, words).
But Marx himself would turn this Darwinist dynamic into a countering philosophy, in which industrial progress would itself inevitably lead historically to full control by the now-exploited industrial working class – or the "proletariat" as Marx liked to term this group. It would do so by the sheer mechanics of competitive industrial "capitalists" (as Marx also termed the industrial leaders) competing against each other Darwinist-style for industrial dominance, driving each other out of business in order to establish their own monopoly over this or that industrial operation … until the actual number of members the capitalist class would come to be so low that the expanding proletarian class would simply outweigh and consequently find themselves naturally able to throw off capitalist dominance. Thus by a Darwinian historical process, a "workers' democracy" would quite naturally come into being … as the last stage of human history.
And God would play no role in the process, for either the Darwinists or the Marxists. True human progress would happen naturally, according to the "scientific" principles discovered by both philosophers.
In fact, Marx could be very dismissive of traditional Christian theism, calling such theism and its belief in a heavenly afterlife, one awaiting the weak and downtrodden, as the "opium of the masses" … religious garbage dished out to the impoverished masses to keep them dumbed down and submissive. True progressivism must eliminate totally such dangerous theism.
Nationalism. But this competitive or Darwinist ethic not only set the European "property-owning class" against the European "working class," it also set European nation against European nation.
Actually it was not Darwinism that first put the moral foundations in place for very competitive nationalism. The spirit of nationalism was hardly new – for it dates back to ancient tribalism when societies were very protective of their particular genealogical and ethnic communities. But the German philosopher Hegel would bring a national spirit now stirring Europe into full philosophical view and justification. In the early 1800s he laid out clearly the workings of a social dynamic driving history progressively, one that worked along lines that Darwinism would soon take up: historical progress by a self-aware group rising to defend itself against a prevailing social order in which that newly-aware group was finding it hard to survive. This oppressed group would collectively take up a spirit of struggle – aided greatly by a divine Weltgeist (World-Spirit) – and throw off the prevailing social yoke in order to take its own place at the head of history ... at least for the duration of the next historical cycle.
The Germans of his day took such Hegelian thought as the very call to arms that they needed as a people to finally find their own "German" place in the sun. Soon other groups found themselves taking up the same militant Hegelian logic on behalf of their own rising national spirit.
Of course Darwinism only gave further "scientific" validity for the rising spirit of militant nationalism that was sweeping the continent. It supported strongly an ever-growing instinct or spirit of each European nation to prove itself historically superior to its neighbors.
For France and England, this competition already had a long history. But it most conveniently served in the 1800s both to soften the class lines within the French and English nations as it also hardened the diplomatic lines of one nation against the other.
This would come to anger Marx deeply because he hated the way the nationalist spirit was used to soften the industrial class lines, ones that he was expecting to lead the world to its final historical stage.
This nationalist urge also drove the Germans and Italians – who had long been divided internally into a number of fiercely competitive smaller states – to create the new nation states of Italy (1860) and Germany (1870). It also stirred ethnic minorities within the remaining European multi-national empires to demand the same national independence.
Thus the spirit of nationalism was allowed, and even encouraged – through the creation of a highly Romanticized national history, poetry, operas, anthems, etc. – as a means of preserving social harmony within Europe's increasingly self-aware national units.
And so it was that the nation and its quest for glory finally came to command the full, overriding loyalty of its members – even to the extent of a call to die gallantly in war for the nation's rightful place in the sun. The nation became celebrated as the supreme instrument of God's will on earth – as well as the ultimate source of all material well-being, justice, and right-mindedness here on earth. Indeed, Westerners were creating a new god of sorts: their beloved nation – whether England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, America or elsewhere.
Imperialism. For the duration of the 1800s, this hotly competitive national spirit flung itself outward into the larger world – uniting imperial armies, industrialists and traders, and Christian missionaries in the effort to extend the influence of their sending nations among the pagans and heathens of the world. The West was on the move, impelled by zealous forces which seemed to have no limit to their ambitions for mastery or dominance in the world.
The British pushed for global commercialism, headquartered in London. The French pushed for a global French language and culture, headquartered in Paris. The Americans pushed for constitutional democracy and commercialism abroad, sponsored and "protected" by America itself. The Germans and Italians, coming lately to the game, struggled to find imperial colonies for themselves to govern in a demonstration of Germanic or Italian greatness. And the Russians and Austro-Hungarians looked to grab pieces of their Muslim neighbor, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in their own program of imperial expansion.
Tragically (but perhaps mercifully for the non-European societies), by the end of the century they had run out of overseas territories to grab in this Darwinian contest. But given the fact that this in no ways diminished the nationalist spirit running hot through Western society, it was inevitable that these different sending forces would ultimately clash with each other – right at home in Europe itself – in a most ferocious sort of way.
The "Great War" (World War One: 1914-1918). It took only the single incident of a Serbian nationalist assassinating a visiting heir to the Austrian throne to get much of Europe to come out fighting (the Spanish and Dutch stayed out as did also Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries). No one had actually thought about how this was all supposed to end, because none of the nations involved in the action (Britain, France, Russia and little Serbia, joined eventually by Italy – in opposition to Germany and Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) planned to quit. Thus the slaughter of millions of young European males resulted … with no good result or even end in sight. The killing simply continued … draining the strength and morale of the participating nations greatly.
This would be a loss that Europe would never recover from fully or even significantly. It was all politically very suicidal. But these nations would not stop themselves.
Finally Russia collapsed … tipping the decision of a reluctant America to finally get involved. With the collapse of the "autocratic" Russian government in early 1917, Wilson (as all secularists seem to do) supposed that the inevitable result would be the natural "democratization" of Russian society … turning the European dynamic (in Wilson's eyes) now into a great moral battle between "democracy" (represented by Britain, France – and now, at least potentially so, by newly "democratic" Russia) against "autocracy" (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey). The fact that Germany was no more autocratic than Britain (both had monarchies ... and both also had popularly-elected parliaments) seemed not to have factored into this piece of Wilsonian ideology. And the fact that "the Russian people were always at heart a democratic people" was sheer Wilsonian fantasy. But it worked well enough for Wilson now to bring America into the war … into the pointless slaughter.
America's participation put needed strength into the British and French side of the war* and helped bring a desperate German society to collapse … thus mercifully ending the pointless slaughter.
[*The Russians, soon under Lenin's Communist government had simply withdrawn from the war … to fight an even more ferocious civil war now going on among the Russian people themselves.]
How surprised then Wilson became when he found the "victorious" British and French in a deeply vengeful mood against a collapsed and defenseless Germany (and Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey) and most unwilling to support what Wilson hoped would be a fair "peace." Instead, all that Europe got from the catastrophe was a vengeful Germany, a Communist (not "democratic") Russia, a weakened Austria-Hungary and Turkey (both carved up into a number of small and relatively defenseless national units), a domineering Britain and France (who expanded the size of their empires because of the way the "peace" worked out for them) … and a cynical America determined to never get involved again in the dangerous follies of the "Old World" (Europe). America even failed to join the new League of Nations, a global diplomatic body that Wilson had hoped would bring some degree of democratic "reason" to the mess created by the war and right the wrongs of the post-war "peace." Wilson himself then spent the last two years of his presidency in office as a very broken man.
Recovery. Europe was no less cynical than America in the post-war period. And the post-war politicians of Europe were well aware of the fact … making for quite weak political leadership.
This enabled Mussolini in the early 1920s to easily convince the Italian King to appoint him as Italy's political leader – and from there to try to put forward a new nationalist or "Fascist" dream to lure the Italian people back to action … in which he was only partially successful. Mussolini's troops consequently would take over the last African free society, Ethiopia, in an effort to recast Italy as a revived Roman Imperium. The Italians were not terribly impressed. But the battle weary "world powers" (who were they really at this point?) did little to counter Mussolini.
Mostly, like America, Westerners simply lost themselves in the rising world of consumerism, from radios to automobiles, and into the seemingly happy world of the latest fashions, hairstyles, dance moves, and heavy drinking. While all that covered over the general sense at that time of the meaninglessness of life, it did not go deeply into that life … especially with the younger "Lost Generation." The "Roaring Twenties" was actually a very shallow period.
European Christianity did not fare well either … with churches empty except for weddings, funerals and key celebrations.*
[*Footnote: Tragically, European Christianity had identified itself closely with the nationalist impulse in country after country during the war (for instance, the "Gott mit uns" or German "God with us" phrase having been played constantly before the German population during the war) … and thus Christianity would experience the same post-war disillusionment among the people that nationalism itself experienced.]
And even the Christianity that survived the war seemed to exist mostly as just social ritual … and not as a deep part of the spirit of the times (whatever that spirit happened to be).
Indeed, very popular at the time was the psychologist Freud, who mocked all religion as mere neurotic fantasy held by people unable to cope with reality. But atheistic Secularists were not doing much to help the world cope with that reality either.
There was some interest in global spiritualism – sort of a synthesis of mostly Eastern religions mixed in with some Christian attitudes. But this did not reach widely into Western society either. In short, the West was having a very difficult time spiritually coming out of the nightmare of the Great War.
Then at the end of the 1920s the Great Depression hit, first in America and then, by economic extension, the deeply American-dependent economies of Europe … especially Germany, completely mortgaged to America in order to be able to pay off very unfair war-compensation it supposedly owed to France. Thus the economic lights went out across the entire West.
And into the darkness of those early 1930s stepped Hitler, who took Mussolini's Fascist style even further, flattering his German people with ideological garbage about what a powerful people they were, a superior race designed to rule the world. He also promised them that he was personally, as their Führer (Leader), going to lead the Germans in building a grand German Empire (the Third Reich), one that would last a thousand years (it lasted only a dozen!).
Elsewhere in the world, the once Europe-dependent societies, such as India and China, were struggling in the face of an obvious weakening of the European hand to find their own way to national glory. Most notably in those troubled 1930s, Gandhi in India and Chiang in China were doing what they could to free themselves from Western dependency … in Gandhi's case even Western culture itself. However, China had already freed itself from the unofficial grip of the greatly distracted Western powers during the Great War … but was at this point still struggling simply to put in operation politically and economically its own successful Republic. And the global economic crash did not help matters much. Meanwhile Gandhi kept himself busy organizing Indian protests designed to get the wearied British to "quit India."
And then there was Japan, not sure exactly how it wanted to move into the future … whether as a proto-Western democratic republic or as some kind of Japanese version of the German and Italian Fascist model glorifying the greatness of some mythical path and gearing the people up for a grand war that would restore that greatness to Japan … and build a Japanese Empire reaching across the whole of East (and possibly Central) Asia.
In the face of such Fascist aggression, the response of the "democratic" West was very, very weak … merely encouraging the boldness of these fast-rising Fascist powers. The war-weary French were unable to get their political act together, so deeply divided among themselves over whether Germany was a friend or enemy in the face of a rising Communist Russia or whether Russia, though Communist, was the best bet as an ally in checking growing German power. The French could never come to a decision on that matter. And the British were led by politicians deeply committed to the idea of "peace at any cost" … failing to understand that offering pacifism ("appeasement" was the term actually used at the time) in the face of a rising bully in the neighborhood (Hitler) was not likely to have any effect on the bully except to encourage it in its bullying ways.
And Russia's ruthless and highly paranoid dictator, Stalin, interpreted British and French appeasement of Germany as actually Britain and France's way of turning an ambitious Hitler in Russia's direction. Therefore, Stalin decided to reverse the program and engage in a peace agreement with Hitler, one that would clear the way for Hitler's ambitions to head in a Westerly direction – against France and Britain. And Hitler was more than happy to accept the deal. A week later, World War Two got underway.
World War Two (1939-1945). Poland was quickly split up between Germany and Russia, Italy (and eventually Japan) joined the battle on the Fascist side, France – not able to act quickly in the face of German Blitzkrieg (lightning war) – was quickly overrun … and Britain found itself under constant aerial bombardment for what was presumably the prelude to a German military invasion of the British Isles. Meanwhile, a stunned America stood by and watched … attempting to stay out of this new European political game.
But under Churchill, Britain would not cave in to German intimidation … and Hitler realized that he was most unready to truly follow through with an invasion of England. So foolishly, not wanting to appear to have lost a political round in the game, Hitler decided to break his treaty with Stalin, and invade Russia instead … expecting this to be an easy match – one that would also gain Germany some much-needed material resources (oil for instance) in the process.
At the same time the Japanese supposed that an equally weak "democratic" America could be brought to submission (they were furious about America's refusal to sell Japan any more strategic materials, especially the oil and scrap iron needed by Japan in order to continue its imperial game, in China and elsewhere). Thus the Japanese attacked and largely destroyed the American fleet anchored in Hawaii ... in order to cut off the American path to Asia – a continent that Japan now intended to bring under full Japanese control – especially its all-important material resources. Thus America found itself at war – at least with just Japan … until foolishly a few days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hitler decided that it would be a glorious thing to bring America into the war as a German as well as Japanese enemy.
However, America surprised both Germany and Japan with its ability to build unimaginable magnitudes of war goods in America's vast industrial network – and use these goods skillfully against its Japanese and German enemies. Also, Russia proved to be an unmovable military obstacle for the Germans at the city of Stalingrad. And Britain proved that it still had a lot of fight left in it. Mussolini's Italy soon dropped out of the war, Germany was overrun from the West by the British and Americans and from the East by the Russians … and Japan finally called it quits when not one but two horrible nuclear bombs were dropped on its cities by American bombers. By September of 1945 the war was over.
Recovery – Round Two. But Europe at this point found itself in a state of complete ruin (Spain, Switzerland and Sweden excepted, as they had stayed "neutral" during the war). It was not only that once again Europe had lost multitudes of young men, but that Europe's cities were in ruin, its factories were demolished, inexperienced politicians were called on to take command (the British had replaced Churchill with the Labourite or Socialist Atlee even before the final victory), and the whole Eastern half of Europe was under occupation by Russia's Red Army … an army which seemed determined to place itself in a position so as to be able to direct and control the post-war political development of that half of Europe. At the same time, the Americans seemed just as determined to "go home" to America immediately … leaving the post-war power structure of a greatly weakened Western Europe in deep question. Indeed, it looked even as if the huge Communist Parties of France and Italy, obviously taking orders from Stalin, were planning to start up enough mischief to possibly bring their countries under the same Stalinist dominion that had overtaken Eastern Europe.
Truman. Thankfully, the shocking death of American President Roosevelt during the last year of the war had brought forth Vice President Truman to presidential office. Outwardly Truman looked most unexceptional ... just another "Middle American." True, he was himself very conscious and very supportive of Middle American culture. But Truman was also an individual with amazingly high political instincts … and recognized immediately the challenge that Stalin now posed to the Western World.*
[*Footnote: Roosevelt had tragically been taken in by Stalin's "friendliness" … thus finding himself rather unsuspecting of Stalin's very calculating and totally ruthless character.]
Truman got Congress to back him in sending vital support to Turkey to fend of an expansion-minded Stalin next door ... and to block a similar interest by Yugoslavia's Communist President Tito in overrunning a greatly weakened Greece … saving both Turkey and Greece from falling to Communist control. Then to counter the influence of the huge Communist Parties making mischief in Western Europe (especially in France and Italy) Truman sent billions of dollars freely to Europe to help get the Western economies back on their feet (the Marshall Plan) – including even America's recent enemies Germany and Italy – to help rebuild Europe's industries … and get its workers back to profitable work, thus stealing the political thunder of the Communists.
Then Truman proved that he would not be bullied out of the American position in Germany's strategic Berlin, by daring to fly vital material support to that city under Russian blockade … embarrassing Stalin in the process – who finally backed down. And he got America to agree to be the part of a "peacetime" military alliance, whose formal organization NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) would involve America deeply in the ongoing defense of the "Free World" (the West). And even more amazingly, he then offered Marshall aid to his former opponent Tito when Tito and Stalin had a split in their Communist ranks … thus in supporting Tito's independence, keeping Stalin's reach from extending all the way to the Adriatic Sea in the Mediterranean region. To Truman, this was not about doing ideological battle with Communism. This was about diplomatic, economic and military strategy, designed to counter expansive Soviet Russian power, power that needed to be blocked lest the world find the dictatorial powers of Germany and Japan simply replaced by those of Stalin's Russia.
Thus Truman wisely refused to get caught up militarily in the civil war raging in China between Chiang's Nationalists and Mao's Communists … although he did provide American naval protection for the Chinese Nationalists when they took refuge on the island of Taiwan. But he did take military action when North Korea invaded South Korea … because a North Korean victory would have put Russia in a strategic position at the top of the China Sea (North Korea was simply a client state of Stalin's Russia). To Truman, American diplomacy was about employing very strategically the power needed to block Soviet expansion … lest the world find the dictatorial powers of Germany and Japan simply replaced by those of Stalin's Russia.
However, at one point he had to refuse support to the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in his group's effort to achieve independence from French imperialism – because by this time America itself was now caught up in a huge Red Scare. Unfortunately, this caused Ho Chi Minh to turn to Stalin for help … a typical diplomatic loss that America would face … when political ideology and diplomatic strategy contradicted each other.
Undoubtedly America's defense was needed vitally in the face of what had become a bitter Cold War. American involvement in the Korean War had to be done. But Americans were not very enthusiastic about this responsibility. But there was no other country in the West in a position to do anything about the matter. The Europeans would help. But they would no longer take the lead. Leadership in the defense of the West and its values seemed to be almost completely an American responsibility.
Indeed, at this point the world understood that there were only two superpowers directing the world's strategic affairs … and neither of them was part of the original European superpower camp. Instead, they were outlying powers located at the Eastern and Western edges of the once great Christian West.
America and its European allies differ deeply on this matter of "empire." The situation facing the former powers of Europe would be made even more difficult, given the almost sacred belief among Americans that the control of any society by another is most evil – and needs to be stopped regardless of the consequences in doing so.
Thus the Dutch, once they got out from under Nazi Germany's control and began to put their society back together again, would also look to restoring their 300-year old empire in Southeast Asia, one that the Japanese had taken over when the Dutch were under German occupation. But the Japanese, even as they realized that their government had accepted defeat at the hands of the Americans, did everything possible to make the post-war Dutch return to the area impossible, supporting strongly an Indonesian independence movement led by a local Indonesian, Sukarno. Thousands of Dutch living in the colony were butchered in the process and local Indonesian Christians suffered the same fate (Indonesia is heavily Muslim). The Dutch gathered forces to fight back … only to find themselves opposed by the new United Nations Organization – with America taking the lead in that very opposition. What were the Dutch to do … especially when Truman announced that America would suspend Marshall Plan aid to the Dutch if they did not simply abandon their colony to the locals? Finally, the very discouraged Dutch did so. And with that, the Netherlands, as a once powerful society, came to an end as such. It was now simply a small but cute European society.
The French faced the same problem when they tried to reinstate themselves in their former position as an imperial power in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh even informed Truman that he would appreciate American help in freeing his country from the French effort to retake control of his country. But as a Communist, he had come too late in making that appeal. Truman could not help him because by this time America was bitter about any Communist advance (a huge Red Scare was on at the time). Actually, America would eventually come to support the French in their effort. But the effort was losing support at home in France itself … and by 1954 the French were ready to sign out on the effort (America played no role in the ultimate negotiations). And so too, this involved a great reduction in French stature.
And Britain under Atlee was actually in a hurry to divest itself of its Indian holdings … negotiating a turnover to Gandhi's nationalists of all of India – minus (to Gandhi's grand irritation) a huge portion of the subcontinent that was basically Muslim and not Hindu in character ... the future Pakistan, both West and East (the latter eventually becoming Bangladesh). And then when at independence all hell broke lose in India as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus squared off against each other, the British did nothing. India's cultural animosities were now strictly a problem for the Indians themselves to work out. And thus Britain too stepped out of the imperialism business … and became simply a small island nation lying off the coast of the European continent.
And the drift of the former European "greats" into nothingness was confirmed in 1957 when Egypt seized the vital Suez Canal linking Europe with Asia … and the French and British (joined by the new Israelis) grabbed it back. To the shock of the Americans, this came across in the world's (and America's) opinion as merely another imperialist act on the part of the former European powers.*
[*Footnote: Actually, the French had built the canal and the British had also come to own it in part because of its importance in Europe's economic and cultural ties with Asia. France and Britain did not see this as imperialism … but instead simply as a matter of practical necessity.]
Worse, the event came at a bad time … when the Russians were forced to send a huge Russian military force into Hungary in response to an independence movement in Hungary that was underway at the same time. America's President Eisenhower was furious over his French and British allies' behavior … seeing that their own "imperialist" effort to hang onto this canal undercut the propaganda advantage that Eisenhower was trying to gain against Russia, depicting Russia as a deceptively authoritarian regime that the world would be unwise to follow.
All Eisenhower could see in this Suez Crisis was how this played out negatively in America's ongoing ideological contest with Russia … not where it figured into the political status of its European allies. Consequently, the British and French were forced to back off.
Britain took the humiliation quietly. But the French were a bit more resentful … as they were also having a hard time hanging onto a valuable piece of North African real estate just opposite France across the Mediterranean. Being forced to back down in the face of the Arab opposition offered by Egyptian President Nasser did not help France's battle with the Arabs of French Algeria. The French were bitter.
Then the following year (1958), French General de Gaulle seized power in France and tried to restore some of France's lost grandeur. First he simply abandoned Algeria (and the millions of Frenchmen living there to their own fate), as he saw no value in continuing the contest with the Arabs in Algeria. More importantly, he then turned on the English-speaking "Anglo-Saxons" (Britain and America) … actually carrying much of French society with him in his anti-Anglo revolt. He blocked British entry into the European Common Market* … simply as a way of humiliating Britain. And then he turned on NATO, even though it was headquartered in his country, in an attempt to undercut American leadership in Europe. He pulled his troops and fleets out of NATO and then forced NATO troops out of his country – in the hopes of making a European power (namely France) able to take the lead in Europe's own affairs. In the end, none of the other European members of NATO chose to follow his lead. Most Europeans understood how deeply they needed the American connection.
[*Footnote: The Common Market was a West European effort to get past its history of nationalist animosities … by uniting European social dynamics by way of some post-nationalist or all-European programming, starting in the all-important field of economics. NATO was also part of that programming.]
The problem of "power." Being an effective major power involves some wisdom, usually acquired through tough experience. As America became the head of the West – and given the responsibility of seeing to the West's very survival in the face of highly expansive Soviet efforts to "revolutionize" the world – it became apparent that America had some way to go before it had such deep wisdom. Sadly, such power seemed way too often to bring out rather naive thoughts by Idealistic rather than Realistic leaders, thoughts that it was now America's duty not just to deal with the world and its many challenges … but to actually change that world – make it into a better social order, even a perfect social order.
We saw that tendency in Wilson – US President (1913-1920), but also former professor and former Princeton University president. His was the classic mindset of the academic intellectual, loving to work from his desk in designing a better world, a world that he actually knew very little about in real terms. But his ideas were so wonderful that, according to his own logic, they had to be real, to be exactly what the world needed. And thus Wilson designed – and presented that design to the American people as reality – the idea that the Russian people had always been a democratic people at heart, and that only the small Russian ruling class was what put that country in the category of "autocracy." Thus according to Wilson's logic, now that the autocracy had been overthrown (early 1917), Americans could expect to see Russia quickly joining the democratic world. Of course, he was shocked when in fact that was not the direction Russia took once it got rid of its governing Russian aristocracy. And his shock only deepened when he also realized that his "democratic" allies Britain and France shared none of his political Idealism – unless it somehow served some selfish purpose for these two European powers.
Even more tragically, America really did not improve in the political wisdom category after this example of Wilson's Idealistic thinking blew up in the face of Reality. Americans would find it easy to continue to dream the dream of a more perfect world … brought into being through the work and direction of "enlightened" leaders.
Actually, Truman himself did not suffer from this Idealistic illusion … thankfully so because he wisely and most skillfully put American power to work where it would bring the greatest benefit to the West … and to America itself. Perhaps that was because he did not come to the American presidency by way of fancy schooling, but instead by taking on tough challenges: an outstanding artillery officer in World War One, a failed men's clothing store owner after the war, self-taught in the law, working with the powers-that-be which ran Missouri politics … but doing so without losing his sense of integrity, serving in the US Senate as an investigator into corporate spending during World War Two (saving the US billions of dollars in the process). Truman was a hard-nosed Realist ... most of the time.
And Eisenhower also tended more to the Realist rather than the Idealist side in his thinking, although his handling of the Suez Crisis was not exactly an example of political Realism at work. And the results of Eisenhower's lack of Realism in handling this delicate matter – for the West and even for America itself – consequently were not good.
But with the coming of the 1960s, America would see political Idealism emerging more and more, most notably in the form of a "Liberal" political philosophy which took control of Washington at that time. And it was found widely in the capital city: the Supreme Court, which began to "reshape" the fundamentals of the American Constitution along more "Liberal" or "Progressive" (that is, Secular) lines; Kennedy's Idealism which merely increased Soviet boldness in its foreign policy; and finally Johnson, who was going to redesign America very fundamentally as the Great Society … and at the same time save Southeast Asia from Communism by taking direct military control of the South Vietnamese political dynamic.
Not surprisingly, Johnson's Idealistic presidency ended up in 1968 as a rather grand disaster … with Johnson simply abandoning his catastrophic political legacy for someone else to deal with. He was so preoccupied with the ever-deepening military American involvement in Vietnam (over a half-million American troops in Vietnam … and nothing to show for the effort), that he ignored America's responsibilities elsewhere during his presidency. He played no role in shaping a favorable political outcome when in 1968 Czechoslovakia attempted – and failed – to break free from the Soviet Russian grip. And he offered no serious response to de Gaulle's anti-American and anti-NATO challenges.
The "Great Society" disaster. In part this was because he was also so preoccupied with building his highly Idealistic Great Society in America … which unsurprisingly simply weakened the bonds of social tradition within America itself, long-lasting social bonds that are needed to continue to hold any society together in good health.
For instance, the Rev. Dr. King was asking only that America honor its promise to let all people, regardless of their racial character or background, participate as equals in the process of Republican government (elections of public officials mostly). But Johnson and his vastly expansive bureaucracy presented the Idea to the American public that the government's role was not that as political referee in a democratic political game … but needed itself to be the key player in the game … a player that undertook the responsibility of making sure that everyone came away from the game a winner. Why? Because public life was now about entitlements delivered to the people by their government … not citizen duties or civil responsibilities encouraged and monitored by their government.
And so very easily Americans began to expect grand entitlements to come their way … and angry when these did not come at the pace expected – causing such "entitled" groups to riot, plunder, burn and kill. And thus the resulting disaster of vital sections of America becoming the scene of rioting and burning during the last years of the Johnson presidency, especially during the annus horribilis (horrible year) of 1968.
Political Idealism in the 1970s. Then the 1970s saw America in a state of ongoing and ever-deepening ideological civil war … a war, for instance, that led an anti-Nixon, "Liberal" or Idealist Congress (part of Johnson's legacy that did continue) to block President Nixon's efforts to conduct a Realist foreign policy. For instance, Congress acted boldly to undo Nixon's Realism by "freeing" Vietnam from "American imperialism" … by terminating all of America's financial support for that country (Nixon had already himself removed the American military that Johnson had sent there). Congress's economic undercutting of the pro-American Saigon government unsurprisingly (at least unsurprising to a Realist) caused first Vietnam and then neighboring Cambodia to fall into full social breakdown, resulting in the slaughter of millions of Southeast Asians.
Sadly, this Idealist Congress had no serious understanding of power and its responsibilities. Even worse, Congress simply looked away from the mess it had created in Vietnam and Cambodia, refusing to acknowledge the role it had played in producing this huge tragedy. Consequently, American Idealism learned nothing from this event … and would continue forward unchanged.
Carter rode to office on an ongoing tide of American Idealism … but thankfully learned something about political Realism while in office – for instance, being able to negotiate a much-needed diplomatic agreement between Israel and its neighbor Egypt. Tragically however, his developing Realism came too late for America's long-standing ally, the Shah's Iran ... when an early back-and-forth in Carter's support for the Shah, in the face of some serious opposition the Shah was facing in his country, led to the weakening – and ultimately the collapse – of the Shah's regime. And not only did this huge political loss step back American influence in the area, even worse, it produced a deeply hostile pro-Muslim Iran dedicated to the destruction of the Great Satan America.
Twenty great years of American political Realism. Thankfully, America and the West (and the world) would find itself over the next 20 years – and three American presidencies in a row – come under the leadership of individuals with a strong sense of political Realism directing them.
Standing behind the outrageous level of violence of 20th century wars was the power of modern materialist science. Man had learned to control, even unleash, enormous powers – both to create and to destroy. Long range artillery could reduce towns and cities to rubble; air power could do the same. With the discovery of the nuclear bomb – and the missile that could send these bombs from one side of the earth to the other – cities could potentially even be disappeared in a single flash. Gone were the days of the heroic warrior. In the warrior's place stood the anonymous engineer who from the safety of his or her headquarters could conduct terrible war without the enemy having any idea of who or what was coming their way.
Mass society. The 20th century saw the very rapid growth of the world=s population from approximately 1.65 billion at the beginning of the century to 6 billion at the close of the century. Accompanying this was the shrinking of the globe in terms of the social distance of one part of the earth from another: an explosion in transportation and communications technology brought the "outside" world to everyone=s doorstep (even inside the home complements of the internet and the wireless phone).
The result of this technological revolution was a tremendous loss of personal privacy, once easily afforded by the rather local nature of how we used to live socially. In so many subtle ways we found ourselves drawn into an ever-expanding world which was increasingly intrusive, complex, and impersonal. We became ever busier in our labors – yet less able to control the outcomes of our efforts. Our fates seemed more and more dependent on the actions of large social organizations run by social managers possessing tremendous powers to oversee human life. A supposed efficiency and production of "plenty" was what this ever larger social system claimed to offer – in exchange for our personal liberties.
But this kind of impersonal and lofty power offered by these mega systems and their managers often proved to be very dangerous to human life. Stalin=s Russia, Hitler=s Germany, Tojo=s Japan and Mao=s China demonstrated clearly the terrifying downside of "totalitarian" societies which easily resulted from this trend.
The quest for identity and purpose. But man is ultimately made to find meaning in life personally and spiritually – not mechanically. Humanity or the quality of being truly human is a value which is developed through risk, struggle, even sacrifice – that is, personal heroics. Man does not need impersonal institutions to take care of him. Instead man needs to live on his own strength, tested and developed as he goes through life.
Man needs heroes, those who through the example of their own struggles and victories inspire others. Man himself needs to be a hero – in order to live truly. And that brings us back full circle to the origins of the West in the ancient world of the Greeks.