The Greatness of Western Civilization
BY EDWIN A LOCKE | 30 SEP 2004
In this age of diversity-worship, it is considered virtually axiomatic that all cultures are equal. Western culture, claim the intellectuals, is in no way superior to that of African tribalists or Eskimo seal hunters. There are no objective standards, they say, that can be used to evaluate the moral stature of different groups. They assert that to deny the equality of all cultures is to be guilty of the most heinous of intellectual sins: “ethnocentrism.” This is to flout the sacred principle of cultural relativism. I disagree with the relativists — absolutely.
There are three fundamental respects in which Western culture is objectively the best. These are the core values or core achievements of Western civilization, and what made America great.
Reason. The Greeks were the first to identify philosophically that knowledge is gained through reason and logic as opposed to mysticism (faith, revelation, dogma). It would take two millennia, including a Dark Ages and a Renaissance, before the full implications of Greek thought would be realized. The rule of reason reached its zenith in the West in the 18th century — the Age of Enlightenment. “For the first time in modern history,” writes one philosopher, “an authentic respect for reason became the mark of an entire culture. ” America is a product of the Enlightenment.
Individual Rights. An indispensable achievement leading to the Enlightenment was the recognition of the concept of individual rights. John Locke demonstrated that individuals do not exist to serve governments, but rather that governments exist to protect individuals. The individual, said Locke, has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. The result was the United States of America. (Disastrous errors were made in the West — for example, slavery, which originated elsewhere, and Nazism — but these were too incongruent with Western values to last and were corrected, by the West, in the name of its core principles of reason and rights.)
Science and Technology. The triumph of reason and rights made possible the full development and application of science and technology and ultimately modern industrial society. Reason and rights freed man’s mind from the tyranny of religious dogma and freed man’s productive capacity from the tyranny of state control. Scientific and technological progress followed in several interdependent steps. Men began to understand the laws of nature. They invented an endless succession of new products. And they engaged in large-scale production, that is, the creation of wealth, which in turn financed and motivated further invention and production. As a result, horse-and-buggies were replaced by automobiles, wagon tracks by steel rails, candles by electricity. At last, after millennia of struggle, man became the master of his environment.
The result of the core achievements of Western civilization has been an increase in freedom, wealth, health, comfort, and life expectancy unprecedented in the history of the world. The achievements were greatest in the country where the principles of reason and rights were implemented most consistently — the United States of America. In contrast, it was precisely in those Eastern and African countries which did not embrace reason, rights, and technology where people suffered (and still suffer) most from both natural and man-made disasters (famine, poverty, illness, dictatorship) and where life-expectancy was (and is) lowest. It is said that primitives live “in harmony with nature,” but in reality they are simply victims of the vicissitudes of nature — if some dictator does not kill them first.
The greatness of the West is not an “ethnocentric” prejudice; it is an objective fact. This assessment is based on the only proper standard for judging a government or a society: the degree to which its core values are pro- or anti-life. Pro-life cultures acknowledge and respect man’s nature as a rational being who must discover and create the conditions which his survival and happiness require — which means that they advocate reason, rights, freedom, and technological progress.
Despite its undeniable triumphs, Western civilization is by no means secure. Its core principles are under attack from every direction — by religious fanatics, by dictators and, most disgracefully, by Western intellectuals, who are denouncing reason in the name of skepticism, rights in the name of special entitlements, and progress in the name of environmentalism. We are heading rapidly toward the dead end of nihilism.
The core values and achievements of the West and America must be asserted proudly and defended to the death. Our lives depend on them.
Copyright (c) 2003 Ayn Rand(r) Institute. All rights reserved.
About Edwin A. Locke
Edwin A. Locke is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He is author of The Prime Movers.
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