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Western Civilization on a Mountaintop

The less creative radicals of the 1960s thought they might change the universities, and hence the world, by taking over the administrative buildings.

  • Ben House,
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The less creative radicals of the 1960s thought they might change the universities, and hence the world, by taking over the administrative buildings. Far more intelligent thinkers—often radical themselves—have realized that the more certain way to change the universities, and hence the world, is through professorships and curriculum.

Bombs explode, but books change cultures. Ideas have consequences for sure, and those ideas must be conveyed in print or lecture form. The consequences begin when the words are read or the audience exits the lecture hall. The pen truly is mightier than the sword, for behind every sword thrust is a philosophy, a technology, and a mental process connecting words to cold steel.

Far more radical than opposition to the Vietnam War were grants of tenure, book contracts, and open lecterns. Buildings, bureaucracy, and budgets merely provide the flimsy coverings of a culture. Within the outward structures and underlying the prevailing clichés are the true societal and cultural roots.

It is no surprise that the cultural shifting winds of recent decades resulted in opposition to Western Civilization. The liturgical acknowledgement of Western Civilization was found in the “Western Civ” classes and canonical readings typically required by universities for freshmen or sophomores.

The attack against Western Civilization centered on its nearly exclusive focus on the acts, thoughts, and writings of dead white European males, sometimes referred to as DWEMs. Since one cannot will oneself either to be or not be alive, non-white, non-European, or female, perhaps these poor guys were victims of powers beyond themselves. But the fact that they got center stage, rather than contemporary Asians and African females, was a choice supposedly based on an evil power structure. Simply put, white men sought to perpetuate their own kind in power. One woman complained, “Who is this Mozart, this Haydn, these superior white men? Why is Mozart better than some African drummer?”1

In a relativistic world, compromise and change are the only constants. Universities quickly dropped or revamped courses. Perhaps Dostoevsky, Descartes, and Bach could be dropped in favor of writers, philosophers, and musicians of recent vintage, of non-European ethnicity, and of the female gender. In some cases, the whole concept of Western Civilization as a course was placed on the chopping block. However you color the world map, Western Civilization as a civilization basically covers Europe, North America, Australia, and a few other outposts, leaving vast expanses of geography and time out of the picture. So, world cultures, global studies, and other courses were substituted for courses that were too European or Anglo-American centered.

In defense of knowing more of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, we should admit that we could learn from all cultures, examine historical roots of all civilizations, and find worthy subjects of study in all peoples. Certainly, for those of us with worldwide expectations of the spread and success of the gospel, we recognize that we should learn more of those areas where the reign of King Jesus will be acknowledged in time.

Knowledge is acquired incrementally and wisdom slowly. A college course entitled “Everything 101” would be great, but not possible. One has to determine the basics and not only start there, but also stay there until thoroughly grounded. I have lots of books better than the “A, B, C” books my children start with, but Calvin’s Institutes are a bit hefty for a four-year-old.

Since we are culturally more connected to the Elizabethan Settlement than the Ming Dynasty, since the literature of Chaucer and Dickens is closer to us than the Analects of Confucius, since the religious convictions displayed at the Diet of Worms resonate more with us than the meditation of Gautama Buddha, Western Civilization is our cultural neighborhood where our learning begins. In short, our language, culture, music, art, ideas, politics, and economics sprang from the European peninsula and the British Isles.

It was not what Marco Polo found when he traveled to a more advanced Chinese civilization; rather, it was the fact that he returned to Europe and reported his findings. From there Europe assimilated Marco Polo’s travelogue and created trade opportunities. Columbus cannot be credited for discovering anything new, but a New World grew out of the 1492 expedition. The New World was the discovery of the possibilities, which led to several hundred years of continental development.

Western Civilization is vital for Americans and Europeans to study. Because Western Civilization is so nearly synonymous with Christendom, it is vital for Christians to learn both the edifying growth and shameful abuse of Christianity within that civilization. Because of such ideas as individual freedom and economic capitalism, we not only must learn Western Civilization, but also humbly recognize its many superiorities.

What’s Wrong with “Western Civ”?

There has been a long problem, however, with Western Civilization. It is a stream containing some very pure waters, some corrupted waters, and many that are mixed. There are those who have viewed, taught, and promoted Western Civilization from viewpoints that are humanistic, secular, and utopian. A good Western Civ professor might be a faithful Catholic or Protestant, but he might also be a dedicated Unitarian, Marxist, or atheist.

Salvation is not found in history, culture, or man’s philosophies. A course in Western Civilization might improve a person’s music listening habits, his appreciation for art, and his literary growth, but it cannot save his soul. It is far easier to imagine educating or holding discussions with people familiar with the Renaissance, the works of Shakespeare, and the impact of steam power than with the cultural captives of modern reality television. But the fact remains, knowledge of dates and dead people will not rescue us from modernity or post-modernity.

It is the older humanism—the optimistic view that thought man could be educated into civility and that schools could replace prisons—that believed education in the finer things could result in societal regeneration. Western Civilization then sung the praises of Greeks for discovering democracy, of Romans for spreading civilization, and of medieval cathedrals for elevating beauty.

The greater praises were always reserved for such periods as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Both were taught as breakthroughs where the shackles of religious dogmas were loosed so mankind could enjoy progress. Progress—that word itself was often the key to understanding Western Civilization. While technological advances seemed to confirm the March of Progress, such events as the First World War stood as frightening unimaginable obstacles to man’s potentiality. With an incredible resilience, humanists could still find hope for redemption, for Western Civilization taught the need for the centralized state, or utopian societies, or environmental faith and repentance.

Standing on humanistic, man-centered presuppositions, the subject of Western Civilization could be just as destructive as the deviancies and perversities that shock us today. Kenneth Clark’s coffee table book Civilisation aptly illustrates and describes great cultural achievements, but the presuppositional coffee table supporting it cannot stand.

The best texts on Western Civilization need supplemental readings. The facts, figures, maps, dates, illustrations, and text might be a good representation of what occurred in history, but cannot answer the more important question, “What does it mean?”

There have been quite a few thinkers who have stepped beyond “what happened” to question the ideas preceding and the consequences following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, for example. These same thinkers have generally looked at the broader scope of history, such as Western Civilization. Gordon Clark has commented on such an approach to history: “[Since] they deal so broadly with all time and nations they may let their imaginations run wild. Nonetheless, if history is worthwhile, someone must run these risks. We surely want, sometime, to survey all history.”2

The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson certainly did this very thing. Consistently, his approach to history was grounded in the conviction that religious beliefs are foundational to all civilizations. The accumulated writings of Dawson contain his historiography.3 In the case of the German thinker, Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, his work Out of Revolution captures the essence of his approach to history.4 In recent years, Jacques Barzun added his own cultural analysis in his brilliant From Dawn to Decadence.5

An increasing amount of attention is being drawn to the Calvinist worldview thinkers of the twentieth century. A host of intellectual pastors, theologians, philosophers, and professors—all united upon Reformed presuppositions—wrote, lectured, and addressed a generation that often was not listening. These men wrote books for small audiences, taught a few faithful disciples, and grounded a core group in rigorous thinking growing out of the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and Kuyper.6 This group of men included Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, Dutch-born apologist Cornelius Van Til, and English and Episcopalian scholar E. L. Hebden Taylor, along with such Americans as the philosopher Gordon Clark, the historian Gregg Singer, the pastor and evangelist Francis Schaeffer, and R. J. Rushdoony.

What Clark says of Augustine applies to all of them: “Too obvious to escape notice and too important to escape mention is Augustine’s constant relating of history to ethics, of ethics to theology, of everything to everything so as to form a comprehensive system.”7 Every idea and fact connected to every other idea and fact constitutes a worldview, which is comprehensive and all-inclusive. From these foundational thinkers, the concept of a Christian worldview, sometimes called a world and life view, a weltanschauung, or a world and life system,8 caught on in the Christian community. The wider the concept spreads, the more shallow the waters occasionally become, but it is still good that Christians are using the term worldview and are attempting to think in broad categories.

There are at least four books by the Calvinist worldview thinkers that provide critical assessments of Western Civilization, and here we mean critical in both the sense of being analytical and of being in opposition to the generally accepted views. Herman Dooyeweerd’s Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options grew out of the culture war in the Netherlands following World War II when the Dutch were reconstructing their society and reconsidering the role of Christianity for their future. Gregg Singer’s From Rationalism to Irrationality followed the approach of his previous book, A Theological Interpretation of American History. Both examine the impact of religious views and philosophies on the history of Western Civilization and America respectively. The most popular and successful book was Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The book and the video series awakened Christians to where they at least could recognize the historical eras, the key names and movements, and some of the impact of non-Christian thinking. People who avoided all movies, tuned out modern music, and judged art based on exposed body parts, learned from Schaeffer at least how to begin thinking critically and presuppositionally.

Every book R. J. Rushdoony wrote was chock-full of historical data and insights. His short World History Notes and ten-part lecture series capture selected key time periods and events of Western Civilization. His Foundations of Social Order ties the early church councils and creeds to the impact they have had on all that followed. Politics of Guilt and Pity shows recurring patterns in the political order. But perhaps his best supplemental study of Western Civilization is his work The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy.

Philosophy and History

Those who have studied Rushdoony’s writings have noted a change of his style after the publication of The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973. He changed from writing in-depth and often lengthy studies to writing books containing short chapters or essays. His pre-1973 writings can be characterized as his dissertations, while the post-1973 writings are his recurring themes and teachings. Up to 1973, Rushdoony wrote for scholars, and after that, he wrote for students. The One and the Many, which came out in 1971, is definitely one of his more scholarly works.9

The very title The One and the Many with the subtitle Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy are both daunting, and neither initially attracts the interest of most readers of history. Rushdoony notes, “Society does not speak of the matter of the one and the many; most people are ignorant of the problem.”10 But he goes on to emphasize that the problem is basic to all of life and is seen in the societal tensions between “alternating anarchy and totalitarianism, between anarchic individualism and anarchic collectivism.”11

The history contained in this book concerns the men and ideas that created tyrannies, revolutions, and anarchy. Coming right after the turbulence of the 1960s, the book proclaims that the riots, assassinations, and moral disorder of that decade have deep roots in history and philosophy.

By the 1960s, people began to think of college education as a status symbol and the guarantee of economic success and intellectual achievement. The strength of the university system was the increasingly separated departments of learning and the still rather odd notion of “majors.” So history students took history classes, philosophy students took philosophy classes, and political science students took political science classes.12 Perhaps, even more pronounced was the fact that religious majors in Bible colleges focused on the Bible, church issues, and perhaps church or denominational history.

Rushdoony and other Calvinistic worldview thinkers were far more interdepartmental in their approach to learning. The One and the Many is neither a history, philosophy, or political science book, nor a theological work. Clark’s defense of history explains both his viewpoint and that of Rushdoony and their fellow Calvinist thinkers. Clark says, “The utility and justification of history may be found in the position it holds as part of an all embracing philosophy.”13

Clark as a philosopher saw the need for understanding history as part of an understanding of philosophy. Gregg Singer as a historian saw the need for philosophy for an understanding of history. Schaeffer as a preacher and evangelist saw both history and philosophy, along with art, music, and film, as tools for engaging the culture in discussions. Van Til as an apologetics teacher looked at philosophy to discern the underlying presuppositions. Even more than Van Til, Dooyeweerd, who was a philosopher, worked to create a Christian philosophy and Christian critique of all immanence philosophies that encompassed all academic fields.14 Rushdoony’s many emphases make it difficult to know which title—philosopher, historian, apologist, or theologian—best describes his work. He actually saw the title of pastor as encompassing all these things.

Rushdoony viewed his work as an extension of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. In The One and the Many, Van Til’s writings are cited throughout the work and then presented in detail near the end as the antidote to the false philosophies covered previously. But rather than being another study of Van Til,15 the focus of this book is on historical eras and key ideas coming out of those time periods; hence its relevance to Western Civilization studies.

History begins with the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Middle East, and so this book devotes a chapter to the apostate ideas and polytheism of those early cultures. Then comes Greece and Rome. It is here that many textbooks and authors wax most eloquently. Western Civilization studies exhibit a long-term romantic infatuation with the Greeks in particular. Certainly, when one considers the architectural achievements and the philosophical, historical, and literary remains, there is a lot of Greek rubble to be sifted through. But the problems have been the idolizing of all things Greek, the selective disregarding of Greek perversities, and the uncritical merging of Greek concepts with Christian ones.

Rushdoony devotes a long, detailed chapter to examining root beliefs and practices of the Greeks. These include their view of man as a political animal and its implications for the Greek polis and their moral degeneracy. Likewise, when Rushdoony turns to the Romans, he points out the flawed underpinnings that go beyond just the oddities of particular emperors. Any Christian study of ancient civilizations needs Rushdoony’s work as a supplement to and corrective for our views of antiquity.

After these chapters, Rushdoony turns to the impact of Christ and the early church. Titled “Christ: The World De-Divinized,” this section shows how often the church nearly went astray through false or weak views of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. It was the church councils and creeds, as emphasized in Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order, that undergirded orthodoxy in church life and checked tyranny in political life. The gospel did more than merely release individuals from their guilt and sin,16 for it undermined all of the viewpoints—pagan, Greek, Gnostic, etc.—that moved society either toward totalitarianism or anarchy.

One of the most controversial figures in this time period is the emperor Constantine. Christians still differ on how to view him. Was he a convert to Christ who brought political freedom to the church? Or did he adopt the name of Christian for political gain? Rushdoony points out that Constantine appears to have been a genuine believer, but he was still a Roman emperor, who thought in traditional Roman categories. His treatment of Constantine is outstanding.

Rushdoony devotes three chapters to key figures in the medieval and Renaissance eras. His treatment of Thomas Aquinas, whose sound Biblical beliefs were entangled with Aristotelian ideas, is very balanced. As expected, Rushdoony’s treatment of the Reformation, Luther, and Calvin includes praise of the movement and the men; however, he also criticizes the errors of the men and the time.

From the Enlightenment to the present, the trends in philosophy have been increasingly characterized by a rejection of scriptural revelation and of God. It is not surprising that modern man has become increasingly devoted either to statist and totalitarian views or to individual anarchistic views. It is, likewise, not surprising that modern philosophy has drifted toward despair and meaninglessness. Rushdoony summarizes them, saying, “The one and the many apply to life. Philosophy, from Hegel to Marcuse, applies to death and invites it.”17

In this book, as well as in others of his works, Rushdoony names key philosophers (usually deserving of his scorn), quotes a few brief selections, and cites some secondary scholarly commentary on them. In a little over one hundred pages, Rushdoony covers Thomas More, John Locke, Descartes, David Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, and numerous others. No doubt, there is something superficial about this cursory coverage of so many people. But Rushdoony’s method is instructive and justifies his approach. What Rushdoony teaches by his example is this: find the key thinkers in any age, read their writings, read the best scholarly sources on them, uncover their apostate presuppositions, and summarize their thoughts.

Rushdoony and his Calvinist contemporaries analyze what Rushdoony calls “an end of an age.” Rushdoony notes that “the economic, religious, ecological, and educational crises of the modern world are increasing” and that “the modern age gives every evidence of approaching death.” These men were prophets, and their analyses are filled with grim interpretations of the twentieth century. But, being grounded in Scripture and the Reformation, they did not prophesy unalterable coming destruction, but instead called for spiritual renewal. Because of his postmillennial optimism, Rushdoony, even more than others, could say, “The death of modernity makes possible the birth of a new culture, and such an event is always, however turbulent, an exciting and challenging venture.”18

The study of Western Civilization is vital for our children and foundational for a true university education. There are glories growing out of man’s creative impulses and horrors emerging from man’s depravity. Some criteria are necessary for Westerners to discern the truth, goodness, and beauty. Within the study of history itself, those criteria do not exist. One has to bring philosophy, political science, art, music, and literature into the mix. Undergirding this comprehensive framework must be a theological commitment to a Christian worldview.

When this interdepartmental approach is taken, history suddenly has applications, utility, and justification. The excitement Rushdoony references can then begin, for from such an approach to history we can begin constructing a new culture.

1. David Denby, Great Books (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 90.

2. Gordon Clark, Historiography: Secular and Religious (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1971), 19.

3. See Bradley Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2007).

4. Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Providence, RI: Berg Publishers, Inc., 1993).

5. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

6. See James Jordan, “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind,” and Andrew Sandlin, “The De-Intellectualization of the Reformed Movement.” My article “Rushdoony and Dooyeweerd,” which appeared in the January/February Faith for All of Life, focused on two of these thinkers.

7. Clark, Historiography, 234.

8. See David Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).

9. R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1971).

10. Ibid., 362.

11. Ibid., 362–363. Maybe it should have been titled Between Anarchy and Totalitarianism.

12. And education majors imagined that they were studying an academic field also.

13. Clark, Historiography, 18–19.

14. With all of the scholarly intellectual achievement of these Calvinist worldview thinkers, there were areas where they fell short in their works, such as literature. The Inklings in England and the Agrarians in the American South achieved great results in literary matters, although they lacked the Reformational underpinnings.

15. Rushdoony wrote two studies on Van Til and contributed to two Festschrifts dedicated to Van Til’s thought.

16. And let us never cease from marveling at that vital aspect of the gospel.

17. Rushdoony, The One and the Many, 347.

18. Ibid., 370.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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