March 11, 2005

Western Civilization and Enlightenment Liberalism Are Alive & Well

An essay from George Wiegel explains four key similarities from a speech of the Pope's in 1995 and Bush's second inaugural address from 2005. Students of philosophy, history and classical Western politics will immediately recognize the basic Lockean construction.

    1. There is a universal human nature. However different human beings are, there is, at bottom, a common humanity composed of common characteristics, longings, aspirations, and temptations.

    2. There is a universal moral law inscribed in this common human nature, a moral law we can know by reflecting on those common human experiences.

    3. This universal moral law teaches us the dignity of the human person, from which we can deduce certain political truths: basic human rights are inalienable; government exists to protect and advance those rights; rights imply responsibilities.

    4. That moral law and those political truths set a horizon of achievement in history. The defense of freedom is a moral obligation, not simply an exercise in self-interest.
This is somewhere between Locke, who advanced the idea of a morally implicit, universal natural law, and President Woodrow Wilson, who turned it into an active foreign policy imperative.

This is a signpost (historical tip of the hat to Sayyid Qutb) of Western civilization. The primacy of universal ethics, the emphasis on human dignity, the fundamentally positive view of humanity - these are all identifying components of Western civilization. To an even greater degree, they are found in Anglo-American culture (which includes Australia, non-Quebec Canada, New Zealand and so forth). Of course, Americans have the greatest concentration of support for the beliefs.

What's interesting is that it's normally those who are Protestant (culturally, if not in formal affiliation) that pay homage to human dignity, universality and purism. After all, Locke was a Puritan (which was more of a cultural distinction than a sexual-social one, as many today assume). Stereotypically, the Catholics are rather dreary, fire-and-brimstone on human nature - going on about human frailty, weakness, original sin and so forth. Of course, stereotyping Catholics is usually pretty counter-productive, since any religion with so many millions of adherents has a great variety of beliefs. What's not against the stereotype so much is universality, something the Catholics tend to display (stereotypically at least) in spades. Ultimately, such petty intra-faith conflicts are pretty worthless and more than slightly anachronistic.

It's nice to see a resurgence of these values. Though they may be Western in origin, they are not owned by Westerners. Trying to claim them FOR Western civilization is counter-productive: how can universal principles be owned by anyone? Of course, they can't; universal principles belong to all. So though Western civilization may be lucky enough through a twist of geography, politics or history to have the greater respect for these principles, they do NOT belong to the West or even to the authors that advanced them.

No sect or branch owns these ideals. No religion owns them. Locke, Bush and the Pope don't own them. America doesn't own them, and neither do any other Western or developed countries. They belong to each and every person in the world.

For reference: Locke's 2nd Treatise Wilson's 14 Points

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