The Razor's Edge

Robin Fox

Robin Fox is an anthropologist, poet, essayist, and historian of ideas. He is University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1414; [email protected]. He founded the Rutgers anthropology department in 1967, and is the author of Kinship and Marriage  (Penguin, 1967; Cambridge University Press, 1983) and The Imperial Animal (Holt, Rinehart and Winston , 1970), co-authored with Lionel Tiger. His latest book is The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind (Harvard University Press, 2011). 

In the introduction to The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind I told the following story when discussing the various uses and misuses of “civilization”: 

My favorite story about Oxford involves an irredeemably judgmental use of the word. The time is World War I and militant ladies are roaming the streets of Oxford giving out white feathers of cowardice to young men of fighting age who are not at the front. (Yes, they did that.) They invade a college quad where a young don in cap and gown is walking across the lawn reading Virgil. Thrusting the white feathers at him one of the ladies demands: “Young man, why are you not out there fighting for civilization?” Without hesitation and with devastatingly correct grammar he replies: “Madam, I am the civilization for which they are out there fighting.”[1] 

Civilization is always a work in progress. Every civilization is an experiment in how far we can shift ourselves from the evolutionary norm of the small, kinship-integrated tribal society governed by ritual and custom to any kind of society either more complex in structure or less tribal in foundation. We assume that given intelligence and foresight there is no limit to where we can move. We can write our own rules, design our own futures. The wise amongst us have determined that in effect we have reached the perfect resolution of development in Western liberal representative democracy based on free market economies, and that the whole world will shift inevitably in this direction. Thinkers from all bands of the spectrum agree that this is inevitable because it is somehow in our natures as human beings to live this way and that only repressive regimes prevent its realization. We invade other nations and at crippling cost try to make them over in our image because we know this is really how they want to be and will be once their bully-boy dictators and enforcers are ousted. Even those of us who are doubtful about the method do not question the logic: freedom and free elections are the natural state of man and all we need to do is liberate these impulses to have free, democratic societies everywhere on earth.

But the liberal democratic societies we regard as the natural outcome of natural human impulses are dangerously late arrivers on the human scene and, to be brutal, they are still fragile experiments whose viability has not been sufficiently tested. Far from being natural outcomes of human nature they are heroic attempts to defy human nature. They live on a razor’s edge, and the state of balance is precarious. 

Every civilization in the past has failed. Bits and pieces of them remain and these fragments we shore against our ruin. But as operating entities they are gone. Their song is ended; only the melody lingers on. Some of them lasted a long time and then declined slowly, ossified, or exploded. Perhaps we think that “Western civilization” is inherently different, that somehow it has solved the problems of the past and can live on without fear of declination. Perhaps we are right. But at the very least it is too early to say. Perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism about our chances is our best bulwark against failure, and our best reason for taking ourselves seriously.

Here we come up against our inability to decide whether we like our own civilization or hate it. Is it worth saving? If it is not worth saving then it is probably not worth studying. This is the easy way out that many among us take, although it ignores the fact that we can only make such a judgment if we have done the necessary study. But our own intellectual tradition (a melody lingering on from the Greeks) militates against this. Some of the people who have studied Western civilization in the most intense way have been its most severe critics. They, like Karl Marx or T. S. Eliot or H. G. Wells, have not liked what they saw, but needed to know what was wrong and why it was wrong. They have needed to understand so that they could know what to do about it. 

For one thing that characterizes us (we members of this civilization) is our need to do something about it. We are not fatalists, despite some of our religious beliefs that would suggest that we might be. Predestination is after all the ultimate in fatalism. The paradox of how religious ideas about ineradicable fate could turn into a driving desire for worldly success (and the reordering of society in the process) were at the heart of Weber’s analysis of how capitalism and science, secular rationality and progress, became guiding traits of our civilization. The vast majority of us take the result of this process more or less for granted; we can simply enjoy it. The problems it presents for us are practical, not intellectual: how to get the most out of it. Those who refuse to take it for granted and want to do something about it are those most in need of knowledge about its foundations and development—its inner logic. The people who should study it most intently are not those who like it, but those who are most dissatisfied with it. Marx would have agreed.

Marx would also have agreed that they should study it in the context of the other civilizations of the world and even of pre-civilized societies. This would not have been on the grounds of cultural relativism or multiculturalism or any such nonsense, but because he saw these “others” as important clues to the origins and development of our own state of capitalism. It was Marx’s attempt to delineate “primitive communism” and the “oriental mode of production” and the transition from mercantile capitalism to free market capitalism that pushed Weber to reanalyze the same facts. The great basic question of sociology became “Why did the oriental societies not make it to the next stage?” Of course, now we are disinclined to see this as a matter of stages. But even if Marx and Weber did not get it all right, their questions remain fundamental. Even if cultural relativists want to regard the Western development not as an advance in civilization but as a giant step sideways, they still have to understand it, not just condemn it, if they want to do something about it. 

You will not get much of an argument from the Marxists on this point. They are firmly in the Western rationalist tradition. They regard their “radical” multicultural brethren as wooly-minded, unscientific, lumpen socialists. But there are few of the Marxist purists left with whom to have a meaningful debate, while the wooly-minds are clogging the arteries of the educational system. But no more of this intellectual butt-kicking, which, while emotionally satisfying, does not help with the problem. Is it worth the trouble of educating our young people in the history and culture of the West? Would we perhaps not be better off making sure that they are computer literate and doing much better in math and science rather than studying art history and classic literature, even in translation? 

One immediate answer is that math and science are part of the Western tradition that makes it unique. Even so, the pessimist in me wonders, do they need to know this in any detail or can they not take it for granted and get on with the science and technology that will save us? The quick answer is that they can, but that someone somewhere should be the guardian of the Western secret or we may just lose it and the science and technology will be for nothing.

Does it matter as long as the Guardians have the secret?

I think it does, because if we leave it only to the Guardians—a small, powerful, and fully educated elite, then we are shirking the challenge of democracy: that knowledge and decisions based on it should be open to all. And that all should have the means to assimilate and benefit from them. We would be retreating from our open society into a Platonic closed society with a sharp division between the Guardian elite and the Helots that suited Plato but should not suit a national culture that stems from Jeffersonian rationalism and an ideal of free and universal education. The problem with this is that it all takes time and time is precious.

In the past in Western Europe it has not really been an issue. A system of Guardians was accepted and they received a pretty intensive education in Western culture—including its classical and modern languages, sciences, and history—through school and university, but mostly the former. Not all that many went to university. The rest, those not of the mandarin elite, were given an adequate education and rendered functionally literate and numerate, were given opportunities for upward mobility, and that was enough. With such a system, England ruled a quarter of the globe. America, while having a class of similarly-educated Guardians, has also undertaken the massive task of trying to bring a reasonable level of education to everyone, including instruction in the foundations of the civilization to which we were thought-to-be-privileged to belong.

But in this we were always coming up from behind. The Guardians of European culture did not so much learn it as live it. The fact that we feel it necessary to give courses in Western civilization shows up the difficulty we have. European universities, for example, would never have even thought of having a compulsory course on “Western Civilization.” It is probably different now, but the students at Heidelberg or Oxford, Salamanca or the Sorbonne, were Western Civilization: like the young don in the Oxford story.

They would have had to prove in their entrance exams that they were conversant with classical and modern languages for example, even if they were to concentrate on science once accepted. Their family histories were the history of Western art and diplomacy and music and finance and business. Even those who rebelled against their own class were pretty well versed in what they were challenging. The Cambridge educated Soviet spies Burgess, Philby, and Maclean could not have had better Western civilization qualifications, and their mentor, Sir Anthony Blunt, was curator of the Royal Art Collection.

I think of my own socialization into Western culture in a northern provincial town in the England of the 1930s through the 1950s. Some of this came from formal education, and a very good one, but most of it came by osmosis, by sheer immersion in the flow of the cultural stream—and I was not a child of privilege. One even physically lived in it: from the Iron Age remains on the moorlands, through the Saxon, Norman, and Gothic churches, to the castles, the walled towns, the canals and railways. Its country manors and great houses (open to the public) were living monuments of passing time. Playing in the ruined monasteries and abbeys took one to the heart of the Reformation, as did membership in the Church of England—one wing of the holy trinity of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. There was an immediate connection with the Tudor England of the Book of Common Prayer and the huge feast of music opened up for a chorister. There was an unbelievably rich musical life, with up to forty performances of Handel’s Messiah alone each Christmas, and everything else in the sacred music repertoire and beyond, including the amazing local brass bands. Travelling operas gave regular performances (all in English, as was the way then) and a bewildering array of local amateur choral, operatic, and dramatic societies put on everything from Die Fledermaus to Oklahoma. Gilbert and Sullivan ran through our bloodstreams.

The town Repertory Theater did a different play each week, from J. B. Priestley to Tennessee Williams (two seats for the price of one on Mondays.) The municipal amateur Civic Theater (featured in the film Room at the Top) did Shaw and Ibsen plays and showed Bergman and Nouvelle Vague movies. The municipal Reference Library was well stocked and free, and the Technical College, and the City Museum and Art Gallery had libraries and lectures and exhibitions. The very institutions one lived with unthinkingly—the monarchy, the free press, the local and national elections, the courts of common law, the parish system, the guilds and trade associations (through which most of my friends passed to professional life), the forms of local government (aldermen still sat on the bench)—all had deep roots in the past. The city itself, old in foundation but in effect a product of the Industrial Revolution, was a living history to be experienced.

Even without a formal education the immersion was massive. Above all there was the BBC, an amazing treasure trove of information, with music, drama, world news and uplift on all levels. Again, this was open to everyone. The Promenade Concerts were broadcast live and had a huge audience. The local cinema palaces were just as full for Olivier’s Shakespeare films as for a John Wayne movie.

The proletariat with its mechanics institutes, technical colleges, trade unions, cooperative societies, clubs, and non-conformist chapels was equally rich in history reaching back beyond the Levelers and Parliamentarians. Despite serious class differences, a kind of homogeneity still existed in English society in those pre-immigration days. Even in insular England wars had brought us into close contact with continental Europe. My first experience with foreign languages was with German and Italian prisoners of war working as virtually unguarded farm laborers. It was from the prisoners that I learned that all operas were not written in English. The Italians told me they had municipal opera houses with a repertory company doing a different work each week, as cheap as local cinema. To this rich informal mix add the history and languages, science, and literature that were taught in the very good public schools (mine being a grammar school dating from 1673)—the gymnasia and lycées on the continent—and the cultural immersion is complete.

I apologize for this strongly personal note, but I am trying to emphasize that there is really no substitute for enculturation when it comes to “learning” Western Civ. There is no way that even a yearlong course can compare to being immersed in it. In the U.S. much the same held true until the waves of immigration and the great expansion westwards of the nineteenth century, when the need to educate a rapidly growing, at best semi-literate and often non-English-speaking community threw the burden of enculturation almost entirely onto the school system. The system responded bravely, but mostly—except of course for the WASP elite, which modeled its education on the European systems—it was trying to socialize and educate at the same time. It was trying to create basic-English speakers out of the fragmented material of European and Asian peasantry and artisans. The immigrant society that America became could not take any kind of “cultural literacy” for granted and go from there. It had to inculcate cultural literacy along with brushing teeth and hygiene.

It was also a society oriented almost entirely to the future. The old generation of immigrants, which never quite developed English fluency and stuck to its old ways, languages, and identities, was not regarded by assimilating youngsters with any kind of awe as a repository of civilization. On the contrary, this was something to be thrown off in the effort to become “Americans.” These Americans, after all, had thrown off the political yoke of Europe and were being encouraged by the idea makers of the nineteenth century to throw off the cultural yoke also.

Emerson declared America’s intellectual independence in his “American Scholar” speech in 1837. But of the three pursuits he demanded of the transcendental scholar, one was to study “the mind of the past”—its literature, art, and institutions. Henry James, and T. S. Eliot after him, were totally immersed in them to the point of re-absorption. In sum, the attitude of America towards Western civilization was always ambivalent. Americans were conscious of being the heirs to much that was admirable in that tradition while at the same time were self-consciously trying to distance themselves from it. For the Emersonians it was a delicate balancing act in which they really saw themselves as part of the tradition but wanting to be an “American voice” both within and then transcending the tradition—something absolutely distinctive.

It was Whitman’s democratic voice—the voice that didn’t reject the tradition but “said” it in a different way: 

           Sail, sail thy best, ship of Democracy,
           Of value is thy freight, ‘tis not the Present only,
           The Past is also stored in thee,
           Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone, not of the Western
                       continent alone,
           Earth’s résumé entire floats on thy keel O ship, is steadied by thy
           With thee Time voyages in trust, the antecedent nations sink or
                       swim with thee,
           With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes, epics, wars, thou
                        bear’st the other continents,[2] 

The whole of “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood” is worth looking at as a statement of the problem, for although “Royal feudal Europe sails with thee,” it remains a question whether you still need any of it. Whitman can’t make up his mind on this: 

           It to eventuate in thee—the essence of the by-gone time contain’d
                       in thee,
           Its poems, churches, arts, unwitting to themselves, destined with
                       reference to thee; 

Europe then is simply America in potentia

Thou but the apples, long, long, long a-growing,
The fruit of all the Old ripening to-day in thee. 

And yet Whitman can’t be sure whether what is happening is truly a ripening, or whether the old apples are simply rotten. 

           Brain of the New World, what a task is thine,
           To formulate the Modern—out of the peerless grandeur of the
           Out of thyself, comprising science, to recast poems, churches, art,
           (Recast, may-be discard them, end them—may-be their work is
                       done, who knows?) 

Who knows indeed? To find a literary “voice” that was not beholden to European—particularly English—literature. Did Whitman do it? The jury is still out. Did America ever find a “serious” composer who was not a knock-off of Dvořák —apart from the minimalists who were trying desperately not to sound like Dvořák?

“American cultural anthropology” is really an import from German romantic nationalism and the idea of the Kultur of the Volk (and thus the first cousin of Fascism). American philosophy and literary theory inevitably retreats from its natural pragmatic trend to go a-whoring after strange European gods. The only truly American religion, Mormonism, did an about-face from its communalistic utopian roots to morph into a bastion of right-wing bourgeois respectability. Americans have problems with their own exceptionalism: they boast of it but seem afraid to pursue it—afraid to cut the cord. Whitman is a secularized Blake still talking the poetical language of the familiar “thee” and “thou” and the vocative “O” and using French as a marker of sophistication.

But old Walt would still have wanted his brothers and sisters of the democracy to know what it was they were recasting and discarding, at least at the stage before a truly unique voice could be found. The ambivalence about Western civilization never led to a complete discarding of it. The critics were all sensible enough to know this was impossible: they were part of it for better or for worse and they should know it and understand it. For the Guardians, taking their cue from Emerson and inspired by Whitman, it should be known so that it could be improved upon.

But what about the huddled masses? How much of the base culture was needed to put them on the path of that same improvement?

It was in the very process of learning English that the immigrants absorbed at least a version of it. Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Dickens were immensely popular in the American West, and westerners even liked Oscar Wilde. Anyone having learned English (or starting with dialectical spoken English and learning to read) being then taken by a conscientious schoolteacher through all of McGuffey’s Readers would pick up a damn good notion of English literature. There was no idea then of doing this through the learner’s indigenous language. Learning English was part of becoming American, and if you were to get out of your ghetto you had to master it, and in mastering it you—or at least your descendants—picked up a large amount of the heritage by osmosis, too. And it was a heritage if anything enriched by access to at least one other European language besides English.

This learning of culture through language was a model of acculturation: the native heritage (as it were) was still there, but melded with the dominant English heritage being learned. And if only the Guardians had the fine details of the dominant heritage, the rest got enough to be able to navigate an open democratic society. They had something that welded them together in a common linguistic and, one hoped, nationalistic culture. After the first two generations most of the immigrants were thoroughly “Americanized”—perhaps retaining a deep attachment to their particular heritage, often through religion, but seeing it as a contributor to the American whole.

The annual Polish festival I sometimes attend in Orange County, New York (through my Polish in-laws), is a riot of Polish food, songs, dances, and crafts until the final evening, when it becomes a vigorous and moving chorus of American patriotism, sung in English. The current Hispanic immigrants are resisting this linguistic absorption and we pander to them partly from left-wing guilt and partly from commercial greed. But this is a mistake and it may cost us dearly. We can only hope that, as with Asian immigrants, the subsequent generations will more readily integrate (and intermarry) while maintaining their cultural identity.

But this is something they essentially should work out for themselves, as other immigrant groups have done, with our encouragement but without our patronization and pandering. In the process they will become more Americanized and we shall become a little more Hispanicized, just as we became more Gaelicized, Italianate, Sinocized and Nordified, and this is how it should be. One of my favorite New Jersey eateries (sadly gone) had this charming legend above its door: “Italian-American-Chinese Restaurant: All Our Wines are Chilled.” And no one should miss New York’s Chinese-Kosher delicatessens. Not perhaps what Emerson was after entirely, but getting there.

This cultural absorption was indeed extended to the Asian immigrants who came without the advantage of any European language and from countries with no traditions whatsoever of democracy (Whitman’s “Venerable priestly Asia”). Their strong traditions of deference to age and tradition were something that had kept them from joining the modern world. But they had huge energy and great natural intelligence, and a dedication to worldly success that outshone the Protestant ethic. More recently, the immigrants from India bring something remarkable. Most of them have a sound education in the English manner born of their long association with Great Britain. They mostly speak better English and have a better English education than rest of us, and they, like us, have a history of shedding the British yoke while retaining the best of British institutions: in particular a respect for the process of common law and the exercise of democracy. They are a gift that we should nurture to their and to our own advantage.

What I am describing is unabashed cultural absorption that blends the various sources into a new whole with a common language and a common set of values and institutions. This new blend, if Whitman and Emerson’s hopes are to be realized, will rise to a higher plane of civilization than Europe was able to achieve, even if it is far from that goal at present. The absorption has been a great success, and the public schools and state colleges and universities managed to do the double job of giving a utilitarian education to many people while initiating them into the values of a free society. These were the values of an unabashedly free democratic open society founded on the English model with its tradition of free elections and the rule of law, themselves the result of a long process of social, economic, and political development. To move beyond them we had to know them.

What I am saying used to be a commonplace, and a cause for congratulation. It was the American miracle: the melting pot. Those astonishing children of the European Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers, took the English Glorious Revolution and brought it to full fruition here. It was the actualization of the potentia that Emerson and Whitman saw in that model, but that was still imperfect in the home country. It was why Burke could defend the American Revolution for defending the liberties of Englishmen, while condemning the French Revolution for robbing Frenchmen of theirs. It was the city set on the hill. “We Americans,” as Herman Melville wrote in White-Jacket, “are the peculiar, the chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”[3]

This is now all called into question, as we know. Most of my academic colleagues (at this point almost always younger) would be of the opinion that I should be embarrassed to write such nonsense. Have I not heard of deconstruction, multiculturalism, colonialism, imperialism, orientalism, globalization, hegemony, neo-liberalism, gender discrimination, and the rest, including my favorite “altericity”? Indeed I have. But I am an immigrant myself, for whom joining this society was a conscious choice; they mostly are not and so can be more free to reject it. I had to weigh these things in the balance and make a decision, and having made it to make sense of it. I was the young don and brought Western Civilization with me to be sure, and on September 11, 2001, I saw it under vicious attack in my own back yard.

I don’t have to be told its faults and contradictions. I have lived with many of them, including the Great Depression and World War II and the Cold War with its exacerbation of the paranoid streak in our society. My father fought for the British Raj in imperial India—and against the barbaric Nazis in that same world war. I know about inequality: I was born on the dole and my mother grew up in country where women did not have the vote. I know about slavery, discrimination, and the oppression of native peoples. I was weaned on the Marxist critique of capitalism, and saw up close the fall of the tyranny of Communism. The birth pangs of an open civilized society can be horrendous.

But do we abandon the baby because the birth was painful? With tears and struggle, guilt and sacrifice we have overcome these things, and from Bartolomé de Las Casas through William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King we saw that they were wrong, and (often kicking and screaming) we tried to right them. For Melville we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. This ark was horribly hard to come by. Yet it survived, and we have it.

What is on the tablets in Melville’s ark? It is the secret of how our Western civilization achieved, and how we maintain, the democratic open society that we now enjoy, with all its faults and missteps. It is also the secret of its Achilles’ heel that we need to know in order to preserve it from all too easily slipping off the razor’s edge. An open society, like civilization itself, is also a work in progress—a messy, fragmented, difficult, frustrating, often unjust, and sometimes scary work in progress.

Our human psychological and social default system is tribal and that is where we are most secure. The messier and more frustrating the open system becomes, the more many of its members, including some of our intellectuals, long for the security of the closed morality and authoritarianism of the tribe: for the simple solution. They embrace the rule of those Guardians (or would-be Guardians), who assure them that all is known and all will be taken care of and that their unbearable individual moral responsibility will be lifted.

Freud saw how we needed to be relieved of the burden of the superego with its ever more in-turned aggression: the major discontent of civilization. Orwell saw us longing for the certainty of Big Brother and could only see salvation lying with the Proles. Wells saw mind as being at the end of its tether and seeking the same relief. When looking at the virtues of American democracy Tocqueville also saw its weakness: 

In democratic times enjoyments are more lively than in times of aristocracy, and immeasurably greater numbers taste them. But, on the other hand, hopes and desires are much more often disappointed, minds are more anxious and on edge, and trouble is felt more keenly.[4] 

Tocqueville was anticipating Durkheim on anomie, Marx on alienation, Freud on Angst, Fromm on the fear of freedom, and Weber on the fall of the rational before the power of charisma: everything that Popper saw in Freud’s inevitable “strain of civilization.”

If I had to put only one tablet in the ark it would be my old teacher Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies.[5] His Open Society was, of course, the Western democratic society, with free elections, a free press, free markets, freedom of speech, universal literacy, and a rule of law that ensured due process and that enforced contracts. Its enemy was the Closed Society of tribalism, where taboo and custom governed everything and where the ends of society were fixed. In an ideal open society for Popper, everything should in principle be in doubt, up for grabs, open to question; all hypotheses should be capable of falsification. You had to embrace the idea of being wrong—not something monarchs, prelates and politicians really understand or welcome. But scientists live by it.

This was a startling new way of looking at the world: it was a democracy of knowledge and it needed a political democracy in which to thrive. Such a social context was needed for science, and particularly experimental science, on which technological advances depend, to flourish. Science as a form of knowledge—as opposed to the unchallengeable certainties of religion, magic, and metaphysics—was the product of the “disenchantment” of society consequent on the Renaissance and Reformation. It happened in one place and at one time in the world’s history, and what brought us to that point is something we must understand, as well as what fused and transformed itself to make us what we are (or can be.)

The nearest we have come to a realization of this kind of socio-cultural system has been in the free democratic societies of northern Europe, But this is an almost impossibly difficult world to live in; it is totally foreign to that tribal default nature at the center of our being. It can be made to work but it is a constant juggling act along the razor’s edge. When it goes right and prosperity follows it can seem like a formula for paradise on earth. When it fails—as with capitalism in stagflation and depressions and recessions and world wars, or with welfare socialism, when living on the public credit card leads to bankruptcy—it can scare us to death. Then it can shuffle in the demand for a savior and a doctrine and a retreat to the dumb security of the tribal womb, where everything is settled and the future is known.

As Popper saw to his dismay, from the very beginnings in democratic Athens there have been traitors to the open society: those very intellectuals who were its Guardians. With their unhealthy passion for the various isms that promise absolute knowledge of the future and demand control of the present, they are, like Plato, as much a threat as the barbarians at the gate. And they have often indeed preferred those barbarians to their own messy democracies, from the Athenians who preached the virtues of the Scythians and Spartans to those who today redeem their collective cultural guilt by embracing neo-primitivism and denigrating rational science. This subjects science, the most precious of our civilization’s gifts, to an attack from a bizarre coalition of strange bedfellows in the reactionary religious Right and the radical academic Left: they hate each other but they hate science more.

What “the West” did to the indigenous peoples was not pretty, but what those peoples were doing to each other was not much prettier. There was no Aztec Las Casas protesting at seventy thousand human sacrifices a year. The expansion and then collapse of the colonial enterprise was a stage in development that had to be gone through. It is something any of the other societies of the world would have done if they had had the chance—and many had already tried it. Colonialism is as old as conquest itself. The very virtues of the West made their effort much more successful than the previous conquerors and plunderers had been; the Arabs run a close second. But the fact that they stayed in place and tried to bring something of Western political organization to the colonized people meant that in many places they left behind the makings of democratic societies. These now are fighting their own harsh battles with the tribalism from which they are still struggling to emerge.

It is certainly a good thing to teach the music, art, and literature that we think of when we say “Western civilization.” But it is perhaps more important to understand them in the context of the social and political development of which they were and are a part. Music, art, and literature are common to all advanced civilizations, but the scientific method that we depend on and that was a unique aspect of the Western miracle—and the kind of state where it could flourish—were, as we have seen, unique to northern Europe, particularly England.

Francis Fukuyama sees three institutions as the cornerstones of the political development of Protestant England as it emerged from Catholic Europe: a strong state, the rule of law, and the accountability of the governors to the governed through that rule of law.[6] The idea of a rule of law to which even the rulers were subjected, Fukuyama rightly notes, was a product of Catholic Christianity. The resulting combination was unique to England, with Holland following closely and the rest gradually catching up. It was exported to North America and became the foundation of the civilization that Whitman and Emerson saw could be the fulfillment of its innate promise.

That was on the political front. On the cultural-economic front we continue to work out the implications of Weber’s insight that capitalism and science, and even the rationality that allowed the development of both music and bureaucracy, were products of the Protestant ethic. Other civilizations had some aspects of this magical mix (like the strong state in China, and political assemblies in Hungary), but none put them together to make for the more-than-magical democratic open society that we inherited from northern Europe and especially England. The world would like to embrace its material benefits, but the world lacks the secret of the mix that produced the society that makes these benefits possible. We have the enormous advantage of knowing and living the secret.

If we must teach Western Civilization from the outside—if we no longer can depend on it being absorbed by osmosis through the cultural pores—then we should not teach it simply as an end in itself: get your dose of music, art, and literature, children. When I see a thirteen-year-old immigrant Chinese girl in a flower-print dress playing an impossibly superb version of a Beethoven violin sonata, I know that this bit of Western civilization is safe for a while. We can pass on the content to a generation of talented youngsters. We should certainly be concerned to teach the content; that will get done in bits and pieces as it always has. But we should try also to teach Western civilization as an idea: as the apples of history and culture that ripened into the open society we value, and why we value it, and why it is so difficult to maintain.

We should not confuse the open society with a particular set of democratic political arrangements, although democracy is fundamental to it. It seems to work best, for example, in constitutional monarchies, where the monarch is a focus for national unity independent of political parties. Openness needs anchors in tradition: not unswerving devotion to form, but a recognition that traditional forms have an evolved wisdom to them by their very survival. They should not be discarded lightly, even if they should always be open to question. Such systems (like traditional universities) seem to combine enough of the virtues of the closed society with the aspirations of the open one to maintain a creative balance. The open society is something to be constantly aspired to, and the political arrangements can be tweaked to make it more possible. Nothing should be written in stone: even the revered American Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times.

We must not be ashamed, as Sam Huntington said, to emphasize that Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal, but because it is unique. It is what European sociologist Ernest Gellner called in Plough, Sword and Book “the miracle”: the improbable concatenation of circumstances that produced a brilliant but flawed civilization, difficult to maintain, but because of its very openness remarkably resilient.[7] Every disaster presents a new opportunity that we can grasp because we do not work to a rigid tribal formula (however much some of us would like to) and hence the future is always open and undetermined.

When we do teach Western civilization, then we should certainly teach its many and serious flaws so that we do not repeat them or perpetuate them. We should teach its virtues so that we may defend and preserve them, especially from our own zealots on the left and the right. We should teach it in the context of the other great civilizations (and the pre-literate tribal societies, to be sure—as I do for a living). We must do this both to understand their great intrinsic worth and to understand why, with all their brilliance, they did not make it: why the miracle did not happen there. But why, having learned it from us, they may work their own miracle that might eclipse us if we are not vigilant.

We should teach our civilization not as a settled doctrine but as a risky enterprise that indeed requires eternal vigilance and eternal renewal. We should teach it as a society approaching that rare balancing act on the razor’s edge: a society in which everything should be open to question and where no one has the last word. Perhaps this is the truly transcendental society that Whitman and Emerson saw as our potential? We should teach the idea to as many as possible and not just to the Guardians, because they are as susceptible as the masses to the lure of tribal certainty; we must spread the intellectual risk. We are trying not to fall into internal barbarism and to keep the barbarians from the gate at the same time. We are fighting human nature to do this.

Our only hope, as befits our role as a future-oriented society, is in the young. Civilizations that fail, as we know, fail from within. Our education has to be a judicious mix of information and initiation; it has to initiate without indoctrinating. It has to teach us not a fixed set of rules to live by, but how to use our knowledge of ourselves to help us take intellectual chances. We have been very good so far at creating this unique enterprise; let us not hesitate now to preserve it and pass it on, when we most need to get it right.

[1]Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind (Harvard University Press, 2011), 14.

[2]Walt Whitman, “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood,” Leaves of Grass (New York, 1881–1882), 348, Further references to stanzas 3 and 4 of this poem are taken from this citation.

[3]Herman Melville, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby Dick, ed. G. Thomas Tanselle (1850; repr., New York: Library of America, 1983), 506.

[4]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (1966), ed. A. P. Mayer (1969), abridged and ed. Scott A. Sandage (1835/40; repr., Harper Collins, 2007 ), 304–5.

[5]Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge, 1945).

[6]Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011.)

[7]Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 277. 


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