120 The Clash of Civilizations

Allegedly one of the most widely-discussed books in the Bush White House is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington (New York:  Simon & Schuster, c. 1996).  A professor at Harvard University, Huntington also directs the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and is a respected expert on international relations.  He argues, in this treatise, that the great conflicts in the century just become will take place for cultural–rather than economic or ideological–reasons.  For two centuries (1789-1989) the world’s great conflicts pitted Europeans and their allies against each other–“Western civil wars” as William Lind calls them, but that era has ended.

Today the world’s divided into hostile “civilizations.”  Huntington identifies them as follows:  Western (European and American); Islam (Turkik, Arab, and Malay); Confucian; Japanese; Hindu; Slavic-Orthodox; Latin American; and possibly African.  Differences between these civilizations are substantial, firmly rooted in history, and primarily religious in nature.  As the world shrinks, through communication and transportation, these civilizations cannot avoid contact and conflict.  The West, cavalierly controlling of the world at the end of  WWII, has been retreating for half-a-century and now finds itself merely one of several “civilizations” struggling for supremacy in various regions.  We now live in a “multipolar, multicivilizational world.”

Today’s clash of civilizations mainly results from recent religious revivals.  Rather than the increasingly “secular” world predicted by theologians like Harvey Cox in The Secular City in the 1960’s, the “unsecularization” of the world seems more dramatically evident.  “Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Orthodoxy, all experienced new surges in commitment, relevance, and practice by erstwhile casual believers.  In all of them fundamentalist movements arose committed to the militant purification of religious doctrines and institutions and the reshaping of personal, social, and public behavior in accordance with religious tenets” (p. 96).

In formerly communist countries this appears clear.  From Albania to Vietnam religion has revived.  Russian churches have been restored and attract impressive numbers of attendees.  This revival has especially transformed Islamic countries.  The irreligious “modernization” so confidently anticipated by secular thinkers shaped by Enlightenment dogma, has been tried and found wanting.  Man does not live by bread alone!  There are deeply spiritual longings in the human heart which can only be suppressed for a season.  Religion provides answers to life’s big questions, gives adherents a sense of identity and purpose.  “In Russia the religious revival is the result of ‘a passionate desire for identity which only the Orthodox church, the sole unbroken link with the Russian’s 1000-year past, can provide,’ while in Islamic republics the revival similarly stems ‘from the Cental Asians’ most powerful aspiration:  to assert the identities that Moscow suppressed for decades'” (p. 98).  “More broadly,” Huntington says, “the religious resurgence throughout the world is a reaction against secularism, moral relativism, and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity” (p. 98).

Of particular interest (since 9/11/01) is Huntington’s analysis of Islamic civilization and its pronounced hostility to the West.  Though politicians like Bill Clinton insisted that only a few Islamic “extremists” posed any problems, “Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise” (p. 209).  Despite interludes of peaceful coexistence, Islam and Christianity are deeply, dogmatically antagonistic.  Blitzkrieg Muslim conquests (632 A.D.-732 A.D.) overwhelmed and buried some of the most Christian realms in the world.  In response, Christian crusades (1095-1291) momentarily reestablished the Cross in lost lands.  Resurgent Muslims then captured Constantinople (1453) and pushed through the Balkans to the gates of Vienna in 1529, returning for al final assault in 1683.  For the next three centuries, technologically superior Western powers and colonial empires dominated much of the world, but today’s Muslims dream of regaining the powers they once enjoyed.

Multitudes of Muslims today consider the West “arrogant, materialistic, repressive, brutal and decadent” (p. 214).  Small corps of terrorists act out of their animosities, but they represent vast throngs of supporters who cheer them on–as was evident when Muslims around the world cheered at the Trade Center and Pentagon massacres. Muslim leaders rarely condemn terrorist attacks against the United States–the “Great Satan.”  Formerly secularized Muslim states, which were genuinely friendly prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, now exude a pronounced hostility to America and her allies.  Muslims like  Khomeini and Qadhafi thenceforth invoked jihad, holy war, in their diatribes against the West.

Verbal jousts and “transition wars” of limited breadth would be followed, Huntington predicted, by large scale “fault line wars.”  The Soviet-Afgan War, the first victory by Muslim warriors over a Western power, and the Gulf War, set the stage for larger conflict.  “The Afghan War became a civilizational war because Muslims everywhere saw it as such and rallied against the Soviet Union.  The Gulf War became a civilization war because the West intervened militarily in a Muslim conflict” (p. 247) almost totally opposed by Arabs outside Kuwait.  Conflicts in the disintegrating Yugoslavia further intensified the Muslim-Christian conflict.  Along the great fault line, dividing devotees of these two ancient faiths, will erupt in conflicts which will determine the shape of the world to come.

Beyond predicting conflicts to come, Huntington concludes his analysis with some advice for the West, if it desires to retain its historic importance.  Above all, it must regain its moral fiber.

Antisocial behavior, family fragmentation, disinterest in local associations, the loss of a strong work ethic, and the distressing decline of intellectual excellence, must be reversed if the West is to survive.  “The future health of the West and its influence on other societies depends in considerable measure on its success in coping with these trends, which, of course, give rise to the assertions of moral superiority by Muslims and Asians” (p. 304).

Huntington’s analysis illustrates how historical knowledge should appropriately inform current policies.  Had America’s leaders, a decade ago, heeded his warnings, our world might have been spared some of its recent anguish.

D.G. Brander’s Staring into Chaos:  Explorations in the Decline of Western Civilization (Dallas:  Spence Publishing Company, 1998) provides readers easy access to three of the past century’s greatest historical thinkers:  Oswald Spengler; Arnold J. Toynbee;  Pitrin Sorokin.  Although quite different in many ways, each man sought to grasp the broad contours of human history, to find meaning therein, and to propose ways to move wisely into the future.

Before turning to his major thinkers, however, Brander details the deep and pervasive despair haunting some of the West’s most noted thinkers.  At the very time when the Industrial Revolution was transforming the world and the British Empire reached its apex–symbolized by Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897–major thinkers such as Tolstoy, Boudelaire, Jacob Burckhardt, Nicholas Berdyaev, Henry Adams, and Albert Schweitzer (among others) lamented the West’s inner ills.  Working within that weltgeist, Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin sketched their diagnoses, warning that Western Civilization was in danger if not in declining.

Though a mathematician by training, Oswald Spengler (“the master doomsayer”) immersed himself in classical and historical studies and published, during WWI, The Decline of the West, a blockbuster of a book which set the tone for Europe’s intellectuals between the world wars.  Taking his cue from Nietzsche, Spengler held that “cultures” constitute the core of the human story and sought to show how they all follow an unalterable biological pattern:  birth; growth; decay; death.  Past cultures’ collapses persuaded him that some developments guarantee the immanent end of a civilization:  a disinterest in having children and resultant depopulation; the loss of religious faith; the tendency to confuse indiscipline with freedom; spineless pacifism; self-coddling socialism.  The prevalence of such things a century ago persuaded Spengler that the West had entered its final hour.

Unlike Spengler, Arnold J. Toynbee (“the master historian”) didn’t think anything was necessarily predetermined.  In some ways Toynbee, like C.S. Lewis, represents the last generation of Englishmen to receive a genuinely classical education–the approach to learning basic to the West for more than half a millennium.  Drawing upon that education, Toynbee sought to understand the whole of human history and wrote A Study of History–12 volumes, three million words, the longest historical work ever written.  (And, I might add, the focus on an intellectually-awakening directed reading project I completed during my senior year of college.)

Toynbee argued that civilizations begin when creative minorities respond to various challenges and inspire others to join them in building a great society.  In time they succeed.  But success, like aging cream, sours.  Folks grow complacent, let things go, and cultural disintegration ensues.  In some ways, it’s a suicidal process.  Though renewal efforts may prolong the process, civilizations ultimately die and disappear.  Some of them, however, incubate universal religions like Christianity.  And these religions become the bearers of a nobler life and human progress.  Civilizations, such as the Classical Greco-Roman, are the wheels which support the wagon of religion.  And this gives meaning to human history.  Unlike Spengler, Toynbee could not say whether the West was dying, one suspects he thinks it’s mortally wounded.

Pitrim A. Sorokin, “the master analyst” in Brander’s judgement, was a Russian-born sociologist who emigrated to the United States and launched Harvard’s department of sociology.  Rather than cycles of civilizations, Sorokin–in Social and Cultural Dynamics–thought history forever oscillates between two ways of life, two world views:  the ideational and the sensual.  In ideational eras, people revere and serve God or gods.  In sensate periods, they celebrate man and seek sensual satisfactions.  “For instance, an ideational society will spend enormous efforts erecting cathedrals, while a sensate society will put the same labor into building theaters and arenas” (p. 263).  Ideational thinkers pursue theology; sensate thinkers follow natural science.  In ideational societies ethics stand rooted in transcendent principles such as Truth and Goodness; they become relativistic and utilitarian in sensate circles.

Sorokin took seriously a people’s art, architecture, and music, philosophy and theology.  What a given society thinks worthy stands clearly revealed in its intellectual artifacts.  On that basis, he feared for the future of the West, now clearly sinking in a decadent, sensate swamp.  Though sensate thinkers envision a heaven on earth of some sorts, “Sorokin foresaw dark and violent times of bloodshed, cruelty, and misery, with humanity uprooted and the old, sweet humanist dreams swept away in a holocaust of change” (p. 352).  He warned that man would become increasingly secularized, living by such standards as “might makes right.”  Families would fragment and educational institutions fail, and life in general would become rather desperate and dismal.

In such desperate times, what’s needed, Sorokin said, “‘ is the man who can control himself and his lusts, who is compassionate to all his fellow men, who can see and seek for the eternal values of culture and society, and who deeply feels his unique responsibility in this universe'” (p. 361).  Such a man will hold things together in this time of troubles.  And fortunately, in time, a new ideational era will dawn.  There will be new St Pauls and St Augustines.  God, rather than man, will be worshiped and served.  A new creative epoch will dawn and all will be well–for a while.


Jacques Barzun is one of the most highly-regarded academics of the past half century.  After a distinguished teaching career he became the provost at Columbia University where, despite administrative obligations, he continued his scholarly writing.  Now in his 90’s, Barzun provides us a broad interpretative historical work, From Dawn to Decadence:  500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (New York:  HarperCollinsPublishers, c. 2000).  Though he shares their concern for “decadence” and “culture,” unlike historicists such as Spengler and Toynbee, he finds no grand design or direction in history.  Rather, he says, he’s an historian, a “storyteller who tries to unfold the intricate plot woven by the actions of men, women, and teenagers” (p. xvi) whose ideas and actions shape the human story.   History, he argues, “cannot be a science; it is the very opposite in that its interest resides in he particulars” (p. 654).  And this book deals with particulars and more particulars!  Vignettes, excursions, parenthetical byways, make this book one to be tasted and savored without looking for grand explanations.  Bibliographical references, sparkling quotations in the margins, reminders of themes Barzun finds recurrent, “cross-sections” of cities in selected years, make this a volume well worth perusing.

Part One of Barzun’s account takes us from Luther to Newton, an epoch (1517-1688) dominated by religious questions, wherein “the West was torn apart.”  The Protestant Reformation, Jacob Burckhardt said, can be summed up as “an escape from discipline,” and it illustrates one of Barzun’s main themes:  EMANCIPATION.  Luther and his followers, stressing salvation for INDIVIDUALS, prescribed the demise of the civilization which birthed them.  Learned Humanists, such as Petrarch and Montaigne, Eutopians, such as More and Rabelais, also leave their mark on this era.  And then there are the scientists, Bacon and Copernicus, Descartes and Kepler taking the lead, whose breakthroughs signaled the beginnings of the modern world dominated by SCIENTISM. 

            Part Two takes us from the “monarchs revolution” in the 17th century to the French Revolution, “the Liberal Revolution,” in1789.  The place of the person in his world and the form of government which should guide it dominated ideas and events.  The Protestant Revolution had done “its best and its worst while destroying unified Christendom” and helped usher in “the Monarchical Revolution” personified by Louis XIV and the “reign of etiquette” at Versailles.  Machiavelli’s prescriptions and Hobbes’s Leviathan, proved portentous in articulating the political philosophy basic to the “age of absolutism.”  Rubens and Moliere set the artistic standards.  French philosophes, Bayle and Voltaire and Diderot, Franklin and Goethe, celebrated an “enlightenment” excelling everything hitherto done.

Part Three covers the era “from Faust, Part I, to ‘Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2” (1789-1920) deals with “Reason and Romanticism.”  During these years the great concern was the social and economic equality so evident in various socialist movements, oft touting PRIMITIVISM (the rejection of civilization), another major theme.  The Industrial Revolution prompted the Romantics to protest, with Emerson, that “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” but things in fact proliferated and the world forever changed.  Part Four, “From ‘The Great Illusion’ to ‘Western Civ Has got to Go,'” Jesse Jackson’s cheerleading chant at Stanford University 15 years ago, brings us to the present “decadence” Barzun discerns in our culture.  Labels often affixed to our “age” reveal much about it–Uncertainty, Nihilism, Anxiety.  The optimism of the Enlightenment, the confidence in progress characteristic of the 19th century, dissipated in the two great wars of the 20th century.  A “great switch” took place, leading to a decline in educational standards, relativism in ethics, absurdity in art, and welfare state paternalism in politics.

A passing conversation with a colleague, Robert Smith, recently prodded me to re-read Jacques Ellul’s The Betrayal of the West (New York:  The Seabury Press, 1978).   Though much of the book (especially Ellul’s polemics), is dated, his central argument stands:  “The West represents values for which there is no substitute.  The end of the West today would mean the end of any possible civilization” (p. vii).  Indeed, no one else discovered “the astounding truth that is peculiar to man:  he is a maker of history, history understood as the expression of freedom and of man’s mastery of events, nature, and his own social life” (p. 32).   “The greatness of the West, then, consists in this, that it is the place where God has issued his final and most radical challenge to man, because it is the place where man has attained his greatest stature” (p. 76).

Ellul thus challenges those who routinely condemn Western Civilization.  To follow anti-Christian haters of the West such as Faucoult and Chomsky would plunge the world into a chaos caused by the loss of self-restraint which makes civilization possible.  Admittedly much evil has been done by  the West, and Ellul (in classics like The Technological Society)  has been one of its strongest critics.  But its failures do not render obsolete the West’s true grandeur.  Ellul especially analyzes the criticism proffered by champions of Islam.  They have generally assailed the West by comparing its principles with Westerners’ behavior but refused to do the same with Arab acts.  “Principles must be compared with principles (Islam and the gospel) and behavior with behavior (Muslim and Christian)” he says (p. 14).

In truth, much pro-Muslim rhetoric stems from the Marxist-shaped Left’s determination to undermine Western Civilization by exalting the “poor.”  Rather than proclaim salvation, Leftists preach a “gospel of the poor” which encourages them to resort to violence; rather than encourage humility, they exalt pride.  Still more:  the Left’s great love for the world’s “poor” is highly selective.  Little sympathy was expressed for the poor in Communist countries, though millions were brutally repressed.  Leftists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre routinely attacked repression in South Africa or South Vietnam while blissfully endorsing Castro and Stalin!  Ellul argues that modern “poverty” is far more evident in public opinion than economics.  Truly poor people are folks such as the Kurds, are totally ignored despite their sufferings.