I recently found this article on a blog called Of Wolves and Men, about the three pillars of Western civilisation. Since like the author of that blog, Western civilisation and its discontents will probably form a large part of what I write about here, I thought it might be beneficial to add some of my own thoughts on this subject. The reader may click on the link provided above to read the original article in full. These three pillars are probably ones which most students of European history will be familiar with, or at least could guess what they were without much prompting. However, I’ll list them below as stated in the original article,
1:) The Greek and Roman Legacy
2:) Christianity; Specifically the Medieval Catholic Church
3:) The Customs of the Germanic Barbarians
Before I begin to address these in greater detail, I would first like to lay out my approach to organising my thoughts on this, one that derives (mostly unconsciously, until recently) from the view of civilisations as “organisms” (versus civilisations as “systems” which are more or less consciously created through planned efforts at organisation by groups of men, something which I don’t think a balanced study of the historical evolution of any society, even “startups” like the United States, really bears out). A civilisation is tri-partite. Like the biblical description of man himself, a civilisation has “spirit, soul, and body,” so to speak. Every civilisation has a spiritual component – what it thinks about life, death, God or the gods, the afterlife, etc. They also have “soul” – psyche, mind, the intellectual, philosophical, and cultural heritage that determines how their members think, act, and respond. Civilisations also have “body” – the people themselves, and the customs and rites that they bring with them.
This being said, let me now proceed to discussing these three pillars of Western civilisation.
I would classify Christianity as the “spirit” of Western civilisation. I would not confine this to, or even primarily attribute it to medieval Catholicism (more on the place of medieval Catholicism below), but more generally to the Hebraic heritage from which biblical Christianity was derived. Christianity preceded the rise of Catholicism, and Christianity is not, nor has it ever really been, coextensive with Catholicism or its close-cousin in the eastern Orthodoxies.
Christianity, due to its source material, is necessarily a child of the Old Testament Hebrew religion (which is not the same thing, by the way, as Talmudic Judaism). Some folks may not like to admit that, other may merely not like it and thus reject Christianity, but it nevertheless is true. The very earliest Christians, including the Apostles, were Jews. The New Testament is filled with hundreds of direct and indirect quotations to the Old. The key doctrines of the faith are foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Christ’s resurrection was foretold in Psalm 16, and as old a writer as Job spoke with confident assurance that he, too, would be resurrected, and see his redeemer with his own eyes, even though worms would eat his body. Only aberrant approaches like that of Marcion would reject or minimise the Hebraic heritage of the West’s religion.
This is the fulfillment of the prophecy we see in Genesis 9:27,
“God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”
Japhethites – essentially the bulk of the Indo-European peoples – dwell in the tents of Shem, the forebearer of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This heritage is monotheistic, ethical, and anthropophilic. These three things, in combination, cannot be applied to any other civilisation’s religious systems. Islam may be monotheistic, and may have an ethical system of a sort, but it is not friendly towards man – in Islam, man is not viewed in the sense of being made for fellowship with a loving God who desires not only his worship and service, but also his free will choice to commune with Him. These three traits have shaped the religious and moral thinking of the West, regardless of the particular denomination of Christianity dominating in a region. Even before Catholicism emerged as a distinct branch of Christendom, Christians were ethically undermining the Roman world’s dependence on slavery by teaching the biblical truth of “masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal” (Colossians 4:1) and that a slave who was in Christ was “above a servant, a brother beloved” (Philemon 16). Christians opposed the moral blasphemy of the gladiatorial games, and also opposed abortion as a moral evil, long before Roman Catholics and Evangelicals joined their forces to oppose it in modern-day America.
Christianity’s mandate to “subdue” the earth gave the West a sharply different view of the world around us than that held by practically every other civilisation. While the rest of the world wondered in awe at the natural world, Christianity’s belief in the intelligibility of nature and the mandate to establish stewardship over it led to the rise of natural science as Western man sought to “think God’s thoughts.”
In the realm of the arts, those expressions of the spirit such as painting, sculpture, literature, and so forth, Christianity has been an immeasurable source of inspiration. One simply cannot understand the artistic impulses of the vast majority of the West’s history of the humanities without reference to Christianity.
Clearly, Christianity is not just an ancillary to Western civilisation, but is at the very heart of what made it “the West.” This explains why the enemies of the Western world, both within and without, are so keen on cutting out this root of Christianity and replacing it either with Islam or with secular humanism.
Now to the “soul” of the West, the mind, the psyche.
This part of the “organism” of Western civilisation was provided by the Greco-Roman legacy. The way the West thinks, the way we organise our knowledge and our societies, our philosophies – all come from this font. I said earlier that I felt medieval Catholicism, as a particular institution, belonged in this portion. That is because Roman Catholicism is a clear and direct descendant of the Roman Empire itself, right down to the form of its canon law, its organisational structure (dioceses, etc.), and its preservation of the Latin language. The monastic flavour of medieval Catholicism, as the original post noted, helped to preserve much of the knowledge of the Greek and (especially) Roman works from the darkness that overtook Europe with the fall of the Western empire. To them we owe a tremendous debt for doing this. Even the places where medieval Catholicism was factually and intellectual wrong, such as defending geocentrism or scholasticism, it did so because of the heritage it obtained from Ptolemy and Aristotle.
But more encompassing than this, the Greek and Roman heritage is evident in every area of the intellectual life of the West, right down to the way that we organise our books, build our buildings, lay out our cities, and give our speeches. Our philosophies, ultimately, grew out of either Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, or some combination thereof. Our mathematics trace back to Pythagorus and Euclid. Our rhetorical ideals hearken to Cicero and Demosthenes. Our format for writing history can be traced ultimately to Thucydides. Many of our legal principles (including, for instance, the right of armed self-defence) trace back to Justinian, Papinian, and other Roman jurists.
When it comes to things of the mind, and their application in the real world, we are standing on the shoulders of Romans while peering over the shoulders of Greeks.
Thirdly, we see the “body” of Western civilisation, which I believe can rightly be said to be the customs of the Germanic barbarians, or perhaps even more bluntly, the Germanic barbarians themselves.
Let’s begin by noting that the genetic and ancestral stock of most of the nations comprising Western civilisation contain at least some component of the Germanic heritage. Italians have Ostrogothic and Lombard blood mixed in with the old Italic stock. The French are the fusion of Frank and Visigoth with the earlier romanised Gauls. Even the Spanish and Portuguese have Visigoths, Vandals, and Suevians augmenting the old Hispano-Roman heritage. And of course, you have all of Europe north of the Latin-Germanic dividing line, as well as the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons in the Anglosphere all across the world. Indeed, one might well consider the American and Canadian conquests of North America to be the last wave of the westward Germanic expansion that began with Ariovistus in the time of Julius Caesar.
While the intellectual heritage of the West derives from Greece and Rome, it can fairly be said that much of the customs, rites, and day-to-day organisation of Western civilisation owe their origins to the Germanic tribes. Certainly, a good many of our languages come directly from the florescence of the old Germanic tongue after the tribes broke out from Germania proper. However, there is much more. The way many cultures in our civilisation organise private land holdings, for instance, comes from the Germanic heritage. The “acre” originated with the Anglo-Saxons when they were still genuinely Anglo-Saxon instead of English, and the idea has cognates all throughout the Germanic world, both old and modern. The layout of our homes, indeed, reflects the format of the Germanic longhouses. The fact that dogs are considered valued pets, rather than filthy nuisances or a menu item, derives from their usefulness in Germanic villages for giving warning of approaching enemies.
The list is endless. Most of our names for the days of the week in Northern Europe comes from the Germanic tribes (Tuesday = Tiwas’ day, Wednesday = Woden’s Day, etc.). As the original article noted, our obsession with keeping and bearing arms as freemen is also Germanic. We can fairly say that the physical structure of our society, the “body” of the West, derives a great deal from the Germanic barbarians.
These three seemingly disparate elements have nevertheless blended to form the exceedingly valuable compound known as Western civilisation. Without any of the three, the West would not be what is it, it would not have the drive or capacity or ethos that it has. The best from each tradition has mixed together to form what we can arguably say is the highest civilisation yet seen on this planet.