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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It[1]

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Executive Summary



To understand what “the West” is—and is not—is of dire importance to the entire world. We must have answers to the thought that drives anti-Western sentiment. We must be able to evaluate if the West can learn from anti-Western sentiment. We must be able to evaluate what the West is now, what it should become, and how we are to get there. Since its founding, America has always looked to the Continent for intellectual guidance. In order that we might begin to understand what “the West” is and is not, we turn to Thomas Pangle’s book, The Ennobling of Democracy. Pangle evaluates how Western rationality or positivism developed in reaction to the questions of classical political rationalism, and how recent trends included under the category of Western thought known as postmodernism now react against both positivism and classical political rationalism.


Pangle says that what most vividly marks the present moment in history is the retreat of Marxism. According to Pangle, the anti-Marxist West is better defined in terms of liberal democracy and democratic republicanism, along with individual rights, especially individual civil and property rights. Pangle says that if we look back two centuries to when the West was trying to reform monarchism, abundant answers to the questions of the moral and civic foundations of democracy existed. These philosophers of modernity spoke not only of human rights, but of “natural rights” resulting in moral “laws of nature and of nature’s God.”[2] Ideas like the “state of nature,” “social compact,” and “categorical imperative” were taken seriously.


In a manner that had been unlike Classical Philosophy, modern scientific reasoning would lead to popular enlightenment—the enlightenment of the masses. Scientific morals, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, and religion were to replace the old prescientific or traditional morals, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, and religion. Pangle says that although the Enlightenment delivered on its promises in the areas of mathematics, economics, and technology, it failed to deliver on its promises in the areas of culture, morality, religion, and politics. The educated citizen now rarely endorses “natural rights” or “rights of man.” Today’s constitutionalists hold great skepticism towards even property rights, the core of the Enlightenment conception of the rights of man. But above all else, reason itself and the concept of universalism implied in reason is not trusted.


Modern rationalism has been scathingly criticized by succeeding generations of philosophical critics, starting with Rousseau and reaching a climax in Nietzsche and Heidegger—critics who stress powerful arguments that modern rationalism, and therefore rationalism itself, is incapable of providing an acceptably profound, diverse, “creative,” and “historical” account of what is truly human.


Pangle says that Socratic political rationalism has little to do with the “Platonism” and “Aristotelian teleology” that respectable scholarship has produced for the last two hundred years, which views classical philosophy through the categories of modern rationalism—notably formed through such figures as the Kantian Edmund Zeller—and points us instead in the direction of a more accurate representation of the Socratic tradition. This is available due to Leo Strauss’ rediscovery of a careful reading of Plato, as found in the Islamic and Judaic Middle Ages in such works as Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed.


Did not theorists like Hamilton and Montesquieu depend upon, and yet inadequately account or provide for, certain absolutely crucial moral and educational foundations of civic republican culture: moral and educational foundations, the exploration of whose problematic nature was the central theme of Socratic republican theory? Pangle suggests that if we are to ennoble our understanding of our democratic political regime, we will need to cross-examine dialectally our opinions of the just, as did Plato and his greatest students. That political philosophy is missing from the postmodern account of rationalism; that the educational goals of postmodernism result in vacuous students; and that the political goals of postmodernism, at best, remain vague, all have dire implication to our understanding of civic responsibility and our political order.


To be free is not to be an independent individual, but to be a citizen of a polity in which one has access to the deliberations that authoritatively shape communal life. Since not all can rule at once, rule is rotated. Pangle says to know how to rule as a republican, one must know how to submit to being ruled. Voluntary obedience drives the republican citizen. Pangle says a sound republic will then be one in which the ruling offices are distributed as much as possible according to virtuous merit, or as Jefferson put it, the best form of government will most effectually select the best men of the natural aristocracy to rule and will make provision against the artificial aristocracy’s ascendancy.




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