Reports of depraved violence and unspeakable affronts to the dignity of human persons now dominate the twenty-four hour news cycle. From the intentional destruction of a commercial airliner by Russian-backed rebels to widespread beheadings and crucifixions in the Middle East, it appears as if the world is fast becoming a blood-soaked battlefield—a nihilistic wasteland commanded by the whims of brutish dictators, angry mobs, and murderous sects. While the world is appalled at these recent atrocities, and while we share a common sense of outrage, the West remains apathetic to their causes.
A cursory glance at recent world events provides more than ample evidence that the social order under which we have existed for generations is yielding to a new tide of barbarism that threatens to swallow the entire civilized world. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this violence is the significant support it appears to garner among Western youths (a recent poll suggest that in France, ISIS holds a sixteen-percent approval rating). Our purported age of hope is quickly becoming an age of despair, and while a full frontal assault on the civilized world is underway, the battle for the preservation of civilization is not yet lost. Although the restoration of international order may appear an insurmountable task, under the leadership of a confident and secure West, such a revival is not only possible, but likely.
To that end, it is imperative that the West regain its lost sense of moral rectitude and inner-confidence; however, its affirmation of cultural and political prestige need not be accomplished through military or economic coercion, but through the example of a decent, moral society that strives toward the erection of a tolerable social order. This requires critical self-examination of our own social, moral, and intellectual views.
At the outset, the West must confront its own flawed understanding of history. Since St. Augustine’s City of God was written in the fourth century, the West has largely conceived of history as the unfolding revelation of a divine plan animated by the choices of free human agents. Over the past two centuries, this traditional understanding has been eroded by various “end of history” theories, including economic determinism (e.g., socialism and democratic capitalism) and social progressivism. These “historicist” philosophies purport to show that history, by its very nature, moves in a particular direction and reaches its end when certain political or economic preferences are achieved. This is the great intellectual fallacy of the modern West because it inculcates a false sense of the inevitability of the triumph of good, and is a principal source of our inability to respond effectively to disorder both at home and abroad.
In its place, the West must accept a more sophisticated view of history predicated upon the reality of contingency. Once the Western mind submits to the premise that history is not predetermined, it can begin to confront the causes of global chaos. Ideas and actions have consequences, and until Western culture commits itself to a thorough introspection of its own assumptions—both philosophical and historical—countless volumes will one day recount how the most dynamic civilization to ever exist pitifully wallowed in ineptness until it unwittingly acquiesced to the birth of a new dark age.
While the West can assign blame to innumerable external sources for the current world crisis, it must not ignore its own contributions to the growing disorder, as well as its mounting inability to confront evil because of its refusal to abandon its steadfast commitment to historicism and its closely related philosophical error, moral relativism. Advancing the proposition that ideas of right and wrong are relics of an age of intolerance and that moral neutrality is the basis of a civilized culture renders the West powerless to confront even the most egregious evil despite outward expressions of universal outrage.
The renewal of global order will require the West to do more than institute political or economic programs granting aid to poor nations or deploying military forces to police thuggish dictators. The West must painstakingly resuscitate its dying moral voice. It must regain its sense of self-worth and reassert its dedication to the promotion of order, justice, and peace. The West must reaffirm that right and wrong are proper categories of moral judgment, and reject the naïve belief that the arc of history innately bends toward justice. As we enter an age of unsurpassed violence, the West must reconsider its newfound belief that history is always on the side of righteousness, and with Edmund Burke, know that “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
What is the West to do? How can we meaningfully confront the rising tide of totalitarianism and condemn the violence of others when we ourselves refuse to employ the vocabulary of good and evil, and subscribe to the progressive belief that the passage of time is a panacea? The answer is simple: We cannot. Consequently, if global order is to be restored, the West must be able to convince the world that certain behaviors are existentially wrong, but to do so, it must be able to explain why. This is only possible if the West is confident in the propriety of its message and confident in its moral right to convey that message. The West must again stand for something or it will ultimately stand for nothing. Enervated by a lack of definite purpose and structure, the Western mind has become malleable and defenseless. It is no wonder that extremist groups have had astonishing success in brainwashing Western youths to fight on their behalf.
The West cannot afford to lose sight of its own identity by abdicating its core values to a world that eschews moral absolutes and a modern culture that embraces an impoverished view of history. Ultimately, we need not acquiesce to the most recent onslaught of barbarism in the Middle East and eastern Europe, but effective resistance to this blood-dimmed tide will require the West to reclaim its role as history’s custodian—a role that begins with cultural and intellectual renewal at home. The West must regain its nerve, not just for its own sake, but for the benefit of the entire world. “For nowadays, the world is lit by lightning.” It need not be so.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.