Christendom, conservatism, Enlightenment, Greco-European philosophy, History, Islam, literacy, monotheism, politics, property rights, spirituality
Tags: politics, history, Greco-European philosophy, spirituality, Enlightenment, literacy, Christendom, Islam, monotheism, property rights, conservatism
There certainly was a long history of conflict and animosity between European Christendom and the ‘empire’ of Islam. That history of conflict included the Christian crusades beginning in the eleventh century, as well as both the Islamic Turkish conquest of Constantinople and the “reconquest” of Spain by Christian armies in the fifteenth century. Christendom’s fear of being encircled by Islam at that time inspired its push westward across the Atlantic, and so in part, inspired its subsequent global imperialism. However, since then, an historical singularity has occurred, and almost incredibly, the western cultural system has moved beyond its Judeo-Christian cultural heritage, so that the twenty-first century situation is nothing like a replay of the pre-modern “clash of civilizations”.
It is simply not true, for example, that gender equality is a Judeo-Christian value. Neither Jewish nor Christian culture treats women as equal to men, and that is a glaring dystopian feature of the patriarchal legacy of father-god monotheism. Democracy isn’t a Judeo-Christian idea either, but rather an idea from ancient Greece, long before the Christian era and independent of ancient Judaic influence. The Greek idea of democracy was associated with a concept of political equality with strict limitations but with potential for expansion. That potential had to wait a long time as a weak minority report within Christendom, in remnants of a Stoic, humanist influence, sometimes buried in monastic libraries. It was given some significant boosts in a number of subsequent European cultural developments: the movement for universal literacy in vernacular languages from around the time of Wycliffe (1380’s), violently resisted by the Church; again, in the context of the Renaissance fascination with ancient Greco-Roman paganism came the launch of the printing press in the fifteenth century; and once again in the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on mass literacy, and the subsequent development of the Republic of Letters outside the reach of institutions. It was dissident philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment who built on all that deep groundwork and used philosophical ideas of innate rationality, equality, individual human dignity and rights, secularism, cosmopolitanism, and representative democracy to launch a world-changing critique of their Christian society, until then dominated by dynastic monarchies in alliance with hierarchies of Christian clergy and military aristocracy already well along in looting the world in their brutal imperialism. So, the Enlightenment did not appear out of nothing, like a bolt from the blue, but was another step in an enduring dance entangling cultural legacies with the emerging experience of new generations of humans. The values of modern urban democracies (often still aspirational) should be described as radical Enlightenment values, not Judeo-Christian values. The Enlightenment assertion of equality, based on the universal dignity merited by inherent rationality (related to linguistic competence and literacy), was in dramatic opposition to the prevailing Christian norms based on the dark myth of inherent evil, original sin. Given this history, the cultural conflict we are living through now features remnants of the monotheist religions of the Middle East, all adorations of patriarchal inequality, on one side, against more recent developments of an individualistic humanism from ancient Greek philosophy on the other. This isn’t just a clash between Greco-Roman vs Judaic cultural legacies. This goes deeper. The ancient Greek rationalist philosophers found the portal beyond culture into elemental spirituality, which turned out to be individual as defined by the individual human body, so these different ideas cannot dovetail into a symbiotic coexistence. They are fundamentally incompatible and opposed to one another, founding the unbridgeable cultural divide between conservative and progressive political forces.
Conservatism and Property
Proponents of political conservatism, heirs of patriarchal monotheism, claim to champion individualism, but in conservative ideology, property rights take the place of individual human rights. Ownership of property, frequently including people made into property by being entirely deprived of rights, was the crucial marker of value and status in the hierarchical social order of pre-Enlightenment Christendom. Individuals with the most property have the most rights in the patriarchal worldview, and distribution of the world’s property was mostly completed long ago, establishing “facts on the ground” that conservatives strive to preserve. Property possession brings with it not only an obsession with guns and protection by violence, but also the “us against them” package of emotional triggers. The conservative claim to individualism comes down to placing supreme value on ownership of property, which has an inherent male bias from the long history of patriarchal dominance. Property rights are so dominant in conservative ideology that the holding of legal title to property by corporations confers on them the status of individual persons. This whole property rights focus creates an entirely bogus individualism because holding possession of property is absolutely dependant on a vast organizational support of laws, courts, lawyers, and weaponized enforcement. Conservatism is mainly about preventing or at least minimizing redistribution of property (wealth) by sovereign institutions. Sovereign institutions are otherwise very dear to the hearts of property hoarders because such institutions have the armed power to protect and defend property possession. However, there is a vulnerability in that sovereign power because if it falls under certain influences and ideas of justice, it also has the innate potential to enforce the redistribution of property. When sovereign governments come under the influence of people and ideologies in favour of material equality, then the forces of conservatism push for the limitation of sovereign power.
Andrew Coyne, for example (in the National Post, November 6, 2015), has claimed that the essence of conservatism is the limitation of power, but such a claim is true only in the context of cultural pressures for enhancing material equality. The reality is that property rights are so central to conservatism that on that view the institutions of sovereignty must be restrained when exposed to democracy, because broadly based electorates might not be unreservedly dedicated to protecting property rights. In this context, the conservative rhetoric of limiting the power of elites is also misleading. Conservatives have no problems with lethal military elites (special forces), with sporting elites glorifying masculinity, investor elites symbolizing success, religious elites policing conformity, or elites of heroic patriots as universal role models. The rhetoric against “elites” is mainly resistance to the rationally based individualism accomplished by education, and as such a form of nostalgia for the pre-Enlightenment world ruled by religious supervision, fervent nationalism, and patriarchal family culture. The adulation of pretty much all elites is core conservatism, called “celebrating excellence” or “appreciating exceptional success”. It is practically the state religion of the U.S.A., although actualized in such a way as not to disrupt the traditional hierarchy of wealth and power. Conservative adulation of excellence and exceptional success excludes only those founded on advanced literacy and education, and that is a crucial lens for seeing into the heart of conservatism. Intellectual achievement is the portal to the spirituality beneath Enlightenment individualism, emphasizing spiritual qualities and competencies inherent in every individual, independent of possession of trophy properties, and as such tending toward a universal sociability in conflict with the “us against them” essentials of conservatism.
The current mass displacements of people from wars visited upon mainly Muslim countries by the Euro-American military/ political system is providing a pretext for anti-Enlightenment movements in the west to launch campaigns invoking the pre-modern “clash of civilizations” based on false claims that western culture is still Judeo-Christian and as such threatened by Muslim migration. This historical falsehood is presumably intended to resuscitate the appearance of relevance in outmoded Judeo-Christian beliefs, and inspire a resurgence of loyalty to the Christian legacy of authoritarian patriarchal society, fervent patriotism as a surrogate religion, communal adulation of warlike masculine virtues such as strength, competitive spirit, and kinetic action, restoring females as property, and reverting to attitudes that are anti-abortion and anti-gay. Such is conservatism. However, in the modern urban community such values are all widely and deeply contested by the legacies of Greek and European philosophical Enlightenment. The philosophic revolution, the rising prestige and urban spread of the kind of secular spiritual autonomy modelled in ancient philosophical thinking, is still advancing. Although the commanding heights, the institutions which structure the society, are all bastions of patriarchal culture, and we still live within that nexus of social supervision, we have less fear of, less trust in, and less emotional reliance on authorities of all kinds. Very slowly the historical singularity of Enlightenment individualism, and the kind of freedom and equality it carries, is dissolving the cultures inclined to be anti-Enlightenment. There is no reason to doubt that it will continue to dissolve the legacy cultures of any immigrant proponents of patriarchy. An irony of the current anti-Muslim campaign by conservative groups is that they share many core values with this culture they purport to oppose, because both are remnants of the patriarchal monotheist religions of the Middle East. Conservative groups are despising their own mirror image.
Copyright © 2017 Sandy MacDonald.