12 March 2009

Is Western Civilization Different?

For years now I have had the notion that Western Civilization is different from every other civilization I am aware of because of the fundamental split right through the middle of its soul between secular and spiritual power. I have never worked out the details, but anyone who studies medieval history must be struck by this fact. Most, however, don't realize that it is unique.

I have found a good expression of it by Dan Diner in Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still. In discussing the critique of Western society by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian scholar who laid out the intellectual foundations for the jihadists (or whatever they should be called). It is, in fact, the reason Qutb thought Christianity had gone wrong right from the "render unto Caesar" incident:
Sayyid Qutb is not wrong here: a fundamental institutional tension does in fact run through Western culture, whether in the various interpretations of the "two swords" theory in the high Middle Ages or in the earlier distinction between imperium and sacerdotium inherent in the fabric of the Holy Roman Empire. The individuality and freedom so important to the West can be traced back to a basic question in medieval Christianity: who should be obeyed -- the emperor or the pope? These two authorities struggle for supremacy in the heart of the perplexed, who can choose only one of them. Thus the birth of freedom in the expression of a deep internal rift. It stems from the individual's doubt and despair. Freedom springs from conflict and the discord associated with it. And in this conflict the individual is left all alone. Only conscience born of this discord can provide a sense of direction -- but conscience is not infallible.

So far it is a good book, one that looks at Islam by taking its spiritual coherence and unity as a serious attribute of Islamic society.

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At 17 March, 2009 20:30, Blogger Elliot said...

I remember reading somebody... possibly Ian Buruma? who said that 20th century Japanese authoritarianism and imperialism really got started during the Meiji Restoration, because previous to that you had two powers: the largely spiritual power of the Emperor, and the secular power of the shoguns. You could legitimately stand up to secular power and say "You are bad and I'm going to resist you in the name of the holy Emperor," using moral authority and sacred symbols. In the Restoration (if I remember correctly) a bunch of warlords took up the banner of the Emperor, crushed the other warlords, and then ruled from behind the throne - uniting their real military predominance with the sacred power of the Emperor. And then there was real trouble because the nation had become a unipolar nation and internal dissent became almost impossible.

I don't know if he's right, but it struck me as an interesting idea. I can't remember if he explicitly compares it to the church/state split in Europe or not.


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