The Bonfire of the West

An interview with Freedom Center Shillman Fellow Bruce Thornton.

Editors' note: Freedom Center Shillman Fellow Bruce Thornton was recently interviewed by Davide Cavaliere for the Italian website Caratteri Liberi about Marxism, the state of health of Western civilization, the relationship between reason and faith, Western identity, and more. Don't miss the English translation of this fascinating discussion below:

Professor Thornton, I would like to start with a quote from your recent article written for Frontpage Magazine, «Marxism has thus been kept alive in its “gentlest” guise of progressivism». What relations connect Marxism and progressivism?

Marxism and progressivism share two important ideas. Both are the fruit of scientism: the questionable notion that there can be a “scientific” understanding of human nature and behavior. For Marxism, Marx’s philosophy of history–– as a progressive, phased advancement towards the abolition of private property in a utopia of social justice–– is viewed as a scientific fact rather than a philosophy. Likewise progressivism springs from the creation of the so-called “human sciences” like sociology, psychology, and economics, all of which provide an understanding of human nature and behavior as the consequence of materialist laws akin to physics. This leads to the second similarity: technocracy. Both ideologies believe that an elite of enlightened experts, armed with “scientific” knowledge, should be empowered to run society and make policy on the basis of that knowledge rather than on tradition, practical wisdom, common sense.  They both then are antidemocratic and always potentially tyrannical.

After the First World War, the French writer Paul Valéry said: “We civilizations now know that we are mortal”. What is the “state of health” of Western Civilization? Who are our main enemies today?

Unhealthy. The West for over a century has been undergoing what Solzhenitsyn called a “rage of self-mutilation,” embracing a fashionable self-doubt and self-denigration predicated on alleged crimes like colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, etc. The West has additionally accepted the dubious notion that “heaven on earth” can be created, and humans freed from the tragic dimensions of human existence that has defined humanity from the its beginning, thus legitimizing the dangerous self-loathing because of our failure to achieve that impossible utopia. These dysfunctions of thought weaken our nerve and erode patriotism, which is correctly understood as the affection for and loyalty to our way of life and the goods such as political freedom and human rights that define it. Without that confidence, our morale erodes and leaves us unwilling to risk confronting definitively the global challenges we face––Islamic jihad and, as of now, the existential the threat of communist China, which clearly intends to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power.

In Italy, as in all of Europe, a process of de-Christianization and abandonment of the triple Western heritage is underway: Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian. European civilization is reduced only to the Enlightenment. What are the intellectual origins of this trend?

Secularization, which began to spread in the mid-nineteenth century, has reached the point where for the West Christianity is now a mere life-style choice, one no more valid than any other subjective preference.  Indeed, in some leftist quarters it is inferior than a militant faith like Islam, which enjoys privileges and exemptions in the West never allowed Christians. With Christianity––the necessary foundation of ideas like unalienable rights, human rights, individualism, political freedom, and the like–– weakened, what remains to give transcendent authority to all those ideals? They become mere subjective cultural preferences of the West, not transcendent truths beyond negotiation. And we should note that the remarkable creation of wealth over the last century, and the technologies that free us from daily drudgery, hunger, sickness, and early death, have fooled us into thinking that we can dispense with God and any thought for the fate of the soul. We live for today, for consumption and pleasure. But in a world of ruthless enemies who are confident about what they believe and what they are passionate about killing and dying for, dolce vita hedonism is nothing but suicide. Nobody will fight and die for more cable channels or I-phones or video games.

You have written a book called Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization. Can you tell us why ancient Greece is so important and why a young American or European student should study classical antiquity?

Well, I have to give you the short answer. The ancient Greeks are the first people on record to practice what I call “critical consciousness”: the willingness to think analytically about everything from the cosmos to their own culture and selves. From that habit spring all the innovations, particularly philosophy, art, rationalism, and constitutional governments, that still define the West today. And the habit of critical consciousness leads to questioning what a culture takes for granted, whether medicine, ethics, or something like slavery. The evil of slavery was mostly ended in the early nineteenth century by Christian abolitionists in Britain and the United States. But the first seeds of abolition were planted by Greeks like Alcidimas in the early 4th century B.C. who said, “The god gave freedom to all men, and nature made no man a slave.” As the great historian Jacob Burckhardt said, “We see with the eyes of the Greeks and use their phrases when we speak.”

The philosopher Leo Strauss, an expert on both Plato and Maimonides, concluded that it is not possible to arrive at a satisfactory synthesis between Athens and Jerusalem. What is your opinion on the relationship between reason and faith?

I think Dante in the Commedia is a better guide on that question. Modernity, having claimed a priori that all reality is material, has limited reason to a method for understanding and manipulating the material world. But there is a spiritual reality, a soul that makes us human and a God who created us. Christian theology is rational and coherent, not to mention better supported by empirical evidence and experience. To my mind Dante’s description of the soul and sin and redemption is much truer to our complete nature, material and spiritual, than are the various pseudo-scientific, reductionist nostrums of modern psychology.

How important are ancient Rome and Italy in defining Western identity?

I’ll put it simply: without the synthesis of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, there is no Western identity. These traditions created consciousness and the life of the mind, without which we cannot be fully human. Rome has a particular importance that comes from its Christianization, which preserved, internalized, and in some cases surpassed, the heritage of Athens. Rome created the infrastructure of modern Europe, which survived the collapse of its authority in Western Europe. Rome and Italy comprise one of our intellectual ancestors, and we can’t fully know ourselves if we don’t know Rome’s history and achievements.

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Bruce Thornton is one of the most influential conservative philosophers in the United States of America. He is a professor of classical studies at California State University and a researcher at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western civilization, among them Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge (1997), Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (2000), Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide (2007) and The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America (2011).

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