The West has long been split into two. “While Athens is justly credited with phenomenal achievements in visual art, architecture, theater, philosophy and democratic politics,” writes Paul Cartledge in The Spartans, “the ideals and traditions of its greatest rival, Sparta, are equally potent and enduring: duty, discipline, the nobility of arms in a cause worth dying for, the sacrifice of the individual for the greater good of the community and the triumph of will over seeming insuperable obstacles.”
Cartledge believes that the ethos of ancient Greece influenced, and to some degree came to reside in the Roman and British empires. Yet these too have gone. Rome remains, and Britain remains, though the latter is still battling to have relevance in the world — especially, perhaps, moral relevance. With the traditional religion of the country collapsed, its politicians — like the politicians of most Western European nations — believe less in representing the public than in educating and molding them morally, as priests would once have attempted.
Yet, it seems strange that Cartledge did not cite America — which emerged from, and yet against, Britain — as another example of an heir to ancient Greek civilization. The adoption of the neoclassical style of architecture in the USA shows, clearly, that, for a certain period at least, America saw itself as an heir to the Greeks and Romans.
Today, in both Western Europe and the Anglosphere, the split is largely between “liberal” and “conservative,” or at least voters on the “Left” and on the “Right” (though this tends often to be a tribal distinction — and hence media tends to comment on elections on as if they are sports competitions, discussing “strategy” and how to “win” over this or that voting bloc).
This split no doubt indicates a deeper one in the personalities and culture (male versus female, intellect versus physical strength, tradition versus a vision of the future) of the inhabitants of the countries in these regions.
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has remarked that liberals tend to be high in openness — and, in regard to religion, are drawn more to spirituality — and that conservatives tend to be high in conscientiousness and — religiously, tend more toward the dogmatic and the “rule”. Both openness to ideas and a rule/structure of ideas are necessary, however, both in a society and in the individual. As Peterson has said,
You have to believe things or you couldn’t exist — you couldn’t act [in the world]. You have to hold onto the dogmatic structure of your belief. But you have to open to its update on a continual basis… and that’s basically what consciousness is for.
The West is facing a crisis. Not for the first time. “The palaces of… central and southern Greece in about 1200 [BC],” says Cartledge, “and the civilization of which they had been the focus melted away, to be succeeded by an era so relatively impoverished culturally that it has often been referred to as a Dark Age.”
Unlike the ancient Greeks, the Romans, or even the British a few decades before its empire began to crumble, the modern West does not know what it stands for culturally. Commentators and social critics, who believe that Europe may collapse in social turmoil a few decades from now, often frame the crisis in terms of values. Europe or the West is in crisis because it has forgotten its values, it is claimed.
A few decades ago, I happened to be watching some debate show on television in England. A rather snobbish-sounding woman said that she looked forward to religion dying out and the churches being “turned into something useful.” It has stuck with me, perhaps because it so obviously contrasted that saying of Oscar Wilde: “all art is quite useless.”
The values of the anti-religious woman in question were no doubt as Christian as any Church minister, and no doubt she imagined the “useful” structures to be one of helping the poor and the needy — just as Jesus would have wanted.
Lack of values are not the problem. We are overflowing with values. Every day brings new public condemnation of some tiny moral infraction. From social media overreactions to safe spaces, we live in an increasingly online, mental, abstract world made of moral walls.
The problem is that we are so moral we cannot create anything beautiful, noble, or full of Nietzschean “will to power.” We live as if split from our own selves: the mind from the body, art from beauty, religion from spirituality, discipline from inquiry.
As Roger Scruton has noted, in regard to Wilde’s statement, cited above, we, as human beings, need more than the “useful” or the functional. A world without the aesthetic would be inhuman and unbearable. Nature itself is savage but it is also aesthetic. We are repulsed by the carcass but are mesmerized by the mountains and the forests, and that is partly what gives us meaning.
Meaning is found largely outside of function. We might claim, for example, that a soldier finds his meaning in fighting the enemy, but he finds his meaning in his homeland, values, way of life, and so on. If he hated those things, his defending them would be meaningless.
Scruton suggests that, perhaps more than anything, we find our meaning in beauty. Beauty can even be a “substitute” for religion. But “why describe [religion and beauty] as rivals?” he asks. “The sacred and the beautiful stand side by side; two doors that open onto a single space, and in that space we find our home.”
To create or to appreciate beauty — to create or appreciate culture — is to transcend oneself.
Split along party lines, today the Left and Right agree on one thing: moralizing and attacking each other is the solution. Only it isn’t.
Ancient Greece disappeared, but Greece still exists, and its culture has influenced others, and, undoubtedly still exerts an influence. The Roman and British Empires collapsed but Rome and Britain still exist. We in the West may be facing another collapse, or may even be in one already.
Yet, if only individually or in small groups, by unifying Athens and Sparta — mind with body, spirituality with discipline, culture with strength, tradition with exploration and experimentation — we will not only empower ourselves and those who come after us, but we will pass through the crisis of modernity.