Western Civ — the study of history making the case for liberty

Note: The following column was written at the request of The Daily Tar Heel as part of a “Viewpoint” discussion on the proposed Western Civilization program.

The College of Arts and Sciences is putting together a proposal to give students the opportunity to partake in a program on Western Civilization. This is welcome news indeed.

Forget the trumped-up concern over any sinister effects of the Pope Foundation potentially funding the program. Most of you, I am confident, realize what a campfire horror story that is. And there, at the end of the grant, was … a hook!

The concern itself, after all, is rooted in values developed within the unfolding evolution of the subject of the proposed program, Western Civilization. The study of Western Civilization is history making the case for liberty, often through the process of elimination.

Central to this study is conflict — of ideas rather than armies, in battles that continue over generations. Early Greek philosophy, for example, abounds with the struggle to define the nature of the world and what it means to be a person, to live morally, to be a citizen. Christian philosophers such as Aquinas and Augustine entered, asking what it means to be a Christian, who is God, what is the nature of God, etc. — which all expand dramatically after the Protestant Reformation. Then Hume, Darwin, Nietzsche, and others question the existence of God and explore what mean life and humanity and the world without a Deity. And so it continues. For every generation the questions may seem as though answered by consensus, but history shows that seeking and uncertainty persists.

Western Civ features dramatic debates over the role of the state — in the lives of men, in the lives of rulers and politicians, and within, without or in comparison to the role of the church. Arguments abound throughout Western history: whether the king is appointed by God or beholden to the people; whether the church should be subservient, superior, separate, or even protected against any other churches; whether the people have the right to set up their own government (not to mention what form it should take); when and whether revolution is necessary; whether revolutionary leaders of the people are beholden to the people; etc. How should society operate? Who has a say? Only the king? Only the church? Only the aristocracy? Some combination? How so? Men? Free men? Landowners? What about women?

Conflicting ideas emerge over the nature and purpose of science and the arts, too — rich histories in their own rights, often commingled with those other debates. The discipline is not, as some fear, the stamp of approval on all things done by Dead White Males — rather, it is the study of the crucible of ideas that tested and approved our own society’s cherished values of democracy, individual liberty (even from the interference of one elite clique or another), the freedoms of speech and belief, and plurality (that is, diversity).

They are the same values from which the Western Civilization proposal’s critics argue today, apparently without any recognition of their heritage. But in doing so they demonstrate how compelling those values are, and how they are indeed not the sole purview of the Dead White Men. If the ideas fostered within the Western tradition are aspects of the Hope left to Pandora, they have proven as irresistible and irrepressible as the chaos that preceded it. They belong to all.