The Universality Of Morality

July 24, 2020 Category: History, Religion

As with any inquiry, we must challenge our own presuppositions.  Sapience is largely about learning how to learn.  Indeed, even more important than what you know is what you know to ask.  This requires being able to extricate oneself from one’s own dogmatic tendencies; and be willing to buck received wisdom whenever the occasion warrants.

An Abiding Occidental Conceit

Let’s begin by recalling a sage observation made by Ernst Cassirer in “The Philosophy Of The Enlightenment”: “The true object of history is the story of the mind, not the tale of facts which are forever being distorted.”  To take heed of this, a survey of moral progress vis a vis religion is in order. However, any account of the life of the mind must not be done through a religious lens.  For a dogmatic system cannot be audited via a dogmatic system, lest we find ourselves in a catch-22. {38}

In assaying the world’s myriad ethical systems, and seeing how they have undergone a metamorphosis over the course of history, it is best to disabuse ourselves of any biases that may sabotage our better judgement. So our point of departure will be an evaluation of the (reputed) supremacy of “Western Civilization”. Seeing how this paradigm holds up to critical scrutiny will inform how we approach our survey. (Spoiler alert: It collapses upon even cursory inspection.)

To undertake such an audit, it is necessary to proceed from the axiom that universal and timeless moral principles exist. For otherwise we find ourselves devolving into relativism, whereby no consistent standard can be used to perform ANY evaluation. {1}

There are several implications to this approach.  First and foremost: The weal of the human race must be assumed to be not only the sine qua non, but the ultimate grounding of legitimacy. Doing so mandates that we are all working from a “common ground”, which is the only way any discourse can proceed from divergent perspectives.  Put another way: Human solidarity is not merely a summum bonum; it is a foundation for all worthwhile discussion.

But is such solidarity illusory, or is it grounded in something practicable?  And what, exactly, does it entail?

As fellow humans, we are dealing with the same intuitive faculties.  Those faculties equip us all with an innate moral intuition (an inborn moral compass, if you will).  This is simply to say that all homo sapiens enjoy roughly the same cognitive capacities–namely: the capacity to infer what is categorically (as opposed to just accidentally) universal.  As a result, every person has access to said principles.  This felicitous exigency is necessary for the present thesis to have purchase in practical, everyday situations.

Such (categorical) universality is integral to debunking the conceit of “Western” (alt. “Judeo-Christian”) values as preeminent in some way; thereby defusing what is best described as the de rigueur fetishization of the so-called “West”.  For, as it turns out, Occident-fetishism is predicated on a heedlessness of (objective) morality; as well as an ignorance of geography and of (actual) history.

Of course, part of being ignorant is being ignorant of one’s ignorance; so we do not tend to notice our own senescence.  (Such is the nature of “false consciousness”.)  Blind spots don’t announce themselves; and illusions are illusions precisely because they don’t SEEM TO BE illusions to those who are beguiled by them.

This collective pathology–as ubiquitous as it is potent–operates according to the trope that the “West” (conceived as some exalted monument of human culture) is somehow superior to the cultures of the rest of the world. This conceit is maintained by holding that said superiority exists either according to alleged divine Providence (which favors the Occident for reasons that must be posited independently of the creed-in-question) or simply due to the Occident having allegedly propounded the most estimable values (due to sheer accident of history). To attribute this disparity to religious affiliation is to beg the question, as we must then suppose that certain people were favored in the revelation-targeting lottery.

As we shall see, to tout a chimerical “West” is–effectively, if not conscientiously–to use a term of imperialism, and thus of hubris.  This is simply to recognize that this spurious categorization is more a fanciful conceit than it is a credible model of geo-political realities…for ANY point in history.

Edward Said rightfully denounced this binary taxonomy (what he called “Orientalism”), which he defined as the exaltation of the Occident via a (tacitly demeaning, if not outright divisive) alterity; which entails the derogation (either implicit or explicit) of the Orient qua OTHER.  While Said’s indictment captured much of what is discussed in the present essay, it was epistemologically flawed.  His mistake was to resort to cultural relativism as the primary means of justifying what was an otherwise valid indictment.  (Everyone’s different; so who’s to say what’s better and what’s worse?) Said could have made his case simply by appealing to universal moral principles; and–I contend–done so on much more solid ground.

Said’s point, of course, was for Euro-centric thinkers to extricate themselves from their Occident-centric worldview, whereby anything outside of the exalted “Western” orbit was seen primarily as “other”, and thus inferior (specifically with respect to the putative superiority of Judeo-Christianity).  As Jeanne Morefield put it, Said propounded “a humanism capable of escaping Euro-centrism’s yawning maw.” Yet he ultimately was left with appeals to basic decency rather than having recourse to a solid foundation that everyone could reference.

As we’ll see, the “Orientalist” paradigm of “West” (whatever that means) vs. “East” (whatever that means) is predicated on a false dichotomy; as it erroneously ascribes–either approvingly or disapprovingly, depending on one’s vantage–what are UNIVERSAL principles primarily (or, in its most extreme form, EXCLUSIVELY) to what is blithely referred to as Western “civilization”.  Whatever that’s supposed to be is anyone’s guess.

This skewed way of framing human affairs does so under the assumption that such principles are INHERENTLY Occidental; as if Occidental societies somehow had these consecrated precepts in their DNA (presumably, by dint of being Judeo-Christian or “European” or Anglo-Saxon or simply from the “West”).  It’s as if Providence somehow favored the denizens of certain regions.  This is, of course, hogwash. (If there is a god, we might consider that he doesn’t pick favorites BY GROUP; people are the one’s who do that. They are obliged to then retroactively ascribe that assessment to their deity in a transparently self-serving “post hoc ergo proctor hoc” maneuver.)

In recognizing this binary (Occident-Orient) taxonomy to be specious, we find that one can be guilty of bigotry going EITHER WAY.  Thus those who EITHER lionize OR demonize “the West” indulge in the same self-ingratiating fiction. For in both cases, what is operative is the misapprehension that the “right answers” are entirely attributable to, well, THEIR OWN culture.  (Conceit, it turns out, is a potential problem for everyone, as it works for any conceivable perspective.)

That both Occidental Reactionaries (in their daft attempt to exalt “the West”) and Oriental Reactionaries (in their daft attempt to deride “the West”) employ this correlation is quite telling.  For it is perfidious in either form.  Even worse: Both kinds of ideologue make a habit of associating such (categorically) universal principles EXCLUSIVELY with Judeo-Christian tenets–be it “democracy” or human rights or the scientific method.  The former do so in order to rationalize the promotion of those tenets; the latter use it as an excuse to dismiss the notion of universal principles altogether.  Thus BOTH camps make the mistake of supposing that science and liberalism are inherently OCCIDENTAL. {33}

In reality, such precepts are categorically secular: as eminently human on a South Pacific Island as in Omaha, Nebraska.

And so it goes that even those hostile to civil society are inclined to characterize its hallmark tenets as somehow inherently Occidental–a position in which they find no irony.  Consequently, those who (rightfully) impugn “the West” for imperialism are inclined to (wrongly) accuse anyone promoting Enlightenment principles (democracy, human rights, the scientific method) as somehow IMPOSING “Western” culture on other cultures.  For example, in present-day Russia, Putin simply posits Eastern Orthodox Christianity in contradistinction to its Roman Catholic and Protestant counterparts; scoffing at things like “democracy” as Western pablum.  Meanwhile, Xi Jin-ping associates human rights with “the West”; and thus as a bunch of florid nonsense.  Dar al-Islam derides the separation of church and state as a vapid “Western” invention; and considers the mere notion of civil liberties a zany construct indicative of Dar al-Kufr.

In sum: Such conceit is central to the tribal Exceptionalism endemic to ANY and ALL cultic activity–regardless of perspective.  For, in any given case, BOTH stances rest on the supposition that such principles are inherently Occidental…and, by implication, have BUILT IN the denigration of “Oriental” (non-Western) societies. It’s as if championing those principles somehow insinuated that one is emulating “the West” PER SE.  But this supposition is erroneous.  That the Enlightenment happened to occur in Scotland, Germany, and France (followed by England and the U.S.) is a historical accident; not the result of some grand cosmic scheme.  The time and place of Enlightenment was never written in the stars.

Granted, societies in certain geographical locations happened to realize the credence of liberal democracy before societies in other geographical locations did; yet that fact says nothing about the BASIS FOR that credence (see my “The History of Legal Codes”).  Nor should this be taken as a sign of some Providential decree.  Re-run history after tweaking a few (precipitous) contingencies, and the Persians or the Mongols might have spearheaded the Enlightenment…rather than a few white men in Europe.  Ashoka the Great, a pioneer of the concept “human rights”, was not “Western”.  Nor was “Cyrus the Great” before him (also a pioneer of human rights).  Nor was “Kanishka the Great” after him (also a pioneer of human rights). 

To suppose that human rights are inherently “Western” misses the point of “human” (which is, by definition, all mankind) and “rights” (as inalienable as they are based on principles that are CATEGORICALLY universal).  Neither Ashoka NOR Cyrus NOR Kanishka were seeking to emulate the Greco-Romans.  Yet under such leaders, headway was made.  The Persians pioneered civil society based on ZOROASTRIAN principles.  Then the Mauryans and the Kushans pioneered civil society based on BUDDHIST principles.  In such instances, the Abrahamic deity was nowhere to be found.

So what are we to make of the Occident-fetishist? The “West” prevailed, you say? The temptation to make such a supposition comes largely from a grievous misunderstanding of history.  The fact that certain things happened to occur at certain times and places does not preclude us from noticing that, over the course of human history, there has been a clear trend: Salutary developments have invariably been concomitant with instances of secularization.  

Moving from Ashoka’s “dhamma” [alt. “dharma”] (in Classical Antiquity) to Spinoza’s “Ethics” (in the Renaissance) to Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals” (in the Enlightenment) to Mill’s “On Liberty” (in the pre-Industrial era) to Rawls’ “Theory Of Justice” (in the post-Industrial era), we find that–each and every step of the way–the most sagacious insights have NEVER been predicated on dogmatic thinking of any kind (let alone depended upon the existence of INSTITUTIONALIZED dogmatism). And in no case was tribalistic thinking salient.  When Thomas Paine penned “Common Sense”, arguably the major catalyst for the American Revolution, he was adamant about the cause NOT being predicated on religionism of any kind.  (See my essay on “America’s Founding Myth”.)

Even though liberal democracy was first established in “the West”, “the West” does not OWN the principles of civil society…let alone morality itself.  As will be made apparent from the historical evidence explored forthwith, West / East is a fatuous social construct.  That people at a particular place / time happened to converge upon certain timeless principles before people in other places is a quirk of circumstance, not a mark of destiny.

Put another way: “arete” does not know an Occident-Orient divide.

The Enlightenment was a long, slogging, highly-idiosyncratic process by which certain elements within the Occident managed to go against the grain.  It was a marginally-flawed process in which a few bold figures managed to extricate themselves from the dogmatic quagmire that was the Dark Ages…and buck the status quo.  That protracted intellectual privation (from the stuttering demise of the pre-Christian Roman Empire through the Early Italian Renaissance) was the result–both directly and indirectly–of rampant religionism.  It was institutionalized dogmatism (a.k.a. religion) that accounted for a thousand years of intellectual blight, a condition the Occident endured for a millennium.

Religion didn’t jump-start the Enlightenment in the 17th century; it impeded it UNTIL the 17th century; at which point a few heterodox thinkers finally broke free from the dogmatic tethers that had been addling Europe since the 4th century.  It was not sycophancy that explains this, it was audacity.

EVEN THEN, the Enlightenment was imperfect–an observation for which we can thank the Frankfurt School; as well as the ORIGINAL field of “critical theory”, which sought to bring us back down to earth. The urged Occident-fetishists to disabuse themselves of hyper-romanticized impressions of their progenitors’ achievements–which was addled by the blight of corporate power, the grave dysfunctions of free-market fundamentalism, and the depravations of hyper-consumerism. {37}

To expose the faultiness of this widely-embraced Occident-Orient dichotomy, it helps to look at it historically.  In the over-simplified telling, the Occident was a venue for the intermixture of two ancient societies: Greek and Roman, which–after an infusion of the Judeo-Christian creed–gave rise to the medieval Europe…then to the Renaissance…then to the Enlightenment…then to modernity.  (And there was a smattering of Andalusian Muslim, Slavic, and Persian influences as well.)  But it was NOT the consecrated dogmatic system of the Abrahamic tradition, nor the precedents of ancient empires, that “Westerners” can thank for the progress that has been made since their emergence from the Dark Ages.

Being as it has always been obdurately Reactionary (and vehemently anti-intellectual), the Roman Catholic Church was the epitome of the counter-Enlightenment.  So when the Florentine author, Dante Alighieri penned a treatise promoting the separation of church and state in the 14th century, “De Monarchia”, the Vatican banned it.  When Dennis Diderot produced the “Encyclopédie” in the 18th century, the Vatican condemned it as sacrilegious, and had its author imprisoned.  Anyone who had procured a copy of the this compendium of secular knowledge was instructed to immediately hand it over to the local clerics for destruction.  And in the 19th century, when Darwin told us about biological evolution and Marx decried systems of domination / oppression / exploitation…the response of religious authorities was entirely predictable.

Such occurrences were not anomalies.  The programmatic suppression of intellectual activity in Europe by the Roman Catholic Church began in Late Antiquity–most notably: with the condemnation of the scholar, Origen in the 3rd century. That was followed by the execution of the famed pedagogue, Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 (during the sacking of the Library of Alexandria).  And THAT would be followed by the execution of Boëthius in 524.

The greatest intellectual–and pedagogue–of the 12th century, Peter Abelard, was a heterodox thinker who was persecuted for heresy.  Soon thereafter were the condemnations of 1277.  Then…

  • The excommunication of William of Ockham in 1328
  • The chastisement–and posthumous excommunication–of John Wycliffe in 1382
  • The execution of Jan Hus in 1415
  • The reign of terror by Grand Inquisitor, Tomas of Torquemada in the 1480’s and 90’s
  • The banishment of renown scientist, Michael Servetus (which led to him being burned at the stake in Geneva at the behest of John Calvin) in 1553
  • The burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600
  • The persecution of Galileo Galilee in 1633

…all the way to the incarceration of Denis Diderot in 1749…not to mention strident denouncements of luminaries like David Hume in England and Voltaire in France. {35}

Yet Enlightenment thinking persisted in the face of formidable resistance.  Immanuel Kant proved in his “Groundwork For The Metaphysic Of Morals” that objective morality has a solid basis, which involved something other than the gilded dogmatic foundations with which denizens of Christendom become so smitten.  He showed that all morality resides within each of us qua autonomous actors, as it is ultimately grounded in (our innate capacity to engage in) REASON.  The Categorical Imperative no more depends on sacred doctrine than it depends on astrology charts or crystal balls. {1}

Tropes about some exalted “Western civilization” are also GEOGRAPHICALLY non-sensical.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began in the SAME REGION of the world: the Levant and Mesopotamia (i.e. not the Occident).  Pace Roman / Byzantine (and briefly, Frankish) claims upon Palestine, that coveted piece of real estate was never considered an integral part of “the West” until 1948. (See my essay on “The Land Of Purple”.) Another thing to bear in mind: Judaic lore–and the Hebrew Bible itself–came from BABYLON, not Jerusalem (see my essay on the “City Of The Beloved”). 

In order for those of us of “the West” to disabuse ourselves of self-ingratiating illusions, certain myths need to be debunked. For example, the institution of higher learning was not pioneered in the Occident.  More than SIXTEEN CENTURIES before Bologna (Europe’s first full-fledged university), there was the Vedic university at Taxsha-shila (Taxila).  Leaving aside the famed Greek schools (the Ionian academy at Miletus, Plato’s lyceum in Athens, and Phaedo’s academy at Elis), there were notable universities around the world during Classical Antiquity:

  • The imperial Chinese (Qin) academy at Yin-qui, as well as the Han academies at Chang’an.
  • The Sammatiya “migadaya” at Isipatana (Sarnath), which was Buddhist / Hindu.
  • The Museion at Pergamon, which was pagan.
  • The Museion–replete with the famed library–at Alexandria, which was pagan.

This last venue was eventually razed by fanatical Christian mobs c. 415 A.D.  Many of the irreplaceable manuscripts were burned; and all the teachers were slaughtered (including the renowned pedagogue, Hypatia).

During Late Antiquity, several universities were established.  Here are a dozen of the most notable:

  • The Athenaeum at Rome (pagan)
  • The Kushan schools at Gandhara and Mathura [Bactria] (Buddhist)
  • The “Didascalium” (catechetical school) at Alexandria (Coptic Christian)
  • The Assyrian school of Antioch (Syriac Christian)
  • The Persian school at Isfahan (Zoroastrian)
  • The Assyrian schools at Edessa and Nisibis (Syriac Christian)
  • The Persian “daneshgah” [medical academy] at Gundishapur (Zoroastrian)
  • The school at Apamea (Neo-Platonist)
  • The Vedic “maha-vihara” at Nalanda in Bihar (Hindu)
  • And the Byzantine Pandidakterion at Constantinople was founded as a secular school of medicine, philosophy, and law c. 425.

Meanwhile, a scourge of mind-deadening credenda was epitomized by the Catholic Church, which became the Roman Empire’s mandatory Faith pursuant to the Edict of Thessalonika c. 380.  When the fanatical bishop, Theophilus had the great Library at Alexandria pillaged c. 391, and when the Reactionary prelate, Cyril of Alexandria encouraged Christian mobs to pillage it again c. 415, we can be reminded that Roman Catholicism has, from its earliest days, been no friend of knowledge.

Also before Bologna were the “maha-viharas” at:

  • Vallabhi in Gujarat
  • Uddanda-pur[a] and Vikram-shila in Bihar
  • Telhara in Maharashtra
  • Kuruk-shetra in Haryana
  • Pushpa-giri in Odisha / Orissa
  • Isipatana [Sarnath] in Varanasi
  • Jagaddala [Varendra] and Pahar-pur[a] in Bengal

All those were Hindu.

Also notable was the Preslav literary school in Bulgaria, which was secular.  And when the university at Bologna was built c. 1088, it was founded as a nominally secular institution; and was even managed by the student body.  (The famed medical school at Salerno was yet another secular institution of higher learning established prior to Oxford.)

So then what?  Oxford was founded at the end of the 11th century as a (nominally) SECULAR institution; though it did not rise to significance until the 13th century, in tandem with Cambridge.  (For a list of universities founding during this time, see Appendix 2 of my essay, “Islam’s Pyrite Age”.)

Since Catholicism was the only game in town, anything that happened within its dominion invariably happened with the permission of–and thus under the aegis of–the Church.  This should not be misconstrued as evidence for religious instigation.  Vatican imprimaturs (i.e. Papal bulls) were not the same as commissions; they were de jure for ANY institution within the Holy Roman Empire.

That only Catholics built bridges in medieval Europe is not an indication that civil engineering was predicated on the catechism. Even when beholding with awe Europe’s grandest cathedrals, are we to thank a strict adherence to Pauline theology for the knowledge and skill required for their masterful construction? By the same token, we would have to thank Thoth for the breathtaking architectural feats at Giza.

Grandiloquent shibboleths about “The West” become especially risible when any and all estimable advances on the planet are attributed–either directly or indirectly–to Judaism and/or Christianity.  As I hope to show, the supposition that Progressive ideals (civil liberties, liberal democracy, etc.) should be attributed to Abrahamic religion–in any way–is bonkers.  It’s like claiming that people become vegetarian due to a preponderance of game-hunting. (After all, some hunters eat berries.) {14}  The closest that Abrahamic tradition ever came to such ideals was their tentative embrace of the Golden Rule…which was marginal at best (Hillel the Elder notwithstanding); as will be discussed below.

Leaving aside the fact that neither Judaism nor Christianity had ANYTHING to do with Athenian democracy–or with ANY ancient philosophy for that matter–, we might inquire: What in heaven’s name is in the Bible that has to do with civil society in the modern sense?  As we will see, the ineluctable answer is: Absolutely nothing. {15}

In spite of all that history has demonstrated, we are expected to believe that “The West” would NOT have espoused human rights and democratic government (or had a solid basis for espousing such ideals) BUT FOR the tenets of Judaism / Christianity.  Such a contention is downright absurd.  It amounts to an attempt to attribute critical thinking to blinkered thinking–as if a departure from received wisdom could be ascribed a more ardent embrace of received wisdom.  By entertaining this proposal, one is enjoined to conjecture–against all common sense–that emerging from a dogmatic quagmire could somehow be explained by further immersing oneself within it.  (Are we to suppose that one can be edified by becoming more obstinately dogmatic?)

To reiterate: It is an accident of history that significant parts of “the West” seem to have adopted what are CATEGORICALLY UNIVERSAL principles.  For anyone else to embrace said principles is not a matter of emulating “the West”; it’s simply a matter of converging on the same principles that some (iconoclasts) happened to recognize at a different place and time.  As I make clear in my survey of “The Long History Of Legal Codes”, the Occident no more “owns” the precepts of civil society than it owns the laws of physics.

Those who hyper-romanticize “Western culture” might want to remind themselves that it is the WEST that gave us fascism, (anti-Marxian) “Marxism”, free-market fundamentalism, hyper-consumerism, post-modernism, and political correct-ness (dysfunctions with which “the West” is still contending). {43}

Meanwhile, it was the Far East that first gave us animal rights and HUMAN rights…as well as paper and movable-type…and the contemplative practices that are now largely vindicated by modern neuroscience.

The worn-out trope that “Western civilization” (itself a nebulous category) was built on Judeo-Christian “values” (whatever that might be for any given proponent) is so obviously false, it is bewildering that anyone who knows anything about world history still says it with a straight face.  One can only inquire: “To which ‘civilization’ and ‘values’ are you referring, exactly, when you mouth these nostrums?” Proscribing murder, fraud, and theft, you say?  Are we to suppose that the Sumerians were keen on LYING to each other?  (More on that later.) 

As it just so happened, the Occident attempted to build society around Judeo-Christian tenets for well over a thousand years (from the 4th century to the 18th century), with horrific results–replete with rampant murder, deception, and theft.  Indeed, such things were THE HALLMARK FEATURES of the Dark Ages. The irony of this being the case in the midst of paeans to Mosaic law are lost on those who harbor illusions about the vaunted Judeo-Christian legacy.

It was only when society began extricating itself from the morass of dogmatic thinking (read: Abrahamic religionism) that civil society finally–at long last–began to prevail.  This is obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about “Western” history.  Civil society, it turns out, is about as Abrahamic as chemistry is thaumaturgic.  To thank something that had been holding us back from the progress that has been made is to confuse “in spite of” with “because of”.

So what of the farcical epistemology on which Occident fetishism is based?

There is a towering hubris to the claim that Abrahamic theology is the only basis for an objective morality.  Take, for instance, a Hindu / Jain / Buddhist who mentions that he KNOWS FULL WELL that lying, stealing, cheating, and killing are wrong.  Imagine responding: “Perhaps; but the only way you–or anyone, for that matter–can possibly know that is because of the existence Mosaic law.”  Such a claim is not only false; it is obnoxious.

For the suggestion is: BUT FOR the decalogue being given to Moses on Mount Horeb (a.k.a. “Sanai”) in the 13th century B.C., mankind would have no objective basis for such statements.  This contention is of the form: “If not for [insert mythic event here], nobody would be able to, or be aware of, [insert important thing here].”  As we’ll see, EVERYONE ON THE PLANET was well-aware of such things; which is why those SAME strictures crop up in virtually every society–from Jainism, through Pythagoras, to Buddhism…and, yes, in Mosaic law.

The universality of such elementary precepts will be adumbrated below. {5}

Is one to say a Hmong who exhibits a remarkable degree of probity that he only has the Judeo-Christian tradition to thank for his laudable character?  Shall we insist that the Hmong has no ultimate basis for his estimable conduct BUT FOR Judeo-Christian dogmas?  Merely posing such questions reveals how ridiculous such thinking is.

It is, then, a grave mistake to associate universal principles (human rights, as well as the ideals of civil society) with “the West”…as if such things were inherently Occidental.  This common misattribution not only gives denizens of the Occident too much credit; it doesn’t give denizens of the Orient ENOUGH credit.  (As mentioned, Ashoka the Great alone serves as a blinding counter-factual to this gross mischaracterization of human civilization.)  Meanwhile, when it comes to matters of racial equality or the iniquity of slavery or the problems with misogyny, Abrahamic lore is worse that useless.  Not only is it not the ultimate basis for (objective) morality, it is egregiously deficient on virtually all counts.

But the hyper-romanticized characterization of the Occident is erroneous ANYWAY.  The notion that “Western civilization” (spec. in its modern incarnation) is primarily based on a Judeo-Christian foundation is the exact opposite of the case. Presumably by “Western”, we have in mind the quasi-democratic society we tend to find throughout much of the Occident (in the post-Enlightenment era).  Shall we square that with Deuteronomy 17:14, which prescribes a king to rule over the land?  Or should we simply disregard anything in scripture that doesn’t fit the desired narrative?

As I explicate in “The Long History Of Legal Codes”, the so-called “West”–to the extent that it has approached the ideals of civil society–has become civil insofar as it has managed to DIVORCE ITSELF FROM its Judeo-Christian roots.  This progression has involved not so much an explicit repudiation of Abrahamic dogmas as it has been a matter of RISING ABOVE them.  Such was the case even with Deists like John Locke (a racist, by the way) and Charles-Louis de Secondat of Aquitaine (a.k.a. “Montesquieu”), both of whom recognized the importance of secular government when they promoted individual rights (for white men).  Needless to say, Montesquieu’s “Spirit Of The Laws” was NOT the spirit of the Abrahamic deity.  It was concerned with a secular spirit, not with a holy spirit.

And for the lack of religiosity involved in the founding of the United States, see my essay: “America’s National Origin Myth”, where it is made clear that Judeo-Christian tenets were NOT to thank for the forging of the Constitutional Republic in the New World.

So what are we to make of the genealogy of the Occidental conceit (spec. since the fall of the Roman Empire)?  Starting with Charlemagne, Occident-centrism came to be more than just a self-ingratiating farce; it became an ethos.  Subsequently, the “West” (i.e. the divinely-ordained Franks vis a vis brown-skinned heathens) became some fuzzy ideation–like the ethereal haze of an intoxicating fever-dream.  (“WE are sophisticated; THEY are savages.  So WE are more worthy…and thus have the right to do whatever the heck we want!”) As I’ll show later, the Mongols are a strident refutation of the myth that everything we now value has “the West” to thank.

So why does the myth abide? Exaltation of “the West” is, if nothing else, a way of rationalizing a pathological (collective) sense of entitlement.  “Western civilization is superior BY NATURE” is a tremendously gratifying thing to say for anyone who claims an estimable legacy of, well, “Western civilization”…however arbitrarily defined it might be.  (Such is the nature of popular tropes: They are custom-tailored to serve a certain purpose; and they are effective regardless of how groundless they might be.)

For Occidental peoples (especially the denizens of Christendom), this specious–yet extremely alluring–trope was put into overdrive by Oswald Spengler over a century ago.  However, in naming this resplendent realm, he opted instead for the moniker “abenlandes” [lands of the evening]; going so far as to eschew the term, “Europeans” (due to its interminably fluctuating geo-political parameters).  Tellingly, Spengler rejected the notion that there was continuity between Greco-Roman culture and Christendom / capitalism: the fatuous Plato-to-NATO narrative declaimed by those who don’t understand world history.

As a politically-useful ideation, “the West” did not gain currency until the late 19th century; and even then was of dubious provenance (in addition to the fact that it was borderline incoherent).  After all: What, exactly, was it supposed to refer to?  A hyper-romanticized conception of “Christendom”?  A region of gilded Greco-Roman heritage?  Some vaunted (Teutonic) European stock?  Of an exalted Judeo-Christian legacy?  (Notably, such ad hoc reverence requires disregarding the egregious depredations of Roman Catholic dominion during the course of the Middle Ages.)  The ideation became especially useful during the Cold War, where it served America’s (and the Catholic Church’s) propagandistic purposes splendidly.

Yet, even then, the conceptual incoherence persisted.  Is “the West” supposed to include the Greek pantheon of deities?  Norse mythology?  Germanic / Prussian paganism?  Ostrogoths?  Visigoths?  Celts?  The odious legacy of colonialism (in the Americas, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia)?

Is it supposed to include the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Fascism?  The colossal iniquities of investment banks?  War profiteering? The domination of multi-national corporations?  The scourge of natural resource extraction?

No?  Well, then, by what standard shall we parse all of this?  If we are at liberty to be selective (high-lighting only whatever is salubrious while discounting anything deleterious), we could play this game with–well–virtually any society in history.  In extolling (purportedly) Occidental virtues, delineations invariably become an ad hoc mishmash of cherry-picked features.

For the Occident-fetishist, the question forever remains: What is this fabled “West” about which you so vociferously chortle?  How is the “capitalism” vs. “socialism” dichotomy supposed to play a role in this custom-tailored caricature?  Where did, say, iconoclastic figures like Baruch-cum-Benedict Spinoza and Thomas Paine fit in?  Does it include the variegated ambit of Marxian ideals? Organized labor? Feminism? {33}

The delineation problem occurs with geography as well.  Does the “West” include the Levant?  How about the Slavic lands?  If so, then “Eastern Orthodox” Christianity as well as the “Eastern” Syriac Church must be considered part of the so-called “West”.  If not, then how are we to think of the Assyrian / Syriac and Melkite Christians?  What about the Druze?  Kabbala?  Wicca?

Behold the “West” in all its glory. Yet contradictions arise. Ideologically, does this lofty moniker refer to the financiers of Wall Street or to the labor movement?  A monolith cannot claim both…yet, historically, it MUST.  Either way, one’s answer poses a slew of fatal problems for what this loaded term (the “West”) is supposed to sanctify.  Can something be a paean to both rent-seekers and an exploited working class?  No.  Hence: We are forced to pick and choose as it suits our purposes. And that upends the whole enterprise.

Of course, the demarcations of this nebulous thing we often call “the West” were always unclear (if not convoluted); the definition always vague…if not utterly confused.  But, then again, the point was never really about logical coherence; it was about basking in an ethos.

“The West”, then, is a social construct; nothing more. As imperious and enticing as this fanciful ideation might be, it turns out to be constituted of a rather ramshackle dogmatic edifice: a flashy facade with ever-shifting foundations.  The beguiling caricature is as illusory as it is seductive.  Most successful illusions are, after all, quite alluring.

So, in exploring the credence of universal principles, how shall we proceed? While culture is constituted of much more than moral tenets, I will focus presently on ethical systems, some of which cut across cultural lines.

To reiterate: In order for me to make my case cogently, it is crucial to understand that (universal) moral principles TRANSCEND culture; so are not a byproduct of circumstance.  (Contrary to the zany tenets of post-modernism, not EVERYTHING is merely a psychical / social construct.)  Most notably, moral principles are not inventions of this or that group; they are immutable features of the cosmos; of which we are all denizens.  They are there waiting to be elucidated. As Thomas Paine put it: “Man cannot make principles; he can only discover them.”

In my essay, “The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation”, I show how almost everything in so-called “Western” culture was co-opted from cultures that would not be categorized as pristinely “Western”.  In fact, there has been so much cultural cross-pollination, it is intractable to propose some discrete–let alone monolithic– “Western culture”.

And so it has come to pass: Popular memes have been transferred across cultural lines since time immemorial…which makes the positing of an OCCIDENT (or even an Orient) a self-ingratiating farce; not a description of Reality.

Alas.  It is not uncommon for people of a given culture / religion to impute towering significance to their own sacred doctrines (spec. scriptures).  This is a significance that does not actually exist. It is made crystal clear when considered from a global perspective; which is precisely what we are about to do here.

“For everything that’s good in the world, we can thank [insert tribal demarcation here].” Proponents are inclined to make this false–yet always self-serving–attribution; as it pertains to the positive role that their own heritage has (purportedly) played over the course of world history. Such flattering whimsy is largely the result of a strategically-engineered illusion…which is often required for sustaining the delusive thinking that impels any ethno-centric view of the world.  It is on this delusive self-conception that virtually all cult activity depends (be it Nazism or Stalinism or Maoism or Juche…or, indeed, any one of the theocratic versions of the Abrahamic creed–from Revisionist Zionism to Christian Dominionism).

The irony, then, is that BOTH Occident-Supremacists (as with American Dominionists and Revisionist Zionists) AND non-Occident-Supremacists (as with Russian nationalists under Putin, Iranian nationalists under the Ayatollahs, Wahhabi nationalists under the House of Saud, and Chinese nationalists under Xi Jin-ping) engage in this false dichotomy as a way of exalting themselves while diminishing everyone else.  Those afflicted with delusions of Exceptionalism (especially those who are simple-minded) are tempted to structure their perception of the world according to this binary taxonomy: us (good) vs. them (bad).  The Manichean worldview has tremendous appeal; for it is as simple-minded as it is gratifying.

As it happens, universal moral principles are as exclusively Occidental as is aesthetic appreciation…or basic human decency…or a good sense of humor.  That is: not at all.

Those with an imperialistic mentality are especially prone to such divisive thinking.  It is up to cosmopolitans / humanists around the world to rebuke this bewitching mindset.  In his “Letters On The Advancement Of Humanity” (18th century), the Prussian philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder admonished against the tribal chauvinism that undergirded imperialism: “There is no such thing as a specially-favored nation on Earth…  There cannot, therefore, be any order of rank.”  He concluded: “The culture of man is not the culture of the European; it manifests itself according to place and time in every people.”  As we’ll see, this laudable frame of mind presaged what Marx would later call “species-being”.

Having debunked the illusory Occident-vs-Orient worldview, we are ready to elucidate the universality of morality. But first, let’s turn to the checkered record of the Judeo-Christian domain.

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