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It is truly remarkable to watch how the West is dismantling its own cultural stability, its principles of reliability, trustworthy institutions, fair trade and the belief in a justice system that protects the weak and renders all citizens with equal rights.
In a time of dramatic upheaval and arguably unparalleled stagnation, it is well worth remembering the values that once produced a strong Western civilization – the very values we are now leaving behind.
The threefold cradle of Western ideals are found in the Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage. The Greek contributions included concepts of democracy and a culture of sharp debates where philosophers discussed public matters.
Greek philosophy brought, apart from its richly advanced moral philosophy, the idea of government by the people. However, Greek democracy differed substantially from modern democracy. Only adult male, highly educated citizens had the right to vote, not women, foreigners or slaves.
Around 400 B.C.,the city-state of Athens suffered from political instability. The search for justice and better governance led to the development of the Greek ancient form of democracy. The purpose of common education for Greek citizens was to supply the state with a source of skilled political leaders.
Through the formation of good habits and knowledge-based insight, education and the search for wisdom was thought to provide the means for men to govern the Greek city states in the best possible way.
It is apparent that the philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were both critical of democracy and only supported a democracy for selected male citizens. They feared that democracy easily could turn into the rule of the mob.
The Athenian structure thus had the form of a state based on an oligarchic, democratic government, in which state officials, the military and philosophers comprised the leading political elite in society. Yet, slavery remained an institution in Athenian society. Women and children had second-class status.
The Roman contribution to what we today understand as Western values consists mainly of the development of a highly disciplined administrative system, Roman law and the concept of the dutiful citizen – best exemplified by the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Roman law worked on the basis that no human custom is necessarily right, but that there is a universal law that will be acceptable to all men since its standard rises from human nature and reason, as pointed out by professor and historian Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton in “A History of the Modern World.”
Through an authoritarian administration emphasizing military control, the Romans continued the Greek elitist definition of what it meant to be a “citizen.” The organization of the state reached its zenith under Roman law, and the military system was equally effective.
Even though philosophers like Cicero and Seneca made contributions to the concept of humanism, in reality, the Roman Empire was negligibly concerned with individual rights and personal freedom.
The radical Hebrew-Christian contribution differed from both the Greek and Roman ideals in several important areas. “A History of the Modern World” is one of the most highly praised history texts ever and adopted in more than a thousand schools. It asserts that Christian philosophy was revolutionary in that its definition of humanity was inclusive of all people. It represented an altogether new definition of the value of human life, developing human rights, the value of tolerance, accepting differences and the concept of equality regardless of race, creed, gender and class.
It simply is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Christianity’s influence on Western values. It was Christianity that introduced the principle of equality, which unleashed the revolutionary idea that each man, regardless of class, gender and race, has a unique value.
While the Greeks demonstrated the excellence of the mind, the Christians explored the soul and taught that in the eyes of God all souls were equal. They taught that human life was sacred and inviolate, and spoke of worldly greatness and beauty as subordinate values.
While the Greeks contemplated much on the beautiful and thought ugliness to be bad, the Christians saw spiritual beauty in even the most unpleasant exterior and sought out the diseased and those in need.
Even suffering itself, states Palmer and Colton, was proclaimed as in a way divine, since God himself had suffered on the Cross. Christians worked to relieve suffering as none before them, protested against the massacre of prisoners of war, against slavery, against gladiators who killed each other and so on. They taught humility and that all men were brothers. These are precisely the ideals we lack today.
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