Western civilization arose in southern and western Europe on the ruins of the Roman empire, the final political form of Classical civilization. It is and has always been unique among the great civilizations of the past 5000 years, whose existence is the substance of recorded history. It is unique not simply in the sense that each civilization—the Egyptian or Chinese or Classical—is manifestly different from all the others, but in a much more profound sense. In its most important characteristics it stands apart not merely from each of them but from all of them; it is differentiated from them by almost as sharp a leap as differentiated the other civilizations from the precivilization cultures of the Neolithic age. This is, I know, a disconcerting, even a shocking, statement by the standards of the cultural relativism that prevail in twentieth-century historical thought. I can only ask my readers to bear with me while I attempt to sustain it with a brief discussion of the civilizational history of mankind and the place of the West in the sweep of that history.

The significance of any civilizational order derives from the way in which it organizes the life and outlook of the individual persons who compose it in their relations to the universe in which they live—that is, in the way it relates the person to moral values, spiritual forces, the material environment, the other persons who make up the society. The various civilizations have done this in discernible styles. It is that style which defines their specific character.

For the first 2500 years of recorded history men lived in civilizations of similar styles, a style for which the Egyptian may stand as the type. These cosmological1 civilizations conceived of existence so tightly unified and compactly fashioned that there was no room for distinction and contrast between the individual person and the social order, between the cosmos and human order, between heaven and earth, between what is and what ought to be. God and king, the rhythms of nature and the occupations of men, social custom and the moral imperative, were felt not as paired opposites but as integral unities. The life of men in these civilizations, in good times and bad, in happiness and unhappiness, proceeded in harmony and accord with nature, which knows no separation between what is and what ought to be, no tension between order and freedom, no striving of the person for individuation or the complement of that striving, the inner personal clash between the aspirations of the naked self and the moral responsibilities impressed by the very constitution of being.

Exceptions, modifications, to this basic mode of human life there undoubtedly were. Man in his essence has always been, as Aristotle long ago saw, part animal, part spiritual. The clash at the center of his nature was never totally stilled. We have indeed documents from Mesopotamia and Egypt which show the stirrings of the impulses that shaped later ages. Nevertheless these are but stirrings; they do not express the age, or affect the essential character of the cosmological civilization. They are but premonitions of what is to come.

When it came, it came with historic suddenness. It came in different ways and for different reasons among two peoples of two new civilizations—the Greeks of Classical Civilization and the Jews of the Syriac Civilization. The way of its coming was as different as the character of these two peoples was different, but the new understanding was in essence the same. It shattered the age-old identity of the historic and the cosmic. It burst asunder the unity of what ought to be and what is. It faced individual men for the first time with the necessity of deep-going moral choice. In a word, it destroyed the unity of what is done by human beings and what they should do to reach the heights their nature opens to them. And, in doing so, this understanding created, for the first time, the conditions for individuation, for the emergence of the person as the center of human existence, by separating the immanent from the transcendent, the immemorial mode of living from its previous identity with the very constitution of being. The arrangements of society were dissociated from the sanction of ultimate cosmic necessity; they were desanctified and left open to the judgment of human beings. But that transcendent sanction remained the basis of the judgment of human life. The transcendent was not destroyed; it was re-affirmed in terms more profound and awesome than ever. The earthly immanent and the transcendent heavenly remained; but how now were they to be related each to each?

The nexus, the connecting link between the transcendent and the immanent, between the eternal and the historical, could be no other than the human person. Living in both worlds, subjected by the demands of his nature to transcendent value and at the same time maker of history and master of society, he was suddenly (suddenly as historical process goes) revealed to himself as a creature whose fate it was to bridge this newly yawning gulf.

I am not saying, of course, that the multitudes who made up Hellenic and Judaic society thought in these terms or even dimly glimpsed them conceptually. I do maintain two things: first, that the inspirers of the two societies, the prophets of Judah and Israel and the philosophers of Greece, grasped this new condition of mankind, grasped it in fear and trembling; and, secondly, that their understanding shaped the enduring ethos of their societies as surely as the ethos of the Pharaoh God-King shaped the society of Egypt.

This common understanding of the Judaic and Hellenic cultures was expressed, of course, in radically different forms—so different, indeed, that these cultures have been more commonly conceived as polar opposites than as different expressions of the same stupendous insight. This is not to deny what is sharply opposed in the two cultures, most especially their different understandings of the relationship of man to the transcendent. But the overriding fact is that in both these cultures, at their highest level, there emerged a clear distinction between the world and the transcendent, as well as the startlingly new concept of a direct relationship between men and the transcendent.

In the Hellenic civilization it was the philosophical movement culminating with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that raised to the level of consciousness this new understanding of the nature of men and their relations to ultimate things. The sense of the individual, the person as over against society, had been inherent in the ethos of the Greeks from the dim beginnings of Hellenic civilization. Such a sense is apparent already in Hesiod and Homer. It inspires the human scale of their archaic temples, as contrasted with the monstrous inhumanity of scale of ziggurat, pyramid, and sphinx. But this inherent tendency of the Greek spirit did not, for a number of reasons, decisively shape Hellenic society. In the beginning, in the Northern war bands from which it arose, the collectivity of the pack contended always against the individual spirit; also, from that heritage it drew a religious practice and a pantheon of gods almost devoid of transcendence. Further, Hellenic civilization developed in its youth under the looming influence of the great cosmological civilizations of the East, and when the aridity of its inherited pantheon drove men to search further, the mystery religions which arose were saturated through and through with Eastern concepts. Finally when the civilization reached maturity, the classical social norm it assumed was the polis, the city state, which was a tight unity of society, government and religion. Despite the fact that within that form there was immeasurably greater room for the development of the individual personal consciousness than in the older civilizations, the shadow of the past and the limiting shackles of the life of the polis smothered and distorted the full emergence of the new consciousness.

It was the contradiction between the inherent Hellenic awakening to the possibilities of a new state of being and the trammels of the inherited old with which the Greek philosophers wrestled. What they created out of their struggles was the first systematic intellectual projection of an independent relationship between free men and transcendent value. (I stress “intellectual” because nearly simultaneously, in the Israel and Judah of the Prophetic age, there emerged another form of the same understanding, expressed not in intellectual but in existential and historic terms—a development I shall be discussing shortly.) The power and analytical depth of the Hellenic intellectual achievement were so great and profound that it has remained ever since a firm foundation for the philosophical and political thought of men who have been concerned with the freedom of the person and the authority of transcendent truth. But, as essential as the work of the Hellenic philosophers has been to the growth of this understanding, they were limited and their thought was distorted by two factors. Their limitation and distortion prevented, particularly in their political theory, the fullest confrontation with the radical independence of human beings before earthly institutions, their dependence only upon the transcendent. Of these two factors, the first, the problem of what might be called Utopianism, is best considered after we have discussed the Judaic Prophetic experience, since it is a factor that affects it as well as the Hellenic philosophical experience. The second factor was the effect of the life of the polis upon the consciousness of the Greek philosopher.

The mode of being of men living in the polis was effectively constrained by the character of that community. As I have said, the polis was at once state, society, and religious cult, all wrapped up in one. The citizen of such a state was truly, as Aristotle called him, “a political animal,” that is, an animal of the polis. It was the polis that gave him stature; outside of it, he was only potentially human. Such men the Greeks called “barbarians”—making little distinction between uncivilized tribal peoples and the subjects of the great civilized empires of the Middle East.

There was reason in this disdain in which the men of the polis held the cosmological civilizations of the Middle East. Although the form of the polis stood between its citizens and their full achievement of freedom by independent individual confrontation of the transcendent realm of value, it did so in a different way and to a far less degree than did the cosmological societies. Hellas had broken loose from a world in which human existence was completely absorbed in the cosmos, in which the earthly and the transcendent were so merged that the person could not stand free, clearly and sharply delineated from the surrounding universe. But this new consciousness of the Hellenic spirit was bound still by the necessity of expressing itself through a collectivity—no longer the cosmic collectivity of the Middle East, but a socio-political collectivity, the polis. It was, indeed, a great leap forward towards men’s consciousness of their personhood and their freedom, because now the limiting form on individual freedom and individual confrontation of transcendent destiny was a collectivity composed of the subjective spirit of men, not the objective, totally external, force of iron cosmic fatality. Nevertheless, the Hellenic philosophers, who expressed this spirit at its highest level, always had to struggle, in their farthest penetrations towards the meaning of human existence, against the circumstances of being and thought created by polis society.

The Judaic experience was extraordinarily parallel to the Hellenic, although its content was very different. The Hebrew prophets, like the Greek philosophers, expressed, at the highest level, the consciousness of a people broken loose from cosmological civilization to confront transcendence. As Exodus is the symbol of that breaking away, the content of the Judaic experience of transcendence is the belief in a unique, personal, revealed God.

But here also, as among the Greeks, a social structure distorted the individual experience of transcendence. The potentialities for full individuation inherent in the concept of a God of Righteousness were collectivized. The concept of the b’rith, the compact between God and the Chosen People, placed the collectivity of the Judaic people, rather than the individuals who made up that collectivity, as the receptor of the interchange with transcendence. The Prophets strove mightily with these circumstances, as the Greek philosophers struggled with the circumstances of the polis. Future events have taken from them both an inspiration and an understanding that are derived from the thrust of their struggle towards individuation, but neither the philosophy of Hellas nor the prophecy of Israel ever completely threw off the conditioning influence of their social and intellectual heritage.

At the heights of the philosophical and Prophetic endeavors, in a Plato or a proto-Isaiah, as occasionally among their predecessors and followers, the vision cleared and a simple confrontation between individual men and transcendence stood for a moment sharply limned. But at these heights of understanding another problem arose, one I have referred to above when discussing the Hellenic experience and have called the problem of Utopianism. A clear vision of the naked confrontation of individual men with transcendence created a yawning gap in human consciousness. It was something of the effect of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the one hand stood the perfection of transcendence, and on the other the imperfection of human existence. The temptation was enormous to close that intolerable gap, to grasp that understood transcendent perfection and by sheer human will to make it live on earth, to impose it on other human being by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.

The same temptation beset the Hellenic philosophers at their highest reach of vision. The effect of this temptation was portentous for the future, because of its continuing impact upon both the Hellenic and the Judaic traditions, the twin sources from which our Western civilization derives so much of its content. Its effects can be perceived in the most diverse areas: in the effect on Western thought of the concepts of molding human life implicit in the Utopian society of Plato’s Republic or in the dictatorial powers of the Nocturnal Council in his somewhat less rigid Laws; or in the actual political absolutism, derived from the Judaic tradition, of such polities as Calvin’s Geneva or Spain of the Inquisition, or Cromwell’s England. Secularized with the passage of time, the Utopian desire to impose a pattern of what the imposers considered perfection becomes ever more rigid, total, and terrible, as in the all-powerful Nation of the French Revolution or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat of the Communists.

The Utopian temptation arises out of the very clarity of vision that tore asunder the cosmological world view. Released from the comforting, if smothering, certainties of identification with the cosmic order, men become aware of their freedom to shape their destiny—but with that freedom came an awesome sense of responsibility. For the same leap forward that made them fully conscious of their own identity and their own freedom made them conscious also of the infinite majesty and beauty of transcendence and of the criterion of existence that perfection puts before human beings, who in their imperfection possess the freedom to strive to emulate perfection. A yawning gulf was opened between infinity and finity.

There are two possible human reactions to the recognition of this reality.

On the one hand, it can be accepted in humility and pride—humility before the majesty of transcendence and pride in the freedom of the human person. That acceptance requires willingness to live life on this earth at high tension, a tension of men conscious simultaneously of their imperfection and of their freedom and their duty to move towards perfection. The acceptance of this tension is the distinguishing characteristic of the Western civilization of which we are a part, a characteristic shared by no other civilization in the world’s history.

On the other hand, the hard and glorious challenge of reality can be rejected. The tension between perfection and imperfection can be denied. Men conscious of the vision of perfection, but forgetting that their vision is distorted by their own imperfection, can seek refuge from tension by trying to impose their own limited vision of perfection upon the world. This is the Utopian temptation. It degrades transcendence by trying to set up as perfect what is by the nature of reality imperfect. And it destroys the freedom of the individual person, by forcing upon him conformity to someone else’s limited human vision, robbing him of freedom to move towards perfection in the tension of his imperfection. It is in form a return to the womb of the cosmological civilization, in which the tension of life at the higher level of freedom was not required of men, in which they could fulfill their duties in uncomplicated acceptance of the rhythms of the cosmos, without the pain or the glory of individuation. But Utopianism is only similar to cosmological civilizations in form; in essence it is something different, because cosmological civilization was, as it were, a state of innocence, while Utopianism comes after the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of the persons of God and men. It is a deliberate rejection of the high level at which it is now possible for men to live, and as such it distorts and oppresses the human spirit. Yet it has remained, ever since the Hellenic and Judaic break through the cosmological crust, an ever-prevalent historical factor. In particular, as Western civilization is the civilization that accepts and lives with the tension of spirit, Utopianism has been a constantly recurring destructive force within it.

Indeed, the history of Western civilization is the history of the struggle to carry forward its insight of tension, both against the remaining inherited traumas of the cosmological attitude in its social structure and in its intellectual outlook and against the continuing recrudescence of Utopianism. For Western civilization inherited, as the Hellenic and Judaic did before it, much continuing influence from the long eons of cosmological life. And, although the forms of its thought and the content of its spirit rise directly out of the Hellenic and the Judaic themselves, it broke as far beyond them as they broke beyond the cosmological civilization. It founded itself, in its inmost core, on acceptance of the tension between the transcendent and the individual human person and on the reconciliation of that tension implicit in the great vision of the Incarnation—the flash of eternity into time.

The history of Western civilization, since it came into being out of the fermenting remnants left behind by the death of Classical civilization, is distinguished by a pre-eminent regard for the person. This is not to say that this regard has always, or indeed generally, been ideally reflected in its institutions and social reality; but it is to insist that, at the heart of the concept of being that forms the limiting notions by which the West has lived, the pre-eminence of the person has prevailed. And this is true of no previous civilization. It is of course a concept, a view of reality, at the opposite end of the scale from that of the cosmological civilizations. But it also goes radically beyond the intermediate experience of the Hellenic and Judaic civilizations. Although they, each in their own way, broke through the cosmological unity, they did so not in the name of the person as such but rather in the name of collectivities of persons, the polis and the Chosen People.

It was given to the West to drive to fruition the insights glimpsed in Greece and Israel. Its consciousness founded upon the symbol of the Incarnation placed the person at the center of being. From this very deepening of the understanding of the person there arises, even more than in Greece and Israel, a Utopian temptation; and that Utopianism has been expressed right down to our own day in more and more extreme forms. But while the factors we have discussed, which lead to Utopianism, are by the very nature of the Western concept of transcendence more intense than ever before, the symbol of the Incarnation that has made possible that concept and the temptation ensuing therefrom, also offers a resolution of the pressures leading to Utopianism, a resolution that did not exist in Greece and Israel. The simultaneous understanding that there exists transcendent perfection and that human beings are free and responsible to move towards perfection, although incapable of perfection, no longer puts men in an intolerable dilemma: the dilemma either, on the one hand, of denying their freedom and their personhood and sinking back into cosmological annihilation within a pantheistic All, or on the other hand of trying by sheer force of will to rival God and, as Utopians, to impose a limited human design of perfection upon a world by its nature imperfect. The Incarnation, understood as the “flash of eternity into time,” the existential unity of the perfect and the imperfect, has enabled men of the West to live both in the world of nature and in the transcendent world, without confusing them. It has made it possible to live, albeit in a state of tension, accepting both transcendence and the human condition with its freedom and imperfection.

It is that tension which is the distinguishing mark of Western civilization. Of course, to say that for the West alone has it been possible to live in that state of tension, to rise above both cosmic absorption and the temptation of Utopianism, is not to say that either the men of the West or the institutions of the West have always, or even generally, existed at the heights that were open to them. It is only to say that in our civilization alone has such a conquest of these twin pitfalls of human history been possible. Further, it is to say that the direction of the understanding of the West has been towards a grasp of this insight, that the institutions of the West at their best reflected it, and that the men of the West at their highest moments were inspired by it. The West has strayed often, indeed constantly, towards the fleshpots of cosmic authoritarianism, as towards the false paradise of Utopianism. The history of the straying in the one and the other direction is the history of the West. But always there remained in the reservoirs of Western consciousness a solution not given to other civilizations, a way out from the impasse of previous human history, the way of its genius—life at the height of tension.

The characteristic concepts, institutions, and style of the West, where they stand in the sharpest contrast to those of other civilizations, are shot through and through with tension. And this is true from the most matter-of-fact levels of existence to the most exalted. Everywhere, impossible contradictions maintain themselves to create the most powerful and noble extensions of the Western spirit. At the most mundane level, the economic, the Western credit system takes leave of hard matter, etherializing money, the very foundation of production and exchange. The Gothic cathedral, thrusting to the heavens, denies the weighty stone of which it is built, while rising from the center of its city it affirms the beauty of materiality. The doctrine of the Lateran Council, central to the philosophical tradition of the West, proclaimed, after a thousand years of intellectual effort, the pure tension of the Incarnational unity, in radical differentness, of the material and the transcendent. This is the mode of the West at its highest and most typical. But always the human heritage of the cosmological civilizations has pressed upon it, distorting its understanding, exerting a pull dragging it down from the height of its vision.

Nowhere was the effect of this force more profound in stifling and destroying the development of the Western genius than in the political sphere. It is here that the vision of the West should have been translated into actual relations of power that would have made the revolt from cosmologism real through and through the lives of individual men.

The state in the cosmological civilizations, reflecting the overall world-view of these civilizations, was the sanctified symbol of the cosmos. In it resided both earthly and transcendent meaning, unified in a grand power that left to the individual person little meaning or value beyond that which adhered to him as a cell of the whole.

In radical contrast, the vision of the West, splitting asunder the transcendent and the earthly, placed their meeting point in tension, in the souls of individual men. The individual person became, under God, the ultimate repository of meaning and value. That world-view demanded a consonant political structure, one in which the person would be primary, and all institutions—in particular the state—secondary and derivative. But Western civilization in Europe never achieved this in serious measure, either in practice or in theory. The continuing heritage of cosmologism, which again and again, in all spheres, arose to resist, weaken, and destroy the Western vision, here, in the political sphere, combined with the natural lust of men for power to maintain in large measure the age-old sanctification of the state as enforcer of virtue.

The Western spirit broke through, of course, so that neither the state nor thought about the state was purely cosmological. In their thought, Christian men could never fully divinize the state; and in their practice, they early created two sets of tensions which divided power, thus effectively preventing the full re-emergence of the cosmological state and creating room for the existence of the person to a degree impossible in cosmological civilization. Those two sets of tensions were, on the one hand, the separate centers of power represented by the Church and secular political power—empire or monarchy—and, on the other hand, the broad decentralization of secular power inherent in the feudal system. Nevertheless, both the holders of hierarchical churchly power and of secular power (first, the Holy Roman Emperors and then the emerging territorial monarchs) moved with all their strength to re-establish cosmological unity. The inner spirit of the West resisted and for long centuries the issue swayed back and forth in the balance. Only, indeed, in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the subordination of church (whether Protestant or Catholic) to state, with the increasing subordination of feudal and local rights to central authority, with the emergence of the absolutist monarchies of Bourbon, Tudor, and Habsburg, was the Western drive towards diversity and separation of powers tamed. But never, in fact, was cosmologism, even in the political sphere, established in the West. It took cosmologism’s twin, Utopianism, in the form of the mass egalitarian nationalism of the French Revolution, to make the decisive break towards mystical statism, to sow a harvest which was fully reaped by the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

All this is not to maintain that the political forms of the West were ever in a deep sense cosmological or even that the Utopian state in its grim parody of cosmologism approached totalism until the emergence of the communism and Nazism of our time. It is, however, to assert that Western civilization in its European experience did not achieve political institutions fully coherent with its spirit.

Likewise, the basic thrust of Western political theory on the European continent (and in England, though to a lesser degree) was bound always within the categories of the Hellenic philosophers and the Hebrew prophets. Neither of these influences allowed the expression of the full drive of the Western spirit towards the primacy of the person and the limitation of political powers. The one, bounded by the polis, could only conceive of full freedom of the person in the emancipated flight of the philosopher beyond temporal conditions; the other, inheriting the concept of the Chosen People—even when it enlarged that concept to all humanity in the manner of a proto-Isaiah, could grasp the freedom of the person only in otherworldly relationships between man and God. Both the Hebrew and the Hellenic influences bore strongly against the development of a political philosophy that would provide the basis for a political structure solidly based on the primacy of the person and directed towards achieving the greatest possible freedom of the person.

It is true that the underlying ethos of the West again and again moved in this direction. Much of the thought of medieval political philosophers and legal theorists, some of the arguments of writers on both sides of the Papal-Imperial struggle, the tradition of the common law of England, drive in this direction. But these efforts, while they broke ground for the future, never rose to the creation of a truly Western political philosophy of freedom. And when, in the ferment that culminated in the French Revolution, it seemed as though such a concept might break through, it was swallowed up in the communitarian outlook typified by Rousseau, in the egalitarianism of the collective Nation, and by the Revolution itself and the nationalisms that followed in its wake throughout the continent.

In England, both in practice and in theory, there arose out of the conflicts of the seventeenth century and the relaxation of the eighteenth, something closer to a society of personal freedom and limited government. But the drag of established ideas, institutions, and power held that society back from achieving the political potentiality towards which it was moving.

Thus the stage was set, when the American experience reached its critical point and the United States was constituted. The men who settled these shores, and established an extension of Western civilization here, carried with them the heritage of the centuries of Western development. With it they carried the contradiction between the driving demands of the Western ethos and a political system inconsonant with that ethos. In the open lands of this continent, removed from the overhanging presence of cosmological remains, they established a constitution that for the first time in human history was constructed to guarantee the sanctity of the person and his freedom. But they brought with them also the human condition, which is tempted always by the false visions of Utopianism.

The establishment of a free constitution is the great achievement of America in the drama of Western civilization. The struggle for its preservation against Utopian corrosion is the continuing history of the United States since its foundation, a struggle which continues to this day and which is not yet decided.

Frank S. Meyer was an author and former senior editor of National Review.

  1. I take this term from Eric Voegelin’s epoch-making Order and History (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press; Vol. I, 1956, Vols. II and III, 1957). I owe as well the concept that underlies this section to his work, but—as I have said previously in my In Defense of Freedom (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1962)—I have developed that concept according to my own lights and he is certainly not responsible for the result. ↩︎