By Prof. Zbigniew Stawrowski
A commentary on “Shattered Mirror. The Fall of Western Civilization,” by Prof. Z. Roszkowski
Western civilization, in which we live, is undoubtedly in a serious crisis.
This civilization, with which I identify and hope that so do the majority of Poles, Western civilization – in the best sense of the word – is something unique compared to other civilizations. If we look at what constitutes its essence, it is difficult to see any destructive factors in it. On the contrary, it is permeated with the spirit of creativity that grew on the foundation of authentic values. Thanks to them, it could keep developing for centuries and, at some point, become the most important and the most developed of all previous civilizations. These values have allowed Western civilization to become – let’s not be afraid of the word – a model for other cultures, extremely attractive and enticing.
It is hard to deny, however, that for some time now we have been accompanied by a sense of crisis, collapse, and maybe even the impending end of the West by self-destruction. However, what we are currently observing is actually something other than that. (…)
There is no single Western civilization, but rather, for a long time, there have existed two civilizations, each claiming the right to be the one and only – the True West. The first of these, the one we identify with, has ancient roots. However, at some point in history, a new civilization began to grow out from within, parasitizing the former and sucking vital juices out of it, like cancer. And since every civilization is based on some religion, on some set of absolute, fundamental principles as the deepest source of its identity, it means that at some point, first in Europe and then in the broadly understood West, a new religion appeared, or more precisely – a quasi-religion. This is the form and meaning that modern ideologies take. They have a thoroughly religious structure. By offering a holistic, but simplified understanding of the world and presenting worldly goals as the absolute good, they tempt people with the vision of happiness and freedom as secular substitutes for salvation.
The fact is that this second barbaric civilization did not invade us from outside, but grew up inside, as part of Western civilization. Those, as I called them many years ago, “barbarians in suits,” do not want, like the old Huns, to kill or physically destroy us. So, we don’t have to fear their brutal violence for now; that is, of course, as long as we are at full strength and vigor, and we are not among the weakest and defenseless, like unborn children or the sick and the elderly, who can expect on the part of today’s Huns only euthanasia, or a ‘good death.’” In this world, the mockery of the victims of euthanasia or abortion (which is also a special form of euthanasia) is quite striking because it’s not difficult to guess for whom such death would actually be good.
Presently, the barbaric civilization, let’s put it bluntly, is trying to kill our souls. It wants and strives for us to join it, to make us forsake our entire identity, our entire heritage, and start dancing to their music, or at least have us hide cowardly in ghettos and not oppose its expansion.
What hinders our ability to discern that we are dealing today with a cultural, ideological and religious war of two opposing civilizations, not just the internal crisis of one Western civilization, is the fact that each of them proclaims that it is the quintessential Western civilization, that it alone has the right to be called the true Western civilization. What makes it confusing is that both proclaim the same values, concepts, and slogans: freedom, equality, brotherhood, justice, and solidarity. This apparent commonality should not, however, deceive anyone. Each of these concepts is understood in completely different ways by representatives of these two civilizations. Behind similar words are completely different visions of man, interpersonal relations, and community.
Let’s look at the basics. Our western civilization, not without reason is also called the Latin civilization, built on three pillars, growing out of three ancient roots. First, it is based on the achievements of mainstream Greek philosophy represented primarily by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Let us stress once again, that we refer to the mainstream Greek philosophy because the current barbaric Western civilization will also find its ancestors in the textbooks of ancient Greek philosophy. (…) The most important ancient philosophers looked at the world and saw in it not chaos but the cosmos, i.e., a reasonably ordered, harmonious whole. The Greek word “cosmos” contains even more than just “order,” namely something that in Polish better reflects the word “order,” possibly more like “harmony.” “Space is aesthetically pretty; it contains an element of beauty. Our ladies face this forgotten, aesthetic dimension of the word cosmos every day, improving on their beauty with the help of “beautifiers,” that is cosmetics.
Looking at the world like the ancient Greeks did, we see order and admire our surroundings. When we look at the stars, at the beauty of nature, we are awed by something that has been given to us, which does not flow from ourselves but is a free gift offered to us. With this sense of delight, we also feel gratitude to the Creator, which we will find in the ancient Greeks. What’s more, with our minds we can learn about the structure of the cosmos, not only the stars and nature, but also our internal human nature. By discovering and being guided by beauty and order in nature, we can make our actions appropriate, intelligent, and beautiful. (…)
On the foundation of Greek civilization, adding its elements and its specificity, the Roman culture or civilization arose. To that culture, we owe our legal codes, which rationally arrange interpersonal relations. It was the Romans who granted all their citizens equal rights and strictly adhered to that concept. (…) We also inherited from the Romans the category of an individual as an entity of ownership, on which the civil law of Western countries is based and is still valid today.
We also owe the Greeks and Romans a classic Western mainstay of a well-organized political community. But it was not democracy at all, but politeia in Greek and res publica in Roman. It was a vision of a political community in which people performing political functions and exercising power have one basic feature: concern for the common good. This is precisely the sense of the republic. The Republic is – as Cicero wrote – “a common cause that we care for together, not as a disorderly cluster, but a large gathering, united by recognizing the right and benefits of community life.” Such a republican ideal of a well-organized political community, all the members of our civilization have kept in mind and have been guided by, to this day.
Christianity could flourish on the previously prepared Greek and Roman foundations, which brought with it, above all, a new image of God – not only that of the Creator, the all-powerful Lord and Ruler, but above all a God of love, a loving Father concerned about his children. Because people were created in His image and likeness, it resulted in a specific vision of Man who, like God, must be understood primarily through the prism of love. Moreover, Christianity opened itself up to all the morsels of truth and goodness in the world because in Christianity, all creation, as a work of God’s goodness, is essentially good. Thanks to this, Christianity could easily absorb everything that was indeed good in the Greek and Roman traditions, and then also in other civilizations, cultures, and traditions. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” said the Founder of Christianity.
This is the image of the West that we identify with, built in the spiritual environment of Christianity, which carries in itself the best of everything, including that which was born outside it, in earlier periods, and which it owes to from its predecessors. Let us list the most important values, without which there is no Christianity and no real West. First of all – truth, not so much Christian, as a universal value. The pagan Greeks already considered the pursuit of truth to be the most important principle, which makes sense only if we trust that the world is rational, that it can be discovered and that this is our task. The basic truth about man is that since he is loved by God Himself, he should love other people equally. Love, or selfless concern for the good of the other, to be true love and not some deceptive feeling, must always recognize that one heads towards another person, who is created in the image and likeness of God. (…)
The new barbarian Western civilization proclaims to everyone that love is its most important value. The only question is how understood? At the beginning of the 5th century, Saint Augustine prophetically wrote in his work “On God’s State” about two kinds of love: “Two loves, therefore, created two states: self-love, advanced to the contempt of God, created the earthly state; the love of God, advanced to the point of self- disdain , created the heavenly state.“ Love is a beautiful word, but it turns out that there is also a form of love that builds a society full of sin, called here an earthly state, which in the context of the thought of Saint Augustine simply means the kingdom of Satan. Such a community is also based on love, but it is self-love, self-centered, selfish, narcissistic love. However, for people formed in the circle of Christianity, words about the love of God translate directly into the commandment of love of one’s neighbor. (…) Extrapolating the thought of St. Augustine, one could say: “Self-love, even to the point of showing a disdain for one’s neighbor, builds the kingdom of Satan. Love of a neighbor, advanced to a self-disdain, builds the kingdom of Heaven.”
The second seemingly shared value is freedom. We have heard from many voices accusing Christians of being opponents of freedom. Yes, they are opponents, but not of freedom but unlimited playfulness. When it comes to freedom, i.e., freedom understood as a way of realizing the good, Christians are its greatest advocates. (…)
As an example, I will mention here an extraordinary thinker, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), the author of the saying “man is the architect of his own fate.” As a young man of twenty, he attempted to organize a congress of philosophers and theologians from around the world to solve all the problems that troubled civilization at that time. He did not succeed for various reasons. Poisoned, he died at the age of only 31. Earlier, however, while preparing for this scientific congress, he wrote the famous speech “On Human Dignity,” the beginning of which is of particular interest to us.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, referring to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, describes how God, by creating man, did not give him any special nature but gave his fate into his own hands. “I have not assigned to you, Adam,” said God according to Mirandola, “neither a specific dwelling nor an image or a task so that you could attain a dwelling, an image or a task that you intend and desire for yourself. The specific nature of other creatures is bound by the laws I have set, but you, unlimited by any restrictions, I put into your own hands, so that you can define your nature according to your own will, and it’s you, who, in a free and dignified way, will shape yourself however you want. You will be able to degenerate to the level of animals, or you will also be able to be reborn and rise by the power of your will to the divine level.”
Here is a beautiful vision of man who was endowed by the Creator with the opportunity to shape himself. (…)
The frame has been clearly marked. Although Man has actually received the gift of self-creation, he can use it only in a certain orderly ethical space, whose vectors are given and no longer depend on him. It is a space that shows what brings us up and down, which leads us to God, the Creator, the Father, and what brings us down to the level of animals. If we skip the last sentence from Mirandola’s story, a false vision of absolute human freedom and absolute creativity will reveal itself to us (…)
Such a vision of man and his absolute, boundless freedom has since been repeated many times in various forms. Its best-known version comes from “the sage from Trier,” Karl Marx, and is summarized in the words: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.”
So, it’s not about learning and interpreting, but about creating a whole new world. The reality, which is what is, is no longer the criterion for the discovery of truth, but rather what we want to introduce, build, and create to become the truth. The consequence of this attitude is everything we observe today – ever-increasing attempts to change human nature, to free ourselves from everything that is given, from cultural elements, traditions, history, and recently even from biological nature. It is no longer noticeable that something, for example, our gender, is given to us and thus deserves our gratitude as intelligent and beautiful. On the contrary, what has been given to us and inscribed in our nature and culture is treated as a restriction on our freedom, as enslavement. Searching for freedom understood as full liberation, one rejects everything that is permanent and real, building a world full of chimeras born in ailing imaginations. Not so long ago, we could only guess what it all leads to. Today, we can just look around or read the works of careful observers of today’s era, such as the Shattered Mirror. The fall of Western Civilization, by Wojciech Roszkowski.
Professor Zbigniew Stawrowski (reviewer)
Political philosopher, professor at the Institute of Political Science UKSW. Co-founder of Collegium Civitas. Co-founder and director of the Józef Tischner Institute of Thought in Cracow.