The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this Dialogue. The Spirit of Western Civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everyone is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education.
Logos is an ancient Greek term. It means reason as expressed in human speech. The Greeks believed reason to be the controlling principle in an orderly, harmonious universe (cosmos).
The faculties of reason (conceptual thought) and language (propositional speech) are what distinguish human beings from other creatures.
Accordingly, man is described as “the rational animal.” As philosopher Mortimer Adler points out in his book, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes:
. . . man is the only talking, the only naming, declaring or questioning, affirming or denying, the only arguing, agreeing or disagreeing, the only discursive animal.
Philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand develops this idea further in her book, For the New Intellectual:
Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food, and the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch – or build a cyclotron – without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.
But to think is an act of choice . . . Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs, or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival – so that for you, who are a human being, the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think.’
Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think – not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment . . . Non-thinking is an act of annihilation, a wish to negate existence, an attempt to wipe out reality.
Human beings are capable of abstract thought, the transcendence of their immediate environment, and the emancipation from the perpetual present.
In one of the most important books of the 20th Century, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, historian Carroll Quigley elaborates on this crucial idea of abstraction:
Both man and universe are dynamic, or changeable in time, and the chief additional complexity is that both are changing in a continuum of abstraction, as well as in the more familiar continuum of space-time. The continuum of abstraction simply means that the reality in which man and the universe function exists in five dimensions; of these the dimension of abstraction covers a range from the most concrete and material end of reality to, at the opposite extreme, the most abstract and spiritual end of reality, with every possible gradation between these two ends along the intervening dimensions that determine reality, including the three dimensions of space, the fourth of time, and this fifth of abstraction. This means that man is concrete and material at one end of his person, is abstract and spiritual at the other end, and covers all the gradations between, with a large central zone concerned with his chaos of emotional experiences and feelings.
In order to think about himself or the universe with the more abstract and rational end of his being, man has to categorize and to conceptualize both his nature and the nature of reality, while, in order to act and to feel on the less abstract end of his being, he must function more directly, outside the limits of categories, without the buffer of concepts. Thus man might look at his own being as divided into three levels of body, emotions, and reason. The body, functioning directly in space-time-abstraction, is much concerned with concrete situations, individual and unique events, at a specific time and place. The middle levels of his being are concerned with himself and his reactions to reality in terms of feelings and emotions as determined by endocrine and neurological reactions. The upper levels of his being are concerned with his neurological analysis and manipulation of conceptualized abstractions. The three corresponding operations of his being are sensual, emotional or intuitive, and rational.
The sequence of intellectual history is concerned with the sequence of styles or fads that have been prevalent, one after another, as to what emphasis or combinations of man’s three levels of operations would be used in his efforts to experience life and to cope with the universe.
Early Christianity, influenced by Greek philosophy, borrowed the term “Logos” as a symbolic representation for Jesus Christ. Logos was the divine wisdom manifest in the creation, government, and redemption of the world. It was identified with the Second Person of the Trinity.
In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was made nothing that has been made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness grasped it not. There was a man, one sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him. He was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light. It was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But to as many as received Him He gave the power of becoming sons of God; to those who believe in His name; who were born not of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory – glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father – full of grace and truth.
The Gospel of John 1, 1-14
With this Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian intellectual inheritance (in addition to the various elements offered by the barbarian Germanic tribes and the Muslim world) Western civilization has developed as “logocentric” or reasoned speech-centered.
From the time of the Protestant Reformation, particular emphasis has been placed upon the written word as a means of transmitting and recording knowledge, away from the earlier “art of memory” or oral tradition of classic Greek and Roman antiquity.
“Printing was to bring about the most radical alteration ever made in Western intellectual history, and its effects were to be felt in every area of human activity,” noted James Burke in his excellent book, The Day The Universe Changed.
“The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest, most complete and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature known as Homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual and social activity. That record covers nearly twenty-five hundred years in an unbroken stretch of this animated oddity’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, logic, politics, botany, zoölogy, medicine, geography, theology, — everything, I believe, that lies in the range of human knowledge or speculation. Hence the mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind, it is an experienced mind. It has come, as Emerson says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experience. Our studies were properly called formative, because beyond all others their effect was powerfully maturing. Cicero told the unvarnished truth in saying that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children; and if one wished to characterize the collective mind of this present period, or indeed of any period,—the use it makes of its powers of observation, reflection, logical inference,—one would best do it by the one word immaturity.” ― Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
Anyone remotely aware of the dynamic interplay of ideas and events in the world for the past several decades is well aware that in the media, in the academy, and in the corridors of power, Western Civilization is under a vicious and aggressive assault. Here are vital unapologetic defenses of the West and its definitive legacy in shaping the world:
“Western Civilization, Our Tradition,” article by James Kurth
“In Defense of Western Civilization,” article by Richard Finger
How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, by Rodney Stark
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.; (EWTN series The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization; online at YouTube)
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, by Anthony Esolen
The Great Books of the Western World, by Mortimer J. Adler (Author, Editor), Clifton Fadiman (Editor), and Philip W. Goetz (Editor)
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos , by Jordan B. Peterson
The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail
“Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” article by Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy
The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, by Douglas Murray
“The Coming Anarchy,” article by Robert Kaplan
“The Clash of Civilizations?” article by Samuel P. Huntington
“The Superiority of Western Values in Eight Minutes,” Speech by Ibn Warraq
Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy, by Ibn Warraq
“Sharia’s Incompatibility with Western Values, Explained,” article by Immanuel Al-Manteeqi
The Theory of Education in the United States, by Albert Jay Nock
Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock
The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, by Henry Adams
“What If Everyone Had A Classical Education?” TED presentation by Rebekah Hagstrom
“The Trivium of Classical Education: Historical Development Decline in the 20th Century and Resurgence in Recent Decades,” A Dissertation Presented to The Graduate Faculty of Greenleaf University In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Randall D. Hart, July 2004