Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Western Civilization: It's Not Just a Great Idea

I just read the most delightful book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam (Public Affairs Press, 2008). It's the often-funny story of Robert Maynard Hutchins' and Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World.

It's not easy to think of anything more politically incorrect than promoting "great" (a hierarchical concept) books of the Western (a Eurocentric concept) world, but the Great Books project was basically a noble attempt to bring culture and world-historical ideas to the masses. The snooty jerks at The New Yorker published not one but two articles deriding it as "the Book of the Millenium Club." When a publicity photo appeared showing Adler with the index cards for his Syntopicon, an index of the 102 Great Ideas (click to enlarge) Marshall McLuhan said that the signs on the boxes of cards looked like little tombstones where dead ideas had been buried.

The Great Books came and went, and both Adler and Hutchinson died believing that their lives had basically been failures (a sentiment that Adler's son agreed with).

It's easy to make fun of the project (Beam mercifully avoids taking the obvious cheap shots) but I have a lot of sympathy for what these people were trying to do. I even like the idea of -- in some way or other -- isolating Western ideas and books for special treatment.

I think of Western Civilization as consisting of four (okay, let's capitalize it) Great Ideas: 1) scientific method, 2) multiparty democracy, 3) the rule of law, and 4) competitive markets.

One feature all four of these ideas have in common: all refer to processes, not results. Western civ is mad about methods. This leads to a couple of other crucial features.

Being all about process makes it very freedom-friendly. This sort of culture doesn't tell you what result you have to come up with, it only constrains the means by which you can come up with whatever result you prefer. Do you want to devote your life to the worship of Otho, the God of Flashlight Batteries and After-Dinner Comments? Fine! Just don't do it in a way that interferes with these four processes. But, you say, these ideas prevent me from forcing Otho-worship on others! That's too bad! You can't do it!

Another result of being all about process: because they are relatively free of content, the Four Ideas are pretty easy to carry from one culture to another. It is actually rather misleading to call it "Western" civilization any longer. It is Western only in the sense that the West is where it began. Today, one of the most successful countries in using the Big Four is India. Japan has done pretty well with them too.

Other cultures have been gentler, more beautiful, or more poetic and sensitive. None has been more powerful. No other culture has been able to send vehicles to Mars and Titan, or cure tuberculosis, or (to be honest) vaporize a million human beings at the press of a button.

So what does this world-conquering culture have to do with Adler and Hutchins' set of books? Everything! The Wealth of Nations, The Second Treatise of Government, The Origin of Species. The basis of these ideas is in those books. Spreading awareness of these books sounds like a Great Idea to me.
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