Rise and Fall of the West

West’s True Rise and Demise: An Enlightenment Tragedy

“Tell me, is this the
Way to the Orchards of Syon
Where I left you thinking I would return?”
Geoffrey Hill

The idea that the West begins with Greek academies and Roman fora is the triumph of emotions over facts. Like most delusions it is understandable. The ‘West’ from its prehistory until its submission to Rome is almost a meaningless term, a purely relational one applied to the Atlantic-facing Eurasian landmass rather than something with political baggage, and so minds scramble in the hay looking desperately for retrospective needles.

It is not totally meaningless, however, because this aggregation of (mostly) indigenous tribes breezily traversed the stone, bronze and iron ages and either voluntarily embraced Celtic culture or were conquered by Celts (the dynamics are still fiercely contested). It is these Celts who by 300 BC provided western Europe with its first supra-local identity (first via the Hallstatt culture and then La Tène). They therefore form the base-rate ‘European’ culture for the regions that either escaped the Roman empire (Scotland, for instance) or were poorly Romanised (Galicia).

Romans constitute the next building block. They tended less to impose a culture than enforce a tribute system that happened to assimilate local elites whose norms then trickled down over generations. Still, if you’d asked anybody north of the Alps who a ‘Hellene’ was let alone the name of a famous philosopher, nobody outside Marseilles (or, at a push, the Atlantic seaboard) would have had the slightest clue; they were certainly not considered the founding fathers of a shared identity.

By the first century AD most of the West had been conquered by Romans who rather eccentrically (few things stopped them appropriating Egyptian, Phoenician or Celtic wisdom as their own) identified with Hellenic thought. “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” in the immortal words of Horace. Like the female wasp smuggling eggs into a fig, the Romans drummed two chequered notions into the Celtic skull: first, the Greeks were intellectual ubermensch. Second, they were also too clever by half i.e. sly, insincere and slippery wordsmiths who lacked masculinity and honour. Western Europeans would later parrot the same lines (tenth-century Liudprand of Cremona being the most famous example).

It is incontestable that Rome advanced the formation of a European identity. When the western half of its empire collapsed the remains were indelibly printed with its architecture, law, language, currency, dating systems, higher education etc. But the West that emerged was not an Apollonian heaven frozen in AD 40 comme si les dieux nous avaient aimés. Instead it was the bible-thumping Christian Rome of the late fifth century. Remove the hallowed Hollywood image of epicene pagans contemplating abstractions in marble fora, theatres, baths, stadia; a Rome sterilized within its pomerium. Replace it with a West forged in the tumult of Chi-Rho emblazoned Romans (of all ethnicities) fighting an avalanche of pagan (unassimilated i.e. Celtic) warriors east of the Rhine.

The Mediterranean split. While the empurpled East won its laurels and stood tall enough to contest the notion of mare nostrum for another millennium; the West’s fell in the mud and were recovered near the Seine, not the Tiber. This, however, allowed the latter to develop its own identity; a framework that wasn’t directly dependent upon the emperor who had been based in Constantinople since the fourth century.

What is strange is that the West conquered by pagans did not resume its polytheist ways. Instead its elites adopted the Roman faith, Christianity. At first imperfectly as Arianism was rife (the heresy remained the official creed of Spain until 587). Indeed, the schismatic Istrian church (created by Justinian’s condemnation of the Three Chapters) was opportunistically shielded by the Lombards until the division was healed in 698. But these were isolated pockets. In general, while the non-Roman pagans won the battles (conquering the West) they lost the ideological war (with almost all survivors fetishizing the memory, religion and ideology of Rome).

The upshot was the birth of sub-Roman political units (a nice bookmark might be the appointment of Clovis as consul by Anastasius in 507) that adopted the Roman religion, Christianity. But these terms were only relevant to elites. The reason the West is truly born in the sub-Roman period often called the ‘Dark Ages’  is that it is not until this point that all three elements considered uniquely ‘Western’ today (Hellenic learning, orthodox faith and Romanitas) are bound together and transmitted to every section of society via monasteries. 

The roots of the western monastic movement lay in 340 when St Athanasius visited Rome accompanied by Ammon and Isidore (disciples of St Anthony). The circulation of the Vita Antonii inspired many to head East to imitate the monks of Egypt and Palestine (Jerome, Rufinus and the two Melanias being famous examples). The earliest movers in the West itself were ex-soldiers like Martin of Tours who set up hermitages in Milan and Poitiers. Other figures included Honoratus of Marseilles who after a pilgrimage to Egypt  founded the Monastery of Lerins (410) and John Cassian who lived in Egypt before founding two monasteries near Marseilles.

Coenobitic and eremitic lifestyles both flourished as did the various rules (those of Basil, Cassian, Macarius and Pachomius for instance). Perhaps the most important figure, however, was Cassiodorus who decisively linked monasticism with learning. The scion of Roman administrators, c.538 he retired from public life and went to Constantinople whence he returned after Justinian’s reconquest and turned his mansion at Vivarium (near Seyllacium) into a monastery. He was proud of Rome’s scholarly history and aimed to foster it. Indeed, he hatched a plan with Pope Agapitus for a Christian university at Rome (although this came to nothing) and set up a library and scriptorium at Vivarium.

This scriptorium — when set in concert with his educational theories in his Institutiones took the idea that had been cultivated mostly by the Church Fathers (namely that pagan learning was a ramp that led directly to wondrous theological knowledge) and implanted it in the West. His scriptorium produced translations from the histories of Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret, the Antiquities of Josephus, Gaudentius’ treatise on music, exegetical works by Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Chrysostom. The works of Western writers like Boethius, Ambrose, Augustine, Cassian and Jerome were collected and copied too.

Vivarium wasn’t a lone candle in the night. The monastery of Castrum Lucullanum (near Naples) led the movement and was in many ways Vivarium’s precursor. Dionysius Exiguus, too, conducted his literary career from a monastery in Rome. But Cassiodorus’ Institutiones was uniquely seminal in that it formed the most important schoolbook of the early Middle Ages i.e. the period in which a Western identity grew bottom-up and was not an elite Celtic or Roman notion. Not that this new identity was instant or uniform. A lot of fun can be had tracing Roman Berbers like Hadrian evangelizing England, and then Irish and English evangelists bouncing around the continent like pinballs. But it is important to see in the anti-pagan literature of the sixth to ninth centuries, the birth of an occidental identity, a Western Christendom that will not die until the ‘Enlightenment’ in the eighteenth century.


The main issue with the western ‘half’ of Christendom (aping the old ‘West’ of the Roman oikoumene) is that by abandoning the Pentarchy it slid slowly but inexorably into the ecclesiological error of papal primacy. Armed with these presidential powers successive popes took their flock down a heretical road by adding the filioque (which pertained to how the Trinity functioned) to the creed. Not content with causing the Great Schism (a slow divergence punctuated by the greatest atrocity of the Middle Ages, the fourth crusade), the papacy then alienated its own flock by binding the authority of the Church to antique epistemological models that were easily challenged by empiricism. 

For roughly a century (1600-1700) an uneasy stalemate under the rubric of Deism kept the peace but beneath the serene surface dark currents surged. In short, the West sacrificed theology historically the Queen of Sciences on the altar of science. It audaciously wrote off its theological corpus as twaddle; some sort of blinkered helotry and taking God out of the equation as a force that was unknowable proceeded to create a world where theological depth was exchanged for secular breadth; where difficult spiritual knowledge was cast aside in favour of mechanics.

This new animus ushered in the fetishisation of the quantitative over the qualitative. Hence the development of cosmopolitan doctrines that had not been witnessed since the Stoics. In 1753 Fourgeret de Montbron wrote that he travelled everywhere without being committed to anywhere, declaring “All countries are the same to me… I change my residence according to my whim.” Others like Rousseau saw the flipside of such doctrines, noting “[The Cosmopolitans] might boast that they love the whole world, which is really the same as saying they have the right to love no one.” Few realised that the larger one’s map grew, the more insipid the abstraction that bound the community. Fortunately, Kant didn’t fall into the same camp. In Toward Perpetual Peace (1795) he argued that a world-state was impossible and peace would only thrive if states organized themselves properly and then (voluntarily) bound themselves to a league dedicated to it (like today’s UN).

In the gap where God once stood a craving for self-sufficiency, autonomy and sovereignty inserted itself; colourful cauls of oil on a cold, dark pool. And as the golden thread of Christianity unraveled (i.e. the power that gave Europe’s centrifugal forces a purpose, a counterbalance) so dozens of abstractions rose to supplant Christ’s beatitudes. The liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution (1793) are the most famous ideals but it’s easy to confect Hitler’s as order, hierarchy and submission (Stalin’s would hardly be dissimilar). The contents of these eximious idols (ethnicity, for instance) aren’t important, the dynamic of a carousel that enchants and distracts with salvific promises is fundamental. Social media symbolizes and condenses this drive in nuce.

What’s most interesting about the clash of armies 1750-1950 is that the Spenglerian formula of gold (capitalism) versus blood (Caesarism) as opposing metaphysical systems simply didn’t hold water. When gold’s power confronted blood’s ties the latter almost always lost. So while quixotic -isms from communisms to repeatedly stole the news-cycle limelight, capitalism slowly chewed up the history books and reduced the political ‘value’ scripts to language games.

The market supplanted all. Politics became its human face. But the eyes were gouged. Fast forward to today and neoliberals appear to be the most honest about where the West went: it hung up its sword, retired its faith and became an administrator; a manager of funds that were vast because its society was suborned by production and utility. Other nations were either forced to see the writing on the wall or more rarely, as when the Burmese confronted the British (1824-1885), fought the financial tsunami (and always lost). In this manner, history has been reduced to a repetition of the Anglo-French wars of early modernity when the English repeatedly won almost solely on the basis of having better credit.

In short, the Enlightenment was consumed by its own pet: capitalism (previously yoked to Christian communitarianism). Homo economicus can be seen on a personal scale by the sheer amount of people who have turned themselves into businesses. Sadly, though society might appear to be ordered around the principle of a free market, in reality, power has corroded every aspect into cartel-esque mechanisms. For example, rent extraction flourishes, asymmetries of information abound and instead of internalizing costs companies push them on others. And so the twenty-first century is left with a system best described as a black box matrix. An arrangement best symbolised by the hypocrisy of insider-trading occurring on encrypted apps within steel and glass architecture (totems of transparency), or perhaps the EU’s bureaucracy which looks clean on a diagram but functions via opaque channels.

Yet the ghosts of identity won’t vanish into the system’s fog of comfort, which in each individual wrestles with either a sense of either purposeless or being part of a structure that possesses a different set of interests to mankind. In sum, Matthew 4:4 (Man shall not live by bread alone) continues to haunt the post-Christian psyche. 

Whether this impulse is extirpated in individuals through crime, psychosis, adulation of Nietzsche, political extremisms or a return to faith is immaterial, the point is that below technological tranquility lurks Aristotle’s Man as a political animal; Man the creature who resents his neutering; Man the enervated avenger who seeks to destroy because he no longer exists for himself (he cannot decide whether posterity’s verdict of being an anonymous irrelevance is true; is it hubris to see oneself as more? Can life escape its own interests, its importunate nature, its delusions?). The questions multiply, the people drown and why? Reason cannot punch its way out of a crisp packet.

Making a mockery of St Anselm’s “fides quaerens intellectum,” Western Man is reduced to yearning for a faith he can no longer bring himself to believe in nor truly understands. Yet he remains too proud or stubborn to deliver the equivalent of Prospero’s farewell. And so he hobbles on, neither a child of God nor an overlord but something very sickly, a life half-aborted at an impasse; something that passed through the ‘dark night of the soul’ without achieving a revelation.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at byzantineambassador.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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