Western civilization, by all accounts, is the most advanced civilization in world history by virtue of fomenting unmatched social, political, and economic breakthroughs through the advancement of rational inquiry, science, and technology. This essay hopes to serve as a brief overview of the philosophical, political, and economic history of the West. Furthermore, this essays hopes to take on the form of a very small condensation of what one would find in a “Philosophy, Politics, and Economics” (PPE) program at Oxford. Even if this overview of Western history provides no utility whatsoever to the reader, it puts into perspective a lot of what the author has been able to learn about the West since his departure from graduate school as a clueless 24 year-old. As Epicurus said, self-education is the best education.
The richness of the Western philosophical tradition had been evident even during pre-Socratic times. One can argue that the Western philosophical tradition begins with one fundamental question, and from it springs forth many others. The first and the ultimate question is: Does God have a plan for everything? Or does everything consist of the random movement and collision of atoms? Epicurus, one of the most influential of the pre-Socratic philosophers in the Western tradition, answered the latter question in the affirmative. The Epicurean view of everything would coincide with the tradition of the Socratic philosophers and of the “Academy” founded by Plato. It was God who stamps the mind with innate “concepts” and a priori knowledge, according to Plato and Aristotle.
But what is knowledge? And how can we define knowledge? Aristotle had mentioned that there were two types of knowledge: wisdom and technical knowledge. The most detailed definition of knowledge that the author of this essay could conjure up is “the state of latching onto a fact, which differs from mere belief, given that belief could be false.” From this statement, yet another question arises: what is a fact? One very forceful definition of a “fact” that I was able to develop is “a statement or thing that is ontologically superior to interpretation or opinion because it corresponds to reality; furthermore, a fact is supported by adequate documentation and evidence.” Knowledge, through the attachment to facts, can then establish belief with confidence and in a truthful manner, given that the basis of knowledge is sound. The basis of knowledge, the study of which is known as epistemology, can either be reason (a priori) that is employed through deductive reasoning, or sensory experience (a posteriori) that uses inductive reasoning to arrive at an understanding of the world. As mentioned before, one question leads to another. When asserting that a fact corresponds to reality, the question that arises is: what is reality? The following serves as the most thought-provoking definition for the term “reality”:
“Reality is the totality of all things, both known and unknown. Realists hold the position that reality is independent of the mind and must be known through rational inquiry, whereas idealists argue that reality comprises of the contents of the mind and is shaped by the mind. What the nature of reality is, along with the mind’s relation to reality, are the two fundamental questions of philosophy.”
Thus, philosophy ends with the exploration of the mind. The mind, with all its wonders and mysteries, is in essence the final frontier for philosophers, whose business is to investigate anything and everything. And as a result of advancements in science and technology, we know more about the mind and its relation to reality than ever before. In a book titled “The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes”, Professor Donald Hoffman of the University of California-Irvine explains that as a result of evolution, the human brain prioritizes survival and reproduction, thus shaping our perception of reality in a way that downplays the essentially complex and baffling nature of reality. In a sense, our brains lie to us, by convincing us that life is merely about survival and reproduction when actually, reality is far more complex and fascinating, according to Hoffman. Space, time, and matter emerge out of what is known as the “collective consciousness” or “universal consciousness”, and the goal for philosophers and scientists is to decipher this consciousness by discovering what quantum physicists call “the theory of everything”, which is a theory that reconciles quantum theory with the theory of relativity. The Ancient Greeks appeared to have had three schools of thought regarding the possibility of discovering universal consciousness. Plato and his school believed it was possible through the acquisition of knowledge. The Stoics believed it was a secret held by the “world-mind” and could not be discovered. And the Epicureans believed there was no universal consciousness at all, and that existence was limited to the random movement of atoms. Coincidentally, both scientists and psychoanalysts suggest that universal consciousness can best be deciphered through symbols, or what Carl Jung called “archetypes.” Nonetheless, there was an effort from the beginning of Western civilization to discover “universal consciousness” and to know if there was an intelligent design behind reality and existence. Today, scientists in the West (through their employment of technology) are beginning to suggest through empirical evidence that humans are co-creating reality with the universal conscious merely by projecting the contents of their mind out into the world. There is now growing empirical evidence for the Hegelian view of mind over matter.
The collapse of Greek civilization shifted the epicenter of knowledge to Rome, which later collapsed either due to the rise of Christianity or imperial overreach. Nevertheless, the collapse of Rome inaugurated a period in European history known as the “Medieval Period.” The basic social, political, and economic organization of Medieval Europe was for the most part based on Christianity, Theo-centrism, and Feudalism, monopolized by the figure of the Pope and the Church establishment. Some of the major figures that had propped up the philosophy of the medieval period were St. Augustine of Hippo in the early medieval period and St. Thomas Aquinas in the later medieval period. Aquinas sought to accommodate Aristotelian thought into Christian philosophy. Eventually, the shift to reason and enlightenment occurred when the monopoly on knowledge held by the Church broke as a result of technology. Reason and enlightenment were not the causal factors behind technology. Rather, it was the other way around. Technological breakthroughs like the printing press in the 1400’s were able to break the monopoly on knowledge held by the Church by translating classic works of philosophy into the vernacular. The role that technology played in prompting the Enlightenment period cannot be underestimated, which in turn prompted prophets of technology, the first of which was Sir Francis Bacon well into the enlightenment period. Technology, in recent times, has prompted the rapid expansion of globalization, which in turn has led to the growth of knowledge and information available for acquisition. In turn, the growth of knowledge and information has not only led to the expansion of capitalism on a global scale, but along with the expansion of capitalism and the division of labor there has been a revolution in what constitutes individual identity, which in turn has led to the increase in the complexity of individual preferences and values.
The enlightenment period led to a revival of all the major areas of philosophy that were discussed in antiquity, such as epistemology where mind-world monism and mind-world dualism were revived by the likes of Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and where Kant sought to find middle ground between the two camps. Other areas of philosophy that underwent revivals were ethics, logic, metaphysics (Spinoza’s God, for example), aesthetics (German Romanticism), philosophy of the mind (Hume, Freud, and Jung), political philosophy, (Adam Smith and John Locke), the philosophy of language (Wittgenstein) as well as the history of philosophy, the summation of which inhered in the figure of Sir Bertrand Russell in the 1900’s.
How enlightenment philosophy impacted politics and economics can be seen in the advent of what is known as classical liberalism. Inherent in the worldview of classical liberalism that emerged out of the enlightenment was the idea that reason (rational inquiry) would ultimately promote individualism and science, which in turn would lead to social, political, and economic progress and in the end would enable the pursuit of happiness as well as the free pursuit of one’s ends in life. The two fundamental political and economic principles of classical liberalism were individual freedom and free-market capitalism, thus leading to a clean break from the feudalism of the medieval period where serfs were controlled and dependent on feudal overlords. The role of government in society would also be defined by Hobbes’s “social contract”, where the public would give up their right to violence to government, and in turn the government would provide security for its subjects. The sole responsibility of government in the enlightenment era would be delineated to protecting people’s lives by deterring killing and robbing through the monopoly on violence. Enlightenment thinkers felt this was the best role for government after experiencing numerous religious wars throughout European history.
Limiting government’s role was imperative, given that government itself was born out of war. According to Fukuyama, societies were initially organized into tribal units, who later came together to form what is known as “band-width societies” where a number of tribes would come together, ultimately forming nation level societies that would in turn form governments that would wage war on other nations. Due to the power that governments would derive from their monopoly on violence, enlightenment thinkers starting from Locke and later Thomas Jefferson would devise legal restrictions on Hobbesian government to protect individual rights from potential infringement upon individual rights by government. Economic prosperity, as imagined by Adam Smith, could only materialize through peace and security, the preservation of individual rights away from the intrigues of government, free enterprise, free markets where globalization and specialization would turn the eventual global market into a synchronized unit, low taxes, and the rule of law.
In Adam Smith’s system that was adopted by the Americans, it was crucial to keep government’s role limited due to its inherently corrupt nature, and to prevent it from intervening in the economy all while disallowing government to dictate to the individual how he or she should use their property and wealth. Individual rights could only be protected by the sanctity attached to the rule of law and constitutionalism that in turn would ensure a clean and independent judiciary, which made classical liberalism a very fragile political and economic system. The impression of government that enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson held were in essence shaped by their ultimate view of human nature that had been influenced by Hume. Given that human nature is shaped by individual experience, and that individual experience in the words of Hobbes was “brutish, nasty, and short”, it was perceived that human nature was inherently flawed, and flawed human beings would ultimately form governments. As a result, it would be best if “systemic processes” like the free-market and the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith were allowed to determine individual outcomes to the utmost extent and prevent a flawed and inherently corrupt government from determining “individual outcomes”. Knowledge, in the words of Thomas Sowell, is fragmented and dispersed throughout the global market, and no single expert or government can know all there is to know. Therefore, the global market takes precedence over governments, because it is the global market that serves as the backdrop for individuals entering into mutually agreed contracts serving individual preferences that only individuals could know, not governments. It then becomes imperative for the government to enforce contracts, as it is in the United States where the Constitution specifically states a “contracts clause” given that virtually all economic activity is based on contracts. Whereas the medieval period was characterized by Theo-centrism and the omnipotence of kings and feudal overlords, the enlightenment period was characterized by anthropocentrism and a focus on developing the powers of the individual.
As mentioned before, classical liberalism is an immensely fragile system whose safe haven ultimately became the United States after two world wars that can largely be explained by German nationalism and the competition over markets and natural resources on the part of European colonial powers. Eventually in Europe, classical liberalism would face an affront from three intellectual movements: Marxism, Existentialism, and eventually Post-Modernism. Whereas the basic organizing principles for classical liberalism were individualism and science, the basic organizing principles for Marxism, existentialism, and post-modernism were socialism and skepticism. Everything comes into doubt with the advent of existentialism and its intellectual offspring in the form of post-modernism. Marxism reached its apogee in the form of the Soviet Union, the collapse of which confirmed the soundness of the organizing principles of classical liberalism. Existentialism reached its strongest pronunciation through Nietzsche, who believed that only Eastern spirituality could overcome what he saw as Western nihilism. Kierkegaard is known as the father of the existentialist movement, who believed that a reversion to Christianity was the only way to escape the dreadful reality of human existence. The French existentialists and eventually Heidegger would develop four core principles of Existentialism:
- Life is meaningless, and there is no purpose to life
- You are free to choose the meaning and purpose of life
- The only truth is death
- Because the only truth is death, seize the moment and live for the present
Existentialism resurrected three ontological questions that had been largely brushed over during the enlightenment period:
- Who are we?
- Why are we here?
- How will it all end?
The answers would arrive during what Peter Thiel called “The Straussian Moment”, in reference to Leo Strauss, a political theorist who suggested that the truth about reality and existence was attainable without exactly stating what the truth was. Nevertheless, the truth would arise amidst the cultural morass of what is now the post-modern era, which is characterized by a loss of truth and meaning and the reduction of any meaning of existence to merely the random movement of sub-atomic particles. Post-modernism can also be characterized as the loss of God as the meaning behind existence, thus reverting to the first ever question of the Western philosophical tradition mentioned at the start of this essay.
Politically, the loss of truth and meaning in the post-modern era would coincide with what Francis Fukuyama called the “hyper-centralization” of power and what Niall Ferguson identified as the expansive growth of the state. Both of these phenomena positively correlate with adverse trends in society, as Samuel Huntington identified in his famous book titled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”:
- An increase in anti-social behavior (i.e. crime, drug use, and violence)
- The degeneration of the family
- Decrease in the membership in voluntary association and the loss of interpersonal trust between individuals
- Loss of work ethic and an increase in personal indulgence
- Decrease in the commitment to learning, intellectual activity, and scholastic achievement
Huntington forecasted the decline of Western civilization by noting the possibility of American elites using their post-Cold War surplus for “nonproductive but ego satisfying purposes…which distribute the surpluses to consumption but do not provide more effective methods of production”, which leads to people “[living off] their capital” and eventually inducing a situation that prompts Western civilization to move from what Huntington called “the stage of the universal state” where the preponderance of the West extended beyond borders and cultures due to the universal nature of its values, to “the stage of decay.” The challenge for America, according to Huntington, would be to preserve whatever is left of Western civilization in its eventual state of decline and to avoid what he called “the clash of civilizations” by abstaining from too much involvement in the affairs of other civilizations. Huntington saw the probability of a clash of civilizations in the post-Cold War era as being quite high, and it was necessary for the West to avoid such a clash by focusing on the all too hefty task of saving its own civilization. The other major political thinker of the post Cold-War era, Francis Fukuyama, thought otherwise. Fukuyama believed that the “end of history” would be boring and mundane, and virtually everyone would be focused on very basic economic and technical matters. Classical liberalism would be the prevailing world system in the post-Cold War era, according to Fukuyama. In a Hegelian sort of way, Fukuyama may have also suggested that the issues calling for our attention in the present day, such as nationalism, technology and creative destruction, climate change, food security, migration and identity politics, the security dilemma, poverty and inequality, allocation of natural resources, mental health and public health, terrorism, as well as drug and human trafficking would be resolved on their own through time. Theoretically, one of the two major post-Cold War political theorists thought history would end with a bang. The other one thought it would end in a boring lull. The political question that persists in the post-Cold War era, however, is the question of whether classical liberalism and the world system of Adam Smith (peace and security, free-market economics, and the rule of law) can be transposed globally by the United States. The jury is divided, and the verdict at the moment is that the world is better off being divided into national units who fend for themselves rather than being shaped into one unified economic, political, and social unit. The verdict came by virtue of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
The truth, as always, falls somewhere in the middle. The United States, since the conclusion of World War II, sought to create a world system based on liberal-democratic principles, and this effort has now extended into the Middle East and Afghanistan. In other words, the United States has sought to establish what is known as “world order” after the collapse of the European-based international system in the 1940’s. Richard Haass, in his last book titled “A World in Disarray”, mentioned three conditions necessary for the establishment of world order. For one, there needs to be a balance of power between a set of major powers, which today can be found in the relationship between the United States and China. Secondly, there must be a set of rules or principles in place that can be applied internationally (global security, economic development and prosperity, and rule of law as well as the adjudication of conflicts). And third, there must be processes that can be used to apply these rules and principles. The processes to apply the rules and principles used to establish world order can be found in none other than the employment of statecraft and multilateral diplomacy. If there is any period in world history where world order can materialize, it is the current period.
According to Henry Kissinger, world order can either be created or its operations can be analyzed by statesmen. The purpose of diplomacy is to create world order, and sustainable diplomacy ensures the sustainability of world order. But what is the nature of world order? Is it something that must materialize out of human efforts? Or is it something that is inherent in the overall structure of the world? One would ultimately seek recourse to human psychology or sociology for answers. Henry Kissinger saw all politics as being psychological, and it was the human psyche that had to be employed for the creation and maintenance of world order. On the other hand, Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist of the Enlightenment era, resorted to the theory known as “structural functionalism” to explain everything. Based on Durkheim’s theory of “structural functionalism”, the system acts as if it were an organism or a human body, and it coerces individuals serving as the constituent parts of the body to act towards the achievement of a collective social end. There is an institutional structure inherent to the world, according to Durkheim, and for the individual to deviate from this structure would suggest that there is something pathological about the individual. If one were to reconcile human psychology with structural functionalism, one would find the means to reconciliation in the division of labor, according to Durkheim. The division of labor presupposes contracts (which explain the legal and religious aspect of sociology), and contracts presuppose world order. And with the evolution of research in physics, the ordering of the world would mean the actualization of an eight-dimensional reality in a three-dimensional world within time. Or as Ali Shariati once put it, the goal is to create heaven on earth. But if one were to explore both Carl Jung and Emile Durkheim’s findings astutely, one would find the ultimate parallel between the two thinkers and the ultimate means for the reconciliation human psychology and structural functionalism, which is collective or universal consciousness.
When applying the theory of structural functionalism to the international system, the inference coming out of such an application would be that China will conform to the system, otherwise the system would converge upon China and correct its pathological state. On the other hand, human psychology would suggest that China will not conform to the international system because of its unique culture and history. China’s culture and history would shape China’s national psyche, and it would require diplomacy to alter the psyche and ultimately integrate China into the prevailing international system. To extend what John Mearsheimer calls “liberal hegemony” into Russia and China would surely undermine the stability of the international system, for a number of reasons. For one, the destabilization of Russia could lead to Russia’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of mafia groups and transnational terrorist organizations. Russia possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and if one or perhaps two of those nuclear weapons fell into the hands of mafia groups or terrorist organizations, it would threaten the security of any major European city. Second, the price of goods and products would skyrocket with the collapse of China. China’s economy of scale cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world, thus the collapse of China’s economic engine would inevitably affect the price of goods and products. Third, Russia and China are virtually the only two countries with second-strike capabilities against the United States. If Russia and China were to feel that the United States sought to destabilize the Russian or Chinese system, it could have security repercussions for the United States and its interests abroad. Last but not least, history shows that incursions into Russia have ended in disasters when studying the cases of Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler. Getting bogged down in an enduring confrontation with Russia that includes making inroads into Russian territory through any mechanism, whether cyber or physical, results in a diminution of such capabilities. Short of Russia’s integration into the European Union and America’s engagement with China through institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for the sake of Eurasian infrastructural development would render America’s international liberal order nominal rather than official.
The economic consequences of post-modernism have also been significant. The debate between Libertarianism and Marxism is very much alive to this day and is more heated than ever before. The question of whether the distribution of resources and wealth can best be achieved by the free-market and social interactions or by government intervention has very much been resurrected with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In reality, economic policy in the post-modern era has neither been purely Libertarian, nor purely Marxist. For the most part, the economic policy of the United States has been mercantilist, where the government has backed corporations with its military might to secure markets, as well as natural resources and industries such as oil and weapons in the Middle East, in addition to securing resources that are vital for modern high-tech industries such as uranium, lithium, rare earth materials, and opium for pharmaceutical conglomerates in places like Afghanistan. Nevertheless, economic thinking has always been laced with fallacies, and in a book called “Economic Facts and Fallacies”, Thomas Sowell identifies four major logical fallacies that prevail in conventional economic thinking:
- The Zero-Sum Fallacy: Where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, thus government must take the side of the one it perceives as being the most vulnerable instead of allowing market forces to bring individuals together to enter into mutually agreed contracts
- Fallacy of Composition: The idea that what is good for a part is good for the whole. As a result, policies are adopted that hurt not only the part, but the whole as well
- Chess-Pieces Fallacy: The idea that one “expert” or a handful of experts can arrange society as if they are arranging chess pieces on a chessboard, without any regard to intangible market forces and individual preferences
- The Open-Ended Fallacy: Open-ended demands made on the part of activists, bureaucrats, and politicians, such as “ending poverty” or “eliminating terror” to address issues that have no metes and bounds per se and can never be dealt with through endless government intervention. In the end, the open-ended fallacy leads to making the situation worse, as was the case when the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) shifted towards the dismantling of the Iraqi state that in turn led to the creation of ISIS
History always has direct effects on the present with social, political, and economic consequences for everyone. As Thomas Sowell said: “What is history but the story of how politicians have squandered the blood and treasure of the human race?” An exploration of Western history that includes an examination of philosophy, politics, and economics shows just how the trajectory of philosophical, political, and economic thought in the West has led us to the economic, political, and social climate of this particular day and age.