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Dr. Chodakiewicz discusses Western Civilization

On October 19, 2012, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz discussed Western Civilization for a gathering of  members of the Knights of Malta.  The following is an abstract of Dr. Chodakiewicz’s lecture:

My four year old daughter Helenka found out I was going to speak before the Knights of Malta. So she asked me:  Will they bring their horsies? No, I responded, not this time. She continued: What do the knights do then?

–They defend Western Civilization, I responded.

–What does that mean? she inquired.

–Western Christendom!

–What’s that?

–They defend baby Jesus!

–Oh, that’s good! Why?

–Because Jesus is the truth! said I.

This little exchange is a departure point for my discussion of Western Civilization for many reasons. To begin with: “The Truth,” as the Bible states explicitly, “shall set you free.” The two categories – truth and freedom – are, after all, interdependent. Simply, the Knights and Ladies of Malta defend freedom. That is because Western Civilization is about liberty. And freedom stems from individual dignity bestowed upon us by the Creator (as in “unalienable rights,” a sentiment very well known to American patriots), thus making us all equally free in his eyes.

Civilization is synonymous with culture, which is derived from the word “cult.” Our tastes and prejudices first took shape around the clan/family fire in the cave. Taboos appeared in a variety of primitive beliefs, but eventually ever more complex systems of religion emerged. Ultimately, some two millennia ago, Christianity appeared in the world. 

What makes the Christian religion special is that it combines uniquely two apparently irreconcilable categories: faith and reason. Thus, Christianity is logocentric; it is anchored in reality, thereby allowing two plus two to always equal four. It also accommodates Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, which leads us to the notion of Christian universalism. It is best summed up by St. Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” This Christian idea that we are all “children of God” – the only equality permissible – implies the dignity of all human beings, thereby serving as the basis of freedom in Christianity. We are free because we have been endowed with reason – i.e. free will – by Our Creator, God. 

Of course, Christianity split into various offshoots. Of key importance was the Protestant Revolution of the sixteenth century, which challenged free will in the name of “predestination.” In practice, however, the Catholics and the Protestants both placed greater emphasis on freedom in the political and intellectual realms than did the Caesaro-Papist Orthodox. 

Further, freedom is to apply to everyone, including women. Modern Westerners, who are the willing or unwilling heirs of the Christian tradition, take it for granted that women are considered equal to men. In other civilizations, however, this assumption is not so obvious. For instance, the pagan Roman notion of the Pater Familias meant that the father, as the head of the family, could do as he pleased to his wife and children, including rape, abuse, and kill them. By the way, the post-modernist guru, Michel Foucault, considered this institution an ideal. In Islam, the woman is only half the value of a man, and a clear subordinate who must cover herself from other men. In ancient democratic Athens women were sequestered and disenfranchised. In Hindu civilization, the woman was expected to commit Sati upon her husband’s death, i.e. self-immolation. The unwilling ones were forcibly incinerated by the relatives. China was not women-friendly either, as attested to by the bound feet culture and more. Confucius once said: “Beat your wife everyday. If you do not know why, she will.” Tribal and religious prejudices against women in Islamic societies are too well known to merit another dissertation. Even Orthodox Jews, heirs to the ancient Hebrew civilization our own derives from, still offer a prayer of thanks to the Lord for not being born women. These differences lead us to the matter of “clashing civilizations.”

Western Civilization is forced to defend itself against enemies both within and without. From the very outset, Christians have had to fight for their beliefs. Jesus was crucified for the sins of this world. His was the greatest sacrifice. Following His example, St. Perpetua and so many other martyrs surrendered their lives for the faith. The Mexican and Spanish martyrs of the 20th century come to mind. 

But the Church, both the faithful and the ecclesiasts, did not always turn the other cheek. The Crusaders enlisted to counter-attack and retake the Holy Land after centuries of Muslim invasions.  Even the Inquisition, which is usually depicted in the darkest of colors, was an attempt to neutralize heretical sects which threatened to undermine the very foundations of Western Civilization. Theirs was a proto-Communistic assault on first things: faith, family, freedom, and private property. From that point of view the Inquisition defended a decent civilization. The fact that a historian of Jewish ancestry, Henry Kamen, who, upon the opening of the pertinent Vatican archives, wrote a monograph that was practically a defense of the institution, towards which he was initially negatively predisposed, speaks volumes.

The common theme shared by the Medieval and Renaissance-era European heresies-including but not limited to the Antinomians, Bogomils, Albigensians, Cathars, the Anabaptists of Műnster, and the Fifth Monarchy Men – was their gnostic character. In essence, gnostics (derived from the ancient Greek word for knowledge: gnosis) believe that a hidden key exists to understand the world, and it is only they, of course, who have access to the secret knowledge. This stands in direct contradiction to the traditional Christian understanding that the universe is, in theory, intelligible to all, since every human being was endowed by God with reason.

With the advent of the so-called Enlightenment during the eighteenth century, the heretofore religiously-based gnostic movements became secularist in form. This included the Marxist International Socialists, the German National Socialists, and, more recently, the post-modernists. All of these groups have sought to overturn the foundations and Judeo-Christian essence of Western Civilization.

Thus, the battle our civilization has historically faced, and continues to face, is in many ways an intellectual one. A few examples follow. During and following the Roman epoch, traditional Christianity had to confront the Arian heresy, which rejected the Holy Trinity and denied the divinity of Christ; and the Manicheans, who condemned the neutral material realm of the universe as unequivocally evil. We have consistently been forced to battle and contain the more negative and animalistic sides of our nature. Thus, for instance, the Polish theologian, Paulus Vladimiri, spoke out against the Germanic Teutonic Knights claiming to fight for Christianity in the early fifteenth century, and argued that even the pagans are entitled to their own land. The Pole passionately preached that one should convert pagans with love, and not fire and sword. This was a novel idea in diplomacy, but not in Christianity. In this same spirit, sixteenth-century Spain witnessed a debate between Bishop and Dominican friar, Bartolome de las Casas, and Dominican Juan de Sepulveda, in which the latter, invoking Aristotle, claimed that the American Indians, and – by extension – African blacks, should be enslaved or enserfed to “uproot crimes that offend nature.” De las Casas defended the Indians as free men because like everyone “they were children of God.” Later, during the modern era, John Henry Cardinal Newman and his disciples struggled against the trendy and novel racist theories of the day deriving from Darwinism. Even though the so-called Enlightenment enthroned science as “god,” scientific racism failed to sway the Christians, for it contradicted a transcendental moral universe where we were all free children of God. In contemporary times, of course, IWP continues to struggle against politically-correct assumptions of our day that continue to challenge Western Civilization. This serves to show how precious and endangered the thin veneer of culture and decency always is. We should take neither for granted.

But, apart from intellectual debates and polemics, how else can Western Civilization defend itself?  Of course, we have to be strong militarily. This allowed the Christian Franks to defeat the invading Muslim Moors at Tours and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to repulse the Tatars and Turks at Chocim and Vienna. But strength is only a means that will grant us the necessary peace to propagate our cherished values and to build the necessary infrastructure. This, however, requires the fortitude and persistence simply and consistently to do what we believe is right: To stand face to face with post-modernity and yell: “Freedom!”