The West


After deciding on the theme of my book, it was essential to define my terms. What do I mean by The West? There is no true answer, of course, each attempt is merely an artistic reflection of our knowledge base multiplied by our temperament. Nevertheless, I needed to provide a comprehension of The West, the “noun” to which I refer. I think this ending is an appropriate passage to paraphrase the chapter:

These Enlightenment strands: freedom, health, wealth and material, which all shared the common ancestor: reason, weaved together and gave birth to a new idea, a new telos – the pursuit of happiness. Every man, common or royal, had the right to pursue happiness. We take this idea for granted, but it is a relatively new concept. A disease-ridden peasant of the middle ages had no prospect of happiness – not in the way we would conceive it. Survival and perhaps a glimmer of pleasure, by way of alcohol or sex, was the best he could realistically hope for. Even the upper crust, who have been known for their flamboyant forays into hedonism since the birth of civilisation, did not seek happiness, per se. They sought greatness, perhaps; they were dutiful or just or dreadful; but the whole of existence was subsumed into a religious opera of which all men were part, playing their role until death and judgement in the afterlife.

We alive in the West today have inherited a wondrous place. We complain because we have not known the deprivation that our forebears endured as a given. We have access to top-notch healthcare, education, endless products and pleasures that, if we are wise enough to enjoy in moderation and with discipline, add great luxury to existence. We are treated as sovereign individuals with goals and aspirations, and on the whole these dreams are respected and we are respected for holding them. We have unprecedented freedom of choice, and live in huge, interconnected societies that have not (yet) collapsed into warfare and violent upheaval. We can walk freely in the public domain without fear of attack. We have commonly shared rules of conduct and accepted manners. We have communal festivals of celebration; we have charities and helplines and hospices for the terminally ill. We are all, theoretically, engaged in the political process and have freedom of petition and the right to protest. Those who complain about the Enlightenment West are not comparing where we are today with where we were, or where others are, but with a notion of where they think we should be. This is a completely different and a rather dangerous comparison. The truth is, that those same complainants would not want to live in a different time, or in a different culture. They would not want to live in Ancient Greece, the Sixteenth Century, sub-Saharan Africa or the poverty-stricken slums of New Delhi or Manila. The modern, Enlightenment-inspired West, is the wealthiest, freest and most sophisticated civilisation known to recorded history.

But it hangs in the balance.

Sam Roffey