I threw off a phrase in yesterday’s post: “The moral legacy of Western civilization”. It set me off thinking. Why does that phrase have such an odd resonance?
The first reason, I think, is that it places Western civilization as something in the past. Something that was. I don’t mean that everything it included is dead, but that using it to describe something in the present is inaccurate. The layout is different now. The ideas earlier generations associated with the West are no longer confined there. At the same time, other ideas are in play. I’m not saying that we’re all submerged into one big happy world culture, just that “Western civilization” is not a meaningful description of anything in the present.
The second reason is that if Western civilization belongs to the past, then we really can evaluate its moral legacy. And we can do it more neutrally than before. We’re still working through the rebellious phase where everything about the West is EVIL, (and then the rebellion against that rebellion, and so on, swerving from side to side). But it’s a possible next step. History always has an implied “us”, and what I have in mind is the kind of history of Western civilization where “us” is everyone. A history that doesn’t exaggerate any one perspective just because that’s the one readers identify with.
I’m not sure if all of this is correct. But if that harmless-sounding phrase is like a grenade, then this is what comes out of it when it explodes.