The Collapse of Western Civilization

Primate with globe
The world is a bigger and more diverse place than Western Civilization ever imagined.

We can joke that this event or that  is a herald of the collapse of Western Civilization, but from an outside perspective, it collapsed some time ago. The “end” of Western Civ happened more or less with the end of World War 2 and the following dismantling of the overt colonialism that had in many ways supported Europe and America since the 1490s.

It was not a loss of power that made Western Culture collapse. It was actually the rise of near-instant communication. It was that we could no longer live in an insulated society, knowing with devout certainty that we had the capital-“T” Truth.

One of the hallmarks of Western Civilization has been its belief that there is “one true way” and that it is, and has always been, best reflected by our own culture. In other words, such recent ideas as multiculturalism, ecumenical religion, and racial harmony fly directly in the face of the traditional Western lessons passed on from generation to generation.

Science and Authority

We discovered, in science, a relatively unbiased truth. Now, we could argue that science isn’t perfect in this, but compared to more authoritarian structures of knowing (including anything heavily philosophically influenced by Neoplatonism or monotheism), it’s downright awesome.

Unlike such single-authority philosophies, science can and does tell us things we don’t want to hear. Science, at its best, teaches us how to be authorities, not just how to submit to them. Of course, that means we can get on the wrong track, sometimes. Mistakes happen. When we take science and use it for questionable ends (take eugenics for example), the scientific method eventually gets us back on track.

But Science Isn’t Culture

What ended Western Civilization was a combination of several factors:

  • a belief that there is one truth for all people, times, and places,
  • that we have an obligation to seek out that truth, and
  • that (most key!) our culture should be coterminous with that truth.

When all these things ran up against the stupendous variety of the world, it shook Western Civilization to its foundations. Western culture still exists and even flourishes, but it would be more accurate to think of it as Western “cultures.” We’ve replaced our assumption of a hierarchical system with multiple systems that cooperate and compete.

We have moved our culture closer to science’s view of the world, and decided that if the world is complex and open-ended, then our culture must be, too. This is an experiment probably just as grand as the one called “democracy.” I look forward to watching it as it unfolds.

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