Over the course of Western civilization, the development of new ideas has played an integral role in shaping the modern world. Ideas once commonplace centuries ago have long been replaced by newer and more innovative thought on government, religion, society, education and other disciplines. The grand narrative of the West has been one of rejecting the prevailing beliefs of the day, returning to selective ideals of the past, and bringing about a shift in thinking. Many of these paradigm shifts have been instigated in cultural revolutions throughout history and some by catalytic occurrences. Figures from St. Augustine to Alexander Solzhenitsyn have formulated in their writings the ideas that have shaped the Great Conversation of Western civilization.
Regarding the latter end of the Roman Imperial Period, Augustine is an important figure who weighs in on revolution and the past. During his tenure among the ranks of the Manicheans, Augustine’s questions about the validity of the popular gnostic cult slowly began to multiply. In his doubtfulness he sought an audience with Faustus, a leading bishop of the Manicheans. Amidst his interactions with Faustus, Augustine “admired his soft eloquence, [but] nevertheless…came to discern his doctrines to diverge from the truth of matters about which I was keen to learn” (73). Reflecting on these experiences in The Confessions, Augustine begins to reject Manichean doctrine based on scientific and rational inquiry. He especially found fault with the Mani’s positions on the natural world. “He had very much to say about the world,” Augustine writes, “but was convicted of ignorance by those who really understand these things, and from this one can clearly know what understanding he had in other matters which are harder to grasp” (76). By this, Augustine rejects a common belief of many popular gnostic religions of the day, namely that good and evil have equivalent influence over the world. His denial of Manichean doctrine advocated a revolutionary return to a logical and rational inquiry of the natural realm, while also rejecting the gnostic influence on Manichean doctrine. In this way, he instigates a return to orthodox Christian theology concerning good and evil (Augustine, 85) and Aristotelian views of nature and its processes.
Augustine also played a vital role in synthesizing Christianity and Platonism, which would continue virtually unchallenged through the 16th Century until Martin Luther disputed the use of pagan philosophy to understand the Eucharist. One way in which Augustine fuses Plato with Christ is through the Platonic notions of the head, chest, and stomach. Through the story of his conversion and growth in Christ told in The Confessions, Augustine details the tripartite human psyche according to Plato and relates it to the influence of God’s grace in his life. At the beginning of the text, Augustine is struggling with his lustful desires and his preoccupation with pursuing his own pleasure. This is representative of the Platonic belly that only wishes to satiate its desires, whatever they may be; in Augustine’s case, his sexual lust. As the work progresses, Augustine’s struggles with his chest, the source of the fortitude to resist the desires of the stomach, are revealed. Finally, the weakness of his mind, in the Platonic sense, is manifested in his philosophical wanderings from nominal Christianity to Manichean Gnosticism. Augustine recounts how God begins to reform his mind to align with Christ and His Word; he leaves the Manichean cult and begins to drift toward Catholic Christianity. As God continues to refine him, Augustine starts to grow a chest to resist the sinful desires of his stomach. Finally, God molds the desires of Augustine to align with His. He is no longer concerned with sexual pleasure, but rather commits to a life of celibacy and chastity (24-154). In this way, Augustine fuses Platonic thought with Christianity, an action that significantly altered Christian philosophy even up until the present day with works like C.S. Lewis’ classic work The Abolition of Man.
Charging ahead to the High Middle Ages, academic Peter Abelard arrives on the scene. In Story of My Misfortunes, the account of his life, Abelard describes the suffering that he faces at the hands of the authorities of the day. Men such as Anselm (11) and William of Champeaux (7), as well as Abelard’s scholastic peers, attempted to discredit him and destroy his reputation in medieval society. Many challenged him to defend his views on various topics, but especially those of Scripture (9). In one such instance, Alberic and his students approach Abelard with an accusation against his book on theology. “Alberic… said that he was amazed at something he had found in my book… I answered unhesitatingly: ‘I can give you an explanation of this if you wish it.’ ‘Nay,’ he replied, ‘I care nothing for human explanation or reasoning… but only for the words of authority” (23). This exchange between Alberic and Abelard excellently illustrates the revolutionary nature in Abelard’s thinking. Rather than appealing to authority to validate a belief, Abelard advocated using reason and logic to discover the truth. Diametrically opposed to Abelard are many of the respected authorities of the day, who seek to ruin his public career by instigating such challenges as Alberic’s to his rationalistic method. However, among the broader culture, Abelard’s ideas are wildly popular and “his [Anselm’s] persecution did nought save to make me more famous” (11). There are a couple things to note from Abelard’s story. First, the difference in response to his scholastic approach depended greatly on the audience. The masses received his work well, while the theological heavyweights tried to shut him up. This is often true of revolutionary writers. Secondly, notice how Abelard makes a subtle return to ancient Greek thought yet only emphasizes certain aspects of it. Abelard wanted to see a return to the reasonable explanations and logical thought emphasized by Plato and Aristotle, but he wished to see them implemented within the discipline of Christian theology. In other words, keep the rationalism but ditch the paganism. The accentuation of carefully selected pieces of the past is another common denominator among revolutionary writers.
At the height of tensions between the Old and New Worlds, Thomas Paine’s provocative pamphlet Common Sense flew off the shelves in colonial America. While it is virtually impossible to miss Paine’s revolutionary tone, his allusions to restoring the spirit of the past are far more nuanced. In this work, Paine lays the groundwork of a moral defense for an American revolution against the tyranny and monarchy of the Mother Country. To illustrate the harmful effects of monarchy and government in general, Paine turns to the pages of Scripture, though he himself did not believe in its authority. Desiring to institute a democracy in the New World, Paine claims that kings were never intended to rule over the masses. He declares monarchy to be a sin to the Jewish nation, for which a curse was even pronounced against them should they fall into its snare. He continues to argue his point by relating the account of the Israelites begging Samuel to give them a king like the other nations around them and how it was sinful (Paine, 9-12). Following this, he addresses the divine right and heredity of kings and is even as audacious to suggest that “a family of kings for ever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin” (Paine, 14). Thus, Paine is advocating a return to past modes of government when there were no kings who caused wars and confusion. Rather than starting over civilization from scratch, Paine views an American revolution as a means to break off from the sinful monarchy of England and initiate a rule by the people, i.e., an old idea implemented in a new way. Similar to how Peter Abelard’s ideas were rejected by the governing authorities, Thomas Paine’s ideas were labeled treasonous by the Crown, the ruling authority at that time (although not for much longer). Likewise, Paine’s propositions spread like wildfire among the common folk in America, just as Abelard’s had in medieval Europe. Both observations confirm that the response depends on the audience of the author.
Though the 19th Century is brimming with revolutionary ideas and events, Karl Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism as presented in The Communist Manifesto is one worthy of mention. Marx necessarily decries the past, but interestingly is forced to admit that capitalism and the bourgeoisie have been a vital step in moving toward Communism. “[W]ith the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more… Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (trades unions) against the bourgeois…they found permanent associations in order to make provision for these occasional revolts. Here and there the contest breaks out into riots” (Marx and Engels, 175). Through this passage, one can observe how even Marx pays homage to the ideals of the past as a progression toward his utopian vision. Although Marx does not strictly advocate a return to ideals of the past, he still recognizes their importance to Communist ideas being realized. Another concept Marx alludes to in the above passage is the necessity of revolutions for history to progress and Communism to dominate. “We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange” (172). In this concise passage, Marx’s reliance on revolutions to drive history forward is much clearer. Also notice how he offers subtle praise to the modern bourgeoisie for being a by-product in the refinement of society toward a Communist utopia. Though he is at least marginally grateful for the modern bourgeoisie, he also understands that it is time for the proletariat revolution to overthrow them and take another step toward the climax of civilization.
With one last leap from the 19th Century into the late 20th Century, Alexander Solzhenitsyn offers a fitting conclusion on the revolutions throughout Western civilization. Delivering the commencement address to the Class of 1978 at Harvard University, Solzhenitsyn’s “A World Split Apart” was more critical of the West than many of the attendees had anticipated. “The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically,” Solzhenitsyn states. “This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man” (281). This humanist slant, that began in the Renaissance and has taken root in the modern era as well, has led to a far too reverent view of man and granted him superfluous freedom to do as he pleases; so much so that man forgets the origin of his rights and freedoms. “Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible… that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims…[M]an’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer…All the glorified technological achievements of Progress… do not redeem the Twentieth century’s moral poverty” (Solzhenitsyn, 281). In this passage, Solzhenitsyn delivers a stunning reproach to smug Western exceptionalism. The things that made America a great nation still linger, but the reasons for that greatness have been long since discarded by many of its citizens. Though his audience draws from the humanist influence of the Enlightenment, Solzhenitsyn’s biting rebuke of the West’s complacency reprimands these ideas and calls America back to its roots in morality and natural rights. Solzhenitsyn’s critique startled many Americans out of their contented moral laziness and fostered careful thought among many.
The history of Western civilization is not studied because it has remained a static entity throughout its duration, far from it. Rather, the dynamic and lively trajectory of Western civilization is what makes it worth engaging. With brief glimpses into prevailing philosophies of selected eras and the revolutionary responses to those popularly held beliefs, it has been demonstrated that many provocative writers did not emphasize something entirely new, but instead stressed attributes of older ages to initiate a cultural change. Occasionally accompanied by a physical revolution, such as the American and French Revolutions, these old ideas presented in a new way laid the framework for the future of Western society. As it has been the trend for the past two millennia and beyond, so it will continue into the future of the West.
Abelard, Peter. The Story of My Misfortunes. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows, Feather Trail Press, 2009.
Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. “The Communist Manifesto.” HUMA 200 Reader, 2016, pp. 171-181.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. “A World Split Apart.” HUMA 200 Reader, 2016, pp. 274-282