As one can infer even by reading only this brief summary and review of Nemo’s book, a particular aspect of the Western history and culture, defined roughly by liberalism, individualism and autonomy, appears to the author of the book and to a current of intellectuals as most characteristic of the Western achievements and worthy enough to be supported and protected even at the cost of others. I won’t say more on this, but only that the West would end up one-dimensional, culturally and spiritually poor, by following such a path. It is doubtful if it will remain even politically and economically strong after having surrendered itself completely to a will for pure autonomy and self-creation.
What is more interesting is the author’s proposal for a formation of a Western Union instead of a European Union. Especially to those of us who understand the European Union as based in a common culture, it would be absurd to focus on the continent instead of on whatever nations globally happen to share the same culture. Following cultural criteria, a Western Union would be a political aim more consistent than the European Union.
B. Enache, What is the West?
Philippe Nemo’s book What Is the West? is an elegant and intriguing combination of a scholarly review of the historical and philosophical foundations of what is usually termed “Western civilization” and a political manifesto for this broad cultural area in the “civilizational geography” of the world today.
The basis of Nemo’s reflections, although never explicitly stated as such, is the perception of an unsettling tension between the cosmopolitanism of Western culture and the apparent self-containment of other historical cultural identities. The West not only differs from other cultural spaces, but differs in a way that they do not differ from one another.
Western identity has an antinomic character: although its essence is defined by universalistic liberal values, it is nonetheless the result of a particular historical process of cultural genesis… The morphogenesis of the West consists, in Nemo’s view, of five chronological stages of equal importance.
The first is the “Greek miracle”—the emergence of the Greek polis at the end of the eighth century B.C., an epochal event responsible for generating the idea of a free society ordered by law, reason, and education. The law is then perfected in the Roman cosmopolis and becomes an abstract set of rules concerned with determining and guaranteeing individuals’ private property. But in the course of this prosaic process, the subjects of the law become much more than simple members of a tribal group: they become for the first time persons—unique, autonomous, moral agents. The invention of the person, of the irreducible individual ego, Nemo regards as the source of the later Western humanism.
The third stage in the building of Western culture is the advent of Christianity, which introduces a new ethic and a new relationship with time. The biblical ethic is one of compassion, which makes everybody responsible for whatever is bad in the world, be it poverty, war, or human suffering. Unlike the ethic of the Ancients, compassion does not settle for striking a balance in one’s duties. Instead, the Christian ethic of love, Nemo maintains, incites men to a permanent rebellion against the idea that evil is a normal condition in the world. This permanent rebellion is closely related to Christianity’s second contribution: the substitution of linear time for cyclical time, a cultural innovation that makes possible the idea of progress. Time is no longer an eternal revolving; it now has a beginning and an end. The biblical eschatology empowers the individual’s historical existence. His transforming actions in the present have a past and are oriented toward a future. Man’s efforts in history gain a new value because of this cultural metamorphosis of time.