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.