The roots of the “West” / “Western values”.
- Give thanks to the Channel, the Germans, and rugged radical old Greece.
- Not Christianity, which had a Half Nelson on “progress” for nigh on a millennium.
FEATURED. The AD Painter, c 500BC, Attica, ie near Athens. Painted hydria [black figure water vessel], showing Dionysus above, and two ‘eye-sirens’ on the side. British Museum.
2/ Unravelling causality: were the Greeks enough? Did the “West” need Christianity? The Germans?
3/ The British connection? As for the Greeks, a kind geography was vital.
4/ Proto-modern aspects of ancient / Classical Greece
5/ Criticism of the Greek roots of the “West” – Christianity seen as a badly needed corrective.
6/ The Germans mattered?
7/ Christianity’s role? The inherently illiberal anti-democratic Church.
- The cornerstone of communities embracing liberal modernity is secular citizenship, ie
- first, collective primary loyalty to a set of liberal values, NOT to any notion of religion, race / ethnicity or class;
- and, second, collective understanding that this life is it, and the outcomes of this life are up to humankind applying its capabilities, not relying on any supernatural or divine agency.
- In unravelling causes, the roots of the “West”, the on the ground history is important. The key ingredients enabling the birth and eventual emergence of “Western” values, liberal modernity, liberal democracy were:
- A loose group or groups of enterprising individuals, not yoked by proximate predatory states or in thrall to distracting religion;
- An accommodating geographic space where unscathed they could get on with harnessing their talents.
- This happened for a time in parts of ancient Greece from about the 7th C BC, then started again in Britain about a millennium later, some centuries after Rome’s fall, among descendants of enterprising recent German and Norse immigrants.
- Fortuitous geography played a key role in both cases, allowed constructive freedom to gain traction: Greece’s rugged isolation, and Britain’s moat, the Channel, and in both cases proximate to much larger societal action.
- Notwithstanding a diverse and sometimes violent experience, and a then finite life, the main drivers of “Western” values became evident in parts of Classical Greece for about 4 centuries, around 2.5 millennia ago, radical and eeriely proto-modern outcomes: democratic government based on citizenship (albeit a restricted franchise), practical freedoms, rule of law, respect for individuals, radical advances in philosophy / science / maths, timeless literature (drama, poetry and history), art and sport, all in the context of a thriving economy.
- Christianity and the Church are keenly promoted by some as another – or even the – vital ingredient for the “West”, highlighting its respect for the individual. This insults the facts.
- Some Church texts respected individuals, but within a doctrinal framework which demeaned flawed Man’s earthly capabilities, proclaiming that only submission to an alleged supernatural power could “save” him, and this available only through the Church.
- Second, the Church’s actions spoke / speak louder than words. They condoned slavery on an improbable scale, Catholic overseen imperial depredations in the Americas, and suppression of women.
- And once the Reformation erupted they fought reform tooth and nail in the 16th and 17th C in Europe, allied with sympathetic conservative secular authority, at a huge cost.
- Still today the Catholic Church response to sex abuse within their ambit remains illiberal and anything but democratic, let alone “respectful of individuals”. No opening the books to independent assessment and adjudication of charged suspects.
- Rather the Church as a typical autocratic traditional institution has been the antithesis of a liberal democratic institution, and for near 1000 years had a Half Nelson hold on Western civilisation, staunchly defending its beliefs and institutional presence, and inhibiting, fighting reform.
- The Germans matter for some, and here there seems some truth, for they, with some Norsemen, comprised much of the population in post-Roman Britain, to where modern liberal democracy can directly trace its roots. The isolated forest inhabiting German tribes were handy fans of freedom, who then took their chance in Britain.
- Finally, important thing about “Western” values is while they were “discovered’ in the West they now – like many “Western” scientific laws – have universal relevance, as a broad template for organising societal affairs, based on democratic “respect for the individual”, as citizens loyal above all to these values, not to class, clan, tribe or race.
Athena and her owl ……… … the Church Militant and Triumphant ….
The Brygos Painter (attributed) c490–480 BC. Athena [associated with wisdom, handicraft, and warfare], helmet and a spear, owl. Attic red-figure lekythos. Met. Museum New York. COMMENT: is the face on the dress a self portrait? Or graffiti?
Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze (active 1343-77) 1365-77, Via Veritatus (the Church Militant and Church Triumphant), Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence. COMMENT: a useful mid 14th C (post Black Death) Italian depiction of the Church at work, and its business story, selling Salvation. Through the Dominicans, less than happy with Jews in their community. Not much respect or tolerance there.
In the grand sweep of human history there aren’t many more relevant debates than about the origins of “Western” values, the heart of democratic liberal modernity, which astounding reality – finally gaining traction post WW2 – is the single biggest shift in millions of years of hominind history.
The causes of such a shift are unlikely to be complex, at least at a high level.
But the debate is heated, especially from the side defending a vital role for Christianity.
But, a priori, if “Western” values are deemed to have universal relevance, applicability, it seems odd that their origins would be crucially influenced by one religion out of countless others manifest among peoples around the globe.
David Gress (“From Plato to NATO”) works hard to downplay the Greeks, and boost especially the German tribes and Christianity, an unlikely alliance! He does this exhaustively, including Rome in the story, which swallows Greece then launches Christianity, fortuitously, allowing it to quickly spread far and wide by inhabiting the remaining still large Imperial political extent. Then it slowly converted incoming Germanic tribes.
But in probing the causality sequence ask a simple logical question, would modern secular liberal democracy have happened without Christianity? One way or another?
2/ Unravelling causality: were the Greeks enough? Did the “West” need Christianity? The Germans?
To answer this we need to address the specific relevant history of ‘Rise of the West’, the direct ancestry of today’s circumstances, which means focussing on the story in Britain where the West we know today was surely born.
Gress complains that in untangling the roots of the West we are not fully addressing history. In this he is right, except he then energetically chooses the “history” which suits his arguments, ie down with the Greeks and up with Christianity and the Germans!
When you lay out (as below) the full Greek achievement it seems hard not to argue that the main drivers of “Western” Values were indeed present in Classical Greece. The radical breakthroughs were profound, have an eerily modern resonance, an improbable 2500 years later.
So how do we connect with them.
Did we need the Germans? They certainly helped. But the Vikings contributed too.
What Britain – the British Petri dish – needed to nurture an eventual revival of societal open eyed scrutiny was a body of dispersed enterprising independent people, not too in thrall of religion.
Did we need Christianity? Did the historical sequence unfolding in Britain need or rely on Christianity? It’s hard to see how.
Many of the historical figures involved in Britain post Rome through the Middle Ages were Christian but in the hands on practical conflict over the sharing of power in Britain they were not much influenced by their Christian beliefs, except of course much later when monarchs like 17th C Charles I spruiked the divine right of kings, looked to the Church and God to validate their absolute royal power, the antithesis of democracy. So the barons were simply fighting for a measure of freedom, for their rights (not the mass of peasantry) as individuals against an acquisitive king.
So the radical Greek experience from over a millennium before presumably counted for little in the minds of William Marshall and colleagues, bit it certainly mattered later, after finally being rediscovered, especially during the Renaissance, and increasingly thereafter, alongside the 16th C Scientific Revolution and through the Enlightenment across Europe in the 18th C.
3/ The British connection? As for the Greeks, a kind geography was vital.
An essential aspect of the historic context which allowed the proto-modern Classical Greeks to suddenly and so surprisingly emerge and prosper for some centuries – which facilitated their radical inquisitive and creative democratic model – was a holiday from oppressive religiously sanctioned imperial rule, allowing comparatively free men to indulge their talents.
This happened through a combination of exogenous historic intervention – ie the climate change enforced end of the Bronze Age, c1200BC, simultaneously snuffing out civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean – and geography, the Greeks comparative peripheral coastal isolation, and a degree of protection afforded by rugged topography.
In looking at the relevant history in Britain the key circumstances which arose as a vital first step on the long road to modern liberal democracy were an alliance of barons standing up to the monarch, resisting monarchical overreach, establishing a loose proto-democratic rights and obligations contractual relationship, formalised by Magna Carta in 1215.
These barons were descendants of the various German tribes, commingled with Vikings then Normans (ie other Vikings, once removed). All these antecedent peoples were free of experience of repression by imperial states, not accustomed to submission to hereditary monarchies.
Tribes had chiefs as leaders but their survival in office let alone any desire to keep the job in their family, depended on their performance. And they had little or no relevant support from tribal religious figures? So there was a seed of informal rough democracy here.
However, beyond Magna Carta it then took over another 700 years to reach full fledged democracy in Britain, through a long sequence of developments:
- Slow emergence of an effective Parliament, and associated courts of law.
- The 16th C Reformation.
- Late 16th C Elizabethan progess consolidating British power.
- The 17th C English Civil War, bloody diminuition of the king’s role, and a victory for Parliament. However protest calling for a wider franchise was suppressed,
- 17th C Restoration then the Glorious Revolution, removing a second recalcitrant king.
- 18th C, the Industrial Revolution commences in England, takes hold.
- End 18th C, England key role in subjugating Napoleon. And early 19th C abolition of slavery.
- 20th C, Britain finally extends a full voting franchise.
- 20th C, Anglo-American led alliance defeats Germany in WW1 and, with Russia again, in WW2.
This was a long bruising and sometimes bloody process, a blunt contest over power with the factions in power resisting sharing it more widely, till they were forced to.
The geography of Britain was obviously important, then and later. Geography – peripheral location and large forests – had allowed the Vikings and the German tribes to stay out of the clutches of any large predatory state.
Rome made some inroads against the “barbarians” but were then finally overrun in the West from c400AD. Once the various strands of Germans etc had established themselves in Britain they were even more secure than on the Continent.
Then the geography – particularly the English Channel – remained important – crucial? – in protecting Britain, like in the late 16th C resisting a Spain strengthened by looting the Americas, then resisting the rampaging Napoleon c1800, right down to May 1940.
4/ Proto-modern aspects of ancient / Classical Greece
The radical proto-modern group organisation / behaviour / outcomes which emerged for a time in ancient / Classical Greece is striking.
The story is now well known but this familiarity now perhaps disguises its sudden and unlikely appearance and its radical import.
The radical essence of the experience, which is now the cornerstone of communities embracing liberal modernity is secular citizenship, ie first, collective primary loyalty to a set of liberal values, NOT to any notion of religion, race / ethnicity or class; and, second, collective understanding that this life is it, and the outcomes of this life are up to humankind applying its capabilities, not relying on any supernatural or divine agency.
This set of precepts below was utterly radical compared especially with the preceding Bronze Age empires, or with the contemporary empires, eg especially Persia, Mesopotamia, all of which were profoundly anti-democratic, where was one-man rule, where individuals had no rights, only obligations, and they were to serve the “state” and especially its head, and moreover this head was usually not just a superior human being but semi-divine, anointed by a ruling religion, represented by a complicit self-interested cadre of priests.
The ancient Greek outcome was not perfect, and it was not sustained, lasted only some hundreds of years.
It was not perfect in that the degree of authentic “democratic” behaviour varied from polis to polis, and then it waxed and waned within poleis.
The most famous example is obviously Athens, prima inter pares. It undoubtedly left the strongest “modern” democratic achievement, in its development of democratic governing processes, and especially its cultural legacy.
But then fatefully Athens succumbed to overweening ambition, first – post the famous early 5th C BC victories over Persia – by transitioning to imperial predation upon nearby other Greek cities, under the pretence of needing to be vigilant against resumed Persian incursions, then second, by allowing itself to come to blows with rival powerful city-state, the much differently organised oligarchic Sparta.
The resulting long and bloody end 5th C BC Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BC) did not immediately destroy Athens, the economy and society recovering in the 4th C (thus Aristotle was not born till 384BC, 20 years after the War ended), but it became inevitable prey for a rising Macedon about 70 years later, especially when by some fluke of history that Macedon was led not just by an old fashioned autocrat but by a formidably able one.
Five key ingredients oversaw the Greek proto-modern flourishing?
1/ Greece’s core radical breakthrough was a self-critical opening of the eyes, to scrutinise, observe, try understand and explain the world – nature and its people – without preconceptions, especially religious, to bring a ‘critical consciousness’ (VDH) to bear.
As Protagoras famously wrote 5th C BC: Man is the measure all things. So there is no logical place for God(s).
2/ Acknowledgement of the private individual. Each person matters and this informed democracy, that each individual had a right to a say.
Through the Homeric celebration of the hero, going back into the “Dark Ages” (c800BC) – the superhuman achievers like Achilles and Heracles – they celebrated the striving, ambitious individual, both for himself and the community.
But a key achievement of Classical Greece was to then democratise this ideal, to allow each individual the opportunity to strive for “heroic” outcomes, in work and play.
3/ a meaningful freedom, for individuals, to think, say, and act, if constrained by rational obligations to the collective.
4/ competition among free individuals. This was a key ingredient, in daily life, especially in economic life, but also in “play”, ceremonially in sport, like the Olympics. But interesting is how it applied culturally too, like with the major playwrights facing off each year.
5/ no central authority. Ancient Greece was not a country but an informal federation of well over 500 diverse “city-states”, or poleis (singular polis), most small or very small, a handful much larger, led by Athens and Sparta (at two extremes, one democratic the other a near dictatorship), also Syracuse, Corinth etc. The total peak population was around 8m?
They shared a common language and heritage but individual political arrangements varied greatly
So this swarm of entities was not overseen by any ruler, rather competed among themselves, between c800BC and 300BC, co-operating when it suited.
These founding ingredients or themes were expressed in the radical organisation / operation of this government / community / society thus:
a/ democracy. This was a radical step by a community in organisation of its collective affairs, ie that all individuals participate as citizens in government. The Greeks gave us this word, which does not exist in other languages.
At heart was a two part “contract” / agreement between individual as citizen and “state”, the communal group:
i/ rights: recognition as individual,
- right to vote,
- right to speak free / have a say,
- right to own private property, undertake economic activity
- right to one’s own religion. Even atheism. Religious tolerance.
and ii/ responsibilities / obligations:
- Especially to vote, to participate in government, eg to serve in government offices. And – even more radical, more egalitarian – these offices were usually filled by lottery. Except for special skilled jobs. Like generals.
- And if required then an obligation to fight, and to keep fit, in case you had to fight.
An important corollary was that the “people”, civilians, would control the military, via their democratic governing procedures.
b/ the rule of law. In Athens in the 4th C BC. This was a second key plank of government. “The rule of law was one of the most important cultural values in ancient Athens..” (Edward M. Harris (University of Durham), Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, Essays on Law, Society, and Politics (edited) Cambridge University Press, 2006, and The Rule of Law in Action in Democratic Athens, (2013). Oxford University Press.
c/ citizenship. This was another radical proto-modern concept and basically the foundation of liberal modernity. Thus within a community members were defined not by i/ ethnicity, genes, ancestors, ory ii/ religion, but rather by loyalty, commitment to the group, as defined by a set of common values / rules.
From this framework flowed a series of dramatic outcomes:
a/ economic. For some centuries Classical Greece was very successful economically, achieved sustained rapid trade-based growth, among a diverse federation of keenly competing poleis, “city states”, not hobbled by any exploitative central authority. The competition allowed various city-states to innovate technically and specialise as it suited them.
This is often overlooked, but wass a key part of the context facilitating Greece’s cultural brilliance.
b/ cultural output. This also was utterly radical, and today still justly celebrated. It expressed in:
i/ Philosophy; a body of thought (or what survives) from a sequence of important thinkers over the course of about 300 years, from early 6th C BC to mid 4th C BC
ii/ Science and mathematics. The Greeks did not uncover the full scientific method but their open eyed questioning left radical scientific observations which showed the way ahead. Leucippus and Democritus speculated acutely on all matter being comprised of atoms, like Aristarchus speculating on the earth orbiting the sun, like Greeks speculating that diseases have natural not supernatural causes.
The Greeks made radical strides in mathematics, through the somewhat mysterious Pythagoras and others.
iii/ deliberations on ethics, practical guides to morally correct action, coming out of philosophy;
iv/ theatrical drama, in tragedy and comedy. These texts remain oddly modern, timeless in the themes they explore and the manner. And this is based only on the small proportion of texts which managed to survive.
v/ Art, again that which survives. Striking especially is its humanised sculpture (in stone and also bronze) and also its extraordinary (and numerous) corpus of decorated / painted pottery, from many sites in the Aegean and southern Italy. The detailed figurative images show genre scenes from daily life, and also from their myths, from the lives of their quasi-human gods. Only scarce fragments of “paintings” (frescoes) survive (eg Paestum), but surviving far older frescoes from the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete give a relevant flavour.
vi/ in recorded history. They wrote the world’s first history texts, eg Hecataeus [Fragment 1: ‚The stories of the Greeks are numerous and, in my opinion, ridiculous‘)], Herodotus and Thucydides, trying simply to “report” on events not bring an agenda.
c/ Religion. “We get the gods we deserve.” (CM Bowra). The Greeks “worshipped” gods, but accessible “humanised” gods. And generally it was voluntary.
Also their religion was not wedded functionally to a ruling elite.
Important too was their attitude to death. There was NO afterlife. This life is it, so make the most of it.
d/ Sport. The Greeks “invented” the Olympic Games, c776BC, celebrated athletic prowess through organised competition among individuals, precisely as the world does today on a grand scale, most of these sports originating – like “Western” democracy – in Britain.
Reflecting these outcomes, Classical Greek left us a string of key words.. politics (!), democracy (demos = people), aristocracy, anarchy, oligarchy, utopia, philosophy, ethics, physics (from physis = nature), history, dialogue, rhetoric, tragedy, comedy, democracy, aesthetics. But not citizen (from Anglo Norman).
The interesting thing about “Western” values -traced back to the “Greek Enlightenment” – is while they were “discovered’ in the West – like many “Western” scientific laws – they now have universal relevance, are available to all countries as a template for organising societal affairs, based ultimately on “respect for the individual”.
Thus post WW2 we have seen many countries outside the traditional Western countries (ie Europe and offshoots) adopt / adapt “Western” values, more or less.
Japan is a striking example, and some other Asian countries have joined in
The experience varies a lot depending on the full local context.
5/ Criticism of the Greek roots of the “West” – Christianity seen as a badly needed corrective.
The idea of “Greek roots of the West” is often criticised today.
Eg Greece had many slaves, and denied women the vote, denied citizenship to both.
True. But all other contemporary societies were much the same.
And it was the “Greek” approach which finally “freed” slaves and women, albeit it took another c2500 years.
Which goes to show how ingrained or intractable are Traditional Values, the Old Order. As we saw in the dreadful violence accompanying the long gestation of the “West”, from 17th through 20th C, and given their important residual impact today, particularly through the remnants of the two major “Communist” revolutions.
David Gress takes a big swipe at the Greeks in “From Plato to Nato”. He sees the Greeks overdoing the out of control Narcissistic Homeric heroic individuals, leaving no room for “Christian belief in justice and in the value of human life”.
So he sees them overdoing “individualism”, such that the West required “collaboration . . the humility to recognize that achievement rested on interdependence… [and this comes only from].. the Influence of Christianity”.
Thus “The democratic pursuit of individual autonomy needed the balance of humility if it was not to degenerate into anarchy or the rule of some ideology.”
Thus the “Christian teaching of original sin [imparted “humility”, thus] made modern democracy possible.”
Throw in Christian love, compassion for thy neighbour?
So “For the West to emerge, Greece had to die”.
This is heavy stuff, so heavy that – given the total package of radical achievements of the old Greeks – you wonder if he is not bringing an agenda?
But is it so?
Thus the Homer in The Iliad who celebrates heroic values in the same book also criticizes the destructive consequences for others if these values are misapplied.
And in The Odyssey he writes of the humanised eponymous hero going home, to hearth, wife and dog, not accepting Calypso’s offer of immortality.
The Greeks also talked a lot about “hubris”, about the risks, dangers of excessive individual focus, of overweening pride, ambition, of flying too close to the Sun.
Then Greek philosophers like Aristotle stressed the importance of the Mean, of balance in life.
Greek playwrights in particular stressed in their tragedies the dangers of out of control individuals, like the awful consequences of needless war, of needless violence in the name of false causes promoted by certain selfish individuals.
And in comedies they satirised, morally upbraided ambitious politicians, holding them to account. But note the same politicians by and large tolerated this critical public theatre.
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411BC) attacked misogynism, saluted the rational capacities of women.
The Greeks appetite for curiosity knew few bounds, so they even understood, recognised the limits of rationalism, to remain humble, that even with best efforts knowledge will never be complete, eg Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannos or O. Rex (431BC) shows the rational Oedipus tripped by not knowing all.
Similarly Euripides in the later Medea explores the dangers of irrational passions.
Also this stress on the mindless excessive Greek appeal forf heroic individuals, and disregard for the total old Greek achievement, seems to deliberately overlook historical outcomes, the eventual (post WW2 20th C) historic manifestation of a near full developed Greek democratic construct, the heart of which model, when its rational implications were implemented in West Europe and beyond, through parliaments and courts and police, and particularly a full adult franchise.
Thus finally respect for the individual rights of all citizens was achieved, including slaves and women, not just “heroes”, propertied or otherwise select adult males.
And strenuous resistance by the Old Order, including the Church, ensured this process was protracted.
Many other critics (like Nietzsche) have famously regarded the ethical teachings of Christianity as vital, by implication seeing the relevant parts of Greek philosophy as insufficient, so that humankind in abandoning the Lord will be cast adrift, condemned to nihilistic instability, inherently incapable of managing his affairs.
For some / many critics this stress on Christianity however comes with an agenda – a conflict of interest – that of the Christian adherent, believer, which belief instructs that God – their God – is good, here for all, to save all, including those of all other beliefs!.
6/ The Germans mattered?
David Gress also spruiks the Germans. “The Germanic contribution to the West was broader, richer, more significant, and more ambiguous than the [Enlightenment] model suggested.”
Through John Adams and Thomas Jefferson: “Americans adopted the Germanic model of freedom because it seemed to suggest that their own claims to independence were rooted in history as their ethnic heritage.”
And yes the Germans avoided “divinizing rulers; Caesar found some tribes ruled by councils of warriors..”
But so did the Greeks.
So Gress sees the Germans contributing a strong sense of freedom, unwillingness to submit to imperial autocrats?
However they were also almost wholly “uncivilised”, left no written account of their life and thoughts, and were very violent, given to almost ceaseless warfare among themselves (eg refer The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence, José María Gómez, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, Marcos Méndez; Nature, October 2016.), as tribes waxed and waned, presumably depending a lot on the ambitions and capabilities of individual chiefs.
In the event the Germans certainly mattered because it was they – the Angles and Saxons – who took hold of Britain from about the mid 5th C AD, shunting aside the Celts. The Norsemen then materially intervened from c800AD – not in the end displacing the then settled Germans, but certainly leaving a lasting imprint – as they did importantly in northern France, which then redounded on Britain from 1066, when the Normans arrived.
So the Germans, with a leavening of Norsemen, became the backbone of the country which in due course bore or midwifed the “West”.
In hindsight the forest dwelling German tribes can be seen as somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek poleis, ie as a peripheral dispersed group of semi-independent smallish bands, speaking similar languages, keen to get on with life in this world, and not bothered by proximate states.
But, they needed civilising.
7/ Christianity’s role? The inherently illiberal Church.
Supporters of the case for Christianity’s vital role in seeding “Western values” comb the Christian texts for words highlighting for them relevant central aspects like:
- The Church valuing, recognising the individual, each person’s “dignity”.
- Christians favoring compassion for and by individuals, and mercy, humility, and overseen by a redemptive merciful God.
But on the matter of recognising the “dignity” and worth of the individual it seems clear the Greeks basically got there first. Respect of “rights of the individual” drove the whole then radical notion of democracy, that everyday people had a right to be heard.
The Greeks of course predated Jesus by say 500 years. So just maybe the Greek thoughts on individual rights filtered through to the Holy Land and beyond.
Second, the Church, especially later, had a strange take on humanity in stressing the notion of Original Sin, thus depicting Man as an inherently flawed creature, from birth, because Adam and Eve had disobeyed God.
Then the Church as an institution stressed this construct to attract people to their business, explaining that the only escape from their squalid imperfection was through salvation by God, and that, by chance, was only available via the [monopolistic[ services of the Church.
This view of Man as a feeble beast who could only be rectified through supernatural intervention via the Church stood in flagrant contradiction to that of the Greeks, who per contra viewed Man, each individual, as capable of great achievments if they strove accordingly, and – more importantly – were given the opportunity to do so.
Yes Man was not perfect, made mistakes – as Greek drama highlighted – but the core Greek mindset was optimistic, recognising Man’s capabilities.
So the Greek notion is rational and “modern”, and hence “Western”.
The Church’s traditional view of Man, by contrast, irrational, manipulative and demeaning.
Also interesting in hindsight is how the later leadership of the ambitious institutional Church tweaked the ruling creed to facilitate its business objectives, ie attracting customers to its salvation machine, in particular by stressing a/ Original Sin [cf Saint Augustine], Man’s inherent inadequacy; and b/ the penalties of non-compliance, ie a long hot post-corporeal date with the Devil; and c/ the joys of compliance, ie everlasting life in the hereafter.
However the role of the Church and its creed – its many religious texts – needs to be assessed through actions not words, through the historical behaviour of the institution, given also that for many centuries it was close to the political levers of power.
Here we see first up the Church behaving as a familiar traditional institution that is fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic, in its own internal institutional processes and operations, and externally in its actions, repeatedly, comprehensively.
We see a body which is the antithesis of rule of law based, rights respecting liberal democracy
Thus in terms of the rights and dignity of the individual this never applied to slaves and women, nor to non-Christians.
Slavery within Western Christian countries flourished on its watch, especially the large scale transatlantic slave trade [approx.. 10m shipped to the “New World”], in which sternly religious Catholic countries like Spain played a key role (as well as economically opportunistic Protestant leaders like Britain), culminating in the egregious economically opportunistic 19th C US slavery experience [the Confederacy running with near 4m slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War], at a time when slavery had finally been abolished in Europe.
Then looking at the course of European history, when the winds of reform started to fan Europe after say the continent shattering Black Death (1348), coming to a head in the 16th C Reformation, the Church fought democratic advances tooth and nail, culminating in the catastrophic religious wars of the late 16th / early 17th C.
In today’s times the graphic failure of the institutional Catholic Church to honor the “dignity” and rights of individuals is evident in the now chronic matter of globally widespread sex abuse by members of the Church of people under their care or supervision.
This abuse concerns not just the criminal actions, and the scale of violations, but particularly the Church’s arrogant defensive response, in keeping with its longstanding autocratic illiberal practices.
Thus the Church has tried to avoid publicising the abuse, and second, in its response to complaints it has strenuously avoided a liberal democratic approach to seeking accountability, ie opening the books to thorough independent investigation, to fully expose the facts, to identify, and bring to justice, the culprits.
The Church is here exposed as a typical traditional autocratic institution lacking any kind of effective rule of law, ie independent processes for investigating and adjudicating complaints.
Instead the current Pontiff talks about “codes of conduct” and blames the problem not on man but Satan, which would be laughable if the matter was not serious.
At a recent conference in Rome on the very matter there was not the faintest reference to real reform, starting with independent supervision of dealing with complaints.
Stepping back, it’s clear that the “we know it all” monotheistic mindset at the heart of the Church’s principles is simply incompatible with liberal modernity.
The same intolerant close-minded mindset is evident today in many Islamic countries, where the religion is allowed a political role.