Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How the factor of civilization and religion affected the relation between the West and Islamic world today

The wealth of human civilizations is rooted in its great diversity – especially, in the era of globalization. At the same time, however, the differences in cultural identity are often the cause of misunderstandings and the potential roots of crisis and conflict.
The main problem in today relation between the West and Islamic world is the deficiency of mutual understandings, or rather to say, it was and is rooted in the sense of distrust, suspicious and hatred. For instance, given its “crusader mentality”, Islam is often associated with terrorism and violation of human rights as far as the West is concerned. These images of scimitar-wielding hordes easily spring to mind when the concept of Islam is mentioned; while for Islamic world, the West is the corruption of morality, cultural arrogance and avaricious hegemony in force; and these diametrically opposed images become even sharpened after the September 11, 2001.
Of course, the historical roots of conflict between the West and Islam can be stretched back for over a millennium, from the Crusade Wars that begun in the eleventh century; till the Britain and France took over most of the North Africa and Middle East after the declining of Ottoman power. Following the end of Second World War, relations between the imperialist west and their Islamic mandates took a more confrontational form throughout the decolonization period and independence struggles.
Huntington’s assumption: “the most dangerous conflicts in new post-Cold War era will occur along the fault-line of civilizations” has sharpened these historical and cumulative conflicts between the West and Islam, however, his argument have evoked great attentions even the “basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition reformulated) remained untouched” as critiqued by Edward Said on his article “the clash of ignorance”.
“In the post-Cold War world flags count and so do other symbols of cultural identity, including crosses, crescents, and even head coverings, because culture counts, and cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people. People are discovering new but often old identities and marching under new but often old flags which lead to wars with new but often old enemies.” (Huntington 1996: 20)

On the other hand, well-known scholar Bernard Lewis, in his article entitled ‘The roots of Muslim rage” wrote: “This is no less than a clash of civilizations-perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both..” Lewis’s argument is rather debatable, but it was somewhat also reflecting the reality of today relation between Western world and Islamic world.
Historic hostility and revival of religion as a source of conflict
At one time, people assumed that developments like social, cultural, and economic modernization would ultimately lead to the death of religion. But, today as we see, those are just the things which are causing the religious resurgence - and in particular, the increase of fundamentalism. The reason for that is because modernization has caused a severe disruption in the traditional sources of identity, authority and community.
Urbanization in particular serves to remove people from their traditional homes, lands and roots, transporting them to an unfamiliar and rapid transformation in all aspect of life. Alienated from their cultures and even themselves, it is to be expected that they will seek identity, community and authority elsewhere:
More broadly, the religious resurgence throughout the world is a reaction against secularism, moral relativism, and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity. Religious groups meet social needs left untended by state bureaucracies. These include the provision of medical and hospital services, kindergartens and schools, care for the elderly, prompt relief after natural and other catastrophes, and welfare and social support during periods of economic deprivation. The breakdown of order and civil society creates vacuums which are filled by religious, often fundamentalist, groups. (Huntington 1996: 98)
This kind of religious revivalism seems take place particular in the Islamic world today. The United States experienced this in the early 20th century; during World War I. Islam was the last of the three monotheistic religions to produce a fundamentalist religion in the late 1960s. Islam and Islamist movements today provide a key source of identity to people’s intent on strengthening their social cohesion against Western cultural assault. Religious revival is visibly growing across the region; “Islam as a solution” is attractive slogan because it created new bonds of solidarity that can reassert their traditional value in order to regain their glorious past.
This sense of belonging to particular group which led to cultural divisions seems to playing a greater role in world conflicts today, as we see the resurgence of religious consciousness or so-call religious fundamentalism is serves to reinforce religious differences and exacerbate tensions that already existed.
While the Islamic world feel themselves besieged by the West, the West feel threatened by Islam. The feeling of somehow belonging together exists in Islamic and Western civilization as well. Huntington commented that the 911 terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden have reinvigorated civilizational identity, he says: “ Osama sought to rally Muslims by declaring war on the West, he gave back to the West its sense of common identity in defending itself.” (Huntington, NPO: 2002). As we see the struggle between these rival systems has lasted for some fourteen centuries. And it seems has continued virtually to the present day. Not only the cumulative and historically stereotype images or hostility between the rival system are still affect today relationship between this two parties, but for last few decades, Muslim and Western scholars have somewhat overwhelming emphasized these historical roots to justify their perception of the so-called Islamic threat or the Western threat.
For I see the West today does not entirely represented Christianity. If today’s enemy of Islamic world is U.S, in particular, we can hardly say it is the clash between Islam and Christianity. Edward Said had reminded us that the labels of “Islam,” “the West”, and even “Christianity” function in at least two different ways, and produce at least two meanings each time they used. (Said, 1981:9) First, they perform as a simple identifying function, that is, to make distinction between one another. Secondly, it produce a much more complex meaning. The rather unpleasant things or images spring on the mind when “Islam” is mentioned in the West, and the same for Islamic world to talk about “the West”, and many of them are just simply get into this labeling games without being aware of what is the story behind it. For Osama bin Laden, the West might be the house of unbelievers, but for Huntington, it must be utterly difference things and manifold. Again from Said, “it is always the West, and not Christianity, that seems pitted against the Islam.”(Said. 1981:10) Because “the West” assume it is greater than and had surpassed the stage of Christianity, its principal religion, and of course included the world of Islam. However, religion in some way did affect the relationship between the West and the Islamic world, for today, however, ideological and political distinctions seem count for very little and the world is divided up along cultural lines. What this ends up meaning, in practice, is that the world ends up being divided along religious lines, because religion serves as an ancient carrier of cultural traditions and norms, even though, in one side, while secular countries have pushed religion to the side but the other is dragging religion back from the sidelines and onto the center stage.
Some observations and reflections on today Western civilization and Islam
We see today fundamental belief in establishment of United States of American was not religion but total separation of Church and State. Even though, it remained the slogan “In God we believe” but we could see there is no such thing as religious law exists in this country. Scripture doctrines and teachings are by no mean important to how society and governance should be ordered – in contrast, for Islam, Koran and the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet's life) remain the most powerful ideological force in Muslim world (Fuller, 2002:49). In some ways, Huntington is right that, it is the Western arrogance increasingly brought into conflict with other civilizations, here, he identifies the Islamic intolerance, for him the clash of civilizations derives from the incompatibility of Islam with fundamental Western philosophical notions such as democracy and modernity.
The imperialism’s slogan like “God, Glory, Gold” is no longer exists in today relation between the West and Islam. But it was true that the white’s man burden that wish to transform the Muslim world in their own way, which had generated numerous conflicts among civilizations still somehow exists, as we could see the impact on the Western invasion in other civilizations for example China during the eighteenth century. The late-Qing dynasty faced the similar impacts and “clash” with Western civilization and modernity in that critical confrontations. Chinese people were believed that the West was intent to conquer China with its advanced weapons at the same time transforms Chinese civilization with its Christianity values in peace. These confrontations had stimulated the sense of cultural identity and nationalism. While it was also roused the arguments regarding reform of traditional value and westernization.
Like every other civilization known to human history as Lewis argued in his article mentioned above, one civilization in its heyday saw itself as the center of truth and enlightenment, surrounded by infidel barbarians whom it would in due course enlighten and civilize. For example, ancient middle-land China with its surrounded barbarian minorities, early Islam with its neighboring polytheist and idolaters, and today US with its undemocratic and stubborn East.
At the same time, we see the need of an enemy after the post-Cold War period in the West, “the most dangerous conflicts in new post-Cold War era will occur along the fault-line of civilizations” and “The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.”
(Huntington 1996:183) Huntington had been clearly described the conflicts among the three major civilizations, which was not necessary the civilizations itself but rather the attitude and posture that pose an obstacle to one another. The secular West, with its somewhat Christianity elements and heritage, it might be viewed by the Islamic world as the main rival while desire to reassert Muslim value along the process of modernization which the West dominate. But we must learn that it was not Christianity that caused the West’s supremacy today. It is the system and the force of capitalism that form the social order of today’s West, and it was not the religious beliefs as the main force behind capitalism, it is a simplify interpretation of Weber’s theories which considered the Protestantism as a simply backdrop for capitalism. (Weber 1995:91-92) as Weber himself also asserted.
What drives the capitalism West was the science and technology, which created material wealth and weapons of war that the rest of the world then eager to pursue. Yet, the modernity and democracy of the West today generated from its bloody but unique history condition and experiences. The first modernized country, England had brought great impacts on its neighboring countries, which were not less than what today’s ‘clash’ of civilizations imply.
The theory of “clash of Civilizations” became the mainstream in the West today, and the West sees Islamic world as a threat to the West because of its religious belief and traditions remained the most powerful ideological force in Muslim world, and this became an obstacle for the West to expand its hegemonism in concern region, on the other hand, the West also consider that most of the Islamic governments are disability in modern administrative governance and most important, the political stability in this region remain anxious. And these will pose a threat to the security of the West. Huntington described that most of the Muslim countries “ were overwhelmingly non-democratic”. What he did not mention is that these governments were mostly installed by the West after the de-colonization process or were aided to power through the visible and invisible assistance of the West, and for most of them can only survive through such assistance. Huntington also believe that the clash between the West and Islam is a given, so whatever their political or religious opinions, Muslims will agree that the basic difference exist between their culture and Western culture, and they see their societies are based on value other than those of the West.
According to Moten, “the laws of the West lay much emphasis on the individual's tight that allows him to do anything he pleases. The separation of politics from religion makes morality a matter of personal discretion... Democracy is, as such, antithetical to the Islamic way of life.” (Moten, 1996:106) This might be a majority’s opinion in the Muslim world. However, the Christian’s separation between spiritual and temporal rule is indeed one of the root causes of Western legal, political, social and economic development--above all it is a prerequisite of individual liberty in the West. But the question is, the West, Americans in particular, such like Fukuyama tends to believe that their modern institutions and values represent universal aspirations that will ultimately be shared by all people.
And we know if one country or a nation entity tries to adopt the Western origins models of modernization without consideration of necessary stages in their own cultural development, it might generated the similar revolution as the French in 1789. as some argue that if today China exercise the Western democratic system will indeed ruins the country in terms of its poor knowledge of democracy in general, because there are incredible large population of these people that just simply mess-up the concept of individual liberty and self- indulgence. Turkish for example, adopt democratic principle, which in fact based on total state control and repression of religion, this illustrated that democracy can be compatible only where its values reach the masses and where its specific form is flexible enough to comfort to certain preeminent local cultural value. Of cause, it doesn’t mean that we can only satisfy with kinds of “Asia Value”, No culture or religion that inherently compatible or incompatible with modernity.
In this regard, to view one own culture is superiority over the other is not only arrogance but also ignorance. Is the conflicting relation between the West and Islam inevitably? Both the West and Islamic world should carefully verify their means and intentions before the conflicting relationship.
Is that Islam inherently incompatible with ideas like democracy? Or in fact, it is such Western philosophical notions as democracy and modernity, which have been gone to far from its fundamental humanism stature like Locke and Rousseau had been argued. The argument of democracy in today Western countries has been alienated from the pursuit of morality and Ethic, which indeed the great tradition and legacy of the West since the age of Enlightenment. We see the homosexual practice not only allow but even could be legalized so that the homosexual priests, for the sake of democracy and liberalism remain their sacred job in Churches. In the early days of the West, secularization was a progress, as Locke said, a new and better way to be religious, but Anglican Church in American today, if I have to say, nothing left or deserve to be called Christianity if their fundamental and the centered of beliefs gave way the to the pursuit of total self- interests, the West can not wrong the Islam for they so detesting the secular culture of life in today Western societies.
Fukuyama commented those radical Islamist who celebrated 911 attacks are in fact aimed at the Western societies that dedicated to religious tolerance and pluralism instead of serving religious true (Fukuyama 2002: 57) But yet, I believe that the secular system the West advocated is not the exact reason that the Islamic world wishes to counterattack. From this perspective, we could say that the trouble of Western secularism is that principle of humanism has been abused, which the post-modernization notions are actually overwhelming. The defects of Western secularism go deeper in the way not only expresses the interests of human beings instead of the Will of God, but it carry a whole set of implicit values and disposition that serve only for self-interests in certain circumstances.
If we see from a Muslim perspective, however, admission of an autonomous temporal sphere of rule calls into question the sovereignty of God. It is at least an invitation to apostasy. The core meaning of Islam is submission of the faithful to the revealed will of God, to the sacred law of the Schari'ah. However, faithful Muslims and their way of life-- are likely to be charged as fundamentalism by Western critics, perhaps, it seems and somehow pose a perception of threat to the current Western secularism and culture.
On the one hand, in Middle Eastern countries, we see the secularization process has often been accelerated that it's seems as harm rather a remedy for their societies. In Turkey, Ataturk closed all madrassas (religious schools), forced the Sufis underground and forced men and women to wear Western dress. In Iran, Shah Reza Pahlavi gave orders to shoot at hundreds of demonstrators protesting compulsory Western dress. In that circumstances, you can see how secularization is experienced as an assault in these places . We could see people feel under fire, rageful and vengeful and feel that they're fighting for survival. In that condition, anyone can lash out and it might finally turn to lash out at a common enemy.

Clash of the Western hegemony and radical Islamist

If we continue to verify the practices of the Western style of democracy, liberalism or humanism, we will realize the Western democracy today is in fact indicated the ambitions of the West over the rest of the world, it is global capitalism oriented rather than humanistic oriented. It should not blame on the resistance from the other side of shield. But this shall not also be an excuse for those who committed themselves on the crime such like 911 attacks. In many Muslim countries there's a strong dislike of American foreign policy and sometimes this makes it difficult for them to dissociate from their radical leaders. Many of the middle and professional classes have a degree of sympathy for radical’s actions while they deplore things like Sept. 11. That atmosphere can encourage radicalism or even further terrorism. Anti-Americanism in this context is not based on a hatred of modernity or technology-envy: it is based on a narrative of concrete interventions, specific depredations and, in the cases of the Iraqi people's suffering under US-imposed sanctions and US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Perhaps, Support of Israel became a symbolical alliance between Christianity and Judaism that frighten the Islamic world and inevitable brought suspicious, dissatisfy and resentment.
If we look at the most of the Muslim countries today, the Muslim world hasn't had time to develop a homegrown democracy. They still do not have the same kind of capital market economies, moreover, in many countries democracy got a bad name because it was associated with bad regimes that the United States supported, for example, despots like the Shahs in Iran and the British supported dictatorship in Egypt between 1922 and 1948. That sort of thing left a bad taste.
According to Esposito’s statement, “Many in Arab and Muslim world see the history of Islam and the Muslim world’s dealings with the West as one of victimization and oppression at the hands of expansive imperial power.”(Esposito 1999: 217) But, these memories are however exaggerated at times; they somehow reinforce the image of victimization of the Muslim world, giving dogmatic fundamentalists grounds to engage in bloody conflicts in the name of God as a result. The Islamic movements that have emerged to resist the marginalization of Islamic societies in the modernized world are become more radical, more defensive, and less tolerance. In fact, Islamic fundamentalist movement has lent support to the argument such like “Fundamentalists of all faith have convinced themselves that militant piety is the only way to save religion from annihilation in an increasingly secularized world” ( 2002, August) in this point, Karen Armstrong urged that we must try to understand their motivation and frustration.
Is Islam pose a threat to the West or the rest of the world? In this regard, “Islam as a religion is definitely not a threat, but Islamic fundamentalism is. It is a threat, however, only in the sense of creating disorder on a grand scale,..”(Tibi 1998:4) Bassam Tibi identifies religious fundamentalism not as a spiritual faith, but rather as a political ideology based on the politicizing of religion for sociopolitical and economic goals in the pursuit of establishing a divine order.
For fundamentalism, or more fitting general terms should be used here like “Islamic revivalism” or “Islamic activism” as argued by Esposito (Esposito 1999:6) religion is the expression of a divine order, as schematically opposed to secular order. Undoubtedly, the process of modernization brought the secularization values such as materialism, individualism and liberalism, which run counter to Islamic worldview, has sharpened and deepened the conflicting relations between Islam and the West.
Perhaps, it is true that “the post –Enlightenment tendency to define religion as a system of belief restricted to personal or private life, rather than as a way of life, has seriously hampered our ability to understand the nature of Islam and many of the world’s religions.”(Esposito and Tamini 2000:11) However, the combine of state power and religion is essential for integration of a society in Islamic civilization. Since the early advent of Islam, Islam has been divorced from the state politics, from the arrangements and exercise of state power; it became a matter only by the followed incidents and particular change of environment (from Hijra and Jihad) everything has changed under the process of modernization. In fact, even though ideologically [in Islam] there can be no separation between religion and state, both Sunnis and Shiites developed a separation very early on. In the Sunni world, the separation was de facto; Islamic law developed as kind of a counterculture to the aristocratic courts. In the Shiite world, there was a separation of religion and state on principle. It was held that since every state was corrupt, clerics should take no part in them, that the religious should withdraw until the messiah came and established a proper Muslim state.
The Ayatollah Khomeini's insistence that a cleric could lead a state was revolutionary. Islam then is a monotheistic religion that offers not only a set of spiritual beliefs, but also a set of rules by which to govern society as well. It was therefore set to run into an inevitable conflict with the secular values (post-Enlightenment), which is totally swept off the clerical influence over political practice.
In the wake of the collapse of the Shah's regime and the later clericalist challenge to Western-style modernization, American policy-makers, academics, journalists, and media commentators tried to understand the new phenomenon of Islamism. Prior to the death of Khomeini, the post-revolutionary Iranian regime represented a very activist strain within Shiite Islam. Its call for the export of revolutionary ideals, especially to countries within the Persian Gulf, posed an apparently imminent threat to U.S. interests and American-dependent states in the region, for the re-emergence of historically, religiously, and culturally paradigms have contradict to the Western model of democratization, secularization, and de-religiousation.
The West and Islam in the post Cold-War era
While fairly lacking in a judiciously balanced view of Islamic civilization as a whole as well as in nuanced understanding of the variety of Arab-Muslim societies, Huntington's perspective nonetheless highlights the fact that non-Western peoples and civilizations now are actors on the world stage and not merely objects in the post-modern age. But, as he speculates, "if these are plausible hypotheses, however, it is necessary to consider their implications for Western policy. . . . In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to . . . limit the military expansion of the Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of counter military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; . . .(Huntington, Huntington then continues:
“will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, [emphasis mine] but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.”

This resurgence of an older line of argument derived from the Orientalist perspective, namely, an essential gulf between Western and non-Western cultures and civilizations, explicitly affirms difference and encourages co-existence. Yet, at the same time it also urges the preservation and enhancement of Western economic and military power so that Western interests may be protected. What this model patently does not endorse is the export of values and emblematic institutional and cultural structures from "the West to the Rest."

The last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first thus present the United States with a paradox in terms of its policy toward the Muslim Middle East. Is the old preconception of "what's good for America is good for the rest of the world" still functional in terms of achieving a peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence with the states of the Islamic Middle East? Should the U.S. follow a policy that continues to diverge when the issue becomes parity of economic and military strength — and American support thereof — between the Muslim and non-Muslim states of the Middle East? Should America continue to pursue policies that further alienate Muslim Middle Easterners, while penalizing them for their alienation from the "family of nations" headed by the U.S.? Middle East historian Richard Bulliet encapsulated the problem succinctly: “the knowledge that accumulated ... never intersected the world of policy because it was never integrated into an overall vision of Middle Eastern/Islamic politics of sufficient persuasiveness to unseat the long-standing assumptions that had guided most policy decisions since World War II. It has long been a commonplace that U.S. policies ... reflected a calculation of national interest that had three components: security for the state of Israel, maintenance of a steady flow of petroleum at reasonable prices, and denial of opportunities for the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in the region.” (Bulliet:

Secular West, like their religious counterparts, possess a mentally constructed Utopia to be built as instantly as possible on earth, and they are absolutely certain that their versions of Utopia are faultless and best for everyone. Although secular Utopia does not involve the name of any divinity, it has its own human cult leaders whose ‘Thoughts’ and ‘Quotations’ are usually made compulsory reading for members and diehards.
As the challenges that surround Western-Islamic relations are not insignificant, we must ask how they can be successfully met. Is there common ground that may serve to unite both, or are the two cultures and worldviews too radically different? Ralph Braibanti believes that although it is impossible to ignore the past, many factors point towards a potentially peaceful and prosperous future. He cites the renewal of Christian appreciation for Islam, the common bases for each religion, and the social values that both the Western Christian and Islamic worlds uphold. His pamphlet, while noting some key negative points in past international relations, is also an excellent introduction to the promising potentialities of the future. (Ralph 1999: 52)

Bassam Tibi, 1998. The Challenge of Fundamentalism (London, University of California Press, 1998)

Bernard Lewis, The Roots of Muslim Rage, available at http://www.theatlanticcom.issue/90sep/

Dr. Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism & Political Islam: Issues of identity & Problems of Democraticization, Lecture at the University of Maryland (March 28, 2000) available at

Edward W. Said, 1981. Covering Islam (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, Melbourne and Henley)

Edward, W. Said, "The Clash of Ignorance," The Nation 273:12 (October 22, 2001), (October 22, 2001 )

John L. Esposito.1999, The Islamic Threat-Myth or Realities? (New York, Oxford University Press)

John L. Esposito, and Azzam Tamini (eds), 2000, Islam und Secularism in the Middle East: London: Hurst & Co.

Karen Armstrong, (2001), Cries of Rage and Frustration available at (

Graham E. Fuller, 2002, The Future of Political Islam, Foreign Affair (Mac/April)

Max Weber, 1995. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, Los Angeles: Roxbury publishing.

Moten, A. R. ,1996 , Political Science: An Islamic Perspective, London, Macmillan; New York, St. Martin's.

Ralph, Braibanti, 1999, Islam and the West: Common Cause or Clash? American Journal of Islamic Social Studies, Vol 16, no. 1, Spring 1999 and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., USA.

Richard Bulliet, "Theorizing Islam," Social Science Research Council/After Sept. 11 available at text only.html.
Samuel Huntington, 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster) Samuel Huntington, 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster) Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of CiSummer 1993)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Through the Eye of Enlightenment

Wayne S. Rossi
Dr. DeMeritt
HONR 151
16 November 1999
Through the Eye of Enlightenment
Eighteenth Century Views on Man
Throughout societies, throughout time, man has questioned. And, no matter how abstract or indifferent his analysis may attempt to be, his eye will eventually fall upon himself and speculation as to the exact character of man. So it was, by necessity, that man created ideas on his own nature during the Age of Enlightenment, the historical period after the Renaissance was over in its entirety. These particular ideas would have the power to shake and reshape the world, starting during the late eighteenth century, when the European monarchies, having grown to almost unimaginable heights, would begin to be questioned to the very core, and in many cases, fall. The Enlightenment saw revolutionary political and religious philosophy, venomous satire, and statesmen who would forever change the face of government. As the realm of philosophy is often too abstract and shows its impact elsewhere, four works of the latter two types will be considered instead in speaking on eighteenth century man’s views on himself. The single most important pair of documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, will be considered first, and then the great French satirist Voltaire’s considerably less serious views on man from the novellas Candide and Zadig will be discussed. The uttermost seriousness of ideas and the parody of men will then be seen to form a more satisfying Aristotelian mean between extremes.
Borrowing heavily from the considerably earlier philosophical ideas of John Locke, the Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most important philosophical work in American history. Instead of merely stating its opinion and leaving it to the realm of abstraction, the Declaration dared to actually enact its revolutionary claims. The foremost among these is that men are created equal, and deserve equal rights. Furthermore, it makes the assertion that government derives its power from the assent of the government-the Lockeian social contract. Its absolute most bold claim is the right of the people to revolution against a despotic government. The remainder of the Declaration is largely a statement of why the American states had this right at the time of writing. However, these first three major statements-men created equal, government as a social contract, and the right to revolution-are indicative of a perspective on man’s nature. The claim of equal rights to the famed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was quite revolutionary to European thought, as was the social contract (a drastic contrast to the supposed “Divine Right” of kings). Even today, the right to revolution is not widely recognized. This view is one of the more optimistic-man is naturally good, and holds the famed “inalienable rights.” These rights spring from the very nature (there is a Deistic content to it, speaking of the Creator), not from some governmental source. The social contract is an idea that comes from the same school of thought that says that rights are natural. This view, that man is a basically good creature with natural rights, is among the most optimistic of the Age of Enlightenment’s views of humanity.
During the years that followed the Declaration of Independence’s writing, the American Revolution brought those high-minded ideals into reality. For the large portion of the 1780s, the government was under the Articles of Confederation, which proved themselves to be vastly ineffective as means of any central government goes. So, it is only logical that the Constitution, successor to the Articles, was not in the same optimistic, Lockeian tone as the Declaration of Independence. Rather, the Constitution was written to deal with the less than ideal realities of a government. It has a noteworthy and well-designed system of checks and balances, designed to ensure that there was no single figure in the American government who would grow too powerful. These checks and balances, coupled with the Bill of Rights, shows the idea (which is quite verifiable) that power can easily corrupt a man, and that a government must pre-emptively keep such individuals in check. However, it is a marvelous act of faith in humanity that the right to vote is given as fairly unconditionally as it was at the time (and that it was later expanded to include the entire populace over the age of majority). From this, it can be said that the Constitution was not truly pessimistic, but rather optimistic with a very cautious outlook. It views man as a good, but corruptible, creature, and quite obviously is in line with the idea of securing the basic human rights and the social contract of the Declaration of Independence. So, it could be said that the Constitution takes on a similar, but more reserved, view on humanity compared to the Declaration of Independence.
A second pair of eighteenth century works reveals a completely different side of the popular views on man. This time written around the middle of the century by famed French satirist Voltaire, the works Zadig and Candide reflect a somewhat different view of man. Whereas the prior two were serious works of governmental doctrine, Voltaire’s writings are lighter in tone and possess a certain biting sarcasm. As they were political commentaries, there was a necessary specific element of parody to these, which may be counted among Voltaire’s longest and best-known works. The earlier writing, Zadig, is also the more positive of the two by quite a good measure, which is doubtless a reflection of the author’s own better situation in life during its writing than when he wrote Candide, which was the result of a good number of misfortunes in his life. With Zadig, Voltaire, still a heavy proponent of the optimistic Age of Enlightenment’s views (especially on rationality) stays mostly within lampooning his enemies and generally promoting reason through the resolutions gained by the title character. Here, many of the tough spots that Zadig is thrust into have logical and reasonable solutions, which generally tend to save Zadig’s neck at the same time. Candide, on the other hand, was written after a long string of unfortunate circumstances were thrust upon Voltaire, and he was generally bitterer toward his philosophical colleagues. Candide’s adventures are more as a consideration of various philosophies, and the throwing-out of the same afterward. However, there is ever the question in Candide’s mind of whether Dr. Pangloss is right in claiming that this world is the best of all possible worlds. His ultimate sentiment seems to be rejection.
These cases are curiously similar. In both the founding documents of the American government, and in Voltaire’s works, there is an initial sentiment of pure, unbounded optimism and faith in mankind. In the latter works, one written after a decade filled with war and instability, the other after a similar falling apart of a personal life, there is considerable tempering to the radical, free ideals earlier espoused. One could say with good accuracy that the Declaration of Independence and Zadig are works closer to pure philosophy than reality, and that the Constitution and Candide are works with their heads more firmly grounded in reality. However, all of these do share a great faith in reason and the natural rights of man. Interestingly enough, a disdain for organized religion can be seen, in the vague Deism of the Declaration’s “Nature’s God”, the Constitution’s famed First Amendment, and Zadig and Candide’s over-zealous priests. There is obviously a parallel distrust of large governments.
The Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, and Voltaire’s Zadig and Candide offer clear, applied examples of how eighteenth century Europeans looked upon their own race, and that their views were rather revolutionary during their own time. These examples of eighteenth century views of mankind combine to show a unique worldview whose repercussions continue to be seen and felt today.