In a time of upheaval and radically changing values in the West, it is important to reflect on the world view that shaped the West and historically created a strong civilization.
The origins of traditional Western values are mainly found in the Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage. The radical Hebrew–Christian contribution to the concept of Western values differed from both the Greek and Roman ideals in several important areas.
Professor at Yale and Harvard, historian Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton state in A History of the Modern World, one of the most highly praised history texts ever and adopted in more than a thousand schools, that Christian philosophy was revolutionary in that its definition of humanity was inclusive of all people, an altogether new sense of human life, writes historian Hanne Nabintu Herland, founder of The Herland Report.
The Greek and Roman contribution to traditional Western values
The Traditional Western World View: The main Greek contribution was the understanding of democracy, concepts on political freedom and a marketplace culture of debate where citizens and philosophers discussed public matters, not to forget art and architecture.
The Roman contribution includes excellent organizational skills in administration, government, and law that greatly influenced the West.
Lastly, the Judeo-Christian contribution to humanist thought was vital – human rights, tolerance and the concept of equality. Its spiritualism and religious world-view also fueled European thought ever since its early beginnings.
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It is unquestionable that the ancient Greek philosophers and religious men provided ground breaking philosophical analysis and thinking. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Plato and Aristotle are regarded as early prophets who spoke spiritual truth to their generations.
Greek philosophy brought, apart from its richly advanced moral philosophy and cognitive thinking, the idea of government by the people. However, Greek democracy differed substantially from modern democracy. Only adult male citizens had the right to vote, not women, foreigners or slaves. They had a high education and participated actively in public debates.
In around 400 BC, the city-state of Athens suffered from political instability. The search for justice and better governance led to the development of the Greek ancient form of democracy. The purpose of common education for Greek citizens was to supply the state with a source of skilled political leaders.
Through the formation of good habits and knowledge-based insight, education and the search for wisdom was thought to provide the means for men to govern the Greek city states in the best possible way.
It is apparent that the philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were both critical of democracy and only supported a democracy for selected male citizens. They feared that democracy easily could turn into the rule of the mob.
The Traditional Western World View: The Athenian structure thus had the form of a state based on an oligarchic, democratic government, in which state officials, the military, and philosophers comprised the leading political elite in society. Yet, slavery remained an institution in Athenian society. Women and children had second-class status.
The Roman contribution to what we today understand as Western values consist mainly of the development of a highly disciplined administrative system, Roman law, and the concept of the dutiful citizen, is best exemplified by the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Roman law worked on the basis that no human custom is necessarily right, but that there is a universal law, that will be acceptable to all men since its standard rises from human nature and reason, Palmer and Colton points out.
Through an authoritarian administration emphasizing military control, the Romans continued the Greek elitist definition of what it meant to be a “citizen.” The organization of the state reached its zenith under Roman law, and the military system was equally effective.
Even though philosophers like Cicero and Seneca made contributions to the concept of humanism, in reality, the Roman Empire was negligibly concerned with individual rights and personal freedom.
The Hebrew-Christian contribution to traditional Western values
The Traditional Western World View: The radical Hebrew–Christian contribution to the concept of Western values differed from both the Greek and Roman ideals in several important areas. Palmer and Colton’s book A History of the Modern World, is as mentioned above one of the most highly praised history texts ever and adopted in more than a thousand schools, that Christian philosophy was revolutionary in that its definition of humanity was inclusive of all people, an altogether new sense of human life.
While the Greeks demonstrated the excellence of the mind, the Christians explored the soul and taught that in the eyes of God all souls were equal. They taught that human life was sacred and inviolate, and spoke of worldly greatness and beauty as subordinate values.
While the Greeks contemplated much on the beautiful and thought ugliness to be bad, the Christians saw spiritual beauty in even the most unpleasant exterior and sought out the diseased and those in need.
Even suffering itself, states Palmer, was proclaimed as in a way divine, since God himself had suffered on the Cross. Christians worked to relieve suffering as none before them, protested against the massacre of prisoners of war, against slavery, against gladiators who killed each other and so on. They taught humility and that all men were brothers.
Palmer says that it simply is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Christianity’s influence on the development of Western values. It was Christianity that introduced the principle of equality, which unleashed the revolutionary idea that each man, regardless of class, gender, and race, has a unique value.
Despite the fact that this viewpoint would later be seen as a secular idea and one of the cornerstones of secular society, there is no doubt about its religious origins.