Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
In his poem, Kipling was expressing his belief that cultures of the east and west were so intrinsically different that any hope for harmony or mutual interest was little more than a delusion.
As an unrepentant racist and British imperialist, Kipling was quite certain that he exemplified the best of western civilization, founded as it was upon global submission of the dark-skinned races to a British hegemon which was mandated to rule the world as overlords. This imperial view was founded upon a ‘master-slave’ ordering of society, an intense racism and a tendency to treat the individual members of society like hedonistic pleasure-seeking creatures incapable of acting upon any higher principles of justice, or goodness beyond their local immediate concerns.
None other than arch priest of British free trade, Adam Smith had laid out this view in his 1759 ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’:
“The care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness… Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce them.”
How could such a worldview possibly mesh with the cultures of orthodox Russia, Confucian China, or the Arab world? To the degree that those cultures maintained their ancient traditions and values, it obviously could not, as only total submission to a hegemon could resolve the conflict.
This poisonous worldview was popular among many of the elites of Kipling’s day, just as it is in today’s ‘rules based international order’ driving the world towards total war.
Thankfully, this toxic worldview was never a true representative of ‘western culture’ as its advocates wished to believe.
On closer inspection of history, one finds not one, but two competing philosophies of natural law and self-interest operating under the banner of “western civilization”. And while the imperialists would wish theirs were the only option, the fact remains that the greatest developments such as the progress experienced during the 15th century Golden Renaissance, 1648 Peace of Westphalia and even the 1776 American Revolution were not animated by this worldview but something much more dignified. Where the imperial outlook rules by divide-to-conquer strategies of war, the anti-imperial outlook represents true Christian values by striving for peaceful resolutions and diplomatic solutions to conflict.
Where the imperial view demands that a total wall be placed between the interests of individuals and the welfare of the whole nation, the better renaissance traditions strive to harmonize the sense of personal freedom with the wellbeing of the nation, as echoed in America’s founding documents and Kennedy’s famous speech compelling Americans to ‘ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country”.
Unfortunately, it has been many years since JFK and his brother died, and the better traditions of the republic which they died defending have been nearly forgotten.
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