European civilisation may be undermining its values from the inside.
As a part of general cultural history, that of values reflects the intellectual heritage of a society, outlines its developmental patterns and shows how values have been formed in a consistent historical process. Some of the values considered important today are very old and offered food for thought even to ancient thinkers, while others are the fruit of quite recent philosophical developments. A value system provides more information than individual values, but value architecture—a concept I definitely prefer in discussing values—is the most eloquent of all. It involves both processes and their results, developmental dynamics and the stasis of certain moments in time, while also underlining the interconnected internal causality of values, as it shows how each value has a prerequisite and a derivate. In my eyes, the characteristics of integrity and cohesion—inner dynamics that have been tested to the extent that they obtain a level of reasonable reliability in historical development—justify the use of the term “value architecture”. I see it as one of the qualities of civilisation.
This overview is limited to the basics. I regret having to discard many interesting evolutions and specifications regarding the relationship between individuals and state authority, state and church etc., as well as the undertones, conflicting possibilities of interpretation and tempting opportunities of abuse involved in this.
The value space that surrounds us and is usually called “European” is the result of a consistent historical process that has lasted for some 2,500 years. During this time, two conflicting world-views—theocentric and human-centred—have come into focus and replaced one another several times. The theocentric view assumes that human needs are nothing in comparison to an almighty entity; people are immature and understand little. This is why a higher being has imposed value instructions expressed through various sets of rules and restrictions that are to be followed because they are the will of God, tradition and/or laws of nature. The humanist world-view, contrarily, is focused on the person, with her mind, endowments, creativity and other properties that make her human. God has his role, and it may be quite essential but it is nevertheless limited. It definitely doesn’t envelop the entire human condition or determine her fate. A person is capable of growing, developing and exploring the world that surrounds her. She explains and shapes her environment according to her understanding and starts to distinguish between right and wrong in the course of this. Humanist values are based on human interests and needs that can be agreed upon and modified, not universal divine laws.
The building blocks of value architecture—humanist thinking, rationalism, secularisation, the rule of law, democracy and human rights—form a line within these two world-views. In terms of the history of values, this line can be observed both from left to right and vice versa.
A Time-lapse of the History of Values
The history of European values began as theocentric, but the first major value shift occurs in the midst of this—humanist thinking starts to leach into a world-view focused on pleasing the gods drop by drop. This happens for the first time in Greece in about the 6th century BC, and for the second at the end of the Middle Ages. It means doubting whether a person must be the servant or plaything of a higher power instead of shaping her own destiny. The next step is to challenge legends and myths with rational thinking and endeavour to explain the world reasonably. In ancient times this brought about the flourishing of philosophy, and at the beginning of the modern period the rapid development of natural sciences.
Humanist thinking gradually takes root and spreads in the Mediterranean countries, until it becomes prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, which stands on citizenship and rational laws. The dissemination of rational thought leads to the secularisation of society, and religion steadily loses its central position in people’s daily lives. Temples, churches and rituals don’t disappear, of course, but people increasingly assume more agency in deciding over their life and happiness, while religion-related issues withdraw from the public sphere and move to the private. We see signs of this process in the Hellenistic world, while thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment loudly demanded the secularisation of society.
Here we can observe a wide gap between the parallel development of the ancient and modern worlds, but the comparison is still relevant. Christianity emerges from the lap of Roman civilisation, signifying a new life for the theocentric world-view. Rationality is again replaced by faith and the mental focus shifts from individual to God. We think of the Middle Ages as an era of faith when science is controlled by the Church and alternative thought is nipped in the bud. In spite of this, humanist thinking sprouts from the intellectual ground of the Middle Ages due to the rediscovery of the heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Renaissance. Non-religious rational thought blooms again, together with the rapid growth of natural sciences.
Martin Luther and other innovators rock the dominant position of the Church and show alternative ways of interpreting divine will. The enlightened requirement of separating church and state is the logical consequence of this. During secularisation, the suprahuman element is eliminated from state governance: power is no longer something endowed from above, which allows a ruler’s decisions and whims to be placed out of the reach of human reason and understanding. They are replaced by written laws, which are formal and equalising and apply to everyone, even rulers. In the ancient world, these principles are represented by Roman law, which perpetuates the concept of citizenship and works efficiently across the entire giant empire. The example of the equalising spirit of Roman law is also followed in regulating legislation and preparing codes in modern times.
During the French and American revolutions, the first constitutions are written and fundamental human freedoms emerge, giving rise to the concept of a modern state based on the rule of law. Equality before the law inspires people to fight for expanding political freedoms, e.g. establishing democratic public order. Power begins to change hands periodically through elections and to represent the people first in Ancient Greece, while today most of humanity lives in democratic states, although often only in name. Eventually, human rights emerge from democracy. The idea that all human beings have an internal integrity and certain inherent rights with which external characteristics such as nationality, sex and skin colour may not interfere is the contribution to value history of the 20th century’s devastating world wars. As a consequence of these conflicts, all kinds of human rights and freedoms have expanded as never before.
Let me briefly reiterate: the humanist world-view in the framework of which we practise our current European values consists of six conceptual “floors”, each of which is on top of the one that precedes it historically. The entire construction is based on humanism, a way of thinking that values the individual. The next building block is rationalism, i.e. trust in the ability of the human mind to get to know the world and make decisions. Rationality in turn pushes gods away from public life—i.e. it is followed by the secularisation of society. The administration of society is based on laws and constitutions instead of the scriptures, which in turn favours the development of democracy. Through the latter, value discourse moves on to the subject of universal human rights and becomes complete, as the right to legal and actual integrity expands to all human beings. This is what European value architecture looks like in theory.
Many Opportunities for Failure
How are things in practice? This can be best explored using the example of Ancient Greece and Rome, the only known earlier instances of value discourse reaching results comparable to today. In those times, the humanist view of human life and society was widespread among educated people, but its practical implementation was deficient, to say the least. Humanist thought and rationality was highly valued, but the resulting opportunity to secularise society mainly manifested itself in the fact that many religions existed side by side and influenced one another. Only a few enjoyed the Roman rule of law and much-praised ancient democracy, which were not available to women (gender criterion), the poor (wealth criterion), slaves (social status criterion) and foreigners (citizenship criterion).The roof of the value construction—the idea of inherent and inalienable human rights—therefore remained a noble ideal that was never realised. On the contrary, the lack of a roof caused the entire building to crumble.
The protection of the law and democracy that was the realm of free, wealthy, male citizens declined as the Roman Republic became an empire. Religious tolerance faded as Christianity grew stronger and became the official religion. Rationality was replaced with the belief of God’s omnipotence and the humanist approach to life gave way to a theocentric world-view, which we are accustomed to considering medieval—until a new humanist shift occurred during the Renaissance about a thousand years later.
I hope that this historical parallel—and I emphasise that it is the only one we have—explains how important it is to work towards an integral humanist value architecture, so that each part of it is clear, well considered, fully understood, real, adopted and practised in everyday life. History shows that the development of human thought is cyclical rather than linear, and that progress alternates with regression, humanist thinking with theocentric thought. We have reason to wonder whether the turning point isn’t approaching inconspicuously, even now. Anti-terrorist laws are already restricting daily freedoms in some places; human rights are invaded in the name of faith; tendencies that may lead to a democratic deficit in the future are emerging in several European countries. All of this shows how necessary it is to know and attribute meaning to the values that form the basis of our home civilisation.
Reading from Right to Left
We can also approach the subject from the opposite direction—what would happen to European value architecture if we were to demolish it from the top?
Human rights, the keystone of values, would come under attack first. In a world without human rights, we as citizens would still have the right to vote at elections. So-called natural rights—such as the right to life, liberty and bodily integrity—would also remain untouched. Nevertheless, there would be no freedom of speech, opinion or conscience; or religious or journalistic freedom. Such societies were prevalent in Europe before World War II, when state authority organised people’s daily lives to a much greater extent than today and the media were kept under control even in democratic countries.
If we take democracy out of the equation, we would find ourselves in the 19th century, the era of bourgeois revolutions and the formation of nation-states. Ordinary citizens would retain their natural rights, but the right to vote would still be taking baby steps. Most of us (most men and all women) would have no opportunity to participate in the administration of society by influencing legislation or the people heading the state. Our well-being and fate would largely depend on someone else’s decisions.
If the principle of a state based on the rule of law is the next to be discarded, we would no longer have our so-called natural rights. This means that a sovereign authority (a ruler or an institution appointed and authorised by her) can decide over our life and death, freedom and physical punishment, without substantiating the decision in any way. In terms of European history, we would jump back to the 18th century and the time of absolutism, serfdom and corporal punishment.
We would find ourselves in roughly the same pre-Enlightenment era if we gave up the principle of a secular society. In addition to laws issued by a ruler, we would also have to follow religious decrees that would determine our lives on both a personal and a public level, from acquiring an education and a job to choosing a spouse and raising children.
However, even in this relatively dismal situation we would still have some humanist values to discard, e.g. a rational, logical view of life based on healthy scepticism and forethought. Despite all kinds of religious restrictions, this would hold inspiring potential for scientific advance. This situation corresponds to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the first great natural scientists began their work. The rest of us would have no opportunity worthy of mention to improve our lives according to rational principles, let alone to direct them independently.
We would raze our values to the ground by denying humanist thought as such. The concept of an independent and unique individual would disappear with it. In this recreation of “primal innocence” we would only experience order imposed from above and by our superiors, and hold a place and perform duties in an eternal, unchanging system. “Welcome to the Middle Ages!” sounds like a suitable slogan for this.
If we ask what defines a modern European, we can outline some common characteristics. Estonians, Greeks, the Irish and others are made of similar psychological fibre and have a notable capability for mutual understanding thanks to their religious, scientific, legal, artistic, social and erotic values. On this basis, we can tentatively draw the conclusion that a European is not so much a category based on geography, citizenship or racial characteristics as an attitude. First and foremost, this means respecting universal human rights, recognising the principles of democracy and state based on the rule of law, understanding the concept of the separation of church and state, employing rational argumentation in making decisions and subscribing to a general humanist world-view. All of these values may be called European. They have emerged, developed and been realised primarily in Europe, deeply influenced the local cultures and spread to other parts of the world over the centuries.
Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Roman law, Christian ethics, the Renaissance, Humanism, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, technological progress and world wars have contributed to constructing a European value architecture that manifests in the European political system a general European world-view and understanding of the human condition in all its mutability as well as everyone’s personal ideas, perceptions and individual value judgements.
We are somewhere near this point in our value timeline, and no one knows what the future may bring. The dark woods of the human psyche also hide an intolerance of freedom, self-punishment and mental slavery. Historical processes progress in various directions, and attitudes that have been considered out of date may return with a vengeance in certain conditions. As a rule, healthy and viable modern democracies don’t have trouble in deterring external enemies, but we are much more helpless against internal conflicts. It may be that the theocentric world-view is preparing for a comeback in the current liberal and humanist environment.
One thing is for certain. No matter how passionately we argue over values or how much we deride them—or even renounce them completely—such a discussion is only possible in a philosophical culture that acknowledges and applies the humanist world-view.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.