Just as one trait becomes a virtue as it works harmoniously with other traits towards achievement of the good on a personal level, so there are multiple strands within real Western Civilization that come together – Christianity is one strand, another is Stoicism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, and so on. These strands can balance and enhance each other – when used in the proper way together, they can help to bring about a virtuous civilization, i.e., achieve the good. They can be complementary or synergistic, and indeed, my guess is that this synergy is part of what makes Western Civilization as important as it has been.
The problem isn’t access to information – the public library, Amazon, AbeBooks, electronic books, and so on, have made that problem for most people a minor part of the equation.
Rather, the problems are 1) motivation (why should one invest time and energy in building one’s understanding of the world, trying to tackle difficult problems, and so on), and 2) getting guidance on exactly what one should be focusing on (finding the right material to focus on at the right time).
Given this, one can see why answers like ‘books’ or ‘the internet’ are not real answers. It is not books but the right books at the right time approached in the right way, and so on.
What to read? If you are going to add to the (real) Western tradition, how do you get started and figure out what to read, and so on (whether at the outset or in media res)?
One answer is with standardized curricula. Big books that one plods through, set out at the beginning. The idea here is that an expert already knows how best for you to approach an aspect of Western tradition.
Obviously, experts are useful in this area. However, I think the Christian perspective can add something to this. Discernment.
Just as Christianity is in part habitually asking God for guidance, listening for that guidance, and acting upon it (and improving one’s ability to do these things – collectively known as the practice of ‘discernment’), one can apply this habit to reading, exploring, and building upon Western Civilization.
This can apply to all of education (and has points of contact with ‘free learning’ or ‘unschooling’ movements), where a focus on developing a relationship with God and listening to what He is guiding you to explore is what fuels the educational flame, instead of curricula that are often set by bureaucrats.
Within the Christian practice of discernment, there are various tools available to figure out how to move forward with one’s education. For examples, keep a lookout for things that catch a certain element of fascination within you – that ‘call’ to you. Similarly, keep a lookout for non-chance coincidences where a certain idea or element recurs or strikes you in a significant way. And so on.
This isn’t to say curricula set up for exploring the classical Western tradition (say), or for learning a language, and so on, aren’t useful. Of course they are! It is to say that one should, from a Christian perspective, all the same be listening for prompts from God. It turns out that navigating the terrain of education is a very complex task, one which ought to (from the Christian perspective) be made more effective by working with prompts from God.
In a discussion between Ralph Waldo Trine (a prominent New Thought Christian of his time) and Henry Ford (the most prominent industrialist of his time) (The Power that Wins, 1928), Trine laments the lack of usefulness in much of schooling at the time – in particular, he mentions learning Latin.
Here’s a problem with Trine’s thinking, with which I am sympathetic in broad outline (education should be useful), but which we can see in retrospect was flawed. Learning Latin at the time led to reading certain Latin texts about philosophy, history, theology, and so on. (Similarly with ancient Greek, Hebrew, and so on.)
Learning Latin was actually about learning about certain texts, and so connecting whoever learnt the language into that stream of civilization. Roughly speaking, there is no civilization without core stories. Remove those stories, you remove the civilization.
This is what has happened. Following on the kind of advice Trine gave, and so without a familiarity with the stories, we have removed ourselves to a significant extent from what was known as Western Civilization. For a long time, certain texts in certain languages developed the core of the tradition which flowered in science, art, exploration, commerce, and so on.
It might make sense to remove that core if you have another, equally or more so rich civilizational tradition to plug into its place. Something, perhaps, like Chinese civilization, with its deep and varied texts, figures, artistic traditions, and so on.
Here’s the problem. We have no replacement. Perhaps those at the time thought they would replace that lineament with something completely new, made up of science, the enlightenment, and so on. Yet, civilizations don’t work like that.
We now have something else, but we don’t really have a term for what we now have. People still refer to it as ‘Western Civilization’.
So, there’s a fairly stark choice. On the one hand, reject the current nothingness and connect to a real civilizational current – the most natural choice would be what was called the Western one, although other traditions could do if one felt so called – or collapse into a shallow civilization that really can’t do what it’s supposed to (such as modern, commercialized pop. civilization). Simply put, collapse into a ‘dark age’, which is what we are currently in and heading furthermore into as a society.
To put things another way, any given person has extremely limited time, so it’s probably a good idea to try to figure out which texts, and so on, are most important to oneself, and then start to explore and build on them.
It is interesting to note that Latin has been replaced with such highly useful subjects as … calculus! Classics in the Western tradition have been replaced with ‘new classics’ – which seem to me almost all obviously inferior texts that won’t stand the test of time.
One advantage of speaking the English language is that much of what is important in Western Civilization has been translated, repeatedly and to a high standard, so one can get started without a detailed knowledge of the source languages.