Western Civilization in a Nutshell

Norman Berdichevsky

Review of the book El hombre razonable y otros ensayos by Joaquina Pires-O’Brien. Beccles, UK, KDP, 2016. Available at Amazon.com.

The announcement of the adoption of the new word ‘post-truth’ by the writers of the Oxford dictionary on 16 November 2016 came out days after the publication of an e-book in Portuguese called O homem razoável e outros ensaios, already translated into Spanish (El hombre razonable y otros ensayos) – a collection of 23 essays on some of the most defining, as well as, controversial aspects of Western Civilization. The timing of the two events shows that the author is indeed well attuned with Western Civilization and its hurdles. This is due to the fact that one of the essays of this book deals specifically with Post-Modernism, the doctrine or mind-set from where the word ‘post-truth’ originated. Besides Post-Modernism, this book covers other contemporary themes such as liberal education, the two cultures (the chasm between science and the arts and humanities) and 9/11 as well as some timeless themes such as utopia, love and man’s attachment to myth. The author, Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian resident in the U.K., is the editor in chief of PortVitoria, the on-line biannual magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora, whose articles appear in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

The essay with the most difficult subject – in any language – is precisely the one that talks about post-modernism, described through its fascination with the concept of ‘narratives’; i.e. the plaything of many in the media – an attitude of scepticism or distrust towards ideologies, and various tenets of rational thought, including the existence of objective reality, truth, and the existing notions of progress. Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political interpretation. The author’s preoccupation with the threat of post-modernism is not unwarranted. The term ‘post-truth’ adopted by the authors of the Oxford dictionary in 2016 captures the post-modernist idea that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations’. If there is no truth, science and other major elements of modern Western Civilization like its literary cannon are irrelevant.

The title of the book is taken from the first essay, which deals with a hypothetical ‘reasonable man’ that is enshrined in civil and contract law in Britain and the United States, although lacking a precise definition. Such ‘a reasonable man’ – without the definite article as in Spanish and Portuguese or ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ in British folklore, represents a person with common sense whose opinion is taken as the public opinion, and is valued in a number of particular instances such as how a person should behave in situations that might pose a threat (through action or inaction) to others. There is no need to establish a malicious intent and that this composite fictional character also is likely to commit ‘reasonable errors’ according to the circumstances and as such, is a matter of ethics. There is indeed much food for thought on how much our legal systems in the West, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries, are a function of a distinct tradition. One learns from the essay that the concept of the reasonable man goes back to antiquity, to the concept of phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’ of the ancient Greeks. To Socrates phronesis was the ability to discern how and why one should act virtuously, while Aristotle, and in the eve of the Modern Age, Spinoza, defined it as the capacity to think logically. The quality of a society depends on its human wealth, measured by the proportion of ‘reasonable citizens’. The theme of law reappears in another essay which deals with the crime of ‘affray’ – using or threatening to use unlawful violence towards another such that would cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ present at the scene to fear for their own personal safety. The etymology of the word ‘affray’ is explained showing that it goes back to a word in Proto-Germanic that has a Proto-Indo-European root.

Several essays are about influential thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Jacques Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig and George Orwell. The essay entitled ‘The philosopher of liberty’ is about Hayek, notoriously out of favour among left-wing critics of the affluent modern societies and their economic policies. Hayek was one of the few who did not loose faith in capitalism in the aftermath of the Black Friday of November 1929. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), which turned out to be a best-seller, Hayek explained the misconceptions around the economic system of capitalism and highlighted the value of the freedom to use one’s enterprise and abilities to further oneself; most of all, he clarified that democracy is not an end value but only a means to achieve liberty. The Constitution of Liberty is another great book of Hayek, even though it was not a best-seller. Hayek was greatly admired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once took the book The Constitution of Liberty to a session in Parliament and banged on the dispatch box saying at the same time: “This is what we believe”. Another personality I single out is George Orwell (Eric Blair), author of 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London, who is covered in two essays, one being a critical summary of Orwell`s life and the other describing the powerful metaphors of his book 1984.

The author’s past career in Brazil, as a research botanist with a PhD in forest ecology, is revealed in an essay about the ill-fated ‘Floram Project’, a reforestation programme. She based her account on the archives of the Institute for advanced studies of the University of Sao Paulo (IEA/USP) as well as on her personal memory. In this essay she shows how the Floram Project was conceived and the undeserved public maligning that caused the private sector investors to withdraw their support. The derailment of Project Floram is symptomatic of one of the major issues of our time – global warming. As Pires-O’Brien correctly concludes…’The project is an example of the constant debate between the reality and the ideal.’

One essay that is short and sharp deals with culture and cultural relativism, tracing the new meaning given to the word culture by some anthropologists and sociologists, and showing its connection to cultural relativism. The remainder essays deal with the great ideas that flourished in the West and helped to shape Western civilization – the Bible, paradise, utopia, life-long learning, love, a healthy mind in a healthy body and liberal education, as well as its current greatest challenges and threat: post-modernism and Islamic extremism. Although it is an eclectic collection of essays, there is a common denominator in the struggle of reason versus unreason.

Last but not least, the author tackles the Islamist extremism responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the use of jihad as the means to political power. This comes in the form of a series of Questions and Answers dealing not only with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks but also with a number of relevant topics about the Islamic religion: fundamentalism, the history of the conspirators and their motivation, the nature of the Koran, the inter-Arab and inter-Muslim Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries, jihad, Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim brotherhood, the aspiration for a caliphate and the beliefs of the majority of ordinary Muslims who are not Islamists, as well as the failure, lack of cooperation and naïve assumptions of American intelligence agencies. All these things are explained with clarity and without exaggeration.

This is a book to read and reread to help put diverse but crucial ideas in order and perspective. As a reviewer whose first language is English and has a good reading knowledge of Spanish, I found the Spanish text eminently readable, clear, precise, light and both entertaining and informative. The style is of the kind that engages the reader’s attention and does not ‘wander’ or ‘plod’ as is frequently the case with similar narratives embracing two dozen diverse provocative themes that are nevertheless well connected.

To date, the book has appeared in Portuguese and in Spanish and there is a hint in the Preface that an English translation is not in the frame: “The repertory of the themes covered is already well known in the countries situated at the core of Western Civilization, but not in the countries of its fringe. The objective of the present collection is to contribute to correct this distortion”. Although this is probably true, I believe that even in the English language there is a gap in the literature for such a concise analysis showing the ideas that shaped Western Civilization and those which are a threat to it. It is my fervent hope that an English edition will soon fill this gap. This is a valuable book that should be required reading for entering university students in all the fields of history, philosophy, the social sciences and international relations


Dr Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays. He is on the Board of Editors of PortVitoria.

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