On Civilization and Barbarism

Dr. Mark

Dr. Daniel Mark

One of the best aspects of the undergraduate experience at Dartmouth is our community’s commitment to be intellectually engaged, not only in the classroom but also in a wide array of opportunities around campus. One such opportunity for this came on Tuesday, May 20, in the form of a talk entitled, “Why Can’t We Defeat ISIS: Civilization versus Barbarism in an Age of Democratic Peace,” which was given by Dr. Daniel Mark—a professor of Political Science at Villanova University and an appointed member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In this latter capacity, Professor Mark has researched a wide array of domestic and foreign policies, traveled to parts of Nigeria ravaged by Boko Haram, and made policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. This depth of experience was reflected in Dr. Mark’s public lecture—sponsored by Chabad At Dartmouth—that proved equal parts edifying and thought provoking.

Professor Mark began by asking his audience, “What is courage as a virtue?” After sifting through several possible definitions, Mark turned to Aristotle for an explanation. To Aristotle, courage is the middle path between utter fearlessness and cowardice, “Courage is being brave about the right things at the right time.” After couching courage within the schema of the Aristotelian golden mean, Dr. Mark succinctly used historical examples from our own nation’s founding to argue that courage was and still is an essential aspect of the Western tradition, providing the impetus behind the greatest moments in our history.

But Mark was also quick to note that, “courage is not something that can be taught like a formula, it must be inculcated from a young age.” Courage, for Professor Mark, can be instilled by three methods. First, by learning about the heroes of our own history, society can grow to reflect an appreciation for the virtue of courage through education. Second, courage can be grown through direct practice on an individual and societal level. Finally, and  most importantly for the purposes of his lecture, Mark argued that culture provides us with messages, values, and habits that teach us how to behave.

Mark suggested that we in the West are thus forced to ask if our contemporary democratic culture fosters the development of courage. Though Mark was quick to stipulate that democracy is a net positive, he was wary of the idea that a strictly democratic culture does in any way necessarily entails a courageous one. The mere safeguarding of liberalism cannot by itself preserve or foster a courageous society; Mark sees it necessary to more directly uphold a culture of courage independent of a culture of democracy.

Professor Mark then argued that courage is one several “masculine virtues” that have heretofore been powerful forces in Western culture but have, in the past half century, come under increasing scrutiny and been subject to corrosion. To further illustrate the point, Mark asked the audience to consider two different maritime disasters that happened one hundred years apart; the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and that of the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany. In former, poor and rich men alike sacrificed their lives for the women and children aboard. The tale of the Concordia, however, is awash with anecdotes of men callously pushing their way to the first lifeboats, displaying no regard for the weak in their struggle for survival. “It is easy,” Dr. Mark concluded, “to make the claim that people have, in general, become less willing to sacrifice for the common good.” With the implications of this disquieting argument still hanging in the air, Professor Mark proposed that a civilization should be judged on its treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable constituents. A culture or society is civilized only insofar as it takes into account the wellbeing of its poor and helpless.

But if we have thus defined civilization, what then is its opposite, barbarism? Barbarity, argues Mark, can manifest itself in two forms. The first and most obvious form of societal barbarism is seen when the strong sacrifice the weak to their own ambitions. The second and ultimately no less condemnable form of barbarism occurs when those with the ability to stop the perpetration of evil instead allow it to continue due to fear or apathy. Though the onlookers in this case are not directly harming the weak, they are partly to blame for the deplorable state of the weak, helpless at the hands of their aggressors.

Having both charted a thorough ethical framework as well as highlighted the West’s troubling corrosion of courage in recent history, Professor Mark delved into the most pressing security crisis in the Middle East; the emergence of ISIS. Mark asserted that the United States was unwilling to do more to put an end to ISIS because it was not confident in its own values. But, “the fact that the barbarians do believe in their ideology and they have shown that they are ready to fight and die for it means we can no longer sit idly by.” There was a time when the West, for all its flaws and internal inconsistencies, was ready to put cultural values more directly into foreign and domestic policies. In colonial India, for example, the British put the practice of Suttee—a custom of human sacrifice on the part of a wife upon the death of her husband—to a resounding end. Would such faith in the virtues of Western morality still be championed today over the critiques of cultural and moral relativism?  In order for the West to thrive in the twenty first century, “we need to believe that our civilization is worth defending and we need to have the courage to defend it,” Mark asserted.

Recently, ISIS militants have made tremendous and gains in their apocalyptic war against civilization as we know it. Iraqi Armed Forces, aided by US air support, retreated from the city of Ramadi after an attack by a significantly smaller ISIS force. This unlikely victory in Ramadi—a city less than two hundred miles away from Baghdad—was itself overshadowed by a successful ISIS offensive in Syria in which the caliphate gained control of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where monuments have stood for thousands of years. On Capitol Hill, the process of re-evaluating the current allied strategy in the wake of these defeats has already begun. Some question the Iraqis’ own will to fight while others disparage the US’s continued commitment to a “no-boots-on-the-ground” policy. In a later interview, Professor Mark proposed that while all national policies are an admixture of principle and prudence, the United States must begin with principle when formulating a means of combating ISIS.

The prosperity of our society insulates us from true evil and allows us to become “sublimely unaware” of the dangers around us. We have become, in that way, deprived of a significant way to grow our courage. Alexis de Tocqueville commented that while America’s democratic and egalitarian culture is in many ways commendable, it might also lead to a future dearth of great individuals—exemplars of courageous leadership and virtue—and a preponderance of contented materialists. The extreme evil of ISIS now challenges our society, our culture, and our civilization to rise and fight for those who cannot defend themselves. Whether we will answer this call that remains to be seen.