"The East has the ordeal of privation. The West has the ordeal of desire". Saul Bellow.
It is perhaps the final paradox of the paradoxical age in which we live that while no other has been marked by personal suffering on such a vast scale, yet also in no other have so many agreed that violence and atrocity are controllable in principle. True, most of the appalling bloodshed of our century can be explained as a side effect or function of the technological intensification of modern war, rather than as evidence of increasing wickedness or cynical unwillingness to seek peaceful solutions. Nonetheless, the Western World seems to remain optimistic on one subject, on whom there may be less ground for optimism than any other, the innate improvability of man. Similarly, our belief that a benevolent world order (New World Order) is obtainable seems strangely undisturbed by the colossal spectres looming on the horizon as a result of what has been done so far; we cannot satisfy even basic expectations rapidly enough. There is just not enough power, food, and basic medicine, to go round without redistribution of so dramatic and radical a kind that it cannot be envisaged and would be practically impossible on a reasonable time-scale. Yet desire and envy are outrunning satisfaction.
An even more frightening spectra looms behind that one too. May not the West, have in fact, communicated to the rest of the world expectations which are not merely unsatisfiable in the short run of a couple of decades, but unsatisfiable in principle, because limitlessly expanding beyond our power to meet them. It is not just the colossal demands of the burgeoning populations of poor countries for fuel, food, even water, that are so frightening. (Though there may be actual finite limits to our material resources). What is worse is that the faith that history is progressive may have already led us to set ourselves goals, which are psychologically unattainable. Many people seem already to think that any physical or mental pain ought somehow to be removable. Such assurance is a terrible, and a burdensome legacy of our utopianism and our confidence in the rational manipulation of nature. Perhaps it is the same thing, which has been identified by some, as the "Faustian Urge of Western Man" his relentless striving for power, after power, to open the way to felicity. If the West’s ambiguous gifts to mankind include this, then along with our confidence and self-centeredness, we shall have passed to the rest of the world a bias towards self-destruction.
John Roberts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton is best known for his single-volume, ‘History of the World’. In addition his 1985 thirteen part TV series, ‘The Triumph of the West’.
What are the moral values, basic beliefs, and world outlook, which lie behind all that we see on television, hear on radio, and read in the popular press? All we can detect is a number of assumptions not logically connected, the power of science and the dominating necessity of satisfying physical needs, especially sexual desires, the duty to be tolerant, complete indifference as to any purpose in the universe; science has destroyed metaphysics. There is nothing to do but to enjoy oneself, with as little trouble to others as possible. It is inconceivable that this philosophy could infuse or sustain a civilization for more than a very short time! R P C Hanson, Professor Emeritus, Manchester University.
I think Roberts is right and Hanson wrong. History abounds with examples of really sick societies lasting for hundreds of years, but we do not wish to know about them as it makes us feel uncomfortable.