But it's also possible to recognise the survival in the West of certain pre-modern ideals; these originated in the Middle Ages and lasted until at least the 1920s. I suspect that some of the previous dynamism of the West can be attributed to these ideals.
So what were they? Well, what we are talking about is a fusion between the aristocratic virtues of the European nobility and Christianity. In Christianity there is an emphasis on service to one's fellow man, including those who are poor or defenceless. And so the strength of the Christian nobleman was aimed at defending the weak (widows, children, the elderly) and also at carrying out the duties and obligations we have in our relationships (fidelity), which included being a protector of church and nation. Faith, loyalty and courage were considered key virtues.
I will reluctantly describe this ethos of the Middle Ages as "chivalry." It's not the best term to use as it is now mostly understood to mean men supplicating to women, which was the least attractive aspect of medieval chivalry.
Chivalry as I have described it remained part of the mix of Western culture over the centuries. For instance, consider the criteria set out by Cecil Rhodes for his Oxford scholarships in 1902:
Founder Cecil Rhodes' criteria were all-encompassing: literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one's talents to the fullest, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak; kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.
Men raised along these lines were not going to be passive, individualistic, liberal weaklings; they were brought up to be strong, dutiful and loyal - and to lead. If the ruling element in society was made up of such men, then it is likely that such a society would flourish.
It is my belief that getting back to this longstanding part of the Western tradition is one of our challenges. However, this has to be done carefully, taking into consideration:
i) what aspects of the tradition were unworthy
ii) why chivalry in its positive form declined
iii) how it can give rise to negative consequences
I don't want to make this post too long, so I'll leave a discussion of these points to a future post.