In a widely noted commentary on the achievements and failures of Sam Francis in the October issue of First Things, author Matthew Rose offers this conclusion:

Francis claimed that he sought only to defend Western culture. It is impossible to believe him. He displayed no feeling for literature, art, music, philosophy, or theology. He did not see, because his ideology prevented him from seeing, that our culture’s greatest achievements have come in pursuit of ideas that transcend human differences. Francis’s failure of gratitude and wonder made him more than incompetent about power. It made him an outsider to his civilization.

It is not my intention to rehash certain questions that have already been asked and satisfactorily answered in Chronicles (see “A Giant Beset by Pygmies” by Tom Piatak in the December number) about my late friend’s supposed lack of “feeling for literature, art, music or theology.” Those of us who knew Sam were in fact impressed by his extensive knowledge of art, music, philosophy, and world history. Rather than being insensitive to theological questions, the Sam Francis I knew was almost obsessed with certain religious matters.

But such differences are for me less relevant than the fact that First Things, which I have long regarded as a pillar of Conservatism, Inc., would publish an article that praises Sam’s achievements as a social thinker. Of those achievements there can be no doubt; and I’m pleased to find a more or less right-of-center publication that has not yet been denounced as a “white” something or other acknowledging Sam Francis’s analytic brilliance.

That said, I find Mr. Rose’s concluding statements to be problematic. If Sam Francis, according to Matthew Rose, remained trapped in an “ideology” that “prevented him from seeing that our culture’s greatest achievements have come in pursuit of ideas that transcend human differences,” I’ll have to come down somewhere in the middle on this debate. There are certainly aspects of our greatest cultural achievements that have transcendent value in the sense that at least some non-Westerners can appreciate them. One may even find instances where the achievements of older civilizations are taken over by successor civilizations that incorporate them, while adapting them to their own needs and concerns.

For example, the Germanic tribes that selectively incorporated classical civilization while adopting Roman Christianity were perpetuating a culture that had been tied to a collapsing ancient empire. But what they took over and adapted assumed a different appearance from an older (but also changing) classical culture. The synthetic culture that Europeans created for themselves in the Middle Ages was the work of a largely post-Roman world which generated its own form of a religion that had both classical and Hebraic roots. We might therefore apply in this case Goethe’s concept of Dauer im Wechsel (permanence in change).

At the same time, we may also want to view things through Sam Francis’s lenses, which caused him to believe that cultural adaptation resulted in something quite distinct from what it selectively replaced. Was Hellenistic Greek culture a “continuation” of the culture produced by the Greek polis of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.; or was it something essentially different, say, an experiment in grafting the Greek tongue, and the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer on to a Middle Eastern and Asian society with a decidedly non-Greek past? Although I’ve studied with pleasure Hellenistic philosophers, theologians, and historians, I recognize that what they brought forth as a culture differed in character from what was produced by the Athenian society of the fifth century B.C.

I would note that there are cultural exceptions to Sam’s observation, which he took from (I would guess) the philosopher of history Oswald Spengler. One does find figures from foreign cultures and exotic ethnicities who are now championing European nations that have fallen into a moral crisis. The black African cardinal, Robert Sarah, and an Algerian Jew, Éric Zemmour, both speak for a traditional France, one for its religious heritage and the other for its nationalist tradition, in a way that few indigenous Frenchmen are now doing. Turkish-born writer Akif Pirinçci has defended the German nation and culture against the morbid self-hatred of Germany’s native population. Even when threatened with criminal charges, Pirinçci and Zemmour have both criticized indiscriminate immigration policies and linked them justifiably to the low esteem in which Western European peoples now hold themselves.

Undoubtedly Zemmour and Pirinçci love their adopted lands far more than do the vast majority of those whose ancestors were born in France and Germany. But these figures are the admirable exceptions to a rule. More often than not, those who come from different cultures and societies are not particularly impressed by what Mr. Rose describes as the transcendent value of the host country’s civilizational achievements. More often than not, these immigrants have trouble relating to a world that they regard as the Other. Often these newcomers rally, like the Turks in Germany, the North African Muslims in France, and the Pakistanis in Britain, to the social and cultural left, which seeks to erase the inherited identity of the countries where the immigrants have settled. Of course, by then the autochthons on the left have usually taken the lead in eradicating their own cultural and social inheritance.

This lack of identification may result from cultural distance, not just from social alienation. Although social morals may be seen to some extent as transcultural (until very recently marriage everywhere was thought to be between members of opposite sexes), peoples do develop differently, and this difference can be discerned, inter alia, in what they understand to be high culture. Try teaching an Ashanti or Ndebele tribesman to appreciate Bach’s fugues or Dante’s Divine Comedy. His cultural frame of reference would be so different from that of his Western instructor that the instructor wouldn’t get very far in his endeavor, unless his student had first received and was able to appreciate a traditional Western education from a very young age. A difficulty in comprehension may exist for a Westerner, but here the cultural distance would not be nearly as great, to whatever extent Westerners have preserved their inherited culture and way of life.

Civilizations evolve among distinctive peoples who bring forth their achievements within specific circumstances, and a variety of factors may be preconditions for this process. Geographical, genetic, social, organizational, and religious factors—and even contiguity to older, already-formed civilizations—contribute to the creation of a civilization. Such factors all play their role in helping produce what is of transcendent value. Not any people or ethnicity could have given the world what just about every Western nation has; and what the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans gave us earlier as a civilizational foundation. Though we may proclaim these achievements to be “universal,” they do have localizable starting points. Until fairly recently, when our own civilization went into free fall, Western cultural achievements resonated best among those peoples who shared a Western heritage and whose ancestors were the creators and perpetuators of what they were celebrating.

It was the unwillingness of would-be conservatives to acknowledge such facts, often out of fear of being attacked by the left, which drove Sam Francis toward the end of his life into taking biologically determinist positions. These stances were certainly overstated and did not help his journalistic career, but they were understandable as a reaction to the timidity exhibited by Conservatism, Inc.

Let me therefore state a truism that may go against the ostrich-like strategy of those whom Sam was reacting against. True universals are tied to particularity and manifest themselves in the achievements of already-formed peoples. These universals do present an aspect (let us call it a transcendent one) which can reach beyond particular communities, but great works are also indissolubly tied to specific peoples and cultures.

The philosopher Hegel summed up this relationship well when he spoke of the concrete universal form in which we grasp what we recognize as transcending the limitations of our own time and place. This is different from an “abstract universal,” in which neither the universal nor the particular has any intrinsic connection to its complement. What is therefore of transcendent value also has a necessary formative connection to a people or community.

Exceptions may exist for religious mystics, as philosophers since Plato have pointed out, but for the rest of us, the transcendent is always linked to who we are as part of an ancestral whole. Although the cult of multiculturalism and those who police our educational system may soon get rid of this inheritance, to whatever extent they succeed they will destroy what is uniquely Western and culturally admirable about Westerners.

Hereditary factors contribute to our collective awareness, but they are far from the only ones that account for civilizations. Europeans on average may have slightly lower cognitive ability than, say, Koreans, but their cultural genius seems undeniable. This may be related to a number of factors going beyond raw intelligence, like religious inheritance, the value placed on creativity, and the happy situation that allowed Europeans to incorporate creatively the legacies of older civilizations. The emergence of freedom as a Western value because of certain circumstances, for example, the division of ecclesiastical and secular powers, Germanic tribal law, and a classical and biblical inheritance, also influenced a milieu in which Western creativity could unfold. One need not deny hereditarianism to recognize that many other conditions were necessary to produce those achievements that Mr. Rose properly praises. But one should concede for the sake of honesty that a wide range of particularities provided the necessary soil for these accomplishments.