The study of history includes the study of what people usually call ‘Western Civilization.’ Central individuals, events, and movements are included under this heading: Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Mozart; Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Botticelli; Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, and Libertarianism; Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Adams; the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution; the abolition of slavery, the concept of universal suffrage, freedom of speech and press, and the value of the individual human life.
Clearly, even this partial list of Western Civilization’s products is impressive. This magnificence leads the reader to ask, “What is Western Civilization?”
Whatever Western Civilization may be, the designation ‘Western’ is misleading. There is nothing a priori about the compass direction which creates such a society. A look at the map shows that ‘Western’ culture is scattered in various directions around the globe.
Consider: Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, is west of Athens; the mouth of the Congo River, flowing into the Atlantic, is west of Vienna; Dakar, Senegal is west of London. No, there is nothing ‘western’ about Western Civilization.
One attempt to define ‘Western Civilization’ is offered by historian Victor Davis Hanson:
What do we mean by the West? Roughly speaking, we refer to the culture that originated in Greece, spread to Rome, permeated Northern Europe, was incorporated by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, spread through British expansionism, and is associated today primarily with Europe, the United States, and the former commonwealth countries of Britain — as well as, to some extent, nations like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which have incorporated some Western ideas.
Hanson’s attempt to articulate the essence of Western Civilization is noble, but perhaps incomplete. To it should be added that culture which emerged in Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C., and which settled in the Levant before spreading further.
But beyond its extent in physical geography, the content of Western Civilization is more relevant to historical study, as Hanson continues:
And what are Western ideas? This question is disputed, but I think we know them when we see them. They include a commitment to constitutional or limited government, freedom of the individual, religious freedom in a sense that precludes religious tyranny, respect for property rights, faith in free markets, and an openness to rationalism or to the explanation of natural phenomena through reason.
Perhaps alternative names can shed light on this society: the terms ‘European Culture’ and the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ are nearly synonymous, if not perfectly so, with ‘Western Civilization.’
Each of these names has its flaws: the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ arose in the Middle East, and is in Europe an alien influence, which has gradually made its home there after a millennium or two.
In the modern and postmodern eras, the values of the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ have been appropriated by Hindus and Buddhists, by atheists and secularists, and by a broad range of other belief systems, who now use those distinctive Judeo-Christian concepts to offer a critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Likewise, although many of the core values of Western Civilization found their birthplaces in Europe, a culture which is now in the Americas, in Australia, and in regions of Asia and Africa can hardly be given the geographical designation ‘European.’
These ideas were combined in various ways through Western history, and eventually brought us to where we are today. The resultant system creates more prosperity and affluence than any other.
A concrete example of Western Civilization at work shows us the effects which it has on both nations and individuals. Why was it that Mahatma Gandhi’s years on England were formative for his outlook? How did that British influence allow Gandhi to then travel to Africa and work there?
Gandhi was neither a Jew nor a Christian nor a European. Yet he is, in some ways, an example of Western Civilization. He was shaped by thinkers like John Locke and Edmund Burke, and he carried their influence to India and Africa.
Western Civilization has certainly failed, in some places and at some times, to live up to its own ideals. We must be clear that Western Civilization has committed a list of misdeeds. But those misdeeds are identifiable only in terms of its own values.
If Western Civilization has trespassed by occasionally failing to rein in those individuals who might want to commit acts of torture, then it violated its own distinctive and peculiar code which separates it from other civilizations: other civilizations which not only find nothing wrong with torture, but which are rather founded upon torture, and whose members publicly demand it and approve of it.
If Western Civilization has done wrong by not giving legal and social equality to women, then it failed to uphold its proprietary ethic to which it gave birth. Other civilizations make no pretense of even speaking of such equality, but rather operate axiomatically on an inequality between the genders and on the exploitation of one gender by the other.
So it is that Western Civilization is flawed and imperfect. Yet it also carries uniquely within itself those very ideals by which it is judged as flawed and imperfect. As Hanson phrases it,
And of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there was Jeffersonian democracy in 13th century England or in the Swiss cantons. But the blueprint for free government always existed in the West, in a way that it didn’t elsewhere.
Because ‘western’ ideas and ideals have spread across the globe, criticism of the ‘West’ itself now comes from Africa and Asia. Any meaningful or significant criticism which might be directed against the ‘West’ is in fact a product of the West.
Certain regions in Africa and Asia articulate thoroughly Marxist viewpoints: in so doing, they manifest that they have been schooled by a 19th-century German Jew who later lived in London.
Whether or not accusations about imperialism and torture are true, it was from the ‘West’ that other civilizations learned to identify imperialism and torture as somehow ‘wrong’ - they shed their inherited values to embrace ‘Western’ ones.
Whether it’s called ‘Western Civilization’ or ‘European Culture’ or the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition,’ it’s difficult to define. But its effects are clearly visible and conspicuous.