Friday, July 7, 2017

The Quest: Defining ‘Western Civilization’

Classes titled ‘History’ or ‘Social Studies’ often make reference to ‘Western Civilization,’ yet the exact referent of that term remains elusive. What is Western Civilization? Attempting to clarify, historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

I mean the thing both liberals and conservatives alike have celebrated for hundreds of years since words like “liberal” and “conservative” had any relevance to politics.

Indeed, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have a long and convoluted history, each coming to mean near its opposite at times. The direction on the compass is not relevant: the “West” is, first, a relative term: any point on a map has a relative location to any other point, but none of that has anything to do with culture, society, or civilization.

Secondly, the “West” was born in the “East” - Hammurabi and Moses, the two founders of civil law, were nowhere near Europe, as Goldberg notes:

the West has largely been defined by Christianity, but who can deny that? Though let’s not forget that Christianity itself was born in what used to be called the Orient (ditto Judaism).

This observation segues neatly to the next: whatever “Western” civilization is, it’s not something exclusively Christian. The word ‘Christian’ demands an entire discussion of its definition, but in any case, many individuals who are by their own declaration not Christians - those who are atheists or Hindus or Buddhists - have long since come to embrace “Western” values.

Part of the “Western” mindset is xenophilia: the fascination and affection for that which is ‘other’ or different:

even in the earliest days when Western Civilization was not particularly civilized, it was borrowing from other cultures. That’s a huge part of what makes Western Civilization so special. Sure, it’s got its history of bigotries, atrocities, and other sins — quick, tell me which civilization or society doesn’t? — but a central part of the West’s modus operandi has been to sift through what is best in other cultures and our own and appropriate it or modify it. The West, historically, has been more interested in other cultures and civilizations than any other. Celebrating our long history of open-minded curiosity and tolerance is not closed-minded bigotry>

Western society has a long list of failures and mistakes in its past, but it has demonstrated a dogged persistence in its effort to correct those errors. One characteristic feature of the West is self-criticism.

The willingness to point out its own inconsistencies and its own hypocrisies is a distinctive feature of the West.

The West uniquely rejected concepts such as torture and slavery - while other cultures celebrated them and designated them as foundational. But the West went even further: when it violated its own tenants, when it embraced that which it had declared to be evil, it exercised self-examination:

Slavery is a human universal, appearing in every culture around the world. What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values.

It will always be difficult to define ‘Western’ civilization, but at least four points are obvious: an emphasis on the individual; an emphasis on liberty and freedom; an emphasis on self-criticism; and an emphasis on xenophilia.

Western civilization cannot be limited to territory on a map: wherever a passion for individual political liberty emerges, Western civilization is there. Wherever something resembling the concept of ‘property rights’ emerges, Western civilization is there.