The Case Against “Western Civilization”

After giving it long and serious thought, I have decided to come out against “Western Civilization.”

I’m sure I’m not fooling any of my longtime readers with this. You know this doesn’t mean what it might seem to mean, and you have probably already noticed that I used quotation marks around “Western Civilization.” I am, obviously, not against Western Civilization as a phenomenon, as a set of ideas and values. But I’ve decided it’s time to move on from the term “Western Civilization,” which is increasingly obsolete and was always a bit vague and misleading to begin with.

Let’s start with its obsolescence. The idea of “the West” as representing a unique cultural achievement in contrast to the rest of the world has ancient roots, going back to the Greeks’ contrast between their own civilization and that of the Eastern “barbarians” of the Persian Empire. But the phrase “Western civilization” or “Western culture” is mostly a product of the past few centuries, as a way of contrasting the unique cultural heritage of Europe against that of other parts of the world and particularly against more primitive cultures with whom Europeans came into contact.

This is the part that has become obsolete, in much the same way that the term “Third World,” which you still hear a few people throwing around these days, is a relic of the Cold War era. If there is a distinctive culture of reason, science, individualism, free markets, and representative government that used to distinguish “the West,” it is clear that this has long since stopped being exclusive to any region. These ideas may have been mostly European in their origins (with contributions from North Africa and the Near East), but they have since spread over too much of the earth to still be defined in geographic terms. India is a rising scientific and technological powerhouse; Southeast Asia is a center of trade and industrialism; the fiercest battle for political freedom is currently being fought in Hong Kong. And since the gap between “West” and “East” was once supposed to include the “despotic” cultures of Eastern Europe, I should note that the second-fiercest battle for freedom is being fought in Belarus, who are borrowing tactics from Hong Kong.

You could argue that the people in these areas have become “Westernized,” but by the same token, you could also argue that the ideas and values they adopted have become de-Westernized by being spread over the rest of the globe. That raises the question of why they were called “Western” in the first place.

The 19th and early 20th Centuries were an era of racial essentialism, where “Western” was frequently used as a genteel way of referring to the white race. But the fact that European culture and its key components are not racially exclusive is too obvious by now to be worth the bother of refuting—just look around you. In fact, the main place where this kind of racial essentialism still retains a firm foothold is among the “woke” progressives who rail against Western Civilization.

That leads me to my deeper reason for thinking that the term “Western Civilization” is not that useful. For every idea that you might want to consider distinctive to Western Civilization, and under threat in today’s Politically Correct backlash, ask yourself: Who originated the arguments against it? The answer is always: another western intellectual. If freedom and individual rights are a “Western” value, who developed (and then exported) history’s most dangerous totalitarian systems? A bunch of white guys in central Europe. Who developed the Modernist and Postmodernist assaults on reason and science? Immanuel Kant, and the many European intellectuals who followed in his footsteps. On Columbus Day—or “Indigenous People’s Day”—you probably saw the whole “woke” set go into the streets to condemn Western Civilization. Where did they get their ideas from? A bunch of European philosophers, mostly French and German, who created the field of “critical theory.”

The “Western” tradition is not one set of ideas and values. It contains many opposing sets of ideas. For every good idea we want to preserve, the West has spawned a whole reactionary school of thought dedicated to arguing against that idea. So calling something “Western” is curiously nonspecific and misleading.

I suspect, by the way, that this kind of sleight of hand was part of the idea in the first place. “Western Civilization” was such a broad, catchall term that it could incorporate opposites, and you can see how such a blurring of the lines would fit with certain ideological agendas. Conservatives, for example, tend to use “Western Civilization” as a stand-in for “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” to which they attribute achievements that owe a lot more to the Greco-Roman tradition.

“Western Civilization” replaced a previous, even more obsolete term for the same general idea: “Christendom.” Prior to the Enlightenment, the thing that was supposed to make Europeans superior to the world’s other peoples was their adoption of Christianity. It was only in the Enlightenment that this was replaced as the essence of the “Western” tradition with more abstract and philosophical ideas that owed a larger debt to the pre-Christian Classical thinkers.

That leads me to what I want to propose as a replacement for “Western Civilization”: Enlightenment Civilization.

“Western Civilization” is simultaneously not universal enough—it doesn’t encompass the many people outside the geographic West who adopt its ideas—and not specific enough: It doesn’t name the particular ideas that are the source of the West’s cultural achievements. Remember that this is why the concept of the “the West” has been so important. The main reason we want to talk about “the West” is that in the past few hundred years, Western Europe and America did something very extraordinary. We took off toward a new and unprecedented level of knowledge, technological progress, prosperity, power, and a vast and sustained improvement in the condition of the average person. But this takeoff coincided specifically with the ideas and values of the Enlightenment.

The concept of “the Enlightenment” contains and includes everything that came before it, including the Classical tradition and its revival in the Renaissance—and yes, also the influence of Christianity, in some good ways and a few bad ways. But it goes beyond that to capture a specific set of ideas and aspirations, including a confidence in reason and observation as guides to truth; an emphasis on the individual and the pursuit of happiness as the central goals of life; liberty and representative government as political ideals. It also invites us to consider the contrast between these ideals and other equally “Western” schools of thought that opposed them, such as the Romantics, the Modernists, and most of all today, the Postmodernists.

While being more specific, Enlightenment Civilization is also more universal. It refers to an intellectual movement and a set of ideals, not to a people or a place, which makes it easier to recognize the spread of those ideals beyond their original place.

You will notice that I find myself drawn toward talking about Enlightenment “ideals” instead of “ideas.” Enlightenment offered many different variation on the specific philosophical ideas that supported their worldview, and these ideas often fell short. But they were very clear about their intellectual aspirations.

That leads me to the final reason to move beyond the term “Western Civilization”: It is too complacent. If it is not flexible enough to accommodate the spread of Enlightenment ideals outside the West, it also makes too many assumptions about their automatic continuance within the West.

Part of the reason I decided to write about this is that I’ve been seeing some of the anti-woke liberal intellectuals beginning to talk about it. This is their way of countering the far left’s attack on Enlightenment ideals as some kind of European imperialism by describing those ideals a more universal terms.

One of these intellectuals is the British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who makes the point about the dangers of this kind of complacency.

Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the West, however you define it, being Western, provides no guarantee that you will care about Western civilization. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of “the West” because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a Western destiny.

The term Enlightenment Civilization captures that in one particular way. “Enlightenment” is not merely a heritage to be handed down. It is a goal or an aspiration, and it invites us not merely to preserve the work of the Enlightenment but to carry on its inquiries and raise them to a higher level of perfection.

It is the name, not just for an era from the past, but for a new era of the future into which we can move forward, if we choose to do so.

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