What is most needed at this hour is a retrieval of the sources which shaped the Western imagination. Returning to our Christian, Greek, and Roman roots, and examining the texts and ideas which provided the foundation for the remarkable civilisation that spread across the European continent could bear real fruit in strengthening our ailing cultures.
“Western civilisation”, along with related terms like “the West”, are increasingly fixtures in public discourse and debate. The eruption of violence, protest, and civil disorder in the United States has caused some commentators to claim that we are seeing the end of “the West”. In Australia, the implementation of an endowed course of study explicitly devoted to “Western Civilisation” at three public universities has been the cause of persistent controversy in recent years.
And yet the concept of “the West” lacks a precise definition. It is notoriously difficult to pin down precisely what Western civilisation might be.
Misconceptions of “the West”
Before turning to more positive descriptions of “Western civilisation”, I feel that some common misconceptions about “the West” first need to be put aside. At the risk oversimplification, we will categorise them as misconceptions from the left and misconceptions from the right.
Thinkers, writers, activists, and journalists on the political and cultural left often characterise “the West” as a civilisation which has perpetuated a series of injustices. In other words, Western civilisation is defined by its evils. For instance, Van Badham wrote this about the West in The Guardian back in 2018:
When not applied to discussions of city plumbing and poetry readings, the words “western civilisation” denote a racist colonial project to crush, change, enslave, eradicate or genocidally erase other cultures. To “civilise” is a verb that divorces people from the values of their own community and indoctrinates them into another’s. Historical rhetoric polarises the “civilised” westerner as superior to the dehumanised “savages”, “primitives” and “barbarians” of the term’s late 18th-19th century common use.
According this framework, the West is marked by the perpetuation of economic injustice (feudalism and capitalism), social injustice (patriarchy and racism), sexual injustice (repression of LGBTQ people and patriarchy again), and religious injustice (Christianity). We could characterise this position as defining the West by every bad cultural and political feature that happened to emerge from the western parts of the Eurasian continent. In short, Western civilisation is both oppressive and repressive.
On the other hand, we have the distorted picture of the West coming from the darker corners of the political and cultural right. This group defines the West in highly idealistic and ideological terms. They have a white, Anglo-Teutonic understanding of Western culture. They often like philosophers like Nietzsche and composers like Wagner. The West is an aesthetic: grand castles, well-attired monarchs, dramatic scenes depicted in paintings of European glory, and awe-inspiring opera overtures.
Indeed, I would argue that the West is an aesthetic for both right and left. For those on the left, the West is aesthetic of past and present oppression. They delight in tearing down the West as associated with anything that they dislike. For those on the right, the West is an aesthetic of lost grandeur. They praise the West for anything that they appreciate. For both, the West is utilised as a tool for their own political agenda.
The problem is that neither the West of the left nor the right exists in reality. The ever-oppressive, patriarchal West of left-wing social justice warriors is a figment of their imagination. No doubt there have been grave injustices perpetrated by Westerners, and Western civilisation could be characterised as patriarchal (along with basically every other civilisation and society in history). But to suggest that oppression and injustice are primary markers of Western civilisation is reductionistic and simplistic.
Likewise, the corners of the internet that see Europe as a grand, glorious, shining white monarchical, Christian civilisation, with armoured knights riding through green pastures to meet the incoming barbarian hordes, all to the soundtrack of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, are wrong for different reasons. Sure, in many ways the civilisation that emerged after the fifth century in western Europe was the site of many of the great triumphs of human culture, and there is something compelling about the dynamic cultural achievements across the past two millennia in western societies.
But the fact is that neither of these “Wests” exists, and they never have. There is no pure oppressive West and there is no pure paleo-Greek Christian West. They can’t be located in history with any reliability. In the end, both of these interpretations of the West are driven by an unhealthy aesthetic nostalgia on both sides.
Conceptions of Western Civilisation
Where do we turn to find non-ideological conceptions of Western civilisation that are not dogged by aesthetic nostalgia? How can we frame Western civilisation in de-politicised terms? One salutary example comes from the historian Christopher Dawson. According to Dawson, the West is a consequence of the spiritual vitality that is borne of the Christian faith—a religious restlessness which seeks change and progress within a stable overarching cosmic framework.
Dawson argues in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture that Western culture had as its lifeblood “a living faith which gave Europe a certain sense of spiritual community”. This lifeblood also gave it a “dynamism” which manifested itself in the “indirect and unconscious influence [Christianity] exercised on the social and intellectual movements which were avowedly secular.”
Dawson further points out that there never was a single unitary organisation which held sway over all of life in the West. And yet the most dominant institution, the Church, contributed substantially to the spiritual vitality and spiritual unity upon which the culturally dynamic West relied. Rather than being politically domineering, Dawson asserts that the Church ensured there would never be a unitary power to override all other forms of social existence. For Dawson, Christianity fought against stagnant uniformity and set the foundations for a vibrant Western culture.
The eminent classicist Donald Kagan is exemplary of a different way of framing the West. In a lecture at Yale University, Kagan emphasises the classical Greek influence on the West. While acknowledging the importance of Christianity, especially for a sense of divine cosmic order, Kagan argues that the Greek focus on philosophy and reason and the emphasis in classical Greece on human achievement and human capacity for excellence are the central markers of Western greatness. Kagan is part of a broad group of thinkers who emphasise reason and “Enlightenment” as definitive of Western civilisation. Kagan is influenced by the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, and the group is represented at a popular level by political commentator Ben Shapiro, along with the psychologist and pseudo-historian Steven Pinker. This school of thought could even be termed “rationalist”, with its emphasis on human reason in the shaping of Western culture and identity.
A simplified version of the story told by Donald Kagan and others goes like this: the human spirit, exemplified by the reason-focused Greeks, was ground down and eventually squashed for a millennium by medieval Christianity. However, it could not ultimately be defeated. In the Renaissance humanist movement, the emphasis on human reason re-emerged through the rediscovery of classical sources. The new humanism combined forces with the spiritual destruction wrought by the Protestant Reformation, before humanism triumphed over the irrational in the Enlightenment. In the end, the Greek legacy of reason is once again dominant in the west.
In contrast to Dawson, Christianity is often characterised by the “rationalists” as a more flaccid, effeminate, and anti-humanist force under this rubric. The mysterious, unknown God is the main subject of the sacred text of Christianity. Humans are depicted as passive receptors of divine dictates from this faceless God. On the other hand, the Greek conception of a reasonable and dynamic humanity is definitive of the western spirit.
The shape of Australian sociologist John Carroll’s theory of Western civilisation seems to be from the same mould, with its emphasis on Greek reason and Christian spiritual mystery. But Carroll is not as bullish about the triumph of reason in the West. He sees the West as a synthesis of what he calls “Ego” and “Soul”. These can map on to the reason and religion dualism—albeit imperfectly. For Carroll, Ego is the internal drive inside individuals to act and be seen acting. Ego is an energised individualism, seen in the heroes of Greek tragedy, as well as in the Protestant anthropology of Martin Luther and John Calvin, where the dignified soul stands alone before God. It is Ego that builds, Ego that innovates, and Ego that discovers. It is also Ego that kills, destroys, and takes what is not its own.
According to Carroll, Ego drove both the Protestant reformations and the Renaissance. However, these events tipped the scales and the pre-existing balance between Ego and Soul has led to a crash in Western culture. Carroll further argues that the triumph of Ego in the sixteenth century, producing the Enlightenment, resulted in a vacuum of meaning. Hence the need to recapture the “Soul” aspect of the West. For Carroll, Soul is basically a sense of transcendence and divine order, something which has been lost in recent centuries.
Carroll’s West is marked by both the individual drive to succeed and the individual need to be placed within a larger cosmic order. The Western person needs to feel both big and small at the same time. And so, the West is the civilisation which combines and encourages the innate drive to create meaning for ourselves and the innate drive to find meaning in transcendence. Unsurprisingly, Carroll finds the root for both of these marks of the West in Greek, Roman, and Christian sources.
Like Carroll, Rémi Brague, a French historian and philosopher, provides a theory of Western civilisation that relies on the triad of Greek, Hebraic-Christian, and Roman sources. However, for Brague, the West is fundamentally Roman. Like Rome, the West willingly, and with some discernment, adopted ideas and cultural themes from outside of itself. The synthesis of these ideas and themes is what we see in the West. Curiously, Brague’s theory means that the West is marked less by what it positively holds to or posits to the world, and more by its stance towards outside influence.
Like Dawson, Kagan, and Carroll, Brague defends the thesis that Greece and Christianity are deep influences on Western civilisation. However, he does so by defining the West more by its method of incorporating alien elements, of the Roman welcoming of the outside influences of the Greek and Christian. According to Brague, the West is marked by its “Romanity”, whereby content from beyond its own people, its own culture, and its own time is internally transmitted and assumed into itself.
Another way of summarising this that the West is marked out by its interest in “otherness”. This definition seems counterintuitive and perhaps unconstructive, given we are searching for a positive statement of what Western civilisation is. In this way, Brague’s conception is somewhat deceptive (as I will argue below).
A final example comes from Australian historian Peter Harrison. Harrison argues, while noting his debt to Brague, that “Western European identity can be characterised in terms of its dependency upon, and perceived inferiority to, traditions that lay beyond its geographical and temporal borders.” According to Harrison, the “Christian West was indebted to something both prior to and outside itself.” He goes on to note the remarkable way in which western Europe was home to a dynamic of progress and change. Here we can discern the echoes of Christopher Dawson’s idea that Europe is marked by a culture of renewal and movement. There are differences, however. Whereas Harrison sees the dynamic culture of Europe as driven by forces beyond itself as it incorporates key aspects and ideas of other cultures, Dawson sees this dynamism as caused mainly by Christianity. In a certain sense, both ideas are coherent, given Christianity’s Jewish roots.
Harrison also critiques the Enlightenment rationalist conception of the West. Rather than a victory of the Graeco-Roman emphasis on reason over the dark forces of irrationalism and fundamentalist religion, Harrison asserts that the Enlightenment is marked by a cultural and philosophical hubris. Contrary to a truly Western approach, the Enlightenment rejected non-Western sources and looked askance at the past. Harrison argues that this is ultimately an anti-Western, or non-Western, approach. As a result, what is often characterised as “Western” is based on a fixed canon of works and ideas which are largely shaped by the Enlightenment’s rejection of the past.
Contrary to this rationalist Enlightenment approach, Harrison suggests that the West is marked by a preservation of “a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as an ongoing challenge to the priorities and ‘values’ of the present.” Western civilisation could be defined by its eclecticism, eccentricity, and its perpetual challenge to presentist concerns. The problem of pinning down a conception of Western civilisation is, in light of Harrison’s proposition, a very Western problem.
The Western Disposition
It seems to me that a precise solution to the problem of Western civilisation will be eternally evasive. But perhaps we can use the frameworks I have just described to help us some of the way.
In the first place, I believe Dawson’s emphasis on the importance of Christianity is rightly conceived, especially if we allow for the inclusion of the Hebraic civilisation from which it emerged. Despite the shortcomings of the rationalist framework, the presence of the Greek human reason is not unimportant for understanding the West. A third aspect that we can adopt is Brague’s “Romanity”, which explains the outward-facing stance of the West, and the infusion of non-Western elements into Western culture.
Along with Rémi Brague and Peter Harrison, I also agree that the disposition of the West is basically Roman. At its core, and at its best, Western civilisation is open and willing to engage in conversation with influences beyond its own ethno-national and cultural borders.
Likewise, the West is interested in contributing to the conversations that exist outside of its own borders. The adoption of high Francophone culture in Russia during the nineteenth century is one example of this, and this cultural adaption brought Slavic parts of Europe into closer cultural contact with Western cultures. As I said earlier, the cultural movement is in both directions. In many ways, the Christian missionary movement is another example of this cultural and religious contribution beyond its borders.
Indeed, Christianity contributed to this disposition toward “otherness” that we can observe in the West. Christianity is not an ethnic or culturally-bound religion. This is one of the main themes in the New Testament. Therefore, Christianity should not be imperialist in its mindset, but is rather a supra-cultural religion that demands to be spread across the world be adopted and adapted into existing cultures. It changes societies—that much is obvious from the historical record. However, the changes wrought by Christianity need not be particularly Hebraic or Western. They need only be Christian.
This approach to cultural influence is present in the way Western culture spreads to other places, too. Western culture is, by definition, neither monolithic nor imperialist. It is, rather, something which can be adopted and adapted in different contexts. Non-Western countries do not need to become Western to be influenced by Western culture. In short, the Western disposition is one that is open to exchange and renewal. But the exchange can go both ways. The Western mind and Western culture are open to influences from outside of itself and can accept, perhaps even encourage, its ideas being adopted and adapted.
What does this disposition mean for people who consider themselves to be “Westerners”? It means that we should be marked by an openness to the strange and the other. It doesn’t mean that we agree with everything we read or encounter. Rather, it means that ideas and concepts which are odd ought to be attractive and intriguing for what they might contribute to our own formation. This has been the historical approach of Western culture and has borne the rich fruit we enjoy today.
A further aspect of the Western disposition—one which cuts against our own cultural grain—is summarised by the twentieth-century philosopher, Eric Voegelin. In his essay “Mankind and History”, Voegelin sums up the Western experience of the world: “Every society is organised for survival in the world and, at the same time, for partnership in the order of being that has its origin in world-transcendent divine Being.” In other words, societies of humans are seeking for a way to live in the reality that they find themselves. That reality has a transcendent origin. The origin comes from outside of this world. The order that we seek is an objective order, one which is given by God rather than made by humans. Voegelin goes on:
This struggle for the truth of order is the very substance of history; and insofar as advances towards the truth are achieved by the societies indeed as they succeed one another in time, the single society transcends itself and becomes a partner in the common endeavour of mankind.
In other words, each human society is a partner in the common endeavour of humankind to live in the given, cosmic, transcendent order. The confidence in this given order is a marker of the West. This is what gives Western civilisation the ability to reach across its boundaries in the search for truth. This is what makes the West sure that it is surely not the only civilisation which has access to the human condition and human experience. The wisdom of Western civilisation can be expressed as the belief that human wisdom is not confined to our own time and place. Therefore, we can seek truth because the truth really is out there. We can go and find it, because there is an order and a truth that lies beyond us and is founded upon a Being outside of us.
The Western Depiction of the Human Condition
The prominence of human nature and the human condition in Western philosophical and cultural works is another distinctive of Western civilisation. Other cultures ask questions about the human predicament too, of course, but the West does it in a way that is demonstrably linked to the twin poles of Athens and Jerusalem.
A key source for this idea is the literary critic Eric Auerbach. In an essay entitled “Odysseus’ Scar”, Auerbach describes two different modes of literary representation, one typified by classical Greek literature, the other by the Hebrew Bible. He begins by describing the way in which the great Greek poet, Homer, portrays the return of Odysseus to his home after his long journey. In typical Homeric style, everything is on the table. The emotions of the situation are fully expressed and explained. The actions of the characters in the scene are described in detail. The meaning of the scene is unhidden—it is fully available to the reader in the words of the poet. Homer’s writing externalises everything that matters in his story. You could say that everything is “foregrounded” so that the there is no second-guessing on the part of the reader.
Auerbach contrasts this to the biblical story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. There is little detail in the Genesis narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac. What is unspoken and unstated is of most significance. The silence of the narrator, of Abraham, and of God is penetrating and perplexing. Rather than the text providing all the answers, we are left with dozens, if not hundreds, of questions. What did the mountain look like? What about the surrounding countryside? Was the journey hard? What does it mean? What was Abraham thinking? Is he doubting? Is he scared? What is he feeling? Why would God ask him to do this? Did God intervene verbally, or in some other way?
Notice the lack of information in the narrative. There is, as Auerbach says, “a suggestive influence of the unexpressed.” The reader will confirm through experience that the kind of questions you ask demonstrate Auerbach’s point. You find yourself wrestling with problems—problems the author doesn’t answer. This is what Auerbach calls a “pre-occupation with the problematic”.
Here we have two literary depictions of reality, and of the human condition. One externalised; the other internalised. One clear; the other opaque. One revealing everything; the other shrouded in mystery. Auerbach’s theory is that Western culture is a healthy clash of these two styles, a combination of these two elements. Hence, that reality is represented in the West somewhere along the spectrum of these two poles of Jerusalem and Athens. These two different depictions of reality continue to be present and influential in Western literature. They have affected the way the human condition is depicted and considered in the Western imagination.
Flowing out of Auerbach’s observation, one could argue that Western civilisation is marked by a particular approach to the human condition as a problem. The problematisation of human nature, the emphasis on the human predicament, is approached from two different perspectives in the West. These two perspectives map on, roughly, to Kagan’s Greek rationalism and Christian mystery. They also map onto Carroll’s “Ego” and “Soul”.
One approach, that of Homer, attempts to place all explanations in the foreground, finding a rationale for everything. It tells us to understand ourselves, pick ourselves up, and act in the world. The other approach, that of the Hebrew Bible, acknowledges the depths of despair, the crisis of the human condition, and the great mystery that surrounds and floods reality. The darkness is a problem, but it is also something to dwell on. We cannot—indeed, we should not—simply flood everything with light. Because light can be deceiving. In turning on the light, we might lose a large part of what we were looking for. We might miss the insight that comes from mystery.
I propose that we ought to consider this wrestle between different approaches to reality as fundamental to the Western approach to the human condition. The revealed, the knowable, is not the sum of everything. It is important, but not ultimate. What we can see is not the final answer. What we can rationally define is not the conclusion. The Western examination of human life is marked by both a reasonable and accessible reality. It is also shrouded in mystery and darkness.
Resources for Renewal
This set of conceptual features provides something of a framework for assessing what belongs to the West, and yet also prevents unnecessary dogmatism. All things considered, Western civilisation remains a problematic idea. What should we do with these reflections? In one sense, we don’t need to do anything. Historical reflection doesn’t require action and can serve as an end in itself.
Nevertheless, there are some applications flowing from this exploration. Careful reflection on what might define it can spur the West on to renewal through integration of outside sources. However, I would argue what is most needed at this hour is a retrieval of the sources which shaped the Western imagination. Returning to the Christian, Greek, and Roman roots, and examining the texts and ideas which provided the foundation for the remarkable civilisation that spread across the European continent could bear real fruit in strengthening our ailing cultures.
This need not be a mere exercise in antiquarianism, either. Certainly, the Western view of the human condition, both revealed and mysterious, says that human nature does not change. And yet the world around us does. Returning to the sources of Western culture ought to be an exercise in ressourcement to help us face an ever-changing world.
Republished with gracious permission from ABC Religion & Ethics (October 2020).
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The featured image is “Capriccio of Roman Ruins with a Domed Church and the Colleoni Monument” (c. 1754) by Canaletto (1697–1768) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.