If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons

a set of hardcover books bound in celuloid on a wooden bookshelf
The circle of book life! This copy of Will and Arial Durant’s “Story of Civilization” was in Russell Books, Victoria BC, in February 2020.

Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization (eleven volumes 1935-1975, original planned length five volumes, at the authors’ deaths thirteen volumes were planned) was as famous in its day as Sapiens, Sex at Dawn, or Twelve Rules for Life but represents much more work. It is an ambitious attempt to cover the story of “the west” and if you can find a copy it has some beautiful prose. But when they planned their project, they fell into a trap that people are still throwing themselves into today.

That first volume covers the Near East (Ur III to the Achaemenids), South Asia (to the establishment of the Raj), China (to 1935), and Japan (to 1935). Greece (volume II) ends with the Sack of Corinth by the Romans, Rome (III) ends with Constantine, then a single big volume for a thousand years of Latin Christendom (IV), Italy (V) ends in 1576, Germany (VI) gets the reformation, then its on to the Northern Renaissance (which the Durants call the Age of Reason, volume VII), three on the Enlightenment and one on the age of Napoleon (XI). That is a fine List of Places and Times that We Think Were Pretty Cool, but what determines who is in this list and who is out? And I know of at least three contradictory theories, each of which includes people most people who use this term don’t want to include.[1]

If you count forward from Classical Greece or Christian Rome you have to include at least four of Samuel P. Huntington‘s civilizations as “western” (Western, Latin America, Orthodox, and Islamic- and its worth stopping a moment and asking yourself why Huntingdon was so keen to put Cuba and Mexico and Brazil in a different civilization than Pennsylvania or Arizona or Quebec). They all inherited Greek and Latin literature and the cult of the God of Israel, and arguing about which of them practices these traditions in the right way is like arguing which team is the best in the NHL or whose grandmother cooks the best strudel. Family trees branch wider and wider as you move forward in time until they shelter the whole world.

If you count back from the United States, you have to include at a bare minimum the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Rome, the peoples in Europe whom the Romans never got around to conquering, and Judah. Lists of ancestors grow faster as you move back in time, not slower.

And if you mean NATO plus Israel plus Japan, you admit that “the west” is an alliance of convenience not something rooted in thousands of years of history. After every big change in the balance of power, countries suddenly decide that some of their old friends are wicked and villainous rivals and some of their old enemies are not as bad as they thought, for the same kinds of reasons why young radicals become paunchy fretters about income taxes and anything which might threaten the value of their house.

If “the west” were a scientific concept, these different meanings of the term would be a problem, and people would carefully explain how they were using the term at the beginning of their speech or writing. But usually people who talk about “the west” are trying to trick people into supporting a political program, so they like the ability to use one definition as long as it is useful then silently switch to another. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare includes Russia in 1650, but exclude Russia in 1919. The authors wanted to present the Cold War as a struggle between The West and an alien civilization, not as just as a phase in the European great power system, but they also wanted to present “the West” as controlling as much of the world as early as possible, and including Romanov Siberia let them do that. The retired scholar from Selma, California has nothing good to say about Spain, Portugal, or Mexico except when Castilian conquistadores are slaughtering Mexica or Inca: in this one special case, the fact that Castillians have a king and are neither Anglos, Greeks, nor Romans is not enough to exclude them from The West.

Bret Devereaux talked about “the west” as a fuzzy set, but I don’t think it is that at all. This is not a term like “sword” where the boundaries between “sword” “knife” and “waster” are a bit vague but most people agree most of the time on what is in. I also do not think it is a conversation between Great Writers like James Kierstead thinks (or at least, if “the west” is the world that engages with Cicero and Aristotle and the book of Genesis, then it stretches from India and Russia to Argentina and Alaska and I never read anyone with a big audience who understands “the west” so widely).[2] I think that “the west” is a partisan political term which is used to include whoever it is convenient to include and exclude whoever needs excluding. When a secular conservative ignores the Old Testament and presents the Roman empire as a place when western traditions were dormant, but a Catholic conservative sees the Bible and the Roman empire as the foundations of the west, that is not a quibble about details but a fundamental disagreement. Whether my Russian, Greek, Iranian, and Turkish friends are part of “the west” is not a minor point as long as people in other countries treat them differently depending on whether they are in or out. And there are reasons why beginning in the 1930s, thinkers who wrote in German have often been erased from accounts of “the west” written in English, even though conversations at British and American universities are still totally dependant on those thinkers.

If you give in to this term’s enchanting power, people of ill will will use it to line you up behind a program, then dump you by keeping the name but changing definitions as soon as they have what they want. In this respect, it is a lot like “white”: people with power accept minorities as white when they need allies, then push them out (or stop talking about “whites” and start saying “Anglo-Saxons”) as soon as the crisis is over (Alexiares has a few thoughts on this subject as a Métis whose parents did not see themselves as Métis).

If any of my gentle readers feel “western”, I hope they are on their guard against people who use the term, but don’t understand it the same way as they do. It has no power over me, because I am a Canadian humanist and we just don’t find this term useful, but if it has power over you people can use its glamour to enchant you. And if any of my gentle readers like to use it, I hope they explain what it means to them first. If people were honest about what these terms meant to them, a lot of fog would burn away, and a lot of swindlers would need to find a new racket.

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Edit 2020-08-30: Thanks to the back link from Alexiares, “What is ‘The West’ Anyway?” moonspeaker.ca who compares “the west” to gelatin which squirms away when you try to pin it down and define it

Edit 2020-12-25: See also Adam Tooze, “The Nazi killing mentality” http://ww2history.com/experts/Adam_Tooze/The_Nazi_killing_mentality “(in the Third Reich) food is seen as this fundamental variable. Without it the home front can’t survive, and if the home front doesn’t survive Germany will become victim to yet another effort by the West to starve it into submission.” That sure sounds like “the West” means the British Empire and its allies or the United States and its allies!

Edit 2022-08-24: and Nisaba help us, in 2020 Wiley-Blackwell published a Western Civilization: A Brief History by emeritus professor Paul R. Waibel with this nonsense inspired by late 20th century conservative Catholic thought in the introduction:

The roots of western civilization are found in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. From the former came the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. From the later came classical humanism. These two different ways of understanding the universe … was (sic) synthesized with certain Germanic traditions during the Middle Ages in Europe. By AD 1000, there was Europe, a new civilization that was different from all others, and armed with a worldview that facilitated both a Scientific Revolution and an Industrial Revolution. With a virtual monopoly on useful (that is scientific) knowledge, Western Civilization was able to dominate the world by the end of the nineteenth century.

The spread of Western Civilization to the non-Western world enabled those previously more advanced civilizations to ‘modernize,’ and liberate themselves from Western imperialism. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, a modernized China, for example, was able to challenge the West for world ledership. Still, the world we live in is a Westernized world.

Waibel equates Europe in the year 1000 (before the Great Schism or the Latin sack of Constantinople; before the decline of Islamic Spain; and when most of the lands east of a line from Hamburg to Prague were pagan!) with Catholic Europe; he utters the undergraduate tautology that one civilization was different from all others (if it were the same as any other, wouldn’t they be the same civilization? and how much time has he spent studying those other civilizations?); and he leaps from the savage and backwards Catholic countries in the year 1000 to the peak of European colonialism in the year 1900 with the vague words “Scientific Revolution” and “Industrial Revolution” (didn’t shipbuilding + navigation + cannon have a part to play before academic science started to produce useful technology? not to mention sheer thuggery?)

Edit 2023-03-23: another example of usage in the USA

But the Germans had none of these (to stop an Allied invasion of France). They had a small collection of what they called schnelle Boote – fast boats, S-boats. The British for code reasons called them E-boats – enemy – and that tends to be the name they have carried into our western histories.

Robert Citino’s talk “German Defenses of Normandy” Dec 20, 2020 https://piped.mha.fi/watch?v=UJpElXbI0gU&t=21m50s

So in US military and defence circles the German army can be the poster child for the western way of war or it can be out the (British and British settler) west

Edit 2023-03-27: for another handy collection of responses to Nicholas Wade see https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=12496 (when you skim the list of reviewers, it helps if you know the names of the American racists with logorrhea)

[1] If this were a longer essay, I might talk about the Catholic conservatives whose “west” is the descendants of Latin Christendom, and the race theorists. The former are not very influential outside of their specific geeky community, and the later I just find boring (I am told that Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance has a chapter on “the rise of the west” but I have not read it and can’t say if it falls into the trap in the body of this essay). ↑ back ↑

[2] There is a lot of talk about a western literary canon in English and Classics departments and literary magazines in the United States. Nobody has ever walked me through a version which answers the kind of criticisms I make in this essay, and its not really something we talk about in Canada, so I don’t have anything more to say about it. ↑ back ↑

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9 thoughts on “If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons

  1. Peter Thomson says:

    Agree that Arabic/Persian/Turkish culture is as much an heir to Aristotle and the Bible as ‘Europe’. But what term would you use for the post-Carolingian culture complex of West Eurasia? If Sinitic and Indic are useful terms, what’s the equivalent?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I think that the Catholics and medievalists have a point with “Latin Christendom” although that gets hard to use with the Reformation. I like “Frankish countries” for something that includes (pagan, Christian, and post-Christian) Sweden and England and Provence and Tuscany and Bohemia but not Muscovy or Hellas or Islamic Andalus: people as far away as India called people from all those regions “Franks.” (al-Faranj, farangi, frangos …) like they used to call all Greeks and Greek-ish people “Ionians.”

      Either way, you aren’t picking sides in the fight between the two halves of the former Roman empire about which was being Roman and Christian right.

  2. The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics | Book and Sword says:

    […] talk about legacies of the Greeks and Romans and who sometimes even use confusing phrases like “western civilization.” “Classics” is a good name for this end of the […]

  3. West versus East, or Primitive versus Modern? – Book and Sword says:

    […] like the idea of having a single line of ancestors stretching back thousands of years rather than a family tree that expands into the shadows, but they do not like all the things that come up when they hear “the middle ages.” […]

  4. TGGP says:

    I don’t think the Nazis were excluding themselves from western civilization (even if Hitler thought it unfortunate that Charles Martel won at Tours). Rather, Tooze is talking about them perceiving a threat coming from their geographic west in an alliance against them.

    I think if you combine Deveraux’s stance that it’s fuzzy (rather than discrete) with Kierstead’s take that it’s a “cluster of cultural traditions” (though I should note he also says the borders of fuzzy) you do get a more coherent conception of the West than you suggest. As he notes, Chinese civilization is clearly separate from the West and developed independently (even if Western thinkers like Marx wound up impacting them). Razib Khan can coherently argue in his post “Our Three-Body Problem” that Indian civilization, like Chinese, is separate from “the broader Abrahamic West” even though most (but not the southern states) of India (unlike China) natively speaks an Indo-European language and have even adopted English as one of the official languages due to their colonial history, and a substantial minority do practice an Abrahamic religion (specifically Islam). You can go further and say that both western & eastern Europe have shared history that separates them from the Islamic world (which I don’t think sees itself as an inheritor of Rome, with some actual consequences discussed in Timur Kuran’s The Long Divergence). And then you can divide east & west by noting that some places experienced the dominance of the Catholic Church and eventually the Reformation whereas Russia experienced the Mongol yoke is an arguably an inheritor to the Golden Horde. If some Chinese people have read Cicero, that would hardly contradict this clustering.

    As for where one should draw the boundaries, that’s a pragmatic question depending on what’s useful to you. The concept of “species” turns out to be fuzzier than our Platonic intuitions suggest, but it’s still a highly useful concept. Huntington said his “civilizations” were just the largest aggregate people would identify with. If there are circumstances where Russians & Americans identify as being part of the same civilization, then for that purpose perhaps they are whereas in others we can consider them separate.

    1. Sean says:

      I may have time for a full reply to your thoughtful post later, but “the largest aggregate people will identify with” begs the question of who decides who they identify with. Identities with people you never met don’t emerge ex nihilo but are created by a campaign of rhetoric and propaganda backed by short-term pragmatic needs. Excluding the eastern half of the Christian Roman world from “Christendom” or “the West” was a deliberate partisan choice. Just in the past six weeks, we see a strong campaign to define Ukraine as part of Europe (“the heart of Europe” even) and Russia as not. But six years ago, there was a very successful campaign to define Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, etc. as alien and unworthy of a place in the UK.

      Germany and the UK have clearly been part of the same culture for the past thousand years, but when Tooze is talking about alliances rather than civilizations he divides them. Short-term geopolitical alliances and abstract civilizations are very different things.

      Greg Laden had some intriguing anecdotes from his time living with foragers and gardeners about how two villages would decide they had ancestral ties and had things to trade with one another when they both needed allies.

  5. Paul R. Waibel says:

    “West” and “Western Civilization” refer to a worldview, not a geographic area. The author of “‘If You Find ‘The West’ A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons” seems to be confused about the meaning of the terms “West” and “Western Civilization.” Sean also appears confused about the distinction between “civilization” and “Civilization.” There have been many different civilizations in history, each the product of a different worldview. The various civilizations are characterized by having produced monumental architecture (as opposed to huts, etc.), philosophical thought, and, most importantly, a written language. But what does it mean to be civilized? There have been many civilizations, only one of which–Western Civilization– produced the central ingredient necessary for being “civilized.” What is that ingredient? Simply stated, the unique value of the individual human being, regardless of race, religion, geographic origins, or any other criteria used to divide human beings into distinct groups. It is Western Civilization, and only Western Civilization, that has this distinctive value, and it is rooted in the Judeo-Christian teaching that every human being is created by God in his image. Sean quotes the last two paragraphs from the Preface to my recent book, Western Civilization: A Brief History (Wiley Blackwell, 2020). I believe that if Sean were to read the book, they would have a better understanding of “West” and “Western Civilization.” Or, if time is at a premium, watch the BBC series Civilization, narrated by Kenneth Clark.

    1. Sean says:


      that is yet another definition of “western civilization” which I have not seen, although I recall similar language in writers such as S.P. Huntington and V.D. Hanson. I’m not sure what it would mean for any civilization to be the only one which recognized “the unique value of the individual human being.” You find the same sort of existentialism in the Babylonian Dialogue of Pesimism which you later find in the books of Ecclesiasties and Job, and British settlers in the New World were always complaining that First Nations were too independent and individualistic and would not sit down shut up and obey orders like a proper British person. (You had to talk to them and persuade them :noo:)

      I have been reading arguments that some unique aspect of Germanic or Catholic culture lead to the age of European empires for 20 or 25 years now, and they sound a lot like the business books that argue that every decision the CEO made was a stroke of brilliance because he is very rich today. Or like a Chinese nationalist talking about the Han race and Communism or Confucianism, or Aristotle explaining that climate made Greeks the only people who were both clever and brave. Edit: or Max Weber, son of a devout Calvinist, deciding that Northern Europe was rich because of Protestantism! Being smart and educated does not stop you from making up just-so stories.

      It looks like the correct title is “Western Civilization: A Brief History” so I edited the post.

      1. Sean says:

        I also sympathize with Steve Muhlberger’s definition of civilization: a society where everyone has clean running water. By that standard Canada could have been civilized 50 years ago, but is not civilized today. Japan may have managed it.

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