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

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern
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 gelatine 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!

[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 ↑

3 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 […]

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