Is there such a thing as a "Western Civilization"?

Nov 2019
14
Mexico
According to the source below the earliest mention of the term western civilization is in 1844, and was not until the early 1900s that it acquired its modern meaning and supposed Greco-Roman connection:

On the History of 'Western Civilization', Part 1

I find the term to be very artificial and inconsistent, as the ancient Greeks and Romans never called themselves or their culture Western (obviously) and they associated the geographic West with a number of barbarian tribes who were outside of their civilization. I think another modern term that is similarly incoherent is that of "Judeo-Christian values".

As an example, Latin America is not considered western civilization by some scholars yet the US is universally so (not surprising given that the term is of American origin according to the source); Yet Latin countries speak a Romance language (English is not descended from Latin), practice Roman law (Anglo Saxon countries do not) and are Roman Catholics (the US is protestant). Russia I argue has a stronger cultural continuity with ancient Greece trough Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. Please let me know your opinions below or if you have more sources about the origin of the term Western Civilization.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,752
Dispargum
We can't reject words simply because they are not old enough. If a word is useful, it should be used. I find Western Civilization useful when comparing some countries to others. For instance, at this moment in history there is a serious divide between Western Civilization and the Islamic Middle East. There are also differences between Western Civilization and Eastern countries such as China. Just reading some of Historum threads about Hong Kong I am struck by the conflict between Eastern definitions of freedom and Western Civilization's definition of democracy. I do include Latin America as well as North America as part of Western Civilization. Western Civilization is not just a geographic term. It's not confined to any place. Western Civilization is a set of ideas that have spread to many places that are not western such as Japan, South Korea, and India. These last three countries are interesting hybrids that have found ways to combine western ideas with their own cultural heritages.

One problem is the legacy of the Cold War that divided Europe into east and west. Even in the Cold War I still consider Eastern Europe to be part of Western Civilization for the reason that you state - Russia traces its culture back to Ancient Greece. One just has to realize that in the context of the Cold War east vs west does not mean the same thing as Western Civilization.
 
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Mar 2019
1,809
KL
There are also differences between Western Civilization and Eastern countries such as China. Just reading some of Historum threads about Hong Kong I am struck by the conflict between Eastern definitions of freedom and Western Civilization's
china got communism from western countries such as russia.

regards
 
Mar 2019
1,809
KL
Western Civilization is a set of ideas that have spread to many places that are not western such as Japan, South Korea, and India. These last three countries are interesting hybrids that have found ways to combine western ideas with their own cultural heritages.
which western ideas are you talking about?
 
Dec 2015
341
NYC
I've actually had this discussion in some of my previous threads.
IMO, the entire concept of "Western civilization" is completely inaccurate, inconsistent, and only serves
European supremacy. The whole idea of Western Civilization goes something like this (in my own quotes):

"The pillars of Western culture and society, such as equality, rationality, and individualism can be traced in
back through Renaissance Europe, to the Roman Empire, and all the way to the Ancient Greece.
From the likes of Aristotle and Plato, the seeds of Western wisdom were passed one by one through history,
intellectual inheritor to intellectual inheritor. Certain fundamental ideas and norms are held in common between
Western societies thanks to this lineage, and from this line we in the West today can claim a
cultural/intellectual pedigree stretching back to the birth of modern civilization that makes us stand out
from the rest of the world. "

The problem with this is that neither the Greeks and Romans never considered themselves as "Western".
They referred to themselves as only "Greek" and "Roman" respectively.
Even after, when nations in Europe began forming, nations never considered themselves "Western",
and didn't lump themselves with such term only until recently when European countries
(primarily Russia and Western Europe) started dominating the world in the last 200 years or so.
In this regard, the term is very recent and only serves European nationalist rhetoric.
Coupling this with the fact that the Western (and all European) States, well, hated each other for
most of history, and there was constant warfare and competition between European states, so
its a little suspect to claim this narrative of a common Christian/European brotherhood between them.
Also, it's interesting how people consider what and what isn't part of Western civilization. For example,
Greece is considered part of Western civilization, yet Russia or the Balkan countries isn't.


Another problem is equating thing like equality, rationalism and individualism with European,
as if Europeans invented these things. For one thing, slavery was a very common practice in both Greece and Rome,
and let's not forget the brutal slavery on non-Europeans at the hands of European colonizers, so the idea of
equality and individualism being European inventions is very contradictory when you look at history. Another thing
is women weren't even treated equal in Greece and Rome, and women's rights are a recent invention of the last century.
As for things like rationalism and democracy, other civilization such as Indians had their own similar ideas.

When one uses the term "The West" or "Western Civilization," at any given moment they could mean:
- countries which have traditionally subscribed to "Judaeo-Christian values"
- Europe and certain of its (former) colonies
- only Western Europe (Britain, France, Italy, Spain)
- "Western Eurasia" (lands including Egypt, North Africa and the Near East with Europe)
- Countries with Liberal/Capitalist socioeconomic policies
- Majority White Countries
It is so inconsistent and inaccurate when applied around the world.

If the essence of being Western lies in things like having a representative democracy, capitalism, individual rights, etc. then Japan and Turkey should be considered Western countries.

If the essence of being Western lies in direct or indirect presence in/influence by Europe, then should Islam be considered Western since the Moors existed on the Iberian peninsula and the Ottomans within the Balkans and Eastern Europe for centuries? And why are places like India, Pakistan, and countless other colonies which adopted the ideals and institutions of Europe not considered Western? Should we consider Latin America and the Philippines as "Western", since they were heavily influenced by Europe. There are many, many countries today that adopted European-style political and legal organization as well as largely speak European language(s).

This leads me to one conclusion: "The West" only serves European nationalism. The core of "Western Civilization" is still highly Eurocentric, and the idea goes something like this: Europe = West = rational = civilized. But keep in mind that the entire concept of "the Western world" is a very recent concept, and was only used when Europeans were dominating the world and making advanced in technology, science and other stuff in the past 200 - 400 years or so.
 
Nov 2019
14
Mexico
We can't reject words simply because they are not old enough. If a word is useful, it should be used. I find Western Civilization useful when comparing some countries to others. For instance, at this moment in history there is a serious divide between Western Civilization and the Islamic Middle East. There are also differences between Western Civilization and Eastern countries such as China. Just reading some of Historum threads about Hong Kong I am struck by the conflict between Eastern definitions of freedom and Western Civilization's definition of democracy. I do include Latin America as well as North America as part of Western Civilization. Western Civilization is not just a geographic term. It's not confined to any place. Western Civilization is a set of ideas that have spread to many places that are not western such as Japan, South Korea, and India. These last three countries are interesting hybrids that have found ways to combine western ideas with their own cultural heritages.

One problem is the legacy of the Cold War that divided Europe into east and west. Even in the Cold War I still consider Eastern Europe to be part of Western Civilization for the reason that you state - Russia traces its culture back to Ancient Greece. One just has to realize that in the context of the Cold War east vs west does not mean the same thing as Western Civilization.
Is not just the word that is recent but the concept itself i argue. I guess the issue is the vagueness of western civilization and the fact that it is used retroactively to define ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome; again if those civilizations had called themselves such or had a special cultural connection with the directional West it then the term would make more sense. This is the controversial forum, so my controversial argument is that the term/concept is mostly an American invention, this is similar to the "5000 years of history" that was invented by Chinese nationalists in the early 1900s and still used today to give historical legitimacy to their regime. But i agree with you overall that there are cultural blocks or roughly-defined groups of nations in the modern world that share a similar culture and tend to be geopolitical allies (not always though, ex. Saudi Arabia).
 
Nov 2019
14
Mexico
I've actually had this discussion in some of my previous threads.
IMO, the entire concept of "Western civilization" is completely inaccurate, inconsistent, and only serves
European supremacy. The whole idea of Western Civilization goes something like this (in my own quotes):

"The pillars of Western culture and society, such as equality, rationality, and individualism can be traced in
back through Renaissance Europe, to the Roman Empire, and all the way to the Ancient Greece.
From the likes of Aristotle and Plato, the seeds of Western wisdom were passed one by one through history,
intellectual inheritor to intellectual inheritor. Certain fundamental ideas and norms are held in common between
Western societies thanks to this lineage, and from this line we in the West today can claim a
cultural/intellectual pedigree stretching back to the birth of modern civilization that makes us stand out
from the rest of the world. "

The problem with this is that neither the Greeks and Romans never considered themselves as "Western".
They referred to themselves as only "Greek" and "Roman" respectively.
Even after, when nations in Europe began forming, nations never considered themselves "Western",
and didn't lump themselves with such term only until recently when European countries
(primarily Russia and Western Europe) started dominating the world in the last 200 years or so.
In this regard, the term is very recent and only serves European nationalist rhetoric.
Coupling this with the fact that the Western (and all European) States, well, hated each other for
most of history, and there was constant warfare and competition between European states, so
its a little suspect to claim this narrative of a common Christian/European brotherhood between them.
Also, it's interesting how people consider what and what isn't part of Western civilization. For example,
Greece is considered part of Western civilization, yet Russia or the Balkan countries isn't.


Another problem is equating thing like equality, rationalism and individualism with European,
as if Europeans invented these things. For one thing, slavery was a very common practice in both Greece and Rome,
and let's not forget the brutal slavery on non-Europeans at the hands of European colonizers, so the idea of
equality and individualism being European inventions is very contradictory when you look at history. Another thing
is women weren't even treated equal in Greece and Rome, and women's rights are a recent invention of the last century.
As for things like rationalism and democracy, other civilization such as Indians had their own similar ideas.

When one uses the term "The West" or "Western Civilization," at any given moment they could mean:
- countries which have traditionally subscribed to "Judaeo-Christian values"
- Europe and certain of its (former) colonies
- only Western Europe (Britain, France, Italy, Spain)
- "Western Eurasia" (lands including Egypt, North Africa and the Near East with Europe)
- Countries with Liberal/Capitalist socioeconomic policies
- Majority White Countries
It is so inconsistent and inaccurate when applied around the world.

If the essence of being Western lies in things like having a representative democracy, capitalism, individual rights, etc. then Japan and Turkey should be considered Western countries.

If the essence of being Western lies in direct or indirect presence in/influence by Europe, then should Islam be considered Western since the Moors existed on the Iberian peninsula and the Ottomans within the Balkans and Eastern Europe for centuries? And why are places like India, Pakistan, and countless other colonies which adopted the ideals and institutions of Europe not considered Western? Should we consider Latin America and the Philippines as "Western", since they were heavily influenced by Europe. There are many, many countries today that adopted European-style political and legal organization as well as largely speak European language(s).

This leads me to one conclusion: "The West" only serves European nationalism. The core of "Western Civilization" is still highly Eurocentric, and the idea goes something like this: Europe = West = rational = civilized. But keep in mind that the entire concept of "the Western world" is a very recent concept, and was only used when Europeans were dominating the world and making advanced in technology, science and other stuff in the past 200 - 400 years or so.
I thought Wang Mang of the Han dynasty was the first to abolish slavery in 11 C.E, and this caused a revolt from the aristocrats.
 

Tulun

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
3,899
Western Eurasia
doesn't it come from the Western-Eastern Roman Empire division and the subsequent split between Western and Eastern Christianity?