Western Civilization 101

Notwithstanding the fears of Samuel Huntington and the more overtly violent demonstrations of self-described Western chauvinists such as the Proud Boys, the term “Western Civilization” is of only relatively recent creation. Advanced following the First World War, the concept, along with other inventions such as “Great Books” series, was designed to uphold the merit of a project that had just culminated in an unprecedented industrial bloodbath. That the idea was promulgated merely decades before an even larger industrial bloodbath suggests that its promoters ought to have taken a humbler approach in their attempt to salvage, in fact construct, Western European history. After all, insofar as it even constitutes a coherent and quantifiable entity, Western Civilization advanced not because of any intrinsic superiority but because of fortuitous geographic circumstances and no small portion of simple freak luck.

It has been noted that if an informed observer had been standing atop the world in 1500 CE and was asked to predict which power – among Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan, India, or Russia — would become dominant over the following centuries, it would have been unlikely that he or she would have chosen what had until recently been the Western European backwater. It would have been far more sensible to instead opt for, say, Ming China or the Ottoman Empire, which was in possession of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Greece, and Hungary and continually menaced, and periodically invaded, lands further west.

Yet, as we know, Western Europe did become dominant over the next four centuries — though not necessarily evenly or without setbacks; the so-called Sick Man of Europe defeated Britain in battle as late as 1916. Nevertheless, by WWI, Europe directly or indirectly controlled a full eighty percent of the world’s landmass, an unprecedented degree of global domination. So how do we explain this extraordinary growth?

The Cultural Myth

For some, the answer is self-evident. The ostensible superiority of what is imagined to be Western culture inexorably led to the domination of Europe (and its eventual offshore offspring). There are of course immediate problems embedded in the notion of a coherent and homogeneous European culture giving rise to European dominance. First, such an explanation fails to address the timing of European ascension. If cultural superiority explains Europe’s rise, why now? And where was this superiority during the long centuries of the Middle Ages?

More generally, “European culture” in reality consists of a myriad of practices and customs varying by place, period, demographic, and other factors. Not only were different European countries — say England and France — at one another’s throats for centuries, but they would have been astonished to learn that they, notwithstanding their religious, linguistic, political, and other differences, were in fact family, united within a single civilization. On the contrary, each identified the other not as a member of the same political and cultural project but as a fundamental impediment to that project.

Even during the Crusades, the imagined zenith of European unity, the doge of Venice redirected the Crusaders from an attack on the Islamic World (which included Venetian trading partners such as Egypt) to Constantinople and Zara, Christian cities but commercial rivals to Venice. Making explicit what was already apparent, the Venetians understood that the Crusades, which invoked Christianity to pillage and pillaged to promote Christianity, were a racket.

Perhaps more than any other event, the Protestant Reformation, and the century of geopolitical pandemonium and mass slaughter following it, dramatically ruptures the idea that Europe contained a shared and coherent set of values and traditions. Rather, it exposed the profound antagonisms and divergent interests among those who competed to define a Christianity — the great language of medieval political legitimization — that had been turned inside out by the growing accumulation of private wealth.

If Catholicism, the religion of late Rome and feudalism, denounced the pursuit of wealth and counseled its followers to turn the other cheek, Protestantism and particularly Calvinism, mirroring the ideological demands of the emerging market economy, encouraged industriousness and identified wealth not as a potential sign of damnation but of salvation. Yet Protestantism, making itself more serviceable to modern rule, ultimately won a Pyrrhic victory. Relocating God from a clerical intermediary to the believer’s own conscience, Protestantism ushered in a new ideological hegemony but in so doing diminished its political relevance.

Insofar as these Christian traditions have endured in a world increasingly dominated by the state and the market, it has been due to their ability to identify opportunities for institutional aggrandizement that simultaneously furnishes ideological buttress to the demands (rendering unto Caesar) of the modern system. That these demands are themselves evolving reminds us that there has been no “Western culture” but rather ephemeral “Western cultures,” tearing themselves asunder at different places and at different times. The long historical effect was not a single diamond refined under pressure, but a flotsam of, among other things, power, brutality, and justificatory sophistry.

Just as the concept of European culture erases enormous variation and conflict within Western Europe, it also dismisses the pivotal exchanges, famously during the Crusades themselves, that occurred between Western Europe and the greater world that equipped Europe to expand in the first place. Crusaders were stunned to encounter the vastly more sophisticated denizens of the Levant and beyond living in more advanced economies and enjoying greater standards of living with more plentiful and finer luxuries. Crusaders were also introduced to the superior scientific knowledge of the Islamic world, whose advances in math, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry, and optics (not mentioning philosophy and art) helped shape the thinking of European thinkers such as Copernicus and Galileo. It is not so much that “Western Civilization” is an oxymoron — or a “good idea,” as Gandhi famously quipped — but that the civilization in question is not even intrinsically European.

Geography Not as Destiny

It is not culture, historians and other scholars have shown, but geography that provided the critical precondition for European ascension. As Jared Diamond has noted, the latitudinal axis of Eurasia, in contrast to that of Africa and the Americas, facilitated both successful migration and the diffusion of intra- and extra-European knowledge (farmers who migrated east or west, for instance, did not experience significant climatic variation and therefore did not have to reinvent technological and agricultural wheels in contrast to farmers who migrated north or south).

Further, the fractured topographies of the European peninsula, in contrast to the sweeping plains of China or the wide river valleys of the Nile or the Tigris and Euphrates, helped produce, as Paul Kennedy has observed in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, centuries of political fragmentation. European Conquerors, whether Charlemagne, the Habsburgs, Napoleon, or Hitler, consistently failed to establish unified and sustained political rule as they were ultimately impeded by, among other natural barriers, Europe’s numerous mountain ranges and forests.

Such obstacles not only discouraged conquest by foreign rivals but also led to highly decentralized rule characterized by roughly comparable powers who, of necessity, continually invested in improvements to their military technology. The eventual result was an increasingly sophisticated arms race born of the need to keep formidable rivals at bay, conditions that were generally absent outside of the European peninsula where, for instance, Ming China held a monopoly on cannon production inside of the empire.

Such geographic diversity also helped encourage the development of the market system. Centralized political rule in, say, the Ottoman Empire meant that would-be traders could be taxed into bankruptcy, a penny wise but pound foolish policy that disincentivized private investment. Europe’s political decentralization meant that traders could play different lords off of one another or, at the least, depart one high-tax fiefdom for a relatively lower-tax one. Europe’s many navigable rivers further facilitated this trade, which, notwithstanding rulers’ inclinations toward interference, ultimately provided European states with an enormous source of perpetually expanding taxable wealth. In other words, Europe’s economic power developed in spite of the myopia of its leaders, a closed-mindedness that Adam Smith was struggling to penetrate as late as 1776.

None of this ought to imply geographic determinism, as these environmental preconditions are necessary but certainly not sufficient to explain the expansion of European power after 1500. Indeed, geography taken by itself, not unlike the cultural explanation, cannot account for the specific timing of Europe’s ascension.

We also need to address contingency, and there is no greater example of it than the Ottomans’ 1453 conquest of Constantinople. An historic catastrophe for Europe, the conquest of Constantinople, and with it the collapse of the 1500 year-old Byzantine Empire, deprived Europe of its vital gateway to where all major economic activity had been previously directed: The East.

It was within the ensuing atmosphere of loss, dread, and despair that Columbus proposed to sail to India via the west and, after being rejected by several of Europe’s numerous rulers, was ultimately sponsored by Spain to do so, whereupon he stumbled upon the Americas. Led by Spain and Portugal, Europe proceeded to commit the largest and most horrific plunder in world history, enslaving and destroying indigenous peoples and their economies — “with a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other” — and extracting enough silver and gold to multiply European treasuries fourfold. It was this wealth, which soon migrated from the Iberian Peninsula to England, that funded the Industrial Revolution, enabling Europe to further increase its advantage over a globe that it would by and large rule — whether through the invocation of a Christian civilizing mission, the White Man’s Burden, eugenics, or democracy — for the next four centuries. In other words, apart from its geographic good fortune, Europe achieved world domination largely because it had experienced a disastrous military defeat. Interpreting this history as an indication of superiority constitutes the height of irony.

That we are living in an era in which there are renewed demands to extol and “defend” Western Civilization is not only a warning that a system that is again experiencing crisis is issuing one more call to arms. It is also a reminder that the violence with which it has historically advanced its aims is ultimately inseparable from the values that it invokes to justify them.


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Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at jsperber4@gmail.com.

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