The world of Classics is currently facing intense debates over race and racism, and the recent meeting of the Society for Classical Studies included a panel that apparently degenerated into ugly name-calling. Rather than addressing the many issues at stake there, I will focus on one, namely the whole question of “Western Civilization.” Briefly, conservatives in these debates are anxious to defend Classics as representing core values in the defense of Western Civilization, while critics see that whole concept as socially constructed. I do not for a second challenge the cultural importance of teaching and learning Classics, but I do agree with that “social construction” idea.
In these recent debates, the Western Civilization rhetoric suggests that “the West” holds distinctive values that are variously drawn from Classical culture – Roman and Greek – which combined with Christianity (or Judeo-Christian foundations) to produce what became the prosperous and hegemonic civilization of “the West.” While not ignoring the achievements of other cultures, such as China, the suggestion is that this Classical-Christian synthesis is what made the West. Depending on who is writing, that argument can be extended to such concepts as individualism; human rights; democracy and representative government; humanistic values in the visual arts; and/or Western predominance in science, technology and industry. Where this all gets very perilous indeed is when advocates mix up these claims to “Western” superiority with boasts about whiteness and the white world.
I would criticize that package from several directions. I have already elsewhere challenged the idea that Christian and/or Reformation values were essential to Western scientific innovation and economic growth. I placed much more emphasis on medieval values and developments in some countries, especially in the British Isles, and its Common Law tradition. In fact, Common Law was much more likely to lay a foundation for scientific and industrial progress than “Classical” Roman Law. (My argument was actually a lot more wide ranging, and you can see it in detail here).
Although the word “democracy” is Greek, the historic principle of representative government owes far more to medieval and Germanic customary ideas and precedents, which were not directly based on either Classical influences or Christianity. The same is true for most concepts of rights. The founders of medieval parliaments across Europe knew zero about ancient Greek democracy, but rather pursued the ideas of rights and duties they knew from tribal precedent, and (at least as much) from feudal self interest. Much of the story of “Western” politics mainly involves finding Classical and Christian justifications for what people were doing already. Americans tend to miss that point when they read the incredibly learned and well-informed Federalist Papers, which clearly did draw on ancient precedent. Most other forms of representative government did not.
If such a vital phenomenon as “Western civilization” does or did exist, then surely we would expect two things: it should be pretty easy to determine exactly what ideas and beliefs belonged to it; and also, just where and when that kind of civilization existed. But what is this Western civilization? Up to a hundred years or so ago, looking at most European nations, you would surely believe that it must be founded on principles that were aristocratic, military, deferential, and hierarchical, and modern ideas of human rights were a very late arrival in the field. To take a specific example, look at the values of the French Revolution, of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Should we regard those as core values of Western civilization, or its negation? I can point to plenty of authorities, at the time and subsequently, to support either proposition.
Also, just where, geographically, do we find this Western civilization? Russia, for instance, together with the traditionally Orthodox world, claimed a very strong Christian and Classical tradition, but one that was distant from, if not antagonistic to, Latin or Anglo-Saxon values. Certainly the Latin Classics and Latin Fathers had nothing like the impact in Russia that they had in Germany of Poland. So is Russia part of the Western story? Before 1914, Orthodoxy made up around a third of the Christian world, so that is a pretty big exclusion. Actually, this raises critical problems for anyone claiming that Christianity or a Christian foundation naturally gives rise to certain values, or a particular kind of culture.
Britain once had a series of humorous advice books for how to bluff your way in conversations. If you said something profound and impressive about a particular distant country, and someone else who had actually been there pointed out that you were dead wrong, then you sagely replied “Ah yes, of course, you’re right. It’s different in the south.” When dealing with lots of these civilizational arguments, it often helps to recall that “It’s different in the east.”
The more you play that game of “what about region X?” the faster “the West” shrinks, leaving those other areas as outliers and troubling exceptions. The same is true for any attempt to define “Europe,” an equally contentious term. “West” compared to what? Finally, you are basically left with (most of) Western Europe, at certain times, but not others. Worse, if we end up defining “Western Civilization” as synonymous with the Anglo-American world view, something has gone horribly wrong.
Undoubtedly, Classical and Christian ideas did work together very powerfully to shape culture, and we see the signs of that synthesis in so many places. But a single Western Civilization? A single West? A West as the inheritor of Classical Antiquity? However powerful the rhetoric, that is a constructed notion, and a modern one.