Clerestory

The Myth of the West I

November 05, 2021

Part 1 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

About a year ago, I listened to a podcast called Myth of the Month 8: “The West” (2019), a special episode of the excellent Historiansplaining podcast.

In it, host and historian Samuel Biagetti systematically argues that the term “the West” is incoherent. I found his argument persuasive and important so I’ll summarize the podcast here. Though I highly recommend the podcast, you don’t need to have listened to it before reading these posts.

To be clear, what follows is not my argument; it’s a summary of the podcast linked above.

This is in connection with a piece I wrote the other day on tracing things back to their sources.

The winding way “West”

Biagetti describes his doubt while teaching classes on early “Western civilization,” which covered the period from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Middle Ages. This is already awkward just at the level of geography, since in this telling, “the West” starts in Egypt (northeast Africa/southwest Asia), moves through Mesopotamia (now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait), and winds up in western Europe. Though the story starts in North Africa and in the Near and Middle East, by the end, none of these places are a part of the West, even though naturally none of them have moved. He notes that students sometimes intuit that this has something to do with Islam.

“Western,” he continues, obviously begins as a relative term. Not only must a place be west of something else in order to be western, but unlike North or South, there is no “West Pole,” nowhere to which one can point and say “That’s the West.” Citing Lévi-Strauss, who wrote that certain oppositions engender each other (e.g., there can be no concept of raw without a concept of cooked), he points out that West only makes sense if there is also an East.

Latin West and Greek East

But didn’t the Roman Empire split into East and West? It definitely did.1 And centuries later, Byzantine chroniclers in Constantinople write about the Crusades coming from the west, and “Western crusaders” crusaded into what is now Syria and Palestine.

But that sense of “western” is quite different from what we mean today by “Western.” It was just a way of dividing up a territory. To see the problem with conflating the two senses of “west,” for example, just think of what we now mean by “Western medicine.” If this is the tradition going back to classical sources like Aristotle and Galen, then by the time of the Crusades, this tradition was practiced primarily in the areas of the Islamic Caliphates which are in this context “eastern.” Western Europeans were, by and large, unaware of the classical sources at the time. Even if they were comparably connected to the medical lineage, there’s no sense in which this lineage was originally “Western.”

No geography

Nor can geography be used to delineate what we mean by the West. It is not just Western Eurasia.

First, from the beginning, societies were linked all the way across Eurasia, so that technologies we might associate with the West (e.g. gunpowder or printing) actually originate in the East. Similarly, phonetic writing and more sophisticated artillery, invented in western Eurasia, made their way east. Bronze workers in Renaissance Italy were using the same alchemical ideas and symbols as those working in China and Korea.

Beyond the cultural contact, there’s no sense in which the kingdoms or empires viewed each other as being across some dividing line from each other. Eastern and Western monarchs and emperors tended to see themselves as peers. They had diplomatic relationships, or perhaps adversarial relationships, but they did not think in terms of a dichotomy between East and West until very late.

Skipping ahead a bit in the podcast, Biagetti points out that technologies (physical or cultural) spread virally. Gunpowder, telegraphs, and steamships get picked up by extremely diverse societies throughout the world. The same goes for style of government. Japan was a traditional society in the nineteenth century, but it quickly assumed “Western” technologies as well as a “Western” style of liberal democracy. Latin America has deep foundations in Spanish Catholicism and the Spanish language. Many Latin American countries industrialized, have American-style constitutional democracies, flourishing universities, liberal presses, etc. If the US and Canada are considered Western, then why aren’t other parts of the Americas? I come back to this question here.

Definitions and constellations

For Biagetti, the loosest definition is probably the least problematic. “Western civilization is the set of all socities that have laws, customs, or institutions with roots in the Western part of Eurasia.” But even this faces immediate problems: Where do you draw the line?

Some, he notes, have tried to describe the West as a “constellation of ideas and practices,” which might include Greek philosophy, Judeo-Christianity, science, liberalism, and individualism. He is fine with this approach, but reminds us that “constellation” is an effect of vantage point; it groups stars (or even galaxies, all completely unrelated) according to the made-up patterns of an arbitrary observer.

Biagetti thinks the country that is most unambiguously in “the West” is Britain, followed by France, and in more recent history, the United States, and perhaps a few other European nations. But he thinks that defining “the West” as countries which are “similar enough” to those countries is also vague, ambiguous, and unhelpful.

Decline and fall

Who first uses the term “the West” with a capital W, then?

In Biagetti’s telling, the modern sense is only about a hundred years old. Oswald Spengler is the first to use it; he is a German historian who wrote a problematic but popular book called The Decline of the West.1 The work, written during WWI but published in two volumes (1918–23), argues that cultures have a lifespan of about a thousand years of flourishing, followed by a thousand years of decline (he calls the flourishing part “culture” and the declining part “civilization”). Spengler observes decay in the Europe of his day, as well as corruption, decadence, and a loss of direction and ambition.

In short, this is a declensionist narrative. “Declensionist” means that it describes a decline, as in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89). This is the view that societies inevitably have a small virtuous beginning, grow into a strong expanding middle, after which a loss of values leads to a decadent/corrupt end.2

In this book is attempted for the first time the venture of predetermining history, of following the still untravelled stages in the destiny of a Culture, and specifically of the only Culture of our time and on our planet which is actually in the phase of fulfilment — the West-European-American.

— Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. I (1918), ch. 1, “Introduction”

Spengler thought that the late medieval and modern “West” had its own distinctive character, separate from the Greco-Roman classical world as well as from Christianity. He considers the West to be Faustian, i.e., reminiscent of the German legend about a man who sells his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Spengler sees in the West a lust for technological and imperial power which would cost the (newly-invented) West its soul, in an ultimately doomed exchange. He is making a myth of the West which follows the trajectory of the Faustian myth.

Historians tore apart many things in his argument, but Biagetti finds some parts of this myth persuasive. There have been many domineering empires, but one unusual aspect is the certainty (I’m tempted to write “faith”) that it can “solve all riddles and unravel all mysteries and attain complete knowledge of everything in the universe.”

Biagetti thinks that Spengler is wrong to lump the modern West in with the Middle Ages, as the narrative can’t even explain things as obvious as the Reformation, in which Protestant and Catholic understandings of salvation and sources of truth go to war. I think what he’s getting at is that Spengler’s simplified narrative does not explain how the West is unified over the past thousand years.

Spengler’s views, however, became immensely popular. Biagetti thinks that we so readily understand what people mean by “the West” that it’s hard to imagine that this was a very new way of thinking in the 1920s. Though he was opposed to race science and to the Nazis, Spengler’s views were compatible with a contamination narrative of the “Aryan race” which was taken up by the Nazis. Both the decline narrative and the racial contamination propaganda plausibly come from similar anxieties about society.

Continued…


  1. In writing this, I learned that the split was first administrative, starting in the 3rd Century CE, and it was a split between regions administered in Latin and those administered in Greek. The fall of the Western Roman Empire meant that this split intensified from 376–476 CE.
  2. More recently, William Ophuls’ book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (2012) continues this declensionist vein. In fiction, an example of this thinking is Asimov’s Foundation series. Asimov explicitly based his writing on Gibbon.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.