Clerestory

The Myth of the West II

November 06, 2021

Part 2 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

In this post I continue my discussion of Myth of the Month 8: “The West” (2019), a special episode of the excellent Historiansplaining podcast. Though I highly recommend the podcast, you don’t need to have listened to it before reading these posts.

The topic is the problems with the concept of some coherent thing called “The West.”

Please read Part 1 if you haven’t already.

Lack of European unity

Samuel Biagetti points out that European countries did not see themselves as unified in the nineteenth century, and indeed, these countries (or their forebears) had been at war for most of the previous millennium. The British, Austrians, and Russians (to pick at random) did not care that they had technology in common, or that their educated classes had read the same Greek classics.

That does not mean they actually had nothing in common, just they saw themselves as largely opposed to each other — in language, culture, and government.

He points to the diversity of forms of government: Britain was a comparatively free constitutional monarchy. France was a republic. Russia was a Tsarist autocracy. They (rightly) considered these to be very different governments, and each country was suspicious of the others. That there were other countries in the world which were more different would not have mattered to them.

But, Biagetti argues, the “educated or somewhat educated literate middle classes in these countries began to think of themselves as part of one larger coherent unit because of the crises they were in, because of their anxiety about where they were headed, and what they were afraid they might be losing, or what might be inadvertently destroyed.” This, he says, is where our idea of Western civilization ultimately comes from.

Zweig invents Europe

I want to drill down on this because I think that he is right.

Here’s the novelist Stefan Zweig, writing in his 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday about Vienna before the First World War:1

There is hardly a city in Europe where the drive towards cultural ideals was as passionate as it was in Vienna. Precisely because the monarchy, because Austria itself for centuries had been neither politically ambitious nor particularly successful in its military actions, the native pride had turned more strongly toward a desire for artistic supremacy. The most important and the most valuable provinces, German and Italian, Flemish and Walloon, had long since fallen away from the old Habsburg empire that had once ruled Europe; unsullied in its old glory, the capital had remained, the treasure of the court, the preserver of a thousand-year-old tradition. […] At court, among the nobility, and among the people, the German was related in blood to the Slavic, the Hungarian, the Spanish, the Italian, the French, the Flemish; and it was the particular genius of this city of music that dissolved all the contrasts harmoniously into a new and unique thing, the Austrian, the Viennese. Hospitable and endowed with a particular talent for receptivity, the city drew the most diverse forces to it, loosened, propitiated, and pacified them. It was sweet to live here, in this atmosphere of spiritual conciliation, and subconsciously every citizen became supernational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.

I suspect that Zweig is inventing a multicultural Europe here as much he is describing it. Or at least that during the time he is describing, circa 1900, the phenomenon was very new. Presumably the men who died in the unsuccessful military actions would not have felt the way that he does.

If the phrase “citizen of the world” sounds familiar, then it’s once again from Ancient Greece, though this time far from Athens. Diogenes of Sinope (~412–323 BCE), founder of Cynicism, had said something similar: “I am a citizen of the world.” But citizen (civis) referred originally to civitas, which meant active civil engagement in the community of a single specific city-state.2 In my estimation, Diogenes’ remark remains recorded not because it was representative of most people’s experience. It remains recorded precisely because it was a preposterous contradiction, something like writing “Everywhere” as your address on a form.

Zweig continues, describing music, p32:

For the genius of Vienna — a specifically musical one — was always that it harmonized all the national and lingual contrasts. Its culture was a synthesis of all Western cultures. Whoever lived there and worked there felt himself free of all confinement and prejudice. Nowhere was it easier to be a European, and I know that to a great extent I must thank this city, which already in the time of Marcus Aurelius defended the Roman — the universal — spirit, that at an early age I learned to love the idea of comradeship as the highest of my heart.

I’d argue that Zweig, like Diogenes, is projecting this harmony. Don’t forget that the First World War is about to start. By referring to the Romans, he is more-or-less engaged in myth-making.

On the other hand, myth-making may well be required for large-scale cooperation. And Zweig’s myth is undoubtedly preferable to the opposing myths that would be used to enlist soldiers.

(If you’re interested in Zweig, I also wrote about him in another post: Cycles of Youth.)

I continue on the topic of “the West” here.


  1. Biagetti does not cite Zweig, but I think he’s relevant here. I don’t know whether Zweig is actually an early representative or an example of a developed type. But a quick google yielded this (“Zweig [is] one of the intellectual forefathers of the European Union”) and this (which also mentions Zweig).
  2. See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chapter I, §2.

Bryan Kam

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