Clerestory

The Myth of the West III

November 07, 2021

Part 3 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 and Part 2 if you haven’t already.

Searching for a West

Biagetti leaves aside Spengler’s Decline theory (discussed here), as many people in what we call the “West” do not fit the Faustian mold.

Franciscan preachers or nature poets, to take random examples, are not famous for their commitment to technological progress. (Though as a complete aside, Benedictines did adopt new technology, and may even have developed it, in areas like book-binding which were only coming into existence when they were founded in 529 CE.)

He then attempts, by way of reductio ad absurdum, two potential ways of defining what we mean by “the West”:

  1. Social geography: The landmass or set of countries that we mean by “the West.”
  2. Ideological: The set of countries which adhere ideologically to some set of “Western values.”

Today I’ll look at the geographical argument. I look at the ideological argument here.

The Geography of the West

What do we mean by “the West?”

We might say that we mean the landmass of Europe and its daughter countries. That would include places like the US, Canada, and Australia, founded by immigrants and colonists from Europe.

The first problem is that Europe itself is not really a distinct landmass. It’s connected to Asia, as a part of what we now call Eurasia.

In the Ancient world, supposedly Western people simply did not think of themselves as Europeans. Ancient Greeks, from whose language the word “Europe” comes, would not have called themselves Europeans.

It might be like describing yourself as “Eurasian” today; it’s weirdly unspecific. They would not have felt they had anything in common with the Celts or Germans living elsewhere in the land they called Europe, just as you might live in Tajikistan and have little in common with someone in France, though they’re both on Eurasia.

No Ancient Europe

If you asked the Greeks which cultures they cared about, they would have said first Egypt, and second Persia. They would not have cared that these places are on different “continents” — a relatively recent concept which is itself fraught.

Biagetti argues that they would have seen themselves as having much more in common with the Egyptians or Persians than with Celts or Germans. This is because “Europe” is just an arbitrary line up from the Black Sea through the Ural Mountains with no historical meaning or importance.

Russia straddles the Ural mountains, but nobody cared about that until about 1725, and the border between Europe and Asia was still moving around until at least 1958. See if you can follow the many attempts to draw the line. There can be many maps of the same territory. But for the Ancient world there was no coherent concept of Europe as “European.”

Nor did the Greeks see themselves as an important start to civilization or philosophy in the way many “Westerners” now describe. Here’s Bryan W Van Norden, writing on the origins of philosophy:

In fact, as Peter K J Park notes in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014), the only options taken seriously by most [European] scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece.

The Ancient Greeks themselves felt that civilization had begun in either Africa or further East, and Europeans believed this until the nineteenth Century.

The Medieval “West”

When does the term “European” come about, then? Biagetti points to Charles Martel (688–741) and his grandson Charlemagne (748–814). These are the first leaders who strengthened and centralized the Kingdom of the Franks, the post-Roman barbarian kingdom which covered much of what is now France.

Martel was the first to present himself as a self-consciously as a defender of “Christendom,” meaning the Christian faith as well as all its followers. Martel defeated the Moorish army at the Battle of Poitiers in 732, which stopped the advance of the Umayyad invasion of Gaul.

Martel sometimes referred to the army under his command not just as “Frankish” but also as “European.” This is the first instance of using the previously arbitrary geographic definition to mean something social and political.

So already in the 8th Century, “European” has a religious meaning, and it defines itself in opposition to Islam. “Western Christendom” is the Latin Church. Later, the opposition is not just to Islam, but later also to the “Eastern Church,” which speaks Greek, and includes Greece, but is centred at Constantinople. In the Middle Ages, when people talk about “the West,” they usually mean in contrast to Eastern Christendom.

Can you see the problem here?

If we accept this meaning of Western, then Greece is at the very heart of the East.

Continued here.


Bryan Kam

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