Clerestory

The Myth of the West IV

November 08, 2021

Part 4 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.

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

Please read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you haven’t already.

The Ideology of the West

Yesterday I wrote about the problems encountered in an attempt to identify the West geographically. Biagetti also gives an account of the term “the West” in Medieval Europe, when it referred to an opposition between the Latin (Catholic) West and the Islamic or Greek (Orthodox) East.

I discussed the transmission of physical technologies and styles of government here, but this also applies to ideological Greco-Roman philosophy as well as to Christianity.

Cultures considered “non-Western” today were deeply influenced by the Greeks and Romans — not only were scholars in the Islamic caliphates deeply indebted to Greek philosophy, but they are responsible for its preservation (and more). And “non-Western” countries like the Philippines or Mexico are often much more staunchly Christian than their European counterparts.

Why, if the US and Canada are Western, isn’t Mexico?

Biagetti sees there as being two possible responses to this the question. The first is to revert to physiognomy, i.e., what people look like. This is a racial definition, i.e., that to be Western one must be white, so Israel or South Africa are included, but Latin America and Japan are not, no matter how “Western” they become in their government, culture, and so on. This kind of definition quickly ends in racist pseudoscience.

He sees the other option as almost the opposite: Say that race doesn’t matter, it’s about ideology, about subscribing to a certain set of “beliefs or values.” In this response, it doesn’t matter what people look like; they’re Western based on their ideology. This of course has the odd consequence that people who have “Asian” or “African” or “Muslim” values (however you define them) but live in France or the US are suddenly “not Western.”

Some commentators are fine with this. So he tries to use this line of reasoning. It leads obviously to the question: If “the West” is about a Western ideology, then what is the Western ideology?

A Cacophony of Philosophy

I wrote last week of the many unexpected paths back to Ancient Athens. Biagetti first considers the possibility that the defining feature of the West is its connection to classical Greco-Roman philosophy.

He then dissects what we mean by classical philosophy. He points to the fact that Socratic dialogue is mostly people disagreeing with each other. Among the Ancient Greeks there are relativists and absolutists, idealists and realists, some who place being before becoming, others who place becoming before being. He contrasts the Epicureans with the Aristotelians, saying they have no shared values or assumptions about how life should work, what is true or false, what is good or bad. He calls Greek philosophy a “cacophony.”

He also rightly points out that although the Romans take up elements of Greek philosophy, they live in different centuries with different laws and forms of government. “What you have is a tradition of constant disputation.” He considers the possibility of defining the Western tradition of one of debate and disagreement, but he finds this paradoxical:

That’s almost like saying it’s a tradition of no tradition, or it’s a philosophy of no shared philosophy. It’s paradoxical, right? And as we go and look at other possible meanings of Western we find more paradoxes like this.

I want to return to this and consider how different the surviving Greco-Roman philosophies in fact are, and why certain philosophies (and not others) have survived. I also plan to contrast this with the philosophical schools in China and India (see China, India). But for now let’s move to religion.

Judeo-Christian

Instead of a philosophical tradition, perhaps you could point to Judeo-Christian values. But as noted yesterday, “Christianity is an eastern religion.” Naturally Christianity has its roots in Judaism, which begins in the Levant in the late Second Temple Period, and is now thought to have evolved out of Ancient Canaanite polytheism.

You immediately run into the problem of how this relates to Greco-Roman thought. The Bible has its roots in the ancient and Roman Near East. The Greek wisdom traditions have some influence on the Bible, but Christianity saw itself as radically opposed to the Roman Empire. (In the Early church, there was a martyrdom ideal, i.e., the best imaginable thing that could happen to you as a Christian was for the Romans to kill you.)

He also raises the problems of places like Ethiopia, which are now not considered Western even though they became Christian earlier than any part of Europe. (Armenia, geopolitically “European” though located in Western Asia, also became Christian around the same time, about 301.) Why isn’t Ethiopia Western? What about the converts to Christianity in India as early as 52 CE? Are they western?

I would add another question: Islam is an Abrahamic religion too. Why isn’t Islam western?

Fusion?

Biagetti considers the possibility that it’s a synthesis of the Greco-Roman philosophy and the Christian religion that might define the West. But he then asks: “What synthesis?” There were a few scholastics like Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who were interested in Aristotle, but there were far more Christians who wanted to destroy all traces of pagan deities.

Aquinas is the exception; most medieval scholars wanted to purge the influence. And where did Aquinas get these manuscripts? From Islamic Spain, which was much more diligent in preserving these texts than anywhere Christian at the time. Aquinas was also reading Islamic commentators. The Greco-Roman heritage was much more important to the Islamic world than it was to the Christian world before the Middle Ages, where it was thought to be a threat.1

This series continues with Biagetti’s description of how the Western canon comes to be codified at Columbia University and elsewhere in the 1920s.


  1. This changes over the course of the Middle Ages, but even by the end of the fourteenth century, an Italian dictionary gives only a single page to Aristotle, whereas Hannibal gets three. See Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (1978), ch. 11.

Bryan Kam

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