Clerestory

The Myth of the West V

November 09, 2021

Part 5 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, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 if you haven’t already.

The Invention of Western Civilization

Last week, I described Spengler’s influential role in the creation of the myth of the West. Biagetti notes that around the same time, Columbia University started teaching a course called “Contemporary Civilization”. This began in 1919 “as a course on War and Peace issues.” It is still taught today. Their timeline is worth a look; the jump from Augustine (398) to Dante (1321) is especially abrupt.

Interestingly, this is in the same period (1880s–1920s) when majors are introduced at universities, education begins to take place more in modern languages like English, and the classics themselves are no longer taught in Greek and Latin. Before the nineteenth century, the knowledge of these languages was what it meant to be “educated.” In other words, it is not just the birth of “the West,” but the birth of modern education.1 (I’m curious whether this is also the period where the “Western canon” itself is created, and whether German writers were excluded from it until after WWII.)

Columbia’s course and others like it (“Great Books,” “Humanities Sequence”) were possibly political from their conception. From Wikipedia:

The “Contemporary Civilization” course of the time has also been described as a direct response to the US entry into the war, seeking to encourage US involvement by stressing the importance of Western civilization.

Biagetti argues that these courses are in part created to show that America is the true heir to “Western history,” and not Germany, which had “gone awry with Kaiserism.” Anti-German sentiment had intensified in Europe with the unification of Germany in 1871, when the creation of a new rival nation threatened established European states. But it had also grown in the US due to German immigration.

The Rightful Heir

(Me editorializing:) Germans entered the US in enormous numbers before WWI, wiht a total of about 7.5 million entering between 1820 and 1870 (the total US population was 9.6m in 1820 and 38m in 1870). Germans were the largest immigrant group at the turn of the twentieth century — and they still are the largest self-reported group, at 43 million people.

Biagetti argues that the creation of these courses in America was largely about showing that America, and not Germany, was the rightful heir to “West Civilization.” Remember that this notion of “the West” as a thing was only then being created, so it was in some sense up for grabs.2

The professors who put together programs at American universities in the 1920s saw the West as a dialectic between Jerusalem and Athens, between Judeo-Christian values and Greco-Roman ones — the problems of which I noted yesterday.

Biagetti points out that these two lineages are fundamentally in conflict. Liberal notions of personal freedom, which come from a roundabout Enlightenment reading of the Greco-Roman tradition,3 for example, are completely at odds with the absolutism of the Catholic Church. He thinks this remains an unreconciled — and perhaps unreconcilable — paradox.

Lack of explanatory power

Biagetti considers the possible response that the West is defined by paradox, but he finds this unsatisfying. It would be like saying that to be a part of Western culture is to be a part of no culture.

As I’ve described, he thinks Greco-Roman philosophy is not a single thing. He also thinks that even to consider Christianity a single category is misguided. If Christianity is one thing, he asks, then how do you explain the Reformation? The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was purely Christians killing Christians, and may have killed up to 50% of the population in some parts of Europe.

I want to return to this point because I think there is something particularly “Western” about things like the Reformation, but I’ll leave it here today.

Biagetti then enters a discussion of the problems of referring to “Europe” without first providing qualification or definition, as in the example of Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe (2017). I’m going to skip that discussion and continue tomorrow with the idea that perhaps what defines the West is its approach to scientific and rationalist.


  1. If you’re interested in this seismic educational shift, Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) is a great introduction.
  2. They also try to rewrite the history of philosophy in a similar way, as I discuss here.
  3. This rather ecstatic European re-encounter with classical sources is referenced about halfway through this podcast.

Bryan Kam

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