Clerestory

How the West Was Spun

November 12, 2021

Part 8 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

In this post I begin my response to 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, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7 if you haven’t already.

History versus Civilization

But why then insist that all significant forms of human progress before the twentieth century can be attributed only to that one group of humans who used to refer to themselves as ‘the white race’ (and now, generally, call themselves by its more accepted synonym, ‘Western civilization’)?

— David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021), ch. 1

At the end of my last post, I wrote that I agree with Biagetti’s argument against the historical coherence of anything called “the West.”

It is indeed a “ramshackle and unstable idea.” This is important. Not because I think that the West can be defined as being ramshackle; that’s the argument that Biagetti dismissed as tantamount to saying that “Western culture is a culture of no coherent culture.”

Though to give a hint where I’m going, where else have I heard the word “ramshackle” used?

Ah yes…

What has been said so far may have seemed to imply that normal science is a single monolithic and unified enterprise that must stand or fall with any one of its paradigms as well as with all of them together. But science is obviously seldom or never like that. Often, viewing all fields together, it seems instead a rather ramshackle structure with little coherence among its various parts.

— Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

What I want to suggest is that the West, while revealing little and obscuring much about historical cultures, actually reveals a great deal about the modern culture that wants to construct such an identity.

Back to Germany

As discussed from the beginning, it is really a Germanic idea; but the US is also more of a German state than it might at first appear.

Probably they are not alone in this, but Germanic peoples do seem to like connecting themselves up to potentially tenuous institutions of the past.

For much of its history, for example, despite its name, the Holy Roman Empire, did not include Rome. It existed from 800 to 1806 in what is now Germany and neighbouring countries.

Rome was just the place where the Emperors were crowned (at least for a little while1). The Roman Empire had fallen by 476; Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800, but that lineage was broken in 924, and resuscitated in 962 with Otto I. The term “Holy Roman Empire” was not used until the 13th century, or nearly 800 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and after the period that it actually included Rome.

Have you ever wondered what the first two Reichs were? You know, before the Third Reich. The first was the Holy Roman Empire, and the second was the German Empire formed by Bismarck in 1871. In other words, the Third Reich is attempting to connect itself to the Holy Roman Empire, which had connected itself to the Roman Empire.

To me, just based on the quantities of time between them, this seems more like naming a sports team after people who once lived where the team plays than it does like sharing a surname with a distant ancestor. But I could be wrong about this; I’m still very much in learning mode.

Rewriting philosophy

The Germans also rather successfully rewrote the history of philosophy.

I will point once again to the article on the origins of philosophy by Bryan W Van Norden. As I noted the other day, in the 18th Century, Europeans assumed that philosophy either began in India, Africa, or both.

That history was rewritten in the nineteenth century. Again citing Peter K J Park:

[…] defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.

German Idealist philosophers in the 18th and 19th Centuries do a teleological rewriting of the history of philosophy, explicitly to make themselves appear as an end point.

Making the present the telos of the past

Please forgive me for this still-nascent idea.

Probably all voluntary collaborations (countries, companies, friendships) require a kind of myth-making, the construction of narratives which intensify and articulate each time they are recalled. To take the example of friendship, you’ll often be asked to recount how you met a friend.

This is a kind of “origin story” which, through repetition, places random facts and memories into a basic narrative. This story might, over time, develop a sense of telos, a word (from Aristotle) which refers to the full potential or inherent purpose or objective of something: an end, purpose or goal. The origin story may become more satisfying if it in some sense suggests that “This was meant to be.” (I discuss telos more here).

That sense can probably come in many different forms, but two occur to me now. A sense of inevitability can come either from the meeting being overdetermined (sharing many friends, or common interests/traits/goals) or underdetermined (unlikely, a completely chance meeting). The former makes it seem as if many threads come together in the friendship, whereas the latter’s very randomness makes the friendship seem fated or foreordained.

It strikes me that this may be a reason why it seems so important to friendships to recollect and re-tell stories that both parties already know well. This re-telling produces consensus, and recall not only brings the story to mind but strengthens and intensifies it, and thereby strengthens the relationship itself. The story need not be in any sense “true” — it just needs to be agreed upon.

Larger scale cooperations likely require larger myths. Early city-states may literally have been united by their agreement on the details of stories about Bronze Age heroes. Later states need the equivalent of Bronze Age heroes, whether those are monarchs, revolutionary leaders, or founding fathers. And cooperation among multiple states may require a connection to a historic past, including reference to previous cooperations among multiple states, since it is not a particularly natural thing to do. I’ve pointed out, for example, the diverse but harmonious Europe that Zweig envisioned, and noted its mythical quality.

Spengler is doing precisely this: picking parts out of history to create a narrative. In his case, it is a tragic narrative rather than heroic — but tragedies still have heroes.

That Europe loses access to Aristotle for centuries, or that the few notes of his we have are only preserved by Islam, does not really matter in this context. The point is by the time Spengler is writing in 1918, Aristotle has a prestige, mythical, perhaps even heroic quality. His audience need not even know Aristotle well (though some surely would have) for this effect to work.2

Tracing a line from Egypt to Mesopotamia, or from Athens to Jerusalem, does not actually connect things that exist in the past. As Biagetti says in the first post, one way to view the West is as a constellation. But critically, a constellation is an effect of the observer; it is projected onto an indifferent reality.

But it does connect things in the present. By picking specific parts of Greek philosophy, Judeo-Christianity, we reveal something about ourselves. And I think that has some coherent core, as I will argue over the coming days (I start here).

On apparent inevitability

For now, here is Tolstoy, War and Peace, Volume I, Part Two, ch. IX:

If I examine an act I committed a moment ago, under approximately the same conditions as I am in now, my action seems unquestionably free to me. But if I review an act I committed a month ago, I involuntarily recognize, being in different conditions, that if that act had not been committed, many useful, agreeable, and even necessary things which resulted from that act would not have taken place. If I transport myself in memory to an act still more remote, ten years back or more, the consequences of my act will appear still more obvious to me; and it will be hard for me to imagine what would have happened if the act had not been done. The further back I transport myself in memory, or, what is the same, ahead in my judgment, the more questionable my argument about the freedom of the act will become.

In history we find exactly the same progression of convincingness about the portion of free will in the general affairs of mankind. A just-accomplished contemporary event appears to us as unquestionably proceeding from all known people; but in a more remote event we see its inevitable consequences, aside from which we cannot imagine anything else. And the further back we transport ourselves in examining events, the less arbitrary they appear to us.

The Austro-Prussian war appears to us as the unquestionable consequence of the actions of cunning Bismarck, and so on.


  1. Sometimes, at least before 1508. Even in the early period, coronations occurred in Ravenna, Bologna, and Reims. Still, it was usually in Rome. From 1508, Imperial elections took place in Frankfurt am Main, Augsburg, Rhens, Cologne or Regensburg. So the connection to Rome seems to grow more tenuous over time.
  2. If you’re wondering how many pages it takes before Spengler mentions Aristotle, the answer is 9. If you’re wondering how many times he mentions Aristotle, the answer is 68 (Plato gets 80, and Socrates 17). See my post on the Athenians.

Bryan Kam

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