We are sometimes enjoined, especially by conservatives, to do our part in “saving western civilization.”
But is there any such thing?
Does “western civilization” actually exist?
By that, I DON’T mean to ask a naively moralistic question such as “Is the west civilized?”
I mean to ask “Does the west itself actually exist?”
It is highly arguable that what we call “the west” only started to form as a cultural continuum in the late 18th century, and nobody started talking about something called “the west” until the late 19th century. This concept of “the west” really doesn’t have a lot of history behind it. Its history has been created retroactively.
One conventional idea about “the west” is that present-day Euro-Atlantic culture is part of some kind of historical and cultural continuity which stretches back over 2,000 years
– “From Plato to NATO.”
This is a makey-uppy, retroactive pseudo-historical fantasy.
There was Greek civilization, which had absorbed major influences from Persian, Mesopotamian and North African civilizations.
Then there was Roman civilization.
Neither were “western.”
Then there was “Christendom,” the Christian world, which was actually more geographically Asian and African than it was European….
At least since the late 2nd millennium BC, people living on the Mediterranean’s northern shore had thought of themselves as having MUCH more culturally in common with people living on the Mediterranean’s southern shore than they did with people living on the Rhine. Since the late bronze age, the entire Mediterranean zone had been its own fully integrated world.
Then with the Islamicization of the Maghreb, something called “Europe” came into existence about the 8th century AD. The fact of Islamic geo-strategic encirclement created a siege-mentality among the Christians living in the small “peninsula of peninsulas” which we now call “Western Europe.”
It was this sense of Islamic geo-strategic encirclement, this siege-mentality, which most centrally gave rise to a sense of what we today call “Europe.”
When Charles Martel stopped the Moors at the battle of Poitiers in 732, scribes recording the battle referred to his soldiers as “Europenses.”
There had never previously been a word in common usage to refer to a “European” person.
(The Greeks had thought of “Asia” as being NORTH of “Europe”
– “Europe” meant something entirely different to them.)
During the later middle ages, European Christian intellectual thought developed from readings of Islamic commentaries on Aristotle.
Ibn Rushd, a 12th century Islamic philosopher and jurist in Cordoba, Al Andalus, had written academic commentaries on Aristotle’s Metaphysics which were so prized by the Dominican monks that they were made a mandatory subject for all theology-students in European universities. These commentaries by Ibn Rushd, in turn, were critiques/corrections of commentaries on Aristotle which had been written a century beforehand by the Sufi philosopher and polymath Ibn Sina (Bukhara, Greater Persia, present-day Uzbekistan).
European philosophy and theology in the later middle ages are largely Christianized adaptations of Islamic philosophy and theology, all of them having been built on a bedrock of pre-Christian Greek thought.
Now, there are arguments to the effect that Aquinas is a “western” thinker just as Aristotle is a “western” thinker, simply because Aquinas writes an awful lot about Aristotle and frequently employs or adapts Aristotlean arguments and concepts. The argument goes, they’re both participants in the same “conversation,” therefore, they’re both part of some kind of historical continuum….
This is a very weak, and perhaps even deliberately illogical, argument.
Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were extremely influential participants in exactly the same “conversation.” In fact, they were clearly SO influential for European Christian intellectuals that we can confidently say that the European medieval scholastic tradition would never have kick-started if it had not been for these Islamic precursors.
So why do we classify Aristotle and Aquinas as “western,” but classify Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd as “not western?”
The typology is quite arbitrary.
Then, in the late 18th century, the industrial revolution began to make the full economic integration of the Atlantic world possible.
ONLY THEN did something called “the west” begin to gestate.
Furthermore, nobody actually started to talk about something called “the west” for another century after that.
Hegel delivered his famous lecture-series on the philosophy of History in Humboldt University, Berlin, in 1828.
His task in this lecture-series was to offer a systematic philosophical interpretation of ALL hitherto recorded history, as far back as the written record went.
The entire lecture-series is devoted to Eurasia and North Africa.
China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Judea, the Greeks, the Romans, the Germanic tribes, etc, etc….
He sees the cultural and intellectual building-blocks of “European civilization” as being almost entirely of North African and South-Western Asian origin.
He’s absolutely convinced that, both intellectually and culturally, Asia is Europe’s mother.
Insofar as I can recall, there is not even a single passing reference in the entire lecture-series to anything which had ever happened on the North American continent.
North America wasn’t even an afterthought to him.
As far as Hegel was concerned, nothing of note or of world-historical significance had ever “happened” in North America.
We’re talking about a lecture-series delivered by the most celebrated philosopher of his era in 1828.
Pretty good evidence that something called “the west” was not yet commonly recognized as being a thing.
So, in summation.
“Christendom” was replaced by “Europe,” which was in turn replaced by “the west.”
“Europe” was NOT a continuation of “Christendom”
– it was a replacement.
Just as “the west” was NOT a continuation of “Europe”
– it was a replacement.
The point is, before the 18th century (at the very earliest), there was no such thing as “western civilization.”
It’s a makey-uppy retroactive pseudo-historical fantasy.