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What Exactly is ‘The West’?

Every autumn, I have the great pleasure of teaching what we at Hillsdale College call “Western Heritage.”  It’s the first core course that every entering student must take. With classes ranging from 15 to 20 students each, we read primary sources, ranging from Genesis to Plato, Aristotle to St. John, Cicero to St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin. Though I’ve been teaching this course since the fall of 1999, I have never once found myself bored or tired or uninspired. Quite the opposite, actually. Whatever my faults, this course has made me a better person and a better thinker. And, judging by how my students embrace the material, the same is true for them.

Yet, every fall, as I prepare for the class, one question lingers. It’s a question I’ve never been able to answer to my own satisfaction. What is the West? Ever since the “politically correct” movement began in the 1980s in the United States, its critics have complained of it—from a quiet seething to outright brutality and invasive protests—as racist, sexist, and imperialist. The critics can be as emotionally violent as they are intellectually dull.

In the 1980s, at least, even its critics took a canon of authors and texts seriously, asking only that the canon be more inclusive in terms of race and gender. Frankly, I miss those days. Today, at the vast majority of schools and colleges, the West is something hideous and embarrassing, to the point that the term itself can trigger almost automatic hatred and dismissal.

Let’s leave the critics aside from now, with one important caveat: a recognition that they’re simply wrong.

Even the terminology suggests much good. In much of the ancient Mediterranean, the West was the land of the gods, known as the Blessed Isles, the Blessed Realm, or, of course, Atlantis. Plutarch wrote:

These are called the Islands of the Blest; rain falls there seldom, and in moderate showers, but for the most part they have gentle breezes, bringing along with them soft dews, which render the soil not only rich for ploughing and planting, but so abundantly fruitful that it produces spontaneously an abundance of delicate fruits, sufficient to feed the inhabitants, who may here enjoy all things without trouble or labour.

Even the Egyptians, often regarded as a people almost entirely separate from the other western powers, believed that Isis and Orisis, representing justice and immortality, reigned from their mysterious realm in the West.

The idea of the gods living in the West proved so strong that the early Church had a difficult time explaining how Jesus came out of the East. As a way to convince pagans to convert to Christianity, the Church described Christ as the “perfect offering” from “east to west,” thus arguing that Christ had sovereignty everywhere, preferring neither east nor west.

Whatever successes the Church had in explaining this, the mystery of the West motivated everyone from Columbus to Coronado to J.R.R. Tolkien.

No one, however, prior to the sixteenth century thought of the West as synonymous with Europe. The ancient Latins had employed the term, “Europa,” but it was an idea of freedom, not an actual place. The term Europe did not come into vogue until the very early 16th century as a way to distinguish Christian Europe from the Americas to the West and the Muslims to the south and east. Since roughly 893 AD, most educated Europeans referred to their world simply as “Christendom” or the Christiana res publica.  Alfred the Great, as far as is known, was the first to use the term, and he employed it as those people who resisted the Vikings. Most Christians, however, simply referred to what is now Europe as some variant of middangeard or Middle-earth. Even western Christians did not think of the Orthodox Churches as being “Eastern” until the Crusades.

One of the greatest historians of the last century, Christopher Dawson, thought of the West as a tradition, one that blended, almost seamlessly, the classical world with Christianity. He is worth quoting at length on this:

This tradition is entirely different from the influence of the pagan culture, which continued to exist in a submerged subconscious form; for it affected those elements in Christian society which were most consciously and completely Christian, like monasteries and the episcopal schools. Consequently, it is impossible to study Christian culture without studying classical culture also. St. Augustine takes us back to Cicero and Plato and Plotinus. St. Thomas takes us back to Aristotle. Dante takes us back to Statius and Virgil, and so on, throughout the course of Western Christian culture. And the same is true of Eastern Christendom in its Byzantine form, though this only reaches Russia . . . second hand and infrequently. But the same is true of theology, at least its more advanced study. The whole of the old theological literature of Catholic Christendom, both East and West, is so impregnated by classical influences that we cannot read the Greek and Latin Fathers, or even the Scholastic and 17th-century theologians without some knowledge of classical literature and philosophy.

Critically, for Dawson, literature, philosophy, and theology defined that tradition, ignoring the role of politics and political boundaries or seeing them, at best, as of secondary importance.

If there is such thing as a tradition of the West—say, from Marathon to Waterloo—then, we should probably accept the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) as its origin. Coming at the very end of the Persian Wars, the Spartan war king Leonidas and his 300 men held off nearly 100,000 battle hardened Persians for days. As Herodotus described it, scathingly:

But Xerxes [the Persian god king] was not persuaded any the more. Four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away. When, however, he found on the fifth that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into this presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers: others now took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few men.

Betrayed by a fellow Greek, Leonidas and his 300 were slaughtered, but their legacy remains, and deeply so. If this was the beginning of the West, the West was born in sacrifice, justice, and resistance. When the Persian tyrant demanded that Leonidas and his men to lay down their arms and surrender, the Spartan king supposed replied: “Molon labe.” That is, come and take them. Liberty, as the ancients understood it, did not mean what it may mean to some today—that every person may do what he or she likes unless it physically harms another person. Rather, freedom meant liberty from the control of a “god-king,” as was common in the East.

Such sacrifices have not been uncommon in the West. Even leaving the death of Jesus Christ aside for the sake of argument—after all, who can compare—we have the examples of Socrates being executed in his defense of Truth; Marc Antony’s men murdering the greatest of Roman Republicans, Marcus T. Cicero; the uncounted numbers of martyrs who died in the arenas; the Jesuits in North America, and so on.

Yet, if Leonidas unleashed what we might call western patriotism in 480—that is, something to fight against—the West must also have something to fight for.

The West did not, of course, invent sacrifice, no matter how well citizens of the West have embraced it for the past two and one-half millennia. It did, however, invent something unique in the world, something to fight for.

Sometime around the year 510 BC, a full thirty years before the death of Leonidas, a number of Greek thinkers in what is now the extreme western coast of Turkey wanted to know what the origin of all things might be. Could it be air, water, land, or sea? And, they wanted to know why all of life seems cyclical: life, middle-age, and death; and spring, summer, fall, and winter. Yet, the world did not end at the end of each cycle, it began anew. This proved universally true.

It must be noted that every civilization—east to west—has a form of ethics, a way to treat those in the in-group. It was uniquely in the West, though, that philosophy—the love of wisdom and the search for universal principles—arose. Ethics tells me how to treat my neighbor, but only philosophy allows me to understand that the person beyond my neighbor is still a fellow human. After all, each person is a universal truth wrapped in a particular manifestation.

Of those primary elements that might be the source of all being, as the first Greek philosophers argued, the one that won out over time was the one Heraclitus named, Logos—meaning inspiration, word, fire, thought, imagination. It is no wonder that the most Greek of the four Christian Gospels, that of St. John the Beloved, declares Jesus Christ as the Logos or that St. Paul believed Jesus the source of all being, reconciling all things through the Cross.

In other words, far from being racist and sexist, western civilization was the first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her accidents of birth. Those, today, who attack western civilization have absolutely no idea that their very freedom comes from those “dead white males” they so hate.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative [1].

43 Comments (Open | Close)

43 Comments To "What Exactly is ‘The West’?"

#1 Comment By Stephen Pickard On September 6, 2018 @ 5:08 pm

Does one ignore the horror which “the West ” has perpetrated on the Americas? What about the other atrosities? To me the criticism of the West is an attempt balance the history. If the Western culture is as suggested,I have no reason to disagree, it will survive by sheer force of its goodness.

#2 Comment By A DC Wonk On September 6, 2018 @ 5:45 pm

So, does the Middle East count as “West”?

western civilization was the first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person

Are you including the Hebrew Bible? Where even kings are subject to laws, and even corpses of those executed are to be treated respectively?

(Also: (Leviticus 19:18) “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”; Rabbi Soloveitchik noted human dignity and social justice “are implicit in the biblical concept that man was created in God’s image”; Abraham interrupting his conversation with G-d in order to greet guests; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 1:5) states: “One who gains honor through the degradation of his fellow human has no share in the World to Come.”, etc. etc. etc.)

#3 Comment By JonF On September 6, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

Re: What is the West?

A Cold War kludge throwing three disparate European subcultures together while excluding a fourth. Too bad we can no longer use the good old term, “Christendom”, but Christianity has expanded far beyond that, while dying off in its homelands. “European” still works as long as one makes it known that some overseas lands like the US are also included.

#4 Comment By GaryH On September 6, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

“In other words, far from being racist and sexist, western civilization was the first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her accidents of birth. Those, today, who attack western civilization have absolutely no idea that their very freedom comes from those “dead white males” they so hate.”

Bad people hate the good precisely because it is good. Christ-haters hate the West because it is good. Christ-haters hate white men because they men of the West, which became Christendom.

We – and that includes Rod Dreher – must stop jumping in fear and guilt when Christ-haters or white men-haters and their fellow travelers call us racist or sexist or anti-Semitic. We must stop feeling sorry for parts of them and allowing them to destroy our statues and other markers of culture of the West. We must defend our cultures, which means defending our ancestors as well as our children and grandchildren.

The average ‘conservative’ Republican of today would much rather be BFF with gays and black and Jewish agnostics and atheists than to admit he once admired Robert E. Lee.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

#5 Comment By Liam On September 6, 2018 @ 7:41 pm

I would strongly suggest it doesn’t strictly speaking include the Americas, properly speaking, which something different forged by an encounter among aboriginal*, European and African peoples. The idea that the US specifically was something Other from Europe was something vital to the Founding generation of the US, but blurred by commercial globalization in the second half of the 19th century.

* Notwithstanding their significant depopulation, Americans (the Americas) bear significant impression from the myriad ways aboriginal peoples formed the land and a culture in relationship therewith. A different relationship than Europeans had with their lands.

#6 Comment By Really? On September 6, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

“It must be noted that every civilization—east to west—has a form of ethics, a way to treat those in the in-group. It was uniquely in the West, though, that philosophy—the love of wisdom and the search for universal principles—arose.”

Have you ever heard of India by any chance?

West has offered the humanity many beautiful things But its main undoing, common with Christianity, is its arrogant self-worship. “Nobody else came to that but us, only us, we’re the only ons who, etc.” This is the result of a peculiar provincialism which well aligns with Christian uniqueness in the way it proclaims the exclusivity of its Truth.

One can say that no other civilization has been so closed to others in human history, in its refusal to accept the heritage of others, or in the distorted way its has understood others, or in the ways it has censored the origins of what it takes to be its own heritage, or in denying the others the virtues it proclaims to be its own.

Not a bad thing, necessarily. It shows that to some extent it is a very independent civilization and can go on without a need to others. It’s however nefarious to other civilizations/cultures when it becomes a dominant force, whence the imperialism, racism, etc problems.

#7 Comment By Mark B. On September 6, 2018 @ 9:01 pm

This article reads like riding a short cut very fast.

First Leonidas fought for something that must have been worthwhile, then Greek philosophers invented Logos, then medieval Christianity took it over and nurtured it.

Hence the conclusion that Western civilization was the first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her accidents of birth and is thus far from being racist and sexist.


Must I feel stupid or do I have a point?

#8 Comment By mary t. On September 6, 2018 @ 10:56 pm

Bravo!! A million Bravos!! Well said!
may the mobs take note and reflect!

#9 Comment By DennisW On September 6, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

I think I’ll fall out of my chair if Birzer ever manages to write an article that doesn’t try to enroll Tolkien (that pseudo-mediaeval pasticheur beloved by poxy schoolboys between D&D games) in the pantheon of Western Culture alongside Homer, Virgil, Dante, et al. Give it a rest.

#10 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 7, 2018 @ 12:05 am

As a professor in a STEM field, I often grade exams in which a clueless student will try to get partial credit by writing down correct but irrelevant statements. For example, asked to prove Pythagoras’s theorem about triangles, a student might write:

1) A triangle has three sides.
2) The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degree.
3) Therefore Pythagoras’s theorem is true.

Both (1) and (2) are true, but (3) does not follow from them.

In the same way, most of this article seems vaguely right but is also completely irrelevant to its conclusion, which remains unproven. For example, roughly half the article discusses the battle between the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae, but it is unclear what that has to do with Western people inventing the concept that all humans are equal in dignity.

The author writes “… the mystery of the West motivated everyone from Columbus to Coronado to J.R.R. Tolkien.”

Columbus wanted to find a sea-route from Europe to India, and he was very aware that to go from Europe to India by land, you have to travel east. However, these traditional overland trade routes were cut by the Muslims, so Columbus, who also knew that the Earth was round, decided to circumvent the problem by circumnavigating the globe. He had no interest in the west even as a cardinal direction except that it enabled him to get to where he wanted to be: India. If there is anything he was captivated by, it was India, which no one thinks of as belonging to the West.

Elsewhere the author writes: “It was uniquely in the West, though, that philosophy—the love of wisdom and the search for universal principles—arose.” Even a casual study of world history shows that starting around 2000-3000 B.C., the Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Hindus, Zoroastrians and Chinese among others created great civilizations, wrote epic poems like Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, and Mahabharatha, and made remarkable scientific discoveries and inventions (writing, the theorem attributed wrongly to Pythagoras, linguistics including a formal grammar for Sanskrit, mathematics such as excellent approximations to pi). This was ages before people in the West did anything more interesting than eating and farting.

Philosophy attempts to address questions like who am I, what is the meaning of life, what happens to us after we die. The first people who asked such questions were probably cavemen with time on their hands. All the ancient civilizations had their answers to these questions. The Nasadiya Sukta in the Rig-Veda, written around 2000 B.C., is a remarkable description of the creation of the universe that is unsurpassed in any other text I have read (the story of creation in the Old Testament, which was Revealed by the One True Abrahamic God of the West, is actually ripped off from much older Assyrian and Sumerian sources like Gilgamesh).


There are many great things about Western Civ. They deserve a better articulation than this sophomoric article.

#11 Comment By PostTenebrasLux On September 7, 2018 @ 8:07 am

This is why I read TAC. More of this please, and less of the tabloid style blogging and self-promoting by some of your writers.

#12 Comment By E. J. Worthing On September 7, 2018 @ 10:17 am

This article doesn’t answer the question the title poses. Is Russia part of the West? Latin America? The Islamic world? I can’t tell from the article how the author would approach these questions.

#13 Comment By Jon On September 7, 2018 @ 10:36 am

Another well written and thoughtful article. There is no East or West just a vast interchange of ideas between people no matter the accident of birth. In the present atmosphere tainted with binaries that categorize humanity into separate pigeon holes, I can only reply, “Sorry, but I do not see your blackness or whiteness. I only see a sea of color.”

Of course there is push back to this assertion as evidenced in the comments here. One rings the clarion call of los conquistadores and their subsequent colonialism as a reminder that our civilization is tainted. Others are quick to point that at the root of our great civilization are ideas culled from other texts originating in the land of the moguls.

What needs be addressed however is what remains of this great civilization that has disassembled to a degree with the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty. Also, how do we repair it and renew the creative zeal and fervor and confidence that we once had?

We have grown tired, our art and our writing filled with weltschmerz. And with the collapse of confidence in our creative endeavors and I am not speaking here about the physical sciences now euphemistically abbreviated as STEM but the arts, we see the flood of naysayers poking holes in our hallowed traditions arguing that they are null and void on account of conquest and blood lust and slavery or invalid because as they allege they have been appropriated from others now buried in obscurity only to be found in archeological tells or in temples where parishioners gather infrequently to commemorate rites of passage.

And now back to this continuous flood of naysayers.

#14 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 7, 2018 @ 11:18 am

The “west” is a complicated thing. Is it NATO and friends? Is it all of Europe and its former colonies (those that are dominated by European diaspora rather than natives)? Does it include the Middle East and north Africa (the Sahara Desert being a far greater obstacle to human migration than the Mediterranean Sea)? Does it include immigrants to these lands from elsewhere (and in the case of the colonies, the displaced natives), or just the “European diaspora”–in other words, just “white” people? Does it include Jews (particularly those still living in Europe or the Americas), or are they held outside the “West”?

And… is it racist or sexist? Parts of it, certainly. Parts of it, not.

My concern with articles like this, is they seem to be touting the benefits of modernism and the Enlightenment… while seeking to undo large swaths of it. The Enlightenment is certainly a fruit of Christianity–both an embrace and realization of the universal message of Christ–and a reaction to the Church’s many historical corruptions thereof. Even today, this contest continues apace, as the survival of “The West” (here meaning white Christians) is often alleged to depend on the dismantling of historical institutions, in order to keep political power from others. Many posts in this website have nostalgia for various forms of Christendom–church/state integralism that compelled butts to be in pews on Sunday morning, ensured that those who strayed too far from traditional morality would suffer the consequences (either social or commercial ostracization, or even criminal sanctions), and lent moral standing (aye, even the very approval of God Himself) to the ruling classes, whether feudal monarchies, democratic governments, or something in between.

Western civilization may well have indeed been the “first to argue for the universal concept of the dignity of the human person, regardless of his or her accidents of birth.” The biggest threats to that, however, aren’t from PC campus lefties ranting about dead white males; or from external threats like Islamic fundamentalism or Chinese ascendancy. The biggest threat comes from an activist (and yes, racist and sexist) political right-wing, who is willing and eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because they despair of such universalism and consider it bleeding-heart nonsense, and wish to capture and monopolize political power for themselves. And in a world where changing demographics mean that their tribe is no longer guaranteed an electoral majority–if that means destroying democracy or moving to a farcical version thereof, many are perfectly fine with this.

And far too many of them openly do it in the name of Christ; which is a big reason that His name is in danger of becoming mud in some circles.

#15 Comment By Donald On September 7, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

I found this article somewhat confused, but setting that aside, I agree that “the West” is a wonderful thing if we are talking about Western contributions to science, philosophy, theology, politics, and so forth. At the same time, I personally have a conservative friend whose reasoning seems to go like this–

1. Jesus is God. (I agree with this)
2. The “West” is heavily influenced by Christianity. (Okay, true enough)
3. Western civilization should be taught in schools. (Agreed on this too.)
4. Therefore anything advocated in the name of Christianity by conservative evangelicals is good and noble and “Western” and should be supported, including, for instance, Israeli oppression of Palestinians and the killing of any Muslims we happen to kill.

It is step 4 where I tend to lose the thread of the argument.

#16 Comment By red6020 On September 7, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

Mark B:
Must I feel stupid or do I have a point?

Don’t worry I thought the same thing.

I think Birzer’s arguments are scattershot, because it’s genuinely impossible to make Westerners pre-1900 out as “non-racist” or “non-sexist” in the way that Leftists mean. When Birzer states that Progressives call the West inherently “racist” or “sexist”, he misses their reason for doing so. It’s not because they believe the West denies “universal human dignity” or some other such thing. It’s because “the West” is taken to mean that civilization characterized by Christianity, Patriarchy, and Whiteness. And they simply have another definition for those terms.

“Racist” means “allegiance to your group of people, unless that group of people are non-White”. “Sexist” means “advocacy for more power to one gender over another, unless that gender is Female”.

Have you ever heard someone say that groups such as the NAACP, La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus, or the various racial organizations in the SBC, the Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and all of society are racist? Maybe, but it’s rare. And you’re less and less likely to hear that the further you go Left. And many denounce “racism towards Whites” as an impossibility.

Ever heard of someone saying the gender gap in college graduation rates or the current divorce/child custody system is “sexist”? Unlikely.

Same could be said for “religious bigotry” when applied to Christians, “freedom of speech” when applied to conservatives, etc.

At the end of the day, it’s about a power struggle. Not good-faith concern over “equal rights”.

Every single one of our ancestors before the 20th Century could get branded as “racist” or sexist”. While many Westerners for millennia have believed in universal human dignity, they didn’t believe in Egalitarianism. But neither do the Leftists, so why should we feel ashamed about it?

#17 Comment By red6020 On September 7, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

*Correction: when I said “they simply have another definition for those terms” I meant to refer to “racism” and “sexism”; not “Christianity, Patriarchy, and Whiteness”. Oops.

#18 Comment By Lyttenburgh On September 7, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

The article and its premise are very important. The execution is… rushed and half-hearted. The author absolutely correctly points out that the idea of “Europe” entered the mainstream narrative only c. 16th, but does little to explain why and how. Logically, the same thing ought to be done with the concept of the “West”… and the author does not deliver. Why?

Nothing happens overnight. The occasions and instances mentioned by the author are important, but not crucial. “The West” became an idea after the Great War. “The West” became the Thing after WW2. Simple as that.

The author also makes no distinctions between the ancient Mediterranean civilization, Christendom, Europe and the West, thinking them the one and the same thing. It is not, as you are not your parents and not your grandparents. Thus the West, currently, is a post-European half-barbaric successor to the great legacy which, try as it might, actually wastes more of that inheritance than gets – ignoring the fact, that Europe has other inheritors as well.

As to the question “whom consider Western?”, there is only one honest answer – whoever the Anglo-Saxon mainstream narrative proclaims as such. Hitler had no trouble proclaiming Bulgarian honorary Aryans – as well as Japanese. Japanese now also “Western” out of convenience. There is no logic here and a lot of hypocrisy – that’s PC for your and me.

#19 Comment By Youknowho On September 7, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

Color me skeptical when it comes to the liberty from the rule of the god-king.

There comes a time when an empire must be dismantled, and its constituent parts allowed to go their own way. But classical Greece is hardly the model. For them, liberty meant the liberty to go to war against other city states, and if conqueired, kill all the men and make slaves of the women and children. That constant warfare between towns was what made empires necessary.

Only when people have decided taht constant warfere is NOT a good idea, can we talk about freedom from the god-king.

As it was an empire meant several things.

1) No peasant is pulled off the harvest to defend his home.
2) The wealth that would have gone to build walls and maintain a garrison would go to building roads and trade routes.
3) When the harvest was bad, there was recourse to the granaries, where previous excedent harvests were stored (the seven fat cows and seven thin cows)

There was a reason why the Egytpian and Persian empires were prosperous. Peace will do that to you.

Of course, eventually, empires and god-kings have to go. But until then, they make civilization possible

#20 Comment By Youknowho On September 7, 2018 @ 3:33 pm


The average conservative Republican, if he is old-style, he remembers, or ought to remember that his is the party of Lincoln, and extend to Robert E Lee the respect due to a gallant defeated foe.

And reserve his admiration for Ulysses S. Grant

#21 Comment By S. Sadjadi. On September 7, 2018 @ 5:41 pm

So Cyrus the great was not the first one to declare the human rights? see [3]
I think the author is full of western glory because he teaches the subject. Actions speak louder than words Sir. See colonization by the west and the world wars and how the world was cut up by the west like a birthday cake.

#22 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 7, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

I think Birzer’s arguments are scattershot, because it’s genuinely impossible to make Westerners pre-1900 out as “non-racist” or “non-sexist” in the way that Leftists mean.

I agree with this. The better way to defend Western Civ. is to go on the attack and ask whether any other civilization on this planet was non-racist and non-sexist at that time.

If you think Western Civ is bad, you should look at African or Islamic civilizations – Africans and Muslims are enslaving people *today* in places like Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Iraq/Syria.


But this requires studying civilizations other than Western civ and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, which few people in the West do, so you do not know how to defend yourselves against all these grifters and charlatans who exploit your ignorance.

#23 Comment By Mark VA On September 7, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

“What is the West?”

Historian Norman Davies in the “Introduction” his “Europe”, is not kind to the purveyors of Western civilization. After listing about a dozen intellectual constructs that competed at one time or another for the appellation (from “Roman Empire”, thru “Second German” and “WASP” variants, to the most recent “Euro” attempt) demonstrates the necessary conclusion:

Western civilization can be defined in “almost any way” its advocates see fit. It is an amalgam of “complex exercises in ideology, countless identity trips, of sophisticated essays in cultural propaganda” (Norman Davies, “Europe”, pp. 22-26);

In addition to the above, to get a sense of how the whole idea was incubated, hatched, and popularized, I can think of no better book than Larry Wolff’s “Inventing Eastern Europe”. It is not about Eastern Europe – it is an exploration of the minds (many French philosophes here) who conceived and built the concept of Western civilization to its Olympian heights;

Finally, to propose a way out of this quagmire, I would suggest Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads”. It offers a refreshing change of perspective which, while being just to the Greeks and the Romans, nevertheless places them on a much more interesting global stage. Now they are just two actors among equals – the Chinese, Indians, Persians, to mention just three;

I think that to constrict young American minds to just the Greeks and the Romans (often in a sanitized way), entangles them in a limited intellectual perspective. To construct a truly American Civilization, they need to know the thoughts and the deeds, good and bad, of all other great civilizations:

#24 Comment By Really? On September 7, 2018 @ 10:45 pm


Yeah, ad hominem arguments…. what about us in the middle, who would condemn those leftist identity politics, but do not see it as a justification for the white identity politics? Are we allowed by your majesty to point to the obvious ‘racism’ recorded in historical documents?; that e.g. to all the European colonial powers the indigenous people were barbaric and not dignified enough to enjoy the rights of the civilized man? Example to the point: Indigénat! That the West gave rise to something called The Third Reich with an obvious racist agenda?

Give me a break. The battle of Frog and Mouse!

#25 Comment By Nelson On September 7, 2018 @ 11:55 pm

It was uniquely in the West, though, that philosophy—the love of wisdom and the search for universal principles—arose.

I don’t believe this.

#26 Comment By Lyttenburgh On September 8, 2018 @ 6:39 am

The article has very important premise, the author appears to be both smart and educated enough to pull it through… but he fails to deliver. We have no answer as to what is “the West”. Hurr-durring on progressives and their screeching about “oppression” is not the issue here. The Big Question in the articles title is.

Mr. Birzer absolutely correctly draws our attention to the fact, that the concept of the “Europe” did not enter the mainstream intellectual sphere till 16th c. But he fails to mention how, why and through what – how a pagan term supplanted universal Christendom. That would require not one, but many articles, and Mr. Birzer even covers some of the possible (future?) topics, like the treatment of the Classics by the Church and the beginning of the systematic education.

Author seems somehow rushed in his desire to mention all and everyone, instead of stopping for a sec and allowing both himself and his readers to think. Like – if the future intellectual elite of the Christendom, whose creation was only possible by the Catholic Church amassing of enough of free resources to spare enough of temporal power to have a say in the internal politics in the “just” realms, if these fine gents had access to Virgil and Cicero, they also had access to Juvenal and Apuleius. That the classic legacy had a “rotting” potential, from toppling, ideologically, the Catholic Church from within.

Needless to say, Mr. Birzer fails do the simplest thing and ask, when concept of “the West” entered the intellectual mainstream. The answer would be – right after the Great War. But nothing happens overnight, and the process of inception was formalized only after the WW2.

As for the questions “who counts as belonging to the West”, the answer is really easy – whoever is chosen as such by the Anglo-American intellectual establishment. Hitler had no trouble proclaiming “honorary Aryan” Bulgarians and Japanese. And now, lo and behold – Japanese, out of convenience, are now also proclaimed “Western”, and even Bulgarians – by the virtue of entering the NATO. It is hypocritical, yes – that’s the point.

#27 Comment By Lyttenburgh On September 8, 2018 @ 6:45 am


Both the author and commenters here seem to believe in the fiction of the “Eternal West”, spanning literally millennia. That, somehow, the Classic Mediterranean Civilizations of Greeks and Romans, Christendom, Europe and “the West” are one and the same. They are not, just as your are not your parents or grandparents. The West is (one of) inheritors of the European civilization that peaked in 19th c. only to be brought low by the nationalism. The West is one (nationalistic in a fashion) shard of that common legacy – barely post-barbaric usurper, that have squandered more of the parental wealth than added to it. It’s claims to universality are only in the sphere of the low, base culture, that’s too trifle to serve as reliable foundation.

#28 Comment By Cererean On September 8, 2018 @ 9:05 am

I would argue, instead, that the West is synonymous with what used to be called Christendom – a distinct civilisation that has Christianity at it’s core. It follows from this that the West is a distinct civilisation from pagan antiquity.

Civilisations are defined by their metaphysics. The West (Europe – and I would include Russia here – and her colonies) is the only one to have been founded upon Christianity, and has been steeped in it for a thousand years. India has Hinduism, Arabia has Islam, China has Confucianism. The West is in crisis because it’s lost it’s metaphysical footing.

#29 Comment By Russ On September 8, 2018 @ 10:53 am

I’ve taken a few philosophy classes, and have always wondered: when learning about western philosophy we read the writings of Aquinas, Dante, Calvin, Pascal as legitimate philosophical works- in spite of the fact that those authors were working backwards from a religious perspective essentially propping up their respective theological opinions-, but the Tao, pre-Hindu Indian Sutras, the teachings o Buddha ect. are relegated to world religions classes. Why is it that the philosophy of a group of people who’s foundational belief of an energy that flows through all things- a belief that has been born out in fact and scientific testing by the greatest phisicists of the last 100 years- is relegated to the land of kooky religious beliefs while Christianity is mentions in the same breath as Plato and Aristotle who had never even heard of it?

#30 Comment By Good Reason On September 8, 2018 @ 11:09 am

This appears to be an abridgment of a longer essay, because the various propositions do not cohere well. No doubt they did in the original.

What the West did that no other culture did was lay the foundation for the emancipation of women, who are half of the human race. The anomalous West:
1) banned polygyny
2) banned cousin marriage
3) insisted wives could inherit their husband’s estate
4) disinherited illegitimate children
5) developed later marriage of girls, so instead of being married at puberty, women were married in their late 20s, which led to an insistence on true consent to marry on the part of women. This also de-established arranged marriage and thus strengthened love, not property and status, as the core of marriage (which is why Pride and Prejudice is still so stirring even today).
6) made adultery a crime for both men and women (it had only been a crime for women before)

No other culture did this. Not one. Though women were still subordinated in the West, the playing field had been changed. The household was no longer a dictatorship, but a developing democracy. And that type of household in turn was the foundation of many important things the West became known for: the inherent dignity of the individual, the rule of law, democracy, and entrepreneurship.

The West, ironically, was God’s gift to women.

#31 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 8, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

The West – specifically, the English – abolished slavery. That should be highlighted in these kinds of debates, not absurd assertions about the West inventing philosophy or french fries.

#32 Comment By Really? On September 8, 2018 @ 11:43 pm

@Good Reason

Yeah yeah, again, you tell yourself insipid jokes and you laugh at them, satisfied at your great humor. Well, also no other culture invent porn industry with billions of dollars of income, “Not one”.

On can dismantle most of the claims you make in your list one by one, but I’m not here to teach lessons of history to the self-satisfied. See my first comment. One question one must ask though: why is there so much frustration about “women emancipation” in the West then? Aren’t they emancipated already?

Every civilization was a human civilization, and the West is
too. Humans did the best they could do with ups and downs of history and circumstances, the strengths and weaknesses of their characters.

‘The West’ was not a ‘conscious agent’, didn’t decide anything for emancipating women. The capitalist system which was adapted required work force and economic dependance of individuals on corporations rather than communities, hence the pressure towards nuclear families rather than larger ones; and at the same time the unprecedented prosperity it (alongside new technologies) brought helped to raise the age of marriage and expectations of people from it. Many of the changes in marriage and family structures can be explained through that approach, or you’ll get stuck asking yourself e.g. how come the age of marriage was fixed at about 10 up till late 19th century in US and UK, and why you have still child brides in US.

#33 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 9, 2018 @ 2:27 am

“What the West did that no other culture did was lay the foundation for the emancipation of women, who are half of the human race.”

boy it is very tiresome to here about female enslavement.

women had nothing to be emancipated from that didn’t bind men as well.

#34 Comment By Rob On September 9, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

My parents grew up in “communist” Poland. In Poland and probably most of the USSR, the West or “Zachód” referred to Western Europe (mainly Germany, France, and the UK) and the US/Canada.

#35 Comment By TR On September 10, 2018 @ 9:40 am

When was “cousin marriage” banned? This would come as a surprise to FDR and Rudy Giuliani both of whom married cousins. (I think Rudy’s first was his second cousin.)

#36 Comment By JonF On September 10, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

This is no civilization wide ban on cousin marriage. It was always allowed with dispensation from the Church, and it’s legal in US states today. Also illegitimate children could be legitimized and inherit. There are many examples. The thrones of both Portugal and Castile fell to bastard sons in the late Middle Ages.

#37 Comment By Tyro On September 10, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

True in theory, but in practice colonialism destroyed any pretense of this… because suddenly given the opportunity to treat people like objects and treat their lives as disposable, they were willing to do so, on a massive, industrialized scale. The experience of the Caribbean and North American slavery and the Belgian Congo pretty clearly put to rest any moral authority of the west on the dignity of individual life.

#38 Comment By JS On September 11, 2018 @ 10:17 am

When people complain that “the West” is racist, sexist, and has blots on its past from having conducted wars and atrocities, one should ask them “in comparison to what? To whom?” Where is the mythical culture outside of ours where people have no sexism, no racism and all have always lived in harmony?
There is in fact much stronger evidence that there is less racism, sexism, and cruelty in the West than outside of it; and this is no accident, but based on the very principles deeply enshrined in Western philosophies.

#39 Comment By red6020 On September 11, 2018 @ 10:17 am

Yeah, ad hominem arguments…. what about us in the middle, who would condemn those leftist identity politics, but do not see it as a justification for the white identity politics? Are we allowed by your majesty to point to the obvious ‘racism’ recorded in historical documents?; that e.g. to all the European colonial powers the indigenous people were barbaric and not dignified enough to enjoy the rights of the civilized man?

You slide pretty easily between three different contentions there. 1) that anything was an ad hominem argument, 2) a red herring about White identity politics, 3) that anyone denied your ability to point out the opinions of various people who lived in the 19th Century.

As to 1, “ad hominem” is “attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument”. You won’t find a single example of ad hominem in my reply. I argued that the working Leftist definition of racism/non-racism is different than what Birzer was trying to prove.

As to 2, from your answer it seems like you oppose any attempts to develop and maintain Black identity (or Asian identity, or Hispanic identity or White identity) or allegiance to the same. Fine. But that has nothing to do with what I said. Westerners in the past (as would also apply to all other peoples) believed in attachment, loyalty, love, and devotion to one’s “people”. It is also plainly true that throughout Western history, one’s “people” was often construed by descent, bloodline, kinship, or whatever else you’d like to call it. They were not “civic nationalists”, as we say today. That is what is called “racist” by the Left. And Birzer seems to omit that in his article, which functions as a response to the Left. You can reject both White and Black identity politics. You may consider them both racist. Great! But that has nothing to do with the fitness of Birzer’s argument. (Additionally, I never even endorsed White identity politics in my response)

As to 3, since you seemingly define “racism” as “belief that indigenous people were barbaric and not dignified enough to enjoy the rights of the civilized man”, you’re wrong that Western Civilization was incontrovertibly “racist”, especially any more than any other civilization. Plenty of people who denied your definition of “racism”, still believed in a special attachment to your nation on the grounds of common descent (amongst other factors), and therefore would still be called “racist” today. That was my point! That Birzer didn’t notice this… (Again, I never denied these facts nor your ability to assert them) There’s an obvious difference between “some people in the West are racist” and “the whole thing called Western civilization is racist”.

But the problem is that people who go banging on about how “racist” Western Civilization was/is are playing a rhetorical game themselves. Motte-and-bailey fallacy, a species of equivocation. One minute it’s “racism means believing foreigners are subhumans and deserve to be exterminated” and the next its “racism is concern for one’s own group when that group is based on kinship”. The whole point of my reply was to bring this out, which apparently “Really?” missed.

#40 Comment By TR On September 11, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

Every state has laws for legitimating illegitimate children and in the ones I’m familiar with (as a former welfare worker) there is no requirement that said parents marry.

It also used to be very hard to convince a judge that a child born to a married couple was not the husband’s. Maybe DNA testing has changed all that.

#41 Comment By Tyro On September 11, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

This is no civilization wide ban on cousin marriage. It was always allowed with dispensation from the Church, and it’s legal in US states today.

The west is interesting in that it at least made a large effort to undermine it with the advent of Christianity. What it did (and what conservatives at the time would have argued) was undermine the tribe/clan system in favor of citizenship.

Islam notably provided greater rights for women than previously existed in Arabia (or Europeans using primageniture) by allowing daughters to inherit property. But this ended up *strengthening* traditions of cousin marriage in the Middle East and Mediterranean because it incentivized fathers to marriage their daughters off to paternal cousins in order to keep the wealth in the (paternal) family.

#42 Comment By Youknowho On September 11, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

The problem with the disenfranchising of illegitimate children is that, as Peron said, it punished the truly innocent party.

And by creating a subset of humans who were not counted the same, led to the belief that they were not human at all. From there to conclude that they were better dead was just a step And a step which was taken long before abortion became legal.

Has anyone heard of the Tuan babies? At that time a doctor said “It would be kinder to strangle these children at birth”


Because their parents were not married.

Does it surprise you than Ireland voted for abortion, after this?

#43 Comment By Martin On September 13, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

That their freedom comes from those dead white males is precisely why they hate them.