Why the Idea of Western Civilization is More Myth Than History

One weekend, I found my younger son at the kitchen table, carefully writing out everything he knew about the Olympian gods for his school homework. His brow was furrowed, and he trained his eyes on the page with a level of concentration that I wish he would pay to his maths homework. So I asked him—casually, I thought—why he was so interested in the ancient Greeks. He beamed up at me with an angelic smile and answered, “Because that’s what you study, Mama.”

At this point, my heart nearly burst with parental pride. I am a Professor of Classical Archaeology and the ancient Greeks are, quite literally, my bread and butter. But my heart sank when my son added as an afterthought, “and because the Greeks gave us Western Civilization.” Buckle up, kid, I thought, you’re in for a lecture.

I wanted to tell him that the ancient Greeks did not give us Western Civilization. That there is no golden thread, unfurling unbroken through time from Plato to NATO. That we in the modern West are not the heirs of a unique and elevated cultural tradition, stretching back through Atlantic modernity to Enlightenment and Renaissance Europe, and from there through the darkness of the medieval period and ultimately back to the glories of classical Greece and Rome.

For most of us, it seems normal—even natural—to think of Western history in these terms. Unthinkingly, we assume that the modern West is the custodian of a privileged inheritance, passed down through a kind of cultural genealogy that we usually refer to as “Western Civilization.”

It is a version of history that is all around us, set out in popular textbooks, encoded implicitly into children’s stories and Hollywood movies, and proclaimed loudly and sometimes even angrily by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is a version of history that is simply wrong.

Research points to a different version of Western history. I have myself spent two decades of my professional life uncovering how ancient Greeks and Romans were much more diverse than we might think. They were neither predominantly white nor predominantly European, and indeed did not conceive of racial and geographical categories in the same way that we now do. As a result, the monks of western Europe, laboriously copying Latin manuscripts in their dusty scriptoria, were not the only medieval heirs of classical antiquity.

So too were the merchants of fourteenth century Sudan, conducting their trade in Greek; and so too were the Buddhist sculptors of northern India and Pakistan, who drew on the artistic traditions of the Indo-Greek kingdoms.

But perhaps the greatest centre of medieval classical learning when it came to the sciences was in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, where classical scholarship was fused with new philosophical and scientific developments drawn from across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Put simply, the real history of the West is much richer and much more complex than the traditional grand narrative of Western Civilization acknowledges. It is not a golden thread but a golden tapestry—in which strands of diverse peoples, cultures, and ideas have been woven together over the centuries.

Our notion of Western Civilization is then demonstrably wrong, proven to be factually incorrect again and again by the mounting weight of historical and archaeological research. So where did the idea come from anyway? And why do we still cling to a version of Western history that we know to be untrue?

The roots of the grand narrative lie in the Renaissance, when European thinkers began to engage more intensively with Greek and Roman antiquity. But the idea of a coherent “West,” bound together by its shared classical heritage, its Christianity, and its common geography did not emerge until several centuries later.

As late as the sixteenth century, there were attempts to build an alliance between the protestant powers of northern Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire, in coalition against their common enemies, the Catholics of central and southern Europe—implying a very different civilizational configuration from the one which we now take for granted today.

It was only with the expansion of European overseas imperialism over the course of the seventeenth century that a more coherent idea of the West began to emerge, being deployed as a conceptual tool to draw the distinction between the type of people who could legitimately be colonised, and those who could legitimately be colonizers.

With the invention of the West came the invention of Western history—an elevated and exclusive lineage that provided an historical justification for the Western domination. According to the English jurist and philosopher Francis Bacon, there were only three periods of learning and civilization in human history: “one among the Greeks, the second among the Romans, and the last among us, that is to say, the nations of Western Europe.”

But if the West and its history was invented in the imperial capitals of seventeenth century Europe, the notion of Western Civilization was born in the eighteenth century on the battlefields of revolutionary North America.

From Adams to Washington, the founding fathers found inspiration in the classical world not only for their revolutionary fervor, but also for how to justify the inconsistencies at the heart of the revolutionary movement—the cry for a freedom that permitted Black slavery, and the rejection of imperial shackles whilst continuing to impose them on others. It was the privileged inheritance of Western Civilization, the cultural and intellectual correlate of race, that justified the differential treatment of different groups of Americans.

Western Civilization is therefore not just a myth in the sense that it is a fiction that we tell ourselves, despite knowing that it is factually false. It is a myth that was invented to justify slavery, imperialism, and oppression. As such, it served the ideological needs of the time of its invention, reflecting the core values of the society that produced it.

Yet the modern West today does not have the same core values as it did three hundred years ago. We do not need an origin myth that is fundamentally at odds with contemporary Western values such as liberal democracy, the rule of law, and equality of human rights; undeniably rooted in imperialism and white supremacy. If we want to strengthen Western identity around our modern Western values, we therefore need to tear down the myth of Western Civilization.

What should we set up in its place? We should turn to the real history of the West—a narrative better supported by the actual historical facts. This is both more complex than traditional histories allow, shaped more by intercultural exchange than by innate characteristics; and more inclusive, in step with our modern Western values.

I wanted to say all this to my son, as I stood over him that day at the kitchen table. But as he put the finishing touches to his homework, I just patted him affectionately on the shoulder instead. I thought to myself—perhaps I should write this up as a book instead.

By Naoíse Mac Sweeney Via https://lithub.com/why-the-idea-of-western-civilization-is-more-myth-than-history/