The West and its Foundations

We previously wrote about the importance of a liberal education. We discussed briefly the concept of a “Western canon.” Here, we go a bit deeper into what “the West” is. Given the mission of this site to celebrate the American Republic through discussion of policy, history, and philosophy, we will also touch on the birth of philosophy in the West.

The Concept of a Civilization

Philosopher Robert Hutchins sees conversation and relatively open discourse as a key defining characteristic of Western civilization, but there is more to it than just that.

Civilization is a cultural concept. In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington refers to it as “culture writ large.” Civilization is the broadest cultural entity, broader than village, regional, or national entities. Mirroring Greek historian Herodotus, Huntington sees four key elements to define a civilization: (1) blood, or common ancestry; (2) language; (3) religion, as the strongest binding force of a civilization; and (4) customs and general way of life.

Civilizations absorb culture and technology from neighboring civilizations, even developing out of parent civilizations. Citing and expanding on historian Carrol Quigley’s work on civilizations, Huntington sees Western civilization as a blending of the Canaanite and Classical Mediterranean civilizations. Islamic civilization also evolves from the same two primary parents, though Islamic and Western civilizations are very different.

Foundations of Western Civilization

So, what specific characteristics does Huntington say define Western Civilization? Western civilization has at its roots Greek philosophy, in particular a tradition of rational inquiry, and Roman law, with a tradition of the Rule of Law.

The Concept of Philosophy

If the West is, in part, founded in Greek philosophy, let’s consider the idea of philosophy for a moment. What is it, and why do we see it as a foundation of Western civilization. Where our concern is primarily political philosophy, what is that?

In Ancient Philosophy : The Fundamentals, Daniel Graham writes that “philosophy is at some level an ongoing conversation in which new theories grow out of attempts to solve old problems in new ways.” He goes on to note, however, that philosophy does not occur in a vacuum. To some degree, philosophy is born of its time: “However timeless our contemporary theories may seem, they always arrive schlepping baggage from the past, and depart leaving new baggage for the future.” When we read philosophical writings, we need to be mindful of the historical context in which they were written.

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russel writes that philosophy seems to sit somewhere between theology (the realm of dogma) and science (the realm of certainty). Like theology, philosophy is concerned with matters which are not necessarily fully knowable. Like science, philosophical inquiry is based on rationality as opposed to theology’s appeals to authority.

What we know as philosophy (meaning the love of wisdom; from the Greek words philos, love, and sophia, wisdom) arose in Ancient Greece. At the beginning, “philosophy” included almost all fields of systematic, rational inquiry. Fields that we label “science” now were part of “philosophical” inquiry. What we now call the sciences generally fell under the label of “natural philosophy,” defying in the earliest times any attempt at a distinction between philosophy and science. Indeed, physics and metaphysics were the primary focus of the earliest philosophers.

Political Philosophy

What is political philosophy? Political philosophy is a branch of ethics. Ethics a branch of philosophy concerned with how people should relate to each other. The earliest field to separate itself from natural philosophy was medicine, though significant overlap between philosophy and medicine would remain for some time. Other scientific fields, including physics and biology, would remain part of natural philosophy for much longer before eventually assuming status as science.

Though ethics constitutes a large part of what we consider philosophy today, systematic exploration of ethics was a relative latecomer, urged on by Socrates. While there certainly was pre-philosophical ethical and political thought, some of which was informed by Greek theology, Socrates’ emphasis on ethical and political issues was truly revolutionary.

Language Bonds of the West

Greek and Latin formed linguistic bonds tying the West together, though different nationalities developed their own specific languages, many of which were directly derived from Latin.

Religious Bonds of the West

Christianity, through both Catholicism and later Protestantism, provided a religious bond for much of the history of the West. Huntington sees the development of Western Christianity as “the single most important historical characteristic of Western civilization.” Though Christianity is a defining characteristic of the West, so also is separation of civil and ecclesiastical authority.

Uniqueness of the West

In 1996, Samuel Huntington’s article “The West: Unique, Not Universal,” was published. Coming out of these elements, the West further developed representative political institutions, and acceptance of pluralism – the ability for groups to form based on common interests. While these characteristics are, on their own, not unique to the West. The combination and relative strength of these factors is what makes, in the words of Huntington’s article, “The West: Unique, Not Universal,” “Western civilization unique, and Western civilization is precious not because it is universal but because it is unique.”

Why Focus on the West?

At this point, some readers may wonder why we should focus on the West. Don’t non-Western civilizations deserve attention or have something to offer. The answer is yes, they may. Our focus is on the American Republic. The United States was born out of the Western tradition. To understand the American founding requires understanding its Western context.

Well, shouldn’t Americans study other cultures and civilizations? The short answer is yes. French, German, and Spanish cultures, for example, are certainly different than American culture. They are, however, part of Western civilization. To understand them, then, requires a broad understanding of Western civilization.

Well, what about Japanese or Chinese civilization? These, indeed, are non-Western, and they are certainly worthy of study and consideration. To appreciate other cultures or civilizations, it is important to understand your own to be able to make comparisons. For those living in Western countries, that means fruitful study of other civilizations requires first a good understanding of Western civilization.

Similarly, for those living in China, for example, a solid understanding of Chinese civilization necessarily precedes deep fruitful inquiry into Western civilization. We must know where we are before we can appreciate other places.