It’s remarkably unfashionable to study—or even talk about—the West these days.
Forty years ago the most important and popular freshman course at the best American colleges and universities was “Western Civilization.” It not only covered the general history of the West but also included historical surveys of art, music, literature, philosophy, science, and other matters. But this course has long since disappeared from most college catalogues on grounds that Western civilization is but one of many civilizations and it is ethnocentric and arrogant to study ours.
It is widely claimed that to offer a course in “Western Civilization” is to become an apologist “for Western hegemony and oppression” (as the classicist Bruce Thornton aptly put it). Thus, Stanford dropped its widely admired “Western Civilization” course just months after the Reverend Jesse Jackson came on campus and led members of the Black Student Union in chants of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go.” More recently, faculty at the University of Texas condemned “Western Civilization” courses as inherently right wing, and Yale even returned a $20 million contribution rather than reinstate the course.
To the extent that this policy prevails, Americans will become increasingly ignorant of how the modern world came to be. Worse yet, they are in danger of being badly misled by a flood of absurd, politically correct fabrications, all of them popular on college campuses: That the Greeks copied their whole culture from black Egyptians. That European science originated in Islam. That Western affluence was stolen from non-Western societies. That Western modernity was really produced in China, and not so very long ago. The truth is that, although the West wisely adopted bits and pieces of technology from Asia, modernity is entirely the product of Western civilization.
I use the term modernity to identify that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world. For there is another truth: to the extent that other cultures have failed to adopt at least major aspects of Western ways, they remain backward and impoverished.
This is not to say that the old “Western Civilization” classes got everything right. Despite their value, these courses usually were far too enamored of philosophy and art, far too reluctant to acknowledge the positive effects of Christianity and amazingly oblivious to advances in technology, especially those transforming mundane activities such as farming and banking.
Also, both the textbooks and the instructors involved in the old “Western Civ” courses were content merely to describe the rise of Western civilization. They usually avoided any comparisons with Islam or Asia and ignored the issue of why modernity happened only in the West.
To explore that question is not ethnocentric; it is the only way to develop an informed understanding of how and why our world emerged as it did.
In early times China was far ahead of Europe in terms of many vital technologies. But when Portuguese voyagers reached China in 1517, they found a backward society in which the privileged classes were far more concerned with crippling young girls by binding their feet than with developing more productive agriculture—despite frequent famines. Why?
Or why did the powerful Ottoman Empire depend on Western foreigners to provide it with fleets and arms?
Or, to change the focus, why did science and democracy originate in the West, along with representational art, chimneys, soap, pipe organs, and a system of musical notation? Why was it that for several hundred years beginning in the thirteenth century only Europeans had eyeglasses or mechanical clocks? And what about telescopes, microscopes, and periscopes?
There have been many attempts to answer these questions. Several recent authors attribute it all to favorable geography—that Europe benefited from a benign climate, more fertile fields, and abundant natural resources, especially iron and coal. But, as Victor Davis Hanson pointed out in his book Carnage and Culture, “China, India, and Africa are especially blessed in natural ores, and enjoy growing seasons superior to those of northern Europe.” Moreover, much of Europe was covered with dense hardwood forests that could not readily be cleared to permit farming or grazing until iron tools became available. Little wonder that Europe was long occupied by cultures far behind those of the Middle East and Asia.
Other scholars have attributed the success of the West to guns and steel, to sailing ships, or to superior agriculture. The problem here is that these “causes” are part of what needs to be explained: why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, shipbuilding, and farming? The same objection arises to the claim that science holds the secret of “Western domination,” as well as to the Marxist thesis that it was all due to capitalism. Why did science and capitalism develop only in Europe?
In attempting to explain this remarkable cultural singularity, we must, of course, pay attention to material factors—obviously history would have been quite different had Europe lacked iron and coal or been landlocked. Even so, explanations should not—cannot—rest primarily on material conditions and forces. It is ideas that matter (though this basic premise, too, is quite unfashionable in contemporary scholarly circles). As the distinguished economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey observed, “Material, economic forces . . . were not the original and sustaining causes of the modern rise.” Or, as she put it in the subtitle of her fine book: “Why economics can’t explain the modern world.” Quietly mocking Karl Marx, McCloskey asserted that Europe achieved modernity because of “ideology.”
If Marx was sincere when he dismissed the possibility of ideas being causative agents as “ideological humbug,” one must wonder why he labored so long to communicate his socialist ideas rather than just relaxing and letting “economic determinism” run its “inevitable” course. In fact, Marx’s beloved material causes exist mainly as humans perceive them—as people pursue goals guided by their ideas about what is desirable and possible. Indeed, to explain why working-class people so often did not embrace the socialist revolution, Marx and Friedrich Engels had to invent the concept of “false consciousness”—an entirely ideological cause.
Similarly, it is ideas that explain why science arose only in the West. Only Westerners thought that science was possible, that the universe functioned according to rational rules that could be discovered. We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational creator. Clearly, then, the French historian Daniel Mornet had it right when he said that the French Revolution would not have occurred had there not been widespread poverty, but neither would it have occurred without revolutionary philosophies, for it was “ideas that set men in motion.”
Once we recognize the primacy of ideas, we realize the irrelevance of long-running scholarly debates about whether certain inventions were developed independently in Europe or imported from the East.
This essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue of the Intercollegiate Review, and is adapted from How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books). Find it at isibooks.org.