This post is prompted by Stanford’s new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement. Stanford makes no claim to present something called “Western Civilization” in chronological order. Instead, it assigns texts about common themes from diverse sources. I basically want to endorse this approach (which is not unique to Stanford).
Shared readings provide the basis for focused conversation that can encompass disagreement. I also see an argument for choosing works that illuminate the ideas, values, and institutions that have become globally dominant in the wake of European imperialism, which we can assess both critically and appreciatively. However, I cannot see a legitimate rationale for selecting authors and texts that are labeled “Western.”
Important lines of influence have always crossed any border that would demarcate the West, which has itself been deeply diverse. The word “West” sometimes names the countries where the majority populations are seen today as white, but that is an indefensible basis for selecting sources. A tenable justification would have to explain how something called the West is both internally consistent and intellectually distinct (whether for good or ill); and I don’t see a basis for that.
It’s true that some works from non-European regions extoll community and denounce individual selfishness or advance holistic and integrated metaphysical views. These texts are taken as evidence that “the West” is uniquely materialistic, dualistic, and individualistic. But authors from traditions like Buddhism would not have taken the trouble to argue so forcefully against materialism and selfishness if those values had been limited to people thousands of miles to their west. Their elaborate and sometimes urgent arguments to their own compatriots provide evidence that the values labeled “Western” have actually been widespread in many times and places. Meanwhile, Europe has produced powerful voices for mysticism, communalism, and deep ecology.
I’ll quote a passage from Leo Strauss, not to criticize him individually (even though I once published a roman-à-clef about him), but as an illustration of a view that I think was commonplace not long ago:
All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusion and dangers of the present are founded, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences, the broadest and deepest—so far as Western man is concerned—are indicated by the names of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Introductory Reflections“ (Commentary, June 1967)
One premise here is that modern European ideas derive from two main sources, classical Greece and ancient Judaism. Perhaps Strauss also thought that the resulting ideas were good or true, although I suspect his own view resembled the deeply skeptical argument that he attributes to Nietzsche in the same article.
Regardless of Strauss’ ultimate position, my focus here is not the claim that it’s valuable to understand the intellectual history that flows from “biblical faith and Greek thought.” I object to following that history only through European countries and their colonies.
We might envision Athens as a label for a set of contesting ideas that emerged in the Greek classical period, and treat it as node. We might likewise use Jerusalem as the name of a node that represents the various strands of ancient Judaism. Some thinkers of the Hellenistic period connected these nodes, forming the basis of Christianity. For example, when John writes (in Greek), “In the beginning was the logos,” he combines these two sources.
Zooming out from those two nodes, we can identify many influences on both. The Hebrew Bible describes a people who were profoundly connected to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Greek thought drew on the same sources, plus South Asia and perhaps Scythia. For example, Pyrrho of Elis may have been a Buddhist and was certainly influenced–as were several other Greek philosophers–by his travels in India.
The nodes labeled Athens and Jerusalem then radiated influences on many periods and places. Leo Strauss was an expert on the ways that Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture shaped classical Islam. One center of medieval Islam was Spain, from which Greek and Jewish ideas and texts spread to Catholic Europe. The first people to depict the Buddha in statuary were Indo-Greeks, while Catholic monasticism may be modeled on India’s bhikkhus and sanyasis. Examples of such radiating influence could be explored endlessly.
It is then very odd to name the zone that was influenced by Athens and Jerusalem as “the West.” The influences of Greece plus ancient Judaism extend, for example, to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, which lies at the east end of Asia. Jerusalem is also in Asia, and Athens is far to the east of (say) Marrakesh. Until the 1800s, the word “west” referred to a compass direction and bore no other implications. The first use that I can find that clearly defines the West in terms of culture–or race–is from 1892, around the apogee of European imperialism. By the way, one reason that the phrase “Western civilization” then became prevalent was a deep anxiety about the condition and prospects of Europe, especially following the First World War.
Studying a canon of works that relate to Athens and Jerusalem has value. For one thing, it’s an opening to discuss extraordinarily diverse and contesting ideas. But defining its scope as the countries where most people have had white skin is untenable.
See also: the history of the phrase “the West”; Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europe; to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?; Jesus was a person of color; The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress (in Aeon)