Week 1: Introduction: What is “Western Civilization”? and the Place of Europe in 1500
Perhaps one of the most interesting questions involved in the history of “Western Civilization” is exactly how we actually define this idea of “Western Civilization”. For some historians, until the past century, “Western Civilization” was born on the banks of the Mediterranean and largely began with the Greeks. Even J.M. Roberts’ The Penguin History of Europe and Norman Davies Europe: A History (both seminal works in the field) begin with the civilizations of the Aegean (i.e. the Greek city-states). However, as we all know, civilizations began thousands of years before the time of Socrates and Plato. But the idea of “Western Civilization” largely came about as a response to European expansion across the globe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was an attempt to define Europe as different from those places they had just conquered.
This has led to a sense of superiority or inevitability when we talk about the history of Europe and “West Civilization”. And as we thoroughly entrench ourselves in the 21st century, it has become very clear that the Modern World has very much been a Western World. The influence of Western (largely European) culture and ideas on the development of the world, for both good and evil, cannot be ignored. But 500 years ago, this was simply not the case. While Europe had always been part of an interconnecting network of global trade, it had not been a dominant force in world affairs. Trade routes on the Silk Road and other commercial networks revolved primarily around China. Power rested almost exclusively in areas outside of Europe, including Ming China, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire. No one anticipated that a divided, isolated, and relatively small continent to the west of all these great powers would eventually rise up to dominate the globe.
This is key. Europe, or “The West” did not rise because of some providential miracle, but because of a combination of external and internal factors. “Western culture” as we will see in the course, was constantly changing and influenced by factors across multiple continents. As Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in your readings for this week: “To be blunt: if western culture were real, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking it up.” Therefore, it is critical to not call this a narrative of exceptionalism. Instead, we will see the history of Europe during period as a narrative involving a range of people from multiple perspectives who eventually formed what we may call “Modern Europe.” In did not begin in 1500, as Kennedy alludes, but instead was part of a long process in the history of human civilization. This class will only be one small chapter of that process.
Kennedy and Appiah have two very different views of the place of Europe in global history, but both are centering on this idea of “Western Civilization.” Using the readings from this week, why is the use of “Western Civilization” when discussing European historian such a problematic idea? More specifically, how does the use of this term impede our understanding of how Europe may have developed beginning around the year 1500?
Please do not be overly general, but instead, illustrate specific details from the assigned material. Remember, your posts should be at least two paragraphs. Keep in mind a paragraph is three to five complete sentences.