The Idea of the West

By David Gress, Foreign Policy in Focus, Vol.1 No. 5, August 1998

This essay draws on David Gress's new book From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (The Free Press). Dr. Gress is co-director of FPRI's Center for America and the West and co-director of our History Academy. From Plato to NATO, the second volume to emerge from the History Academy, follows the publication of Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Gress and McDougall are jointly writing the third volume—The Use and Abuse of History.

Since the end of the Cold War, culture, religion, and the complex sources of political passions have moved to center stage in the study of social change. Books such as Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations demonstrate a new interest on the part of social scientists in the big questions and the long sweep of history. The great economic, social, and strategic transformations of recent years are being explained not in terms of their immediate context but through an understanding of their deep anthropological and geopolitical roots.

This is a highly welcome development, although those of us who are historians may wonder why it took so long to realize the obvious— that you can't explain major change by last year's or even last century's wars and elections. One important effect of the new interest in culture among American political scientists is that the distinction between domestic and international issues has become irrelevant. Analogous factors operate across borders, and putting American developments in one box and global changes in another only makes understanding and therefore rational policymaking more difficult. Social inequality, fundamentalism, the crisis of the family, drug problems, religious revivals, the rise of secular elites —such developments of vital significance for the future cannot be understood by reference to one country or region alone. They are global, and America is no longer a country apart, whose condition can be studied in isolation. The critical demarcations of today are not national borders, but the lines of confrontation that separate traditionalists from liberals, fundamentalists from secularists, individualists from collectivists, libertarians from statists, and they run through and across all countries.

The new scholarship on global change understands this. What it sometimes lacks is a historical understanding of the identity of one of the major players in the emerging world—the West. It was to fill this need and thus to complement the cultural focus of scholars such as Fukuyama and Huntington that I wrote From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. This book answers the question “What is this West that everyone is talking about, either to praise or condemn?” It criticizes widespread notions of the West common on both left and right and restores to view a richer understanding of Western identity as it evolved over two thousand years than the superficial idea that the West is simply democracy and free markets. That idea is not so much wrong as insufficient. It is not enough to know that the West is democratic and capitalist; it is necessary to know how those features emerged and why, and that they are themselves but manifestations of an underlying, paradoxical, and unique civilizational identity.

It is necessary to know these things not just for the sake of scholarly accuracy, but because misidentifying the West gives a dangerously misleading picture of its role and potential in the twenty-first century global landscape. The American political and cultural landscape at the year 2000 is torn between two incompatible ideas: one, that the West is globally triumphant and that the future of the world will be one of Westernization, in which all societies and cultures converge on a democratic and capitalist norm, with McDonalds in every town and Disney videos in every home. The other is that the West is an evil culture of exploitation, patriarchy, and environmental degradation, a legacy of Eurocentrism that has been abolished in America by feminism and multiculturalism, and that certainly neither has nor deserves to have any future. One response to these opposed beliefs is to conclude that the West doesn't really exist: each side invents the West it wants to have. Another, however, is to delve into history to find the true identity of a culture that, today, can generate such negative as well as positive feelings. After all, during the Cold War, politicians spoke easily of “the West”: were they also just making it up, or were they talking about something real?

Many Americans have encountered the West in the Western civ courses given in most colleges and universities. The history of those courses is a microcosm of the broader fate of the idea of the West in our time.

They were invented in the aftermath of World War I to give returning soldiers a grounding in what they had been defending in the trenches of France. A generation of American educators thought it possible and desirable to distill all the best ideas of the past 2,500 years of Greek, Roman, and European philosophy, literature, and social thought into a seamless, two-semester garment, a story of the slow but sure growth of liberty and individual rights up to its culmination in liberal American democracy.

The West of these courses was, for fifty years, highly successful in assimilating generations of students into a certain cultural tradition, one that was Eurocentric and very definitely built out of the ideas of dead white males. Since the 1960s, this West came under attack. The first attackers accused it of elitism: the story of Western civ ignored the poor, the slaves, the downtrodden. Later attackers, the multiculturalists, accused it of making European reason into a universal standard: other cultures had other ways of knowing and doing, and these were at least as good as those of the male chauvinist, technocratic West.

These critics had a point, though it wasn't the point they thought they had. They were right that the “Western civ West” was superficial and turned all of history into a smooth success story. History is about passion, conflict, blood, and treachery as well as about reason, harmony, peace, and liberty. The identity of the West, which is indeed based on reason, science, democracy, and capitalism, did not grow with relentless logic from ancient Greece to the present. It grew by paradox and contradiction out of the jungle of desires, ambition, and greed that is human nature, always and everywhere. The story of the West is therefore the story of how universal human desires produced this particular culture in Europe and later in America, just as they produced other cultures elsewhere, such as Islam, China, Japan, and India.

My reformulation of Western identity for the twenty-first century turns on three basic claims.

First, the West did not begin with the Greeks. In the standard story, the Western civ story, the Greeks invented liberty and philosophy and thus laid the foundation of all subsequent Western identity. If that is true, why did it take so long to get from Athenian democracy to modern America? Something must have happened to delay the evolution of the West. My answer is that what happened was the West itself, which had to evolve by its own logic before the Greek ideas of democracy and philosophical investigation could reappear to inspire and shape modern politics, education, and science.

Turning the Greeks into the first Westerners is to misunderstand both the Greeks and the West. The Greeks were not modern democrats, not just because they denied the vote to women and kept slaves, but because their idea of democracy was unlike ours in critical ways. Common to both ancient and modern democracy is the idea of the equal right of all citizens to speak out and to participate in government. But the Greeks differed in defining democracy not just as the right, but the obligation to participate. Also, in Greece, democracy meant direct rule by all citizens. The idea of representation through universal suffrage which is the basis of modern democracy did not even begin to be formulated until the seventeenth century.

Second, the formation of the West was a centuries-long process that began when the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century and ended when the three legacies of Greece, Christianity, and the Germanic societies of northern Europe formed a symbiosis—which I call the Old West—by around the year 1000. Two features of this symbiosis remain essential to a substantive Western identity but are completely overshadowed by the contemporary emphasis on democracy and free markets and other universalist principles. The first was geopolitical pluralism: the West has always been about dividing power, so that no single person or entity could become supreme. This was not done by planning and foresight, as in the American Constitution. It happened by accident, because the balance of power in Europe never allowed a permanent empire to arise. It then appeared in hindsight —and this is the second feature —that dividing power was a condition of liberty. Democracy began to emerge in Europe in places where rulers could not exercise total control. These early and partial forms of liberty gave people incentives to work, save, and invest without fearing expropriation. Over centuries, these niches of freedom produced a new synthesis, which I call the New West: the synthesis of political liberty, property rights, and economic development.

A critical point in this analysis is that the West did not become free and prosperous because people in Europe were just lucky. Rather, Europe and later America benefited from an initially unintended side effect of political competition, namely that societies where power was less than total were also societies where people had property rights and therefore invested rather than consumed, which was the beginning of sustained growth. Growth, in turn, spurred interest in liberty as one of its preconditions, thus launching a positive spiral from which all could ultimately benefit.

Third, the New West of democracy, capitalism, and the scientific method grew out of the Old Western symbiosis and cannot survive if it does not keep its umbilical connection to the past alive. The Old West included elements that we today are tempted to regard as anachronistic or dangerous to liberty—Christianity and the Germanic ethos, for example. One purpose of my book is to revive the 18th-century idea that the Germanic societies contributed an original model of social liberty to the Greek, Roman, and Christian inheritance, the liberty of free tribes in which decisions were jointly made and that only joint decisions were binding on all. This Germanic liberty joined with Christianity to produce what I call Christian ethnicity, the loyalty of people to religion, king, territory, and personal honor that shaped the Old West in each of its many national and regional variants.

Western pluralism was not just a source of freedom and prosperity. It was also a source of conflict, because each ruler always feared losing ground to others. Many historians have condemned nationalism as the great vice of the West. I am concerned rather to account for the passions of nationalism by rooting them in Christian ethnicity, which is itself a kind of paradox—the paradox of a universalist religion in the guise of national ideology, whether English, French, German, Russian, or American. You cannot separate economic growth and democratization from political competition and war in Western history. They are all aspects of the same thing. The difference in our time is that Western societies have finally rejected aggressive war as a means of policy. One may hope that this leaves the other aspects—prosperity and democracy—to flourish.

This symbiosis in Western history of liberty and conflict brings us back to the blood and passion of history. It was not always pleasant for its victims and would not win many friends in today's American academy. It led to holy war in the Crusades and to the ethic of sacrifice that launched and prolonged many later wars. But it also produced the energy necessary for the societies of freedom to survive the challenge of despotism in the world wars and Cold War of this century that is now ending. Therefore we need to recover these old connections, not to reintroduce war as a tool of policy, but to understand that change and progress in history are never simple and never costless.

The final message of the book is that universalism—the idea that everyone wants democracy and free markets, and will get them—is wrong because the world is not the West. On the other hand, if Western elites forget their roots and launch themselves into the illusions of a conflict-free multiculturalism, they risk bringing down the West and with it an essential building block of tomorrow's multipolar world order. The West owes it to the world not to disappear.