- For this article's equivalent regarding the East, see Eastern culture
Western Culture refers to the culture that has developed in the Western world. This culture is arguably the dominant cultural form in the modern world; it can also be said that elements of this culture have come to play a more influential role on more diverse cultures world-wide than any other culture has done. It is, however, an ill-defined and disputed term, and "Western Culture" has arguably undergone significant changes over the centuries. Some Westerners will equate "modernization" with "westernization", but many non-westerners object to the implication that all societies should adopt western traits.
What is called Western Culture is the set of literary, musical, philosophical etc. traditions from Europe and countries who's History is strongly marked by European immigration.
This typically covers Europe, The Americas, Australia, etc.
Traditional Western Culture is said to have been created by three main historical factors: ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and Christianity. As such, it is also known by the terms "Greco-Roman culture", "Judeo-Christian culture", or "Judeo-Hellenic-Christian culture". The features of this "foundational triad" are complex and sometimes controversial (for example, the foundational triad is often seen as being deeply patriarchal and masculine).
The culture of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome is collectively labelled "classical culture". The time period in which this culture was dominant is called classical antiquity, and its creative output (especially books) is known as "the classics".
The first element of Western Culture (in chronological order) is the culture of Ancient Greece. Ancient Greek culture was very different from the cultures of earlier civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. Through its patriarchal features, Ancient Greece also distinguished itself from other cultures that had previously inhabited roughly the same territory, such as the matriarchal civilization of the Minoans in Crete.
The earliest example of Ancient Greek culture is Homer, who set the ideas of The Good and The Beautiful. Socrates later added the idea of The Truth (a goal to strive for, a purpose of life), thus forming the basis of the classical triad of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. The Greek concept of Paideia became the basis and foundation of Western Culture. Furthermore, Western Culture has been influenced by two general strains within Hellenic culture: the Ionian (which is exemplified by Athens and her democracy), and the Dorian (which is represented by Sparta and her dual monarchy/mixed government).
Socrates, through Plato, influenced much of Christian theological thought and formed much of medieval philosophy. His concept of the soul and the importance of cultivating it, is central to understanding Western Culture.
Isocrates wrote of Greek culture that:
"And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name 'Hellenes' suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title of 'Hellenes' is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share our common blood." (1)
Later, the Latin poet Horace would remark that:
"Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresiti Latio."
"Greece, when captured, captured her savage conqueror and brought the arts into rustic Latium." (2)
A number of the most important Greek classics are briefly presented below:
Pythagoras coined the term Philosophy ("love of wisdom") to describe a wide range of intellectual pursuits. His interests included mathematics, music, and the study of proportion. Herodotus is often named the "Father of History" (history, in Greek, means "investigations"). Herodotus wrote the first Western historical chronicle, describing the Persian war. Hippocrates is known as the "Father of Medicine". He was the first to do a treatise on human anatomy and bodily ailments. He also wrote an oath, known as the Hippocratic Oath, which lays out ethics for physicians and which is still in use today. Anaxagoras proposes the "nous", one mind that is the arche of reality. This is the beginning of Natural Theology. It also inaugurates monotheism among the socratic line of philosophers; Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was arguably the founder of Western philosophy. He defined the demarcation line where philosophy is split from religion. Aristotle, a great organizer and philosopher, defined most of the academic categories of Western education. He created biology outright and formed the core study on politics (as well as many other fields of study).
The Greeks also invented tragedy, the basis of modern plays, skits, and movies. Comedy made its appearance with Aristophanes.
Finally, Greek art and architecture (especially the Parthenon) has a strong influence on Western Culture even today.
The second formative influence on Western Culture were the Romans. Roman culture was marked by its practicality, and the greatest Roman contribution to Western Culture has been Roman law. Blackstone's Law Dictionary, which had wide influence, encapsulated many principles of Roman law.
Vitruvius wrote a treatise of ten books on classical architectural theory and practice called On Architecture. The treatise had some influence during the Middle ages and had greater impact on the art and style of Renaissance Europe.
Cicero had a major influence, not only in his country, but throughout medieval times and even affected the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Cicero had much to do in the forming of Romanitas. He also had great influence upon early Church Fathers, and St. Augustine pointed to Cicero as the one who "inspired his own passion for philosophy". Furthermore, Cicero was "the medium for the propagation of those ideas which informed law and institutions of the empire." (3)
The third and last formative influence on Western Culture is Christianity. Jesus was among the most influential persons in human history. His preaching of the Golden Rule, of salvation, redemption and immortality not only affected the lives of people but also their art, literature, philosophy, and architecture. With the preaching of Christianity came the already existing concept of monotheism. The Bible became a central piece of Western literature affecting all fields within Western culture; law, philosophy, education, and politics.
With Christianity came a movement called monasticism (monks and nuns). Monasticism carried Christianity and science to all the countries of Europe and preserved Latin and Christian texts during the Dark Ages.
In order to educate its clergy, the Roman Catholic Church founded many seminaries throughout Europe. These, in turn, grew into today's universities and colleges.
St. Augustine is premier, along with Plato, in forming the mindset of Latin Christianity.
The fall of the Roman Empire brought the Dark Ages to Europe, and much of the cultural heritage of the ancient world was lost. Culture survived mostly in monasteries and in territories ruled by the Byzantine Empire.
However, Europe slowly climbed out of the Dark Ages, and a period generally known as the Middle Ages began. Western Culture began to expand once more (for example, the practice of mathematics was greatly improved upon when Leonardo of Pisa introduced the Arabic or decimal system with his book, Liber Abaci), although it took several centuries to rediscover much of the lost culture of the ancient world.
Due to a combination of factors (Islamic influence in Moor Spain, the Crusades, etc.), Western Europe made contact with more advanced civilizations that had preserved the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, they rediscovered their own heritage, and the Renaissance was born. Aristotle was re-introduced into Western Culture, which caused a profound effect in Catholic philosophy. Also, with the re-introduction of Greek literature, a re-flowering of Greek culture began in Florence and Venice.
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the flood of Greek influence pouring into Western Europe increased greatly. It is significant that many of the Protestant reformers were Greek Scholars. The Renaissance set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the American and French revolutions, and the birth of the modern world.
The Renaissance produced the Age of Enlightenment.
The French Revolution
The Enlightenment, in turn, culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. This marked a turning point in the history of Western Culture. The ideas of civil rights, equality before the law, procedural justice, and democracy as the ideal form of society, were put into practice for the first time. In the following century, the principles of the French Revolution triumphed over absolute monarchy and aristocratic privileges. Today, those principles form the basis of modern Western Culture.
The Modern World
The end of World War II dovetailed with the beginning of the Cold War which divided Europe in half, with the Eastern half being dominated by the Soviet Union. This severely inhibited cultural exchange between the two parts. Communist regimes were imposed on European states under Russian influence which attempted to directly regulate the culture of their populations, such as restricting religion as frowned upon by Marxism. Eastern Europe became largely economically stagnant during this period.
Meanwhile, the Western half became largely Amero-centric, and enjoyed relative economic success. American cultural exports saturated the mass media and the English language became the new lingua franca of the West, ultimately supplanting French in most domains (which had in turn supplanted Latin).
With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR the Cold War ended, setting up economically weaker Eastern Europe to absorb Western European cultural ideas.
Spread of Western culture
After roughly the year 500, Western Culture spread outwards in various stages from its Mediterranean hearthlands, on a broad semicircular front from the Atlantic in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east. Reaching these limits by the year 1400, Western (European) influence was then carried widely abroad to the Western Hemisphere, Africa, Asia and Oceania by European traders and colonists.
All non-Western indigenous societies which encountered Western Culture underwent massive and fundamental changes as a consequence. Europe's own Germanic, Celtic and Slavic nations had been incorporated into the cultural system by education, persuasion and force, abandoning many of their traditional faiths and ethics to become mainstays of Western Culture during the Middle Ages. (within Europe, only a handful of peoples in the Arctic regions remained generally unconverted to Western Culture prior to the 16th century)
Outside Europe, Western Culture made its strongest inroads in North America, where traditional Native American ways of life dissolved under the unrelenting pressure of successive waves of land-hungry European settlers, who brought their faith and laws with them and established them decisively across the entire continent by the late 19th century. Similar events occurred in Australasia. In Central America and South America, similar neo-European societies prevailed. By contrast to North America, however, large, well-organized native societies had existed in these regions; many of these natives continued to pursue traditional ways of life, in some cases with only a gloss of European religion and culture.
Western culture further expanded in the 20th century with the rise of mass media thanks to largely Western inventions such as motion pictures, radio and television. American "pop culture" exports became extremely successful entertainment products worldwide, especially pop music and film, spreading Western ideas with them.
- "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! Western Civ has got to go!" The chant of Stanford University students c. 1990's demonstrating against the canon of classic texts required in the basic humanities course because it was dominated by "dead white males" and was "Eurocentric".
- "I think it would be a good idea" - opinion of "Western Civilisation", quotation popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
- (1) Panegyricus, Isocrates, The Loeb Classical Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. sec 50; pg 149.
- (2) Epistles, Horace, II.2, 156-157
- (3) Christianity and Classical Culture, pg 39.
- Christianity and Classical Culture, A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine, Charles Norris Cochrane, Oxford University Press, NY, 1980.