The alt-right may depart from mainstream conservatism in a number of ways, but one trait they both have in common is an obsession with something known as “Western Civilization.” The term gets waved around a lot by people all across the political right. The near-genocidal Traditionalist Worker Party founder Matthew Heimbach once headed a chapter of the “Youth for Western Civilization,” Stanford pop historian and Kissinger hagiographer Niall Ferguson makes a hierarchical distinction between “the West and the rest,” while noted social-scientific blowhard Jordan Peterson has repeatedly declared that “The West is right.” But what is this mysterious entity called “the West” anyway? Or, to break the question down a bit more, what do they think they mean by “the West,” what are they actually signaling by talking about “the West,” and why should anyone care about “the West” at all (since, spoiler alert, it’s largely a fabrication)?
When people on the right talk about “the West,” they almost always do so in glowing terms. It’s the “birthplace of democracy” or the “mother of reason” or the “nursemaid of science” or any number of other natal clichés. The achievement of the West, in their minds, is a kind of origination or invention of various significant cultural institutions that, for better or worse, now shape the experiences of billions of people around the world. (Ferguson nauseatingly calls these great Western institutions “killer apps.”) Setting aside for a moment the fact that modern democracy looks absolutely nothing like the Athenian system, or that Indian scholars began developing multiple systems of formal logic several hundred years before Aristotle was born, this affection is understandable: Democracy and reason and science are generally considered good things, and it’s good to want to know how they came about.
But is that really all that’s going on? Some other facets of this fixation suggest not. If one browses the corners of the internet frequented by the far right (and I do not advise doing so without something pleasant at hand to drink, like overproof whisky or a warm mug of cyanide), one finds a pretty high concentration of jokes and memes centered on the Crusades, which are implied to be a great moment in the clash of civilizations. Current Affairs readers, who are noted for their depth of learning and historical savvy, might find this somewhat confusing. After all, the Crusades are famous mostly for their large death toll, their ultimate ineffectiveness, and their having inadvertently caused one of the longest and bitterest religious schisms in history between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. Not exactly a proud civilizational high point. Those same readers might conclude that a West-loving person celebrating the Crusades must have some other facet of them in mind. That facet, to no one’s surprise, turns out to be anti-Arab racism, and the numerous downsides to the Crusades are overlooked in favor of their having been occasions for a bunch of Europeans to kill a lot of Arabs.
I don’t pretend to have uncovered some great secret about the far right. Talking to these people mirrors the experience of talking to someone who’s just a bit too interested in German artillery from the First and Second World Wars, though the alt-right’s attempts at dog-whistle Nazi fandom are less like a soft whistle than a 50-piece military band. The more mainstream right, however, despite its frequent disavowal of racism, upholds these very same visions of European superiority and colonial conquest, and, moreover, does so in terms that an attentive reader cannot help but gloss as racial. Its representatives will say otherwise: Their devotion is to the “culture” of the West, or to history, or to “Judeo-Christian values.” But the way in which this culture and these values are represented must occasion serious reflection on what the “values” in question actually are.
The preferred aesthetic modes of this kind of “Western culture” conservatism are classicism and neoclassicism, and this should give us immediate pause. I don’t mean to deride classical and neoclassical art. Classical sculpture and architecture are genuinely beautiful, and while some neoclassical architecture is bland and derivative, it has also given us beautiful public buildings and spaces that are pleasant to look at and move through. But it’s hard to think of monumental edifices of white marble and not suspect that the “white” might bear a heavier load than the marble. Sarah Bond, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Iowa, reminded us of this last year when she published an essay bringing to popular attention what scholars have known for a while now: The plain white marble commonly associated with Greek and Roman antiquity was in fact painted and brightly colored, and that the “idealized” proportions of classical sculpture have a long history of deployment in explicitly racist scientific literature, like medical textbooks describing phrenology. Bond’s argument is that we need to be conscious of the ways in which a classicizing aesthetic of white marble forms and European facial features can unintentionally uphold notions of white racial superiority. After making this eminently sensible point, Bond was subjected to coordinated online harassment and death threats from the far right, while mainstream rightwing publications like the National Review scoffed at her radical suggestion that we ought to discuss ancient statues as they actually were.
Classicist Donna Zuckerberg has also written against alt-right appropriation of antiquity and has faced similar death threats from the far right and scorn or indifference from the mainstream right. In the desire of these supposed custodians of history to maintain their already-existing conceptions of antiquity even at the price of ignoring what these statues were actually like, we see history actively giving way to other concerns. When a supposedly mainstream conservative publication dismisses expert scholarly opinion and wonders why we can’t just keep the statues white, it doesn’t take a trained philologist to draw out what’s really going on.
Since, however, I actually am a trained philologist, I’d like to draw this out a bit further. The notion of a “cultural inheritance” common to “Western” people—a category that is both strikingly modern and shockingly difficult to define—purports to stand for a cohesive “European” achievement. (It also attempts to escape any possible charge of racism, by insisting that race has no bearing on culture, e.g., the problem with Muslims is their faith rather than their ethnicity. This is completely untrue, of course. White supremacy is omnipresent in American and European cultures, and people who are not white consequently experience those cultures very differently from both white people and from one another, depending on where they are and how their race is perceived.) We can see this rhetoric in detail in the Paris Statement, a recent product of the “cultural right” put out by a small but representative group of European conservatives and endorsed by “respectable” conservative journals like the National Review. The statement is careful to disavow racism from the very beginning but then posits a crucial dichotomy between a “true Europe” that is vital and productive and strong (but also somehow under threat), and a “false Europe” that is hollow and weak (but also somehow threatens to overwhelm the true Europe). Umberto Eco once identified a particular rhetorical register of fascism in which “by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” The constant vacillation between the vitality/vulnerability of “true Europe” and the unreality/unstoppability of “false Europe” fits Eco’s criterion exactly. The “true Europe” is also identified repeatedly with particular people as their patrimony or inheritance, which certainly implies ancestry and “roots.”
Indeed, the notion of European culture as a kind of patrimony can be traced back to the 19th-century search for the “original” Indo-Europeans, the people who spoke the language from which the Germanic, Celtic, Romance, Slavic, Iranian, and Indic languages, along with many others, all descend. It was by asserting Germans’ direct descent from this group that the Nazis asserted a hereditary German right to rule over Europe. Using the same conceptual apparatus smuggles in questions of race, as it were, through the back door.
The Paris Statement also suggests that the primary threat to Europe is too much “openness,” particularly to the cultures of Muslim immigrants. These cultures are, apparently, incompatible with Europe and cannot exist within its borders. This particular strain of argument is drawn straight from Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posits a unified “West” identified primarily with Protestant and Catholic Christianity and predicts that the next great conflict will be between “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations. This connection illustrates the strong cross-pollination between European nativism and American neoconservatism, and the ease with which each substitutes “Europe” and “the West” for one another when translating their ideas back and forth.
What exactly, then, is this “Western culture” that so fascinates and concerns them? What is the common inheritance that modernity has supposedly abandoned? This proves a far more difficult question to answer because the idea of “the West” turns out to be a surprisingly modern way of looking at Europe and the countries formed by European settlement and colonization (principally the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, from 1918, occupies an important place in this. Not only is it one of the favorite texts of the modern alt-right, but it was the text through which a great many Anglophone intellectuals took up the notion of a unified “West” that could be talked about across historical periods. Spengler wasn’t the first prominent scholar to speak of it, but he was the most publicized, and his framework was particularly influential on the European political right. Though Spengler did not espouse the same sort of vicious anti-Semitism that would later result in the Holocaust, he did help to cement the notion that the world was divided into distinct “civilizations” along ethno-religious lines, writing in his introduction that “it is self-evident that for the Cultures of the West the existence of Athens, Florence, or Paris is more important than that of Lo-Yang or Paliputra.” Lest we mistake his meaning, he writes only a few pages earlier that “We men of Western culture are, with our historical sense, an exception and not a rule. World-history is our world picture and not all mankind’s.” This is not overt eugenicist superiority, but it clearly searches for the exceptionalism of an internally coherent “West,” which lays the intellectual groundwork for the systemic exclusion of Jews, Romani, and others who can be labeled foreign.
Shortly after Spengler published the first volume of Decline, American education began a series of reforms that would shape the way that we perceive “the West.” Throughout most of the 19th century, the elite universities in the United States stuck to a curriculum centered on the Greek and Latin classics. Toward the century’s end, some of those universities, most famously Harvard, began switching to an elective system in which students had far greater choice in what they would study. In partial reaction to this, as well as to the horrors of World War I and the failures of European nationalisms, professors at Columbia and the University of Chicago formed their own curricula grounded in what they considered “great books” of human civilization, the designated classic texts that supposedly comprised the core of worthy human insight.
These courses didn’t begin as exclusively “Western,” but they quickly became so. The designers aimed to strengthen American democracy and our relationships with European countries by promoting an understanding of American “roots” as well as the common heritage of “Western” countries generally. Historian-turned-biologist Dylan Morris sums up this transition in his Master’s dissertation on the subject:
Since American freedom was founded upon Western roots, [educators] argued, American citizenship required a grounding in the Western tradition. In the context of conflicts with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the great books educators argued that opposition to totalitarianism required the sense of universal values their education could provide… Moreover, associating the great books with the West also allowed the great books educators to avoid explicitly making the claim that the books were greater than any modern thought or than the works of the emerging ‘East,’ claims that increasingly risked being seen as ‘new medievalism’ and ‘ethnocentric,’ respectively.
Morris notes that these educators at once attempted to disavow any claims of “Western” supremacy, but also claimed that this education would impart “universal values,” claiming the “universal” perspective for the West in the same way that Spengler claimed for “world history.”
Of course, capitalism will find a way to monetize anything that comes near it, and “great books” are no exception. The moment of truly explosive popularity for “great books” came in 1952 when Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, who had been responsible for the curriculum at Chicago, released a set of “Great Books of the Western World” published by Encyclopedia Britannica. It sold very well and found its way into middle-class homes across the country. This, far more than the curricula at a couple of elite universities, shaped popular American perceptions of “Western Civ” and its importance to national identity. But it’s instructive to compare Adler and Hutchins’s set with another famous “Great Books” collection, the Harvard Classics, put out in the late 19th century by Charles Eliot, the Harvard president responsible for instituting the university’s elective system. Both sets of books market themselves as a kind of self-education. By reading and reflecting on these books, privately and in their own home, a person will become better equipped for citizenship in a democratic society. But the earlier Harvard set, even with its sparse selection of Buddhist texts, Indian epic, and excerpts from the Qur’an, is far more inclusive of non-“Western” perspectives than the later Chicago set. In the Chicago set, we can also see the barest gesture toward including Russian literature under the canon of “the West,” with a single novel each from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. As Morris observes, Adler’s equation of “Western” with “universal,” begun in his curriculum and in the Britannica series’s pompously-titled Syntopicon, reached its apex with the 2000 publication of his final book, How to Think About the Great Ideas, in which he identifies exactly 103 “Great Ideas” that, he claims, sum up all of human thought: “All the Great Ideas are recognizably the same as they were in the ancient world. None of them is a ‘modern discovery.’ The ancient Greeks had a name for all 103 of them.” Leaving aside my severe professional skepticism that the concept of an “Angel” is a universal idea or that 5th-century Athenians had any notion of such a thing, this assertion is remarkable for the bald transparency of both its intellectual parochialism and its sheer snake-oil hucksterism. Here, for the low price of $34.95, is every idea worth considering, all explored in a list of books you already know and respect.
The notion that “Western thought” contained every major human intellectual contribution was not inevitable, and in fact would have been unthinkable a century beforehand. What makes this collapse of perspective noteworthy and alarming is the wildly different attitude that 19th-century European intellectuals held toward “the East,” by which they meant chiefly Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Indian cultures. Indeed, much of the intellectual life of the later 1800s was marked by a pervasive enthusiasm for the literatures and religions of these regions. Between 1879 and 1910, Oxford University Press put out a 50-volume series of the Sacred Books of the East, overseen by Max Müller, one of the leading Indologists of the era. That a press could undertake such a mammoth series with the expectation that it would sell speaks to the ready appetite of both scholars and the literate public for “Eastern” material. The late 19th century also saw a minor literary mania for Edward Fitzgerald’s famous English translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which kindled enthusiasm for Persian and Arabic literature among readers of all ages.
We know, of course, that this enthusiasm was also suffused with an Orientalism that effaced the great cultural diversity of Asia and the Middle East, turning them into a unified blob of Eastern exoticism while exploiting the people and resources of those regions. But at the same time, it did get something right: Other people in other places had produced art and thought that was different from our own, but no less worthy. That this zeal to learn from other cultures would give way, in the 20th century United States, to Adler’s bargain-bin parochialism seems to me one of the great tragedies of American intellectual life.
The 20th century shift in the focus of educational curricula and book series shows that popular notions of “great” literary and cultural achievement, though overwhelmingly focused on Euro-American works, once did attempt to embrace important works outside that sphere. Only later did it become entangled with delimiting “the West” and limiting its selections to that area. But perhaps more importantly, it also demonstrates just how unstable the idea of “the West” was and remains to this day. Nowadays it’s hard to find a “Great Books of the West” list that doesn’t include major Russian authors, and even many of the self-avowedly “Western” curricula like those at Columbia and UChicago have incorporated readings from the Qur’an and from Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd, Al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina. The idea of the “West” as a distinct and self-contained set of cultures and works is a deeply modern idea, and the gaps between contemporary articulations of “the West” and those from even the middle of the 20th century show how closely that idea reflects the twists and turns of modernity rather than any kind of unchanging body of historical tradition.
But I don’t just mean to jab a finger at the right and lecture them on their ignorance, abundant though it may be. What I mean to expose here is that there is no stable “Western” tradition at all. There were other concepts that encompassed Europe, like the medieval and early modern idea of “Christendom,” but Christendom was badly damaged by the Wars of Religion and was thoroughly dead after the French Revolution, and in any case, “Christendom” is a very different thing from “the West.” The latter is a modern invention, taken up by some elite college professors and then sold door to door for a tidy profit. The right, particularly the “respectable” right, is very keen to claim that it remains faithful to some cultural inheritance that the left has abandoned in favor of contemporary fashionable orthodoxies, but they play the same game that we do—they’re just better at selling it. In fact, the most prominent tradition of leftwing scholarship, Marxism, is markedly older than the idea of “the West,” since the first volume of Capital was published in 1867.
The harm in buying into the right’s framing of a venerable and antiquated “Western tradition” goes somewhat beyond being mocked by classicists in academic footnotes. Accepting their terms means accepting, implicitly, that there is a tradition of thought with enough internal coherence that one can decide what falls within it and what doesn’t. This is the premise of those conservatives like former education secretary William Bennett, whose report on higher education declares that “our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” and immediately goes on to identify “Western civilization” with “masterworks of English, American, and European literature.” This is a transposition of the Paris Statement into a more intellectual and less geopolitical register, but it sounds all the same notes: a patrimony that belongs to “us” by inheritance; the necessity of maintaining its integrity; the danger that opening it too widely will destroy it; the implicit threat from influences inside it but somehow also foreign. (It’s curious that the right, which so loathes “identity politics,” embraces the most extreme and dangerous forms of identity politics: the civilizational and the national.)
Framing matters around an “us” and a “them” invites an audience to imagine what these degrading influences are. Some blame leftist Jewish academics like the expatriate Frankfurt School, others blame feminism and suggest that things were better when nobody had to care what women thought. Charles Murray has written that “Europe dominate[s] the narrative of human accomplishment,” and that “so does the minority that has become known in recent years as dead white males,” implying that any attempt to uncover the histories of women’s accomplishment must be distorting fact in the service of politics. (Incidentally, this is demonstrably false. Philosopher Christia Mercer has recently made a very persuasive case that much of René Descartes’s most famous philosophical argument was drawn from the writings of the Christian mystic Teresa of Avila.) When the left cedes this ground and allows the right to frame discussion in terms of a very white and male “West,” we allow the right to construct a Euro-American past that does not involve Jews or women or people of color, which sets the stage for excluding the ideas of Jews and women and people of color from present consideration.
We also concede the notion that this continuous and identifiable “West” developed primarily through its own powers, with only marginal influence from the “non-Western” peoples. This myth of self-generated vitality is an old one, traceable back to the Athenian myth of the first Athenians springing from the soil of Attica, and finding new and horrifying life in the Third Reich’s foundational myth of Germanic aboriginality. But it is well known that European civilization has always engaged in trade and exchange with non-European peoples, and that those peoples have sometimes exercised profound influence on large segments of culture. This is not even something that takes careful exegesis to discover. Throughout medieval scholastic philosophy, for example, the commentaries on Aristotle by the Andalusian Muslim polymath Ibn-Rushd are explicitly quoted either to confirm a point or as an authority sufficiently eminent to demand specific refutation. The whole shape of this most stereotypically European period of thought depends on that influx of Arabic philosophy. Even the very Christianity held so dear by so many avowedly secular rightwing intellectuals is the product of contact between a heretical Jewish sect and the Hellenistic culture that pervaded the Mediterranean in that era. There simply isn’t any way to imagine modern Europe without the foundational influence of these and many other distinctly non-European voices.
Of course, acknowledging Euro-American cultural and intellectual debts is not sufficient. A focus on the cultural integrity of “the West” also elides the ways in which so many European countries built their wealth and cultural production through colonial exploitation and enslavement of non-European people. This cannot be pushed to the periphery. It was foundational to Euro-American modernity as we know it, and any serious attempt to understand European and American societies must confront it. In a very real sense, focusing on an integrated “West” minimizes and obscures that historical atrocity. It says that the development of European and North American nations came about through the actions and ideas of people unequivocally on the cultural “inside,” and relegates the ideas and actions of exploited and enslaved peoples to a footnote. This is the very same “history as therapy” of which the right so often accuses fields like Afro-American Studies and Gender Studies. It tells its intended audience that only the actions of people like them really matter, and that any historical crimes weren’t really so bad as to affect the foundations of their culture.
As it happens, I am not at all an opponent of “history as therapy.” Quite the contrary, I think that finding our individual and collective selves through the study of history is one of the most rewarding uses of leisure, and that everyone should have the time and resources to do so. But good therapy requires honesty, as any qualified therapist will tell you. Far from being a process of constant affirmation, an effective course of therapy often forces us to confront the parts of ourselves we least want to acknowledge, and to abandon the comfortable illusions that allow us to ignore the harm we do to others and to ourselves. This therapeutic end is precisely what requires us to abandon the notion of an integrated and continuous “West” in our studies of history and culture. By continuing to speak in those terms, we allow our discussion to be shaped by an illusion that obscures millennia of ongoing contact between European nations or settlements and non-European peoples, as well as the many evils perpetrated against those peoples. We allow ourselves to say that only “our” people’s deeds and experiences matter, and that other people’s deeds and experiences are not really important enough to affect who “we” are.
So where does this leave our view of literature or history or other forms of culture? How are we to structure our conversation and study of these things without a term like “the West” to draw them together? This is a less difficult proposition than it might appear, since these subjects were studied before the invention of “the West” and will continue to be studied in other ways. There are plenty of ways to frame questions of literary and cultural history that don’t lie about which people matter, and we certainly shouldn’t abandon studying the histories and cultures of Europe and North America. These regions and cultures exercise enormous influence around the world, and understanding them is a worthwhile project. But we have an obligation to do so responsibly, in a way that is faithful both to the material and to our fellow human beings. Virtually no one involved in the culture wars over “Western Civ” in the ’90s ever said that the study of Plato or Cervantes or the Thirty Years’ War was worthless. They just aren’t the only things that matter, and we should delight that there is so much more for us to know that does matter and that can instruct and delight us. The poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman put it best:
Other desires become the occasion of pain through dearth of the material to gratify them, but not the desire of knowledge: the sum of things to be known is inexhaustible, and however long we read we shall never come to the end of our story-book. So long as the mind of man is what it is, it will continue to exult in advancing on the unknown throughout the infinite field of the universe; and the tree of knowledge will remain for ever, as it was in the beginning, a tree to be desired to make one wise.
The realization that “the West” has not exhausted all worthwhile human endeavor should fill us with wonder at the scope of human possibility. There will always be more to know, more places to see, more people to meet. For those of us on the left who claim to love humanity, I can think of few more powerful visions of our future.
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