On the History of 'Western Civilization', Part 1

This picture is used on a lot of sites and stories about 'western civ'
NOTE: here is a link to some recent updates from my research (these are discussions cut from a forthcoming article). 

In a recent tweet thread, I brought together a small number of the early 20th century sources on the concept of 'western civilization'. These sources are some of the earliest--the term doesn't appear as far as I and other scholars have been able to discern, before the 1840s. This is, of course, interesting given how many people who are wedded to the idea of 'western civ' and the classics as its foundation present it as a natural and somewhat 'eternal' identity for Europe and European colonized places, like the US, Canada, and Australia (especially when it gets pushed back to Mesopotamia and Egypt!). As we have heard others state, 'western civ' is a construct. Well, yes. Of course it is. All identities are constructs. Saying it is a construct gets us to point A on the map. In the next few posts, I'd like to get us to points B and C.

What matters is to recognize that neither it nor others are 'natural', that there is no biological claim to any culture(s) based on this constructed identity, and--most importantly--it is necessary to understand how and why it was constructed. This is important especially given that there are people in our world who are willing to kill in the name of 'saving' 'western civilization' from 'white genocide'.

'Western Civ' is, to borrow a term from Benedict Anderson, an 'imagined community'. It is a concept that binds together individuals on three continents who share in 1. settler-colonialism, 2. Christianity (preferably protestant), and 3. whiteness.  These things combined form the foundation of a 'western' identity that claims to have its roots in antiquity, but really only has its roots in the last few centuries. The concept of 'western civ' itself doesn't emerge until the late 19th century. And when it does, it is explicitly white supremacist. As I will show below, this was the point and no one was trying to hide it.

This 'western' identity is, as are all imagined communities according to Anderson, a form of nationalistic identity (a 'white nationalist' identity, as we will see) and created through media-- [great] books and works of art and architecture that allow the people so constituted within the identity to project that identity back into antiquity and forge a linear (imagined) line of descent that is grounded in the equally imaginary foundation myth--sometimes rooted in ancient Mesopotamia, but more frequently in the cultures of ancient Hellas and Rome. By imagining their roots in these ancient societies, they create a bridge between themselves and those peoples through appropriations and receptions of these cultures.

It is because this identity is imaginary, I believe, that people cling to it so fiercely. Without it, there really is nothing that binds together northern Europeans, North Americans, and Australians and New Zealanders of European descent except that the latter are former settler-colonies of the first and a belief in the inherent superiority of ourselves over indigenous peoples. But before we get there (which will be a different post), we need to make sure we understand the nature of the term itself, how it came to be, what the construct contains, and a bit about why it formed. We can then as a community consider more seriously how classics became yoked to the concept and whether we still want to let our discipline be used for promoting ideas of white supremacism (which is NOT just extreme manifestations of racism).

An important point to emphasize: one can have histories of antiquity, of Europe, of the US, without recourse to the imaginary identity of 'western civilization'. There are more programs in the US today (classics and history) that don't use the term 'western civilization' than do and still teach the histories of these regions and people. And the histories are still fascinating. What removing the language of western civilization does is allows these histories to exist more so on their own terms than tied to an artificial justification of white superiority. It also exposes the reality that modern white Americans (among others) are no more or no less the heirs of the ancient Greeks than they are the heirs of ancient China. There are no trajectories prior to the emergence of the western civ narrative in the 19th century that give us priority ownership over the ancient peoples of any place. And we should not need to ground our identity in these myths in order to exist and be healthy and happy.

In this post, I will provide an outline of the development of the concept prior to World War II only. Part of my reconstruction is based upon research of early uses. I also draw from Alastair Bonnett's The Idea of the West (2004). The next post will take up the Cold War reconfiguration (NOTE: who are we kidding. I have yet to get around to this. However, you can read Weller, R. Charles.“’Western’ and ‘White Civilization’: White Nationalism and Eurocentrism at the Crossroads.” In R.C. Weller (ed.) 21st-Century Narratives of World History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 35-80). I will also only deal here with its meaning among Anglophone groups.


Let's start with a Google ngram. It isn't a definitive statement on the uses of the term, but it does accurately represent the trends visible with deeper research. I've made it case insensitive so we can get different norms in capitalization. Below, I'll fill in the details with representative samples, but I think the spike between roughly 1940-1965 tell us what we would expect--the term is strongly associated with the Cold War and Civil Rights movement (with a small spike during the Culture and Canon Wars), though its initial rise is clearly linked, as we shall see, with the development of scientific racism. 

If I was a big data person looking to score a publication in a top journal, I'd stop here, but I'm a historian, so let's dig into some specific examples.

1840s-1880s: The earliest use of the term 'Western Civilization' I've been able to find is from 1844 in the annual report of the Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education.  The term does NOT refer to some anglo-european culture rooted in antiquity. It refers to the world of the American frontier--at risk for falling into barbarism if Christianity cannot be injected into it through newly established 'western' colleges (like Beloit and Wittenburg--my home university isn't mentioned here but it was established at the same time by Baptists, so maybe?):

Although this is NOT our contemporary meaning of 'western civ', the idea that "A Civilization without Christianity" is defective sticks into future uses. This use of the term 'civilization' here is what Maximus Planudes has referred to as 'civilization 1.0' in the previous post on this blog. Civ 1.0 can only appear in the singular and is in opposition to barbarism and savagery. It is explicitly linked to progress or evolution. You can move up on the ladder of civilization and those with a higher level of civilization are, of course, superior. This idea of 'civilization' may be 1.0, but it remains popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea of 'western', however, doesn't yet have the vague reference point of anglophone former settler colonies from northern Europe (mostly England). In this 1844 usage, it refers to the direction from the vantage point of the original US states on the Atlantic coast. 

When do we see the shift in the use of 'western' to refer not to an internal continental direction, but to an idea? An 1846 review of fine literature discussing Paget's Hungary and Transylvania uses the geographic 'west' that we are familiar with from the division between western and eastern Europe that dates back to Diocletian. Hungary, here, is the 'connecting link' between east and west, 'like Poland'. This paragraph--the only one that uses the phrase 'western civilization'--is of potential interest for us:

The text goes on and you can see here that 'west' means western Europe, while 'east' means across the Danube. Civilization is also still in its 1.0 guise:

BUT! As the paragraph continues, we see some of the outlines of what will become the future values attached to 'western civ': freedom and against (not yet called 'eastern') barbarism and despotism. 

This 1863 book on Poland and western civ gets us into what will become some of the most important aspects of the Cold War narrative (seems early, I know!). The author, H. Forbes is most likely a Scotsman who participated in the 1848 revolution with Garabaldi in Italy and in Sicily again in 1859. In between, he journeyed to the US as an emigre and hired himself out as a soldier of fortune during the Civil War (see Ch 2 of Lause 2011 A Secret Society History of the Civil War, though this article from 1859 connecting him to Harper's Ferry is revealing--he's kind of the one who told everyone about John Brown's plans). Russia and the Czars are the 'eastern other', the destroyers of civilization. Mr. Forbes here is calling for British support of Poland as a firewall against Czarist autocracy and manifest destiny moving further into western Europe:

Czarist Russia is the destroyer of constitutions, the Czar is the 'Autocrat' or the 'Emperor Demagog'. His goal is to foment 'discord, hatred, and bloodshed.' We see 'western civilization' taking shape--it is 'free', 'constitutional', and Christian--but the right kind of Christian; at one point, Mr. Forbes says "yes, I know the Poles are Catholics, but at least they aren't Orthodox!" The centering of Poland in a discourse of 'western civ' shouldn't surprise us either. It will happen again and again.  

Also, importantly, this idea of 'western civilization' in this particular book and later, is explicitly connected to nationalism (the 'present struggle' being the January Uprising):

So, by the mid-1860s, we see the links forging--'western', at least in Anglo-European authors, is connected to western Europe (not the US frontier, as continues into the 1880s in US authors), to superior culture (in opposition to savagery and barbarism, with Christianity as a key element of civilization), about constitutionalism and 'freedom' (in opposition to autocracy and despotism), and it is linked to the idea of the nation-state and national sovereignty. 

What we don't see here are direct appeals to the Greco-Roman past as foundation (though I imagine Forbes' work on Garibaldi may have had some ancient Rome references). We do see in our example discussing Hungary the clear influence of a classical education on the author, of course. I will need to look at Johanna Hanink's The Classical Debt  again to see if we have 'western civ' in the mid 19th century discourse surrounding Greece and the Ottomans because I'm not seeing it in the texts I've found. 

What we also don't see is an explicit connection to whiteness, though the discourse of the American frontier is loaded, of course, with white supremacism as the civilization narrative for the 'west' is about cleansing it of 'savage' and 'barbarous' indigenous peoples and resettling it with properly Christian and 'civilized' white people.

Things change between 1890 and the 1930s. We can take it in chunks.

1890s-1900s: In this period, ‘western civ’ emerges both within discussions of how to deal with imperial possessions by the British, French, and US and it begins to take shape as an alternative to ‘white’ that 1. can encompass an identity beyond national boundaries, and 2. can hide the explicit racism and classism of ‘whiteness’. Alastair Bonnett is good on this material. I will just highlight some of it and contextualize the classical within it, because this is when we start seeing the connections that have yoked the Greco-Roman world and classics as a discipline to the narrative of 'western civ' as we understand it today.

This period of the 1880s-90s is of particular interest in terms of the development of “western civilization” in both the university and popular media with classics at its root. In the US, during this period, we see the move away from Greek and Latin requirements (Columbia University, for example, cut its Greek requirement and reduced the Latin one in 1897) and the appearance of new ‘practical’ programs like anthropology and the physical sciences. At the same time, this idea of a shared ‘white civilization’ that was ‘western’ and linked aggressively to the classical past was popularized through world’s fairs (the Chicago 1893 expo is a great example as is the 1904 St Louis fair ‘The Coronation of Civilization scheduled to coincide with the Olympics in St Louis also) and the development in the US of large public museums.

The entry gate to the 'Creation' exhibition on the Pike at the
1904 St. Louis World Expo.
In other words, as Classics was decentered at the university for science (which included anthropology), it became a vehicle for public dissemination of the same science in support of racism.

This change coincides in the US with the continued expansion of the US westward and the displacement of indigenous populations to ‘reservations’, those, of course, who were not killed as the army preceeded settlers west in battles like Little Big Horn (1876) and Crow Agency (1887). This was also the era of Reconstruction and the installation of Jim Crow and the nationalization of southern segregationism and the wars of US expansion into what had been Mexican territory in what is now the US southwest. It was the golden age of American imperialism and settler colonialism and the whitening of the North American continent. It is also when ‘whiteness’ began to expand beyond its Anglo-Saxon Protestant core and incorporated the French (French Catholics, in particular) and Irish--it would not be until the 1940s that Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, eastern Europeans, and Jews (after WW2) were granted this ‘honor’. It was as if the wounds of the Civil War were being healed by uniting the former white adversaries through their whiteness, a whiteness explicitly defined through the Classical as the root of their shared identity.

Here's an example of how 'western civ' appears in use from 1898: its sounds about like we expect it to sound--evolutionary, with this thing called 'western' as the culmination of millenia of progress (pg 7-9 from the introduction). The great ancient civilizations all get an appearance here, it seems--at least the ones claimed for 'whiteness':

Of course, as soon as 'western civilization' comes into existence, it is doomed (from 1907's aptly titled The Doom of Western Civilization by James Stanley Little). He does not mention Greece once, but refers to Rome, appropriately, since, of course, it is frivolous wealth and dedication to MONEY that will doom the West:

The 1901 "Propaganda of Civilization" by British Prime Minister JR MacDonald and delivered to the West London Ethical Society is one that Bonnett discusses quite a bit. I'll just post some shots. The issue of 'western civilization' is explicitly here mentioned in relation to governing the empire (with a hard dose of Christianity):

One final trend from this period I will note: we begin to see an obsession with the issue of white, i.e. 'western' birth rates and a yoking of a very deep misogyny to the need to perpetuate a pure white race. It is the stirrings of the US eugenics movement (the British had gotten an earlier start with good old Sir Francis Galton, who doesn't talk about 'western civ'). For example:

This 1907 gem in the American Journal of Sociology has lots of charts and serious concerns about the 'fecundity of the foreign-born element' (p2). But the bulk of the article seeks to explain why white people aren't having babies. Blame is set on class mobility, decay of religious values, and, of course, the ladies:

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it's GOOD that the lower classes aren't having too many children and exploding the population, he says. There are benefits:

What are some of the 'disquieting effects'? I'll just give some fun quotations and we can move on:

1920s-1930s: The 1907 article above on birthrates which ended on such a racist high note seems to capture a trend for 'western civ' oriented writings We are still connected to debates about empire, but ‘western’ is also a new go-to term within the ‘white crisis’ literature emerging to deal with the various pressures of 1. fracturing of whiteness along class and religious lines and moves beyond the ‘Anglo-Saxon races’ to encompass Catholicism in addition to Protestantism, and 2. Continued fracturing of whiteness along national lines (and rankings of who is properly ‘white’).

The ‘Great Books’ programs at universities develop as a way to recenter classics despite reductions in the languages at universities--an elite discourse of whiteness separate from the ‘working class’ whites, a discipline to demonstrate elite status. But central to these developments, which Bonnett discusses at length, are the ‘white crisis’ authors, many of whom are part of the American Eugenics Movement which used classical sculpture as part of its demonstration of idealized whiteness. Here is one of the most well-known members of the movement,  Lothrop Stoddard, from The Revolt Against Civilization, 1922 (the less racist of his works):
“CIVILIZATION is the flowering of the human species. It is both a recent and a fragile thing. The first glimmerings of genuine civilization appeared only eight or ten thousand years ago. This may seem a long time. It does not seem so long when we remember that behind civilization's dawn lies a vast night of barbarism, of savagery, of bestiality, estimated at half a million years, since the ape-man shambled forth from the steaming murk of tropic forests, and, scowling and blinking, raised his eyes to the stars. Civilization is complex. It involves the existence of human communities characterized by political and social organization; dominating and utilizing natural forces; adapting themselves to the new man-made environment thereby created; possessing knowledge, refinement, arts, and sciences; and (last, but emphatically not least) composed of individuals capable of sustaining this elaborate complex and of handing it on to a capable posterity.”  
WHO IS LEFT OUT FROM CIVILIZATION? “Not all the branches of the human species attained the threshold of civilization. Some, indeed, never reached even the limits of savagery. Existing survivals of low-type savage man, such as the Bushmen of South Africa and the Australian "Black fellows," have vegetated for countless ages in primeval squalor and seem incapable of rising even to the level of barbarism, much less to that of civilization. It is fortunate for the future of mankind that most of these survivals from the remote past are to-day on the verge of extinction. Their persistence and possible incorporation into higher stocks would produce the most depressive and retrogressive results. Much more serious is the problem presented by those far more numerous stocks which, while transcending the plane of mere savagery, have stopped at some level of barbarism. Not only have these stocks never originated a civilization themselves, but they also seem constitutionally incapable of assimilating the civilization of others. Deceptive veneers of civilization may be acquired, but reversion to congenital barbarism ultimately takes place. To such barbarian stocks belong many of the peoples of Asia, the American Indians, and the African negroes.” 
 WHAT ABOUT OUR GREEKS & ROMANS? For the last eight or ten thousand years civilizations have been appearing all the way from Eastern Asia to Europe and North Africa. At first these civilizations were local—mere points of light in a vast night of barbarism and savagery. They were also isolated; the civilizations of Egypt, Chaldea, India, and China developing separately, with slight influence upon each other. But gradually civilizations spread, met, interacted, synthesized. Finally, in Europe, a great civilizing tide set in, first displaying itself in the "Classic" civilization of Greece and Rome, and persisting down to the "Western Civilization" of our own days.” 

Lothrop Stoddard, the author of these unpleasant quotations, was a Harvard trained historian, journalist, and prominent member of the mainstream American eugenics movement. He was well known enough to have been parodied in The Great Gatsby and to have served as a consultant for the Nazi high command.  And yet all of them, a part of the early adopters of the concept of ‘western civ’, use it in ways that are clearly meant to refer to a specific culture, a ‘west’, that is defined not by principles of ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but through race, religion, and power. He isn’t alone. I can give you a dozen more such texts from 1900 to the 1990s that do the same thing.

Three other developments on the 'western civ' front I want to make note of in this post before recognizing that the post really has gone on too long: 1. I have only found one 1906 article that refers to something called 'eastern civilization' that serves as a parallel for 'western civ' (Bryan, William Jennings. Letters to a Chinese official: being a Western view of Eastern civilization. Harper, 1906). Eastern civ = China and it is a response to an earlier article offering a Chinese view of 'western civ'. The opening paragraph is about as fragile as you might expect it to be:

2. "Western Civilization" is sometimes used as translation for the German term"Europäisierung". As in this example from 1936:

So, western civ just means in this case making something European, "Europeanization". That is about as clear as one can be connecting 'western civ' to imperialism, colonialism, and appropriation of the past.


Conclusion to Part 1 of this history of the term 'western civilization':  
The historical development of the 'western civ' narrative is bound up to imperialism and colonialism, white supremacism, classism and exceptionalism—a whole range of -isms that position ‘western civilization’ as a ‘white’, Christian, elite culture that is somehow still ‘universal’ and superior to all others. As Alastair Bonnett has argued (quite persuasively, I think): “The term ‘western’ remained and remains racially coded, burdened with the expectation that the world will never be ‘free’, ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ until it is Europeanized” (The Idea of the West34).

It is a narrative premised on a world divided into ‘cultural’ (but really ‘racial’) groups that, as most famously formulated by Sam Huntington, clash and must be ranked against each other--Amartya Sen has said it well, I think: “Theories of civilizational clash have often provided allegedly sophisticated foundations of crude and coarse popular belief. Cultivated theory can bolster uncomplicated bigotry.” (A. Sen, Identity and Violence, 44). I think he has a point. But that's for the next post, because this one has already gotten too long.