A Brief History of ‘the West’

Brad Patty

4 months ago

July 07, 2017

President Trump’s speech in Poland repeatedly invokes a concept called ‘the West,’ and Peter Alexander Beinart, writing at the Atlantic, apparently thinks that ‘the West’ is some sort of code.  Beinart writes:

The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti…. The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.

The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white.

In truth, ‘the West’ as a concept is almost antithetical to racism. It relates originally to the civilization built out of the Roman Empire, particularly what came to be called the “Western Roman Empire.”  This was a civilization in which many peoples — not only Italians but Greeks and Jews and Germans — could all be “Roman citizens” as long ago as the life of St. Paul.  India and Japan are only excluded because they have the deepest roots of their civilizations elsewhere.

The West certainly deserves a defense, but to defend it one must first be able to say what it is.  This brief history will sketch how the idea came to be.

After the fall of Rome, for a while the Germanic kings continued to style themselves in the manner of Roman emperors. This included the adoption of Christianity, which continued after they no longer bothered to claim to be emperors of Rome. It was Germanic kings of this sort that fell before the Islamic conquest of Spain.

It was another set of similar Germanic Kings, celebrated in the epic Song of Roland, who finally stopped that conquest and established what they called the Holy Roman Empire.  The name honored not an ethnic or racial connection to Rome, but both a religious and a philosophical one. Charlemagne pursued education reform and supported scholarship along the Roman lines (increasingly being carried out chiefly by the Catholic Church). In the best of the Roman tradition, he governed by laws rather than by imperial fiat. Across what was not yet known as the English Channel, his near contemporary Alfred the Great pursued similar reforms as a part of unifying that kingdom against Viking raiders.

The Vikings themselves became part of this civilization as much through the efforts of teachers and evangelicals as through military force (though that was relevant; Viking Iceland converted as the result of a democratically-agreed process of arbitration).  A few brief words about the Viking relationship to the West will show something important:  the West used to go much further east.  Why does it stop where it does now?

After the death of the Norse king St. Olav at the battle of Stiklestad, his younger half-brother Harald Hardrada fled to Russia.  Russia was at that time very much a part of the West, thanks to the conversion efforts of Vladimir the Great.  Vladimir’s interest was probably as much political as religious:  bringing all the many different sorts of pagans he happened to rule under a single new faith provided a unifying logic to his growing kingdom.  Since Olav had been attempting a similar sort of evangelism in Norway, Vladimir’s descendants welcomed and supported his younger half brother.  Harald Hadrada went along what was then a very busy economic corridor of rivers that connected Russia with the survivors of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople.  This area, in what is now Turkey, was like Russia very much a part of this Western world at that time.

Hardrada fought for men who described themselves as Roman Emperors, in campaigns against Islamic powers in the Middle East and in Sicily.  Having grown rich, he returned to Russia and then successfully conquered Norway.  He then died attempting to conquer England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only days before the same English army that beat him would be destroyed by the Norman Conquest.  Hardrada’s life thus shows the West when it went much further east:  politically divided into many nations, ethnically divided into many peoples, divided even religiously into Roman Catholics and Orthodox and Jews, but was nevertheless a civilization unified by its trade and its intellectual debt to the Roman heritage.

Constantinople fell out of the West due to conquest.  The Turks who turned Constantinople into Istanbul pressed as far as Vienna before they were turned back.  Russia remained in the West until 1917, when it rejected its intellectual heritage in favor of Communism.  It is worth noting that President Trump’s speech invokes the West in reference to its defiance of Communism:  his first three references to “the West” are about Poland’s defiance of Communism during the Cold War.  Though I have no insight into the President’s speechwriting, my guess is that he is using the term exactly as Ronald Reagan used it.

This brings significance to the point of the speech:  “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”  The speech rightly notes that the West’s survival has never been clear.  Large parts fell before the Umayyad Caliphate; large parts before the Ottoman Turks; large parts fell into Communism.  Each of those thrusts might have undone the whole.

Today the threat to the survival of the West comes partly from those who have inherited the West, but do not respect their history and heritage enough to defend it.  The Security Studies Group primarily focuses on more physical threats to the West, but an intellectual defense of the West is not out of our mandate.  In the interest of brevity I have passed over much, including the Renaissance return to classical (Greek and Roman) thought, and how that gave birth to the Enlightenment and its values.  It was the return to the classical roots that created Charlemagne’s golden moment, Alfred the Great’s, Thomas Aquinas’, and the Renaissance as well.  It is underappreciated how much the great thinkers of the 20th century, such as Kurt Gödel, owe to their study of the classical intellectual ground of the West.

The unity of the West lies in this foundation on the intellectual ground of Rome, of Jerusalem, of Athens.  The unity of the West comes from the way in which that ground continues to prove fertile and productive of good and decent ways of life.  Because it is that, it is always in danger of being lost.  Every generation can lose it, simply by ceasing to learn it and to teach it to the next.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.