What is the West? Different proponents of the West have given different answers to this enduring and continuing question. Conventionally, however, the West has been seen as being derived from three distinct sources.
Classical culture provided the first source. Greece contributed the idea of a republic, while Rome offered that of an empire. Similarly, Greece articulated the ideal of liberty, while Rome offered a model of law.
Christianity, particularly in its Roman Catholic and later Protestant forms, provided the second main source of Western identity. Christianity taught the sanctity of the individual believer and the obedience of the individual to a higher law. Christian institutions adumbrated the concept of a separation of powers in the ongoing Medieval struggle between the Papacy and secular rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperors.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century European Enlightenment provided the third basis of the West. It paved the way for liberal democracy, free markets, and faith in reason and science as a means of making sense of the world. More particularly, the English Revolution of 1689 emphasized liberty and constitutionalism, while the French Revolution of 1789 emphasized democracy and rationalism.
The three sources have tended successively to restrict the West’s geographic boundaries. Since the heirs to Greece and Rome include Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries, classical culture included Eastern Europe in the West. Stressing Western Christianity excluded Eastern Europe, but included the German, Slavic, and Magyar societies of Central Europe. Before 1945, a focus on the Enlightenment included only Western Europe and North America along with Australia and New Zealand.
Some interpreters of the West have seen it as the synthesis of these three sources. Others, however, emphasize one source over the others or present them in conflict with each other (as indeed historically they were). A series of creative tensions (and unstable equilibria) developed between different legacies from the three sources: the individual and community, faith and reason, liberty and law, and the market and the society. The separation of powers in the West has meant that institutions have represented each of these conflicting but enduring elements. Each of them also found representation in a particular social elite. However, in recent decades, dominant social elites have tended to choose the same side: the individual, reason, liberty, and the market. Conversely, the mass of the population often favored community, faith, law, and the society.
During much of the twentieth century, the West offered two distinct narratives, corresponding to its two distinct regions, Europe and America. The European narrative depicted the decline of the West and the reduction of Europe and its culture to the level of America and its “mere” civilization or even economy, of a European Greece within an American Rome. In contrast, the American narrative depicted the rise of the West in which the Western tradition reached its fulfillment in the American Creed in which the ideas of liberty and individualism, rule of law, liberal democracy and free markets produced equality of opportunity.
Two transformations, one within the world at large and one within America itself, superseded both narratives. The world transformation came as the Cold War gave way to a new age of globalization. America is now the sole superpower, promoter of the global economy, leader of the information revolution, and the most advanced case of post-modern society. If America is the fulfillment of the West, then America’s triumph is the triumph of the West.
The shift in American elite opinion from the old American Creed to the new values of multiculturalism, however, marks an equally momentous internal transformation within the United States. This includes particular changes regarding liberty (from possessive individualism to expressive individualism) and law (from reason to rationalization) and within the social elite’s self-identification (from the West to the post-West). Indeed, among the American elite today, there is not only a comprehensive critique of Western traditions and Western achievements, but even of most elements of the American Creed. If America has truly become the post-West, then America’s triumph is the twilight of the West.
We can thus view the West and its future from two perspectives: triumph and twilight. Globalization — the spread of the free market and the “golden straitjacket” that imposes the rule of law, a free press, and individual liberty— indicates the triumph of Western ideas and virtues. What might be called the multicultural contradictions of global capitalism — the shifts from a production to a consumption ethic, from possessive to expressive individualism, and from an elite definition of America as the fulfillment of the West to its being the first universal and multicultural nation— points to the twilight of the West.
One can also focus on “the clash of civilizations”— on a gathering storm between “the West and the rest” or between the post-Western United States and Westernizing, or at least modernizing, countries, especially in Asia. The rise of Asian cultural confidence is supported by the rise of Asian military power (and particularly Chinese and Indian nuclear power). In this light a long period of trial for the West emerges.
Where, then, is the West today? We will not find it in any particular geographical place but rather in an eternal struggle, in particular in the creative tensions we have mentioned. Since America, or at least America’s political, economic, and intellectual elite, has chosen the individual over community, reason over faith, liberty over law, and the market over the society, little remains of these creative tensions in the United States. And under American influence, fewer of them exist in Europe. Perhaps the place where these tensions are now most vigorous is, ironically, the modernizing countries of East Asia. If so, the cunning of history will have moved the West so far to the west that it has ended up in the Far East.
What does Professor Kurth’s conclusion say about the West? Two members of the study group challenged Kurth to clarify his definitions. Using modern Japan as an example, one questioner suggested that most societies have the kind of conflicts that Kurth describes as Western. Doi Takeo, Omae Kenichi, and Ienaga Saburo have examined tensions within Japanese society in work that echoes the anxious self-examination found in Europe and the United States. Japan has been “Western” in many senses for a century or more, and a more accurate term might be “advanced industrial societies,” or in the case of India, “global urbanism.” Where, he asked, do “creative tensions within an unstable equilibrium” not appear?
Kurth accepted Japan and other modernizing societies may demonstrate tensions similar to those seen in Western countries. Only in the West, however, are those tensions institutionalized in a way that makes them a part of the social order and amplifies them. Japan internal conflicts differs enough in degree from the West as to present a different kind of society. Along with other non-Western societies, it struggles with imported concepts that undermine traditional ways and virtues.
Another participant offered a concept of the West that would include both sides of key conflicts like the Reformation and First World War. Is not the view of the West as an extension of Western Europe and the United States that Norman Davies calls the “Allied View of History” unduly restrictive? Kurth readily agreed that the “West” must encompass the broader European tradition. Indeed, Central European states like the Czech Republic are more Western in some ways than countries on the Atlantic littoral. But the alternative conception of the West embodied by the German culture of Mitteleuropa failed with the Central Powers’ defeat and collapse in 1918. History extinguished some of the options for cultural development to which the question alludes, and overstating their later influence would be deceptive. Carl Schmitt and many other 20th century critics of the liberal West looked back to a world already lost.
Christianity exerted a profound influence over the entire West, and several participants related this in Weberian terms to the spread of Protestantism among people aspiring to middle class status in Asia and Latin America. But one speaker warned that Christianity alone cannot define the West. The Orthodox leanings toward mysticism epitomized by the monks of Mount Athos, let alone the Caesaropapalist tendencies of Orthodox churches under the Byzantines and Russian tsars, contrast sharply with the Roman tradition of Augustin, Anselm and Aquinas. Kurth accepted the point, noting that Christianity provided the necessary, but not sole, precondition for being Western. Christianity and Classicism were less narrow in defining societies than the Enlightenment.
The contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and Continental forms of the Enlightenment produced a controversial legacy that divided the West while partly defining it. At times one might question whether the West demonstrated a consistent unity. Samuel Huntington, he noted, has argued that when a single power comes to dominate a civilization other powers within the group become its auxiliaries. As Europe increasingly seeks to assert itself against the United States, this part of Huntington’s theory is not true of the West today. But despite its attacks on American cultural hegemony, Europe shows many of the same anti-Western sentiments found in the United States. Indeed, multiculturalist ideology in the United States and the English-speaking world drew heavily on French intellectuals like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the critical theorists of Germany’s Frankfurt School.
The conversation ended with the conclusion that two visions of the West exist today in an uneasy competition. An elite culture rooted in expressive individualism and the multicultural critique of the Western experience aspires to universalism, while its opponents defend an earlier conception of Western identity rooted in liberty and law. The real conflict lies within the West itself, rather than between rival civilizations. As a result, the Western idea faces a period of trial that leaves the question of triumph or twilight open for the time being.
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