The above image is a tilework rendering of Portugal’s Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) conquering Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 CE
Broad phalanxes of commentators, politicians, and pundits in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere speak easily about the role of “the West” in world affairs; and the contest/contrast between “the West vs. the rest” has even become a thing.
But what is this “West”? What do people mean when they use the term?
At a time when the effective hegemony that the United States and its allies in “the West” have exercised over the peoples and politics of the world is starting to crumble, it seems worth exploring the historical record of “the West” a little more systematically.
Is “the West” only a vestige of the West-vs.-East bipolarity of the Cold War? Or, is it a civilizational matter, as in the habit of many U.S. universities to offer courses in “Western Civ” that draw a straight line back from Peoria to the civilizations of Greece and Rome? Or, is “the West” best defined in contrast to an “Orient” that has all the—deeply “Orientalized”—attributes of despotism, backwardness, and so on that have been ascribed to it? (And is “the West” thus largely co-terminous with modernism itself?)
I’ve been thinking on, and writing about, this issue for a number of years (including here), and now I’m planning to present my best current understanding on the history of “the West” as we see it today, summarized into six historical episodes. Today, I present Episode 1.
(I realize I’ve left a lot out of the summary and would much welcome helpful suggestions for improvement, which can be left in the comments.)Continue reading “A history of ‘the West’ in 6 episodes”