Western civilization as we know it today is the civilization created by Caucasian Europeans. Related terms include Western world, Western society, Western culture, The West, and The Occident (from Latin "occidental", meaning "Western"). Sometimes (some) of these terms have been used in different senses, such as during the Cold War, when "The West" could refer to non-Communist or NATO countries (or both).
The origins of the word "West" in terms of geopolitical boundaries started after World War II (or possibly after 1919 when the Western Allies became the dominant military forces and following Russia's clear political separation from western Europe and its traditions.). Prior to this most people would have thought about different nations, languages, individuals, and geographical regions, but with no conception of "Western" nations as we know it today. Few would have access to good maps and even fewer had access to accurate knowledge of who lived in far-away lands. Western thought as we think of it today, is shaped by ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, originating overwhelemingly in Europe. What we think of as "Western" thought today is defined as Greco-Roman and Christian culture, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and imperialism. As a consequence the term Western thought is at times unhelpful and vague, since it can define two separate (although related) sets of traditions and values: Firstly, the Western Christian moral traditions and values; Secondly, secular values, often with a rationalist humanist anti-clerical tradition. Less acknowledged but equally as important was the influence of the Germanic cultures whose people overran Western Europe beginning in the fifth century AD and effectively became the rulers of Western Europe into the modern age, first in the form of the Goths and the Vandals and later in the form of the Franks who unified the West, then the Holy Roman Empire and so forth. In addition, many individuals throughout history do not easily fit into a false dichotomy of East or West.
The Hellenic division between the barbarians and the Greeks contrasted in many societies the Greek-speaking culture of the Greek settlements around the Mediterranean to the surrounding non-Greek cultures. Herodotus considered the Persian Wars of the early 5th century BC a conflict of Europe versus Asia (which he considered to be all land West and East of the Sea of Marmara, respectively). The terms "West" and "East" were not used by any Greek author to describe that conflict. The anachronistic application of those terms to that division entails a stark logical contradiction, given that, when the term West appeared, it was used in opposition to the Greeks and Greek-speaking culture.
Western society is sometimes claimed to trace its cultural origins to both Greek thought and Christian religion, thus following an evolution that began in ancient Greece, continued through the Roman Empire and, with the coming of Christianity (which had its origins in the Middle East), spread throughout Europe.
However, the conquest of the western parts of the Roman Empire by Germanic peoples and the subsequent advent of despotism in the form of dominance by the Western Christian Papacy (which held combined political and spiritual authority, a state of affairs absent from Greek civilization in all its stages), resulted into a rupture of the previously existing ties between the Latin West and Greek thought, including Christian Greek thought. The Great Schism and the Fourth Crusade confirmed this deviation. Hence, the Medieval West is limited to Western Christendom only, as the Greeks and other European peoples not under the authority of the Papacy are not included in it. The clearly Greek-influenced form of Christianity, Orthodoxy, is more linked to Eastern than Western Europe. On the other hand, the Modern West, emerging after the Renaissance as a new civilization, has been influenced by (its own interpretation of) Greek thought, which was preserved in the Roman (Byzantine) Empire during the Medieval West's Dark Ages and transmitted therefrom by emigration of scholars and courtly marriages. The Renaissance in the West emerged partly from currents within the Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Moreover, European peoples not included in Western Christendom such as the Greeks have redefined their relationship to this new, secular, variant of Western civilization, and have increasingly participated in it since then.
Thus the idea of Western society being influenced from (but not being the single evolution of) ancient Greek thought makes sense only for the post-Renaissance period of Western history.
The Roman Empire
Ancient Rome (510 BC-AD 476) was a civilization that grew from a city-state founded on the Italian Peninsula circa the 9th century BC to a massive empire straddling the Mediterranean Sea. In its twelve-century existence, Roman civilization shifted from a monarchy, to a republic, to an autocratic empire. It came to dominate Western Europe, the Balkans and the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea through conquest and military force using the Roman legions and then through cultural assimilation by giving Roman privileges and eventually citizenship to the whole empire. Nonetheless, despite its great legacy, a number of factors led to the eventual decline of the Roman Empire.
The Western Roman Empire eventually broke into independent kingdoms in the 5th century due to civil wars, corruption, and devastating Germanic campaigns from such tribes as the Goths, the Franks and the Vandals; the Eastern Roman Empire, governed from Constantinople, is usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire after 476, the traditional date for the "fall of the Western Roman Empire" and for the subsequent onset of the Early Middle Ages. The Eastern Roman Empire survived the fall of the West, and protected Roman legal and cultural traditions combining them with Greek and Christian elements, for another thousand years.
The Roman Empire succeeded the about 500 year-old Roman Republic (510 BC - 1st century BC), which had been weakened by the conflict between Gaius Marius and Sulla and the civil war of Julius Caesar against Pompey and Marcus Brutus. During these struggles hundreds of senators were killed, and the Roman Senate had been refilled with loyalists of the First Triumvirate and later those of the Second Triumvirate.
Several dates are commonly proposed to mark the transition from Republic to Empire, including the date of Julius Caesar's appointment as perpetual roman dictator (44 BC), the victory of Caesar's heir Octavian at the Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC), and the Roman Senate's granting to Octavian the honorific Augustus. (January 16, 27 BC). Octavian/Augustus officially proclaimed that he had saved the Roman Republic and carefully disguised his power under republican forms; consuls continued to be elected, tribunes of the plebeians continued to offer legislation, and senators still debated in the Roman Curia. However, it was Octavian who influenced everything and controlled the final decisions, and in final analysis, had the legions to back him up, if it ever became necessary.
Roman expansion began long before the state was changed into an Empire and reached its zenith under emperor Trajan with the conquest of Dacia in AD 106. During this territorial peak the Roman Empire controlled approximately 5 900 000 km² (2,300,000 sq.mi.) of land surface. From the time of Caesar to the Fall of the Western Empire, Rome dominated Western Eurasia and the Mediterranean (but was defeated in Germania), comprising the majority of its population. Ancient Rome has contributed greatly to the development of law, war, art, literature, architecture, technology and language in the Western world, and its history continues to have a major influence on the world today.
Conquest of the Roman Empire
In the early 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Empire included lands east of the Adriatic Sea and bordering on the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Black Sea. These two divisions of the Eastern and Western Empires were reflected in the administration of the Christian Church, with Rome and Constantinople debating and arguing over whether either city was the capital of Christianity. As the eastern and western churches spread their influence, the line between "East" and "West" can be described as moving, but generally followed a cultural divide that was defined by the existence of the Byzantine empire and the fluctuating power and influence of the church in Rome. Some, including Huntington, theorized that this cultural division still existed during the Cold War as the approximate western boundary of those countries that were allied with the Soviet Union; others have criticized these views on the basis that they confuse the Eastern Roman Empire with Russia, especially considering the fact that the country that had the most historical roots in Byzantium, Greece, was allied with the West during the Cold War.
Under Roman-German Emperor Charlemagne, the Franks established an empire that was recognized as the Holy Roman Empire by the Christian Patriarch of Rome, offending the Emperor in Constantinople. The crowning of the Emperor by the Pope led to the assumption that the highest power was the papal hierarchy, establishing, until the Protestant Reformation, the civilization of Western Christendom. The Latin Rite Christian Church of western and central Europe headed by the Patriarch of Rome split with the eastern, Greek-speaking Patriarchates during the Great Schism. Meanwhile, the extent of each expanded, as Scandinavia, Germany, Britain, and the other non-Christian lands of the northwest were converted by the Western Church, while Russia and much of Eastern Europe were converted by the Eastern Church.
In this context, the Protestant reformation in Germany may be viewed as a schism within the Latin Church. Martin Luther, in the wake of precursors, broke with the Pope and with the Emperor, backed by many of the German princes. These changes were adopted by the Scandinavian kings. Later, the commoner Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) assumed the religio-political leadership in Geneva, a former ecclesiastical city whose prior ruler had been the Bishop. The English King later improvised on the Lutheran model, but subsequently many Calvinist doctrines were adopted by popular dissenters, leading to the English Civil War. Both royalists and dissenters colonized North America, eventually resulting in an independent U.S.A.
The Colonial "West"
The voyages of discovery, conquest, and exploitation of the Spanish and Portuguese and the rise of the Dutch, British and French colonial empires saw the expansion of Western European institutions around the world. The dissolution of Western Christendom and the legal establishment in international law of the principle of national sovereignty, culminated in the French Revolution with the creation of the Nation State. Coupled with the Industrial revolution in Britain, these political and economic institutions have come to influence most nations of the world today. This however, was due to mandates that required post-colonial societies to form nation-states, creating boundaries and borders that did not necessarily represent a whole nation of people. In this way, through the colonial cultural impositions and post-colonial political processes, Western Civilization has become global in its influence.
The Cold War
During the Cold War, a new definition emerged. The Earth was divided into three "worlds". The First World, analogous in this context to the West, was composed of NATO members and other countries aligned with the United States. The Second World was the Eastern bloc in the Soviet sphere of influence, including the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. The Third World consisted of countries unaligned with either, and important members include India, Yugoslavia and for a time the People's Republic of China, though some find it expedient to group the latter group under Second World either because of their communist ideology, or geopolitical importance.
There were a number of countries which did not fit comfortably into this neat definition of partition, including Switzerland, Sweden, and the Republic of Ireland, which chose to be neutral. Finland was under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence but remained neutral, was not communist, nor was it a member of the Warsaw Pact or Comecon. In 1955 , when Austria again became a fully independent republic, it did so under the condition that it remained neutral, but as a country to the west of the Iron Curtain, it was in the United States sphere of influence. Turkey was a member of NATO but was not usually regarded as either part of the First or Western worlds. Spain did not join NATO until 1982, towards the end of the Cold War and after the death of the authoritarian Franco.
The exact scope of the Western World is somewhat subjective in nature, depending on whether cultural, economic or political criteria are used. In general however these definitions always include the following countries: the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are Western European or Western European-settled nations which enjoy relatively strong economies and stable governments, have chosen democracy as a form of governance, favor capitalism and free international trade, and have some form of political and military alliance or cooperation.
Many anthropologists, sociologists and historians still make the mistake of opposing "the West and the Rest" in a categorical manner. The same has been done by Malthusian demographers with a sharp distinction between European and non-European family systems. Among anthropologists, this includes Durkheim, Dumont and Lévi-Strauss.
As the term "Western world" does not have a strict international definition, governments do not use the term in legislation of international treaties and instead rely on other definitions.
- See: Western Culture.
From a cultural and sociological approach the Western world is defined as including all cultures that are (directly derived from) European cultures, i.e. Europe, the Americas (North and South America), Australia and New Zealand (and sometimes South Africa,the Philippines, and Japan). Together these countries constitute "Western society"   These are generally countries that share similar history, religions, languages, values and traditions. Culturally, many Latin Americans, particularly Argentines, Uruguayans, Colombians, Chileans and Brazilians, firmly consider themselves Westerners, especially the ruling classes.
In the 20th Century, Christianity declined in influence in many western countries, in Europe and elsewhere. Secularism (separating religion from politics and science) increased. However, while church attendance is in decline, most Westerners nominally identify themselves as Christians (e.g. 70% in the UK) and occasionally attend church on major occasions. In the United States, Christianity continues to play an important societal role, thus helping to maintain Christianity's important role in Western culture. The official religion of the United Kingdom and some Nordic countries is Christianity, even though the majority of European countries have no official religion. Despite this, Christianity, in its different forms, remains the largest faith in most Western countries.
Countries of the Western World are thought to have democracy, rule of law, human rights and a high degree of gender equality. Additionally countries with strong political and military ties to Western Europe, NATO or the United States, such as Japan, Israel, South Korea and Turkey may also be referred to being part of the western world.
As such, this definition of "Western" is not necessarily tied to the geographic sense of the word. A geographically western nation such as Cuba is sometimes not considered "western" due to its general rejection of liberal democracy, freedom of the press, and personal liberty. Conversely, some eastern nations, for example; Japan, Israel, Taiwan, and South Korea, could be considered "western", due to their general adherence to the aforementioned "western" institutions.
Though the Cold War has ended, and the former Eastern Bloc is making a general movement towards capitalism and other values common for the United States and Western Europe, some former Soviet republics are not considered "western" because of the small presence of social and political reform.
Although it is inaccurate to do so, the term "Western world" is often interchangeable with the term First World stressing the difference between First World and the Third World or developing countries. The term "The North" has in some contexts replaced earlier usage of the term "the West", particularly in the critical sense, as a more robust demarcation than "West" and "East". The North provides some absolute geographical indicators for the location of wealthy countries, most of which are physically situated in the Northern Hemisphere, although, as most countries are located in the northern hemisphere in general, some have considered this distinction to be equally unhelpful. The thirty countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which include: the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, generally include what used to be called the "first world" or the "developed world", although the OECD includes a few countries, namely Mexico and Turkey, that are not yet fully industrial countries, but newly industrialized countries. The existence of "The North" implies the existence of "The South", and the socio-economic divide between North and South. Although Israel, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are not members of the OECD, they might also be regarded as "western" or "northern" countries or regions, because their high living standards and their social, economical and political structure are quite similar to those of the OECD member countries.
A series of scholars of civilization, including Arnold J. Toynbee, Alfred Kroeber and Carroll Quigley have identified and analyzed "Western civilization" as one of the civilizations that have historically existed and still exist today. Toynbee entered into quite an expansive mode, including as candidates those countries or cultures who became so heavily influenced by the West as to adopt these borrowings into their very self-identity; carried to its limit, this would in practice include almost everyone within the West, in one way or another. In particular, Toynbee refers to the intelligentsia formed among the educated elite of countries impacted by the European expansion of centuries past. While often pointedly nationalist, these cultural and political leaders interacted within the West to such an extent as to change both themselves and the West.
Yet more recently, Samuel P. Huntington has taken a far more restricted approach, forging a narrow political science hypothesis he labelled the "The Clash of Civilizations?" in a Foreign Affairs article and a book. According to Huntington's hypothesis, what he calls "conflicts between civilizations" will be the primary tensions of the 21st century world. In this hypothesis, the West is based on religion, as the countries of Western and Central Europe were historically influenced by the two forms of Western Christianity, namely Catholicism and Protestantism. Also, many Anglo-phone countries share these traits, i.e., Australia and New Zealand, as well as the more heterogeneous United States and Canada. Of course, so does Latin America. Huntington's thesis was influential, but was by no means universally accepted; its supporters say that it explains modern conflicts, such as those in the former Yugoslavia; the thesis' detractors fear that by equating values like democracy with "Western civilization", it reinforces racist and/or xenophobic notions about "non-Western" societies, as well as blatantly ignoring non-Western democracies. As such, it will serve to provoke and amplify conflict rather than illuminating a way to find an accommodating world order, or in particular cases a commonly agreed solution.
In Huntington's narrow thesis, the historically Eastern Orthodox nations of southeastern and Eastern Europe constitute a distinct "Euro-Asiatic civilization"; although European and Christian, these nations were not, in Huntington's view, shaped by the cultural influences of the Renaissance. The Renaissance did not affect Orthodox Eastern Europe due in part to the proximity of Ottoman domination; though the decisive influence on the Renaissance of Greek emigré scholars should be acknowledged.
Other views might be made regarding Eastern Europe.
Huntington also considered the possibility that South America is a separate civilization from the West, but also mused that it might become a third part (the first two being North America and Europe) of the West in the future.
The theologian and paleontologist, and generous and wide-ranging philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin conceived of the West as the set of civilizations decended from the Nile Valley Civilization of Egypt.
The "West" may also be used pejoratively by those especially critical of the influence of the West and its history of imperialism and colonialism. Ethnocentric definitions of the term Western world are definitions often constructed around one or another Western culture. The British writer Rudyard Kipling wrote about this contrast: East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, expressing that somebody from the West can never understand the Asian cultures as the latter differ too much from the Western cultures. Perhaps these views are precursors to Huntington.
Paradoxically, today Asia and Africa to varying degrees may be considered quasi-Western. Many East Asians and South Asians and Africans and others associate or even identify with the cosmopolitan cultures and international societies referred to sometimes as Western. Likewise, many in the West identify with a transcultural humanity, a notion often found in visions of the sacred.
- "The woke mind virus is killing Western Civilization." – Elon Musk, X (ex-Twitter), 22 February 2024
- Charles Freeman. The Closing of the Western Mind. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-4085-X
- New Left Review - Jack Goody: The Labyrinth of Kinship. Retrieved on 2007-07-24.
- Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.
- Cf., Arnold J. Toynbee, Change and Habit. The challenge of our time (Oxford 1966, 1969) at 153-156; also, Toynbee, A Study of History (10 volumes, 2 supplements).
- Sameul P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).
- About Latin America Huntington was evidently ambivalent; see text at next after paragraph.
- Scholars such as Georgios Gemistos Plethon, Manuel Chrysoloras, Theodorus of Gaza, Ioannis Argyropoulos, Markos Mousouros and Demetrius Chalcondyles.
- The Renaissance was said to be weak in the frontier region of Hungary because Ottoman military pressure long limited Hungarian access to their fellow Roman Catholics in Austria. Yet regarding Hungary, such views wander away from the consensus. Some claim the reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725) and Catherine II the Great (1762-96) were inspired by the Enlightenment. However, they departed considerably from the Enlightenment idea of respect for the individual: Peter's projects for St Petersburg cost the lives of 30,000 workers (though such loss of life was not unknown in Western Europe), and under both Peter and Catherine most Russians remained serfs. It is unclear whether these views are those of Huntington or not.
- Huntington evidently did not detail Australia and New Zealand, but see map.
- Cf., Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phenomene Humain (1955), translated as The Phenomena of Man (New York 1959).