What is the West?

A common question a student is asked when studying International Relations or politics in general is ‘what is the West?’. I want to look at this question, the different answers to it and why it’s an important question for everyone – not just IR students. 

When we think of what defines the West, what separates it from other regions of the world, we might lean towards our liberal democratic principles. The Enlightenment and the political philosophies it gave rise to were distinctly European so it’s fair to take this as one way of defining the West. On the other hand, that would mean that the world’s largest liberal democracy – India – is also part of ‘the West’ despite it being geographically to the East, culturally vastly different and politically in the non-aligned camp. 

Unlike India, the West (specifically Western Europe for this point) has a shared history of being under the Catholic Church. While Northern European countries broke away from the Catholic Church in favour of Protestant theologies, they nonetheless have the shared historical experience of Catholicism. These Judeo-Christian values, as a number of conservative commentators like to point out, are what define the West. 

So, between liberal democracy on the one hand and Judeo-Christian values on the other, we have ‘the West’. Or do we?

Philosophically, these two pillars of the West have their roots in two cities: Athens and Jerusalem. The Enlightenment’s push towards ‘Reason’ as a route to finding Good has an ancestry in Ancient Greek (Athenian) philosophy beginning with Socrates and Plato. 

At the time of their writing, they were confused as to why everyone had their own version of what was Good. Travel to 5 different places and you’d get 5 different customs and each culture would say that they were right and the other 4 were wrong. The Athenian philosophers saw this and felt that there must be some objective Good that was Good wherever you went. In order to figure out this objective Good, one needed Reason. So, we have Athens as the bedrock of one pillar. 

Beneath the other pillar lies Jerusalem. It’s common knowledge that the three main monotheistic religions of the world share an ancestry in Abraham and more specifically, in Jerusalem. While Christianity sees itself as correcting the faults and shortcomings of Judaism, it still retains much of the Abrahamic vision. The main difference is that Jesus isn’t just a messenger of the Word of God, he is the Word. 

An interesting thing about the Athens-Jerusalem definition is that the same could be said for the contemporary Middle East. While the majority of the Middle East lives by Judeo-Christian-Islamic values, it nonetheless finds its roots in Jerusalem. Tellingly, before Muslims prayed towards Mecca, they prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. Taking things a step further, Christianity almost inherently needs philosophy since you’re interpreting the Word of God through a persons actions while Islam has the Qur’an and the hadiths. Nonetheless, as any student of literature can tell you, interpreting any piece of poetry requires some interpretation. 

The point here isn’t just that the Middle East and the West share philosophical roots. The bond goes deeper than that. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if not for the Middle East, Western Civilisation would not exist as we know it. This is because the Islamic Caliphates were able to preserve Greek philosophical texts when many of them were lost to the West and it was an Islamic scholar by the name of Averroes who translated a lot of the texts into Latin. Consequently, thinkers like Thomas Aquinas were able to learn from Aristotle and provide the West with new ideas that fundamentally changed the course of history. Aquinas gave Aristotle the title of ‘The Philosopher’, but he wouldn’t have access to that Philosopher without Averroes, the man he titled ‘The Commentator’. 

This isn’t to say that the West is the same as the Middle East – Paris is not a colder Damascus with more wine and Amman isn’t a warmer Edinburgh with more falafel. Personally, I think that the distinction between ‘our’ civilisation and other civilisations is important. Aquinas is not Averroes. Owing in part to Aquinas’ reconciliation of Reason and Faith, the West has slowly developed an idea of liberty that not only permits but actively facilitates modern Science and human rights. Equally, the Middle East has struggled with various theological and political ideas that at times leave it under despotic rulers and in others provide sanctuary to multiculturalism but nonetheless provide a landscape rich with architecture and art. Understanding what ‘the West’ is allows us to appreciate what we contribute to the world. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand where this differentiation comes from so that not only can we see what we have done, but also what other cultures have done. 

In this era of globalisation, it’s easy to feel too particular or too global. On the first occasion, there are tendencies towards ‘the West and the Rest’ and focusing our attentions too heavily on what happens on our doorstep, giving rise to a ‘Little England’ mentality. On the other hand, narratives that revolve around us all being in a ‘global village’ and being ‘citizens of the world’ are damaging too. When only home is important, we become insular and ignorant. When everything is important, nothing takes priority and we become disorientated. Worse still, we can end up embittered that our problems aren’t heard. 

My message with the question ‘what is the West?’ is that you should appreciate who you are, the culture in which you were raised and how that makes you different. Answering the question takes a lot of thought and effort but in trying to answer it, you start to appreciate more of who you are and where you come from. This doesn’t need to be at the expense of our appreciation for other cultures – global history is one where civilisations mingle and share between one another but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are a ‘citizen of the world’. 

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