The moral legacy of Western civilization

I threw off a phrase in yesterday’s post: “The moral legacy of Western civilization”. It set me off thinking. Why does that phrase have such an odd resonance?

The first reason, I think, is that it places Western civilization as something in the past.  Something that was.  I don’t mean that everything it included is dead, but that using it to describe something in the present is inaccurate.  The layout is different now.  The ideas earlier generations associated with the West are no longer confined there.  At the same time, other ideas are in play.  I’m not saying that we’re all submerged into one big happy world culture, just that “Western civilization” is not a meaningful description of anything in the present.

The second reason is that if Western civilization belongs to the past, then we really can evaluate its moral legacy.  And we can do it more neutrally than before.  We’re still working through the rebellious phase where everything about the West is EVIL, (and then the rebellion against that rebellion, and so on, swerving from side to side).  But it’s a possible next step.  History always has an implied “us”, and what I have in mind is the kind of history of Western civilization where “us” is everyone.  A history that doesn’t exaggerate any one perspective just because that’s the one readers identify with.

I’m not sure if all of this is correct.  But if that harmless-sounding phrase is like a grenade, then this is what comes out of it when it explodes.

2 Responses to The moral legacy of Western civilization

  1. Konrad says:

    What do I think of Western civilization? “I think it would be a very good idea.” – the answer I think is attributed to Ghandi.

    I any case, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “western civilization” as if it is one thing, it is in my opinion not even resembling a clear and stable object. There are of course some interesting ideas or ideals that great thinkers have tried to distill, for instance in the US constitution or the UN declaration of human rights. But it is in know way obvious that these are specifically western, and they are for sure not representative of western political or social history.

  2. It’s difficult only because you think you have to define Western civilization as something that is currently a living thing. It becomes easier if you tie the definition to a time period in the past, as something that existed there and there, at those times, and had those specific characteristics.

    Sure it’s still _difficult_, but no more difficult than any other historical definitions at the same level. And remember that Western civilization doesn’t have to be unique in every way, in order to talk about it as a separate thing. You and I probably have characteristics in common. We’re still separate individuals. Tying the definition to historical specifics in the same way makes it perfectly reasonable to talk about Western civilization.

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