Tag: western historians

Some notes on Western Civilization

1. On being the heir to Rome

The Parthenon in Athens. Photo credit: Steve Swayne, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

The western world prides itself on being the heir to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

It’s true that some parts of the world that we would not normally think of as being in the West – Russia and the Arab world, for example – have also been strongly influenced by classical Greco-Roman culture. Nevertheless, we feel, the western world is Rome’s true successor.

It’s hard to explain why. Perhaps, we believe, there is some unique essence of westernness which began in the ancient world, and which western Europe alone was heir to.

2. Fuzzily mapped

Pretty much everyone has a rough idea what “western civilization” means, even if we aren’t sure how to define it. It started in ancient Greece and Rome, with Plato and Aristotle. It is predominantly white and Christian, and its main language is English. It is associated with rationality, individualism, technological progress, democracy, and freedom, and it currently dominates the world.

And when people talk about “the west” or “the western world” we roughly know what that means. On a map it looks like this:

A world map with North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa coloured in red.
The western world. Image based on Blank Map of the World 6

which goes to show that “west” does not necessarily have anything to do with geography.

Perhaps “the west” really means western Europe, plus those parts of the world whose cultural origins lie in western Europe as a result of colonisation. Except for Mexico and all of South and Central America and the Caribbean. And Israel is culturally western but it isn’t in the west. Um.

“West” is a fuzzy concept.

3. On Europe, and the ancient Roman Empire, and how they were not the same place

The origins of western civilization are said to lie in ancient Greece and Rome, but the ancients themselves did not think they were “west”. They considered themselves to be right at the center of the world, straddling Europe and Asia. They even named their sea the Mediterannean, which means “center of the Earth”.

And the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are sometimes called “European”, but they weren’t, really.



Oriental Despotism

The theory of Oriental Despotism was created by western historians, and was a reflection of the colonial mindset; it negated Indianess, Indian nationalism, Indian culture and Indian people. Western historians even refused to accept that there was an Indian freedom struggle against the British colonialism and exploitation.

The focus of this theory is on India and China, the two major civilizations of the Orient. There were comments about “unchanging stagnant India”. Since India had been ruled by despots and tyrants, the uncivilized Indians were fit to be ruled with an iron had. It was held that there had been no change in Indian custom, laws and manners because Indians are indolent in both body and mind and hence prone to inaction.

Indian thought was depicted as symbolic and mythical rather than rational and logical. Anglicists argued that western knowledge in English should displace the Eastern.

Such ideological constructs were created to derive the legitimacy to impose tyrannical rule on India. The British administrator historians or the Anglicists as they were called, developed related theory of “Civilizing Mission”, “White Man’s Burden”, “Theory of Guardianship” etc.

– Om Prakash, “Negating the Colonial Construct of Oriental Despotism: The Science of Statecraft in Ancient India”, somewhat paraphrased.