History of Western Civilization

Content of the Lecture

If we want to discuss Western Civilization we must know, firstly, what is “the West”. The American historian, Norman Davies, has found no less than twelve definitions about what the West according to different authors and ideologies in different times could be or could have been (Davies 1997, 19 et sqq.) (Morris 2012, 48).

Taking that into the picture, things are soon getting entirely messed up. Even though most of us have some sort of a feeling for what actually constitutes the West, still, some would rather put it equal with democracy and freedom (Fukuyama 2014), while others would preferably relate it with Christianity, and others on the contrary would rather prefer to relate it with secular rationalism, so that any further definition of the West, in fact, provides us with a different set of ideologies (Morris 2012, 48). In his text book Europe: A History Norman Davies concludes consequently:

"[I]t appears that Western civilization is essentially an amalgam of intellectual constructs which were designed to further the interests of their authors. It is the product of complex exercises in ideology, of countless identity trips, of sophisticated essays in cultural propaganda. It can be defined by its advocates in almost any way that they think fit. Its elastic geography has been inspired by the distribution of religions, by the demands of liberalism and of imperialism, by the unequal progress of modernization, by the divisive effects of world wars and of the Russian Revolution, and by the self-centred visions of French philosophes, of Prussian historians, and of British and American statesmen and educators, all of whom have had their reasons to neglect or to despise the East. In its latest phase it has been immensely strengthened by the physical division of Europe, which lasted from 1947-8 to 1991. On the brink of the twenty-first century, one is entitled to ask in whose interests it may be used in the future” (Davies 1997, 24).

In July 1989, for instance, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and in response to seething political movements in Eastern Europe, faltering communist ideologies and socialist political systems the scholar Francis Fukuyama published his notorious post-historical paper The End of History? in the academic journal The National Interest – following an at least trimillenary-long tradition of scholastic utopists when raising the hypothesis of the possibility that the generation of 1989 might finally constitute the one representing the last man, or the last civilization marking the end-point of socio-cultural evolution and the advent of the last form of human government: the “Western” liberal democracy (Fukuyama 1989).

In 2014, after a quarter of a century’s debate about his hypothesis, he specified his argument again, arguing that now, twenty-five years later, “the most serious threat to the end-of-history hypothesis isn’t that there is a better model out there that will someday supersede liberal democracy; neither Islamic theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it. Once societies get on the up-escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demand for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy” (Fukuyama 2014).

Herewith Francis Fukuyama insists upon the conclusion that democracy is the best among all human political endeavors of the past as well as for the future. Thus historically, “good fortune” (eudaimonia) is the starting point of any reflection about the intellectual quest for the one political idea that is “favored by the gods” (Yu 2005, 177). Ever since the beginning of ethics, in philosophy, mankind had a notion of the existence of a universal formula for good life in the human gemeinschaft. Therefore, the guiding question that Plato (c. 427 – c. 347 BC) reflects upon in his Politeia is, whether or not there would be any other way for a good life than the one that is consistent with the usual customs and traditions, since customs are nothing but the per-specific manner in which we coordinate our social life with the help of rituals, to follow in our behavior reasonably fixed patterns and to organize our social cooperation (Hörisch 2010, 30 et seqq.).

Thus, the search for an answer to the question whether or not there does exist a universal moral life haunts “Western” political philosophers ever since this question was raised among scholars in the cities of the ancient “Greek civilization” during the time of Socrates (c. 469 – 399 BC),Thukydides (c. 460 – 395 BC), Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), Plato, and Aristotle (c. 384 – c. 322 BC) until today: How is life good (or favored by the gods) in the city-state? While Socrates is reluctant to participate in any political activities at all, it seems that Plato favors the model of a philosopher king and that Aristotle regards an amalgam of oligarchy (or with Thukydides aristocracy) and democracy – where middle-income groups rule – to be the empirically best possible political idea (Demandt 2000, 126).

Whilst on the other hand, the so-called pre-Socratic Thracian philosopher and contemporary of the aforementioned, Democritus of Abdera, unconditionally favors the principle of democracy: “Poverty in a democracy is preferable to the so-called prosperity in autocratic regimes, as well as freedom is preferable to slavery” (Ibscher 1996, 109). One might say the 1990s was a brief period of time in history where many academics were prone to believe that our two to three millennia’s old quest for universal political values was, finally, over; just to realize that it was instead, in the course of the subsequent years and especially after the turn of the millennium in 2000, fundamentally challenged again. It seems as if Islamic terror, the resurgence of autocratic regimes in many countries (despite their honest democratic ambitions during the post-Cold-War period), revolution and contra-revolution, religious and cultural clashes on the European soil (whatever culture might even mean), and the rapid and unprecedented success of some kind of a Chinese, Confucian “socialist market economy” are ridiculing every post-modern, eschatological notion of the upcoming advent of The Last Man (Fukuyama 1989).

The question of the universal, best way of living still haunts us until today. And one might even give up and assume: there is none.

Aims, Scope, and Learning Outcomes

In the course of this introductory university lecture History of Western Civilization the discussion guides the participants through the maze of different historical opinions about the meaning of "West" and provides explanations about the origins and motives of such different opinions.

This selective course is an open 32 hours university lecture conducted in English language at the Department of General Education in the School of Humanities, open for any student who is enrolled at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, providing 2 credit points. For further course details, please contact the program management of the Department of General Education on Liulin Campus in Chengdu, Wenjiang District.

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