Category Archives: Lecture 1 The Eurocentric (hi)story of Western Civilization

Lecture 1. The Eurocentric (hi)story of Western Civilization

Dear students,

welcome to the course on Western civilization.

Today I will give a brief

  • outline of what we’re going to do in the course this semester,
  • then we’ll discuss what we and what the historians mean by western civilization.
  • I’ll trace the emergence of the idea of Western civilization among Europeans,
  • and place ancient Europe in the context of world history and the emergence of human civilizations.

Course outline

The course provides students with a critically informed introduction to histories of Western civilization. The course encourages students to critically reflect on the development of Western civilization in the context of world history.

Students will gain a general overview of the key developments in the origins, emergence and development of Western civilization and critically reflect on how the idea of Western civilization has been historicized.

Western Civilization course schedule

  1. Western civilization”: Definitions and perspectives
  2. Ancient civilizations of the Middle and Far East
  3. Ancient Greek
  4. Ancient Rome
  5. Barbaric Europe and the Civilized East
  6. Renaissance
  7. Reformation
  8. Enlightenment
  9. Workers and revolts
  10. Colonization and Imperialism
  11. Revolutions and Liberal democracy
  12. Oriental Western civilization


Course assessment will consist of a mid-semester test (40%) and an end of semester essay (50%). Participation in class and homework (10%). There will be penalties for unwarranted absences.

Key Texts will include:

  • Roberts, J.M., Westad, O.A., Penguin World History
  • Spielvogel, J. Western Civilization

Secondary texts include:

Hobson, J.M., The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization

Levin, M. J.S. Mill on Civilization and Barbarians

Sachs, Jeffrey. D., The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions

Williams, R. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

Other tba, including documentary films.

Brainstorming exercise.

Let’s start by problematizing the terms that we’re using for this course: civilization, western, history.

Take a minute to think about the term/phrases ‘civilization’, ‘the west’ and ‘western civilization’ and then we’ll keep our initial thoughts in mind while we learn some of the history of its use in Western societies.

Defining civilization: the dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

‘a developed or advanced state of human society’.

Defining civilization: by development of complex societies

Civilization, as historians define it, first emerged between five and six thousand years ago when people in different parts of the world began to live in organized communities with distinct political, military, economic, and social structures. Religious, intellectual, and artistic activities assumed important roles in these early societies (Spielvogel)

If we look at examples of what everyone has agreed to call civilizations … then it is obvious that what they have in common is complexity. They have all reached a level of elaboration which allows much more variety of human action and experience than even a well-off primitive community. Civilization is the name we give to the interaction of human beings in a very creative way, when, as it were, a critical mass of cultural potential and a certain surplus of resources have been built up. In civilization this releases human capacities for development at quite a new level … (Sachs)

Defining “The West” (history of the term, from western perspectives)

Defining by the principle of difference

Jason Spielvogel suggests that peoples in Europe started to identify themselves as part of a distinct entity with the rise of Christianity during the Late Roman Empire. This kind of identity was based on the sense of their difference from others, of belonging to a Christian society rather than Islamic society.

  • Between 700 and 1500, encounters with the world of Islam helped define the West.
  • After 1500, as European ships began to move into other parts of the world, encounters with peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Americas also affected how people in the West defined themselves.

The idea of being European and Christian also came to be understood as being different from Asian, African, American and Antipodean (Australian) peoples, as well as from Islamic peoples.

Defining by affinity: tracing classical, cultural and racial roots and routes

 In the fifteenth century, Renaissance intellectuals began to identify this idea of being European with the intellectual and political achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

This is a kind of tracing of roots, identifying their own society as the inheritors of the legacies of some previous great civilizations (and note, but not others). This tracing of classical routes demonstrates an affinity for the values and achievements of those societies (the liberal and democratic qualities, etc.).

As they set up colonies, Europeans began to spread throughout other areas outside Europe, and the European migrants took with them their sense of Western identity. So, societies in North America and parts of Latin America, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong (just kidding) have come to consider themselves and be considered part of Western civilization. These affinities are cultural, political and racial.

18th century origins of the term ‘civilization’ (English/French)

The actual term ‘civilized’ existed but had not actually become common in English language until the late eighteenth century (around 1770s). In the 17th + 18th centuries ‘Civility was often used …where we would now expect civilization’ (Raymond Williams)

A political (liberal) sense of the word

Where it did arise, it was used to define a state protecting the natural rights of property. John Locke ‘counted the Civiliz’d part of Mankind’ to be those ‘who have made and multiplied positive Laws to determine Property’.2 Jeremy Bentham, a century later, also identified civilization with the rule of law. Bentham regarded ‘the principal object of law’ to be ‘the care of security. That inestimable good, the distinctive index of civilization, is entirely the work of law. Without law there is no security; and, consequently, no abundance, and not even a certainty of subsistence.’(3F)

For Adam Ferguson, characteristics of being civilized included conventions on the laws of war. Civilized people had ‘learned to make war under the stipulations of treaties and cartels …’. Ferguson also mentioned ‘the employing of force, only for the obtaining of justice, and for the preservation of national rights’.6 In the 1850s Arthur de Gobineau: civilization as ‘a state of relative stability, where the mass of men try to satisfy their wants by peaceful means’.

A cultural sense of the word

The term ‘civilization’ was also used to describe a people regarded as ‘polished’, ‘refined’ or ‘improved’.

Adam Smith thought civilized people were ‘humane and polished’ and demonstrated ‘sensibility’’.5

In France the concept of ‘civilization’ emerged around the same time as in Britain. The elder Mirabeau in the 1760s’, who explained that ‘most people’ would say that civilization was marked by ‘softening of manners, urbanity, politeness, and a dissemination of knowledge such that propriety is established in place of laws of detail’.7

Arthur de Gobineau: civilization in terms of people who were ‘refined in their conduct and intelligence’.9

Civilisation as self-definition.

The term ‘civilization’ then, emerged in ways that were political, cultural during a particular historical period.

What was the purpose of this new term ‘civilization’?

The purpose of the term was to identify and differentiate.

Who, then, was regarded as civilized, and (the other side of the coin) who was not?

Class and cultural difference

According to Norbert Elias, in France the first differentiation was between the court (aristocracy) and the mass (common people).

Concepts such as politesse or civilité had, before the concept civilisation was formed and established, practically the same function as the new concept: to express the self-image of the European upper class in relation to others whom its members considered simpler or more primitive.’10

The concept was a means of distinguishing between one society and others; demarcating those deemed less civilized and, therefore, inferior.

Hierarchies of civilization, staged theories of development.

European nations were internally divided, with the wealthy seeing themselves as civilized and their poor as uncivilized.

The term ‘civilisation’, from the 18th century onwards, was bound also up with the Western view of itself as in advance of the rest of the world; this view built on the European sense of itself as superior to others.

For Rousseau, ‘Europe has been, if not longer, at least more constantly and highly civilized than the rest of the world.’12

Europe was thought to have reached its pinnacle through a gradual process of progress. Edward Gibbon wrote of the ‘the gradual progress of society from the lowest ebb of primitive barbarism, to the full tide of modern civilization’’16

Civilized peoples were thought to have progressed from barbarism at some point back in time (that, in a way, is the story we will trace in this course). Non civilized peoples were regarded as barbaric and savage and backwards (stuck in the past).

Why the term was important to Europeans then (18-19th centuries).

Legitimating conquest.

The term ‘civilization’ came into use in the period of the European encounters with and gradual domination of much of the rest of the globe (16th to early 20th centuries).

A key function of the division of peoples into civilized or rude and barbarian was to designate the superiority of the former because from superiority stemmed control. European conquest of other peoples and their territories and resources was seen, by the Europeans, as part of a civilizing mission, a duty to civilize the world. Conquest was, therefore, regarded as a gift of, and education in civilization (to/for other peoples).

So, for example, In 1798, ‘as Napoleon sets off for Egypt, he shouted to his troops: “Soldiers, you are undertaking a conquest with incalculable consequences for civilization”’. (Elias, 19)

Adam Ferguson thought in terms of a natural historical progression:

rude nations … always yield to the superior arts, and the discipline of more civilized nations. Hence the Romans were able to over-run the provinces of Gaul, Germany, and Britain; and hence the Europeans have a growing ascendancy over the nations of Africa and America.

The climate theory of development

Ferguson thought that the ‘torrid zone’ had ‘furnished few materials for history’. It had ‘nowhere matured the more important projects of political wisdom, nor inspired the virtues which are connected with freedom, and required in the conduct of civil affairs’.20

Montesquieu also thought that the South suffered the disability of an enervating climate.  

The heat of the climate can be so excessive that the body there will be absolutely without strength. So, prostration will pass even to the spirit; no curiosity, no noble enterprise, no generous sentiment; inclinations will all be passive there; laziness there will be happiness; most chastisements there will be less difficult to bear than the action of the soul, and servitude will be less intolerable than the strength of spirit necessary to guide one’s own conduct.21

Henry Thomas Buckle, author of History of Civilization in England, Vol. 1, 1857 (22) believed that the human mind had been able to develop only in those parts of the globe where the forces of nature were comparatively weak. ‘It is accordingly in Europe alone, that man has really succeeded in taming the energies of nature’, and where, consequently, ‘everything worthy of the name of civilization has originated’.(23)

In Buckle’s view climate determined food, which determined productivity, which determined the distribution of wealth. Civilization could develop only where the level of production facilitated the emergence of a class able to devote its time and energies to intellectual problems. So Buckle’s view was not just about location and race, but also about class (implicitly, it was the aristocracy that had the time to think).

Civilization or Civilizations?

A normal feature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought was that civilization was taken to be singular. This assumed a unilinear development in the direction of those societies presumed to be advanced, from a state of nature, barbarism or savagery to a state of European civilization.

This point of view might be called Eurocentric, viewing the world as if Europe is its centre, as from the European point of view.

A plural definition, by contrast, takes Western, modern society to be one civilization among others.

The first clear use of civilization in the plural was by Pierre Ballanche in 1819, and Guizot, in 1828 instanced the Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans and Indians.25

The idea of plural civilizations was ‘not common anywhere until the 1860s’ (Williams 24). When it was used, it was generally still done in an Eurocentric way. For example:

  • Arthur de Gobineau outlined ten ‘great human civilizations’: Indian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Chinese, Italian, Germanic, and the ‘three civilizations of America, the Alleghanian, the Mexican and the Peruvian’, though he decided that they had all been ‘produced upon the initiative of the white race’.26
  • French historian François Guizot linked the idea of civilizing progress to European religion. He wrote the ‘idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization’.30 He believed that what had separated and elevated European civilization from the rest of the world was the advantage of having the Christian God on their side. If change and development were hallmarks of civilization.

Western civilization as self identity (summary)

For 17th to 19th Western Europeans, the idea of civilization is a history of gradual progress in which the modern state of highly evolved civilization traced its roots back, not to the Islamic Middle East or to Asian and China, but to the Ancient regimes of Rome and Greece before them.

The idea of civilization was Eurocentric, defined in terms of racial, religious and class difference, and worked to legitimate power over the poor and conquest of colonial territories.

Western Europe in the context of world history

Let’s turn away now, from the Eurocentric point of view and consider the place of Europe in world history and the emergence of civilizations:

  • Somewhere in the fourth millennium BC is the starting-point of the story of civilizations and it will be helpful to set out a rough chronology.
  • We begin with the first recognizable civilization in Mesopotamia.
  • The next example is in Egypt, where civilization is observable at a slightly later date, perhaps about 3100 BC.
  • Another marker in the western Mediterranean is ‘Minoan’ civilization, which appears in Crete about a thousand years later, and from that time it is already a complex of civilizations in interplay with one another.
  • Meanwhile, further east and perhaps around 2500 BC, another civilization has appeared in India and it is to some degree literate.
  • China’s first civilization starts a bit later, a little after 2000 BC.
  • Later still come the Mesoamericans. Once we are past about 1500 BC, though, only this last example is sufficiently isolated for interaction not to be a big part of explaining what happens. From that time, there are no civilizations to be explained which appear without the stimulus, shock or inheritance provided by others which have appeared earlier.

Civilization started in the ancient Middle East, India and China. But what of ancient Europe?

Some Western enthusiasts (historians) have claimed Western Europe as one of the seats of early ‘civilization’, on the basis of its high level of achievement in stone-working, and role as a supplier of metals to the ancient Middle East.

Yet, in the history of the world, prehistoric Europe has little importance.

The great civilizations rose and fell in the river valleys of the Middle East. To them Europe was largely an irrelevance. It sometimes received the impress of the outside world but contributed only marginally and fitfully to the process of historic change. To the ancient world, the northern lands where the barbarians came from before they appeared in Thrace were irrelevant (and most of them probably came from further east anyway). The north-western hinterland was only important because it occasionally provided commodities (metals) wanted in Asia and the Aegean.

Even the idea of ‘Europe’ didn’t exist. At the time of the ancient civilizations, men were not able to conceive that there existed a geographical, let alone a cultural, unity corresponding to the later idea of Europe.

When talking about prehistoric (ancient) Europe, we actually need to distinguish between two Europes.

One is that of the Mediterranean coasts and their peoples. Its rough boundary is the line which delimits the cultivation of the olive.


North and west of this line lay the realm of barbarians, including what we now call France, Germany, England, Denmark and Sweden and Poland and Russia. In this area literacy was never achieved in antiquity, but was imposed much later by conquerors.

North Western Europe long resisted cultural influences from the south and east – or at least did not offer a favourable reception to them. In 1000 BC – to take an arbitrary date – or even at the beginning of the Christian era, Europe has little of its own to offer the world except its minerals,

In ancient times North Western Europe had nothing like the great cultural achievements of the Middle East, India or China, and its greatest cultural achievements were decorative and mechanical (in metallurgy).. Though far more advanced than their contemporaries in America, or in Africa south of the Nile valley, they never reached the stage of urbanization.  Europe’s age was still to come.

South of this line, literate, urban civilization came fairly during the Iron Age, and apparently after direct contact with more advanced areas.

By 800 BC the coasts of the western Mediterranean were already beginning to experience fairly continuous intercourse with the East. South of the olive-line an Iron Age people of central Italy had already during the eighth century BC established trading contacts with Greeks further south in Italy and with Phoenicia. These “Villanovans” adopted Greek characters for writing their language. Subsequently, Etruscan society developed in the form of city-states, producing art of high quality. One of their city-states would one day be known as Rome.

Looking at ancient times, and the great Middle Eastern and Indian and Chinese civilizations gives some perspective on the idea of Western civilization.

  • One thing we might note is that it came much later than the other great civilizations, in fact emerging with the renaissance during the 14th century.
  • Another important thing. The Greek and Roman civilizations that Western hagiography celebrates as the root of Western Civilization developed though its interaction with the great civilizations of the East.

lucky latitudes


Please read the two Keywords explanations, “Civilization” and “Western’ from Raymond William’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.