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

Lesson 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 Greece
  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 an end of semester essay (90%). Participation in class and homework (10%). There will be penalties for unwarranted absences.

Key Texts include:

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

Secondary texts include:

Hause, S. Maltby, W. (2004), Western Civilization: A History of European Society.

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

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

Sachs, J. D., (forthcoming) The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions.

Thomas, K. (2013), In pursuit of civility: manners and civility in early modern England

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”.

Take a minute to think about the term/phrases ‘civilization’, ‘the west’ and ‘western civilization’ and then we’ll record them. 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, these particular civilizations, but not others). This tracing of classical routes demonstrates an affinity for the values and achievements of those societies (the liberal and democratic qualities, arts and philosophy, scientific and technological achievements, civility (good manners) etc.).

As they extended trading routes, went about invading, possessing and controlling other territories and peoples, and set up colonies, Europeans spread throughout other areas outside Europe, and the European migrants took with them their sense of Western identity. Societies in North America and parts of Latin America, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong (hybrid Eastern/Western) have come to consider themselves and be considered part of Western civilization. These self-definition were based on affinities that are cultural, political and racial.

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

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

Civility, civilized, civilization …

The terms Civil, civility, citizen, civilization all come from the Latin civitas. Originally the word referred to the community, or what would later come to be called “the state.” The term civility preceded the use of the term ‘civilized’, and both of these terms preceded the use of the term ‘civilization’.

Civility was (and is) a slippery and unstable word (Thomas).

Employed in the early modern period in Europe it referred to

  • a non-barbarous way of living …” (like its Italian and French predecessors civiltà and civilité) 2
  • existence of a well-ordered political community and
  • the appropriate qualities and conduct expected of its citizens, incl.
  • a concept of good manners, courtesy, and polite behavior —treating people with “common civility”

Civilized (17th C +)

In seventeenth- century England, “civil” people were increasingly referred
to as “civilized.”

This was a more complex term because it implied both a condition, that of being civil, and a process, that of having been brought to that state by casting off barbarism.

To “civilize” was to effect the transition from the one condition to the other.

This could happen to a people, as with the ancient Britons, who were said to have been made civil by the Romans, or to wild plants, which, when cultivated and improved, were described by seventeenth-century gardeners as “civilized.”17

Civilization (late 17th C +)

By the later seventeenth century the process of civilizing was beginning to be called “civilization.” In 1698, for example, a writer remarked that “Europe was first beholding to Graecia for their literature and civilization”

Initially employed to characterize the process or action of civilizing, the
term “civilization” also came to be used to mean the end product of that process,
a civilized condition.

Civilization is a multifaceted term,with multiple aspects.

Civilization (cultural aspects)

The term ‘civilization’  drew on the idea of civility as good conduct and the idea of becoming civilised as a process to describe a people who have become ‘polished’, ‘refined’ or ‘improved’.

Adam Smith thought civilized people were ‘humane and polished’ and demonstrated ‘sensibility’.5 Arthur de Gobineau: civilization refers to people who were ‘refined in their conduct and intelligence’.9

In France the elder Mirabeau in the 1760s’ 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 Civilized people (the author was probably thinking of men) possessed sufficient knowledge and culture to guide their own conduct (they knew the proper things to do, wear, say, without needing detailed laws to guide their conduct) .

By the later eighteenth century the term “civilization” came into general English usage, both as the word for the civilizing process and also as a description of the cultural, moral, and material condition of those who had been civilized.

At the same time, the term “civility” fell back on its more restricted meaning of good manners and good citizenship. The state and process of civilization required that people could display civility, but the idea of civilization was much broader than that of civility.

A political (liberal) sense of the word

The term ‘civilized’ was defined in political terms by writers we now think of as the classical liberal authors.

Some of them looked inwards, to the national sphere.

John Locke ‘counted the Civiliz’d part of Mankind’ to be those ‘who have made and multiplied positive Laws to determine Property’.2 Civilized’ was used to define a state protecting the natural rights of property.

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)

Some of them looked outwards towards international relations.

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’.

By the nineteenth century, the European states invoked a “standard of civilization” to which Asian and African governments were required to conform if they wished to be recognized as sovereign bodies in international society. The standards were those of European states, such as the rule of law,  that non-European states were rarely regarded as meeting. In effect, the standards meant that the ‘international community’ was regarded as European (including states descended from or possessed by Europe).

“Civilization” as self-definition.

The European use of the term ‘civilization’ then, emerged in ways that were cultural, political and historical.

The term worked to self-identify, partly by differentiating between a civilized self and a barbaric or savage other.

In early modern England, the ancient and long-enduring opposition between the “civil” and the “barbarous” was frequently invoked as a way of expressing some of the essential values of the time.

When European explorers and colonists deplored the “savagery” and “barbarism” they encountered in the non-European world, they were implicitly articulating what it was that they valued about their own way of life. The idea of “barbarism” embodied what many contemporaries found repugnant and, by implication, revealed what it was they admired. (Thomas)

The philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood wrote in the 1930s,

“We create the mythical figure of the savage, no actual historical person but an allegorical symbol of everything which we fear and dislike, attributing to him all the desires in ourselves which we condemn as beastly and all the thoughts which we despise as irrational.”

Civilized people needed the concept of “barbarians” in order to clarify what was distinctive about themselves. They defined themselves by elaborating on what they were not. In today’s academic jargon, “Identity is constituted by the creation of alterities.” 29 (Thomas)

We can see this kind of self-defining by difference in recent Western political discourse, such as that revolving around texts like Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in which he defines a progressive liberal West against against a backwards (Islamic East).

This self-defining by difference, centering on the idea of civilization and its opposites, drew on classical antecedents:

Ancient antecedents

In the Athens of the fifth century bc, all foreigners who did not speak Greek were labeled “barbarians” (barbaroi), persons whose speech was incomprehensible. Neutrally descriptive at first, the word became increasingly depreciatory.

Barbarians were seen as not just linguistically incapable, but also as deficient politically, morally, and culturally.

There was no consensus about what these defects were, though intemperance, cruelty, and submission to despotic rule were frequently cited. The Hellenic sense of identity depended on this contrast between the values of the Greeks and those of the barbarians. At the same time, the attitude of the Greeks to other peoples was often more nuanced than that implied by the simple opposition of Hellene/barbarian.

For the Romans, barbarians were the peoples outside the frontiers of
the empire. They were often, though not invariably, seen as violent, lawless, and notable for their brutal cruelty (feritas) and lack of humanitas, that is to say gentleness, culture, and intellectual refinement. These barbarian attributes, particularly feritas, were put together to constitute the notion of barbarism (barbaria), an amalgam of antisocial impulses. While in practice, the empire’s boundaries were permeable, and “barbarous” outsiders were easily absorbed within them, the stereotype of the barbaia had been established.

With the spread of Christianity and the disintegration of the old Roman world, the concept of the barbarian became increasingly irrelevant. The threat posed from the mid- seventh century onward by the Arab conquests in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula made it even more so, for Islamic culture was
intellectually more sophisticated than that of Western Europe and could not
plausibly be regarded as “barbarous.”

For Western Europeans, the crucial division until the seventeenth century, was that between Christians and non- Christians, between “christendom and hethennesse,” as the fourteenth- century poet Geoffrey Chaucer put it.

Yet alongside this enduring opposition of Christian and pagan, the old polarity of “civil” and “barbarous” had not been totally forgotten. The two ways of dividing mankind were sometimes conflated, with Christians seen as civilizers and paganism equated with barbarism (the Latin word paganus meant
both pagan and rustic). Moreover, other conflicts and tensions kept the dichotomy alive. For example, repeated Viking raids on the British Isles and Northern Europe between the ninth and eleventh centuries led to their sometimes being denounced as barbarians. 10

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries urbanization and economic progress in Western Europe made it possible to contrast its material prosperity with that of less- developed societies. The simultaneous rediscovery of classical learning, especially the works of Aristotle, which had long been studied by Arab scholars, saw the resurrection of Greek and Roman concepts of barbarism and civility, now reused to define Western Europe against its perceived inferiors.

Marked out by their alien languages, barbarians were once again associated with irrationality, lawlessness, ferocity, and a low level of mental and material culture. The people Western Europeans thought of as barbarians included the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppes, but also some Christian peoples: in the twelfth century, the Celtic people of the British Isles.12

In the fifteenth century Renaissance humanists drew on classical stereotypes to represent military conflict between Christians and Muslims as a contest between a civilized Western Europe and a barbarous (immanis) Islam, despotically governed and merciless in warfare. The language of a Holy War between competing religions was being transformed by the civil/barbarian dichotomy.

In the sixteenth century, most Europeans still regarded the distinction
between Christian and non- Christian as crucial. At the same time a binary distinction between the “civil” and the “barbarous” became a common sense way of understanding the world.  Meanwhile, scholars, travelers, and those with experience of other continents regarded barbarism not as an absolute condition, but as a matter of degree.

Hierarchies of civilization, staged theories of development.

European nations were internally conflicted.

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

Concepts such as politesse or civilité had, before the concept civilization 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.

We might say that the idea of the masses as barbaric was often used in opposition to the idea of the civilized aristocracy (by members of the elite classes), but also that there was a view that, slowly, through the discipline of work and education, the masses may one day become civilized. In fact this idea was central to the emerging liberal philosophies and advocacy for (albeit limited) representative democracy.

The term ‘civilization’, (18th century +), was also bound  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 (including its masses).

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).

Barbarism, the antinomy of civilization, was regarded as existing all around. Civilized people were surrounded by the barbaric (or potentially barbaric) masses at home, and by alien (foreign) barbarians and savages overseas.

Not until the mid 19th century did there emerge a sense of relativism, of the (then current) existence of other 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 the 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. John Locke (1690) rejected the notion that the Europeans were the ‘civillest’ of peoples, and referred to the Chinese as ‘a very great and civil people’. One of Charlles II’s bishops was even more of a pluralist, citing Babylon, Aleppo and Japan as parts of the civil world.

The idea of plural civilizations existed, but 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, equally so was Christianity.
  • The English Orentalist William Marsden (late C18) ranked the world’s peoples from least to most civilized, with ‘the refined nations of Europe’ at the top, closely followed by the Chinese and then, at the bottom, Caribs, Laplanders and Hottentots.
  • The Spanish writers Bartolomé de Las Casas and José de Acosta created a typology of barbarism with which to construct a hierarchical classification of non- European peoples, ranging from those at the top who, like the Chinese, possessed laws, rulers, cities, and the use of letters, to nomadic “savages” at the bottom, such as the Caribs, who, it was thought, had no form of civil organization and lacked any means of communication with other peoples (Thomas)

The climate theory of development

Adam 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 only the aristocracy that had the luxury of time to think).

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

Legitimating conquest.

The terms ‘civility’, ‘civilized’ and ‘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 barbaric/savage 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.

J.S. Mill advocated the ‘civilizing mission’. He thought that despotic government was appropriate for savage or barbarian people, as it formed part of their education, firmly guiding them towards becoming more civilized states of society. Even slavery was appropriate as it gave savages and barbarians the lesson of discipline and work.

Western civility, civilization as the modern

The ideas of civility and civilization, in general, stressed the importance of internal peace, legal rules, personal liberty, international trade, humanity in warfare, science, learning, and the arts. These ideas became widely accepted views of human possibilities and the necessary preconditions for the spread of global capitalism.

J.S. Mill, in his essay on Coleridge )1830s), wrote:
Take for instance the question how far mankind has gained by civilization. One observer is forcibly struck by the multiplication of physical comforts; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition; the facilities of mutual intercourse; the softening of manners; the decline of war and personal conflict; the progressive limitation of the tyranny of the strong over the weak; the great works accomplished throughout the globe by the co-operation of multitudes .

The Western European idea of civilization constituted much of what is often considered to be essential to and characteristic of the modern world.

Western civilization as self identity (summary)

The 17th to 19th centuries were a crucible for Western Civilization wherein Western Europe came to global dominance. For our purposes, it is also crucially the period when the idea of civilization came into being in Western Europe, not least as a powerful form of self-identity.

For 17th to 19th Western European writers, the idea of civilization is a history of gradual (and ongoing) progress towards the modern state of highly evolved civilization.

The core idea was that civility comprised the body of beliefs, practices, and institutions which made it possible for people to live together and flourish. Their idea of civility called for restraint, tolerance, and mutual understanding. Barbarism, the opposite as defined by the Western European thinkers, meant disorder, cruelty, and ignorance.

For European writers, Western 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. 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 and peoples.


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