Introduction for HIS 101, History of Western Civilization I

Introduction for HIS 101, History of Western Civilization I


If you were to look specifically at the
Western world and wanted to identify some of its peculiar features or traits,
you might come up with some of these. I’ll just briefly list these now. The idea of
rational scientific inquiry, that there is a rational understanding of the world
and why the world performs and acts the way it does and that understanding of the world can
be reached by a scientific investigation. This is very much apart an inherent idea within
the West. On the idea of change, that things change, that things are in a
constant state of flux, transitioning from one point to the next, that’s very much
part of the Western way which is not necessarily the same with
Indian or Chinese societies; it’s a little bit different there, so rational
scientific inquiry and change. The value of the individual is also deeply ingrained in the
West, the value of the individual, the idea that the individual is worth something and that
the individual is very special. Violence is very much a part of the Western world,
and violence is especially evident in the rise and fall of different Western
cultures. You can tick them all off, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Islam, Byzantium, England, America, but there is this
characteristic of the rise and fall of cultures within the West, and part of the
reason for that is this inherent violence streak that runs within the
West. And finally another peculiarity of the West is something that has
occurred over the last four thousand years in the West and that is the
gradual separation of church and state. At one time at the very beginning there
was no distinction between church and state; church was state; state was church;
religion explained everything; religion ran everything. Over the course of the
next thousand years gradually they shifted into their own distinct spheres,
and that culminated in the American constitutional experience
of the 18th century when there was a legal distinction drawn
between those two spherers but when you’re going through this course, and
you’re studying events. Notice how that happens over time; notice how gradually
people call with that concept that there is something different about these two
different worlds. And let me just go into some detail about this idea of the
individual in the West because above all I think that the Western world is built
on a three-part foundation, and all three of these parts serve to reinforce this,
shall we say love of, individualism within the West. The first of these
pieces of the foundation, the first stone we trace back to the ancient Hebrews. Now the Hebrews are important because it is from their religion, from Judaism, that
Christianity and Islam later emerged. Thus three of the world’s major
religions today, Judaism, Christianity ,and Islam, are all tied together. They all
share a common origin, and that’s in the ancient Hebrews. What tied them all
together was something that historians call ethical monotheism, ethical
monotheism. The ancient Hebrews are completely insignificant from a
political or cultural point of view but they defined a new religious system, a religious
system based on the idea of one God who demands personal responsible moral
behavior from his subjects; one God who demands personal responsible moral
behavior from his subjects, not rituals, not sacrifices, not prayers, not
prostrations but upright behavior. This was what was the new code of the religion and
with regards to the West’s individualism. This was crucial because the Hebrews
introduced the idea of individual responsibility; each individual was
responsible for his own actions before God. It wasn’t the community that was
responsible, but you yourself were responsible, and this kind of laid down in
stone the worth of the individual, that individual is what mattered and not the
community of people. We go to the Greeks for the second stone in this part of the
foundation, and the Greeks were unique because very early on in their existence,
already in the sixth century BCE, they abandoned gods’, or religion, as an
explanatory force of the world around them, that it was no longer gods who
moved stones or gods who moved rivers or anything, but there was another reason for what happened. And instead they turned to rational inquiry, the idea that the human mind, by
observing the world around him, could explain the world; he didn’t have to
resort to divine tricks or a heaven centered system to explain the world. But
the human mind itself could do that, and as a result the world became centered on
man not on God but man became the center of the world. This is clearly seen in
two old Greek proverbs, or maxims, the first, know thyself, and the second,
man is the measure of all things. In a way the individual, man is the center, the
individual is what matters, not the world around even not God. And this reinforced,
in a slightly different way, the individual responsibility that the
ancient Hebrews had elaborated. Finally the Roman, the Romans have gone down into
the pages of history as the pioneers in the areas of government, administration,
law, pioneers in the practical affairs of man. In this respect they also
added to the notion of individual responsibility but in a different
context, and that context would be the notion of civic duties of the individual. Each man has, in return for the rights and privileges that you get for being a
citizen of Rome, you have certain obligation. You are a citizen; you are a
citizen; you get these rights; but you have an obligation; you have the
obligation to participate in political and civic affairs. You have the
obligation to uphold the law. You as an individual are responsible to the state, and
so this in another slightly different context reinforced this whole notion of
the individual in the ancient world. It gave some value to him above the state,
or above God, or above nature around him. That is really the
essence of what the West has come to mean, and if you look at the West today,
or the recent history of the West in the 20th century, you’ll see a lot of things
that reinforcement this, and here are three developments that I thought of when I was
thinking of this course: Freud’s idea of psychoanalysis, the UN Charter
and the development of the personal computer. All three of these very much
are part of the West’s individualism. For psychoanalysis the reversion
to the inner self for something that’s important (very much in the individual),
the UN Charter and the concern for human rights individual rights in the Western
world, the personal computer that allows the individual to fulfill his abilities
and capabilities. You know, if you look at different developments within the
Western world, you see how this concern with individual rights and the individual is
very much reflected in the history of the West. One small addendum I like to make at this point is that in this part of the
course when we get to the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a temporary
setback in this development of individual and individualism of the West, a
temporary setback in the development and dominance of
Greek and Roman rationalism, and that is because all three of the states that
succeeded Rome, Byzantine civilization, Muslim civilization and Western Europe,
all three of these civilizations were very much dominated by three different
churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Islam and the Roman Catholic Church in
the West. And in all three cases religion again emerged to the forefront; religion
emerged as the explanation of the world in society and mankind, and as a result
for a period of time of roughly shall we say 450 until the Renaissance, maybe
900 years, the individualism of man was again temporarily submerged under the
weight of religion and the overwhelming concern with the afterlife in heaven. But
with the Renaissance, individualism again emerged dominate and kind of triumphant in the West.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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