Western culture  

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"What we think of as Western thought today is generally defined as Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and colonialism."--Sholem Stein

1872 photograph of the western face of the Greek Parthenon
1872 photograph of the western face of the Greek Parthenon
Mona Lisa (c. 1503–1519) is an oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Mona Lisa (c. 1503–1519) is an oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous paintings in the world.
The Silk Road, transmitter of Western culture
The Silk Road, transmitter of Western culture

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Western culture or Western civilization is a term used to refer to the cultures of the people of European origin and their descendants. It comprises the broad heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs (such as religious beliefs) and specific artifacts and technologies as shared within the Western sphere of influence. The term "Western" is often used in contrast to Asian, African, Native American or Arab nations.

The East-West contrast is sometimes criticized as relativistic. In some ways it has grown out of use, or has been transformed or clarified to fit more precise uses. Though it is directly descendent from academic Orientalism and Occidentalism, the changing usage of the distinction "East-West" has come to be useful as a means to identify important cultural similarities and differences — both within an increasingly larger concept of local region, as well as with regard to increasingly familiar "alien" cultures.

During the Cold War, the West-East contrast became synonymous with the competing governments of the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies, respectively.



Western world

From its very beginnings in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece the East-West distinction has been somewhat difficult to define with precision. The Greeks were not so different from their Eastern neighbors for example. In the Middle Ages, where Islam was contrasted to the West, it is notable that most of the Islamic Middle East, having - since the time of Alexander the Great - been Hellenized, ruled by Rome and Constantinople and part of the Orthodox communion, was as much under the influence of Byzantine and Biblical-Christian history as "Christendom".

In the later 20th to early 21st century, with the advent of increasing globalism, it has become more difficult to determine which individuals fit into which category, and the East–West contrast is sometimes criticized as relativistic and arbitrary.

Globalism has, especially since the end of the cold war, spread western ideas so widely that almost all modern countries or cultures are to some extent influenced by aspects of western culture which they have absorbed. Recent stereotyped Western views of "the West" have been labelled Occidentalism, paralleling Orientalism, the term for the 19th century stereotyped views of "the East".

Geographically, "The West" today would normally be said to include Europe as well as the overseas territories belonging to the Anglosphere, the Hispanidad, Lusosphere or Francophonie.


Western culture is neither homogeneous nor unchanging. As with all other cultures it has evolved and gradually changed over time. All generalities about it have their exceptions at some time and place. The organisation and tactics of the Greek Hoplites differed in many ways from the Roman legions. The polis of the Greeks is not the same as the American superpower of the 21st century. The gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire are not identical to present-day football. The art of Pompeii is not the art of Hollywood. Nevertheless, it is possible to follow the evolution and history of the West, and appreciate its similarities and differences, its borrowings from, and contributions to, other cultures of humanity.

The origins of the word "West" in terms of geopolitical boundaries started in the 1800s and 1900s. Prior to this, most people would have thoughts about different nations, languages, individuals, and geographical regions, but with no idea of "Western" nations and culture as some of us think today. Many world maps were so crude, inaccurate, and not well known before the 1800s that specific geographical and political differences would be harder to measure. Few would have access to good maps and even fewer had access to accurate descriptions of who lived in far away lands. Western thought as we think of it recently, is shaped by ideas of the 1800s and 1900s, originating mainly in Europe. What we think of as Western thought today is generally defined as Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and colonialism. As a consequence the term "Western culture" is at times unhelpful and vague, since the definition involved a vast variety of distinct traditions, political groups, religious groups, and individual writers over thousands of years.

Furthermore, "Western culture" has taken many of its elements from neighboring areas in the Middle East and North Africa. Europe (whose borders are arbitrary) is an area geographically connected to Asia (forming Eurasia) and Africa, and important cultural exchanges such as trade and migration take place. Cities and complex political societies emerged first in places like Mesopotamia and Egypt, with civilizations far more advanced than anything in Europe at the time of their peak.

The Classical West

The Classical West was Graeco-Roman Europe.

In Homeric literature, and right up until the time of Alexander the Great, for example in the accounts of the Persian Wars of Greeks against Persians by Herodotus, we see the paradigm of a contrast between the West and East.

Nevertheless the Greeks felt they were civilized and saw themselves (in the formulation of Aristotle) as something between the wild barbarians of most of Europe and the soft, slavish Easterners. Inspired by Eastern example, and yet felt to be different, ancient Greek science, philosophy, democracy, architecture, literature, and art provided a foundation embraced and built upon by the Roman Empire as it swept up Europe, including the Hellenic World in its conquests in the 1st century BC. In the meantime however, Greece, under Alexander, had become a capital of the East, and part of an empire. The idea that the later Orthodox or Eastern Christian cultural descendants of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire, are a happy mean between Eastern slavishness and Western barbarism is promoted to this day, for example in Russia, creating a zone which is both Eastern and Western depending upon the context of discussion.

For about five hundred years, the Roman Empire maintained the Greek East and consolidated a Latin West, but an East-West division remained, reflected in many cultural norms of the two areas, including language. Although Rome, like Greece, was no longer democratic, the idea of democracy remained a part of the education of citizens, as if the emperors were a temporary emergency measure.

Eventually the empire came to be increasingly officially split into a Western and Eastern part, reviving old ideas of a contrast between an advanced East, and a rugged West.

With the rise of Christianity in the midst of the Roman world, much of Rome's tradition and culture were absorbed by the new religion, and transformed into something new, which would serve as the basis for the development of Western civilization after the fall of Rome. Also, Roman culture mixed with the pre-existing Celtic, Germanic and Slavic cultures, which slowly became integrated into Western culture starting, mainly, with their acceptance of Christianity.

The Medieval West

The Medieval West was at its broadest the same as Christendom, including both the "Latin" or "Frankish" West, and the Orthodox Eastern part, where Greek remained the language of empire. More narrowly, it was Catholic (Latin) Europe. After the crowning of Charlemagne, this part of Europe was referred to by its neighbors in Byzantium and the Moslem world as "Frankish".

After the fall of Rome much of Greco-Roman art, literature, science and even technology were all but lost in the western part of the old empire, centered around Italy, and Gaul (France). However, this would become the centre of a new West. Europe fell into political anarchy, with many warring kingdoms and principalities. Under the Frankish kings, it eventually reunified and evolved into feudalism.

Much of the basis of the post-Roman cultural world had been set before the fall of the Empire, mainly through the integrating and reshaping of Roman ideas through Christian thought. The Greek and Roman paganism had been completely replaced by Christianity around the 4th and 5th centuries, since it became the official State religion following the baptism of emperor Constantine I. Roman Catholic Christianity and the Nicene Creed served as a unifying force in Western Europe, and in some respects replaced or competed with the secular authorities. Art and literature, law, education, and politics were preserved in the teachings of the Church, in an environment that, otherwise, would have probably seen their loss. The Church founded many cathedrals, universities, monasteries and seminaries, some of which continue to exist today. In the Medieval period, the route to power for many men was in the Church.

In a broader sense, the Middle Ages, with its tension between Greek reasoning and Levantine monotheism was not confined to the West but also stretched into the old East, in what was to become the Islamic world. Indeed the debate between these two streams of thought which is said to define the west was preserved best there for a while, with Greek literature, and even some Eastern theology, making their way back to Western Europe via Spain and Italy.

The rediscovery of the Justinian Code in the early 10th century rekindled a passion for the discipline of law, which crossed many of the re-forming boundaries between East and West. Eventually, it was only in the Catholic or Frankish west, that Roman law became the foundation on which all legal concepts and systems were based. Its influence can be traced to this day in all Western legal systems (although in different manners and to different extents in the common (Anglo-American) and the civil (continental European) legal traditions). The study of canon law, the legal system of the Catholic Church, fused with that of Roman law to form the basis of the refounding of Western legal scholarship. The ideas of civil rights, equality before the law, equality of women, procedural justice, and democracy as the ideal form of society, and were principles which formed the basis of modern Western culture.

The West actively encouraged the spreading of Christianity, which was inexorably linked to the spread of Western culture. Owing to the influence of Islamic culture and Islamic civilization — a culture that had preserved some of the knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and improved on them significantly — in Islamic Spain and southern Italy, and in the Levant during the Crusades, Western Europeans translated many Arabic texts into Latin during the Middle Ages. Later, with the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, followed by a massive exodus of Greek Christian priests and scholars to Italian towns like Venice, bringing with them as many scripts from the Byzantine archives as they could, scholars' interest for the Greek language and classic works, topics and lost files was revived. Both the Greek and Arabic influences eventually led to the beginnings of the Renaissance. From the late 15th century to the 17th century, Western culture began to spread to other parts of the world by intrepid explorers and missionaries during the Age of Discovery, followed by imperialists from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

The Modern Era

Coming into the modern era, the historical understanding of the East-West contrast is the opposition of Christendom to its geographical neighbours began to weaken. As religion became less important, and Europeans came into increasing contact with far away peoples, the old concept of Western Culture began a slow evolution towards what it is today. The Early Modern "Age of Discovery" in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries faded into the "Age of Enlightenment" continuing into the 18th, both characterized by the military advantages coming to Europeans from their development of firearms and other military technologies. The "Great Divergence" became more pronounced, making the West the bearer of science and the accompanying revolutions of technology and industrialisation. Western political thinking also eventually spread in many forms around the world. With the early 19th century "Age of Revolution" the West entered a period of World empires, massive economic and technological advance, and bloody international conflicts continuing into the 20th century.

Religion in the meantime has waned considerably in Western Europe, where many are agnostic or atheist. Nearly half of the populations of the United Kingdom (44-54%), Germany (41-49%), France (43-54%) and the Netherlands (39-44%) are non-theist. However, religious belief in the United States is very strong, about 75-85% of the population, as also happens in most of Latin America.

As Europe discovered the wider world, old concepts adapted. The Islamic world which had formerly been considered "the Orient" ("the East") more specifically became the "Near East" as the interests of the European powers for the first time interferred with Qing China and Meiji Japan in the 19th century. Thus, the Sino-Japanese War in 1894–1895 occurred in the "Far East", while the troubles surrounding the decline of the Ottoman Empire simultaneously occurred in the "Near East". The "Middle East" in the mid 19th century included the territory east of the Ottoman empire but West of China, i.e. Greater Persia and Greater India, but is now used synonymously with "Near East".

The Cold War West

During the Cold War, the West–East contrast became synonymous with the competing governments of the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies.

Widespread Influence

Elements of Western culture have had a very influential role on other cultures worldwide. People of many cultures, both Western and non-Western, equate modernization (adoption of technological progress) with westernization (adoption of Western culture). Some members of the non-Western world have suggested that the link between technological progress and certain harmful Western values provides a reason why much of "modernity" should be rejected as being incompatible with their vision and the values of their societies. These types of argument referring to imperialism and stressing the importance of freedom from it and the relativist argument that different cultural norms should be treated equally, are also present in Western philosophy. Also Marxism, sometimes seen as an alternative to Western culture, comes from the West.

What is generally uncontested, is that much of the technology and social patterns which make up what is defined as "modernization" were developed in the Western world. Whether these technological and social patterns are intrinsically part of Western culture, is more difficult to answer. Many would argue that the question cannot be answered by a response from positivistic science and instead is a "value" question which must be answered from a value system (e.g. philosophy, religion, political doctrine). Nonetheless, much of anthropology today has shown the close links between the physical environment and daily activities and the formation of a culture (the findings of cultural ecology, among others).

Music, art, story-telling and architecture

Some cultural and artistic modalities are also characteristically Western in origin and form. While dance, music, story-telling, and architecture are human universals, they are expressed in the West in certain characteristic ways.

The symphony has its origins in Italy. Many important musical instruments used by cultures all over the world were also developed in the West; among them are the violin, piano, pipe organ, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, and the theremin. The solo piano, symphony orchestra and the string quartet are also important performing musical forms.

The ballet is a distinctively Western form of performance dance. The ballroom dance is an important Western variety of dance for the elite. The polka, the square dance, and the Irish step dance are very well-known Western forms of folk dance.

Historically, the main forms of western music are European folk, choral, classical, Country, rock and roll, hip-hop, and Electronica.

While epic literary works in verse such as the Mahabarata and Homer's Iliad are ancient and occurred worldwide, the novel as a distinct form of story telling only arose in the West (with the possible exception, though isolated, of the Japanese Tale of Genji, five greats epics of Tamil and Persian Shahnama) in the period 1200 to 1750. Photography and the motion picture as a technology and as the basis for entirely new art forms were also developed first in the West. The soap opera, a popular culture dramatic form originated in the United States first on radio in the 1930s, then a couple of decades later on television. The music video was also developed in the West in the middle of the twentieth century.

The arch, the dome, and the flying buttress as architectural motifs were first used by the Romans. Important western architectural motifs include the Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic columns, and the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Victorian styles are still widely recognised, and used even today, in the West. Much of Western architecture emphasises repetition of simple motifs, straight lines and expansive, undecorated planes. A modern ubiquitous architectural form that emphasizes this characteristic is the skyscraper, first developed in New York and Chicago.

Oil painting is said to have originated by Jan van Eyck, and perspective drawings and paintings had their earliest practitioners in Florence. In art, the Celtic knot is a very distinctive Western repeated motif. Depictions of the nude human male and female in photography, painting and sculpture are frequently considered to have special artistic merit. Realistic portraiture is especially valued. In Western dance, music, plays and other arts, the performers are only very infrequently masked. There are essentially no taboos against depicting God, or other religious figures, in a representational fashion.

Many forms of popular music have been derived from African-Americans' folklore and music during 20th and 19th centuries, initially by themselves, but later played and further developed together with White Americans, British people, and Westerners in general. These include Jazz, Blues and Rock music (that in wide sense include Rock and roll and Heavy metal branches), Rhythm and blues, Funk, Rap, Techno and also Ska or Reggae in an African-Caribbean, Jamaican background. Several other related or derived styles were developed and introduced by western pop culture such as Pop, Pop-Rock, Technopop, Dance, Rave, Nu metal, etc.

Scientific and Technological Inventions and Discoveries

A feature of Western culture is its focus on science and technology, and its ability to generate new processes, materials and material artifacts.

It was the West that first developed steam power and adapted its use into factories, and for the generation of electrical power. [citation needed] The Otto and the Diesel internal combustion engines are products whose genesis and early development were in the West. Nuclear power stations are derived from the first atomic pile in Chicago (1942). The electrical dynamo, transformer, and electric light, and indeed most of the familiar electrical appliances, were inventions of the West.

Communication devices and systems including the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, communication and navigation satellites, mobile phone, and the Internet were all invented by Westerners. The pencil, ballpoint pen, CRT, LCD, LED, photograph, photocopier, laser printer, ink jet printer and plasma display screen were also invented in the West.

Furthermore, ubiquitous materials including concrete, aluminum, clear glass, synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond and the plastics polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC and polystyrene were invented in the West. Iron and steel ships, bridges and skyscrapers first appeared in the West. Nitrogen fixation and petrochemicals were invented by Westerners. Most of the elements,were discovered and named in the West, as well as the contemporary atomic theories to explain them.

The transistor, integrated circuit, memory chip, and computer were all first seen in the West. The ship's chronometer, the screw propeller, the locomotive, bicycle, automobile, and aeroplane were all invented in the West. Eyeglasses, the telescope, the microscope and electron microscope, all the varieties of chromatography, protein and DNA sequencing, computerised tomography, NMR, x-rays, and light, ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy, were all first developed and applied in Western laboratories, hospitals and factories.

In medicine, vaccination, anesthesia, and all the pure antibiotics were created in the West. The method of preventing Rh disease, the treatment of diabetes, and the germ theory of disease were discovered by Westerners. The eradication of that ancient scourge, smallpox, was led by a Westerner, Donald Henderson. Radiography, Computed tomography, Positron emission tomography and Medical ultrasonography are important diagnostic tools developed in the West. So were the stethoscope, electrocardiograph, and the endoscope.Vitamins, hormonal contraception, hormones, insulin, Beta blockers and ACE inhibitors, along with a host of other medically proven drugs were first utilised to treat disease in the West. The double-blind study and evidence-based medicine are critical scientific techniques widely used in the West for medical purposes.

In mathematics, calculus, statistics, logic, vector, tensor and complex analysis, group theory and topology were developed by Westerners. In biology, evolution, chromosomes, DNA, genetics and the methods of molecular biology are creatures of the West. In physics, the science of mechanics and quantum mechanics, relativity, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics were all developed by Westerners. The discoveries and inventions by Westerners in electromagnetism include Coulomb's law (1785), the first battery (1800), the unity of electricity and magnetism (1820), Biot–Savart law (1820), the first electric motor (1821), Ohm's Law (1827), and the Maxwell's equations (1871). The atom, nucleus, electron, neutron and proton were all unveiled by Westerners.

In finance, double entry bookkeeping, the limited liability company, life insurance, and the charge card were all first used in the West.

Westerners are also known for their explorations and adventures of the globe and space. The first expedition to circumnavigate the Earth (1522) was by Westerners, as well as the first to set foot on the South Pole (1911), and the first human to land on the moon (1969). The landing of robots on Mars (2004) and on an asteroid (2001), and the Voyager explorations of the outer planets (Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989) were all achievements of Westerners.


Western culture has developed many themes and traditions, the most significant of which are:

See also


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