A Brief History of the West

Chris Reads
5 min readApr 19, 2024

--

Western history is such a beautiful concept. Perhaps it’s because of my upbringing and current milieu that I think so and that I am not intimately familiar with any other histories, but it’s truly one coherent narrative. Certainly, the definition of the West and historical bias lends a certain degree of leeway to the story, but the last three thousand years of civilization, particularly the last four hundred of Western pre-eminence are cause and effect into cause and effect. All aspects of culture, be it art, literature, religion, war, politics, and technology are inextricably tied to one another in this grand narrative despite the current zeitgeist of fake news and revisionist history.

The first complaint when discussing “the West” is that it doesn’t exist, that it’s a socioeconomic construct, a loose grouping, a heritage claimed by conquerors. Frankly, each era of history has only a tenuous link with the next, currently happening across many state and ethnic lines. These arguments may be true, but it doesn’t deny that it is smooth and continuous when taken together. Perhaps the point is that Western history only has a strong narrative flow because it is constructed like a story, humans choosing to ascribe significance to arbitrary events and people so we can better make sense of things. I have no rebuttals to this point, but even if Western history is a construct, it is a good model to lend perspective to when certain historical events took place and how the West sees itself.

Though Greece and Rome are geographically and temporally removed from what constitutes the West for the next couple thousand years, they provide the basis of Western tradition and values: the idea of democracy as well as classism, pluralism as well as empire. When claiming some sort of legitimacy to rule, it’s a powerful to claim that the institutions and ideas espoused have always existed. The United States of America draws its lineage from a people whose real descendants they didn’t even consider white enough some fifty years ago, China is a country that has existed for five millennia, and Israel has existed since the beginning of time. It also helps that Rome features in the bible, and the Greco-romans created an impressive collection of physical monuments and artworks.

But the narrative! The narrative that this is the cradle of Western civilization, replete with sewage and sculpture, cement and plays. This is where it all started. A noble birth. Then it all falls apart for the next thousand or so years into the Dark Ages. The narrative glosses over the lack of a real relationship between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire; after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West fractures into the mishmash of petty tribes and warlords like it was before, complete with terribly deformed paintings of Madonnas with child. Aquinas’ and Anselm’s works are important because they connect antiquity to the Dark Ages and religion, without which this beautiful story doesn’t exist. But a period of darkness, one dominated by churches and kings, gives the West a comeback story, the best sort of story.

After the Black Plague, the cash-strapped European nations in debt to the Italians start the Crusades to pillage Muslim states without offending the Church. This opened up the West to Classical culture, secured shipping routes with the East, and ushered the Renaissance. The West reemerges from the Dark Ages, as the story goes, and Western culture is reborn. The Classics are in vogue with art from the Crusades, paintings of the Roman myths and sculptures of the Greek myths are recreated. Though it started in money-flush Italy, the ideas quickly spread across the rest of Europe as advancements in culture and technology allow for leisure travel. From this point on, every subsequent historical movement is explained as a reaction against the previous zeitgeist, with complementary philosophical ideas, political events, technological advances, and artistic interpretations. The West as a cohesive entity comes into existence as each of the nations become more intertwined.

At this point, the West is moving all over Europe based on who won the most recent Hundred Years War, but it eventually settles on Germany when the printing press is invented. A Schism, a few wife beheadings, and many years later, literacy is not quite widespread, but getting there, a direct consequence of the newfound wealth and innovations of the Renaissance, and referred to as the Reformation. For the West, this has sped up information dissemination by an order of magnitude. It also starts portraying the Church as not an ambassador to God, but a player in this power struggle. Though it initially limited the powers of various monarchs, God is nothing without money and believers; it turns out that kings can chose to provide neither as alternatives to Catholicism rose, and kings can just make their own churches. Paintings and sculptures start depicting things other than historical and religious figures, and the first of what can be considered novels come into existence, as well as what is colloquially considered “classical music”. And we get Shakespeare, telling stories for entertainment.

Following the Reformation are the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions, characterized by a further diminishing of the Church and the State’s powers. During the Enlightenment, men of means conducted philosophy, science, and politics, producing the philosophers and scientists that we learn of in school today, as well as modern musical instruments. The relative peace and production of the Enlightenment turns to disruption in the Age of Revolutions: led by the multiple uprisings in France, the French ideas of republic spread throughout Europe with Napoleon’s conquests, triggering revolutions across Europe, but to its colonies as well. Revolutions during this period aren’t only political, but also Scientific and Industrial, possibly leading to the Great Divergence over other civilizations.

The wonders and the horrors of the various revolutions are supplanted by the soft touches of Romanticism: art during this period was a revolution itself against the hard rationalism of the Enlightenment. It emphasized the importance of nature, individuality, and beauty. Much of the art produced during this period is the last of what people would consider “classical”: lifelike paintings, exciting music, and real novels, all with the focus on technical skill of the past but with unfettered creativity.

The last major historical period prior to contemporary history was Modernism. It covers the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the Second World War, encompassing uncountable historical developments. Perhaps insufficient time has passed for us to properly weave it into the narrative that is Western History. Technology brings new machines, efficient energy, cameras, and atomic bombs. Political theory continues to evolve as well, with Communism replacing the collectivism of the Church, and setting up the key conflict of the twentieth century. Art departs from Realism with the advent of the camera, and art goes from capturing images to light to feelings. Literature’s breadth of expression grows to cope with the horrors of modern war and the helplessness of capitalism. Music moved from the last vestiges of what people would consider “classical music” to the foundation of everything that is popular today.

Honestly, I would have liked to provide more analysis than a threadbare recap of what Western history consists of, but my commitment is to a 5-minute read. Perhaps next time. Still, I’m immensely satisfied with this shallow map that should provide context for any historical event or art occurring in the West. As far as knowledge goes, history is the most trivia oriented of all subjects. However, a basic understanding of the landmark periods in Western history is an important and often unconsidered part of a well-rounded cultural education in the West. Without it, any other historical trivia become discreet data points instead of the output of a continuous function.

--

--