The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on April 20, 2011
What is the West? And Where Is It?

For some decades now there has been a debate over the alleged Western bias of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the multitude of activities that have emanated from it. The debate has typically focused on the priority of individual rights over collective or communal rights. The former are supposed to be characteristic of the West, while the latter are ascribed to various non-Western cultures and philosophies. The Singapore government was in the forefront of advocating so-called “Asian values”. More recently the Chinese government has jumped on this particular bandwagon, morphing the old Marxist collectivism into the traditional Confucian ideal of the “harmonious society”. Roughly similar ideas have been voiced in the Islamic world. The typical butt of the criticism is the Western individual—isolated, alienated both from nature and from true community, animated by an abstract notion of human rights divorced from history. By contrast, there is another view of the individual, embedded in a community and in harmony with nature. The latter, of course, is deemed to be superior, more in tune with true human nature.

In trying to assess this ideological constellation, it is useful to take apart its geographical assumption.  Where is the West? Seen from Singapore or Beijing, the West is located in Europe and North America (where, not so incidentally, the headquarters of all major human rights organizations are to be found). This was not always so.

The critique of the isolated, abstract individual can probably be dated from the  reaction to the French revolutionary ideas carried into Germany on the bayonets of Napoleon’s armies. German romanticism and idealistic philosophy rejected this allegedly superficial individualism in the name of the profound spirit (Geist) of German culture. Germany had this deeply spiritual Kultur; the West (France and England lumped together) had a merely technological Zivilisation. It was clear: The West was on the other side of the Rhine.

Russian writers and thinkers repeated the exercise, with minor variations. Slavophiles debated appropriately named Westernizers. The Slavophiles contrasted the depths of the Russian soul with—yes, indeed—the superficial, only technologically sophisticated West (Germany definitely included). This duality is eloquently if crudely expressed by old Karamazov, in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, when he announces that he believes in hell—but not a metaphorical Lutheran hell—no, a true Russian hell, with real devils poking you with real fiery pincers. Now the West is located on the other side of the Russian border.

Conservative French thinkers contrasted the communal culture of an “integral Catholicism” (which was supposed to be the true nature of France, “the oldest daughter of the Church”) with the overly individualistic Protestantism to their east and west—a theme taken up by Catholic traditionalists everywhere. The West is wherever Protestantism had done its corroding work. Conservative thinkers in Britain neatly reversed the invidious comparison. They focused on the “other France”—revolutionary, republican, anti-clerical—marked by the values of a rootless individualism. Sober, communal Britain is compared with the “geometrical” abstractions of French democracy—a comparison nicely caught in Edmund Burke’s image of peacefully grazing English cattle. Now the West was located on the eastern side of the English Channel.

Spain too cultivated a counter-image of a rootless, overly individualistic Europe. In contrast, Spain possesses a deeply spiritual culture, perhaps most dramatically expressed by the figure of Don Quixote. Miguel de Unamuno, arguably one of the greatest modern Spanish writers, conceded that Europe was superior technologically, then exclaimed “Let them invent!” Spain did not need their inventions; it had the “tragic sense of life” (del sentimiento trágico de la vida), immortalized in the title of Unamuno’s most famous book. Now the West is north of the Pyrenees.

Latin America imitated the ideological exercise of the motherland—only now the individualistic antithesis was not Europe, but the United States. In 1900 the Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rodo published Ariel (the title refers to Shakespeare’s character of an “aerie spirit” in The Tempest). The book gave the name arielismo to a self-image of Latin America, as a world of imagination and soul, set against the American Caliban—a gross, mindless individual, mired in the empty pursuit of material goods. The West is north of the Rio Grande.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this dualism would finally land in America itself. The antebellum ideology of the South contrasted its own supposedly gracious communalism (slaves and all) with the—you have guessed it—crude, materialist, individualistic North. A conclusion suggests itself: The West is exclusively located in Akron, Ohio.

This exercise in parody is useful in disclosing an underlying motif in all these ideological constructions. The alleged malady—no matter whether its roots are believed to lie in Protestantism, or republicanism, or capitalism—is always what is deemed to be an “excessive individualism”, pitted against an allegedly superior, more natural communal solidarity. Parody aside, is there any validity to this dualism?

There is. There is a real antithesis between individual and collective rights. It is also true that the original codification of the former occurred mainly (though not exclusively) in Western Europe and North America. It certainly makes sense to pit the Confucian idea of the individual living in harmony with the community against the Western idea of the rights of the individual against the community. But the attempt to locate the antithesis geographically makes less and less sense.

There is a long history behind the idea of human rights and liberties belonging to every individual, regardless of any ascriptive status—regardless of race, gender, class, religion, and so on. But the word “idea” may be somewhat misleading here. To be sure, there were formulators of theory who played important roles in the aforementioned history—Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, Roman jurists, and very decisively the writers of the Enlightenment. But history is not an ongoing philosophical seminar. The rights of the individual can indeed be read about in books. But much more importantly, there is a distinctive experience of individual existence which leads compellingly to the notion of individual rights. At a certain point of history these rights are perceived as “self-evident”—very interestingly, in places far removed from the Western history of ideas. One may view this fact as a case of cultural imperialism. I think that, more tellingly, this is an imperialism of truth—a truth about the human condition which can be and is perceived by people who have never read a book or heard a speech about human rights. “The West”, attacked by all these communalists, is not a geographical location, but a way of looking at the world.

I don’t know what books had been read by the protestors who in 1989 erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I doubt whether they were pledging allegiance to a specifically Western ideology, or whether they had any coherent theory at all. What is clear is that they were asserting their rights, as individuals, against the community defined by the state. As was that street vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia, or the young people who congregated on Tahrir Square in Cairo. There is no easy road from this experience to institutions that codify and protect the experience. Still, the experience is primary—and it is available universally.

  • John Barker

    This is the clearest explanation of the core meaning of what we sometimes innacurately think of as a political cause or ideology. I now see the Arab spring and other rebellions in a new light. Just beware the demagogues.

  • http://northstarmartialarts.com/blog1 Scott

    Hmmmmm. The West then, is wherever an individual, man, woman, child draws a line and says, “beyond this line I will be forced to defend myself.” This would work except that those who lack autonomy (intellectual or otherwise) also have this line drawn around them by others…sometimes.

  • WigWag

    Professor Berger mentions three figures from literature that epitomize the conflict between individual and collective identity-Don Quixote, Fyodor Karamazov and Ariel, a character imagined by Rodo based on the Tempest. I’m afraid he’s neglected to mention the character who illustrates his point better than any other; Hamlet.

    Harold Bloom makes an excellent case that like no other literary character with the possible exception of Quixote; Hamlet is in many ways the first modern, western man (which is an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who exists only in the sphere of imagination). Before Hamlet and Quixote (Shakespeare’s play and Cervantes’ novel were written at around the same time), the inner life was never considered particularly consequential. It seems to me that the identification of individual thoughts, preferences and motivations as being as important or more important than the preferences of society as a whole, is at the center of the Western ideal.

    By the way, Unamuno’s conception of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance was profoundly sacrilegious. For Unamuno, Don Quixote replaced the bible as the authentic Spanish scripture. Everyone reads Don Quixote differently, but to me what the Don really sought on his quests was fame, which is really a search for immortality; what can be a greater assault on G-d than that?

    Here’s Unamuno from “Tragic Sense of Life;”

    “Great was Don Quixote’s madness and it was great because the root from which it grew was great-the inextinguishable longing to survive.”

    Of course, when the folly of his quest is demonstrated to him by his defeat in battle; Quixote is chastised and dies shortly thereafter.

    One last thing about Unamuno; Professor Berger refers to him as “one of the greatest modern Spanish writers.” Unless, I’m mistaken, Unamuno preferred to refer to himself as Basque.

  • http://www.tomerpersico.com Tomer

    Thank you for this piece. To the list of west-o-phobes I would like to add quite a few current orthodox rabbis in Israel who are seeking to revert the democratic state into a theocratic monarchy in the name of Jewish history (and myth), and cry against “Christian morals”, wanting the IDF to fight its enemies according to “Jewish morals”, that, not surprisingly, are not in great accord with the Geneva Convention(s) code of war.

    Many of these rabbis adhere to Rabbi Kook’s (d. 1935) Hegelian view of history, in which the Jewish people is an organic living whole which embodies the Will of God on earth. The west is blamed for corrupting the Jews, making them forget their communal identity and making them think they are individuals.

  • WigWag

    More on the sacrilegious nature of Unamuno.

    Yes he professed a belief in G-d but Unamuno was also profoundly anticlerical (which was not inconsequential in the Spain of his day). He insisted on comparing Quixote, a fictional character, with the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola and his writing was critical of Catholic dogma.

    In the introduction to his “Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” (the introduction is entitled “The Sepulcher of Don Quixote”) Unamuno expresses mock annoyance that the resting place of Don Quixote has not yet been found and he implores Spaniards to search for it. Unamuno does far more than identify Cervantes’ novel as Spain’s founding myth; he implies that in the novel can be found Spain’s national faith. This seems pretty blasphemous to me.

    But no matter how blasphemous Unamuno is, Don Quixote himself is far more sacrilegious. His quest is really a search for a bite of the apple from the tree of life. It’s nothing less than immortality that he seeks. I think Quixote’s creator, Cervantes, realizes what a blasphemous character he had created which is why, in the end, he has Quixote repent. Once he repents the veil of madness is lifted from him and he promptly dies a sane and a “saved” man.

    Cervantes audacity in creating Quixote may only be matched in the audacity of Dante in creating the character of Beatrice. Anyone who reads the Divine Comedy recognizes instantly that Beatrice is assigned a role in the poem that rivals that of the Virgin Mary. What’s amazing is that Dante got away with it; the conception of hell, purgatory and heaven that billions of Christians now hold in their imaginations is not found anywhere in the bible (where they think it originates) but in pages of a poem where the poet ascribes to his dead love interest, attributes akin to G-d’s mother. It’s really quite remarkable.

    By the way, this is the perfect time of year to read the “Divine Comedy.” Dante’s trek thorugh heaven and hell (and everything in between) begins on the Thursday before Good Friday and concludes on the Wednesday after Easter.

    As I was reading Professor Berger’s essay I couldn’t get out of my head the proposition that the question he was asking “Where is the west” was less relevant that an alternative question; “where is the enlightenment?” In many ways, Quixote is a perfect enlightenment figure; one could almost carry the metaphor to an absurd extreme and suggest that he was the perfect 1960s hippie-doing his own thing and all.

    The other literary figure who reminds me of Quixote and perfectly epitomizes the point that Professor Berger is making is Don Giovanni as he is presented in the Mozart opera (libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte). At the end of the opera, Giovanni, who has been exposed as the sinner that he is, is offered the chance to repent before he is dragged down to hell. Knowing his fate if he refuses, he nevertheless tells G-d to go to hell. By refusing to be cowed by G-d or the threat of eternal damnation, Giovanni turns himself into the perfect enlightenment hero. He’s a figure who couldn’t exist in either the Islamic world or the Confucian world.

    Only westerners would find Giovanni intriguing-his nonconformity would make him a figure of revulsion in the Islamic world and boredom for those who follow the Confucian tradition.

    Figure out where Hamlet, Quixote and Giovanni are figures who inspire fascination and where they inspire something else. Once you do, you will know where the boundaries of the western world are to be found.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Peter, this is a wonderful comment. It has that quality of both insightfulness and wit that is your hallmark. Let me just prattle on for a minute about how I react.

    Of course, the search for where the West is invites parody,just as you say. More interesting, I think is what the West is. You boil it down more or less to Protestantism and the individualism with which Protestantism has done a marvelous dance over the centuries. This is a definition that works fine within the context of Christendom, but it works less well if the context is a broader cultural one. After all, some of the things the Catholic Church did way back when in Europe, after the fall of Rome, set the stage quite critically for what the West became. (This is a subject that Frank Fukuyama’s newest book spends a good deal of useful ink on, by the way.)

    So I would say, based on an agglomeration of long forgotten readings over the years, that the West consists of three layers. The first layer is the layer of classical civilization, of Greece and of Rome. That is the layer that has conditioned Western aesthetics,law to some extent, and its philosophical tradition.

    Second, there is Christianity. At least half of this layer, the normative part, comes from Judaism, not Hellenism. When the Church created Canon law in the centuries after Rome, this normative slice played a significant role.

    Third, there is the Enlightenment. This is where Western science and technology more proximately come from, even though of course the more remote wellsprings of it may be found far back in both Greek and Jewish sources. It is what enables Westerners to think critically, and to have established educational traditions that focus on how to think rather than on what to think. This orientation toward education is still quite rare in the non-Western world, and it is of potential huge consequences.

    When one thinks about these three layers of what defines the West, one can focus on geography. Obviously, for example, the Enlightenment got so far and no further in its journey to the east.

    But much more important, I think, one immediately sees that there are tensions among the three levels or layers. These three layers do not sit easily upon one another, but rather compose a rumbling and sometimes volcanic whole. It is, for example, clear that a tension exists between the scientific way of seeing the world that comes from the Enlightenment and the focus on extrinsic revelation and faith in all forms of Christianity, including Protestantism.

    But the very fact that the layers of Western civilization contend with one another, it seems to me, is the wellspring of Western creativity. And it is a creativity that belies a tension, even very much within the West, between individualism and communalism.

  • asafalavi

    ‘West’ is not a name of terriotorial area. But it is vasted as cultural phenomena. In post modern era, there is no relevent in territorial area. So In my view it is a new type of an invansion. As said Edward Said, west is desire to make power on others by defined them in their discourses. Hence’ west is a type of hegemony. In the words of sarmon, french philosopher west is a map which is created by mindset of people.