Western culture explained

Western culture (sometimes equated with Western civilization) are terms which are used to refer to cultures of European origin. This terminology originated as a way of describing what was different about the Graeco-Roman culture and its descendants, in contrast to the older neighboring civilizations of the Middle East, which in many ways continued to serve as a model of civilization in the "west" for some time.

The term "Western culture" is used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, religious beliefs, political systems, and specific artifacts and technologies. Specifically, Western culture may imply:

The concept of Western culture is generally linked to the classical definition of the Western world. In this definition, Western culture is the set of literary, scientific, political, artistic and philosophical principles which set it apart from other civilizations. Much of this set of traditions and knowledge is collected in the Western canon. [1]

The term has come to apply to countries whose history is strongly marked by Western European immigration or settlement, such as the Americas, and Australasia, and is not restricted to Western Europe.

Some tendencies that define modern Western societies are the existence of political pluralism, prominent subcultures or countercultures (such as New Age movements), increasing cultural syncretism resulting from globalization and human migration.


See also: Western world.

From its very beginning in Classical 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 the Islamic world was as much under the influence of Graeco-Roman 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.[2] [3] [4]

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 even defined by aspects of western culture which they have absorbed, even if they are ones contrasted to what is more usually considered as Western. Examples include Nationalism, Marxism, or even Fundamentalism. 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, i.e. Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.


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 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. In the place of the West were the Greeks, living in city states, and tough in resistance against the encroachment of Eastern, for example Trojan or Persian, hedonism and tyranny (both of which are still recognizably Greek words).

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. More narrowly, it was Catholic 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 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 context of the East-West contrast is the opposition of Christendom to the Islamic world, in the Medieval to Early Modern period, which following the European Age of Reason in the 18th and 19th century became more pronounced in the "Great Divergence", 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.

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,[5] 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.[6] 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".[7] 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. "Westernization" was a persistent theme of the Russian Empire and through its influence and that of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European client states these regions have been incorporated into "the west" albeit as a periphery or marchland. In the Post-communist regime of Vladimir Putin, contrast with the West once again became common in Russia and its "near abroad".

Western Politics

Despite the great empires and tyrannies in Western History, some concept of democracy and an emphasis on freedom has always apparently been seen as somehow distinguishing Western peoples from non-western neighbors. In the Roman empire, the old Republican virtues of citizens and senators remained a model for example.

In the Middle Ages and early modern times, the concept of a separation of Church and state developed, allowing for the development of more distinctive political norms, such as the doctrine of the separation of powers, which make modern Western democracy distinct from democracy in general.

In comparison to many other cultures in the world, western cultures tend to emphasize the individual. Western cultures in the modern world are often considered to be amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. Much of this respect for difference and individual liberties remain, however, still theoretical, in many ways, among mainstream society, when the individual factor encounters a strong opposition from social customs and consensus, and thus resists to be accepted or understood. This situation, anyways, has tended to change among most progressive sectors of society, as a consequence of the many social and counter-cultural movements that the last decades have come to see.

Creativity and the expression of the individual is commonly encouraged in Western culture. New subcultures, art, and technology constantly emerge. Furthermore, capitalism which is found in almost every western country, supports a highly individualistic ideology.

The forms of government usually adopted in western societies, as a part of a wider, nowadays ruling social-economical liberal capitalist structure, are multi-party parliamentary or presidential (also 'congressional') systems, frequently referred to as figurative democracy, which favors some sort of majority consensus when coming to adopt collective decisions.

Widespread Influence of Western culture

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. However even 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 all very Western in origin. 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, rock and roll and country.

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 emphasizes this characteristic, first developed in New York and Chicago, is the skyscraper.

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, 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, Techno or Rave, Nu metal, etc.

Western 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. 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, electric motor, 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, as well as the current notion of elements themselves were created in the West.

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 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 was by Westerners, as well as the first to set foot on the South Pole, the first human in space, the first human to orbit the Earth and the first human to land on the moon. The landing of robots on Mars and on an asteroid, and the Voyager explorations of the outer planets were all achievements of Westerners.


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


Further reading

See also

Notes and References

  1. Duran 1995, p.81
  2. Yin Cheong Cheng, New Paradigm for Re-engineering Education. Page 369
  3. Ainslee Thomas Embree, Carol Gluck, Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Page xvi
  4. Kwang-Sae Lee, East and West: Fusion of Horizons
  5. Zuckerman, P. 2005. "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" Pitzer College. Retrieved: 2006-06-21.
  6. Davidson, Roderic H.. Where is the Middle East?. Foreign Affairs. 38. p. 665–675. 1960.
  7. British archaeologist D.G. Hogarth published The Nearer East in 1902, which helped to define the term and its extent, including Albania, Montenegro, southern Serbia and Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt, all the Ottoman lands, the entire Arabian Peninsula, and western parts of Iran.