What is Western Culture

Author: Thomas Storck


Thomas Storck

Almost every time that we read the newspaper or listen to the news on TV or radio we see or hear the West mentioned. Until a few years ago its mention was apt to be in connection with some military initiative in opposition to the Soviet Union and her allies. Currently it is more likely to be about some economic problem or program. And although the news media seldom take the trouble to define the word West, it is not difficult to figure out what they mean by it. Unfortunately, for them the term signifies no more than a political or economic bloc, the United States, the European Community, some other European countries, such as Scandinavia or Austria, and a few countries in Asia or the Pacific such as Australia and New Zealand. And because the media's notion of the West is repeated so often, many of us begin to see the West chiefly in their terms: the West is nothing but a political or economic bloc committed to certain things, chiefly democracy and freedom, conceived principally as freedom for moneymaking and pleasure seeking, and, till recently, organized to defend itself against another bloc of nations that wished to destroy or inhibit that freedom. Of course there is occasionally some mention of "historical values" or such, that are seen to be at the bottom of the unity of the West, but in our media's conception these are so ethereal as to mean little besides an adherence to representative democracy and a minimum of restraints on conduct. With abortion legal in nearly every one of these countries, they surely do not include a respect for human dignity!

Because the public and civic life of Western nations shows no deeper unity than a superficial political and economic likeness, most publicists and commentators assume that that is all there is to the West, at least today. It is merely a group of nations with some sort of common historical background, but sharing nothing important now but a commitment to preserving its freedom for materialistic and hedonistic pursuits.

But is this all there is to the West? Is it only a grouping of nations seeking to preserve the material goods and worldly pleasures they possess? Although I think that many Catholics in the West know that our civilization is much more than this, yet we too are affected by the media's conceptions and for that reason are apt to forget just what Western culture really is and what gives it its unity. For example, many of us follow the common practice of classifying Latin America and such eastern European nations as Poland and Hungary as non-Western, clearly an historical absurdity. In this essay, then, I intend to set forth some of the basis for the West's historic unity, a unity that is still important for us today.

How do we discover the ultimate basis of the unity of the West? Jacques Maritain captured the essence of the West in one sentence, when he wrote that the Greek people "may be truly termed the organ of the reason and word of man as the Jewish people was the organ of the revelation and word of God."1 The West then is nothing but a rich fusion of the word of God and the word of man, all that our culture has received from God by way of revelation and all that we have received by way of the exercise of reason. The former, the theological content of Western culture, comes from the revelation God made to the Chosen People—to Abraham, Moses and others under the Old Law, culminating in the coming of God himself as man. And though the final form of this theological content is in Catholic doctrine, its origins lie in the Old Testament covenant of God with the Hebrew people.

The second of the two words, that of man, is from the Greeks. Of all the peoples of the earth known to us, only the Greeks developed a rational investigation of all things, of the world, of man, and even of God, unmixed with myth or theology. Only they have what may be called philosophy, strictly speaking. This rational examination and consideration of things, though in no way opposed to revealed religion, is separate from it, and allows men to systematically discover and classify the essential truths about nature, man and his soul, the state, law, even many truths about God. Philosophy, moreover, has long been known to be an indispensable handmaid for theology and theologians.

This then is the double tradition of the West, for what makes the West not just a geographical, but a unique cultural unity, is this fusion of the two traditions.2 The Hebrew tradition, obviously, was an absolutely unique phenomenon, because God gave to that nation alone a revelation properly speaking; the Greek tradition, though a human accomplishment, was a singular one and undoubtedly fostered by God in that place and time. Both traditions contributed knowledge of truths to the entire human race: the Hebrew of truths of the divine nature and his dealings with man; the Greek of natural truths.

The Hebrew tradition from the beginning was oriented toward all of mankind. Throughout the Old Testament, starting even with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, the universal import of God's speaking to the Jews is clearly stated. What God is saying to Abraham is meant not just for his children according to the flesh, but somehow and at some time for the entire race of men.3 The Incarnation and the subsequent establishment of the Catholic Church were thus not only the climax of the Old Law of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and of the sacred kingdom of Israel, but were the achievement of a goal more or less explicit in the tradition from the first, namely, the <universalizing> of that tradition, as the spiritual goods of ancient Israel and of the Old Testament were now made available for all men, together with a sure and clear means for their salvation in the founding of the Church and the shaping of Catholic doctrine.

But although the revelation to the Hebrews clearly points beyond that people alone, their theological and intellectual tradition and vocabulary was framed in terms of their unique relationship with God and the various institutions and practices, such as the covenants, the Exodus, the Mosaic law, and the Davidic House, which arose out of that relationship. Thus both the Old and the New Testaments present salvation history in a way that usually emphasizes its particular and unique connection with the Chosen People and with concrete events in their history, even when it witnesses to God's design to save all men. In order, then, for this spiritual content to be easily accessible to all, the Church had to leave that particularizing Jewish context and enter into a context that was at least potentially universal.4 This it was able to do because of the availability of the Greek intellectual tradition.

Now what is true is always universal. Even a simple truth such as "John is sitting" is universally true if it is true at all, since the fact that John is sitting is willy-nilly true for everyone. Now truths about the most important things, about God, man, the world of natures, change and permanence, etc. are not only universal but they are important. The Greeks had discovered very many such important truths, and moreover, since they sought to understand reality as it was in itself, without reference to time or place, the terminology they employed in their intellectual investigations was, in principle at least, accessible equally to men of any time or place. The nascent Church likewise had the even more important truths of the Gospel to communicate to men. And it was inevitable that as the Church communicated her truths, points would be raised, both among Catholics and by the Church's enemies, which would involve questions that the Hebrew tradition could not deal with definitively with its own intellectual terms because of its concrete and particular mode of understanding and expression. How, for example, are we to conceive of the inner nature of God himself—the relation of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, or of the union between the divine and the human in our Lord? What terms from the vocabulary of the older Mosaic or the Wisdom traditions, or of the earliest Catholic writings, the epistles and the Gospels, are adequate to precisely describe these sublime mysteries? It was because the Greek terms and the entire Greek intellectual tradition was at hand that the Church was able so comparatively easily to formulate her theology, something necessary if the spiritual message received from the Jewish tradition was to be made available to those of other places, outside the Hebrew tradition, and, more importantly, of other times. As a matter of fact, this process had in part begun even in the New Testament and in a sense was inseparable from use of the Greek language.5 For example, in using the term logos, St. John, without in any sense basing his thought on that of the pagan philosophers, necessarily commenced that fruitful contact between the claims of the Faith and the Greek intellectual tradition. Even earlier, the use of Greek in the Septuagint and the Jewish Diaspora generally made such intellectual interaction inevitable and some tentative effects of this can be seen in such a place as the Old Testament book of Wisdom.6

The contribution of the Greeks, then, the "word of man" is absolutely vital, since without it the unique phenomenon of Western culture would not exist. We take their contribution largely for granted because, thanks to the Medieval scholastics, Greek logical concepts have permeated our language and thinking. Every time we use the words "essential" or "nature" (as in "the nature of the problem") or "substantially," we are using, however attenuated they may have become, Greek philosophical terms and the concepts behind them. But if one could see a culture untouched by the influence of ancient Greece, then one would see classifications, concepts and distinctions we take for granted ignored. This heritage of Greek philosophy is the patrimony of every Catholic, and to a great extent those outside the Church are losing the ability to make the distinctions on which sound thinking depends. So not only our Western spiritual heritage but also our intellectual heritage needs to be defended today. Catholicism itself would look very different, in its intellectual and theological aspects, had it developed in India or Africa without benefit of Greek philosophical categories. It would still be true, of course, but I think one could say that it would have a harder time expressing that truth, because its theological vocabulary would lack the philosophical terminology necessary for making clear distinctions.

The thing that Maritain calls the "word of man" is basically the ability to conform the mind to what is, and to sort out from all that we see around us the basic units, as it were, of existence. For example, we see colors, we see things moving and changing, coming into being and passing out of being. What is basic? Some of the very early Greek philosophers, as they groped their way toward truth, argued that everything was in flux and nothing stable existed; others argued that there was no real change at all. Though the truth of this matter may seem commonsensical to us, it is so in large part because we are the unconscious heirs of their search for and attainment of philosophical truth. Or again, if I see a baby today and not again for fifty years, is it the same person that I see, since his shape, weight, color, the sound of his voice, have all changed? Is there something basic that has endured so that I can rightly say he is still the same thing? Bertrand Russell actually argued that each new time I see a particular person it is not the same person that I am seeing, but only different appearances of similar-looking patches of color and bits of sound, connected by unknown physical laws. Well, doubtless under the protection of divine grace, the ancient Greeks, Plato and especially Aristotle, realized that substances, that is, persons and things, are what basically exist, not color patches or isolated sounds or sense experiences. This probably seems obvious to us, but I think it is so obvious in part because we have the intellectual heritage of Greece behind us.7 And though all this may seem like unnecessary abstruseness, the answers we give to such questions have very practical effects in everyday life that would surprise many of us.

Greek philosophy, therefore, when used by and in company with the theological revelation that came from Israel, is what makes Western culture distinct. Western culture has received unique blessings from God in being the heir of both Jews and Greeks and as such is able to perform well the function that a culture was meant for. The word culture comes from the Latin <cultura,> a word which means simply cultivation, as in farming or gardening. Our word agriculture comes from <agri cultura,> the cultivation of a field (<ager>). But just as not everything one does to a field is cultivation, for example, to throw dirty oil and old bottles and tin cans into a field will not help the crops to grow, so not everything one does to man really cultivates him. Cultivate means to help something to grow in its proper direction, to help it to become what it is supposed to become. Do some cultures do this better than others? I contend that Western culture cultivates man better than any other culture does, because, historically speaking, it is based on truth, both divine and human, and surely man cannot be perfected according to anything except the truth.8

Unfortunately, one must say "historically speaking," because today Western civilization is far from its roots in Hebrew and Greek truth. Moreover, this departure from its historic path is not something that began in 1967 or 1932 or 1918. Western civilization has been tending away from its own genius since the end of the Middle Ages, and has been rushing away from it since the early 18th century. Today the West is actually to a large extent a baneful force in traditional Third World countries where we break down age-old ways of life and village cultures. As an Iranian friend of mine once put it, today the West seems to stand for nothing except technology and pornography. But despite this ugly present day reality, it is still useful to study and know the West, both for hopes of restoration as well as for the nourishing of our own spirits and the setting of our own minds in order.

In order to understand the foundations of the West, however, there is one more contribution, besides that of the Hebrews and the Greeks, that one should consider. This is the Roman effort, which provided for the expansion and stability of the earlier accomplishments, which were strengthened and developed by the Romans. Although their contribution was not as original as that of the Hebrews and Greeks, it consisted of three important elements: a universal empire, universal law, and the consolidation and extension of the Greek and Hebrew achievements.

In discussing the Romans and their contributions to Western civilization, however, we must not forget that the Eastern and Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire was still very much in existence throughout the Middle Ages until 1453, and though non-Latin, can hardly be called non-Western. In fact, Western culture has always included areas not of Latin culture. For the Byzantines, of course, had no need of the Latin tradition to mediate Greek thought for them, and even if they did not appropriate their own classical tradition in the same way as did the Latins—for example, the philosophical tradition—still they were conscious heirs of the vast learning of the Greek Fathers, which itself made use of much of the best of pagan thought. There were also important missionary efforts by the Greeks, as in the work of saints Cyril and Methodius and in the conversion of Russia, which brought both Catholicism and Western, but not Latin, culture to great areas of eastern Europe. Nevertheless I think one can say that the most distinctive part of Western culture was the Latin, and without the achievements of the Romans in western Europe the development of Western culture would have been considerably hindered and perhaps imperiled.

The idea of the universal empire of Rome had a powerful impact on men's minds and imaginations throughout the Middle Ages and up through the 18th century. It was an idea of unity with diversity—not the kind of unity where everything becomes the same, but where local customs and attachments are fostered within a larger whole. The idea of Rome was one of the chief things making for the international character of Christendom. The knowledge that Rome had once ruled over most of Europe made a great impression on the men of the Middle Ages and indeed they themselves attempted to perpetuate the international character of Rome's rule. Thus they created the Holy Roman Empire, which endured until A.D. 1806 and was conceived to be in some sense the same state as that of Caesar and the ancient emperors. From Rome Europe received an international culture—nationalism and nations as the modern world understands them did not exist, of course. The Latin language was one major factor in this culture and of course Catholicism was the most important part of it. Within the boundary of the old empire, wherever men looked, physical monuments of Rome remained and were in daily use—Roman roads, bridges, aqueducts, walls, etc. The Medievals were well aware of the significance of Rome, and thus Rome and what she stood for as a universal city was a major force making for a European-wide civilization. Pope and Emperor were the twin heads of this Christendom, and Christendom was a universal entity.

Some interesting words of Pius XII on Italy's role as a universal mediator of culture can be applied, <a fortiori,> to Rome as the center of Italy:

Situated in the middle of the sea, at the crossroads joining three great continents, Italy is in a certain sense the geographical center of the world. This is especially true because of the many peoples that have continually passed through Italy and contributed to a universal, comprehensive, open character (such as is rarely found in any other nation). We may truly, then, affirm that Italy does not belong to Italians alone, but to all peoples. This has been Italy's past and shall be her future.

Roman law is the patrimony of humanity; Thomistic philosophy, the most universal of philosophies which presents and sheds light on the entire hierarchy of being, was born in Italy; the Divine Comedy is both national and universal, just as that supreme expression of Michelangelo's genius which bears witness to the entire human race reunited in trepidation for the Universal Judgment. Greco-Italian culture initiated European culture, and therefore, that of the modern world.9

It is interesting that modern man sees his ancestors as having been more parochial than he, whereas in fact, the opposite is true. Traditional European man was more cosmopolitan, but at the same time more rooted in place than we are. Though intensely nationalistic and looking at things though the eyes of our partial and one-sided cultures, we have very little sense of place. The patriotism of the nation-state that we cultivate is hardly the same as the local patriotism of the medievals and ancients. We have got everything exactly backwards. Because of the lack of strong nationalistic bonds and of such supra-national forces as the Latin language, a largely international academic and intellectual life, and international dynastic ties, traditional Western man rightly regarded all of Europe and the West as his home. But at the same time, he had much more of a sense of place than we have, who are apt to move about, especially within our own countries, and in fact to carry our national prejudices with us wherever we might go. If it is possible to have parochial cosmopolitans, than the modern world has managed to produce them!

In the study of law, Rome's genius can also be seen, for she pioneered in establishing a systematic, reasonable approach to jurisprudence, and Roman law is the basis of law today in continental Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. When Roman law was revived during the high Middle Ages, its study became the foundation for any scientific legal work, and even influenced the common law of England during that law's very early period. Without the Roman law's codes, case-books and the other parts of the Emperor Justinian's compilations, legal study would have taken many more years to attain to the systematic state it has today.

To a great extent Roman law is the application of Greek thought to juridical questions, and the clarity of the distinctions that the Greeks made in investigating all reality the Romans were able to appropriate for their practical needs in administering the state. But though law is a practical science, good law and jurisprudence are based ultimately on good metaphysics, and the superiority of Roman law to some of the crudities of the barbarian legal codes is simply the superiority of Greek reason to blind reliance on tribal tradition untempered by philosophic reflection.

Rome's third achievement was her consolidation and extension of Greek and Hebrew attainments. Although Greek civilization had spread far beyond its homeland, Greek political and military strength, despite Alexander's conquests, was not powerful enough to conserve these gains. In the East Greek culture was actually losing ground when the Romans came along and established it on a stronger political and military base. The Romans were eminently practical, and having once accepted Greek culture, they set about organizing things. That is what Pope Pius XII meant when he praised the Rule of St. Benedict, calling it an "outstanding monument of Roman and Christian prudence."10 For prudence is the virtue especially needed by the practical man, and the Romans had this natural virtue to a high degree. Though the Church, of course, can survive without Roman culture, nonetheless God made use of the peculiar strong points of the Roman achievement in the first centuries of the Church, as He previously used the Greek accomplishments in philosophy to orient the beginnings of Christian theology and philosophy. Indeed, at one time the liturgy contained a Postcommunion in the Mass "Pro Imperatore" which began thus: "<Deus, qui ad praedicandum aeterni Regis Evangelium Romanum imperium praeparasti. . . >."11

The Gospel was preached throughout the Latin-speaking regions of the Empire, and later, when the Church began to penetrate lands never conquered by Rome, Catholic missionaries brought Latin culture with them—not forgetting what was said earlier about the Greek areas of Western culture and their missionary activity. Thus all of western and northern and central Europe received the Latin tongue, and with it classical philosophy and Latin literature; in fact all the intellectual heritage of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. Latin Christian civilization became extended through Europe, and together with the lands of Greek culture, resulted in Christian Western civilization.

This short summary of the richness of our heritage is not intended to take the place of study or serve as a kind of quick review of what one has learned and maybe forgotten. Rather, perhaps, it can be a guide to orient one in those studies, so that what otherwise might simply be a mass of authors and dates becomes instead an integrated culture, a unity from diverse sources, but brought together into the most wonderful whole that the world has yet known.

Also, as the Church contemplates the necessary task of "inculturating" Catholic faith and practice in places such as Africa, we might remember that some features of civilization as it has matured in the West seem to have a universal mission, and cannot be dismissed as merely a European way of looking at things. If philosophy is the "word of man," then it is the word of men not only in Europe but everywhere, and likewise the undiluted Gospel message is meant as much for pagan Africans as it was for pagan Europeans. Christ died for each equally.

Lastly, to recall the original genius of the West can also perhaps be an antidote, an antidote to the poisonous message continually given us by our mass cultural organs, that the only value of the West is the technological and affluent society which we enjoy today. Too many Catholics in the United States act, and presumably think, as if this were true. No wonder that so many in academia and the media despise the West, if this is all it means. But by taking a look again at what it really does mean, we may be able to learn enough to defend it—not because it may have given us a better mousetrap, but because it has shaped better men—more human, more natural, and therefore more open to the supernatural workings of Almighty God.

Thomas Storck is the author of <The Catholic Milieu> (Christendom Press, 1987). His articles have appeared in <Homiletic and Pastoral Review>, <Social Justice Review>, <Fidelity>, and elsewhere.


1 <An Introduction to Philosophy>, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1947), p. 33.

2 The Western world, then, comprises those nations and regions whose cultures were formed by the Catholic faith and Greco-Roman civilization, either originally or derivatively. Thus <all> of Europe, Latin America, North America and such outposts as the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand are parts of the Western world. In fact, central and eastern Europe and Latin America are much more integral parts of the West than is the United States. Our common journalistic exclusion of Latin America and central and eastern Europe from Western civilization indicates how most of us think only with regard to <political> or <economic> facts, rather than the more important cultural and historical realities.

Related to this is the absurd characterization in the United States of Hispanics as a non-Western or non-European minority. Hispanics are quintessentially Western, and in fact are responsible for bringing Western civilization to this Hemisphere.

3 ". . . and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." or "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Genesis 12:3. RSV CE.

4 Of course, the Church, particularly in the liturgy, has always used many of the concrete images of both the Old and New Testaments, thus making them familiar to the whole world. Consider simply the designation of our Lord as the Lamb of God.

5 When St. Paul preached to the Greeks of Athens, he spoke of God in this manner, i.e., without reference to the concrete aspects of Old Testament revelation or the Messianic tradition. See Acts 17:22-31.

6 See Wisdom 8:7.

7 Quite obviously, many modern thinkers, not just Bertrand Russell, have abandoned the sane teaching of Aristotle. Hume, for example, affirmed that what is basic is our individual sense impressions, and in some versions of modern physics material substances are simply thick places in an all-pervading field of energy: Sir Arthur Eddington wrote that the seemingly solid desk at which he sat was in reality "a host of tiny electric charges darting hither and thither with inconceivable velocity. Instead of being solid substance my desk is more like a swarm of gnats."

8 Of course, if another culture were permeated with Catholic truth, including the indispensable Greek philosophical heritage, then it too would be able to cultivate man equally well.

9 Allocution of March 23, 1958, quoted in John Navone, "The Greatest Christian Hero, Philosopher, and Poet: Christopher Dawson's `Italian Trinity'," <Italian Journal>, vol. 5, no. 3/4, 1991, pp. 32-33.

10 Encyclical <Fulgens Radiatur>, para. 14, March 21, 1947.

11 God, who prepared the Roman empire for the preaching of the Gospel of the eternal king. . . .

This article was taken from the Spring 1994 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.