Development of Western Civilization: Key Figures & Events

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will highlight some of the key developments, figures, and events of Western Civilization. We will place them in historical context, and see how they have been profoundly influential.

The Path of Western Civilization

What comes to mind when you think of Western Civilization? If you're thinking of themes like democracy, human progress, philosophy, capitalism, equality, an appreciation for the arts, individualism, or scientific knowledge, you're on the right track. These are all core themes of Western Civilization. Western Civilization is generally considered to have been inaugurated by the contributions of the Greeks and Romans. You know, democracy, philosophy, what we now consider 'classical architecture,' and all that good stuff. Think about Western Civilization as a trajectory or path. From the Mediterranean region, it spread to Europe via the Roman Empire, and after the infusion of Christianity, it blossomed into wonderful movements and trends like the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the spread of modern liberal democracy. So along this journey, let's highlight some of the most significant developments.

Two Key Figures: Plato and Jesus

We have to mention Plato. Plato (428/427 - 348/347 B.C.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who laid the foundation for Western thought. He founded the world's first formal institution for higher education, the Academy, and was a mentor to Aristotle, another famous philosopher. In fact, Plato has been so foundational to Western philosophy that one modern scholar once stated: 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.' Although Plato lived before the Modern Era, his thinking was decidedly ahead of his time and has had a monumental impact of modern history.

The School of Athens, by Raphael, depicts various influential Greek thinkers. At the center, Plato and Aristotle converse with one another.
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We also have to mention Jesus of Nazareth (7-2 BC to AD 30-33), or Jesus Christ as he is commonly called. Because the Christian religion is a central component of Western Civilization, we have to mention its founder. As arguably the most influential figure in history, Jesus has inspired great works of art like Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and has shaped the course of world history. In fact, history is divided into B.C. and A.D. periods based on his birth. Jesus Christ remains a consistent focal point of Western civilization.

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

Skip ahead in your mind to the beginning of the Modern Era. In 1517, a young Catholic monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This seemingly modest act sparked the Protestant Reformation, a European anti-Catholic revolution, and reform movement. The Protestant Reformation shattered the authority of the Catholic Church and resulted in the emergence of new Protestant sects of Christianity. Ultimately, it also led to political, social, and intellectual reform, in which themes of democracy, individualism, skepticism, and capitalism were able to blossom throughout Europe.

Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation.
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The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution

On the heels of the Protestant Reformation came the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution took place between the mid-16th century and the 18th century and was characterized by the emergence of modern science. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was one of the most influential figures of the Scientific Revolution. He is credited with formulating the Laws of Motion and the Law of Universal Gravitation. Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were other key figures of the Scientific Revolution. With this revolution in science came the heliocentric view of the universe, or, in other words, the understanding that the sun is at the center of our solar system.

Isaac Newton was one of the most influential figures of the Scientific Revolution.
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