Modern Western Culture & Social Life

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  • 0:03 What Is Western Culture?
  • 1:50 Key Features
  • 3:56 Western Culture &…
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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 examine modern Western culture. We will identify the central features of Western culture, trace their origin and development, and examine how these features affect our lives today.

What Is Western Culture?

When people talk about Western culture, what exactly are they referring to? Western culture is an incredibly broad term used to describe the social norms, belief systems, traditions, customs, values, and so forth that have their origin in Europe or are based on European culture. America, for example, is firmly Western in culture. The East Coast of the United States was originally a British colony, and as America developed into its own independent nation, it carried with it many elements of European culture.

French culture, Spanish culture, and British culture are all sub-categories under the broad, loose category of Western culture. Europe and much of the Western Hemisphere is Western in culture. This is in contrast to Asia, which is Eastern in culture, and Africa, which - you guessed it - has its own unique African culture. Australia is largely Western in culture.

Western culture is a pretty fluid and loose term because it encompasses so much. Some of the central characteristics of Western culture include:

  • Democracy
  • Rational thinking
  • Individualism
  • Christianity
  • Capitalism
  • Modern technology
  • Human rights
  • Scientific thinking

Most historians agree that the concept of Western culture emerged with the Ancient Greeks. The Greeks were the first to build what has come to be called Western civilization. They developed democracy, and made critical advances in science, philosophy, and architecture. If you look at the architecture of the United States capital, Washington, D.C., you'll see that the columns, arches, and domes are all based on Greek and Roman architecture. The Greeks and Romans pretty much founded Western culture and transmitted it to Europe, and from there it was transmitted to the Western Hemisphere.

Key Features of Western Culture

So, we've already briefly identified some of the key features of Western culture, but now let's explore them in a little more detail. Western culture is ruggedly individualistic. Westerners pride themselves in having their own unique identities. They like to think for themselves, and they value individualism. Eastern culture, by contrast, tends to be much more collectivist. This is where democracy and individual rights come in; Westerners champion the concept that each person should be free: free to have a political voice, free to express oneself, free to live as he or she chooses.

The Christian religion is a huge component of Western culture. Think about how many great works of Western art are based on Christianity, such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling or Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. While not everyone today practices Christianity, the influence of Christianity flows through many fibers of Western culture and social life.

One critical development in the history of Christianity that has had profound effects on Western culture was the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a European anti-Catholic revolution that was sparked in 1517 by a monk named Martin Luther. Luther was basically protesting what he perceived as corruption and false teaching in the Church, but the movement he began came to have broader cultural and social ramifications. The Protestant Reformation led to the radical notion that common people could have a political voice, and ultimately hastened the growth of democracy, capitalism, and individualism.

Another key moment in the development of Western culture was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that took place between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. The Enlightenment emphasized things like reason, science, and skepticism. The attitudes and values we hold today are largely products of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, and the ideals of the Enlightenment provide the foundation for the American government.

Western Culture & Society Today

So, now that we understand where Western culture came from and what its key characteristics are, what does it look like in everyday life and society? Western culture has served its people well. High standards of living are typically associated with it, as is a solid education.

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