What is Western Civilization? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:03 Western Civilization
  • 1:02 Main Influences
  • 4:03 Other Influences
  • 5:04 Geographical Range
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many of us have heard the phrase 'Western civilization,' but what doe it mean exactly? In this lesson, we'll define that term and explore some of its complications as well.

Western Civilization

People in Europe or the United States are likely to hear others talking about Western culture. What does this mean? Are we talking about the American West, with its cowboys and outlaws? Are we talking about the Western Hemisphere? Which West are we talking about?

The answer is both…and neither. The term Western civilization is a catchall to refer to the many cultures of European heritage that share common cultural ideas, philosophical foundations, and ancestral beliefs. Basically, the idea is that these cultures all have a common heritage, which has been important in the development of each. This concept is sometimes used in contrast to so-called Eastern civilization, explaining the basic differences underlying cultures of Europe and Asia. That's the basic definition, but what does this really mean? For that, we'll have to go a little deeper into the West.

Main Influences

The most important thing to understand about Western civilization is that it's defined by this concept of shared heritage, or shared cultural foundations. So, what are these foundations? There are two main influences that form the basis for Western civilization:

Greco-Roman Influences

The first major influences on what would become Western civilization were two of Europe's first major, settled civilizations: the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks built the first major urban centers in European history and dedicated their lives to philosophy, arts, and learning. The Romans built upon this and helped codify it into a system that was distributed across the continent.

We can see the influences of Greco-Roman thought throughout Western civilization. Western philosophies tend to focus strongly on the individual, and particularly on the power of individual logic and reason. These concepts were first defined by the Greeks, who believed that all things could be proven with rational logic and empirical data. This mindset also established a desire in Western civilization for proof and a tendency to trust things which could be proven to be true or legitimate, from government to science.

The Greeks and Romans also defined the basic aesthetic that has characterized art of European cultures for millennia. Greco-Roman art was rational, logical, and symmetrical. Even modern suburban homes contain architectural elements of Roman temple design, and modern abstract paintings are measured by aesthetic values enshrined by the Greeks.

Judeo-Christian Influence

If Western cultures are so influenced by Greece and Rome, then why is monotheism a key component of Western civilization? After all, the Greeks and Romans were polytheists. The second major influence on Western civilization is a Judeo-Christian heritage, informed partly by Jewish custom but primarily by the Christian offshoot of Judaism.

Christian morality and virtues have formed the basis of most Western schools of ethics and behaviors, influencing ideas from sexual conduct to one's place in society. Judeo-Christian teachings have also inspired a strong binary worldview in Western civilizations. Rather than many gods, there is one. Rather than gradients of morality, there is only good and evil. Time can be understood as past and future. Genders are male and female.

So, Western civilization is a combination of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman values. Greeks and Romans established the Western artistic aesthetic, but a vast majority of Western iconography is based in Judaism and Christianity. Greeks and Romans established the basis for Western philosophy, but it has been maintained through the lens of Judeo-Christian morality.

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