“The West” is Socrates

What is the “West” that is implicit in a phrase like “the history of Western civilization”? Clearly it refers to something more than a point on a compass.

Western civilization encompasses a broad range of different political arrangements and artistic heritages and economies and traditions and peoples. Still, there does seem to be a kinship, a sort of shared framework, that this group holds in common.

When you grow up in a context that is said to owe so much to this Western civilization, I think it is natural for some kinds of people to be drawn to wonder more about that history, as a journey of self-discovery if nothing else.

But there are many intelligent people (along with some more unintelligent and misinformed personalities, I won’t deny it) who think that Western civilization is valuable as more than just a sort of family history. These are people who think that our history should be not just a museum to be visited but also, in some respects, a source of inspiration and guidance for us.

If there was something praiseworthy at the heart of the West, something that would be worth preserving and passing on, I would assert that a compelling case could be made that it is Socrates.

I know some tedious people who would very eagerly want to tell you that the greatness and glory of the West is capitalism. Let’s not say anything more about them for the moment. Others might try to say it’s democracy, or freedom, or equality, or charity, or popular government, or scientific method; I think all of these are problematic in a variety of ways, but I realize that a case could just as easily be made for them as for what I will say.

A few other proposals that I would find more interesting might be that what is valuable is our inheritance of “Roman culture” or “Germanic virtues” or “Christian communion.” I think that someone who proposed one of these as the answers would be probably getting more right than wrong.

But for me, the expansion of the Roman imperial power was really the expansion of the Socratic way of thinking through the world.

For me, the wars of the Greeks (from Themistocles to Alexander and the Macedonians) were ultimately important because they protected and established the Greek language and Greek learning.

Sparta was important as one of Socrates’ inspirations, and because of how it added to the military strength of the Greeks in a way that ended up defending some of the work of the Greek Enlightenment.

The pre-socratic philosophers and the sophists ultimately matter because of how their work contributed to the education of Socrates, and Athens in the end is important most of all because it was the home of Socrates.

Historically speaking, to be a part of the West is to exist within the context of a political structure or a legal system or a social group or a religion (etc) which derives from that nexus of ancient forces that swirled around and moved outward from the speech of Socrates.

Perhaps, though, we might say that existentially speaking, every person becomes more or less truly a child of the West, depending how much we learn of and accept this Socratic heritage.

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