An Introduction to Western History

Western history is the part of world history that focuses on Europe and its expansion into the Americas, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. The story goes from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, then on to the rise of European power. It is sometimes seen as a ladder of ideas, technologies, and cultural accomplishments that have made the world we live in today.

It would be wrong to dismiss all the genuine breakthroughs, accomplishments, and forms of “progress” that have come out of the West (and there are many). But it is equally misleading to view western history as an unbroken line of progress from the earliest days of civilization to the present day. The truth is that this story is a lot more complicated than that.

As early proponents of the “Western Civilization” concept recognized, there is a great deal that European history has to teach us about ourselves and our world, and that carries on into modern times. But that concept also made a hard and fast distinction between Western Civilization as the site of progress, and the rest of the world (generally referred to as the “Orient” or “East,” all the way up until textbooks started changing their terms in the 1980’s) which lags behind.

The story of the development of the West starts with a series of dramatic events. The Code of Hammurabi was written in ancient Babylon, the first legal system to record laws and punishments (an eye for an eye). The Greeks developed philosophy, theater, mathematics, science, architecture and art. The Romans built a large empire across much of Europe and the Middle East.

In the medieval period (sometimes spelled mediaeval) a new social order emerged, as feudalism replaced the earlier romanic or monarchical regimes. The growth of towns and cities accelerated, along with trade. The economic shifts of the era resulted in increased wealth among many ordinary people.

Religious conflict intensified as well: the Hundred Years’ War broke out in Europe and the Reformation split the Christian church into hostile camps. Protestantism emphasized personal spirituality, which opened the door for greater value to be placed on individual choice in life.

Modern European powers rose through the eras of the Enlightenment and the Age of Exploration, which brought them to global dominance. This was a period of conflict between nations, as well as within the European states themselves, as they sought to expand their share of world power.

The world wars of the 20th century brought a tragic end to this narrative. The great powers of Europe fell upon each other in the name of expanding their share of global dominance, and embraced ideologies such as fascism and Nazis which declared that a European civilization was superior to all others. This conceit reached its nadir in the Holocaust and other events of the twentieth century, including the horrific racial warfare unleashed by Europeans on those they considered inferior. It is important to remember this history, and it is even more essential to remember that the story of the West is a complex one.

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