The Story of Western History

The traditional story of Western history emphasized how Western Civilization was both distinct from and superior to other branches of civilization. Its growth and influence accelerated after a technological leap: the Industrial Revolution, in which Europe discovered how to use fossil fuels that had been locked in the ground for thousands of years and unleashed hitherto unimaginable amounts of energy. The result was a further explosion of European technology, wealth and power.

It also led to the development of new European nation states, such as France, Germany and Italy. This process was sparked by the desire for greater democracy and self-determination. For example, nationalities within large central European empires (such as Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire) began to agitate for more independence and the creation of new nation states.

At the same time, Europe became the first major player to expand beyond its borders since prehistory. It was the European explorers who, largely by accident, “discovered” the Americas in the fifteenth century CE and subsequently dominated their new lands with soldiers, colonists and, most significantly, disease.

While the West of today is a world of automobiles, oil and computer chips, it was once a land of cowboys, Indians, and pioneers who forged their own path to modernity. The mythology of the cowboy, which has become a symbol for American independence, reflects a complex and often painful heritage. The real life of a cowboy was not glamorous, but it was an exhausting and sometimes dangerous occupation that could easily lead to death by avalanches or the gunfire of rival cowboys. The frontier was not a meeting point between civilization and savagery, but rather a place where people of different cultures struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance.

It was in this context that Europeans grew increasingly confident in their claim to be both the heirs of ancient Greek culture and the guardians of humanity’s most fundamental values, like liberty and equality. This confidence, in turn, helped justify the expansion of European power throughout the world, including the colonization of Africa and Latin America.

It is important to remember, however, that many people outside of Western Civilization were not so confident in their own culture’s progress and that the spread of European ideas did not happen automatically and for the good of everyone. The idea that Western Civilization was the lone source of progress and goodness is an outdated notion that, in this century, has been replaced by a much more complicated picture of how human civilization has evolved.

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