Western Civilization (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.5)

Now that you have become acquainted with the way a historian thinks and does his job, it is time to get down to the work of learning history. Before we begin, however, I would like to take a moment to discuss the specific part of the world whose history we will be studying this year. Although China, India, Japan, and many other nations of the world all have rich and fascinating histories, we will not be learning much about them this year. Instead, our focus will be on one specific civilization, which we call Western Civilization. Western Civilization is our civilization. As interesting as other civilizations might be, there are some good reasons why we want to focus on Western Civilization only this year.

First of all, because Western Civilization is our civilization it is very important that we learn about it. Before we can learn about and appreciate other civilizations, we have to know about our own. One very famous saying in ancient Greece, a place you will learn about this year, was “know yourself.” What this means is that the first and most important thing a person can do is get to know who they are. We can get to know who we are by learning about our civilization. We can learn about all of the things that make up our heritage and that still influence us today. We will learn, for instance, why we speak the language we speak and why we have the science and technology we have. This will help us to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Secondly, Western Civilization has, over the last several hundred years, become the most important civilization in the world. The ideas that started in Western Civilization, ideas that you will learn about this year, have spread all over the world and are being used by people everywhere today. In a sense, Western Civilization has become the whole world’s civilization. The idea of democracy, for example, started in ancient Greece and is now being used by people on every continent to decide what kind of government they want to have. Another example is communism, an idea that started in Germany a little more than 150 years ago. Communism is now the economic system of China, a very large and very ancient country in Asia. Capitalism, another Western idea, which started in Great Britain, has had an equally large effect on Japan, another ancient Asian nation. Everywhere around the world today, people are adopting Western science, religion, technology, philosophy, and politics and making them their own. In order to understand why these ideas are so popular and so influential, we have to start here at home, where they started, in Western Civilization.

Western Civilization has had a very long history with a lot of interesting events, people, and ideas. Our civilization started more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, an area in the middle of what is now the country of Iraq. There, the ideas started that would later be developed by the Greeks and the Jews. These two groups of people were very different from one another but their ideas would combine into one in the Roman Empire, especially after that Empire converted to Christianity in the 4th century. Throughout the Middle Ages, which lasted from about 400-1400, Christian thinkers, including philosophers, scientists, theologians, poets, and others attempted to sort out the heritage they had received from Greece, Rome, and Judaism. They wanted to combine it into one in Christianity. The eventual result of this combination would be the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Baroque, three time periods that happened one after the other from about 1350-1650. During these periods, there was a huge burst in creativity and in thought. Many of the greatest artists, musicians, authors, scientists, and philosophers in the history of the world lived during this time. This time was then followed by a period of major turmoil and tumult, beginning with the Scientific Revolution, which began in about 1650, and the Enlightenment, a period that lasted about 1700-1800. During this time, many of the ideas that people considered very important were questioned. The way people thought and lived changed completely. This change continued throughout the 1800s, with massive transitions in society as people moved away from the country to live in cities and away from farming to work in factories. This leads us to our own time, during which we are still seeing the effects of both the most ancient ideas of Western Civilization, such as the ideas of the city-state and of monotheism, and are still experiencing the changes that have been taking place since the Enlightenment.

You may remember what you read earlier about history being the memory of a large group of people. In order to know where you going, you have to know how you got where you are. It is only then that you can decide where you want to go. As the young people who will eventually be in charge in our nation, it is up to you to learn about our heritage and to guide the future of Western Civilization.


Review Questions

 Use your own words to answer both questions in a paragraph:

1. What is Western Civilization?

2. Why is it important for us to learn about Western Civilization?

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