History of the “Western World” in 721 words


Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). 1909 View from the Dunes with Beach and Piers Domburg, oil and pencil on cardboard, 28.5 x 38.5 cm, MOMA


Let’s try spell it out.


Christian complications.

The idea that “God’ should appear to Man around 1AD, in Judea, seems ridiculous.

Why precisely there and then? Why 14,165,897,285 years after Big Bang? And why not in Patagonia or East Chezzetcook? And why Man? Why not birds or dolphins?

Some Greeks worked it out around 500 years earlier, how humankind has a habit of dreaming up gods, unsurprisingly more  or less in their own image. Because it makes them feel better. But also because some saw a career in it, because it suited kings and priests.

Anyway the Christian story was written down some time after 1 AD by men. Because it made them feel better, and gave them a job.

But in a strange twist Christianity was born and nurtured within the body of the Roman Empire, a then exceptional political construct in its geographic extent.

So Christianity was fortuitously propagated, first by inhabiting this structure, and second, after centuries of persecution, by eventually converting its leadership, which saw advantages in the association.

Once in power, the Church quickly consolidated and grew, the institution based in Rome selling the Christian story to build its business, and enlisting monarchs like Charlemagne to the cause.

Thus the inherently sinful, flawed Man can only be saved by Jesus, and only then through the good services of the Church. And on the other hand if you don’t get saved the alternative is nasty. Like everlasting diabolical toasting.

It also suppressed perceived enemies, violently if necessary, albeit inconsistently, depending on practical politics of the time.

Thus it inveigled its way onto the bridge, in self-serving-  albeit unsteady – league with European kings, till people – shaken by the Black Death and becoming better educated – and some Churchmen eventually got sick of it and protested, triggering the Reformation. But, unphased, the Church met this not by “reform’ but a protracted and violent 16th and 17th C fightback.


Modernity .

But the 16th and 17th C science and thought revolutions took hold, European powers took to the seas to explore and engage the world, and Modernity slowly, painfully emerged.

Yes its gestation came at a terrible price, as Old Order predjudices and loyalties persisted, expressed in illiberal, quasi-religious We Know the Answer mentalities.

These regressive sympathies brought forth industrial scale slave exports to the New World, the Raj, the French Revolution, 19th C Western Imperial depredations, the US Civil War, and then two world wars and the Russian revolution and militant fascism, all in the 20th C.

Finally the once prominent Church was sidelined.

That’s now academic. What’s not academic is the Church now speciously trying to rewrite history, to appropriate the origins of democratic liberalism, for its own purposes, to try make it more relevant today.

It’s wrong. The Church fought freedom of thought, sometimes violently.


Democracy’s origins .

Rather democracy’s origins go back to old Greece (though the franchise was limited), partly thanks to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations (fortuitous climate change?) which disrupted the traditional tyranny of kings and priests, allowed room for a trading based free thinking economy to grow rapidly.

Then the dispersed Germanic and Norse tribal bands in north Europe, peripheral like the Greeks, seem important. Thus democracy finally emerged in Britain (also later in the Netherlands), where some Germanic tribes (and later Vikings)  migrated, again at the periphery, there surviving in part thanks to the protection of the English Channel.

There’s a topic, the role of geography in facilitating democracy.

Thus the bane of most lives throughout recorded history has been (authoritarian) kings / emperors, undemocratic, and usually co-operating with priests, propagating some self-serving religious ideology, which just happened also to allow for divine blessing of the rulers. The Christian Church played this game for some time.


Universal relevance?

Democratic liberalism – incorporating rule of law, representative democracy, freedom of expression, tolerance, and prosperity-inducing Government regulated private commercial markets – was by happenstance, trial and error, born in the “West”, as a propitious practical rational evidence-based way for humankind to collectively conduct its affairs.

But it is not inherently or uniquely “Western”. So arguably it has universal relevance.

But practical experience also shows, firstly, its success requires meaningful collective commitment, and secondly, it is vulnerable to being abused or denied by groups enlisting and promoting Old Order loyalties.


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