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Western civilisation, with all its contradictions, is worth studying, because of them

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2019

In his On Line Opinion article, Peter Bowden argues that we should not teach a course on Western Civilisation because Europe has been at war for the last two thousand years and because the ethics of the West, unlike those of what he terms the 'East', are fundamentally flawed. The one exception to this rule in the West is John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism.

Presumably, according to Bowden, we should be teaching 'Eastern' ethics that are all based on the principle of not doing harm to others. This is all very odd as the principle 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is fundamental to Christianity and reflects an earlier Mosaic injunction.

Bowden attributes much of the violence of Europe to its Christianity, a Christianity founded on the very moral foundation that he supports. Moreover, it is bizarre to cite J S Mill as a supporter of so-called 'Eastern Ethics' as Mill had a very low opinion of what he termed 'Orientals' and their morality. He certainly did not believe that they were capable of self-government. He was, after all, an employee of the East India Company.


What needs to be appreciated is that most human societies have a capacity for violence, especially when it comes to dealing with societies other than their own. Warfare is not a uniquely European or Western phenomenon. Nor is the advocacy of violence and warfare as a means of achieving one's goals.

Christianity is opposed to violence. It only really had to deal with the issue of warfare when it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Even then, it was squeamish about sanctioning warfare. This why thinkers such as Augustine took over earlier Roman ideas about 'just war'. In the eastern Roman Empire, it was necessary for soldiers who killed in battle to receive forgiveness from the Church. It can be argued that the idea of killing in the name of Christianity is a perversion of its true nature.

Violence and warfare have been a feature of every civilisation. Archaeologists have long searched for the holy grail of an original 'peaceful' civilisation but they have not found it. Even 'Eastern' societies have both practised warfare and justified it. During the 'warring states period' in China, a period of massive warfare, there emerged the political theory of Legalism which justifies the state doing whatever it takes to achieve its goal.

In India, the great epic the Mahabharata is not renowned for its peace and tranquillity, chronicling as it does, a war. The Bhagavadgita, which forms part of this epic, focuses on the need to accept the inevitability of war and its murderous outcomes.

The most famous Buddhist convert, Asoka, did so after he had engaged in a particularly violent and bloody war. As for Islam, its spread as a religion followed in the wake of the conquests that its followers made.

There have been times of peace in human history but they inevitably occurred when an imperial entity had been established following a time of war and violence. The Pax Romana came after one hundred years of both civil war and violent conquest. China became relatively peaceful once the Chin had united all of the various kingdoms. Once the Saracens had completed their conquests the Middle East came to enjoy peace.


However, when empires collapse violence returns and the loss of life can be enormous. This can be seen in China where the end of a dynasty led to upheaval, violence, famine and disease.

In reality, in human history, violent behaviour and much warfare can be tracked to those times, and places, where central authority is weak and there are a number of states competing for power. This most certainly has been the case in Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was also the case in ancient Greece and China of the warring states period.

And here we discover a paradox. In intellectual terms the warring states period was intellectually the most vigorous period in Chinese history. The 'efflorescence' of intellectual and artistic activity in ancient Athens occurred when the city was almost continuously at war. A similar argument can be made to explain much of the intellectual innovation that occurred in the West. It also helps to explain the enormous capacity of contemporary Israel for innovation.

In reality, the ethical values enunciated by a given civilisation may do little to explain why the states in that civilisation engage in violent activities. All civilisations put forward both ethical systems that preach the value of peace and ones that are willing to justify the practice of violence. After all, human beings are the same wherever they live.

That is why it is worthwhile studying Western Civilisation. As with all civilisations, it has produced a wide range of ideas and arguments regarding how human beings should behave. As with all human cultures we should expect contradiction and inconsistency, not some sort of overall harmony. That is what makes the study of human beings both interesting and rewarding.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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