Western civilization refers to the art, literature, culture, and enduring ideas that emerged from the eastern Mediterranean basin in the centuries before the common era, that developed in myriad forms through the Middle Ages, and that ultimately took modern shape after the Renaissance. From the intellectual speculation of the Greeks emerged the philosophic and scientific thought of Latin and Arabic culture, and eventually the ideals of the early modern Enlightenment. From the Hebrew Bible grew the faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and the ethical framework of modern society. From Greek art and literature emerged the masterpieces of the Renaissance and beyond. (Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the Death of Socrates [above], painted more than two millennia after the historical event, is a famous example.)
One can celebrate the achievements of Western civilization without denigrating the world’s other cultures. Indeed, it is a mark of ignorance, not enlightenment, to make claims of superiority for the culture of “the West” – as if there is some singular excellence about the thread of ideas that gradually made its way out onto the narrow European peninsula that extends westward off the Asian continent. Western civilization has produced much that is undoubtedly great, but also much that is undoubtedly not so great. And how could one even begin to make comparative judgments? Who would be able to say, with any authority, that Plato is a greater political theorist than Mencius? Who could compare The Canterbury Tales to The Tale of Genji? How do we evaluate the art of Picasso against the creations of unknown African masters?
What one can say with confidence is that Western civilization has had a massive influence across the globe, in all domains of life. Not just in the United States, but across the Americas, and indeed on every continent, Western ideas about religion, science, politics, and art have had an unparalleled influence. To understand our planet’s civilization, then, requires an appreciation of Western civilization. In promoting that, we promote human civilization.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, the study of Western civilization is thriving, across dozens of departments and programs. Thanks to the generous support of private donors, the Benson Center has provided, over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for events focused on better appreciating the Western tradition. Below are some of the many events we have helped to sponsor in recent years.