Western Culture

Learning Materials for Students

Western Culture


What do we mean when we say “Western Culture”?


Western Culture refers to the culture that has developed in the Western world. This culture is the dominant cultural form in the modern world. Elements of this culture have come to play a more influential role on more diverse cultures worldwide than any other culture has done. It is, however, an ill-defined and disputed term, and "Western Culture" has arguably undergone significant changes over the centuries. Some Westerners will equate "modernization" with "westernization", but many non-westerners object to the implication that all societies should adopt western traits.


For many centuries it was an essentially European culture, but it has now grown beyond the boundaries of Europe. Today the term typically refers to the culture as centralized in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America.



The Foundational Triad of Western Culture


Traditional Western Culture is said to have been created by three main historical factors: Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and Christianity. As such, it is also known by the terms "Greco-Roman culture", "Judeo-Christian culture", or "Judeo-Hellenic-Christian culture". The features of this "foundational triad" are complex and sometimes controversial (for example, the foundational triad is often seen as being deeply patriarchal and masculine).


1. Ancient Greece

The culture of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome is collectively labelled classical culture. The time period in which this culture was dominant is called classical antiquity, and its creative output (especially books) is known as "the classics".


The first element of Western Culture (in chronological order) is the culture of Ancient Greece. Ancient Greek culture was very different from the cultures of earlier civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. Through its patriarchal features, Ancient Greece also distinguished itself from other cultures that had previously inhabited roughly the same territory, such as the matriarchal civilization of the Minoans in Crete.


The earliest example of Ancient Greek culture is Homer, who set the ideas of The Good and The Beautiful. Socrates later added the idea of The Truth (a goal to strive for, a purpose of life), thus forming the basis of the classical triad of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. The Greek concept of Paideia became the basis and foundation of Western Culture. Furthermore, Western Culture has been influenced by two general strains within Hellenic culture: the Ionian (which is exemplified by Athens and her democracy), and the Dorian (which is represented by Sparta and her dual monarchy/mixed government).

A number of the most important Greek classics are briefly presented below.


Pythagoras coined the term Philosophy ("love of wisdom") to describe a wide range of intellectual pursuits. His interests included mathematics, music, and the study of proportion.

Herodotus is often named the "Father of History" (history, in Greek, means "investigations"). Herodotus wrote the first Western historical chronicle, describing the Persian war.

Hippocrates is known as the "Father of Medicine". He was the first to do a treatise on human anatomy and bodily ailments. He also wrote an oath, known as the Hippocratic Oath, which lays out ethics for physicians and which is still in use today.

Anaxagoras proposes the "nous" (i.e. reason and knowledge), one mind that is the arche of reality.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Greek philosopher of Athens, was the founder of Western philosophy. He defined the demarcation line where philosophy is split from religion and is one of the great examples of a man who lived by his principles even though they ultimately cost him his life. Knowledge of the man and his teachings comes indirectly from certain dialogues of his disciple Plato and from the Memorabilia of Xenophon. In spite of conflicting interpretations of his teachings, the accounts of these two writers are largely supplementary. Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor. It is said that in early life he practiced his father's art. In middle life he married Xanthippe, who is legendary as a shrew, although the stories have little basis in ascertainable fact. He was widely known for his intellectual powers even before he was 40, when, according to Plato's report of Socrates's speech in the Apology, the oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest man in Greece. In that speech Socrates maintained that he was puzzled by this acclaim until he discovered that, while others professed knowledge without realizing their ignorance, he at least was aware of his own ignorance.


Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated. Some felt that he also neglected public duty, for he never sought public office, although he was famous for his courage in the military campaigns in which he served. In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made numerous enemies.


Aristophanes burlesqued Socrates in his play The Clouds and attributed to him some of the faults of the Sophists (professional teachers of rhetoric). Although Socrates in fact baited the Sophists, his other critics seem to have held a view similar to that of Aristophanes. In 399 B.C. he was brought to trial for corrupting youth and for religious heresies. Obscure political issues surrounded the trial, but it seems that Socrates was tried also for being the friend and teacher of Alcibiades and Critias, both of whom had betrayed Athens. The trial and death of Socrates, who was given poison hemlock to drink, are described with great dramatic power in the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo of Plato.


Socrates's contributions to philosophy were a new method of approaching knowledge, a conception of the soul as the seat both of normal waking consciousness and of moral character, and a sense of the universe as purposively mind-ordered. His method, called dialectic, consisted in examining statements by pursuing their implications, on the assumption that if a statement were true it could not lead to false consequences. His doctrine of the soul led him to the belief that all virtues converge into one, which is the good, or knowledge of one's true self and purposes through the course of a lifetime.

Socrates, through Plato, influenced much of Christian theological thought and formed much of medieval philosophy. His concept of the soul and the importance of cultivating it, is central to understanding Western Culture.


Socrates once said: “People who are in favor of capital punishment are closer to murderers than those who are against it”. From these words we understand that Socrates did not support capital punishment.


Aristotle, a great organizer and philosopher, defined most of the academic categories of Western education. He created biology outright and formed the core study on politics (as well as many other fields of study).


The Greeks also invented tragedy, the basis of modern plays, skits, and movies. Comedy made its appearance with Aristophanes.

Finally, Greek art and architecture has a strong influence on Western Culture even today.



2. Ancient Rome

The second formative influence on Western Culture were the Romans. Roman culture was marked by its practicality, and the greatest Roman contribution to Western Culture has been Roman law. Blackstone's Law Dictionary, which had wide influence, encapsulated many principles of Roman law.


The empire centered at the city of Rome, in what is now Italy; the most extensive Western civilization of ancient times. Please click here to see the map of Roman Empire. 

According to legend, the empire was founded in 753 b.c. by two brothers, Romulus and Remus [Romulus and Remus (rom-yuh-luhs; ree-muhs)]. In Roman legend, twin brothers who were raised by a she-wolf and founded the city of Rome. They came from a city founded by the son of Aeneas. During the construction of Rome, Romulus became incensed at Remus and killed him. The Romans later made Romulus into a god. He then named the city Rome and made himself king, marrying Hersilia. The violent tone of Rome is said to have been set in this first violent act at its founding. Rome is named for Romulus.


Romulus attracted a population to his city by inviting exiles, refugees, murderers, criminals and runaway slaves. They aquired women by inviting the Sabine men to a festival. While the men were gone the Romans stole the women. Eventually, the Sabines accepted Romulus as their king. After Romulus' death [Romulus reigned from 746 to 709 BC.], his father, Mars, brought him to the heavens and he was worshipped as the god Quirinus. He was succeeded by Numa Pompilius.


Rome was at first ruled by kings. Then, about 500 b.c., the Roman Republic was established, with two annually elected consuls at its head, guided by a senate. The republic eventually weakened, and Rome passed to rule by one man — first Julius Caesar, who was assassinated in 44 b.c. His successor was Augustus, who assumed the title of emperor. Over the next few centuries, he was followed by a succession of emperors. The whole Western world eventually became subject to Rome and was at peace for roughly the first four centuries after the birth of Jesus. The empire was known for its strongly centralized government and for massive public works, such as roads and aqueducts, which helped maintain its power and efficiency. As the years passed, the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western portions (Byzantine Empire and Constantine the Great), developed internal weaknesses, was invaded by outside tribes, and eventually ceased to exist.


Marcus Tullius Cicero (January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) was an orator and statesman of Ancient Rome, and is generally considered the greatest Latin prose stylist. Cicero had a major influence, not only in his country, but throughout medieval times and even affected the framers of the U.S. Constitution. He also had great influence upon early Church Fathers, and St. Augustine pointed to Cicero as the one who "inspired his own passion for philosophy". Furthermore, Cicero was "the medium for the propagation of those ideas which informed law and institutions of the empire.


In 63 BC, Cicero became the first New Man in more than 30 years by being elected consul. Cicero and Caesar's subordinate, Mark Antony, became the leading men in Rome; Cicero as spokesman for the senate, and Antony as consul and as executor of Caesar's will. But the two men had never been on friendly terms, and their relationship worsened after Cicero made it clear he felt Antony to be taking unfair liberties in interpreting Caesar's wishes and intentions. When Augustus Octavian, Caesar's heir, arrived in Italy in April, Cicero formed a plan to play him against Antony. In September he began attacking Antony in a series of speeches he called the Philippics.


Cicero described his position in a letter to Cassius, one of Caesar's assassins, that same September: "I am pleased that you like my motion in the Senate and the speech accompanying it... Antony is a madman, corrupt and much worse than Caesar - whom you declared the worst of evil men when you killed him. Antony wants to start a bloodbath..."


Cicero fled, but was caught and decapitated by his pursuers on December 7, 43 BC; his head and hands were displayed on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. According to Plutarch, Antony's wife Fulvia took Cicero's head and pulled out his tongue, jabbing the tongue repeatedly with her hatpin, taking a final revenge against Cicero's power of speech.


In Western culture, the name of Julius Caesar has been used in many different meanings.



3. Christianity

The third and last formative influence on Western Culture is Christianity. Jesus was among the most influential persons in human history. His preaching of the Golden Rule, of salvation (i.e. act of delivering from sin or saving from evil, saving someone from harm), redemption (i.e. salvation from sin through Jesus's sacrifice) and immortality (i.e. perpetuity of existence, perpetual life after death) not only affected the lives of people but also their art, literature, philosophy, and architecture. With the preaching of Christianity came the already existing concept of monotheism. The Bible became a central piece of Western literature affecting all fields within Western culture; law, philosophy, education, and politics.


With Christianity came a movement called monasticism (monks and nuns). Monasticism carried Christianity and science to all the countries of Europe and preserved Latin and Christian texts during the Dark Ages. In order to educate its clergy, the Roman Catholic Church founded many seminaries throughout Europe. These, in turn, grew into today's universities and colleges.


The most detailed information about Jesus' birth and death is contained in the Gospels, but they were written to promote a philosophy and religion rather than to teach history. As a result, there is considerable debate about his exact date of birth and death, even among Christian scholars. Based on the accounts in the gospels of the shepherds' activities, the time of year depicted for Jesus' birth would likely be spring or summer.


Jesus was born in Bethlehem [in Arabic "house of bread"],  to a Jewish family, [Nazareth, an ancient town in Northern Israel, was his childhood home], as the son of Mary (a virgin) and God (in Sanskrit God means "to sacrifice"). Mary's husband was Joseph, who had sons called James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, and some daughters, who may, or may not, be the children from a previous marriage rather than Mary's. Bethlehem is about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, standing at an elevation of about 765 meters above the sea, thus 30 meters higher than Jerusalem.


Christmas (literally, the Mass of Christ) is a holiday in the Christian calendar, usually observed on December 25, which celebrates the birth of Jesus. The precise chronology of Jesus' birth and death as well as the historicity of Jesus are still debated.


In predominantly Christian countries, Christmas has become the most economically significant holiday of the year, and it is also celebrated as a secular holiday in many countries with small Christian populations. It is largely characterized by exchanging gifts within families, and by gifts brought by Santa Claus or other mythical figures. Local and regional Christmas traditions are still rich and varied, despite the widespread influence of American and British Christmas motifs through literature, television, and other media.


"Christmas" is a contraction of "Christ's Mass", derived from the Old English Cristes męsse. It is often abbreviated Xmas, possibly because the letter X resembles the Greek letter Χ (Chi), which is the first letter of "Christ" as spelled in Greek (Χριστός [Christos]).


Jesus of Nazareth (born about 6–4 BC and died about AD 29–33) was a Jewish preacher and healer, is the central figure in Christianity. His teachings were spread by a group of twelve followers usually referred to as his disciples or Apostles. According to Christian belief, Jesus raised himself from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. This event is referred to in Christian terminology as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is commemorated and celebrated by most groups who consider themselves Christians each year at Easter [the name derived from the goddess Eostre]. In Western Christianity, Easter Day always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25 inclusive. The following day, Easter Monday, is recognized as a legal holiday in most countries with a generally Christian tradition. Jesus' disciples encountered him again on the third day after his death, raised back to life. No one was a witness to the resurrection, though those who went to anoint (to apply oil, ointment) the body found the tomb empty. After the resurrection, the Gospels give various accounts of Jesus meeting various people in various places over a period of forty days before "ascending into heaven".


Jesus is derived from the Greek Ιησους (Iēsoūs) via Biblical Latin. Yēšūa which was a fairly common name at the time. His patronymic would have been, ben Yusef, for "son of Joseph".


Christ is not a name but a title, which comes from the Greek Χριστός (Christos) via Latin, which means anointed with chrism. The Greek form is a liberal translation of Messiah from Hebrew mashiyakh or Aramaic m'shikha, a word which occurs often in the Hebrew Bible and typically refers to the "high priest" or "king". The title Christ is also sometimes identified with the Latin crestus, meaning "useful", although the words are unrelated in terms of etymology, and Chrestus was often used as a pet name for slaves.


The Gospels record Jesus referring to himself both as Son of Man and as Son of God, but not as God the Son. However, some scholars have argued that Son of Man was an expression that functioned as an indirect first person pronoun, and that Son of God was an expression that signified "a righteous person". Evidence for these positions is provided by similar use by other persons than Jesus at a similar time to the writing of the Gospels, such as Jewish priests and judges.


In the Gospels, Jesus has many other titles, including Prophet, Lord, and King of the Jews. Together, the majority of Christians understand these titles as attesting to Jesus' divinity. Some historians argue that when used in other Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the time, these titles have other meanings, and therefore may have other meanings when used in the Gospels as well.


Jesus used a variety of methods in his teaching, such as paradox, metaphor and parable [detailed allegories, with symbolic correspondences found for every element in the brief narratives], leaving it unclear how literally he wished to be taken and precisely what he meant. Jesus also performed various miracles in the course of his ministry, ranging from cures to exorcisms [the practice of evicting or destroying demons or other evil spiritual entities which are supposed to have "possessed" (taken control of) a person or a building, with several others that show a dominion over nature]. Scholars in mainstream Christian traditions as well as many secular scholars view these as claims of supernatural power. However, others consider the stories to be allegorical—"He made the blind to see, and the deaf to hear" is interpreted by many as meaning "He opened the eyes of people to the truth."


Jesus was crucified by the Romans on the reluctant orders of Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate (in Latin Pontius Pilatus) was the governor of the small Roman province of Judea from AD 26 until 36. According to the Christian Gospels, he presided at the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion. Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Jewish authorities in Jersusalem after they had arrested him, questioned him, and received answers from him that they considered blasphemous.


Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the "king of the Jews". In the continuing interrogation by Pilate, Jesus states that he "came into the world to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate replies, "What is truth?".

Crucifixion is an ancient method of execution, in which the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden cross (Latin: crux) and left to hang there until dead. It was a common form of execution from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, especially among the Persians, Egyptians and Romans. Crucifixion has gained notoriety in Christianity as a method used by the Romans to put Jesus to death, and the cross has become the main Christian symbol.


Jesus has been featured in many films and media forms, sometimes seriously, and other times satirically. In many films Jesus himself is a minor character, used to develop the overall themes or to provide context.


In music, many songs refer to Jesus and Jesus provides the theme for many classical works throughout musical history.

Jesus has been portrayed in countless paintings and sculptures throughout the middle ages, renaissance, and modern times.


One of the most famous and most influential leaders of Christianity of the millennium was Pope John Paul II - the Millennial Pope.

His Holiness Pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła was Pope from October 16, 1978 until his death. The Pontiff was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice in southern Poland, the son of a former officer in the Austrian Habsburg army, whose name also was Karol Wojtyła. By 1941, he had lost his mother, his father, and his older brother. An older sister had died in infancy before he was born.


His youth was marked by intensive contacts with the then-thriving Jewish community of Kraków, and the experience of Nazi occupation, during which he worked in a quarry and a chemical factory. In his youth he was an athlete, actor, playwright, and a polyglot, speaking as many as eleven languages. While in office, he spoke nine languages fluently: Polish, Slovak, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and English, in addition to having knowledge of Ecclesiastical Latin.


Karol Wojtyła was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946. He taught ethics at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and subsequently at the Catholic University of Lublin. He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first of Slavic origin in the history of the Church. He spoke out against communism, materialism, unbridled capitalism and political oppression. He stood firmly against abortion as well as contraception and homosexuality. He was recognized as not only a religious leader, but a world leader. He made over 100 trips abroad, travelling a distance far greater than that travelled by all other popes combined. These trips were seen as an outward sign of the efforts at global bridge-building between nations and between religions that were central to his pontificate.


On May 13, 1981, John Paul II was shot and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish gunman, as he entered St. Peter's Square to address an audience. Ağca was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.


Who commissioned the murder attempt remains controversial. In late March 2005 documents originating from the former Soviet states seemed to indicate that the KGB was responsible for setting up the attack.. Speculation about the possible motives of the alleged Soviet conspiracy abound; perhaps the Soviets were afraid of the effect of the Polish pope on the stability of its Eastern European Soviet satellites, particularly Poland; other speculation has accused factions in the Vatican, especially the so-called "freemason" faction, opposed to Wojtyła and Opus Dei, of which cardinal Casaroli was a leading figure.


Two days after the Christmas of 1983, John Paul visited the prison where his would-be assassin was being held. The two spoke privately for some time. John Paul II said of the meeting, "What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust."


Another assassination attempt took place on May 12, 1982, in Fatima, Portugal when a man tried to stab John Paul II with a bayonet, but was stopped by security guards. The assailant, an ultraconservative Spanish priest named Juan Marķa Fernįndez y Krohn, reportedly opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and called the pope an "agent of Moscow". He served a six-year sentence that was followed by his expulsion from Portugal.

As Pope, John Paul II's most important role was to teach people about the Christian faith. John Paul wrote a number of important documents which many observers view as having a long-term impact on the Church and on the world.


A great achievement of John Paul II was the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which became an international best-seller because of its clarity of doctrine, an important solution together with his other writings, to the doctrinal confusion which happened during the Post-Vatican Crisis. You will find more information about Pope John Paul II if you click here.



Other Important Stages in the History of the Development of Western Culture


Middle Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire brought the Dark Ages to Europe, and much of the cultural heritage of the ancient world was lost. Culture survived mostly in monasteries and in territories ruled by the Byzantine Empire.

However, Europe slowly climbed out of the Dark Ages, and a period generally known as the Middle Ages began. Western Culture began to expand once more although it took several centuries to rediscover much of the lost culture of the ancient world.



Due to a combination of factors Western Europe made contact with more advanced civilizations that had preserved the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, they rediscovered their own heritage, and the Renaissance was born. Aristotle was re-introduced into Western Culture, which caused a profound effect in Catholic philosophy. Also, with the re-introduction of Greek literature, flowering of Greek culture began in Florence and Venice.

With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the flood of Greek influence pouring into Western Europe increased greatly. It is significant that many of the Protestant reformers were Greek Scholars. The Renaissance set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the American and French revolutions, and the birth of the modern world.



The Renaissance produced the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment (or The Enlightenment for short) was an intellectual movement in 18th-century Europe. The goal of the Enlightenment was to establish an authoritative ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge based on an "enlightened" rationality. The movement's leaders viewed themselves as a courageous, elite body of intellectuals who were leading the world toward progress, out of a long period of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which began during a historical period they called the Dark Ages. This movement provided a framework for the American and French Revolutions, as well as the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism.


French Revolution

The Enlightenment, in turn, culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. This marked a turning point in the history of Western Culture. The ideas of civil rights, equality before the law, procedural justice, and democracy as the ideal form of society, were put into practice for the first time. In the following century, the principles of the French Revolution triumphed over absolute monarchy and aristocratic privileges. Today, those principles form the basis of modern Western Culture.


The Modern World

The end of World War II dovetailed with the beginning of the Cold War which divided Europe in half, with the Eastern half being dominated by the Soviet Union. This severely inhibited cultural exchange between the two parts. Communist regimes were imposed on European states under Russian influence which attempted to directly regulate the culture of their populations, such as restricting religion as frowned upon by Marxism. Eastern Europe became largely economically stagnant during this period.


Meanwhile, the Western half became largely Amero-centric, and enjoyed relative economic success. American cultural exports saturated the mass media and the English language became the new lingua franca of the West, ultimately supplanting French in most domains (which had in turn supplanted Latin).

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR the Cold War ended, setting up economically weaker Eastern Europe to absorb Western European cultural ideas.


Spread of Western Culture

After roughly the year 500, Western Culture spread outwards in various stages from its Mediterranean hearthlands, on a broad semicircular front from the Atlantic in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east. Reaching these limits by the year 1400, Western (European) influence was then carried widely abroad to the Western Hemisphere, Africa, Asia and Oceania by European traders and colonists.


All non-Western indigenous societies which encountered Western Culture underwent massive and fundamental changes as a consequence. Europe's own Germanic, Celtic and Slavic nations had been incorporated into the cultural system by education, persuasion and force, abandoning many of their traditional faiths and ethics to become mainstays of Western Culture during the Middle Ages.


Outside Europe, Western Culture made its strongest inroads in North America, where native folkways dissolved under the unrelenting pressure of successive waves of land-hungry European settlers, who brought their faith and laws with them and established them decisively across the entire continent by the late 19th century. In Central America and South America, similar neo-European societies prevailed. By contrast to North America, however, large, well-organized native societies had existed in these regions; many of these natives continued to pursue traditional ways of life, in some cases with only a gloss of European religion and culture.


Western culture further expanded in the 20th century with the rise of mass media thanks to largely Western inventions such as motion pictures, radio and television. American "pop culture" exports became extremely successful entertainment products worldwide, especially pop music and film, spreading Western ideas with them.


Finally we should add that “the activity of the Western mind, which manifested itself alike in scientific and technical invention as well as in geographical discovery, was not the natural inheritance of a particular biological type; it was the result of a long process of education which gradually changed the orientation of human thought and enlarged the possibilities of social action. In this process the vital factor was not the aggressive power of conquerors and capitalists, but the widening of the capacity of human intelligence and the development of new types of creative genius and ability” Christopher Dawson (1889-1970).



Home Assignment


Please study the following websites and prepare to speak about


(1)     Barbarians http://www.wizardrealm.com/barbarians/history2.html

(2)     Socrates http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/socr.htm

(3)     Pope John Paul II http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/pope/

(4)     Jesus Christ http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08374c.htm

(5)  Marcus Tullius Cicero http://www.iep.utm.edu/c/cicero.htm




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