Defining the West

One of the most important things I learned in the Facebook exchange over my "Talking Points" post was how difficult it is to have a conversation when you and your interlocutors are using the same terms to mean radically different things. As I thought would be obvious (clearly it wasn't!), I labelled the talking points "Three Cheers for White Men" because I wanted to push back against the "Dead White Men" trope which has tended to suggest (at least to those who use it as an insult) that there is nothing in our present culture worth keeping that goes back to the thoughts or actions of white (a.k.a. European) men, including those who have been the focus of much of my research.* What my colleagues heard me say was somewhat different: not that "dead white men" may have done some good, but that only "dead white men" have done any good, ignoring the fact (which I never denied) that not all of the good that they have done has been good for everyone or fully realized even today (which is true, as many of the dead white men whom I teach my students about have said; see Las Casas).

My larger point, however, was meant to be not about "white men" as such (about whose skin color I really couldn't care less, I am fairly certain that Our Lord Jesus Christ would not have passed for a Scot, and Our Lady, I have it on good authority--i.e. the thirteenth-century scholastic pseudo-Albert the Great--must have had black hair and black eyes thanks to the perfect complexion of her humors, which would make her both darker [Song of Songs 1:4] and much more beautiful than me**), but about the European tradition more generally, as certain of the participants in the Facebook thread rightly noted. Which launched me (as they knew it would) out of the frying pan into the fire, because of course "Eurocentricism" has become just as problematic a trope for those of us who study the European tradition as "Dead White Men," both of which tropes we are still struggling to find some way adequately (and collegially) to address.

It is rather like trying to answer the loaded question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If you answer the question, "Why do you study the European tradition?" (as I did in "My WHY HOW WHAT") with "Because it is the source of many of our highest ideals in the present day," you are immediately (as I was) blasted with the charge of being some color of supremacist (the old insult used to be "bourgeois," but that is so last millennium). To the wife-beating question, the Wikipedia entry gives the model response, "I have never beaten my wife." I can't really say, "I have never studied the European tradition," so that doesn't work. Maybe I have phrased the question wrong.

Of course, what my colleagues are really asking is not so much "Why do you study the European tradition?" as "How can you study the European tradition as the source of (many of) our institutions, (much of) our culture, and (the great majority of) our ideals without realizing that as a tradition it is hopelessly corrupt precisely because those institutions, manners, and ideals have not been applied in the way that the tradition itself suggests that they should be, equally to all people regardless of class, gender, or race?" To answer, as I tried to, "I never said these institutions, manners, and ideals were perfect or the only institutions, manners, and ideals ever in human history that were good, only that in many (actually, in my original post, four) ways, they were good, and that one of the most valuable aspects of this tradition is its capacity for self-critique," was not satisfying because it seemed to suggest that I wanted to keep beating my wife (which would be tricky, given that I am married to a man, but never mind, the question is designed to be unanswerable, that's the whole point).

*****

Perhaps the greatest irony at least for me in the whole exchange was how every time I tried to say something I thought relatively neutral (e.g. "I study the European tradition"), my colleagues would find some way to make what I said bear a value judgment which I did not intend, while (apparently) ignoring the things that I actually insisted I did value.

This is a problem that those of us who teach at my university in our History of Western, latterly, European Civilization core sequence have struggled with for years. What exactly do (or did) we mean by "Western" and was (or is) it the same thing as "European"? To many of our alumni who protested the change of title back in 2002, the label "Western" suggested above all an appeal to certain ideals, specifically those ideals associated with the countries on the Western side of the Cold War, that is, not communist, but given that the text for this morning's class was Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England (1846), which we have chosen as a better way of introducing what would become the argument of the Communist Manifesto (1848), the text we used to teach at this point in the sequence, that never really made sense. Nor did we ever, in fact, teach even what most of our alumni would have agreed counted as one of the most important aspects of that "Western" tradition, namely, its expansion into North America, because our colleagues in American history have their own civilizational sequence, while "the West" (if it still exists) was always larger than "Europe."

So we were never quite teaching, even when the sequence was "Western Civilization," quite what everybody thought we were. Neither, however, did changing the title to "European" solve this problem of perceptions, given that most of the texts and events that we talk about in the sequence came rather more from the west (France and England) than from the south (Spain, Italy, Greece), the north (Scandinavia) or the east (Germany, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Russia) of Europe, broadly defined. Over the years, colleagues who specialize (Grossman's bugbear) in these regions of Europe have made a concerted effort to expand our range to include the effects of European (a.k.a. Spanish) expansion into the New World (thus Las Casas, which this year at the insistence of one of our colleagues who teaches in Latin American history we paired with Bernal Díaz) and into Africa (we are reading Conrad, plus reports on the atrocities in the Belgian Congo made at the time). One of our Soviet specialists always taught The ABC of Communism, which I also use, and we are now also reading selections from Alexandra Kollontai.

And yet, the more we try to expand (always within the limits of the two quarters that we have to teach the sequence), the less we seem to be able to figure out what, exactly, we are supposed to be teaching. Indeed, to this day, we are still unclear whether it even makes sense to talk about something so all-encompassing as "the European tradition," particularly given that many Europeans seem themselves not to know what, if anything, this means. (It is, in fact, a peculiarly North American perspective even to talk about "Europe" or "the West" in these terms, which is why American medievalists always seem a little odd to European medievalists: we simply don't stick to the national or linguistic boundaries they do.) What, then, to call whatever it is that we teach if it isn't really wholly "Europe" or "the West"? But of course, riveting as it is (at least for academics), all this exercise in defining boundaries is always to a certain extent something of a dodge, because in the end the problem is not so much what we study as it is the value that we place on studying history at all.

*****

Human beings, try as they might, are not very good at telling stories from God's perspective. God may be able to judge each of us based on what is in his or her heart and know what motives we have in doing whatever it is we do, but human beings are pretty dreadful at discerning even their own motivations accurately, never mind each other's. Add to this the problem of having access, once people have died, to their thoughts and emotions only through the odd traces of their everyday experience which they have left in writing or other artifacts, and you are immediately beset with an almost insuperable problem of judgment. Then multiply the human beings whose actions and expressions you are trying to understand by many millions over thousands of years, and you end up not so much with an all-encompassing narrative, as Babel, so many voices that it becomes impossible to judge who is telling the truth, who is on whose side, who behaved one way and thought another, who was too scared to stand up for what he or she knew was right, who manipulated others for the sake of his or her own ambition or greed.

Were medieval European Christians united in their fear of the Jews or were they like so many in Europe must be today, afraid of speaking out in support of Israel for fear of what others might say? (I heard the novelist Sharan Newman talking last spring about how people always think she is making the amicable relations between her Jewish and Christian characters up because they can't believe she has the medieval sources to support her representation of these kinds of interactions, they just seem so modern--but she does.) Did medieval European Christian husbands all routinely abuse their wives, or are the records of the abuse that we have evidence that most medieval Christian men took accusations of rape seriously and attempted to bring other men to justice? We can't even answer these questions today--how many of us are actually secretly racist, how many men feel uncomfortable accepting the authority of a woman (I heard a lot about the Wife of Bath's Tale this past week--actually, no, people tended just to say, "Doesn't she know the Wife of Bath's Tale?" and shake their heads at how stupid it was for me not to realize that rape couldn't have completely gone away "because chivalry" because there it was in Chaucer and, oh, of course, every movie or television show that we watch is an absolutely accurate representation of everyday life, so knights must have raped women all the time just as the knight rapes the lady whom he eventually marries in the Wife of Bath's Tale...but I digress***)--how can we possibly answer them with anything like certainty about the people who lived decades or hundreds or thousands of years in the past?

And then there is our motivation for caring to tell stories about the past in the first place. Why should we who are alive today even care about what a medieval English poet thought about whether it was okay to rape? Ah, now we're getting somewhere.


*Not that most people even within my field have necessarily even heard of, much less read, much less considered the influence of most of the men (mostly, religious men) whose work I have studied in most depth: Paschasius Radbertus, Jean of Fécamp, Honorius Augustodunensis, Rupert of Deutz, Philip of Harvengt, William of Newburgh, John of Garland, Richard of St. Laurent, Conrad of Saxony, Servasanctus of Faenza, Jan Mombaer. Even among medievalists, these are hardly household names like Peter Damian, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. I have also written on Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Gertrude of Helfta, although some of this work is not yet published.
**Pseudo-Albert, Mariale, seu quaestiones super evangelium, quaestiones 17-20, ed. A. Borgnet, S. Alberti Magni Opera Omnia, vol. 37, pp. 40-47.
***Actually, the Wife of Bath's Tale is a perfect example of the circularity of the problem: we are told that medieval men thought rape was blasé, but then Chaucer, who I am pretty sure was a medieval man, writes a whole story which he puts in the mouth of one of his female characters telling about a woman who gets revenge on the man who raped her by having him humiliated by the Queen and sent on a quest to learn what it is women really want, the answer being "sovereignty over their husbands," by which point he has agreed to marry her even though he thinks she is an ugly hag, which means at least one man in the Middle Ages, i.e. Chaucer, (maybe) got it, even though (or perhaps possibly because) he himself was accused of rape. No, I can't get my head around this either, which must be why I am in History, not English.****
****An analogous problem would seem to me to be taking the fact that in the television series Justified Boyd Crowder kills so many of his own men in cold blood as suggesting that audiences today think this is a good thing when the whole point of the series is for Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens to bring Boyd to justice. Interestingly, though, as many murders (including justified killings) as there are in the series, I cannot off the top of my head recall any actual rapes (as opposed to attempted rapes)--which might be one way of testing our relative tolerance for certain kinds of violence in our entertainment media. No, I am wrong: there is the young man whom Robert Quarles keeps prisoner in season 3. Clearly I need to do some more research.

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