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During the Cold War period the terms “West” and “East” had fairly clear connotations. These were geographical-this side and the other side of the Iron Curtain-but the geography itself was defined politically, Washington and its allies arrayed against Moscow and its allies, with a vaguely delineated “Third World” supposedly allied with neither. There were some curious aspects of this, as when, for instance, Prime Minister Nakasone solemnly announced that Japan was part of the West. But even this made sense politically, even if his Samurai ancestors were angrily tossing in their graves.

All this has changed in the last few years. Suddenly the West has once more acquired a much older connotation, cultural rather than political. The term once more refers to that civilization that has its roots in the ancient Mediterranean world-the Occident, the world that was first shaped in Europe, that world that used to be called Christendom. The debate that has raged over Samuel Huntington’s by-now classic article on the coming clash of civilizations shows the difficulties encountered by analysts of this historical moment as they try to come to terms with its new realities.

The clash over the meaning of human rights that has troubled relations between the United States and a number of Asian countries (by no means limited to China and the remaining Communist states) has sharply brought to the fore the practical significance of the new terminology. This is no mere theoretical dispute. The so-called “Singapore School” has accused the United States and other industrial democracies of practicing cultural imperialism in trying to foist “Western” values on societies with different traditions. It is further proposed that Asian cultures, because they possess a superior understanding of how individuals should relate to the community, have by the same token a superior understanding of human rights. Thus Asian countries, relying on indigenous values, can find their own distinctive road to modernity.

The alleged difference between “Western” and “Eastern” values is centered in the understanding of the individual’s place in society. The “West” is interpreted as exaggerating the autonomy of the individual, as having institutionalized an abstract, mechanical concept of society, and as being gripped by a spiritually impoverished materialism. Against this the “East” is characterized as having a more correct view of the individual embedded in community (and thus as having his rights limited by the rights of his community), as valuing tradition and hierarchy, as holding an organic and thus more natural concept of society, and as retaining a spirituality that limits the crasser forms of materialistic acquisitiveness. What in this view of things is shaping up is indeed, then, a clash of civilizations.

It is not difficult to shoot holes in this ideological balloon, and not only by pointing out its convenience for dictatorial governments who want to oppress their subjects without outside interference. There is the important fact that millions of Asians have noisily demonstrated their belief in the “Western” values supposedly so alien to their being. There is the rather heavy demand for credulity in the presentation of, say, Singapore or Hongkong as locales of tradition and spirituality.

This is not the place for an argument on these points, however. I want here to focus instead on the implied localization of the “West” in this debate as well as on its overall characterization. Just where is this “West”? And is it really as it has been described here? A few years ago Edward Said made renewed use of the term “Orientalism” to refer to simplistic, stereotypical understanding of non-Western cultures by Western scholars. What we have here, I think, is an “Occidentalism,” a simplistic understanding of Western culture ironically shared by detractors and advocates alike.

It is instructive to recall that very much the same dichotomy has repeatedly been evoked between societies that the “Occidentalists” would all throw into the same (overly individualistic, abstract, soulless) pot. This is how the Slavophiles saw the “West,” which presumably included all the countries beyond the western borders of Russia (with the possible exception of such soul-filled Slavic brethren as the Serbs and Bulgarians). A very similar dichotomy appears in a long line of German ideologists, going back at least to the beginnings of Romanticism, who sought to define the German spirit as an antithesis to the nefarious “West.” Its location in this instance was on the other side of the Rhine, though different Germanophiles identified either France or England as the principal antagonist. (Many of them agreed with their Russian soul-cousins that ultimately the Jews were to blame.) Even the western-most countries of Europe were not immune to this particular form of name-calling. English conservatives blamed the “geometric spirit” of the French for many of the ills of modernity (abstract, soulless . . . the formula is the same), utterly different, supposedly, from the wholesomeness of English communitarianism. Edmund Burke’s image of peacefully grazing English cattle may serve as an illustration here. Some French conservatives returned the compliment. “Integral Catholicism” (communitarian, grounded in tradition and hierarchy, etc., etc.) stood opposed to the abstract, overly individualistic Protestantism-of which, lo and behold, the English were the most notorious exponents. Now, it seems, it was the English Channel that divided the spirits.

The Americas have been beset by the same dichotomous thinking. Latin American “integralism” has its Iberian roots, as explicated most recently in Claudio Veliz’s brilliant book The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America . In its European setting it postulated Spanish wholesomeness against all the heresies flourishing north of the Pyrenees, and it continued to do so into the twentieth century. (Miguel de Unamuno was perhaps the most outstanding advocate of this Iberophile ideology.) In Latin America a similar ideology took the name Arielismo , from an influential essay by the Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rod”, who posited the Latin Ariel (Shakespeare’s “airy spirit”) against the gross Caliban of the North. Here, the Rio Grande was the great divide.

Yet within this continent of bad gringos the very same dichotomy was promulgated by the defenders of the American South, as Eugene Genovese discusses with great lucidity in his new book The Southern Tradition . Now it is the Mason-Dixon Line that becomes the metaphysical border. However, before we finally decide that the true location of Western civilization is in Akron, Ohio, we should reflect that contemporary American culture is full of debates that reiterate the same old themes-“liberals” versus “communitarians,” “progressive” feminists versus the partisans of corporate sisterhood, and generally the classical American Creed against a variety of racial, ethnic, sexual, and aesthetic tribalisms.

All of this does not mean that geography has nothing to do with these value clashes. It was indeed in one particular region of the world that there occurred what one may simply describe as the discovery of the autonomous individual. It was in that rather small territory that includes both Jerusalem and Athens, where the prophet Nathan told David that, king or not, he was a man (“You are the man!”) responsible before God for his actions, and where the Hellenic dream of the individual liberated by reason was born.

It is a serious mistake to understand this discovery as just “an idea.” It was that, of course, but more importantly it was a new experience, a new mode of being human. It became institutionalized in different forms, of which the Christian church was the most significant. It would also be a mistake to understand this Ur-Western individualism as unique. There are analogues in other civilizations, in the self-cultivation of the Confucian sage, the putting aside of all worldly connections in the solitary quest for enlightenment of the Hindu or Buddhist ascetic, and, in a much more “democratic” version, in the fundamental Islamic insight that on the last day every individual will stand alone before the throne of judgment. All the same, it was in Europe, and subsequently in the overseas extensions of Europe, that there developed the ideas, the experiences, and the institutions on which the modern canon of human rights is based.

But the societies derived from Europe, the societies of this somewhat mythic “West,” cannot rest on their laurels as the beati possedentes of the true understanding of human rights. This understanding was never established beyond challenge. From its inception it had to struggle for survival against antagonists both outside and within Western civilization. The Battle of Marathon is fought over and over again, sometimes within the mind of a single individual, and the Persians do not always lose. On the other hand, like all genuine truths, the truth of the autonomous individual cannot be contained within one civilization only. By definition, truth is universal. Today, the struggle is not primarily one between civilizations. The battle lines crisscross all over both the geographical and the cultural maps. This insight may be disturbing; it is also comforting.

Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.