Introduction to Economics                                                  Lesson  12 / 06



Popular refrains of recent times have been that “Western Civilization is supreme” or that “Western Civilization is under attack” or that “Western Civilization is in decline”.  Implicit in such refrains is that there exists a civilization called Western Civilization.  Accepting that this is so, what then is the role or effect of economics, if any, in and on Western Civilization.


What is a Civilization?

The word civilization is capable of many interpretations or definitions.  Perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation or definition is suggested by the etymology of the word itself.  It comes from the Latin ‘civis’ meaning a citizen or resident of a city.  Tribes, races or peoples might form a society or have a distinctive culture but until they possess a city or cities they do not form or have a civilization.  One does not, for example, speak of a Bushman or Aborigine civilization.


Cities having been created, thereafter, principally as a consequence thereof and arising therefrom, the society and culture of a tribe, race or people progresses and develops.  This occurs in areas such as law, government, the arts, science and technology, production, trade or other human activity.  It is this connotation of growth and development, somewhat akin to a living organism, which is also an element of civilization.  A civilization that ceases to grow and develop dies.


A civilization then is a society or group of people of common ethnicity or culture, possessed of an urban environment, and which produces social and cultural development. 


Political scientist Samuel Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, published an influential book in 1996, expanding on an earlier seminal article relating to the ‘clash if civilizations’ [which thesis need not concern us].  In it, he identified 7, and perhaps 9, major, current civilizations; Western, Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin American and, possibly, Buddhist and African.


Western Civilization

The term, Western Civilization, originally referred to the societies and culture of western and central Europe.  It was based on a racial Caucasian commonality and Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultural and religious origins.  Today the term is used to embrace a wider geographic area but the precise applicability of the term is often a matter of debate.  It is generally held, for instance, to include the USA and Canada, although there are those who would say that there is now a separate North American civilization.  Similarly, Latin America is also generally included, but there again are those who argue that it forms a separate discrete civilization.  Australia and New Zealand are considered to be a part, as are sometimes eastern Europe, Cyprus and Israel, and even South Africa and Turkey.


Since we have defined a civilization as a group of people, the society and culture of which is continually evolving and growing, the distinctive features of a civilization can be difficult to determine and are often matters of considerable debate. Western Civilization has exhibited over the centuries considerable significant changes in its social structures and customs, its art, music and literature, its religion and ethical values and its science and technology.  Slavery and feudalism have come and gone, the status and role of women in society has undergone significant change as has the concept of marriage, Christianity has split into Catholics and Protestants, democracy has replaced absolute monarchy, science and technology have been revolutionised and the attitude towards bankers, businessmen, industrialists and traders has changed significantly.   


What then, if any, are the fundamental characteristics of Western Civilization.  Needless to say these are matters of considerable debate.  Nevertheless it is possible to distinguish a number of generally accepted fundamental characteristics, some of which are as follows;

·    The primacy of individual freedom and rights

·    A belief in the role and rule of law

·    The embracing of reason and scientific method and the pursuit of knowledge

·    A willingness to explore and combat nature rather than accept and submit to it.

·    A view that life is to be enjoyed and for as long as possible, and can be enhanced by material possessions, increased consumption and external stimuli rather than an emphasis on inner peace and the after-life.     

·    An economic system that provides for and is consistent with the above fundamental characteristics.


Economic Aspects

Cities, which were dependent on the production of sufficient food to enable a surplus to be traded, were both a manifestation and a cause of an ever-increasing cooperation and division of labour [or speciaization].  This, in turn, resulted in greatly increased production of goods and services, which were then available for trade.


Money was traditionally first coined in Lydia, a part of modern Turkey, but its use was taken up and developed by the Greeks.   As a medium of exchange, it played a fundamental role in the increase in trade.  Its role in allowing the setting of prices also enabled economic calculation to occur, which lead to increased efficiency and to the creation and accumulation of wealth.


Arguably, what eventually distinguished Western Civilization, and transformed science and technology from the interest and pursuit of a few geniuses such as Archimedes and da Vinci to the driving force of production, invention and rising widespread material living standards that it became, was the free market [or capitalist] economic system which prevailed, and which enabled the increased wealth to be harnessed to achieve such desired ends.  



                                                   David Sharp

                                                        10 October 2006






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