THR Web Features   /   July 28, 2022

In the Ruins of Western Civilization

Preserve—and add to—the mosaic of the past.

Dan Edelstein

( Byzantine mosaic, Gaziantep Museum, Gaziantep, Turkey; Shutterstock.)

When I first started teaching at Stanford, I would take the train down from San Francisco, getting off at the Palo Alto station. I walked the length of Palm Drive, watching the university rise up against the foothills. After passing the university’s neoclassical museum building, I entered Memorial Court, where Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Calais stand in perpetual stillness. But I paused at a different place, by the plaque commemorating Robert Edouard Pellissier, an assistant professor of French, who had died in World War I. He was 34.

There was a poignancy to this solitary plaque. Driving around France, I had seen long lists of names on the monuments that invariably stood in every village square. I later discovered that others from Stanford had also died in the war, seventy-six in total. But the singular commemoration of Pellissier made his death all the more evocative. 

It took me many years to move past staring at his name to learning about his life. Pellissier was French, and grew up in the Jura, near the Swiss border. He was also a Protestant, who lived for some years in Geneva, before moving in with an older sister in Brooklyn when he was fourteen. To teach himself English, he translated Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, learning long passages by heart. His rapid progress in American schools earned him a scholarship at Harvard. After graduating, he taught French and biology for a few years, then returned to pursue a doctoral degree in Romance languages. During that time, he was appointed an instructor, then, in 1913, an assistant professor at Stanford. A year later, he left for France, never to return. Above the biographical notice that she composed for her brother’s death, Adeline Pellissier placed a line from Horace: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is pleasant and honorable to die for your country”).

Pellissier’s plaque also resonated with me because, I, too, was an assistant professor of French at the time. As part of my own graduate studies, I had read many novels and poems about the Great War in which he had died. I had learned how its outbreak was met with giddy excitement: “Golly, war sure is pretty!” (“Ah Dieu! que la guerre est jolie!”) the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, rhapsodized in September 1915, from the front. The following year he took shrapnel to the head, never recovered from the wound, and died of the Spanish flu in 1918. I remembered the soldiers’ hope in August 1914 that they would be home by Christmas. Instead, the war wiped out an entire generation of young men.

I had also discovered that this unfathomable death toll masked another casualty: an entire worldview. Europe had gone to war with a sense of invincibility and cultural superiority. In 1914, the West straddled the world, its dominance established through a mastery of power and steel. Westerners had invented machine guns, steamboats, the telegraph, and that ultimate symbol of modern progress, the railway. As European empires extended across the globe, and the American republic stretched across the continent, panegyrists glorified this conquest as the natural culmination of “Western civilization.” This label, still new in 1800, contrasted with what Europeans were then encountering in Africa, India, or China, and what some authors simply disparaged as “Oriental barbarism.” In defense of their imperial endeavors, European writers inducted ancient Greeks and Romans, Renaissance painters, humanist scholars, neoclassical architects, and Enlightenment philosophers into the great march of Western civilization. Pellissier’s dissertation, published posthumously in 1918, was on The Neo-Classic Movement in Spain During the XVIII Century, and sought to redeem the efforts of the “enlightened patriots” who wanted to “pull Spain out of the state of decadence into which it had fallen.” 

But this triumphalist narrative stumbled in the muddy fields of Flanders. One of the great delusions of 1914 was that Europeans were too civilized for massive bloodshed, at least against each other. Then came the horrors of war. The English poet Wilfred Owen, killed November 1918, indicted Horace himself for contributing to the devastation: 

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

By 1918, the idealized city of Western civilization lay in shambles. “We civilizations, we now know that we are mortal,” Paul Valéry pronounced in 1919. Perhaps the most eloquent postmortem can be found in the final stanza of The Waste Land, where bits of Italian, Latin, French, old English, and Sanskrit poetry are jumbled together around T.S. Eliot’s lonely pentameter: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” All there was to save us from existential ruin were the ruins of the past. 

In some respects, Pellissier’s short life confirmed this tale of civilizational collapse. He belonged to the same generation as Owen, Apollinaire, and Eliot, the latter with whom he overlapped at Harvard. Pellissier endorsed the aristocratic values of this “world of yesterday,” as Stefan Zweig called it, leaving California abruptly in 1914 to volunteer with the French army: “I could not very well hibernate in Stanford under the present circumstances,” he wrote. When he first saw action, in November 1914, he boasted that this “baptism of fire” made him “feel quite like a man.” By January 1915, however, he was confiding that “If this is not the last European war it is because all of us Europeans are stark mad.” 

But Pellissier’s letters add a darker twist to this standard account of the war, casting over it what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “veil of race.” This veil extends over Stanford University, and over American higher education more broadly. Pulling back this veil can help us understand how the racist propaganda of the early twentieth century was not the culmination of a long tradition, but rather the invention of one. It points us in the direction of a different idea of Western culture that does not seek to resurrect a lost edifice, and instead reveals how culture in the West has often resided in and risen from the ruins. From these repeated catastrophes, a conversation arose among survivors, which others soon joined, and which has provided succor to readers and observers across the ages.

Race and Civilization

The Stanford quad that Pellissier left behind has hardly changed in a century, but his universe feels strangely alien to us today. His patriotism was fueled by the desire to assert what he called “the vitality of our race, which in my opinion is far from deserving the reputation of decadence which so often has been imputed to it.” Pellissier was very concerned about the vitality and decadence of races, as his dissertation also reveals. The war was a chance for “our race”—he meant the French—to show its mettle, and improve its standing in the eyes of the Western world. “We will no longer be crushed by the fancied superiority of Northern races,” he predicted. If the contest between European nations was, as many saw it, an intramural competition for racial superiority, then only European peoples would compete.

Culture played an important role in this clash. Following the writer Romain Rolland, Pellissier took care to distinguish between “the Germany of Wilhelm II and that of Goethe,” insisting on “the necessity for intelligent people to keep the two apart in their minds.” But race and culture still went hand-in-hand. The “vitality of a race” found its clearest expression in the cultural productions of the age.

Indeed, while the study and ranking of races in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was mostly conducted on a “scientific” basis, culture backstopped these hierarchies. One need look no further than my daily walk onto campus to see this process at work. It began at a train station, its location chosen by Leland Stanford, who had made his fortune in the railroad industry, helping to complete the first transcontinental line. Industrial advances featured prominently in the university’s celebration of Western civilization. The frieze on the monumental archway that originally rose above Memorial Court featured Leland and Jane Stanford leading a locomotive across the Sierra Mountains. (The archway was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.) Statues of Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Gutenberg, Louis Agassiz, and Alexander von Humboldt—all “great men” of Western science—adorned the buildings off the main quad. 

But culture was also drafted into this effort. Mosaics along the museum façade told the story of Western civilization through a series of vignettes: “Rome,” “Painting,” “Architecture,” “Egypt,” and other tableaux all lead up to “Progress and Civilization.” It was obvious which “civilization” the university was designed to promote.

It was equally clear that Western civilization, in this retelling, was predominantly white. Almost all the figures in the museum mosaics were white. As governor of California, Leland Stanford had warned about the “immigration of the Asiatic races” and their “deleterious influence upon the superior race.” The first president of Stanford, David Starr Jordan, was a leading eugenicist in the country and drew on biological racism to defend the “racial health” of whites. 

Stanford University was hardly an outlier in this regard. Agassiz, whom Jordan put on a literal pedestal at Stanford, was one of the most prominent scientists of his day, and held a professorship at Harvard. He was a chief proponent of polygenesis, the theory that human races had evolved separately. Other notorious defenders of “Western civilization,” such as Lothrop Stoddard, similarly promoted white supremacy. 

It is no surprise, then, that critics came to denounce Western civilization as a fig leaf covering up racist beliefs. A black American journalist, Charles E. Stump, accused those wringing their hands about German barbarity in World War I of ignoring the lynchings that occurred in the supposed heartland of Western civilization. Such attacks grew more frequent in the age of decolonization. When asked what he thought about Western civilization, Gandhi allegedly repliedthat “it would be a very good idea.” Writing in the context of the Algerian war, Frantz Fanon warned that “when the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife—or at least he makes sure it is within reach.” Eventually, Europeans cooled on glorifying their vaunted civilization. In Claude Simon’s novel about World War II, The Flanders Road (1960), a French POW learns of the bombing of the Leipzig library from his father, a firm believer in Western civilization. What good were all these books, the son replies, if they could not prevent the war that led to their destruction?

It was on American college campuses that debates about Western civilization attracted the most attention. Starting in the 1930s, many universities, including Stanford, established general education programs in “Western Civ,” as they came to be known. The impetus for these programs lay less in the overt defense of white supremacy, and more in the fear of communist and fascist takeovers in Europe and Asia. While these programs had their own ideological biases, critics in the 1970s and 1980s focused mostly on the homogeneity of its canon. The accusation that only “dead white males,” European or American, were taught in Western Civ led to its dismantlement at most selective institutions. Stanford was at the epicenter of these debates, with the Reverend Jesse Jackson leading students across campus, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go” (referring to the course with that name). By the summer of 1988, it was no longer offered.

But even the disappearance of Western Civ as a first-year requirement has not stifled the debate. White supremacy is, alas, alive and well, and its defenders continue to appropriate Western culture as “proof” of racial superiority. The fields of Classics and Medieval studies remain roiled in disputes over what to do about this attempted hostile takeover. Some, like the Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, question whether their field should continue to exist. Others suggest that we might start by abandoning the idea of Western culture altogether: “if western culture were real, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking it up,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah opined

Your Culture or Your Life

The urge to toss Western civilization into the dustbin of history is understandable. But what do we really mean by “Western civilization”? It is a label, an idea, and a collection of works, all at once. The label is fairly distasteful, given the racist and imperialist assumptions that presided over its birth, even if these assumptions no longer cling to the phrase. While few would banish the works that fall under this label, the idea of Western culture remains under scrutiny, particularly as it is instantiated in university programs and requirements. 

Today, only fringe extremists would defend the idea of Western civilization as it was defined, say, in 1914. Almost every facet of that idea has been debunked. There is no racial lineage connecting the cultural productions of Western artists and thinkers; in fact, it makes little sense to describe Socrates (or Dante, for that matter) as “white.” Nor is there any basis for believing that the ancient Greeks and their Western followers had a monopoly on reason or science. Anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss have compellingly demonstrated the complexity of thought found in all human cultures, including those without writing. And nothing—other than chauvinism—supports the claim that Western art or philosophy is superior to that of other cultures. 

But to recognize that earlier apologists had the completely wrong idea about Western civilization is not the same as to insist, with Appiah, that “there is no such thing as Western civilization.” We need to distinguish between the idea and the “thing.” Is there any rationale for grouping works that range from Homer to Toni Morrison under the same heading? Or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: is there a “there” there? Does Western civilization refer to a real “thing,” whatever we choose to call it?  

These questions are so vast that they resist simple answers. But as I pondered them over years of teaching at Stanford, I often thought about another European, caught up in another World War. In 1944, Primo Levi was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. In his postwar memoir, If This Is a Man?, Levi described the near-complete process of dehumanization that took place in the camps. Prisoners were stripped of their belongings, their clothes, even their hair. They were separated from fellow nationals, and plunged into “a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before.” Simply remembering that one was still human became a challenge. 

One day, Levi found a moment of respite when a friendly Frenchman expressed a regret that he had never learned Italian. Levi began by teaching him a few simple words—zuppacampoacqua—before feeling a sudden urge to recite Ulysses’s canto from Dante’s Inferno. At first, he recalled only fragments, but rushed on to the climax of the speech. He then prepared his interlocutor for what he was about to hear: “Open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake,” he insisted. And then he recited:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti, 
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Consider your own breeding:
You were not raised to live like animals, 
But to pursue virtue and knowledge.

The words, spoken in Levi’s own tongue and Dante’s Italian, rang out “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” He had regained his human dignity, albeit only “for a moment.” 

This story is moving on many levels, but it also offers a compelling answer to the question of whether something like Western culture exists. Here is a man, in the depths of abjection, quoting a fourteenth-century poet who had imagined the words of an ancient Greek hero, and experiencing an epiphany of joy. The power of this experience matters: Levi is not simply reciting verses to display cultural capital, like some Eton schoolboy. These lines are a lifeline, fragments that he has “shored against his ruins.” Here was Western culture as “a refuge from distress; a reminder of one’s dignity,” as Zena Hitz recently defined it. If culture, at heart, is how humans find meaning and solace in the world, this most meaningful of moments for Levi would not exist if there was not some profound connection, stretching across two and a half millennia, between him, Dante’s Florence, and Homer’s Greece. 

Levi’s testimony also hints at a different way of understanding this connection. The imperialist idea of Western Civ followed the march of power from Greece to Rome, and from Florence to Paris, London, and, eventually, the United States. But this story, too, was largely a fabrication. Many of the most admired Western achievements were produced in the aftermath of terrible losses. Homer’s Odyssey was composed during the Greek Dark Ages, after the collapse of Bronze Age societies. Thucydides and Plato wrote in the wake of Athens’s defeat, and loss of empire, in the Peloponnesian War. Cicero was active during the twilight of the Roman Republic and lived long enough to witness its eclipse (and suffer the consequences). Dante himself only began the Divine Comedy after his exile from Florence. And the list goes on: Machiavelli wrote The Prince in a state of penury after the fall of the Florentine Republic; Montaigne invented the essay as the French massacred each other in religious wars; Hobbes’s Leviathan responded to the devastation of the English Civil War; Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism reflected his deep pessimism that religious intolerance would snuff out the Enlightenment. Western culture has mostly sprouted in the ruins. 

Culture and Education

If we accept that Western culture exists independently from racist and imperialist constructs, what are the implications for education? It certainly does not follow that every student should study it. Some institutions and programs, such as St. John’s College or the Directed Studies program at Yale, retain a curriculum centered on Western culture, and there are valid arguments for this approach. As Roosevelt Montás has argued about Columbia’s Core Curriculum, for instance, there is a democratic case for making works typically reserved for the privileged available to low income or first-generation college students. 

But not all institutions will want to prioritize Western culture in this way. In designing a more diversified curriculum, the challenge becomes how to convey the importance, even urgency, of different cultural traditions. What words might ring “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God” in our own darkest moments? What books might we assign that are like an “axe for the frozen sea within us,” as Franz Kafka put it? 

Over the past decades, those of us in universities charged with curating past cultures have dug deeper and separate burrows for our treasured holdings. Adopting the scientific logic of ever-increasing specialization, we have fetishized the particular and eschewed the general. In the process, we have lost most of our audience outside academia and many of the students within—especially since the Great Recession as students turned away from the humanities and toward engineering, health, and other career-oriented fields.

This is where we can learn from the outdated Western Civ model, even as we transcend it. What made these courses surprisingly popular and allowed them to persist for such a long time is that their sum is greater than their parts. Across centuries, authors answered, taunted, praised, and attacked each other, likening these exchanges to a conversation. Referring to his most cherished authors, Seneca wrote, “None of these will ever be unavailable to you, none of these will fail to send his visitor off in a happier condition and more at ease with himself...they can be approached by all.” It was this approachability that particularly moved Du Bois: “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas.” The reader, in this model, was like Dante, traveling through an underworld of dead authors, and calling on them to speak. The goal of these journeys, Robert Pogue Harrison suggested in his 2003 book The Dominion of the Dead, is less to visit our ancestors, than to “adopt” new ones, who may even take precedence over our own. Odysseus allowed the shade of Tiresias to drink the dark blood before his mother. 

For all their ideological flaws, Western Civ courses invited students into this conversation. The present challenge is how to revive it, devoid of any pretense of Western superiority. As Cornel West and Jeremy Tate have observed, “The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and everywhere else in the world.” For this conversation to flourish, it need not privilege Western authors or texts. The fundamental point, however, is that it remain a conversation, and that different voices contribute to topics of universal human concern.

Bringing new generations of students into such an enriched conversation would serve to introduce them, not to Matthew Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said in the world,” but to the panoply of observations and creations, from around the world, made by other humans. While some of these will invariably fall flat, others will hit a nerve, embedding themselves in the reader’s mind. Students, Michel de Montaigne proposed, should model themselves on bees, who collect pollen from different flowers to produce honey of their own and unique compilation. Montaigne’s own essays shimmer with the results of his learned foraging, phrases that he plucked from his favorite books. It is only by making past authors our own, by connecting them, that culture can retain its urgent power. Only by selecting which voices from beyond the grave and oceans we wish to retain can we collect the fragments which one day may help us stave off ruin.