Is the West still the best?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

For centuries, the idea of the West has stood as a model for the world to emulate and aspire to. From the glories of classical antiquity, to the Renaissance, the birth of capitalism, the Enlightenment, rationality, science, justice and democracy: the West has been synonymous with much that is best in human civilisation and culture. Of course, that picture is complicated by the Western nations’ history of imperialism and colonialism. But while undoubtedly Western nations often brutally oppressed others, and the Cold War association of the West with capitalist exploitation rather than freedom led many around the world to look elsewhere for inspiration, the idea of the West had universal appeal. Anti-imperialist movements mobilised Western ideas of liberation and equality even as they challenged the Western powers for failing to live up to them. The West seemed to embody the achievements of humanity, rather than being the preserve of a geographical area or people. The black radical CLR James declared in 1969: ‘I, a man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of Western literature, Western philosophy and Western history that I have found out the things that I have found out, even about the underdeveloped countries’.

Today, however, there are those who question some of the most basic values of the West and, in particular, its universality – the very idea that this legacy is for everyone. The notion of ‘Western civilisation’ and ‘Western culture’ is more often than not seen as Eurocentric, a means of marginalising non-Western experiences. Whether it is through a rejection of what is seen as artistic elitism or the greed of multinational corporations, the affirmation of local cultural identity as just more important, or the belief that Western industrial civilisation is destroying the very planet, the West can seem a tarnished model.

A new challenge comes from emerging economies in the East. As the Western capitalist model allegedly lies in tatters, China is on the rise. Former colonies like India look to overtake the Western world in economic dynamism. Is the Western model broken? Endowed with an unfair share of the world’s material resources but spiritually bankrupt, is the West truly decadent, or is there something in its model that we must all try to keep alive? Is civilisation, at best, just a relative good? If we do think that civilisation is something common to all humanity, how might we go about defining and defending it? Should we even be that concerned as economic and political power moves inexorably to the East? Is the sun finally going down on the West?

Listen to session audio:


GM Tamás
visiting professor, Central European University; author, Les Idoles de la Tribu

Ian Morris
Willard Professor of Classics and professor, history and archaeology, Stanford University; author, Why the West Rules - For Now: the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future

Sabine Reul
translator, Textbüro Reul GmbH

Tarun J. Tejpal
founder and editor, Tehelka; former editor, India Today; novelist; author, The Story of My Assassins

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future

Why does the West rule? In this magnum opus, eminent Stanford polymath Ian Morris answers this provocative question, drawing on 50,000 years of history, archeology, and the methods of social science, to make sense of when, how, and why the paths of development differed in the East and West — and what this portends for the 21st century.

Ian Morris, Profile Books, 4 November 2010

Is the west still the best?

The west still rules the world—but this will change in the coming decades; indeed, geography may simply cease to matter

Ian Morris, Prospect, 25 October 2010

The West still needs to think big

It is not just that the West is saturated, but rather that it feels exhausted. “Small Is Beautiful” is what we tell ourselves when we need to justify running out of steam.

Bill Durodie, Independent Blogs, 30 September 2010

In praise of dead white men

Efforts to make education more 'relevant' to black people can be both patronising and harmful. The western literary canon should be taught to everyone

Lindsay Johns, Prospect, 23 September 2010

Self-serving white guilt

Guilt, stirred up by leftist thinkers, is now de rigueur in the west. But Pascal Bruckner believes our soul-searching is both hypocritical and injurious

Eric Kaufmann, Prospect, 21 July 2010

The Tyranny of Guilt

Has Europe vanquished its monsters or have they just changed shape?

Robert Eaglestone, Times Higher Education, 16 July 2010

Is Freedom a Universal Value? Maybe Not

If you're J. Rufus Fears, professor of Classics and chair in History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, you're pretty sure that freedom is NOT a universal value. You believe we've made major mistakes when we base our foreign policy on the belief that all people at all times want freedom and that freedom will grow naturally.

Tom Alderman, Huffington Post, 11 June 2010

The 21st Century global order – Time for enlightenment countries to take proper look at Confucian values

The question of whether the 21st century world is to be governed by (Western) enlightenment values or (Chinese) Confucian values is a critical one. Unfortunately, in making judgments about China, the majority of analysts have failed to appreciate the speed of China’s rise and have neglected to take into account the power of Confucian values.

Reginald Little, East Asia Forum, 2 May 2010

Remorse As a Way of Life

Dwelling on the West's past sins is strangely narcissistic—debilitating, too.

Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal, 15 April 2010

The Philosophy of History

Hegel develops the concept of history as a rational proceeding, rather than a series of random events.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Dover Publications, 1 November 2004

The Rising

Across the world, millions of people are reveling in the burst of creativity coming from India and Asia's other cultural giant, China. As China and India have rejected the grim socialism of their past and opened up their minds, borders and markets, a new generation of artists from these countries have been taking Chinese and Indian pop and fine culture to new levels of sophistication.

Jehangir Pocha, New Perspectives, November 2003

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