Around the world, in recent years, an energetic minority of young activists—students for the most part—have contested, criticised and vilified some of Western culture’s most prestigious figures, works and disciplines—from Aristotle to Churchill, Shakespeare to Carmen, classics to mathematics.footnote1 To celebrate these figures, to practise these disciplines, to study or perform these works, they claim, is to legitimate and perpetuate a patriarchal, racist and colonial Western order that has dominated the world for centuries. How to respond to those who accuse Churchill of a ‘racist’ worldview, or who point out that Carmen ends with a ‘femicide’? It’s all true. Does that mean the statesman’s statues must be toppled, or the opera’s finale rewritten? Typically, when such questions are raised, there is hardly a moment to reflect before the evangelists of Western culture launch their counterattack, responding to criticism with opprobrium and scorn; preaching a soulless catechism, a grotesque glorification of themselves and the culture which they claim to represent, but of which they appear to know very little. To take a position in these debates, which roll on from week to week, is to limit oneself to the terms of a pre-established and mediatized discourse. Let us try, then, to rise above the fray, to situate and consider the problem—which, as we shall see, is one of the most important of our age.

To understand the situation in which Western culture finds itself today, we must start by asking what this culture is. The phrase has two linked but distinct meanings. First there is what I will call ‘culture as heritage’—that is, the acquired knowledge of history, literature, art, music and so forth, which tells you that someone is ‘cultured’: this is the usual target of ‘cancel culture’. Second, there is the vast ensemble of dominant ideas and beliefs which, being those of the majority, help to structure the way in which a society functions: its organization, institutions, practices, forms of behaviour. This has a variety of names: ‘shared knowledge’ (in the tradition of anthropology); ‘ideology’ (in the tradition of sociology that runs from Marx to Bourdieu); ‘mentality’ (in the historiographic tradition of the Annales School). We can also, more specifically, speak of a ‘social imaginary’ (Castoriadis), of ‘doxa’ (Bourdieu), of ‘episteme’ (Foucault). Here I will refer to it as ‘culture as custom’. Since ‘culture as heritage’ arises from ‘culture as custom’, this is where we must begin.

One searches in vain throughout history for an area of culture that one could describe as ‘Western’. That which we call the ‘West’ is, in fact, a product of the globalization of European civilization. Throughout the world, whosoever adopted European culture—by will or by force—lived ‘in the west’. As a result, if one wants to know when Western culture began, one must look for the beginning of European culture. And, contrary to what one often reads, European culture does not begin in Ancient Greece and Rome. The culture of antiquity certainly comes to play an important part in defining European culture, but the same is true of the Bible—yet no one would dare say that European culture starts in the Holy Land.  

Two factors in the fourth century ad were responsible for the birth of Europe, at the moment that Antiquity fused with the beginnings of the Middle Ages. First, the division of the Roman Empire into two: an Eastern Roman Empire, now usually given the name ‘Byzantine’, and a Western Roman Empire, whose collapse gave birth to the territories which form the kernel of Europe today. Then there was Christianization. The ideas and beliefs that came to organize European societies were defined by the Church, a constant presence at the edges of political power, which could achieve nothing without it.

The ancient world did not naturally or spontaneously convert; Christianity was, rather, a yoke violently imposed upon it. The violence inherent in Christianization has never been fully extinguished. At times it has been manifest, as in the period referred to by Jacques LeGoff as the ‘long Middle Ages’, when spectacular punishments were meted out to anyone accused of wrongdoing, or who resisted conversion; at others it has been latent, when fear of damnation replaced the direct use of force as a means of control. Looking back over the centuries, one cannot help but observe that Europe has never been freely, sincerely, peacefully Christian; a sword had always to be held over the consciences of the general population. Nor can one fail to notice that once this sword disappeared, Europe swiftly secularized. Alongside repressive measures, the Church adapted pagan practices and celebrations to compensate for the atmosphere of fear it enforced. Local gods were exchanged for saints, natural wonders for relics, rituals of abundance for holy days of feasting. In this way, it imposed on the world a radical new order, whose consequences are still felt today.

Firstly, life doubled; after death, one’s soul continued to exist in the great beyond. Of course, many societies believed in an afterlife; what was new was the idea of a personal fate for the soul, determined by one’s behaviour in life. This new form of afterlife was eternal and so counted more than earthly existence. Would one join God’s elect or be damned in perpetuity? The question would be decided here and now. It is easy to imagine how this new, terrifying afterlife could inspire misery and anguish, and therefore docility and obedience, in believers. Certainly, it was not the first time that power had governed by fear. But until this point, fear was attached to tangible threats: ruin, imprisonment, torture, death. From here on, a new intangible form was added to the list: eternal damnation. The Church Fathers were conscious of the strong grip on their flocks that such dread afforded them. ‘Many are those kept in the Church by a fear of God.’footnote2

Secondly, there was a doubling of the individual. Whereas in antiquity, soul and body had been indissoluble, now the temptations of the flesh posed a threat to the soul’s salvation. To this day, Western societies—however secularized—are still affected by this ontological divide. Nowhere else but Europe has the body been so surveyed, controlled, disrespected, detested, debased, maltreated, in order to guarantee the safety of the soul. This is the landscape in which a form of oppression, hitherto unknown in the history of the world, developed. Patriarchy, in the misogynist sense in which we understand it today, began with Christianization—women were considered as intrinsically linked to the flesh, and therefore the fall. If every known society has been ‘patriarchal’ in the sense that it is based on what Françoise Héritier calls the ‘differential valence of the sexes’, it is only European culture that successfully realized a total hierarchy for which the hatred and degradation of women was foundational.