Lost Legacy

Jona Lendering. Vergeten erfenis. Oosterse wortels van de westerse cultuur
On March 30, 2009 my book Vergeten erfenis. Oosterse wortels van de westerse cultuur (Lost Legacy. Eastern Roots of Western Culture) will be published. This page contains a summary in English; for a summary in Dutch, go here.


The common idea that western civilization originates in Greece was born twice. Its last birth took place in the eighteenth century, before the social science had been created and before the richness of our Mesopotamian heritage had been discovered. The time has come to investigate the roots of western civilization, and we should look at its "structuralizing elements": aspects of a culture that determine the behavior of consecutive generations. Usually, these elements are connected to independent economic means.

1: Hellenism

The idea that the Greek way of life of the fifth and fourth century was something special, was born for the first time in the Hellenistic states, where command of the Greek language and acquaintance with its literature and arts were keys to a successful career. Later, the Romans, who were looking for respectability, wanted to be inspired by ancient Greece, and as a consequence, ideas about Greek uniqueness spread all over the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Greece was, from now on, generally considered to be the cradle of civilization. As a consequence, Greek texts and Latin literature based on the same principles were copied: a necessary condition to be met if the ideas about Greek uniqueness were to be reborn in the eighteenth century.

2: Jerusalem and Athens

The first Christians were not interested in Greco-Roman, polytheistic culture, but when their religion was in the fourth century gaining influence, they were looking for respectability. With some cunning manoeuvres, they were able to associate themselves to many aspects of classical culture, although Greece was as cradle of civilization replaced by the Garden of Eden. Admiration for Greco-Roman culture was also stimulated by one of Christianity's main tenets: fear of intellectual pride. This stimulated an attitude of respect for the ancient authorities.

3: Monks and Kings

The collapse of the Roman world meant that the means disappeared to finance the writing culture in Western Europe. The ancient texts would have vanished, but monks continued to carefully copy them. Charlemagne stimulated this activity. He also accepted the title of emperor, and in doing so created the idea that Rome had in some way been important for what was from now on called "Europe". This idea was, until the eighteenth century, an important structuralizing element.

4: Islamic Law

Islam was born in the seventh century. The faithful were less skeptical towards the quest for knowledge than the Christians. At the same time, they were a bit more skeptical about Greco-Roman culture, which resulted in the creation of a law system of their own that did not resemble earlier systems. The jurists involved demanded freedom to discuss important issues, organized themselves in madrassas, and set professional standards.

5: The Turning point

When the contacts between Western Europe and the Islamic world increased in the age of the Crusades, a climate was created in which Europe could acquire knowledge in the East. Among the most important borrowings is the university, which is essentially a European madrassa, where the professional standards and the freedom of discussion of the Islamic jurists lived on: an important structuring element of western culture.

6: Origins of the Modern State

In this age of close cultural contact, Roman Law was reintroduced in Western Europe, but even though Medieval Law was inspired by ancient forms, it is in fact a pragmatic selection from existing traditions, which became a structuralizing element. At the same time, new elements were introduced, like the ideal of equality, which has no roots in ancient or feudal society, but is derived from Islam. The separation of Church and State, another important structuralizing element, could not be created without philosophical theories from the Islamic world.

7: Islamic Science

Countless scientific texts were written in Arabic, and during the Middle Ages, many of these were translated into Latin. European medicine and physics have been deeply influenced by the sciences of the Arabian world, Turkey, and Iran. Europe advanced beyond its masters when people like Galilei started to formulate laws of physics that were inspired by mathematics. The ancient, Christian attitude of respect for authorities gradually disappeared, and Western science was born: one of the most important structuralizing elements of modern, Western society.

8: Ideology and Science

European civilization is a fusion of elements from earlier cultures. The incorrect idea that it had its roots in Greece, goes back to the eighteenth-century art historian J.J. Winckelmann. Under normal circumstances, his ideas - which are not very logical - would have been forgotten, but they played a role during an educational reform in Prussia. Types of education that were created in Germany spread all over Europe, enabling the ideas of Winckelmann to become the basis of the ideology of the emerging bourgeoisie, which was still looking for, and actually gained, respectability. Three developments have dismembered this ideology:
  1. In the second half of the nineteenth century, cuneiform was deciphered, and it became clear how influential ancient Babylonia has been;
  2. In the first half of the twentieth century, the social sciences created a new concept of culture;
  3. Since the decolonization, there is greater interest in the contribution to Western civilization from texts written in Arabic.
Lost Legacy ends with some recommendations about the Dutch educational system.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 23 March 2009