5 Introductory Books on Western Civilisation
One question that we often have from students and readers is: ‘Can you recommend any books on the history of Western Civilisation?’
There is a potentially endless list of books which touch on the history of Western Civilisation, and probably the best advice is to read history books widely. But to help you get started, here are five which will introduce you to the basics.
1.What is the West?
by Philippe Nemo | 2004
The first book on this reading list had to be one which explains what exactly Western Civilisation is. The best book on this topic is What is the West? by French philosopher and intellectual historian Philippe Nemo.
First translated into English in 2006, What is the West? gives a broad overview of the history and the main features of Western Civilisation. Nemo presents it mainly as an intellectual achievement, which combines elements of Classical thought with Christian ethics and Enlightenment-era philosophy.
From the writings of ancient Greece, Nemo says, the Western tradition derived science, the rule of law, and rationality. From the Roman tradition, it derived private law, humanism, and codification. From the Judeo-Christian tradition it derived Biblical ethics and eschatology. From the Papal Revolution in the High Middle Ages came the synthesis of the rational Classical tradition and Christian ethics, and the rehabilitation of human action in Western Christian thought. The next important transition was the emergence of liberal thought in the early modern era and the rise of modern liberal democracies.
This short book is on this list because it provides a succinct explanation of what ‘the West’ is, its intellectual traditions, and how it differs from other civilisations. What is the West? is available for purchase online at Amazon.com and the Book Depository.
2. The History of Rome
by Michael Grant | 1978
Through their politics, literature, laws, and philosophers, the Romans left a profound legacy on what later became the Western world—and many other parts of the world besides. This list would not be complete without a book on the history of Rome.
The late Michael Grant was an eminent Classical historian and numismatist who wrote several books on Roman and Classical history. He also translated the Penguin editions of Tacitus and Cicero.
Grant’s History of Rome is on this list simply because it one of very few books to give a concise, single-volume introduction to the history of ancient Rome, beginning with its early days as a small city state and ending with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.
In addition to chronicling Rome’s wars, the collapse of the Republic, and the lives of Emperors, and the circumstances of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, Grant’s book comments on the social and economic life and the personalities involved in making history. It also emphasises the impact the Romans had on later Western philosophy and civilisation.
This book is available in most university libraries and for purchase on Amazon.com and the Book Depository. Other popular books on ancient Rome include Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Dynasty and Mary Beard’s SPQR, although none of these cover the whole period of Roman history.
3.A Short History of Christianity
by Geoffrey Blainey | 2011
Christianity has arguably been the single the most important force shaping Western Civilisation since the end of the Roman Empire. The most accessible introduction to this is A Short History of Christianity by renowned Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey.
Numbering more than 600 pages, this Short History is not exactly ‘short’—and no wonder, since it summarises more than 2,000 years of Christian history. Beginning with the origins of Christianity and skipping through Christian expansion under the Roman empire, its response to the rise of Islam and the iconoclastic controversy, the rise of the Papacy and the Protestant Reformation, it concludes with the present-day.
This book will introduce readers to varying interpretations of the Christian message, the conflicts surrounding it, and the major figures involved. It also comments to the impact that Christianity has had, and continues to have, on the development of Western thought and on thought elsewhere around the world.
This useful, compact, and popular book is available in many bookshops and libraries around the country, in addition to online stores. A Kindle edition is also available.
4. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
by Winston Churchill | 1958
Australia is a Western nation, and it is also a nation which derives its language, political and legal institutions, and much of its culture from its unique British heritage. One of the best introductions to the history of England is A History of the English-Speaking Peoples—a classic work written by one of the giants of the twentieth century.
Though most famous for being the wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill was also a talented writer and the author of numerous books. He began A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, perhaps his most famous work, in the 1930s, and completed it in old age in the late 1950s.
Churchill’s History is broken into four volumes: The Birth of Britain (55 BC-AD 1485), The New World (1485-1688), The Age of Revolution (1688-1815) and The Great Democracies (1815-1901).
It requires some commitment to read A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in full, but is well worth it; though it is in some respects dated and has little to say about social or economic history, as both a work of history and literature it is a classic. It is available in various editions and abridgements at many bookshops, most libraries, and through online stores.
Those looking for something more recent should consider Paul Johnson’s single-volume The Offshore Islanders: A History of the English People, Simon Schama’s multi-volume History of Britain, or Peter Ackroyd’s yet-unfinished multi-volume History of England.
5. Liberalism: A Short History
by Richard Allsop | 2014
‘Of all the fruits of Western Civilisation’, this monograph begins, ‘liberalism is surely one of the greatest’. Liberalism has been a potent force for shaping the world and Australia’s present-day liberal democracy. This monograph, by IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop, provides an introduction to the origins and rise of this important philosophy.
Beginning his survey with the origins of liberal sentiment in antiquity and the religious turmoil of Reformation Europe, Allsop points out that the term ‘liberalism’ first emerged as a term of abuse in the English Parliamentary debates of the early nineteenth century. Over the following decades, however, it became attached to one of the most influential intellectual movements in history.
By the end of the nineteenth century, England had undergone extensive reforms along liberal lines. The House of Commons now represented the interests of the people of England. The vote and political office had been opened up to groups that had previously been excluded from the political process—namely, non-Protestants and non-propertied people. There now existed an English ‘Liberal Party’. Meanwhile in Australia, South Australia was one of the first states in the world to offer universal franchise to voters, encompassing all men and women.
As this monograph explains, we now live in the consequences of this tumultuous period of reform, and liberalism remains one of the most distinctive achievements of Western Civilisation. Liberalism: A Short History is available for purchase through the IPA.