The Rise of the West and Historical Methodology: Crash Course World History #212

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we’re going to talk how history gets written. “Mr. Green! Mr. Green! I want to write books
about history when I grow up.” Well, we’re not about the process of writing
history today, Me From the Past. Also, you are a liar. So you’re never going to be a
history writer because, try as you might, you can’t stop making things up. Maybe someday,
if you’re lucky, you’ll write a historical novel. Although, probably not because, you know,
it involves research, which you also suck at. So today we’re going to talk about how historians
answer questions and the choices they make in turning their ideas into books. We like
to think of history as being the story of what happens, so there’s no ambiguity or whatever.
It’s just, you know, in 1776, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This is part of our thinking that, like, math
is fact-based and literature is opinion. So we imagine history as being, like, over toward
the fact-y stuff. But in truth, literature has a lot of facts in it. There are poems
that are objectively good and others that are objectively bad. And if you’ve ever been
to a mathematician party and heard mathematician arguments, you’ll know that math has a lot
of opinions in it. What? I go to a lot of math parties. That’s
cool. My point is, that that whole fact to opinion
continuum we imagine in academics doesn’t really make sense. We just need to learn to
ignore that and think instead about how to examine the world critically. So today we’re going to examine the ways that
different historians have tackled a really problematic issue: The Rise of the West. So
what do “rise” and “west” even mean in that phrase? Well, let’s go to the Thought Bubble. So “The West” is a geographical designation,
kind of. It means, like, Western Europe, North America, and Australia, which as you can see
here are west of Asia? And also east of Asia. In fact, everything is both east and west
of everything else because it’s a globe. But the West is also kind of a culture. It’s
a set of ideas influenced by Judeo-Christian thought and Greek philosophy, with a little
Enlightenment rationalism and Adam Smith’s economics thrown in. Anyway, it’s complicated,
like all civilizations that span multiple continents, but most of you at least have an idea
in your head when I talk about “The West.” And then there’s the question of what we mean
by “rise” when we talk about the Rise of the West, which leads us back to the philosophical
question of the nature of history itself. I mean, is history a series of rises and falls,
like the story of the Roman Empire, or is it cyclical, like the Mandate of Heaven narrative
that we saw when we looked at early Chinese history? So you could say, in fact, that the
phrase itself “The Rise of the West” is a little bit Western. The whole thing’s a bit
nebulous. And that makes it a popular subject for historians
to tackle because you can hang a lot of ideas on it. Like, Ian Morris, who teaches at Stanford,
wrote a book called, “Why the West Rules — For Now,” which casts the question in terms of
political, military, and economic dominance. And Victor Davis Hanson made this idea of
dominance more explicit in his book on military history, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles
in the Rise to Western Power, which also offers a pretty straightforward reason why the West
became so powerful: It won a lot of wars. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Another way to think about this question is
in terms of, like, success and failure. That’s how Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson approached
it in their 2012 book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.
These guys had two big ideas. First, that success can be defined by wealth, as well
as political power. And secondly, that when we look at successes, we shouldn’t look at
individuals, or communities, or continents, we should look at nation-states. Now, this book isn’t explicitly about the
West, but if you look at the countries that they’re talking about as successes and failures,
it seems like they’re talking about kind of the same thing we are. Their successful nations
are all in what we think of as “The West,” with a couple of important exceptions in Japan
and Southern Africa. So Acemoğlu teaches economics at MIT and
Robinson teaches government at Harvard, which is important because they’re not, like, academically
trained historians. Some would say that’s an advantage, but you know who wouldn’t say
that? Historians. But anyway, if you’re training is in economics and government, then you’re
going to see history through the lens of economics and politics, in the same that if you’re trained
as accountant you might see history as an indeterminable series of ledgers to be balanced,
which it kind of is. And if you’re say a novelist you’ll probably see history as a series of
narratives and you’ll insert narrative. Even when it doesn’t necessarily exist. How we frame historical questions is extremely
important as is the way we’re trained and the tools we use to try to seek answers. So Acemoğlu and Robinson focus on institutions
and claim that a nation is successful when it’s economic and political institutions are
inclusive. This focus on institutions explains a lot
and it’s very convincing, and it corrects previous theories. For example, Montesquieu’s
idea that tropical nations tend to be poorer either because the people “tended to be lazy
and to lack inquisitiveness” or because diseases and poor soil inhibit economic growth. But
according to Acemoğlu and Robinson the data just doesn’t support Montesquieu’s conclusions. Yeah that’s a little prob… Oooh it’s time
for the open letter! But first let’s see what’s in the globe today. Oh! It’s Montesquieu.
Do you have a first name by the way? Oh, he does, his full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat,
Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, which explains why we only call him Montesquieu.
Anyway, an open letter to Montesquieu. Dear Montesquieu, You had so many good ideas, separation of
powers, that’s a definite winner. You basically coined the word despotism. That’s a great
word, I mean before the word despotism, our only word for that thing was like, government.
But this idea that you had that poor people were doomed to stay poor has proven astonishingly
powerful, and it’s also entirely wrong. Fortunately, Montesquieu, most of us have moved on from your
theories about poverty, although, just recently. Best wishes, John Green. Okay, so let’s talk about these inclusive
institutions that are supposed to be so good for nations. In economics it’s institutions
quote “That enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments
in new technologies and skills.” In other words, the kind we associate with
modern market capitalism, you know, with some regulations. You know, like in the U.S. we
have very open markets, but still Walmart isn’t allowed to sell black tar heroin. They
are allowed to sell guns though. Inclusive political institutions are those
that are characterized by pluralism which means that they include a number of interests
with different political perspectives that can act as checks on executive authority. So success isn’t just about democracy or “majority
rule” as we have lately learned in Iraq; it’s about inclusive pluralism. So the nations that Acemoğlu and Robinson
see as successful are the ones with the most inclusive economies and the most pluralistic
governments. Now they are able to draw a clear correlation,
but it’s a bit harder to say that these particular institutions caused those nations to become
successful. This is the nature of correlation; it’s possible that they could be right that
institutions were necessary for a nation to become rich and powerful, but there may be
other institutions that matter as much or more than the economic and political ones
they identify. Another guy who’s written a lot about this
stuff is Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama also believes that institutions are the key to a nation
state’s success, but in his book The Origins of Political Order he identifies the rule
of law as the institution that underlies all success. To Fukuyama, the critical thing is
that there be a rule of law that is superior to rulers who temporarily happen to command
the state’s armed forces and bureaucracy. If no one is more powerful than the law and
no one can change the law, then inclusive economic institutions and pluralistic political
ones sort of naturally come forth. Now, that’s not all that different from what
Acemoğlu and Robinson described but there is a twist in how Fukuyama gets there. He
argues that the root of the rule of law in Europe as the basis for its institutions is
in religion, specifically the Catholic Church. For him it was the Catholic Church that established
the idea that there was a law that was binding, even to kings, providing the limits that are
the heart of Acemoğlu and Robinson’s pluralistic institutions. And this would push the origins
of the West’s institutional advantages back further than the advent of the nation state,
right, because until recently, religion was far more important to most people than, you know,
nation states or capitalistic economic institutions. Fukuyama, you’ll be surprised to learn, is
a political scientist and classicist by training, so it’s not that much of a surprise that he
finds the roots of the West’s preeminence in governance and classic religious thought. Okay, let’s look at one last example of a
different approach to this historical question. Uh, that guy Ian Morris, who we talked about
earlier, he wrote the book “Why the West Rules — For Now.” He broke down his arguments into
a mathematical formula based on four dimensions: energy capture, how much humans have been
able to use energy beyond their own muscles; social organization, which he derives by measuring
the largest city in a region; information technology, not just the Internet,
also like writing and books; and war making capacity, which we can learn about
through archaeology and also traditional history. And then he combines these numbers to develop
a social development index that describes the West and the East at various points in
history from 14,000 BCE to 2000 CE. Now, Morris is not an economist or a mathematician; he’s
a classically trained historian, but here he is using numbers, not very sophisticatedly
and, uh, lots of criticism of them, but using numbers nonetheless. And I think that speaks
to how data-driven contemporary academics is. We like things that can be quantified. I mean, many of you are teenagers taking AP
World History, and at the end of that, you will take a test that gives you a number between
one and five that tells you how much you know about world history. My number was two, but
hopefully yours will be higher, because I am smarter now than I was then. Now I do wanna note one other thing, which
is that you’ve probably noticed that none of these books question the assumption that
the West has been dominant in the world stage over the last couple centuries. That is also
a question of perspective. Like, from the perspective of non-human residents of Earth,
the West has been a total failure. But there’s a certain set of data we look at when it comes
to humans, like uh, GDP, the total size of a country’s economy; or number of tanks; or
innovation indexes; or life expectancy. Through all of those lenses, the West has come out
on top in the last 200 years. But that leads us to larger questions about why we measure
civilizations and determine winners and losers in the first place and what that does to our
thinking. As Morris points out, one of the problematic
things about reducing human social development to a number is that it can dehumanize individuals.
Now numbers are a great shorthand and they can be very useful for comparisons, like,
I would like to know if my life expectancy would be longer in the United States or in
Canada. Stan informs me that life expectancy is longer in Canada, which doesn’t make any
sense. I always thought that Canada was America’s hat. Turns out that we are Canada’s pants.
Anyway, Stan, we got to move to Canada. But numbers are always incomplete, and too
often we mistake what is easily quantifiable with what is important. Also, when we ask
the question about why the West rules or why Western nations have succeeded, what are we
gonna to do with the answer? Is it for Westerners to congratulate ourselves on a job well done,
or to explain away the astonishing inequality in the world as being so deeply rooted in the
past as to make any efforts to fix it futile? I’d like to think that by understanding what
has made the West more successful in certain ways, we can formulate policies that will
lead to a general improvement, at least in those ways, around the world. But what we’ve
tried to provide here a series of perspectives on a historical question to emphasize the
fact that all history has its perspective. It’s common to use mathematical measures to
analyze contemporary world problems and attempt to find solutions, and that’s a good thing
in many ways. But when it comes to history and politics, mathematical formulas also have
their perspective, and we need to remember that each of those perspectives is necessarily
biased to look at some things and not others. Whether it’s Crash Course or your world history
textbook, it’s important to remember that bias is inherent to the experience of writing
and telling the story of history. So when you see a number or a claim of success
or failure, stop and ask yourself what sorts of information went into that number or into
that conclusion, and just as important, what might have been ignored or missed? Thanks
for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is made here in the Chad and
Stacey Emigholz studio with the help of all of these nice people. It’s also possible because
of your support through Subbable. Subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows
you to support Crash Course directly so we can keep it free for everyone forever, so
please check it out. Thank you again for watching, thanks to all of our Subbable subscribers,
and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.

Comments 100

  • Someone here plays Melee. Or am I the only one who noticed dreamland?

  • props for using the Dream Land image

  • west rules thanks to superior IQ

  • The west rose due to the industrial revolution

  • If America is Canada's pants what is Alaska?

  • basically the west is bad because it was successful
    srsly just because something succeeded doesnt mean its bad

  • i literally spat out my drink when i heard, 'before despotism, the only word we had for it was, like, government'.

  • Why are you less energetic then in this series and not world history ?

  • HIS HAIR!!

  • "Argh if economists know so much about the economy how come they ain't rich?"

    1. Not everyone is motivated by money.
    2. MANY economists are incredibly rich through consultations.
    3. Economists help many people with advantages they don't have (i.e. born rich) become even richer.
    4. If wealth is your definition of success you need to know that many rich people have actively hurt people and liberties for those of us in the lower classes. Does their wealth justify their actions if wealth is the end all be all measure of success?

  • Man and I thought you guys were gonna talk about cowboys

  • Did anyone else notice the GMM shirt in the beginning?

  • Kanye 2020 almost typed kenya i swear im not racist

  • I think "the West" is better named the "Anglosphere", as South American countries are generally not considered Western.

  • Math has opinions until it's not proved. Other things can't be proved.

  • Magna Carta better enforced the concept of the rule of law than the Catholic church ever did!

  • best history course I have taken so far

  • Crash Course confirmed 🌊🌊🌊

  • Isnt funny how in history that the "good guys" always win?

  • Its not all of Europe its just western Europe don't add eastern Europe to that

  • west is great because it is full of lies

  • Strange, ancient China already knew that rule of law was capital to a country's success and that is why Qin state won in the warring states…

  • "In 1776 Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

    Nailed it.

  • He has good mythical morning shirt

  • Microwave-kun


  • John green is a guru

  • So is there an 'East'? Or a 'South'?

  • Could not the existence of these institutions just shows that a Nation did have success? in other words, is it possible the success led to the institutions developing and not the other way around?

  • Canada give him citizenship, please.🛫

  • This is a very interesting comment section. In a good way. Lots of different opinions and debate.

  • When we talk about the rise of the West, we do have to talk about where "the West" started: Western Europe. Factors we need to consider are disease, resources, and geography.

    First I'll start with geography, because that where everything else starts. Western Europe is part of Eurasia, has a ton of peninsulas, has an abundance of natural borders, it has a small amount of high quality land, and it is surrounded by large, centralised states with large armies.
    -It being a part of Eurasia is important because of all the disease resistances that come with the territory.
    -It having a lot of peninsulas means that naval trade and skill will be fairly prevalent.
    -It having a lot of natural borders means that it's relatively difficult to have a large centralised government, which leads to more competition between neighbor states.
    -It having a small amount of high quality land means that the population will grow faster than the farming techniques can evolve, so there will be an internal pressure to seek new land.
    -It being surrounded by large, centralised states means that the overpopulated nations can't expand outwards
    So in summarize the 13th-14th ish century Western Europe, population is very high due to good farmland, but is very densely populated due to the limited amount of land.

    So the overpopulated cities lead to plague, lots of people die. Prices rise due to labour shortages. This brings Western Europe to the stage where trade is immensely more profitable than war. This need for trade, coupled with the rise of the Ottomans (a large, centralised state) leads to the competition for better trade routes. Using the naval techniques that Western Europe has quietly been getting really good at. Thus the Americas are found by Western Europeans, and the disease that the natives had no resistances to, killed off 90% of the population.

    This complete destruction of the Amerindian population and the better military technology brought on by constant wars between competing states allowed for the small armies sent by Western Europe to conquer immense amounts of land, which allowed for a lot of emigration and the collection of resources.

    This new abundance of resources allowed for faster technological advancement, and that coupled with advanced naval technology allowed for vast overseas empires to be built. And thus the West became ascendant.

  • What the f

  • I was hoping for a mention of Jared Diamond…

  • We are Canadas pants. But does that mean if we ever go to war that Canada will be going nude?

  • I had 100% in my National History Final… but then again, Quebec's History is relatively straightforward compared to the US' or, god forbid, France's or the UK's.

  • "Western civilisation" doesn't exist in my book, and I don't want anything to do with the USA. Thank you very much. 🙂

  • He lost me when he said Columbus sailed in the late 17 hundreds.

  • Unless of course you are wait for it. The Mongols.

  • I'm taking AP world history in the 9th grade.

  • Montesquieu's observation on the poverty of the soil and disease near the equator are true and extremely relevant until today. You can have your biases but at least talk about the ongoing debate in a representative manner.

  • wasn't separation of powers just his observation of the English system.

  • I think John from the past was wearing a "Good Mythical Morning" t-shirt
    Did anyone else notice ?

  • Three events within a 50 year period paved the way for Western dominance: Columbus discovering the New World in 1492, Martin Luther starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and Gutenberg inventing the printing press in 1539.

  • It's amazing to think that 97% of all inventions, as well as people of high figure was from the west. Even more amazing that this took only 400 years to achieve.

  • Omg he kind of admitted that the West has came on top

  • You barely scrap the issue and get too lost into (some) narratives and don't even dwell with the actual history. I'm sorry but I had to dislike this one.

    Also "the West" means "Europe", just as clasical "Greece" also includes Syracuse, Marseilles and Myletus, even if these cities were not in Greece proper. I find kind of annoying that you (and others) exclude clearly western countries like Brazil from "the West" and then happily include Japan, WTF?! "The West" is not an economic or development category: it's CULTURAL! And Japan is definitely not part of the Western cultural sphere, while Brazil, Mexico or Venezuela definitely are, at least as much as the USA and Australia.

    My personal take is that Western success is, we like it or not, founded on internal competition between states and individuals, which brought people (and realms) to explore the world and seek profit out of it (sounds horribly Capitalist and it is: Western success is directly linked to the phenomenon of Capitalism even from its proto-capitilistic beginnings in the 15th century). However there is a deeper issue which is that of freedom of thinking, which brings us to the Renaissance at its core and to science as its development (for good and bad, not all is neat benefits, we are destroying the planet thanks to so much applied science and economic success), and this one is directly rooted to religion but in the opposite way to what Fukuyama argues: to opposition to religion and particularly to its totalitarianism over free thought. We can see much of the same in Islam but in reverse order to what happened in Europe: they evolved from scientific illustration to religious obscurantism, while Europe did the opposite and did so against religion.

    There are other issues like what's the role of "relativistic" feminism or republican tendencies (as opposed to absolutist monarchy and clannic feudalism-oligarchy) in all this. I'd say they are non-negligible but would require deep debate, however I believe it is important to underline that the concept of republic (in some cases leaning heavily towards democracy) is particularly strong in the West, with the exception of the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire: the time when the West became "eastern": the West is unthinkable without republics like Athens, Rome or Carthage (yes, I don't care they were Semitic: they partake of the same broad tradition and the Islamic schism only happened later in time) and others not less important like Switzerland, the Dutch Republic, Venice, Florence, Genoa, etc. This "republican undeground tendency" has permeated what the West is when it was successful and was abandoned when it was in deep decay (late Roman Empire to the Renaissance), so IMO it's very important.


  • Spoiler alert – industrialised people trafficking and slave labour 👍🏾

  • Nope, the earth is flat

  • To find out the success of a country, pick a thousand people at random from each country and ask them are you more or less happy. The country with the most yeses is the successful country.

  • I like this channel and the crew does a great job, but in some ways your debates are pretty poor. This is due to the authors and sources you use: they are restricted to American historiographical circles. Some British, French, Latin American or Asian authors wouldn't do harm. Specially for the particular subject of this video it could have been better to quote more historians ( not Morris)

  • This video is packed with deep concepts and leaves the viewer with tools to question all historical claims. It's the best episode of either history Crash Course. Maybe one of the best educational YouTube videos ever.

  • You are awesome! Crash Course is awesome!

  • Lol nerds, tryna act smart

  • Hi John,
    love your videos.
    However, I have to vehemently contradict your statement that the quality of literature can be measured or determined objectively. No literature scholar would ever judge a poem or a novel as being objectively good or bad since these evaluations are completely subjective. Even the criteria that literature critics employ, while having some amount of consensus, are completely arbitrary. The most you could say is that a poem for example is written in a childlike or primitive style or something like that. Literature studies does not evaluate literature but tries to examine it from a neutral scientific standpoint.

    Kind regards 🙂

  • How can John from the PAST wear a Good Mythical Morning shirt when that wouldn’t have existed?

  • A very good informative video about the rise of the west that we are currently studying in history lessons.
    The video was informative and interesting

  • despacitoisme

  • HALP. i am ext lazy & much lack inquisitiveness.

  • "often times, we conflate what is important with what is easily quantifiable"

  • You reminded me of the (possibly apochryphal) story of Mohatma Gandhi, asked what he thought of Western Civilisation : "I think it would be a good idea" !

  • Great stuff, thanks.

  • Fact/Fiction? Martin Eden by Jack London has a lot of facts not revealed in his factual writing. Fiction can sum up out of ranges of fact a compelling idea as the guy with the long hair on maths smoked a pipe j=knew the to light it and how fast he did it as against how the light went by its heels. So? Best, Peter L.

  • Americans, hey? Of course Canada has a better life than the US, they have the advantage of resting on an older civilisation, the UK, for all its gruesome faults, longer. Whilst as Robert Graves says in an essay, the American Revolution came too early whilst the Americans were still unready in any psychological or other aspect. Never read a Truer word my old friend, Robert. Considered himself first a poet and was a great guy too. Best, Peter L.

  • that look like kanye West

  • Read “guns, germs and steal”

  • You could be good at research if you researched how!

  • 4:55 i hate that i thought you were going to say "despacito"

  • Why didn't you mention Jared Diamond?

  • So they go all the way around the world to agregate Australia and let Latin America out. Is almost kind like they're taking out the nations that weren't developed enough to call "west". The societal structure here in Latin America is pretty similar to the rest of "the west" and we inherited the European values and religions. We just were explored the hell out of.

    This "west" thing is like a club of the richest. For the most part of history eastern civilizations were more advanced, and even today is hard to exclude China, Japan and South Korea from the "developed world". Also, isn't that kind of odd that the nations outside Europe to receive this west label are the ones that weren't exploration colonies?

  • I have to say your work made me love world history. Although I'm not scheduled to take AP world history this year (I took Statistics, Macro&Micro Economics instead, which I can hardly say it's fun :P) I'm definitely going to take the AP world history next year! THX again for showing me how fun history can be.

  • Good Mythical Morning.


  • At 0.6 seconds John from the past is wearing a good mythical morning tee shirt and wow! I’m a huge fan of both these channels!

  • here i come canada… if you exist

  • 1776🤩

  • "you'll never be a writer"
    writes the fault in our stars and becomes a multi millionaire

  • you're pronouncing acemoğlu wrong

  • Latin America is part of the West.

  • machine kills fascists…..? but is fine with terrorists…pathetic

  • i was anticipating that novelist thing this time

  • lol, the "problem" of the rise of the West. Oh Crash Course, you were ahead of your time with the anti-West hate train. Disappointing.

  • Very few handled happiness as a number and defined it to all of us, the measure of happiness in a society.

  • CrashCourse tries to define success in the terms on some good political values. But I will say that when we talk of the success of culture X or nation Y, it's made in darwinian sense.

  • great video, i like Crash Coures

  • Why is Latin America not considered western

  • crash course has biggest impact on the world in recent decade. it changes the way we see YouTube technology and education. thanks to green brothers

  • Lmfao… love green. His mind has walked past the looking glass…

  • appreciate the recognition given to Botswana

  • Its a cycle for some centuries west will be winner, then comes chinease and when chinease lose, then middle east, then again west this was the trend but i dont know how globilisation south amarica and africas will come in future?

  • “BCE and CE is stupid”- Me, 2019

  • 11:53 “From non-human inhabitants perspective, the West has been a total failure”….Shows picture of an animal from…Africa.
    Guess who funds the most conservation and environmental projects? Oh….right…the West.

  • How is the 'cultural west' the geographical location that is 'the west'? A live demonstration of 'fact …to opinion': Geographical location becomes 'cultural' 'location'…seems…I like to see these guys 'span'…I don't know where they learned how to "span"……….ouch.

  • He should have mentioned Toynbee and Spengler.

  • The West is the best

  • This guy always leans to the left no matter what the subject. He never stops virtue signaling to his new age leftist liberal buddies.

  • Basically… Europe won the game and everyone hates them for it

  • God, the rule of law and a free market…

  • jesus. This "man" is an example of why all great civilization crumble. When a people get fat and rich they begin to take everything for granted, don't put things in perspective. They lose the spirit and desire that got them where they are, think it will just be this way. Rome ruled the world for near 1000 years & we only apporx 250. We aint makin it no 1000 yrs. excuse my sland.

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