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The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, Part 3 
Hegel & the Struggle for Recognition

hegel2

G. W. F. Hegel, 1770-1831

4,986 words

Part 3 of 5

Ricardo Duchesne
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
Leiden: Brill, 2011

7. Hegel and the Struggle for Recognition

Duchesne discusses the nature of the “struggle for prestige,” and its role in shaping the Western character, in terms of a unique interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. And here I will pause for a moment simply to note that this is one of the features that makes his book so impressive. On top of everything else – his survey of the historical literature of several decades, demolition of revisionist histories, refutation of cultural relativism, survey of Western achievements, and discussions of figures like Weber and Spengler – we are treated to an original interpretation of perhaps the most difficult text in Western philosophy. (And Duchesne will go on to surprise and impress us in other ways as well.)

The Phenomenology of Spirit is traditionally understood to be an account of the process by which humanity comes to consciousness of its own nature as self-knowing and self-determining. (“Spirit,” Geist, is nothing supernatural: it simply refers to the human spirit or human nature.) The Phenomenology can’t accurately be described as an intellectual history of human consciousness, because although Hegel sometimes discusses actual historical movements he does not move in chronological order, and often it is not at all obvious how what is under discussion refers to concrete historical phenomena. It would be closer to the truth to see the Phenomenology as a “natural history” of human consciousness, surveying its various forms, and showing how their telos must be seen as the achievement of a standpoint in which human beings are in full possession of themselves; fully aware of what they are.

Duchesne makes the radical suggestion, however, that what Hegel is really doing is a phenomenology of the Western spirit (p. 302).  He notes, correctly, that when Hegel makes explicit references to historical figures, events, and intellectual movements, he refers exclusively to those that appear in Western history. To be sure, Hegel never says that he is describing the Western spirit alone; he frames things in universalist terms, talking of “humanity,” and of such things as “reason,” which are implied to be universal human possessions. Duchesne argues, however, that everything Hegel says about “spirit” (and about “reason”) applies to the West almost exclusively. And he argues, further, that Hegel is one of a long list of Western philosophers who have simply (and often naively) projected features of the Western spirit onto “humanity” as a whole. (This is a fascinating thesis, and one that I shall explore at greater length in a later section.)

Duchesne tells us that in the Phenomenology Hegel portrays spirit “as if it were in a state of dissatisfaction and alienation, ceaselessly pressing ahead, trying to understand, overcome, and sublimate every non-conceptualized unknown it encountered” (p. 302). It seeks to take everything in; to know and to control the whole. And Spirit is, furthermore, characterized by a kind of “negativity” about itself, perpetually questioning itself. Its aim seems to be a radical sort of freedom, in which it has cancelled all difference, everything that might place a limit on its ability to re-form itself according to its own self-grounding principles and designs. Sound familiar?

Duchesne writes, further:

What drew Hegel’s attention was the seemingly restless desire of Western reason to become fully conscious of itself as free activity. It was this desire to be the source of its own assumptions and principles that drove Western reason forward until it brought into existence a culture wherein individuals enjoyed freedom of inquiry, tolerance of diverse views, and meritorious achievement. According to Hegel, [Western] individuals become what they are potentially – rationally self-conscious agents – when they recognize themselves as free in their institutions and laws. (p. 303; first instance of italics added)

In other words, Hegel gives us an account of how the “human spirit” restlessly seeks to free itself of all encumbrances, to achieve total knowledge of itself and the conditions that make it possible, and to become self-legitimating. This process reaches its goal when spirit creates a philosophy (Hegel’s) and a social structure which truly recognize men as free and self-determining. But Duchesne’s thesis is that it is, in effect, really Western spirit that Hegel is describing, and he is actually telling the tale of how Western spirit gave rise to a fully adequate self-understanding, reflected in the coming-into-being of classical liberal, democratic states.[1]

Hegel believed that spirit had come into full possession of itself in his own time, through the increasing democratization of European society inaugurated violently by the French Revolution. And he seems to have taken the position that this development marks the “end of history.” This is a controversial interpretation among Hegel scholars. Also, the idea of an “end” to history strikes most people as absurd, because it seems to suggest that things have just stopped happening. But the idea makes sense if one understands history, as Hegel did, as the process by which man achieves consciousness of himself as free. If we have achieved that consciousness, and developed institutions that reflect it, it is indeed difficult to see how anything fundamental remains to be developed, so far as our institutions and our self-understanding go.

My readers are likely to be quite unsympathetic to Hegel’s idea that the goal of history is the development of liberal, democratic states. And they are even less likely to side with him in thinking that our modern institutions reflect an adequate human self-conception. Nevertheless, however one evaluates our modern institutions, it really is quite plausible to see how they are indeed the culmination of certain Western tendencies of thought and action. Even if we wish to reject modern liberalism, it does seem as if it is the result of something in us; something peculiarly Western. (Readers who find themselves immediately resisting this claim should withhold judgment until they’ve read my discussion, in sections nine and ten, of the development of the Western conception of self and of Western political institutions.)

So if, for the moment, we tentatively accept the idea that Western history does have the pattern and the telos that Hegel imputes to it, let’s now turn our attention to how the whole process began. For Hegel’s it is account of our remotest, primal origins that is really what is most important for Duchesne.

For Hegel, human history (or, perhaps, Western history) begins with a struggle between two individuals, who represent basic human types. This is the famous “master-slave dialectic” of the Phenomenology. “Master” is Herr and “Slave” is Knecht, and, predictably, Hegel scholars have endlessly debated the proper translations of these terms. It is entirely correct, for example, to point out that Herr might be better translated as “lord” and Knecht as “servant.” But I will stick with the most familiar translations, as Duchesne does, and refer to “master” and “slave.” It is the struggle between these two that constitutes Hegel’s “state of nature” – an answer, in effect, to the highly implausible states of nature dreamed of by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. That this is Hegel’s state of nature is seldom recognized by Hegel scholars, who take the discussion to be mainly about modern epistemological concerns. But Hegel signals that he wants to be interpreted this way when he writes elsewhere “the fight for recognition [between master and slave] . . . can only occur in the natural state, where men exist only as single, separate individuals” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 326; italics added).

In brief: two men engage in a life or death struggle with each other. What has occasioned the struggle is unimportant. Suffice it to say that there is some dispute between them (perhaps a dispute over ownership). Each wants to compel the recognition of the other; to demand the other’s respect and admission of his right in the matter. It is, in short, an affair of honor. One yields to the other, thereby becoming his servant or slave. What characterizes him? He values his physical survival more than his honor; his fear and his love of life are greater than his ideals, his self-respect. The “master” is the reverse: he is willing to die for an ideal, for his honor. Following Alexandre Kojève’s controversial interpretation, Duchesne takes Hegel to be claiming that in this primal struggle human spirit (and human self-consciousness) first emerge. It is only when man negates the animal in himself – the desire for self-preservation – for the sake of something that doesn’t physically exist (an ideal) that human nature is born.

In this act, man first turns toward the idea, which only exists for man, and toward himself. For he must self-consciously choose to deny his fear and his love of life, for the sake of his ideal conception of himself, his honor. The struggle for recognition is thus the birth of human self-consciousness. For Hegel, the “political” result of the struggle is the coming into being of hierarchy: some are enslaved to others. But in a real sense one man is “master” not because he masters another, but because he masters his own animal drives. And, fundamentally, the other man loses the struggle because he is a slave to those same drives.

When Hegel develops the dialectic beyond this initial stage, however, he argues that the slave eventually turns the tables on his master. The master desires recognition, but he cannot value the recognition of an inferior. So, he abandons himself to sensual pleasure and becomes the sort effete aristocrat with whom Hegel was familiar. Meanwhile the slave, put to work by the master, creates culture, seeking different means of obtaining true freedom (and recognition) for himself – a process that culminates in the coming into being of the modern, liberal-democratic state.

However, it is when the dialectic twists and turns beyond the initial struggle for recognition that Duchesne parts company with Hegel (or, rather, with Kojève’s quasi-Marxist reading of Hegel). To name just one problem – to which we shall return later – it is absurd to claim that Western culture is the product of either de jure or de facto “servants,” given the overrepresentation of men of aristocratic birth in the history of Western philosophy, science, and art. (This is a point that really demands a book in itself.)

But the more serious problem here is with Hegel’s claim that the master is unable to achieve his desire for recognition, since he has made a slave of the only person who could give it to him. This is simply a non-sequitur, for as Duchesne asks (echoing the Hegel scholar Allen W. Wood) why can’t the master receive recognition from his peers, i.e. from other masterly men? This obvious problem points to what seems to be a serious misunderstanding, on Hegel’s part, of the psychology of the aristocratic master type.

Francis Fukuyama commits the same fallacy in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992), an otherwise very valuable book which is heavily indebted to Kojève’s reading of Hegel. Fukuyama suggests that the historical contributions of aristocratic masters were quite brief and unfruitful, since they went on to lead parasitic lives. And when Fukuyama discusses the master type he uses as examples men like Stalin and Mao, who were megalomaniacs moved by a narcissistic desire to subjugate everyone around them, and were quite content to receive the adulation of inferiors.

What Hegel-Kojève-Fukuyama fail to understand is that the aristocratic master desires recognition of his worth by similar men possessing equal worth. “Masters” in the mold of Stalin and Mao are actually slavishly dependent on the approval of others – any and all others. (They are “second-handers,” as Ayn Rand would have said.) A true aristocrat may (and should) give a damn about the plebes, but he doesn’t give a damn about what they think of him. Why? Because their judgment is incorrigibly plebian; not concerned uppermost with ideals like honor, but with the mundane, the trivial, and the material. As Hegel himself astutely observed, “No man is a hero to his valet – not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”[2]

Further, Fukuyama falsely asserts that aristocratic societies were to be found “the world over.” In fact, Duchesne argues that what we find in the West is a unique form of aristocracy in which the lords were free men, not mere vassals to a king, and the king was “first among equals.” Taking his inspiration from a suitably modified Hegel, Duchesne envisions the Western state of nature as one in which free and equal Indo-European aristocratic berserkers competed with one another for prestige – each trying to outdo the others, to achieve personal glory and personal immortality through the words of the poets who recorded their deeds.

It is from this primordial Indo-European struggle for recognition that Western history flows, along with all of its achievements. All that is unique about us is founded ultimately on our deep, thumotic desire to have our worth and dignity recognized. And all our Western greatness is founded on the fact that some men have felt the desire not just to be recognized as “equal,” but as better – but, again, only by those whose recognition is worth a damn. The first such men to feel these stirrings were the original Indo-European aristocratic warriors.

Duchesne writes:

I will argue . . . that the beginnings of self-consciousness presuppose the historical existence of self-assertive characters living in a heroic culture. The unceasing aristocratic desire for personal distinction was, in fact, the basis for the awakening of human self-consciousness and the eventual formation of an integrated personality capable of understanding the opposition between the “natural” and the “mental” world, leading to the dialectic of Western reason and freedom, which Hegel captured in his Phenomenology of the [Western] Spirit. (p. 332; bracketed insertion is Duchesne’s)

Now, Duchesne is obviously not claiming that only Westerners have thumos. One thinks, for example, of the Japanese Samurai, who seem to have been about as thumotic a bunch as one could imagine – fighting duels and even taking their own lives over honor. Yet the samurai were unlike Indo-European warrior aristocrats in at least one crucial respect: they swore complete and total vassalage to their lord. Their bondage (no other word will do) was so complete they were expected to commit suicide if their lord fell in battle. And living as an exemplary samurai was not a means to personal glory or distinction: it was conceived rather as a Zen path to the effacing of one’s individuality.  As Hagakure states, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. . . . [The Samurai] has already given up his life and has become one with his lord.”

Western thumos seems to be different both in degree and in kind from the thumos we find elsewhere. Westerners are simply far more prone to rebel against authority and to demand recognition of their personal honor and dignity (no Western nobleman would ever have stood for the kind of treatment meted out by Japanese lords to their aristocratic, Samurai vassals). And, to get down to brass tacks, we are also just much more prone to pick fights. Further, our thumotic nature has a peculiarly individualistic twist to it. Our aristocratic warrior ancestors did not just demand that others treat them with the honor appropriate to their social station – they wanted to be honored as distinctive and unique individuals. Duchesne argues essentially that the uniqueness of Western culture flows from the uniqueness of our thumos: both its matchless ferocity, and its peculiar character.

8. The Indo-European Roots

Duchesne writes that “it is only in reference to Indo-European aristocratic berserkers that we can speak in Hegelian terms of a fight to the death for the sake of pure prestige” (p. 387). And he gets a little help from Nietzsche (to whom we will return later on): “The noble caste was in the beginning the barbarian caste: their superiority lay not in their physical strength, but primarily in their psychical – they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means as much as ‘more complete beasts’)” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 341).

Of course, any discussion of the Indo-Europeans in academic circles is automatically fraught with controversy. In case you are unaware, gentle reader, the reason for this is that the Indo-Europeans are the same people scholars used to refer to as the Aryans: the ancient ancestors of today’s Europeans, whose homeland was probably the Pontic-Caspian steppe. That the Indo-Europeans existed as a genetically-distinct ethnic group is undeniable. But to admit this, of course, is tantamount to admitting that there is (or was) an “Aryan race.”

Thus, while there are still quite a few scholars devoting themselves, in one way or another, to “Indo-European studies,” they are at great pains to make sure that they say nothing that might cause other academics to suspect them of Far Right sympathies. This is taken to such extremes that many scholars tend to avoid any talk of an Indo-European people or culture at all, and instead treat “Indo-European” merely as a linguistic marker. For the uninitiated, the Indo-European language family comprises most of the languages of Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and the Iranian plateau. In one way or another, these languages are all derived from an original Indo-European language (dubbed “Proto-Indo-European” by linguists).

But how did the dispersal of the original Indo-European language take place? This is perhaps the touchiest question of all in Indo-European studies. Clearly, it had to have happened due to the dispersion of the Indo-Europeans themselves, but it is the nature of this dispersion that is so controversial. Duchesne asks “how do we explain the incredible superimposition of Indo-European languages on a majority of substrate speakers by a minority of pastoral peoples who had expanded over territories many times greater than their original homelands?” (p. 346).

The obvious answer is that the Indo-Europeans conquered all these “substrate” speakers. (And this answer is well-supported by the existing evidence, archaeological and otherwise.) But Indo-Europeanists avoid embracing the obvious at all costs, since – to put the matter bluntly – it might cause us to be rather impressed by our barbarian ancestors. One politically correct scholar insists that the migrations of the Indo-Europeans “must not be seen as victorious expeditions of conquerors” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 347; emphasis in original). “But isn’t this exactly what they were?” one might ask. Yes, but – again – certain thoughts must simply be forbidden in academia, even if they are supported by huge burial mounds full of evidence. Duchesne notes that J. P. Mallory – possibly the most influential scholar in the field today – carefully avoids suggesting that the Indo-Europeans were conquerors. So, what alternative explanation do the revisionists offer for the Indo-European migrations? You guessed it: scarcity. They needed more food.

Once again, we encounter the narrow, materialist view of the revisionists: it could not possibly be something like the desire for glory or adventure that moved our ancestors to expand outwards. It must instead have been the sort of concerns that preoccupy Assistant Professors struggling to support a family on a starting salary of thirty-five thousand dollars per annum. Unsurprisingly, however, Duchesne shows that the very same professors have no trouble extolling the “exceptionally dynamic, expansionist culture” and warrior prowess of non-Indo-European peoples of the steppes, such as the Mongols and the Huns (p. 348).

One exception to this trend is the late Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), the notorious Lithuanian archeologist who theorized that the pre-Indo-European peoples of Europe had developed a “Goddess religion,” and lived in matriarchal societies. Most scholars regard this viewpoint as having only slightly more credibility than Margaret Murray’s “witch-cult hypothesis,” and as similarly based on wishful thinking. Nevertheless, Gimbutas seems to have seen the Indo-European invaders correctly as patriarchal conquerors. (Though for her, of course, they are the villains of the piece.)

Duchesne’s own explanation for the Indo-European migrations is simple. He argues that the available evidence indicates that barbarian Indo-European culture valued individual prowess above all else. Its men consequently felt driven to distinguish themselves through heroic deeds, sometimes reaching as far as foreign lands. But not just any men: men of noble birth. As I have already noted Duchesne argues that Indo-European aristocracy was unique in that its nobles were essentially free men ruled by a king who was first among equals.

And this king was no despot; not only was he was expected to settle many matters in consultation with his nobles, often he was chosen by them. The “founding fathers” of the West were aristocratic warriors, not “democratic citizens” (as most historians have claimed). For the democratic values of Athens were actually a transformation of the ethos of the ancient Indo-European nobles, who asserted their right to be consulted, to hold councils, and to decide matters in common. Duchesne makes the valid point that Georges Dumézil, in his theory of “Indo-European tripartition” should have noted the unique, “libertarian” nature of Indo-European sovereignty – rather than simply stating that the “first function” is “sovereignty,” which hardly serves to distinguish the Indo-European peoples from others at all.

But what made Indo-European aristocracy unique was not just this “democratic” element. It was also the idea that it was not just the king whose praises could be sung. All men of noble birth sought glory, and were honored for their exploits. Duchesne refers to the aristocratic Indo-European ethos as one in which “fighting and voluntarily risking one’s life was the essential ground of being worthy of respect and honor as a man of noble birth” (p. 368). If one looks at “aristocracies” among other peoples, one finds that the king always reigns supreme, and that the nobles are wholly subordinate to him. It is only the king’s exploits that are immortalized, and no nobleman would dare try to outshine him. Insofar as the nobles achieve any distinction at all, it is solely through service to the king (the ultimate service being giving up one’s life for him).

Duchesne spends quite a bit of time discussing the warrior elites of Bronze Age Europe, who were honor-bound to confirm their social status through the Hegelian “struggle for recognition.” To see this vividly depicted, one need only turn to Homer. Duchesne notes the presence in Homer of biographical accounts of warriors and their families. This celebration of the individual is wholly lacking in Near Eastern literature. And in considering this characteristic of Homer, we are inevitably led to think of the Icelandic saga literature – which provides even better illustrations of the “individualism” Duchesne emphasizes. He devotes a long footnote on page 439 to a list of similarities between Greek and Germanic heroic tales and traits. In all these Indo-European societies, we find men preoccupied with honor, with their legacy, and with the judgment of other “masters.”[3]

Even the Indo-European mode of fighting was individualistic. Consider, for example, the Germanic berserkers. And the Celts were famous for fighting naked. In both groups it was thought that the less protected the body, the greater the honor. Why? The answer is obvious: it was a way in which they could show their fearlessness and contempt for life, for mere biological survival. This is perhaps the clearest and most vivid historical example one can find to illustrate Hegel’s “master.”

Duchesne quotes a number of primary sources, including Roman writings and sagas, speaking of “the freedom . . . to outdo other warriors” as “the greatest happiness”; a life without heroic deeds was the “greatest grief,” etc. (p. 369). The Lesson of the High One in the Poetic Edda teaches (as Duchesne puts it) that “the most important thing in the life of the hero is not property, nor relatives, nor life itself, but his acts as an individual and whether they bring him glory and reputation” (p. 438). And in Beowulf we find the following: “As we must all expect to leave our life on this earth, we must earn some renown, if we can before death; daring is the thing for a fighting man to be remembered by. . . . A man must act so when he means to frame himself a long lasting glory; it is not life he thinks of” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 438).

One of the extraordinary characteristics of our barbarian ancestors is that they did not just desire the recognition of their immediate peers. They desired the recognition of generations of peers yet to be born. They desired a kind of personal immortality, established through the recollection of their deeds. For this, of course, poets were necessary, men who would record these deeds in verse. As a result of this, poetry and song were greatly valued in Indo-European barbarian culture. Though here too thumos reigned: the poets themselves were a kind of warrior, competing against other poets and striving for prestige; striving to be the best. Their job was to glorify the heroes – and the gods.

Surprisingly, Duchesne draws upon Heidegger to explicate what this glorification truly meant. In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger writes that “To glorify, to attribute regard to, and disclose regard means in Greek: to place in the light and thus endow permanence, being. For the Greeks, glory was not something additional which one might or might not obtain; it was the mode of the highest being” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 456). This is a passage pregnant with implications for how we should understand what it meant to be in the ancient Indo-European warrior culture. Heidegger is suggesting that true being involved eternity or permanence (which is certainly how the earliest Western philosophers conceived of being). The successful warrior, whose deeds are glorified, achieves the highest being – even if he loses his life. But for this, again, the poets were necessary.

And Duchesne notes an interesting connection between heroism and the form of poetry Aristotle regarded as highest and best: tragedy. Both require “a culture in which some individuals are free to set themselves apart from others. Tragedy is a form of literature that expresses acutely the inescapable sacrifices and limitations entailed in the human effort to achieve greatness” (p. 404). In the tragedy we again see the characteristic focus on, and celebration of the individual – even the individual who comes to ruin. The Greek audience felt pity for the tragic character because they identified with his desire to achieve greatness. And they recognized that, placed in a similar situation, they too could fall into hubris and be undone by their own faults. The lesson of the tragedy is not that those who strive for greatness are doomed, therefore we shouldn’t try. The tragedy recognizes instead that our striving for greatness will never cease, and that it can be won – but only at great, sometimes terrible price.

One of the major virtues of Duchesne’s book is that it forces us to reflect on what is unique about the Western character, in terms we may never before have considered. It is extremely common, for example, for Westerners to project their characteristics onto humanity as a whole, and to assume that their feelings and drives and values are entirely universal. (As we shall see, this runs throughout the entire history of Western philosophy, and is one of the driving forces behind Western liberalism, multiculturalism, and revisionist scholarship.) For example, accounts of Greek tragedy commonly speak of how it treats of “universal” human characteristics and concerns. It is true that Oedipus the King can be appreciated, on more than one level, by non-Westerners. But the play itself is about a character who represents the Western spirit itself: striving ceaselessly and heedlessly to know, until he is destroyed by knowing.

We must guard against “universalizing” ourselves. And Duchesne’s book is a great corrective for this tendency. One way in which he accomplishes this – quite masterfully, in fact – is to set the West alongside other cultures and to draw stark contrasts. And so at some length he contrasts the Indo-European (especially Greek) characteristics just discussed with those of the ancient Near Eastern peoples. In contrast to the Greeks, the Mesopotamians essentially saw man as an impotent plaything of divine, cosmic forces. The gods of the Mesopotamians were fearful and remote, while the gods of the Greeks had human form, with human emotions and foibles. The Greeks regarded their gods with awe, but not terror. Greek myth is often seen as “fatalistic,” but Duchesne points out that the Greeks saw men as choosing their own fate or destiny (as in the tragic hero), rather than simply following a fate mapped out in advance by impersonal forces.

In contrast to the Indo-Europeans, the Near East placed very little importance on the individual. Egyptian monuments are covered in encomia to whatever pharaoh built them. But conspicuously absent – even from tombs – are family lineages, recalling the deeds or virtues of the pharaoh’s forebears. And the pharaohs ruled with absolute power. There were no “free aristocrats” striving for recognition in the Near East – and so no material for heroic epics. One might offer Gilgamesh as a counterexample, but Duchesne’s incisive analysis makes short work of it. On the surface, Gilgamesh is striving for immortality, like the heroes of the sagas. But the latter sought immortality through noble deeds. Gilgamesh, by contrast, seeks a literal, physical immorality through a plant that lies at the bottom of the sea. The heroes of the sagas cared nothing for long life: they preferred a short and glorious one, and had only contempt for old men who died “straw deaths.” Think of how much contempt they would have had for a man who artificially prolonged his physical existence, out of love of life and fear of death. (And, when you’re done with that, think of how much contempt they would have had for us.)

The characterization of Gilgamesh as a king is also revealing. Though the epic celebrates Gligamesh’s kingship, it is clear that he is nothing more than a tyrant. The text tells us that “his lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble” (quoted in Duchesne p. 413). Fittingly, Duchesne contrasts Gilgamesh to Homer’s Agamemnon, whose troubles begin when he steals Achilles’s girl. Much of the Iliad is occupied with the consequences of Agamemnon’s theft, which results in Achilles and his followers refusing to fight. A vassal refuses to fight for his king, because the king has violated his honor. In any other cultural context these events would be unthinkable. (Or the epic would be a lot shorter, as Achilles would simply have lost his head – but Agamemnon knows that he is no absolute monarch, and that the other nobles would never stand for this!)

Of course, not all historians have seen our barbarian ancestors as “individualist” and “libertarian.” Classicists like Bruno Snell and Richard Onians have argued, in fact, that the barbarians were actually “unconscious”; that they did not really possess a full-developed sense of individual identity. The most extreme case of this has to be an author Duchesne does not mention, the late Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. In his provocative book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Jaynes drew on some of the same evidence cited by Snell, et al., to argue that Homeric man had no personal autonomy at all, and hallucinated the voices of gods telling him what to do.

Such claims are based largely upon cherry picking evidence from ancient texts, and upon pure wooly speculation. They are easily refuted by a careful study of the ancient materials available to us (actually, even by a cursory study – since they are quite clearly the product of self-aware human beings!).

More serious, however, is the claim that the Indo-European barbarians saw themselves exclusively in terms of their caste, or social role. That the ancient Indo-Europeans did have strict caste divisions and rules is well-known. But modern, Western scholars, living in socially-mobile liberal societies, falsely assume that the presence of a caste system must be incompatible with any sense of individuality or any celebration of the individual as individual.

In fact, the caste system simply defined the parameters within which individuals could distinguish themselves and gain renown. As Hegel would put it (the Hegel of The Philosophy of Right), the “determination” of the caste role was the condition for the expression of the individual’s freedom. There is no such thing as an abstract, contentless, and unconditioned freedom: freedom is always freedom to be something definite. It must start from some definite context, and involve a choice made from among a number of defined options. It is only within such a context that we are free, but we can never be free of a context. Hence the larval, unformed state of modern man: free to be “anything” he winds up being nothing.

The freedom our barbarian, warrior ancestors sought was the freedom to be what they were: warriors. Their being was defined by their social role, but it was a being that had to be won through deeds. And there were degrees of being: some men’s deeds were greater than others, and achieved an eternity (again, though being remembered) not available to others. Of course, some men were simply more fortunate than others (had Sigurd taken a different path through the forest, he might not have run into that dragon). But mainly it came down to the degree of a man’s desire for glory; the strength of his thumos. And this is a property that is most definitely not the same in all men.

The desire for recognition is not developed equally in everyone, nor is it the quite the same thing in everyone. Duchesne brings in Fukuyama’s distinction between isothymia, the desire to recognized as equal, and megalothymia, the desire to be recognized as greater. The former is essentially the thumos of slaves, and it is only this sort of recognition that is satisfied at the “end of history,” with the establishment of liberal, democratic states. One might say that according to Hegel-Kojève history begins with the megalothymia of the masters, and ends with the satisfaction of the isothymia of the slaves. But according to Duchesne, it is simply false to suggest that what has driven history, and brought about the extraordinary achievements of the west, is isothymia. On the contrary, it was always the desire of some men to set themselves over others as the best.

And we must also consider that if some men are more thumotic (i.e., megalothymotic) than others, it may also be true that some peoples are more thumotic than others. This is the bold suggestion that Duchesne makes, though he is cautious here and uses the language of “culture,” asking “may it not also be the case that this desire has been unevenly manifested by the cultures of the world?” (p. 420). He writes elsewhere in the text: “here I am suggesting that ‘the West’ is a cultural term without fixed geographical and ethnic boundaries” (pp. 237-38). But we have to ask: where does culture come from? Why do some peoples create (or manifest) cultures markedly different from others?

The revisionists will answer that they encountered different environmental conditions. And this is at least partly true. Each culture is the product of an encounter between a people and an environment with its own set of features and limitations intrinsic to it. But the people that encounters that environment does not do so tabula rasa: peoples have their own intrinsic features and limitations that they bring to the encounter. (Though, as evolution teaches us, what results may further shape their character.) Cultures are not abstract ideologies that can be created by or imposed upon any people: they flow from the unique nature of a people, in its encounter with a unique place.

The evidence marshaled by Duchesne points unavoidably to the conclusion that European cultural uniqueness is a product of the nature of European people, which is not a cultural artifact but, again, that from which culture flows. Of course, the belief in “national character” or in intrinsic ethnic or racial characteristics is absolutely anathema in academia, however much obvious truth there may be in it. And Duchesne has courted enough controversy, as we have seen. So, wisely, he leaves this topic alone.

Yet, he goes pretty far nonetheless, asking on page 420: “Is it possible to argue with Nietzsche [i.e., in agreement with him] that not all cultures are equally proficient in the production of creative individuals?  Can we not add to Nietzsche that the West produced the ‘highest exemplars’ of humanity due to its singular aristocratic grounding?”

Notes 

1. Whether or not Hegel was aware that this was really the tale he was telling is a complicated issue. To be sure, it seems as if he is describing humanity in general and speaking of general human characteristics (like “reason”). However, one has to bear in mind that when Hegel turns, in other texts, to describe the world’s peoples, he asserts that what he calls the “Germanic peoples” (i.e., Western Europeans) are the principle carriers and developers of “spirit” and “reason.” Other peoples (e.g., the Chinese, who live under a system of “oriental despotism”) are only implicitly free and self-determining. Hegel recognizes that there are such things as differing national characters. And contrary to the claims of many of his interpreters, he never explicitly claims that non-Westerners will inevitably catch up with Westerners and develop the sort of institutions and self-understanding that we have. Thus, Hegel may have been well aware that when he was describing “human spirit” he was actually describing the West, since he clearly took the mentality of the West as the most full-developed exemplar of the spirit only imperfectly and inadequately exhibited by other peoples. Derek Hawthorne’s essay “Nationalism and Racialism in German Philosophy: Fichte, Hegel, and the Romantics” discusses some of these issues.

2. Paraphrased from Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 32.

3. Of course, most of the heroic exploits of the barbarians involved the acquisition of what anthropologists have dubbed “prestige goods.” Predictably, the revisionists claim that it was the possession of these goods that was the source of the prestige of the warrior. But here the revisionists are simply confused, as Duchesne clearly demonstrates. The acquisition of “booty” was not a means to prestige. Rather the possession of booty served as a symbol of one’s success in warfare. And it was success in warfare that was what resulted in prestige.

To be continued . . .

 

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