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The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, Part 4 
The Construction of the Western Self

Clemency of Marcus Aurelius, detail, Capitoline Museum

Clemency of Marcus Aurelius, detail, Capitoline Museum

3,381 words

Part 4 of 5

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

9. The Legacy of the Indo-Europeans: The Construction of the Western Self

In this section and in the next I will discuss how Duchesne understands the thumotic warrior spirit of the ancient Indo-Europeans to have shaped Western history. The present section is devoted to the development of the Western self-understanding, preeminently through philosophy. The following section deals with the development of Western political institutions.

Duchesne writes near the end of the book, “My view is that the restlessness of barbarian individuals was the primordial source of all that has been noble and great in Western civilization. Plato was the product of this individualism; his effort to subordinate the warrior ethos to the faculty of reason was an expression of his desire to achieve rational mastery” (p. 441). This statement is rich with implications not just for our understanding of Plato, but of Western philosophy itself.

What Duchesne is referring to primarily is the famous treatment of justice in Book Four of The Republic. There, the soul is said to have three parts, appetite (for food, sex, money, etc.), reason, and spirit (thumos). Those whose souls are dominated by thumos are made into the warrior class of Plato’s ideal city (which, in certain ways, clearly reflects Dumézil’s traditional Indo-European “tripartition”). But in both the city and the soul, reason must guide thumos. It does not cancel thumos or eradicate it: it channels and controls thumos. But in a certain sense the desire to achieve this state is itself thumotic: it is a desire, as Duchesne says, for self-mastery. It is thumos directed not against an internal troublemaker, but against an internal one. The “rational man” cannot achieve the mastery of thumos without the cooperation of thumos; he cannot win this mastery without a clear ideal of the man he should be, and an unyielding pride that pushes him to achieve it.

But how exactly did we get from the thumos of the berserker to the thumos of Socrates? How exactly did warlike, Indo-European culture give birth to philosophy and science? Here we must engage in a good bit of speculation, but Duchesne’s speculations are quite plausible. He argues that “The exalted state of berserker inspiration associated with the fight for pure prestige, together with the entire Indo-European way of life, had a profound effect on the constitution of the human personality, awakening within it a sense of human ‘inwardness’ and thereby leading to the discovery of the mind” (p. 431).

What Hegel called “being-for-self,” or self-consciousness, emerges through desire. I desire to eat this particular animal, but he is too wily for me and evades my attempts to capture him. So I “turn inward” and consider whether I am not going about things the wrong way. Frustration leads to reflection on the self, however primitive that reflection may be. Of course, many animals are capable of this sort of self-reflection.

Human self-consciousness only truly emerges when human beings conceive of an ideal like honor, and fight for its recognition. Why? Because to have such an ideal that I fight for involves having a conception of myself that I choose to defend or advance. This is the germ of all the more elaborate self-conceptions that will follow in Western intellectual history. (It is the germ of Plato’s self-conception: the master who must vanquish the other, in the name of his honor, becomes the master who must vanquish the other within himself, overweening spirit and desire.) It all begins when individuals first fight for their name, their honor, their reputation. But, of course, this is far more likely to happen in a society of free, warlike individuals whose social place depends upon fighting for such ideals. Thus, oddly enough, it is to the ancient, barbarian culture of the Indo-Europeans that we must look for the origins of what Hegel called Absolute Spirit: the human quest for self-consciousness, which includes philosophy.[1]

But in arguing this way, Duchesne has actually switched allegiances from Hegel to Nietzsche (and he knows it). It was not “slaves” that created Western culture and the Western self-conception. It was masters who “first achieved self-mastery over their willful nature and thereby created the ‘Greek miracle’” (p. 441). Duchesne follows Nietzsche in arguing that culture is not something alien to nature, superimposed upon it, but rather a sublimation of the “strife” already found in nature. The Greeks achieved their “civility” by sublimating their barbarian spirit and channeling it by means of laws, standards, and ideals of various kinds. The civilized Greek aristocrat was the man who learned to command himself, and his impulses. (The man who, again, could win the struggle within himself.)

The Greek word arête will be familiar to anyone who has studied Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in a philosophy course. The word is normally translated “virtue.” By Aristotle’s time the idea of arête had everything to do with self-control. Originally, the word essentially meant “the quality of being an aristocrat.” Indeed, arête is actually derived from the same root as aristos, and the central “quality of being an aristocrat” – in Homer’s time at least – was the pursuit of personal glory. But well into Aristotle’s time, it was widely believed that only men of aristocratic birth were truly capable of achieving arête.

From Homer on the ideal arête evolved away from a purely martial virtue. Yet, as I’ve already discussed, it is easy to see how the ethical doctrine of Plato’s Republic flows from what is fundamentally a warrior spirit. One sees the same quality in Aristotle’s Ethics, where the ideal of self-control and avoiding excess is paramount. Aristotle’s discussion of the “great-souled man” (megalopsychos) in Book Four is practically a portrait of the ideal aristocrat or courtier. Duchesne writes:

The moderation that Apollo preached – “nothing in excess,” “know thyself” – was an attempt to sublimate the aristocratic will to power of martial men, not by pacifying this will, but by bringing it under self-control by balancing the seeing mind (nous) and the emotive mind (thumos) and thus mitigating its ferocity and reckless bloodlust. As Nietzsche put it, “Apollo could not live without Dionysus.” (p. 451)

If one turns from the ideas of the philosophers to the men themselves one finds that most of them seem to have been born to aristocratic families. Examples include Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. A large number of Socrates’s “interlocutors” in the Platonic dialogues were aristocrats, including, famously, Adeimantus and Glaucon (of The Republic), the brothers of Plato. But it was not just the philosophers of Greece who were aristocratic: most of the major poets, scientists, and democratic leaders were of noble birth as well. It might be objected that the reason for this is that these gentleman had so much leisure time to pursue their activities. Certainly, this is part of the truth. But as my readers may have noticed, when the hoi polloi are granted more leisure time they seldom feel driven to spend it on music and dialectic. No, there was something in the aristocratic upbringing (or genes) of these men that drove them to lead these spectacular lives.

But if we want the perfect example of how aristocratic character gives rise to philosophical “inwardness” and an ethic of self-mastery, we must turn from the Greeks to the Romans. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who reigned from 161 to 180) was perhaps the greatest of the Stoic philosophers. Stoicism upheld a doctrine of “true freedom,” which had nothing to do with simply doing as one pleases. Instead, true freedom consists in being liberated from the control of bodily and emotional impulses. One wins this freedom through the use of reason; through identification with the “directing mind,” ruling over the passions. One might see Aurelius – undisputed master of the vast Roman Empire – as the freest man on earth. Yet he only saw himself as free to the extent that he was able to master not others but himself.[2]

The development in Europe of what we might call the “philosophical self” and “philosophical life” thus involved what the Greeks called agon, struggle or competition. This is true in two major ways. First, the development of the “higher,” civilized, and philosophical identity involved struggle against oneself. The battle takes place within the soul, and it is between a self-aware and rational “master” and the slavish passions that he seeks to subdue (lest they make a slave of him). And the philosophical life, lived with others, involves agon as well: dialectic, or philosophical debate between individuals. We think immediately of Plato’s dialogues, where the interlocutors struggle with one another, and metaphors of contest and warfare are openly used. But the history of Western philosophy is itself an agon, with each philosopher seeking to topple his predecessors or contemporaries; to put forward the best philosophy. Duchesne writes:

There were no Possessors of the Way in aristocratic Greece; no Chinese sages decorously deferential to their superiors and expecting appropriate deference from their inferiors. The search for the truth was a free-for-all with each philosopher competing for intellectual prestige in a polemical tone that sought to discredit the theories of others while promoting one’s own. (p. 452)

But this was true in all areas of Greek life – and European life generally. Even the poets, artists, artisans, sophists, mathematicians, and doctors competed. And it is from this thumotic free-for-all that all the glories of the West have emerged. Just as with the primordial struggle for recognition, it is all about the individual struggling against others for distinction and supremacy. On a political level, that primordial struggle never ended. In the realm of the intellect, itself born from the struggle for honor, it becomes the quest for a radical form of rational autonomy.

If we turn to the Middle Ages we find European theologians crafting a rationalized version of Christianity. This religion, born in the Near East, a cultic offshoot of Judaism, was imposed upon the pagan peoples of Europe, often adopted by their leaders out of political expediency. But it was alien to the European soul. The process by which it was Europeanized has been termed by James C. Russell the “Germanization of Christianity.”[3] But this amounted, in most ways, to the attempt to make Christianity more rational – culminating, of course, in the Protestant Reformation.

Europeans could not accept a mysterium tremendum before which they had to abase themselves and switch off their minds. They demanded a faith that made sense, that affirmed the value of the individual and of this world. And so we find Thomas Aquinas at pains to make sense out of the most senseless claims of the Church, and teaching that rational autonomy is a gift of God. We find Renaissance philosophers like Ficino, Pico, and Bruno in barely-concealed revolt against the Church, and yearning for a this-worldly pagan humanism.

It is Pico, interestingly enough, who provides us with perhaps the best glimpse into the pure, unadulterated essence of the Western spirit itself. Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) is a hymn to the glory of man’s intellect and unlimited capacity for knowing. Pico tells us that after God had created all the planets, stars, and beasts he felt the desire to fashion some sort of being that was capable of knowing and appreciating creation itself. Rather than endow one of the other beasts with this power, God created mankind and – in a sense – gave him no nature at all. Instead of having a fixed nature like the other creatures, God made man capable of acquiring knowledge from and imitating all other created things. (One can discern in Pico an echo of Aristotle’s conception of man as the bearer of nous, which is capable of knowing all because it itself is nothing.)

While Pico speaks as if he is describing “mankind,” he is in fact articulating the self-conception of Western man exclusively. It is in the struggle for prestige that Western man initially sets himself in opposition to nature – the nature within himself; the desire for mere biological survival. From this develops the idea that (Western) man may achieve full mastery of nature – both within himself, and without; that he may be radically free and autonomous, free of all unchosen forms of determination. Free to be anything. Arguably, this ideal has proved our undoing. As Hegel writes in the Philosophy of World History:

The life of a people ripens a certain fruit, its activity aims at the complete manifestation of the principle which it embodies. But this fruit does not fall back into the bosom of the people that produced and matured it; on the contrary, it becomes a poisoned draught to it. That poison-draught it cannot let alone, for it has an insatiable thirst for it: the taste of the draught is its annihilation, though at the same time the rise of a new principle.[4]

(I will have more to say about the fate of the West in my Conclusion.)

In any case, with the Protestant Reformation came, as Duchesne puts it, “the full development of individualism . . . and its encouragement of industriousness, persistent action, and empirical utilitarianism” (p. 295). What the Reformation represents is the climax of the Germanization and rationalization of Christianity. With the rise of Protestantism, the barbarian, Indo-European soul wins at last: it sweeps aside the alien, Near Eastern otherworldliness of Christianity and affirms the value of action in this world. Gone is the oriental despotism of the Church. What matters now is the direct relationship of the individual to God, and his struggle to win salvation through faith and good works. And gone too is Near Eastern smoke and mirrors and superstition. In its place: a rational faith. As many have pointed out, Protestantism thus helped set the stage for the Enlightenment – and, ironically, for its own undoing.

Out of the European rationalization of Christianity came the doctrine of the “natural rights” of the individual, as articulated early on by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645; though the basis of “natural rights” theories can be traced back to much earlier figures, like Aquinas). Progressively, Europe began to “rationalize” everything, and always to make the individual and his autonomy paramount. Dogma, custom, tradition, and superstition all were progressively eliminated. Duchesne writes that “At the heart of Western modernity . . . is the ideal of freedom, and the ideal of a critical, self-reflexive public culture. A culture is modern and Western when it has a conception of itself as self-grounding or self-legitimating, and when individuals are free to articulate their ideas and their feelings through the exercise of their own faculties” (pp. 237–38; emphasis added).

Immanuel Kant provides us with a perfect example of how Western philosophers came progressively to express in ever starker and more explicit terms the ideal of radical individual autonomy. In Kant’s ethical writings he puts forth a principle of moral self-legislation entirely divorced from any kind of concrete social or cultural context. (It was this feature of Kant’s ethics that Hegel would famously critique in his Philosophy of Right.) The individual stands alone, giving a law to himself, according to principles he himself wills (or ought to will).

In the hands of Kant’s follower J. G. Fichte, this conception of human autonomy becomes even more radical. Fichte argued that the individual is much freer than anyone had previously thought – because the entire world is the creation of the Ego. The Ego creates the world as a field for moral striving: my destiny is to strive against the world and to transform what is into my ideal of what ought to be; to cancel the otherness of the world and bring it into accord with the plans of the self. This turn toward “subjectivism” can easily be seen simply as a radicalization of the Western focus on individual autonomy. And even as yet another staging of the struggle for prestige: Fichte vanquishes the “other” that would determine him by erecting a philosophy which declares this other to be non-existent. As a result, he emerges as master of the entire world! It would be Friedrich Nietzsche, however, who would bring this “subjective turn” to its climax, erecting an ideal of an Overman – carrier, in fact, of the barbarian master spirit – who frees himself even of the concept of objective truth itself.

Now, all of these men (with the possible exception of Nietzsche) had presented their philosophies as accounts of “human nature.” Kant, for example, offered his treatment of the nature of the moral agent as an account of “humanity,” and held that the acts of autonomous reasoning engaged in by this agent are universal human possibilities. (Fichte followed him in this.) However, Duchesne states the obvious:

The project of self-determination is modern and Western. The philosophy of Kant has to be seen as a high spiritual expression of the self-knowledge of the European community in the modern era. The idea that all individuals should always be treated as persons and never as means presupposes the rise of the West. The self-legislating individual is not natural but constructed out of a historically specific ethical community, the institutions of the modern [Western] compassionate family, the modern [Western] market society, and the modern [Western] constitutional state. (p. 283)[5]

This striking passage not only illuminates Kant but has tremendous implications for our understanding of the history of Western ideas. Suppose that much of what Western thinkers have said about “humanity” really is simply a projection of their own Western consciousness onto others. If so, then the entire history of Western philosophy must be understood as a phenomenology of Western Spirit: as the West’s self-understanding, unfolding in history. This is exactly the position Duchesne takes. He writes “There is no ‘categorical imperative,’ no ‘cunning of reason,’ and no ‘will to power’ outside the West because the experience of non-Western societies is rather dissimilar” (p. 335).

As he does with many of his more provocative statements, Duchesne buries this one in a footnote – along with yet another devastating critique of the revisionists:

It is quite revealing that the same multicultural relativists who have repeatedly warned us that the experience of the West should not be used as a model for the patterns of world history have been unwilling to draw the conclusion that the intellectual history of the West – the ideas on human nature of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger – may express and reflect only the ‘specific existence’ of Western man. (p. 335)

In short, what if the ideas about human nature that Western relativists have imbibed from Western philosophers – ideas about reason and objectivity, and the desires for recognition, freedom, autonomy, and self-realization – are really only descriptions of aspects of the character of Western man? What then?


1. Duchesne is not claiming that only the Indo-Europeans and their descendents are self-conscious, anymore than he is claiming that only Indo-Europeans fought for prestige or exhibited warlike aggressiveness. His claim is merely that because of the greater emphasis Indo-European culture placed upon the free, aristocratic individual fighting for prestige, the West achieved a degree of self-reflectiveness (and self-criticism) unmatched by other cultures.

2. Of course, critics will be quick to pounce on my (and Duchesne’s) use of Aurelius, since another of the great exponents of Stoicism was the slave Epictetus, who predates Aurelius (he lived from 55 to 135). Epictetus was not the founder of Stoicism, however. That honor belongs to Zeno of Citium (ca. 334 – ca. 262 BC), whose father may have been a merchant, but who was certainly no slave. One could easily argue that Stoicism appealed to Epictetus for precisely the reasons Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit holds that it was a development of “slave consciousness” (my term, not Hegel’s): it promised a “true freedom” independent of one’s social circumstances. Thus, in the hands of Epictetus Stoicism becomes a variant of what Nietzsche called “slave morality” and ressentiment (though the writings of Epictetus contain valuable insights).

3. See James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1996).

4. Hegel, Philosophy of History, 78.

5. Duchesne is actually summarizing Hegel’s critique of Kant in The Philosophy of Right, though he does not make this explicit.

To be continued . . .


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  • By Bridges Must be Burned | markdyal on April 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    […] of thought. Anyone who has been enjoying Colin Cleary’s review essay of Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization will be repulsed by my paper, which gives no one in the post-Platonic West besides Nietzsche any […]

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