The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
Leiden: Brill, 2011
5. What about the East?
The revisionists’ favorite non-Western people seems to be the Chinese. They tend to both exaggerate Chinese achievements, and to emphasize how the West has been dependent upon them (again, even where the evidence for this is slim). We have already seen how one historian has made a name for himself through his implausible claims about the Chinese share of world trade in the early modern period. And I have already referred to the absurd claim of another historian (Robert Temple) that it was really the Chinese who discovered Newton’s laws of motion.
Of course, when many of my readers think of accounts of Chinese achievements they will immediately think of Joseph Needham’s highly influential, multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China. This book is quite valuable in many ways, but the trouble with it is that Needham is so enamored of the Chinese he tends to exaggerate their achievements. Worse still are his unsubstantiated claims regarding the transmission of Chinese ideas and inventions to the West. One critic quoted by Duchesne refers to Needham’s account of the influence of China on the West as “heavily flawed on several counts, of which the most important are the absence of sources that even begin to point at transmission” (quoted in Duchesne, p. 173). Indeed, Needham would sometimes simply assert that such and such innovation made its way from China to the West and say “the details of the transmission are still obscure.”
For years it has been claimed by historians that since movable type was invented in China, it must have been transmitted from China to Germany, where it was picked up by Johannes Gutenberg. The trouble is that there is simply no evidence for this. The truth, of course, is that the West has borrowed many ideas and innovations from other cultures. But the West did not simply passively adopt these: we developed them, often to a point never reached, or even imagined, in their culture of origin. Further, as I have said already, the West’s openness to foreign ideas is one of its unique characteristics. And one could not find a better contrast to this than the Chinese themselves.
The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who lived in China from 1583 until his death in 1610, characterized the Chinese as largely uncurious and complacent. He wrote that “The Chinese are so self-opinionated that they cannot be made to believe that the day will ever come when they will learn anything from foreigners which is not already set down in their own books.” By contrast, Ricci himself – typical Westerner that he was – seems to have been quite open to learning from the Chinese. He translated a number of major Chinese works into Latin so as to make their thoughts available to Westerners. Indeed, as Duchesne notes (p. 243, citing figures like Montaigne) Europeans have always seen others as a mirror in which to assess themselves, both their virtues and their shortcomings.
Since ancient times, Europeans had had a burning desire to be able to visualize the entire world, and had produced many (increasingly accurate) world maps. According to Ricci, the Chinese evinced no such desire. Ricci writes that the Chinese “are grossly ignorant of what the world in general is like,” and that their maps were “limited to their own fifteen provinces, and in the sea painted around [them] they had placed a few little islands to which they had given the names of different kingdoms they had heard of. All of these islands put together would not be as large as the smallest of the Chinese provinces.” Certainly, the Chinese had explored little of the world by the time Ricci encountered them — whereas, to state the obvious, Europeans had traveled all the way to China. From 1405 to 1433 Chinese fleets sailed seven times to the Indian Ocean (which seems to be about as far as they got). Rather than emboldening them to go further, however, around 1500 the Chinese made it a capital offense to construct a seagoing vessel with greater than two masts.
Ricci writes that the Chinese were astounded by European developments in mathematics, astronomy, and logic. European technology was also a cause for wonderment on the part of the Chinese (particularly European clocks). In particular he reports that they were impressed by Euclid. Ricci attributes this to the fact that Euclid provided demonstrations for his propositions, whereas the Chinese tended to simply accept propositions on authority. And this, of course, is one of the major differences between East and West. As Duchesne notes, Chinese philosophy (and “Eastern philosophy,” broadly speaking) is filled with self-effacing “sages” who claim to be nothing more than conduits for timeless wisdom. Their works are usually commentaries on classic texts, which are treated in a reverential and uncritical fashion. By contrast, Western philosophers have often begun by rejecting older ideas, and have introduced revolutionary new ideas.
The West, I believe, has always embodied a reflective sense of self-doubt about what it knows and what remains to be known, a kind of restlessness that has been both destructive and productive of new literary styles, musical trends, visual motifs, and novel ideas. By contrast, the intellectual and artistic order of China has remained relatively stable throughout its history. (p. 194)
And he frames the contrast between East and West in this striking statement: “European actors were more dynamic in the higher degree to which they were able to reflect upon their actions and thus discursively give reasons for them. European actors were less passive or more reflective than non-Europeans in their acculturation to the conventions and beliefs of their society” (p. 92).
Indeed, the degree to which the Chinese revere authority is enough to make the most conservative Westerner cringe. But Duchesne discusses much else about Chinese culture that explains why it has never produced the sort of revolutionary innovations in science, philosophy, art, and technology that we have. For instance, in the China of old no separate profession or occupation of science existed. There was no real conception of pure science pursued for its own sake. Their style of scientific (and philosophical) thinking tended to be associative, and based upon the identification of analogies between things. (Think of the huge lists accumulated by the Chinese of things that are yang – men, a hot day, solidity, anger, etc. – and yin – women, a cold day, liquidity, passivity, etc.) Whereas by contrast Western science has striven to identify universal laws concerning cause and effect relations between tangible entities, based upon observation and experiment rather than a priori theorizing.
Furthermore, the vast, centralized, and all-powerful Chinese bureaucracy was not favorable to the flourishing of a scientific culture, which depends upon individuals who are able to act freely and independently and pursue their research without interference or fear of displeasing the authorities. (It is surely this lack of an independent scientific spirit, as well as their general cultural inertia, that explains why the Chinese did not industrialize along with the West in the 19th century.) To be sure, the West has gone through periods where freedom of thought was encumbered by church and state authorities. But our philosophers and scientists always rebelled against this authoritarianism, and it always proved unsustainable. The Chinese appear to be far less willing to rebel against authority, and in one form or another – whether Imperial or Communist – they have lived under an absolute authority for their entire history.
Indeed, the difference between the Chinese political-societal structure and that of the West could not be greater. But it is when we set China alongside other non-Western societies that the difference between the West and all the rest becomes particular striking. Duchesne writes:
In China, India, and Islam, in general, there were no countervailing powers because there was [in contrast to the West] no substantial distinction between the state and civil society; there was no aristocracy with special rights, no separation of religious and secular powers, no independent cities, and no parliaments where relations between the various estates of society were open for adjudication. It was in reference to the absence of a civil society that the category “oriental despotism” was used by Montesquieu, Marx, Weber, and Karl Wittfogel. (p. 227)
In attempting to deny the West’s uniqueness and give center stage to the achievements of non-Western cultures, such as the Chinese, the revisionists have inadvertently drawn our attention to the vast differences between the West and everyone else. The contrast is incredibly stark and dramatic. The West emerges as not just unique but remarkably unique.
But how do we define this uniqueness? Is there a common denominator to such Western phenomena as aristocracies with special rights, parliaments, separation between church and state, the pursuit of science for its own sake, a philosophical tradition distinct from religion, rebellion against traditional authority, openness to foreign ideas, intense self-criticism, and world exploration? In the next section, we will examine some attempts to define the spirit that is uniquely Western.
6. What is the Western Spirit?
Certainly one of the key differences between Europeans and other peoples is that we have always been searching for the new: “new worlds, new religious visions and new styles of painting, architecture, music, science, philosophy, and literature”; again in contrast to cultures like the Chinese, “where artistic and literary styles lasted for centuries” (p. 300). The West seems to be striving onward and outward infinitely, towards the new and undiscovered and untried. To repeat an apt characterization, there seems to be a fundamental “restlessness” at our core.
Duchesne cites four major authors who have dealt, in one way or another, with this Western quality. G. W. F. Hegel spoke of our “infinite drive”; Oswald Spengler of our “energetic, imperativistic, and dynamic” soul; Max Weber of our “rational restlessness”; and William McNeill of the “deep-rooted pugnacity and recklessness of Europeans.” (This last name is the one least likely to be familiar to my readers: McNeill is an influential old-school historian, born in 1917, whose work is discussed at length by Duchesne.)
Obviously, the most important of these figures is Hegel, and Duchesne quotes two of his most memorable comments about the European soul:
The principle of the European mind is self-conscious reason which is confident that for it there can be no insuperable barrier and which therefore takes an interest in everything in order to become present to itself therein. . . . In Europe, therefore, there prevails this infinite thirst for knowledge. . . . The European is interested in the world, he wants to know it, to make this other confronting him his own, to bring to view the genus, law, universal, thought, the inner rationality, in the particular forms of the world. As in the theoretical, so too in the practical, the European mind . . . subdues the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world. (quoted in Duschesne, p. 285)
The ignorant man is not free, because what confronts him is an alien world, something outside him and in the offing, on which he depends, without his having made this foreign world for himself and therefore without being at home in it by himself as in something his own. The impulse of curiosity, the pressure for knowledge, from the lowest level up to the highest rung of philosophical insight arises only from the struggle to cancel this situation of unfreedom and to make the world one’s own in one’s ideas and thought. (quoted in Duchesne p. 231)
Of course, the difference between these two quotations is that the latter doesn’t refer explicitly to Europeans at all. However, Duchesne will argue that when Hegel discusses “human nature” he is in fact unwittingly (it seems) giving a description of the nature of European man. As we shall see, in general Duchesne’s argument for European uniqueness is heavily dependent upon Hegel. So let us set him aside for later and consider Oswald Spengler for a moment.
In his two-volume opus The Decline of the West (1918–1923) Spengler argued that each civilization is characterized by a distinctively different spirit. According to Spengler, Western Europe was dominated by, as Duchesne puts it, “an overpowering will to supremacy” (p. 334). And Spengler characterized this will as “Faustian.” One commentator (John Farrenkopf) describes the idea as follows:
The architecture of the Gothic cathedral expresses the Faustian will to conquer the heavens; Western symphonic music conveys the Faustian urge to conjure up a dynamic, transcendent, infinite space of sound; Western perspective painting mirrors the Faustian will to infinite distance; and the Western novel responds to the Faustian imperative to explore the inner depts. of the human personality while extending outward with a comprehensive view. (quoted in Duchesne p. 335)
In short, according to Spengler the West is animated by a desire not just to achieve mastery of nature, but to transcend the limitations of the physical world itself. Whereas Weber saw the West as characterized by a zeal for rationalizing everything, Spengler saw in the West “a distinctive primeval-irrational will to power” (p. 335). (The term “will to power” will inevitably call to mind Nietzsche, to whom we will turn in a later section.)
Spengler believed that after about 1800 the West’s Faustian spirit took on a thoroughly “mechanical” form of expression, through the industrial revolution and capitalism. It went on desiring infinite, outward expansion, but the expansion took on a thoroughly economic and technological character. Organic ties to the land, to one’s own people, and to one’s traditions were broken. And while achievements in science and technology blossomed throughout the West, the arts withered and seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, finished (as Hegel also claimed). “Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question,” Spengler wrote (quoted in Duchesne, p. 336).
John Farrenkopf argues that there were in fact “two Spenglers.” The early one mourned the loss of Europe’s aristocratic traditions, and the rise of middle-class materialism. The later Spengler, however, saw the remarkable scientific and technological breakthroughs of the modern West as a continuation, in another form, of its Faustian vitality. However, he remained a pessimist – and a remarkable prescient one. He believed that eventually the West would exhaust itself in hedonism, declining birth rates, globalist entanglements, and a creeping, degenerate femininization of culture. He also expected the West to decline in material terms as well, as its technology spread to Asia, which he believed would eventually become a formidable rival.
In short, Spengler saw the West as characterized by a sublime will to totality and transcendence, but saw it ultimately issuing in the West’s undoing. As I will discuss in the conclusion to this essay, it is hard to disagree with Spengler’s position. Still harder, however, is finding some remedy to the West’s situation, if Spengler is indeed correct. For his part, William McNeill wrote the following, echoing Spengler:
It is not any particular set of institutions, ideas or technologies that mark out the West but its inability to come to a rest. No other civilization has ever approached such restless instability. . . . In this, far more than in any particular intellectual, institutional, or technological expression . . . lies the uniqueness of Western civilization. (quoted in Duchesne, p. 285)
All these observations – of Hegel, Weber, Spengler, and McNeill – seem quite correct as attempts to describe the spirit of the West. Yes, we are restless. We yearn for the infinite, and for mastery. Yes, we want to know everything and to control everything; to find in the other an image of ourselves – or, if necessary, to transform the other into such an image. Yes, we have a zeal for rationalizing everything, including our own existence; we wish to be self-grounding, and self-legitimating, with all arbitrariness and mystery expunged. But where does this peculiar spirit come from? And why is it we who are gifted – or, some might say, burdened – with it?
Surprisingly, Duchesne suggests that a major clue lies in the phenomenon of human aggression. He briefly discusses the sociobiology of Edward O. Wilson, one of whose major claims has to do with the importance of aggression as a human trait. Since sociobiology suggests that some human characteristics may be fixed and immutable, and writ in our genetic code, Wilson’s work tends to be either derided or ignored by Leftist academics. This is especially the case when it comes to discussions of human origins and of the earliest, most primitive forms of human society. Good Rousseauians all, the revisionist anthropologists tend to romanticize our archaic ancestors as sort of primitive, proto-democratic peaceniks. But the evidence against this view is pretty overwhelming (nicely summarized in Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage).
But even if our ancient ancestors did live in smaller communities with a higher degree of sharing and without complex hierarchies, it is obvious that out of this “state of nature” there arose new forms of social organization in which “strong men” dominated. How do we explain this? Well, the last possibility the revisionists want to consider is that some men may have risen to the top as a result of their drive for power and prestige. So anthropologist Marvin Harris (discussed earlier) and sociologist Stephen Sanderson insist that although it might seem like certain Big Men were looking for power and prestige, in fact they were simply playing the socially-useful role of motivating their fellow villagers to produce more than was needed for basic subsistence – in case, for example, a hard winter came along (p. 37).
Yet the specter of inequality looms: not all men become Big Men. Not all are even moved to try. So where does this inequality come from? Well, one can’t even begin to understand it unless one rejects the assumptions of the revisionists and recognizes that human beings have other desires besides the desire to maximize material resources. They also have a desire for recognition: for prestige, and for power. In short, they have thumos: the part of the soul (i.e., personality) that Plato understood to be neither appetitive nor intellectual (or “theoretical,” one might say); the part that seeks honor, and responds with potential violence when its honor is challenged or besmirched.
Duchesne states his central thesis as follows:
I will argue that the pursuit of prestige needs to be examined as a psychosomatic or mental disposition on the part of humans to achieve validation and recognition from other human beings. I will also argue that this disposition assumed a heightened, more intensive expression amongst the aristocratic culture of the Indo-European speakers who gradually infiltrated Europe after 4000 B.C. The “noblest” ideal of Indo-European aristocratic warriors was the pursuit of prestige through the performance of heroic acts in proud contempt for one’s biological survival. (p. 40, italics in original)
Of course, not only does the image of the thumotic hero rankle our revisionists (all of whom know, deep down, that they are not exactly warrior material), they also consider such things as the desire for prestige to be “subjective” and not scientifically credible. And yet, as Duchesne correctly points out (following Hegel) the desire for recognition and prestige is the quintessentially human desire. All animals desire to “maximize material resources,” but only humans desire intangible things like honor – and humans are even willing to sacrifice their lives and material resources to get it. Well, some humans at least: the humans who have made history and, as we shall see, Western culture itself.
Duchesne describes the ancient Indo-Europeans as a people ruled by an aristocratic class of chieftains whose lives were dominated by an ethos that demanded they distinguish themselves as individuals by fighting for prestige. It was this competition among aristocratic warriors that was, as Duchesne puts it, the “Western state of nature.” (In other words, the original, primal situation of Western peoples at the very beginning of their history.) And he argues that this state of nature is “the primordial source of Western restlessness” (p. 51). He writes, further, “I am persuaded that a higher degree of aggression was one of the defining characteristics of Europeans since barbarian times, combined with a greater love for liberty and a higher disposition for rationalization” (p. 209).
Certainly by any standard the West has been an incredibly aggressive and thumotic culture. According to some calculations, between 1130 and 1815 England spent between 75% and 95% of all revenue on war and armaments. Between 1500 and 1700 Europeans were involved in violent conflicts three years out of every four. During those two centuries combined there were only ten years without any conflict of any kind on the European continent. (These statistics appear on p. 209 of Duchesne.) And by 1800 Europeans, despite being a minority of the world’s population, had managed to gain control of one third of the globe, often by violent means.
These are the sorts of facts and figures the revisionists love to seize upon as particularly damning to the West. Yet the major argument of Duchesne’s book is that all of our spectacular achievements in science, philosophy, technology, and even the arts ultimately stem from our tendency toward strife and competition. This is the source of our desire for mastery and control of nature, our thirst to know the whole (which is itself a desire for a form of conquest), our independence of mind, our tendency to rebel against authority, our love of liberty, our desire to be self-grounding and self-legitimating. Europeans “were less passive or more reflective than non-Europeans in their acculturation to the conventions and beliefs of their society” because of their proud, combative individualism – the heritage of our archaic, bellicose ancestors.
Western culture, in contrast to the virtues of serene acceptance, calmness, or composure one finds in Eastern religions, has always been charged with tension, always striving to transcend itself, and thus always engaged in a fight against itself – a fight that would culminate in the nihilism, cultural relativism, weariness, and lack of faith in Western civilization that dominates today. (p. 284)
1. See China in the 16th Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci 1583-1610, trans. Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 142.
2. Ibid., 166-67.
To be continued . . .