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Reflections on the Supremacy of the West:
A Critique of Ricardo Duchesne & Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson

7,568 words

In 2011 there appeared two major scholarly works that attempted to investigate the sources of Western supremacy in the modern world, especially in view of the recent rise of China as a potential threat to this supremacy. These are the Puerto Rican-Canadian social historian Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization[1] and the British economic historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest.[2] Though focused on the same subject of Western dominance, Duchesne’s thesis is a rather more ponderous socio-philosophical one extolling the so-called “aristocratic egalitarianism” of the Europeans from the fourth millennium BC up to the modern age. Duchesne devotes much (perhaps too much) time to summarizing and citing from numerous other scholarly works on the social history and political philosophy of Europe – and this makes it perhaps a useful reference book for students of European historical sociology. On the other hand, Ferguson’s study is a more colorful and anecdotal one, since it was originally designed to be accompanied by a television series: the BBC’s six-part Civilization. The historical scope of Ferguson’s defense of capitalism, including its colonial effects, is also more limited than Duchesne’s – extending from the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation up to the present day.

According to Duchesne, the five main objectives of his work are (1) to trace the multicultural ideological sources that have impelled the “provincialization” of the history of Western civilization, (2) to discount the “similarities” noted by anti-Eurocentric scholars between the developments of the Western and non-Western worlds, (3) to demonstrate that “the West has always existed in a state of variance from the rest of the world’s cultures,” (4) to relate the rise of the West to its liberal-democratic culture, and (5) to trace the West’s creativity back to the aristocratic egalitarianism of the society of the ancient Indo-Europeans.

The first two chapters deal with the first objective listed above, as well as with the particular conflict between Eurocentric and Sinocentric historiography. Since I have little interest or expertise in Sinology and consider this entire section to be an unnecessary deference to multiculturalist academics, I shall not comment on it in detail.

The second section of the book (Chapters 3, 4, and 5), dealing with the West’s industrial and scientific progress and its developed rationalism, corresponds to the second, third, and fourth of the author’s objectives. Since this is one of the major parts of the work, a closer look at it is in order. It is the author’s intention here to demonstrate that the multifaceted flowering of Western civilization and its “modernity” are especially due to its “ideal of freedom, and the ideal of a critical, self-reflexive public culture” (p. 237).

In tracing the advances of the West in science and industry, Duchesne points to Margaret Jacob’s thesis (in Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, 1997) that:

. . . Calvinism, more than any other religious current within Christianity, endowed scientific knowledge with millenarian importance. This religious-utilitarian ethos preached by the Quakers and liberal Anglicans cannot be ignored in our efforts to understand why the first successful application of modern science occurred in Britain (p. 202).

He stresses also the development of something like a free trade economy in Britain after the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688:

. . . the triumph of Parliament over the kings after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 . . . resulted in the incorporation of mercantile elites into the power-seeking aims and responsibilities of the state. This commercial-national-representative culture fostered a far more sophisticated financial system, such as stock exchanges and a national bank able to float massive loans (p. 225).

At the same time, the increase in economic power was accompanied by the rise of military might. Duchesne cites, for instance, Charles Tilly, who had argued in Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (1990) that:

. . . the global dynamic of European states was a result of the fusion of both capitalism and military might, of the military and political ambitions of the state, and of the economic interests of the mercantile elites. Those nation states that were able to draw extensively on the wealth created by capitalists – by co-opting the bourgeoisie as a partner in the state – were the most successful ones in increasing their concentration of the means of coercion against their foes (p. 215).

Duchesne also associates the scientific and industrial revolutions of the West with the rise of rationalism in the West:

A Western scientist is not simply or minimally motivated by a drive to master nature and increase productivity, but is also a person who believes that it is possible to augment one’s knowledge of the natural world within a community of open inquiry and independent verification. If nature is something we can explore and understand, then we have elevated the rational abilities of humans; we are no longer on a par with the natural world, we are free to employ our capacities to see into nature’s workings and make use of its powers (p. 239).

The focus on rationalism as a major driving force of modern capitalism was also present in Max Weber’s well-known work, The Protestant Ethic in the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which had pointed to Protestantism as the source of the rational entrepreneurship of Western man. As Duchesne summarizes it, “Calvinism took this process further by abandoning the ‘other-worldly’ asceticism of early Christianity (and Hinduism) and promoting instead a ‘this-worldly’ religion that celebrated the rational mastery of the world as an ideal (p. 250).” However, following other Jewish scholars like Bendix[3] and Love,[4] Duchesne himself attempts to identify the rationalistic core of the West not in Christian learning, but in ancient Judaism. In fact, in his General Economic History, Weber, too, had suggested that “Judaism was none the less of notable significance for modern rational capitalism, insofar as it transmitted to Christianity the latter’s hostility to magic” (p. 259).

However, Duchesne reminds his readers also of Gary Abraham’s essay, “Max Weber on ‘Jewish Rationalism’ and the Jewish Question” (1988), which had maintained that Weber had not argued that there was a direct relationship between “Old Testament rationalism” and the rise of modern capitalism (with its disciplined rationalization of production). On the other hand, Weber had noted that:

. . . the caste-like separation of the Jews from their surroundings made them a perpetual guest-people more interested in the preservation of their identity than in the encouragement of modernity. This “pariah status” promoted, on the one hand, a strong adherence to the ethical prescriptions of Judaism, in a rationalistic and a legalistic manner, but, on the other, it “led to the Jewish people’s retaining a different economic morality for its relations with strangers than with fellow Jews (as Weber wrote in the long section on “The Sociology of Jews and Judaism” in Economy and Society) (p. 258).

Duchesne further points out that Jonathan Israel had, in his Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (2001), had sought to demonstrate that:

. . . the “decisive breakthrough of modern rationalism and secularization” occurred in the period 1680–1750, for it was then that “the primacy of confessional theology and scholastic Aristotelianism . . . finally disintegrated” and that the radical ideas revolving around Spinoza and Spinozism became a European-wide movement that “demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery” (p. 282).

This growing rationalism, which seems to have been impelled in no small part by the Jews in European society, found its ultimate expression in liberal-democratic political institutions. As Duchesne put it, “The rise of the West is the story of the realization of humans who think of themselves as self-determining and therefore accept as authoritative only those norms and institutions that can be seen to be congenial with their awareness of themselves as free and rational agents” (p. 270).

In addition, Duchesne points to Charles Taylor’s argument (in his work, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, 1989) that “the affirmation of ordinary life” was one of the essential legacies of the Protestant movement: “This affirmation of everyday life, along with the relative devaluing of the classical and medieval aristocratic ethic of military honour and intellectual contemplation, involved a new sensitivity to work and family life” (p. 278). Although this is not the purpose of Duchesne’s sprawling study, we may discern from the author’s scrupulous collation of scholarly views how Judaism and Protestantism were instrumental in the transformation of the original aristocratic ethos of the Indo-Europeans into the modern liberal one.

The last section of Duchesne’s book (chapters 6, 7, and 8) deals with Hegelian and post-Hegelian interpretations of the rise of the West through its “Faustian” desire for knowledge and the “restlessness” of its spirit to subdue the outer world to its ends. The idea of indefinite progress was lacking in the eastern civilizations and thus hindered them from advancing as rapidly as the West did. In other words, the forces of Tradition – that which is sought after today by the so-called “Traditionalists” – are indeed what prevented the Eastern nations and empires from prevailing as world powers. Charles Murray, who had, in his Human Accomplishment, The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003), undertaken the rather confounding task of tabulating all the most significant works of man through the ages, believed that it was Christian thought in particular that propelled the individualism of the West. According to Murray, however, one of the disastrous consequences of the Protestant Reformation was that it led to a progressive secularization of Western society so that, after 1950, increasing atheism was accompanied by a concomitant lack of creativity. Murray’s cataloguing enterprise may seem a rather foolish one, but his stress on religion is nevertheless precious.

Rather than elaborating on this emphasis, however, Duchesne favors instead Hegel’s dynamic view, in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, of the march of a self-realizing “Reason” through “Time.” Hegel’s fantastic view of what Indians would call “Kali Yuga” civilizations as evidence of a progressive evolution of human reason is clearly an embarrassing philosophical fiction, but Duchesne does not distinguish human creativity from technological invention any more clearly than Hegel did. He ventures to declare instead that his concern with the rise of “individualism” is indeed with the rise of the philosophical sense of “the Self” itself among the Europeans. This will certainly be bewildering to anybody who has studied the thoroughgoing and profound discussions of the Self in the sacred literature of the Indians, such as the Upanishads, that date back thousands of years. The relatively late rise of awareness of the Self among the Europeans compared to the Indians is hard to explain if they were both originally members of the same family of ancient Indo-Europeans in the Pontic steppe.

Duchesne follows Hegel in believing that the uniqueness of the Western mind derives from the relative freedom and autonomy from centralized authority of the democratic city-states of ancient Greece. This rise of individualism was made possible, in the Hegelian view, by the rise of the sense of freedom, which was guaranteed only by the modern liberal democratic state.

However, Hegel also believed that history was made by great historical personalities like Alexander and Napoleon – which rather suggests that he was outlining a history of mastery and slavery, and not of liberal democracy. Duchesne attempts to solve this conundrum by positing an imagined aristocratic society of the ancient Indo-Europeans that fostered equality among superior members of that society. According to him, it was the spirited combat between equally strong men who were contemptuous of death and desirous only to gain the “recognition” of peers, and glory that gradually gave rise to self-consciousness itself.

Duchesne’s individualistic Western man is thus said to arise not from Christianity, as Murray had suggested, but from what Duchesne calls the aristocratic “egalitarianism,” and freedom, of the most ancient Indo-European societies that existed in the Pontic steppe. However, the fragmentary archaeological and literary evidence that we possess from the fourth millennium BC can hardly be adduced to construct elaborate sociological theories of the cultures then extant, and this section of Duchesne’s work must, in the final analysis, be counted as an exercise in sociological fantasy.

Following William McNeill (The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, 1963), Duchesne imagines that the bearers of Western civilization were the nomadic pastoral peoples of the Pontic steppe. He adduces also the work of David Anthony (The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, 2007), which had speculated that the movements of the mobile Indo-Europeans in the Pontic steppe southwards may explain an original contact between the steppe cultures and the civilizations of the Near East in the middle of the fourth millennium BC. But while it is possible that the advanced Uruk cultures of Sumer and of Early Dynastic Egypt, which are Hamitic, might have had some Indo-European element in them (such as, notably, that group which some scholars have called the “Dynastic Race”),[5] it is still puzzling why the bearers of the more finely articulated high cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt always spoke agglutinative Hamitic and Hurrian languages rather than the inflected ones of imposingly warlike Russian elements within their societies.

Indeed, we are rather ignorant of the cultural development of the Indo-Europeans when they were in the Pontic steppe. Their religious traditions are not attested until the Āryan peoples came into contact with the developed urban civilizations of the south, in India, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. We may, in this context, recall Megasthenes’ account of the early Indians:

The Indians were in old times nomadic, like those Scythians who did not till the soil, but roamed about in their wagons, as the seasons varied, from one part of Scythia to another, neither dwelling in towns nor worshipping in temples; and that the Indians likewise had neither towns nor temples of the gods, but were so barbarous that they wore the skins of such wild animals as they could kill . . . they subsisted also on such wild animals as they could catch, eating the flesh raw, – before, at least, the coming of Dionysus into India. Dionysus, however, when he came and had conquered the people, founded cities and gave laws to these cities, and introduced the use of wine among the Indians, as he had done among the Greeks, and taught them to sow the land, himself supplying seeds for the purpose.[6]

Since Dionysus is the same as the solar god of the Mesopotamians, An, and the Egyptian Horus the Elder-Osiris,[7] and the earliest evidence of the Dravidian god, Muruga, in India reveals a Dionysiac deity, we may assume that the cultural contact being referred to by Megasthenes is that between the early Indo-Scythian settlers of India and Elamite Dravidians/Hurrians from the Zagros region.[8]

Duchesne, however, points to J. P. Mallory and Marija Gimbutas, who had represented the Indo-Europeans as invading warriors in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean. Mallory had suggested that, in the case of the colonization of Europe, the adoption of Indo-European speech by the Old Europeans was due to “the greater vitality and potential for growth of the pastoral economy.” According to him, the native population became bilingual, “speaking the Indo-European language in the market place or at ceremonial centers in order to obtain better access to goods, status, ritual, and security” (p. 360).

The nomadic character of the Pontic Indo-Europeans is indeed confirmed by their typical horse-riding affiliations, the horse having first been domesticated in the fifth millennium BC in the Pontic steppe. The veneration of the horse among the Indo-Iranians, or Āryans, is attested by the important Ashwamedha sacrifice among the Indo-Āryans and the numerous names ending in -aspa (horse) among the Iranians. However, Anthony had pointed to the fact that the Corded Ware culture that prevailed in northern Europe in the third millennium BC gave evidence of battle-axes that are not attested in the Yamnaya Culture (from 3400 BC) of the Pontic steppe. So there is no concrete evidence of the “warlike” nature of the original Indo-European society north of the Black Sea, as Duchesne would like us to imagine. Further, though Anthony thinks that the chariot may have appeared in the Pontic steppe already in the third millennium BC, the typical Āryan association with chariots is not fully confirmed until the second millennium and the spread of the Indo-Iranians (with names revealing their charioteering affiliations) and the coming of the Mycenean Greeks around 1600 BC.

Duchesne then considers Colin Renfrew’s view that the first civilizations of India and Europe were also Indo-Europeans, from Anatolia, who excelled in farming rather than war, and that the Indo-Europeans who later invaded these parts were a group that had moved north and east of the Black Sea, probably very early, since they maintained a nomadic pastoral rather than agrarian culture there. The group of Indo-Europeans that arrived later may have borne more archaic horse-riding traits and contributed to the development of Anatolian and European cultures, though they may have gradually adopted the agricultural habits and benefits of the earlier groups here. Their sojourn in Anatolia would have turned them into a farming society, and their westward movements into Europe were probably propelled by cultivating and civilizing impulses rather than warlike ones, as Duchesne tends to think.

This possibility seems to accord with the evidence of the Prologue to Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth-century Prose Edda, where we are told that the languages of central and northern Europe were brought there by the Aesir led by Wotan, who migrated from north of the Black Sea to Anatolia, and then the Balkans and northern Europe. This migration may be dated to around the Trojan War (ca. twelfth century BC), since Snorri mentions King Priam in his account.

Duchesne, however, wishes to maintain a stark distinction between the autocratic monarchies of the ancient Near East and the incoming Indo-Europeans, who, according to him, were aristocratic insofar as they valued not the despotic rule of a monarch, but personal heroism and “a strong ethos of aristocratic egalitarianism against despotic rule.” He concedes that the original Indo-European aristocratic ethos may have been gradually transformed in India and Iran so that it finally became autocratic kingship and imperialism (377ff.). Duchesne’s focus on the warrior bases of European society clearly demonstrates that he chose not to investigate the reasons why the brāhmans were the preeminent element in ancient Indian society.

Interestingly, however – in the course of this discussion of the warlike nature of the ancient Europeans – Duchesne pauses to consider the phenomenon of tragedy among the Greeks. He believes that, since tragedy emerges as a literary form only among the Greeks, such a heroic ethos prevailed only among the Western Indo-Europeans:

Heroism and tragedy 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. This sense of limitation grows not out of a feeling of enslavement to mysterious forces but out of a realization that individuals who covet immortal fame are fated to engage in hubristic acts which inevitably bring about suffering, disappointment, and early death (p. 404).

Similarly, in the case of epic poetry, “the political structure of the ancient Near East was autocratic, and . . . there was no room in the states of Mesopotamia for the cultivation of true heroic epics” (p. 402).

Duchesne ignores the Dionysiac religious sources of the rise of Greek tragedy, and does not seem to beat all aware that the tragic sense does not arise from combating gladiators, but from men of superior psychological constitution who possess an innate disdain for worldly life not unrelated to the contemptus mundi of the mediaeval Christian thinkers. The true creators of art, as well as of science, philosophy, and politics – in ancient Indo-European society as well as in the more modern – are those who are imbued with a sense of the imperfection of human life and of the need to nevertheless elevate this life towards the perfection of the divine. The ancient caste distinctions between the priests, warriors, and the rest of the people was indeed derived from the presence or absence of this sense. The brāhmans are characterized by the quality of sattva (associated with “being” and “spirit”) because they are closer to the divine reality, while the people in general are marked by tamas, denoting the sluggishness of matter.

Proceeding with his paean to Indo-European individualism, Duchesne maintains that a society ruled by martial, honor-loving aristocrats leads to a spirit of competition among artists as well. However, this thesis bears as little resemblance to the reality of Greek art as Duchesne’s thesis concerning Greek tragedy does. The sacred nature of works of art in Antiquity, prominently portrayed in the numerous depictions of gods, is completely ignored by the author.

Duchesne declares that the typical form of government of the ancient Europeans should not be identified – as has hitherto been done by Classicists – with the Greek democracy of the sixth century BC, but rather with the earlier aristocratic Mycenaean world reflected in Homer’s Iliad. According to him, the Homeric spirit is that of “the Indo-European chieftains who took over the Greek mainland in the second millennium, and founded Mycenaean culture,” and that the latter carried with them the warlike aristocratic ethos of the ancient Indo-Europeans of the fourth and third millennia, when they were still located in the Pontic steppe. Though the Indo-Europeans were originally a nomadic people, their contact with farming communities in the Mediterranean caused them to rule the local population, impose their language on them, and establish kingdoms or chiefdoms there.

Despite this effort to conjure up a more heroic Indo-European past, Duchesne spends much time discussing the democratic excellence of the Greek city-states:

. . . the constitution of the Greeks states was democratic. Now, it is true that, in spite of the constitutional incorporation of all male citizens into the government, most Greek poleis remained oligarchic in actuality. Constitutionally, participation in the public assemblies was denied to slaves, resident aliens, and women; and, of the male citizens (roughly one-third of the population) who enjoyed rights of self-government, it was really a small elite of aristocratic families who had the means and connections to regulate the affairs of the state. Nevertheless, particularly in the case of 5th century Athens, the extent to which citizens participated in every decision of the state was remarkable (p. 402).

He continues to demonstrate that “sovereignty in Republican Rome was invested in the aristocratic Senate and in the Tribunes of the people” (p. 402). In other words, he envisages the politeia of Greece and Rome to have been an aristocratic democracy that shunned monarchy.

Duchesne seems to ignore the conditional historical dependence of every aristocracy on a monarchy. Even the Roman Republic was preceded by sacred monarchs – pontifices – whose advisory council, the Senate, indeed furnished the later Republic with its aristocratic Senators. There is no evidence in the Indo-Iranian sacred literature either of any predominance of the Indic kshatriya or Avestan rathaeshtār in the earliest Āryan societies. The term kshatriya is derived from kshatra, which means sovereignty, and which is normally wielded by a king, and rathaeshtār merely signifies a driver of a ratha, or chariot. The warrior caste among the Āryans is thus intimately allied to the kingly, and kingship among the Āryans was divine, as is evident in the Rājasūya sacrifice among the Indo-Āryans, where the King assumes the role of the Sun in the course of the consecration rituals.[9] In this apotheosis, he is indissociably amalgamated with the first caste, which is that of the brāhman, or āthravan, who represents Agni, the fiery force within the Sun.

Duchesne expands on his romantic hypothesis about the migrations southwards from the Pontic steppe, suggesting that they were impelled not merely by economic constraints, but also by the restless warlike nature of these people, which made them seek glory and honor in battle and to fight in the frenzied “berserker” style of the Germans, though he does not consider why the Greeks and Romans, who were also, according to him, of the same stock, would consider the Germans “barbarians” for doing so. Relying partly on the martial objects buried in the graves of the early Indo-Europeans, he proclaims that “[t]he Indo-European cultures which spread throughout Europe (2800–1300 BC) were all ‘Bronze Age’ chiefdoms . . . chief-level societies of increasing complexity ruled by aristocratic elites” (p. 390). Likewise, “both the Corded Ware and the Bell Beaker cultures of early Bronze Age Europe (from about 3000 BC) were dominated by an upper stratum of aristocrats in which objects of social prestige were used as grave goods” (p. 446).

But Duchesne is not content with emphasizing this warrior-aristocratic nature of the ancient Indo-Europeans. He goes on to suggest that their well-developed spirit of individualism is equally a result of this nature. Indeed, he imagines that the very concept of the “Self” is due to this individualistic excellence derived from warriors. But this is to discount the evidence of all of Indian philosophy, which has little relation to kshatriya adventures, but was developed rather through ascetic Yogic meditational techniques. And an unphilosophical individualism, however aristocratic in origin, is naturally susceptible to degeneration as mere selfishness, if not rapacity.

Duchesne points out that Charles Taylor (op. cit.) had read Plato’s philosophy as “an effort to subordinate the warrior-citizen morality of strength, courage, and glory – which grew out of the berserker barbarian past – to a philosophical morality of dispassionate deliberation” (p. 433). But Duchesne himself maintains that the Homeric heroes as well as the Germanic berserkers were already self-conscious to a high degree. The entire derivation of a presumed Indo-European psychological character from a single Greek epic, or from fragmentary Nordic sagas which deal with diverse mythological and political events, is rather implausible.

Furthermore, Duchesne conflates individualism with “the restlessness of barbarian individuals,” and considers the latter as:

. . . 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).

In other words, Plato himself becomes the winner in a competition with warriors for social preeminence, in Duchesne’s view.

Relying further on Alexandre Kojève and Francis Fukuyama, Duchesne identifies the spirited, or thymotic, part of the tripartite soul as that which causes higher men to seek the recognition of equally elevated peers. “What aristocrats desire is recognition of their worth and dignity by other masters possessing equal worth and dignity” (p. 423). He then adduces Nietzsche’s theory that “[t]he Homeric and classical inhabitants of city-states brought these primordial drives under ‘measure’ and self-control, re-channeling their will to power into creative-cultural venues” (p. 444). Thus, all culture may be said to derive from the warrior caste of the ancient Indo-Europeans.

At this point, however, Duchesne refers to Kojève’s interesting thesis from Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (1933-39) that, “while the masters cannot go beyond their own heroic world-view their inferiors or slaves gradually begin to acquire a sort of freedom by mastering their nature through their work that results in various forms of scientific invention and technology.” The slave, when he gradually turns into a bourgeois, “engenders ‘abstract thought, science, technique, the arts – all these have their origin in the forced work of the slave’” (p. 427). This vicarious self-mastery is, as we shall see in our reading of Ferguson, what characterized the earliest British “servant” settlements in America, and points to the democratic – rather than aristocratic – nature of the “supremacy” of the technologically advanced West.

However, continuing his “aristocratic” social history of the West, Duchesne believes that Christian civilization is also the result of a successful infusion of “aristocratic” Germanic barbarian qualities into the Late Roman Empire:

But the goal of the Church was to spiritualize the baser instincts of this class, not to extirpate and emasculate them. The highly-strung and obstinate aristocrat has been a fundamental source of destruction in Western history as well as the source of all that is good and inspiring (p. 481).

Nevertheless, when Duchesne concludes his panoramic study of aristocratic Indo-Europeans, he is forced to admit rather shamefacedly that:

. . . modern liberalism must be seen as an effort to alter the aristocratic nature of Western man. In the West, the spirited or thymotic part of the soul was long free to play a dominant role both in its pristine existence through Indo-European barbarians and in its sublimated form through Greek, Roman, and Christian medieval times. This spirit was the force, the passion behind the restless and relentless style of rational discoursing, artistic creation, and expansionism of Europeans. But insomuch as this drive was contained and pacified – conceived as the rational pursuit of one’s self-interest – the spirited part of the soul, I would argue, was demoted to being just one type of desire similar to the appetitive desire for survival and comfort (p. 487).

The restlessness or thymotic excellence of Western man was channeled into his lower biological needs:

Accordingly, to the degree that the spirited part of the Western soul was suppressed by the ethical demands of modern democratic liberalism, re-channeled into economic inventiveness, or confounded with bodily appetites, it became increasingly difficult for scholars to attribute the restlessness of the West to this part of the soul. Since the restlessness of the West could not be attributed to biological drives equally present in all human beings, the tendency was to attribute it to the purely rational part of the soul (ibid.).

He points to Weber’s sociology in particular as an example of the erroneous substitution of reason in place of restlessness as the driving force of Western development:

Max Weber is the best known classical exponent of the thesis that the development of the West was due to its “specific and peculiar” rationalism. As commendable as this interpretation is, I hope to have persuaded some that the roots of the West are to be found in a profoundly different aristocratic character that first came into the light of history in the Pontic steppes (ibid.).

It is not clear why Duchesne focuses on Weber, who was not a philosopher, and why he fails to indict Spinoza – as Israel had done – for the elevation of the intellect to a supreme role in the governance of the universe, or Freud for the liberation of the biological drives into a social ethos conducive to anarchy. Rather than ascribe the subversion of the Indo-European aristocratic society to Puritans like Locke, or Rationalists like Spinoza, or psychoanalysts like Freud, Duchesne suggests that the characteristic restlessness of the Indo-Europeans, or their thymotic aspect itself, may have led to this degeneration. Western culture, according to him, “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).

The problem with Duchesne’s glorification of the thymotic or warrior-like aspect of Indo-European society is that he fails to understand that the warrior caste only derives its virtue from its association with the priestly or religious caste. Divorced from the latter, it is all too easily susceptible to degeneration through association with the lower, unaristocratic, or popular sections of society. The distinction that Duchesne forces in his study between aristocrats and monarchs is also a false one, since the two are indissociably connected to each other, and the priesthood represents the spiritual core of any true aristocracy. The people, insofar as they are ruled by tamas, represent Kojève’s “slaves,” and the technological world that they create is informed by a Spinozistic understanding of Nature as God (Deus sive Natura). The celebration of the biological drives that Duchesne bemoans in modern liberal society, and that had been anticipated by Freud’s psychology, is equally related to the Nature-oriented, tāmasic part of the soul.

Another major defect of Duchesne’s work is its failure to distinguish the European from the American West. His study is mostly centered on European history and philosophy, and does not note the crucial differences between these and the society and culture developed in the New World. Niall Ferguson, on the other hand, elaborates more on the capitalism consummated in America, though he does not omit the beginnings of industrialism in Britain, or the various effects of European colonialism and totalitarianism. The transformation of what Duchesne called an aristocratic egalitarianism into liberal democracy is more precisely charted in Ferguson’s survey of the history of Western capitalism.

According to Ferguson, the main achievements of the West that elevated it above “the rest” and allowed it to dominate the latter were competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic – all of which he comically terms the West’s six “killer apps.”

We notice that, in Ferguson’s history, the competition that Duchesne noticed as an adjunct of the individualism of early aristocratic societies is focused on the fact of decentralization “of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism.” According to Ferguson, China in the fifteenth century, under the Ming Dynasty, could already boast of many technological innovations, and was even capable of exploring the seas and conducting international trade. Yet, it failed to do so because of the centralized bureaucracy of that dynasty, or because, as Max Weber had put it in Confucianism and Taoism (1915), Confucian rationalism meant “rational adjustment to the world,” as opposed to the Western concept of “rational mastery of the world.” The European adventurers, unlike their Chinese counterparts, were given a free hand in a time of warring European states that precluded a centralized power on the Continent. Further, the nascent banking institutions in England and Holland began to wield a power that was almost independent of royal rule. This enabled the establishment of the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company as capitalist corporations. The spirit of competition between the various seafaring European nations allowed European trade and colonization of the East to proceed apace.

The section on science compares the temporary achievements of Ottoman Turkey with the more enduring successes of the West, while that on medicine recounts the extension of medical science within the African colonies, including the German experiments in what Ferguson considers to be racialist pseudo-science. Ferguson particularly mentions Dr. Eugen Fischer (the teacher of the notorious Josef Mengele) as a proponent of this branch of medicine, which justified the cruel treatment of Africans, just as it later did that of European minorities during the Third Reich.

The section on property rights is closely associated with Ferguson’s insistence on the rule of law and representational government as indispensable constituents of civilization. In this section, he focuses mainly on the early American settlements, which attracted the lower classes of Britain – as well as the persecuted minorities of other European countries – to the North American continent with the promise of land that could be acquired without any of the warlike qualifications that were required for the aristocratic estates of the early Europeans in Europe. American democracy was based on the rule of law to the extent that it endorsed “the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government” (Chapter III, 1). It was thus essentially a property-owners’ democracy. As Locke had phrased it, “The great and chief end therefore, of Men’s uniting into Commonwealths . . . is the preservation of their Property.” Freedom, in Locke’s view, was “a man’s Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another” (Chapter III).

This approach to democracy in North America differed essentially from the sociopolitical system prevailing in Iberian South America. Whereas the land that was cultivated by the European settlers of North America was fully appropriated from the indigenous peoples of the continent, in South America the indigenous peoples were made to work the land that was owned by a small European elite:

Unlike in British colonies like Carolina, where acres were widely distributed, in Spanish America it was the right to exploit the indigenous people that was granted to a tiny elite.

Thus, “[i]n South America the Indians worked the land. In North America they lost it” (Chapter III, 3).

Ferguson also considers the Roman Catholicism associated with the Spanish and Portuguese imperialism as defective, since it represented:

. . . fundamentally a monopoly of another sort. North America, on the other hand, became home to numerous Protestant sects; dissent and diversity were among the organizing principles of British settlement. This had its shadow side (the Salem witchcraft trials spring to mind), but the clear benefit was the creation of a society of merchants and farmers committed to religious as well as political freedom (Chapter III, 2).

Ferguson’s libertarianism makes him believe that the Americans – who have in fact established a quasi-commercial network of countless Protestant churches – are still religious, whereas modern-day Europeans have lost their religious associations more easily. But the religiosity of the Protestant sects is clearly in doubt, and the increasing lack of religiosity of the Europeans who are still rooted in their rich historical traditions is indeed much less a cause of alarm than what Ferguson himself calls “a kind of consumer Christianity that verges on Wal-Mart worship” (Chapter VI, 2).

Further, in spite of the incompatibility of the centralized rule of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church with liberal democracy as Ferguson understands it, he points to the fact that Brazil, in spite of its multi-racialist population, has recently managed to achieve an impressive economic level:

Meanwhile, one of the most dynamic economies in the world is that of multi-coloured Brazil. The key to success in Brazil – still among the world’s most unequal societies – has been long-overdue reform to give a rising share of the population a chance to own property and make money. After more than a century of over-reliance on protectionism, import substitution and other forms of state intervention, most of Latin America – with the sorry exception of Venezuela – has achieved higher growth since the 1980s with a combination of privatization, foreign investment and export orientation (Chapter III, 4).

Ferguson does not wonder why all these changes in the direction of American-style capitalism have not resulted in a decrease in the poverty of the vast majority of the South American population. And he does not realize either that the society established by the Iberians in the south was more truly aristocratic than the blatantly democratic one founded by the British in the north, since the South American colonies were ruled originally by the two truly aristocratic segments of society, the Crown and the Church, and never devoted itself to the technological advancement typical of the “slaves” discussed by Kojève and Duchesne.

The section on consumerism focuses on the relation between the consumer society and the Industrial Revolution, which increased the incomes of Europeans through the increase in “the productivity of land, labour and capital.” While the establishment of large industries meant a widening gap between the bourgeois capitalist industrialists and the laborers, the latter, too, gradually increased their wages and ability to consume the material benefits of mechanized industry. However, the concomitant reduction of social relations to what Carlyle called a “cash nexus” inevitably led to the socialist revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, the dogmas of Communism as formulated by Marx and Engels included proscriptions of private property and private business ownership – dogmas that were in direct opposition to the third “killer app” of property rights that characterized the American New World.

Ferguson then points with admiration to the fact that the innovative spirit of capitalism was not diminished in America even by the Great Depression:

Innovation, the mainspring of industrial advance, did not slacken in the 1930s. New automobiles, radios and other consumer durables were proliferating – Innovation, the mainspring of industrial advance, did not slacken in the 1930s. New automobiles, radios and other consumer durables were proliferating. No less creative was the live, recorded and broadcast music business, once white Americans had discovered that black Americans had nearly all the best tunes (Chapter V, 3).

In the aftermath of the Depression, Germany and Russia sought to reduce unemployment through industrial expansion and rearmament. However, their concentration on heavy industry, infrastructure, and arms did not foster higher living standards or consumer spending. This is the reason, according to Ferguson, why Russia eventually lost the Cold War: “Centralized economic planning, though indispensable to success in the nuclear arms race, was wholly unsuited to the satisfaction of consumer wants” (Chapter V, 3). Ferguson gives as examples of America’s victory the triumph of jeans and of rock music, the apparel and noise of the American proletariat, over the entire sociopolitical system of the Communists.

But all these tawdry American productions are precisely what a truly cultured person of the Old World, the real West, finds so repulsive in American society. The examples that Ferguson gives of the excellence of capitalism are blatant revelations of the general vulgarity and lack of style of the Americans, which can only be attributed to the plebeian character of American society from its very foundation. The spread of American proletarianism was crystallized in the revolutions of the 1960s, when traditional Christian moral standards were overthrown in a Freudian orgy of free love and of real (as opposed to Duchesne’s “aristocratic”) egalitarianism.

The work ethic is defined by Ferguson as “a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity.” He points to the fact that Protestant countries in Europe fared better commercially than Catholic ones:

There was indeed . . . a clear tendency after the Reformation for Protestant countries in Europe to grow faster than Catholic ones, so that by 1700 the former had clearly overtaken the latter in terms of per-capita income, and by 1940 people in Catholic countries were on average 40 per cent worse off than people in Protestant countries (Chapter VI, 1).

Ferguson sees the explanation for this phenomenon in the fact that because of “the central importance in Luther’s thought of individual reading of the Bible, Protestantism encouraged literacy, not to mention printing, and these two things unquestionably encouraged economic development (the accumulation of ‘human capital’) as well as scientific study” (ibid.). But this is to discount the entire glorious edifice of learning propagated not only in Europe, but also in Europe’s colonies by the Roman Catholic Church and the Jesuits.

Gradually, the industriousness of the Puritan settlers and their impulse to save were forgotten, and the work-ethic has now been replaced by the reckless spending on credit of the average American. Ferguson does not investigate how the industry-based capitalism that may have been impelled by the Puritan work-ethic could have been transformed today into a financial “gangster capitalism.” The worst he can observe in contemporary capitalism is that it is synonymous with rampant consumerism.

Furthermore, now that the “killer apps” of international capitalist success have been distributed over much of the world, Ferguson wonders if Western civilization can continue to maintain its supremacy, especially in light of China’s rise in recent years. However, he concludes, much like Duchesne, by stressing the importance of having “faith” in Western civilization itself. The example of the past five hundred years is, according to Ferguson, itself a sufficient inspiration to its continuation:

At its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in its schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation. The civilization of China was once built on the teachings of Confucius. The civilization of Islam – of the cult of submission – is still built on the Koran. But what are the foundational texts of Western civilization that can bolster our belief in the almost boundless power of the free individual human being? . . . Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors (Chapter VI, 7).

However, the notion that the continuance of a civilization rests on the confidence that its participants have in it is a curious one that seems to be derived from the commercial phenomenon of “investor confidence.” The grim possibility raised a little earlier in this work by Ferguson – but quickly rejected by him – is indeed more accurate: “that all the achievements of Western civilization – capitalism, science, the rule of law and democracy – have been reduced to nothing more profound than a spot of shopping” (Chapter V, 5).

As in the case of Duchesne’s doubts about the end of the aristocratic spirit in “nihilism, cultural relativism, weariness,” we are left once again with the disturbing feeling that the civilization of the West is now powerful more by virtue of its “slave” resourcefulness and restlessness than through any awareness of the religious foundations of Indo-European aristocracy or supremacy.


[1] Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011).

[2] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

[3] Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber, An Intellectual Portrait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

[4] John Love, “Max Weber’s Ancient Judaism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Weber, ed. Stephen Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[5] See, for instance, Alexander Jacob, “The ‘Dynastic Race’ and the ‘Biblical Japheth’ I and II,” Ancient Origins 13,14, October 2017.

[6] See Arrian, Indica VII (in R. C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India [Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960], p.220f).

[7]  See Alexander Jacob, Ātman: A Reconstruction of the Solar Cosmology of the Indo-Europeans (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2005), Chapter XII.

[8] Ibid., Introduction.

[9] See Alexander Jacob, Brahman: A Study of the Solar Rituals of the Indo-Europeans (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2012), Chapter IX.


  1. James
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This obsession with religion in the tracing of our origins as some kind of important characteristic we must maintain is laughable. It means nothing when the biggest most important characteristic is lost, that of our European race. You can argue about religiosity all you want, but today as the way history has gone makes plain the primacy of Race and how if we want to save what we’ve inheritated we must become Racial fanatics for our European people, the preservation of our ethnicities and expulsion of the foreigners. I couldn’t care less about these philosophers, or the religion of this or that. It seems to me Duchesne and Ferguson are so caught up in these generalities which are so disconnected to the people themselves that they fail to see the truly prime component to the West. In fact they use the term “Western” to avoid mentioning ‘European’. Obviously we know what the implication is, but I find it more than a bit scummy to use this sleight of hand. The Sino Supremacists have no sympathy for us and the fact that we give respect to them and their multicultural aims sickens me.

    Also, to the author of this article, Murray’s study on European Superiority isn’t ‘foolish’. What would even compel you to say something so retarded?

    • alexander jacob
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Would any intelligent anthropologist undertake such an absurd task as that of ranking the leading 4,000 innovators, European, Arabic and Asian, in the sciences and the arts. from 800 BC to AD 1950? Would he, further, use as his criterion the number of references (!!) in the leading encyclopedias, histories and surveys (?) to these figures? And would any intelligent reader take Murray’s resultant ‘index scores’ seriously when, in western art, for instance, he has Michelangelo topping the list with an index score of 100, followed by Picasso (77), who manages to get slightly ahead of Raphael (73)? Never mind the fortunes of ‘human accomplishment’, it’s the emptiness of the American mind that one should be worried about.

  2. Aiser
    Posted April 29, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    An interesting side fact about Niall Ferguson, he is married to the Somali Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This has baffled me for a few years. How any white person can marry a Somali is just something I can’t grasp. I suppose to British will marry anyone and anything?

  3. Jud Jackson
    Posted April 27, 2019 at 7:46 am | Permalink


    This is extremely interesting and troubling to me. When you get to be my age, 63, you would like to think that you have finally figured things out. I would love to hear your thoughts about this article. It is almost as if someone had told me that the average black had an IQ higher than the average white.


    Jud Jackson

  4. Ovidiu
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    The individualism of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations differs markedly from the modern individualism fashioned by the liberal ideology of the Enlightenment.
    These two types of individualism” may very well be related, they may spring from the same “essence”, as Duchesne suggests, but using “individualism” for both obscures their differences.

    The ancient Greeks and Romans sought distinction, recognition and fame, but seeking such a thing presupposes a social-context. You can not be famous alone. The ancient hero sought recognition from his peers and from his community. He did not dissociate himself from his community, he did not reject the norms and values of his community. To the contrary he internalized those values (which he took as being objective, universal and mandatory) and he strove to excel in relation to them.

    The modern, post-Enlightenment, “individual” however seeks the right to reject the values and norms of society so as to pursue ‘happiness’- values as he alone defines them, not as society defines them.
    He does not seek recognition and admiration, he does not seek excellence (arete, virtu) according to a socially defined set of values. He does not seek immortality through “imperishable fame” (in the memory of his group-community-society), but what he seeks is “freedom” from society’s norms and values. Freedom to do whatever he wants, that is “individualism” for him.
    Essentially, he differentiates himself by dissociating himself from the body-social and by rising his arbitrary-whimsical desires to the status previously reserved to the ideals and the values of the community.
    It is differentiation without distinction, without making a difference in the axiological plane. Indeed it denies that such a plane objectively exists.

    The ancient sought “recognition from”, the modern seeks “freedom from” the community.
    The first distinguished himself as being excellent within/in relation to/ the whole body-social, the second seeks dissociation, separation and complete autonomy from the body-social. The ancient sought not equality but superiority/excellence, the modern seeks to have enshrined as being the “absolute norm/principle” of the society the equal legitimacy for any value and any pursuit (and since they all are equal none is really/objectively of value and this ends in nihilism)

    The ancient European societies were not individualistic societies in the modern sense of the word but they were collectivist just as there were (and still are) all the others societies in the world.
    But, as Duchense rightly notices as peculiar to the European ones, they also allowed and encouraged/rewarded the forming of the social hierarchies through free competition.

    The modern western societies are indeed individualistic, they are made from individuals officially “freed” from the social bonds and expectations but this means also disconnected from the social rewards. Honor, fame, or shame play little or no motivational role simply because everybody is by himself. Everybody has his own values, and they are all regarded as legitimate, and therefore nobody can expect/demand recognition, fame, respect and admiration from the others (since they may hold who knows what as being “values”).
    In the ancient Greek and Roman societies however recognition and honor were certain to follow once the great-deed was done by the hero. They could be expected and they also could be demanded, since everybody was sharing the same value-system so his deed was indeed “great” for everybody.

    • threestars
      Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      You’re being more than a little unfair to Duchesne. He does touch on the difference between contemporary freedom from all responsibility and the older freedom within responsibilities, as the author of this article himself mentions. It should be noted that this distinction isn’t even relevant to Duchesne’s thesis since only the classical form of individualism is supposed to have engendered Western civilization. The contemporary post-structuralist understanding of “freedom” is all the more irrelevant when you consider how incredibly recent it is, with only some 50 years of cultural significance behind it. We can give it twice as much that actual history, being lenient (no, contemporary moral relativism didn’t start with Kant ffs!)

      • Ovidiu
        Posted April 28, 2019 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        @threestars -“the difference between contemporary freedom from all responsibility and the older freedom within responsibilities”

        It is not “freedom from responsibilities” but freedom to do whatever you want free from the interference which comes from the others. Free from the “bondage” of having to fulfill society’s expectations and live up to commonly agreed upon (religiouslsy inspired or just tradition) ideals, norms, values. The state (the society, the culture) role is reduced to protecting this central-right of yours to do/live as you choose and “pursue your happiness” as you define it. There are no longer common values and norms, except this central-principle of being free to live however you may choose.

        This is the ideology of Liberalism- developed during the 18th-19th centuries and then enshrined in the laws of all the western “liberal-democracies”. The rest of the Western history, post-Enlightenment to the present-day, has been one of ever-expanding on this type of freedom by adding ever new rights, exploding yet another set of “medieval” limitations to choosing as you wish, and so on. It has been a continuous march of the “individual” who becomes ever
        more free from the societal constraints. The 1960s cultural-sexual revolution was just another chapter.

        But it is an old tendency. The Enlightenment only codified it in an ideology, in a set of inter-related arguments and premises, and made it the dogma of modernity, but the tendency for this type of individualism is as old the ancient Greek city-states.

        Aristotle writing about democracy :

        –In democracies of the type which is regarded as being peculiarly democratic the policy followed is the very reverse of their real interest. The reason for this is a false conception of liberty. There are two features which are generally held to define democracy. One of them is the sovereignty of the majority; the other is the liberty of individuals. Justice is assumed to consist in equality and equality in regarding the will of the masses as sovereign; liberty is assumed to consist in “doing what one likes.” The result of such a view is that, in these extreme democracies, each individual lives as he like, or as Euripides says, “For any end he chances to desire”. —

        • threestars
          Posted April 28, 2019 at 10:22 am | Permalink

          I assure you, I understood perfectly what you meant. I must admit that “freedom from all responsibility” might not have been the best choice of words to describe today’s tendency for freedom to do whatever you like as long as you don’t directly hurt someone else (as “hurt” is understood by today’s judiciary of course, since we can all point out to Desmond is Amazing), but I had to give brevity its due.

          I agree that the drive towards freedom from constraints in our culture is significantly older than post-modernity, but prior philosophies always replaced traditional norms with something else for either an internal or external regulation of behavior. For the iluminists, it was either a social contract or a sense of internal duty towards society — hence my use of the term “responsibility”.

          18th cent. philosophers weren’t as much about freeing humans in an absolute sense, but about replacing what they saw as irrational norms with newer ones, arrived at by science and reason. Voltaire wasn’t all that keen on extending rights to homosexuals or Jews because the Bible told him they’re bad, but because of what he empirically observed as an inherently parasitic, self-serving, and selfish nature in the two groups. While Kant might be read as preaching full autonomy, he merely “enslaved” human action to a set of very strict precepts of reason, aimed at making the human being less reliant on ready-made, mohammedan-like scripture. (I don’t need to tell you he was over-optimistic when assuming that could work on a societal scale,)

          Since they stripped away the meter of rationality and empirical, scientific knowledge upon which enlightenment thinkers proposed to base ethical behavior, post-modernists could be seen as a rejection of the former, not a continuation, with only with a vague concept of autonomy bringing them together. (Sure, you could bring about examples of enlightenment philosophers for which “reason” wasn’t central, but you can’t argue that a Voltaire wasn’t closer to the scientific spirit of the 19th century then Rousseau)

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