October 24, 2010
October 24, 2010
Many reasons have been given for the West’s dominance over the last 500 years. But, Ian Morris argues, its rise to global hegemony was largely due to geographical good fortune.
I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films and today is whatever date it is because you say so.
This is what Shad Faruki, a Malaysian lawyer, told the British journalist Martin Jacques in a 1994 interview. And he was right: for 200 years, a few nations clustered around the shores of the North Atlantic – ‘the West’, as we normally call them – have dominated the world in ways without parallel in history.
Most people, at some point or another, have wondered why the West rules. There are theories beyond number. Perhaps, say some, westerners are just biologically superior to everyone else. Or maybe western culture is uniquely dynamic; or possibly the West has had better leaders; or the West’s democratic politics and its Christianity might give it an edge. Some think western domination has been locked in since time immemorial: others that it is merely a recent accident. And, with many westerners now looking to China’s double-digit economic growth to pull the world out of recession, some historians even suggest that western rule has been an aberration, a brief interruption of an older, Sinocentric, world order.
When experts disagree so deeply, it usually means that we need fresh perspectives on a problem. Most of those who pronounce on Western rule – economists, political pundits, sociologists – tend to focus on recent times and then make sweeping claims about the past. Asking why the West rules, though, really requires us to work the other way round, posing questions about history, then seeing where they lead. As the masthead of this magazine puts it: ‘What happened then matters now.’
The shape of history
Explaining why the West rules calls for a different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale. When we do this the first thing we see is the biological unity of humanity, which flatly disproves racist theories of western rule.
Our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago and has spread across the world in the last 60,000 years. By around 30,000 years ago, older versions of humanity, such as the Neanderthals, were extinct and by 10,000 years ago a single kind of human – us – had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. This dispersal allowed humanity’s genes to diverge again, but most of the consequences (such as the colour of skin, eyes, or hair) are, literally, only skin deep and those mutations that do go deeper (such as head shape or lactose tolerance) have little obvious connection to why the West rules. A proper answer to this question must start from the fact that wherever we go – East, West, North, or South – people are all much the same.
So why have their histories turned out so differently? Many historians suggest that there is something unique about western culture. Just look, they say, at the philosophy of Socrates, the wisdom of the Bible, or the glories of Leonardo da Vinci; since antiquity, the West has simply outshone the rest. Such cultural comparisons, however, are notoriously subjective. Socrates, for instance, was certainly a great thinker; but the years in which he was active, during the fifth century bc, were also the age of the Hebrew prophets in Israel, of the Buddha and the founders of Jainism in India, of Confucius and the first Daoists in China. All these sages wrestled with much the same questions as Socrates (Can I know reality? What is the good life? How do we perfect society?) and the thoughts of each became ‘the classics’, timeless masterpieces that have defined the meanings of life for millions of people ever since.
So strong are the similarities between the Greco-Roman, Jewish, Indian and Chinese classics, in fact, that scholars often call the first millennium bc the ‘Axial Age’, in the sense of it being an axis around which the whole history of Eurasian thought turned. From the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea, larger, more complex societies were facing similar challenges in the first millennium bc and finding similar answers. Socrates was part of a huge pattern, not a unique giant who sent the West down a superior path.
From a global perspective, Christianity, too, makes more sense as a local version of a broader trend than as something setting the West apart from the rest. As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the middle of the first millennium ad and new questions (Is there something beyond this life? How can I be saved?) gained urgency, the new faith won perhaps 40 million converts; but in those same years, in the wake of the Han dynasty’s collapse in China, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism offered their own answers to the same questions and won their own 40 million devotees. Soon enough Islam repeated the feat in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Even such astonishing Renaissance men as Leonardo and Michelangelo, who refined the wisdom of the ancient West to revolutionise everything from aeronautics to art, are best seen as Europe’s versions of a new kind of intellectual which societies needed as they emerged from the Middle Ages. China had produced its own Renaissance men some 400 years earlier, who also refined ancient wisdom (in their case, of course, the East’s) to revolutionise everything. Shen Kua (1031-95 ad), for instance, published groundbreaking work on agriculture, archaeology, cartography, climate change, the classics, ethnography, geology, maths, medicine, metallurgy, meteorology, music, painting and zoology. Even Leonardo would have been impressed.
Over and over again, the triumphs of western culture turn out to have been local versions of broader trends, not lonely beacons in a general darkness and, if we think about culture in a broader, more anthropological sense, the West’s history again seems to be one example of a larger pattern rather than a unique story. For most of their existence, humans lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. After the Ice Age some hunter-gatherers settled down in villages, where they domesticated plants and animals; some villages grew into cities, with ruling elites; some cities became states and then empires and, finally, industrialised nations. No society has ever leaped from hunting and gathering to high technology (except under the influence of outsiders). Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West…
October 24, 2010
The sweep of the new exhibition at the New York Public Library — “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” — is stunning. It stretches from a Bible found in a monastery in coastal Brittany that was sacked by the Vikings in the year 917, to a 1904 lithograph showing the original Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. It encompasses both an elaborately decorated book of 20th-century Coptic Christian readings and a modest 19th-century printing of the Gospels in the African language Grebo. There are Korans, with pages that shimmer with gold leaf and elegant calligraphy, and a 13th-century Pentateuch from Jerusalem, written in script used by Samaritans who traced their origins to the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The library’s Gutenberg Bible is here, as well as its 1611 King James translation. The first Koran published in English is shown, from 1649, along with fantastical images from 16th-century Turkish and Persian manuscripts in which Muhammad is pictured with other prophets, his face a blank white space in obeisance to the prohibition against his portrait.
Out of many, one. That could well be the motto of this ambitious exhibition. It focuses on “the three Abrahamic religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — each of which takes as a forebear an “itinerant herdsman” of the Middle East, Abraham, who affirmed belief in a single God. As the show puts it, Abraham rejected “the religions of antiquity with their plethora of gods, each imbued with a particular attribute, purpose and power,” replacing the many with the one.
The Abrahamic religions share other characteristics as well. Each believes that God has made himself known to his prophets through acts of revelation. And such revelations shape groups of believers by being incorporated in canonical written texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, the Islamic Koran.
Though the exhibition does not point this out, the connection between monotheism and such texts is no accident. Once multiple divinities are discarded, along with their rivalries and conflicting powers, religion is concerned with just two poles: the human and the divine. Religious events take place not on Mount Olympus or in some imagined godly castle, but in the earthly realm. Religious history becomes fully part of human history. And the telling of that history, along with commentary and reinterpretation, becomes an aspect of the religion itself. These faiths are historical faiths.
This exhibition grew out of a show mounted in 2007 at the British Library called “Sacred.” The original plan was for a joint exhibition, but according to a New York Public Library spokesman, the British Library backed out, worried that post-9/11 inspections by the Transportation Security Administration could put its rare manuscripts at risk. So, while the British catalog is for sale here, the show is different, reconstructed using the New York library’s own collection by H. George Fletcher, the library’s retired director of special collections, and a team of five scholars and advisers.
The intent, though, is unchanged. These exhibitions have a distinctive post-9/11 cast. One reaction to Islamist terror attacks has been a self-conscious ecumenism; one of the main sponsors of “Three Faiths,” for example, is the Coexist Foundation,whose aim is “to promote better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
The focus on similarities among the three religions is partly meant to disconnect terrorism from the mainstream Islamic tradition. In the British catalog, Karen Armstrong, who has written widely about the Abrahamic religions, minimizes the scale of Islamist violence by suggesting that each religion has its dangerous extremists, but more important, she argues, is that the faiths share a devotion to the ideal of transcendence through holy texts. The British exhibition even had the subtitle “Discover What We Share.” And in New York, too, the emphasis throughout is on commonality. At this historical moment, this is meant to defend Islam against anticipated accusations. Thus: out of three distinct monotheisms, one humanist perspective…