getting to the heart of the matter 7.20.2005

One of the most interesting historic problems I've seen is why is it that the "West" or Western Civilization has historically come to enjoy more power and eventually sweep across the world. One theory I read was that Cortez was in Mexico and Montazuma not in Spain had to do with access to natural resources such as horses--which are native to Europe and not the New World. That theory--of the superiority of the Horse giving superiority to the Spanish Conquestators who came to the New World, always struck me as bullshit. If it was about the horse, the Plains Indians, who came to master horseback riding in ways that whites never did, should have been able to easily reclaim North America in the 1800's. Intead, disorganized settlers pushed the Indians almost out of existance, dispite (for Native Americans) a well orchestrated attempt to push back the oncoming tide.

Other theories have revolved around disease, or around superiority of materials, or raw resources--all of which fall flat on it's face with North American natives, who occupied the United States before there was a United States. If the United States is pre-emenant in the world today because of it's natural resources, then why it that Europeans conquered the New World, and the Iroqui failed to conquer the Old World?


The only explanation I've heard for this apparent historic anomaly comes from Victor Hanson, who has published a series of essays based on a talk given at the University of Oregon. His thesis: Western military and technological superiority comes from western values that have throughout time placed greater emphasis on individuality, secular inquiry, the rule of law, consensual government and the rights of the individual than other cultures through the world. This is not to be taken as a value judgement--far from it: individual greed was very much behind the Spanish expansion into Mexico that destroyed the Aztec culture.

The first essay, War and the West, Then and Now (part one), introduces the concepts behind Hanson's theories why the West has become the pre-eminent cultural expression across the world:
What made Western armies so good? Not morally good, but good in the cold efficiency of killing people? One of them is freedom. There was a greater propensity in Western armies for the individual to feel that he had a stake in his army. Nothing provides a better or more clear illustration of this than Herodotus’s description of Thermopylae, where [soldiers] in the royal army of Xerxes were being whipped to fight, whereas Leonidas and the Spartans said they were there because they were following the law that they themselves had created. What kind of army, ancient or modern, would name their triremes “Free Speech” or “Freedom” like the Athenians did at Salamis, or have a play by Aeschylus that says, “We rowed into battle saying ‘freedom, freedom, freedom.’” It is very strange in comparison to what motivated other armies of the era.


The second essay, a continuation of the talk, can be found here: War and the West, Then and Now (part two)

These essays get to the heart of the matter, which is that the West has proven superior--not from a moral or ethical perspective, but from the cold, hard calculus of superior military might and ability to slaughter your enemey--because of the greater appreciation the West has had on individual freedom, inquiry, and civic responsibility that derives naturally from civic participation.

Update

The third essay, the conclusion of the talk, can be found here: War and the West, Then and Now (part three)

His essay concludes with an excellent post, a reason why I'm constantly concerned with multinationalism and multiculturalism--two phenomina promulgated by the Left:
... But the difference was—during that six hundred year period between the threat of Hannibal and the later Huns—that whether you liked all of what Rome stood for or not, in 200 B.C.E. a Roman knew what it was to be a Roman. He didn’t think it was a perfect thing; he didn’t think it was the best thing, necessarily, but he knew it was better than the alternative. And I am not sure that in 400 C.E. a Roman felt that. He wasn’t sure what it was to be a Roman; he wasn’t sure if it was any better, or if it was any different. And when that happens in history, there is no reason why it has to continue. And so for a long time, it didn’t.

Civilization only promulgates from one generation to another: if a generation decides it no longer wishes to promulgate civilization to the next--civilization stops. Dead.

posted by William Woody at 9:54 PM

"Western military and technological superiority comes from western values that have throughout time placed greater emphasis on individuality, secular inquiry, the rule of law, consensual government and the rights of the individual than other cultures through the world."

I wonder, can we seriously argue that the despotic Catholic Monarchy of 16th century Spain or the autocratic Puritan colonies placed a higher value on individual rights, secular inquiry, and consensual government than the aboriginal cultures they destroyed? It would be interesting to see that argument constructed, I think.

Fact is, a great deal of the destruction wrought by the invasion of the new world came from the conquerors' determination to replace the native culture with European religious and cultural institutions, by force if necessary. It's hard to see the consensuality, secularity, and respect for individualism buried in that.

Anonymous The Lone Arranger at 1:00 PM  

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