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Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization

duchesne [1]4,940 words

Ricardo Duchesne
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization [2]
Leiden: Brill, 2011

1. Introduction: A Book for Our Times 

Every few years I discover a book that is truly great. One that forces me to think in new ways about things familiar, teaches me things I never knew, and inspires in me scores of new ideas and insights. Such a book is Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, which has been my companion now for close to two months. It’s a big book (527 pages, including back matter), and it demands a big review.

Please take me at my word when I say that this book is well worth the attention I will devote to it – and well worth your attention as well. In fact, I cannot recall reading any book published in the last two decades that I would count as more significant. Yet you will be surprised to hear that I read it in short installments. This was due not primarily to the fact that I had other commitments, but rather because I kept having to put the book down to think about its ideas and make notes to myself. It often takes me forever to get through a book that I find truly exciting.

Duchesne teaches in the Department of Social Science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John in Canada. He is the author of some 36 refereed articles and 13 encyclopedia entries. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is his first book, but it is apparent both from its size and its scope that it is the fruit of many years of research and reflection. Indeed, by any standard this is an absolutely remarkable book. Duchesne not only surveys and assesses decades of scholarship in world history, his own arguments are formed through an encounter with thinkers like Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Spengler, and Kojève. And his treatment of these thinkers is far from superficial – indeed it is extraordinarily insightful (particularly in the case of Hegel, the most difficult thinker in the bunch). Duchesne’s erudition is truly impressive, as is the profundity of his ideas.

In sum, this ought to be regarded, by historians and others, as a path-breaking book and treated as an instant classic. But it will not be. Or rather, I should say, it has not been, since it came out two years ago (though it often takes a while for academic books to get noticed or to have an impact). It has been reviewed in a few places, but has largely been ignored, and will probably continue to be. The reason can be divined from the title: Duchesne wants to argue that the West is unique.

Now, you may be wondering, who would ever challenge such a claim? Why would anyone even need to mount a defense of Western uniqueness? If such questions occur to you, then you are likely an academic virgin. For in today’s world of scholarship – in which a monolithic “political correctness” reigns supreme – not only is the West under attack for its Eurocentrism, imperialism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, and (God help us) phallologocentrism, even the idea of its uniqueness is being challenged. The position of today’s politically correct historians can be summed up as follows: not only are we bad, we’re also nothing special – though we are especially bad.

When I related all of this to a good friend recently, his response was “But isn’t it rather unique that the Europeans, a minority of the world’s population [about 20% in 1800] managed eventually to control almost the entire planet?” One also thinks of such things as the birth of science, philosophy, and participatory government in Greece, the Roman concept of the legal person, the development of mechanical clocks, the invention of the printing press, the discovery of the “New World,” the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the ideal of universal human rights, Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the industrial revolution, quantum physics, the moon landing, the harnessing of electricity and nuclear power, the invention of the car, radio, television, computers, airplanes, and motion pictures. And, of course, this is merely a short list of Western accomplishments. Isn’t this enough to indicate not just that the West is unique, but spectacularly, impressively, sublimely unique?

So how do these revisionist professors pull it off? (Calling them “revisionists,” as Duchesne does, is more gentlemanly than calling them “politically correct,” so I will use this term throughout the rest of the essay.) Essentially, their strategy is two-pronged. First of all, and as I shall discuss at some length, they minimize the importance of any Western achievements that are not scientific or technological, or which do not make a direct or obvious impact on economic relationships (this is an outgrowth of the latent Marxism of their position, as well as of a certain vulgar modern materialism). And so, as incredible as it may sound, they deny the importance of such things as Greek philosophy, the ideals of the Reformation and Enlightenment, Beethoven’s nine symphonies, etc. Second, insofar as they acknowledge Western scientific and technological innovations, they assert that these were either borrowed from other cultures, or were developments of ideas or inventions originated by others.

A large portion of Duchesne’s book – almost the first 280 pages – is devoted to countering these claims. Because most honest and well-informed readers will recognize that these are not only highly problematic claims but also flimsy and often dishonest ones, many will find Duchesne’s book slow going. However, those 280 pages contain a careful, painstaking analysis of the revisionists’ claims – and also a complete and total demolition of them. On completing these pages I had the feeling that if there were any justice in the world, the revisionists should now simply melt into the floors of their lecture halls, like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Alas, most of them have tenure, and cannot be gotten rid of so easily.

If Duchesne’s book were devoted simply to a refutation of the revisionist position it would be quite valuable. In fact, however, it is far more ambitious. The second half of the text presents a theory about the sources of the West’s uniqueness. Duchesne argues that Europe has achieved so much because its spirit is profoundly different from that of the rest of the world. Its spirit is “restless”; it is constantly on the move, expanding outwards in all areas, seeking to make the world its own. It abhors restraints of any kind, especially on freedom of thought and individual liberty. Furthermore, it is highly agonal and competitive – even the poets compete with each other. And it is individualistic, honoring the deeds of great heroes and the iconoclasm of the great innovators.

Of course, similar claims have been made – as we shall see – by figures like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler. And Duchesne builds upon their ideas. However, he also goes beyond them. For however true it may be to speak about the West’s spirit such “explanations” are ultimately unsatisfying if what one seeks is a theory of real historical origins: where does this spirit come from exactly? Why is it the West that gave rise to such a spirit? Duchesne’s answers to these questions take us into what is truly the most radical part of his book. He argues that the West’s restlessness and creativity have their origin in the aristocratic, warlike culture of the ancient Indo-Europeans. He writes: “As this book will demonstrate, the primordial basis for Western uniqueness lay in the [Indo-European] ethos of individualism and strife. For Indo-Europeans, the highest ideal was the attainment of honorable prestige through the performance of heroic deeds” (p. x).

2. The Rise of the Revisionist Historians 

Duchesne’s first chapter is entitled “The Fall of Western Civilization and the Rise of Multicultural World History.” But what “fall of Western civilization” really refers to is the demise of the old “Western Civ” courses that used to be ubiquitous in academia. In the old days, it was thought that since our students were living and studying in the West, they needed to have a firm grasp of Western culture. Furthermore, the old-fashioned texts used in those classes tended to assert that history exhibited a discernible pattern: a linear trajectory, with the West leading the way. They assumed, in short, an ideal of progress, and were guilty of what is denounced today as Eurocentrism.

All this changed in the 1960s. With the rise of the New Left in the academy, the West was now seen to have advanced through the exploitation of other peoples, which scarcely counts as “progress” at all. “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the 1960s saw the onset of a tidal wave against the idea of progress,” Duchesne writes (p. 23). Cultural relativism, post-colonialism, historicism, deconstruction, and critical theory all converged, with the result that by the 1970s most academic historians had lost faith in Western civilization and in the old progressive interpretation of history.

One of the most influential architects of the new revisionism was the anthropologist Marvin Harris (1927–2001), whose work was heavily influenced by Franz Boas’s cultural relativism. Harris grafted Boas onto Marx, specifically Marx’s theory of the different levels of society, where what we normally refer to as “culture” is held to be a “superstructure” founded upon economic relationships. The result for Harris was not only a rejection of any progressivist and Eurocentric model of history, but the dismissal of all attempts to understand cultures in terms of things not directly connected to the struggle for material survival and prosperity. Harris claimed that this was the only proper consideration, not just because of his Marxist roots but because he insisted that only a consideration of purely material factors could lend a semblance of “scientific objectivity” to the study of culture.

In fact, this is one of the central claims of the revisionists. As Duchesne puts it, they hold that “the first and most important preoccupation of human life is adaptation to the environment, and that this must be accomplished by creating technological and economic systems. . . . This premise assigns ontological and causal priority to the material conditions of social life. It views the role of ideational factors (philosophies, religious beliefs, art) in terms of their ‘feedback’ effects on these conditions” (p. 321, italics in original). I have already identified this premise as derived from Marxism.

Furthermore, Duchesne observes, correctly, that packed into it is an understanding of human nature as fundamentally passive and reactive. Essentially, the revisionists see human beings as buffeted about by material conditions, and culture as a kind of construct that has arisen as a result of how men have reacted to those conditions. The revisionists will permit no talk of “great men” moved by ideals or motives that transcend the drive for survival and reproduction. For such ideals and motives are vague, unobservable, and impossible to measure. Hence, to build an account of culture or history on them is “unscientific.”

To see the fundamental error in this, imagine how revisionist anthropologists or historians might explain the following situation. Suppose that a husband and wife go out to dinner. Suppose further that there is a complicated dynamic between these two. The wife has complained for years that her husband must always have things his way, and is fundamentally inconsiderate and selfish. She feels that his behavior demonstrates a basic lack of respect for her, and thus she has come over time to deeply resent her spouse. Now, suppose that a table full of revisionist anthropologists and historians observe these two at dinner. At a certain point the husband picks up the salt shaker, which was sitting at the center of the table, sprinkles his food with it, and sets it down beside his plate. Seeing this, the wife reaches out, snatches the salt shaker, and places it beside her. If we ask our tableful of revisionists to explain this behavior, their answer will likely be: “There must be a salt shortage.”

Should we suggest that it might be wise to consider the psychological dynamics of this relationship – the husband’s selfishness and lack of consideration, the wife’s desire for respect and resentment against her husband – we will be told that such considerations are “not objective,” and irrelevant anyway since in fact all human motivations relate to material conditions. The revisionists will have based their account on something “objective” all right, but the account misses everything. Duchesne will argue, in fact, that it is impossible to understand culture – especially Western culture – without taking into consideration the ways in which men are motivated by concerns that transcend the material, and physical survival.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, the approach of Marvin Harris and his followers was extraordinarily influential not just in anthropology, but in history and sociology as well. Another key figure in the rise of revisionism is the sociologist Stephen Sanderson, who was greatly indebted to Harris. To cultural relativism and historical materialism, Sanderson added the ostensibly reasonable idea that individual societies have to be understood in terms of networks of relationships to other societies. All cultures are interdependent and none can be seen as standing on its own – especially Western culture. The West, he argued, is not unique: other cultures have achieved most of the things that have been (falsely) credited to the West, and the West has been heavily dependent on what it has borrowed from other cultures.

However, as Duchesne argues at length, these claims are false on two fronts. First, most of the resemblances that revisionists find between the West and other cultures are, predictably, in the area of economics – such as trade practices, the development of commercial networks, etc. But even there the similarities are often quite superficial. Second, though it is undeniably true that the West has learned much from other cultures (demonstrating an openness that is in fact uniquely Western!), it has developed the ideas it has taken from others in ways they never dreamed of. Further, it must be said that the claims made by the revisionists about the achievements of other cultures are often patently dishonest. One revisionist historian, for example, claims that Newtonian mechanics was anticipated by the Chinese! (See p. 173.) Before we come to the dishonesty of revisionism, however, we first treat more fundamental matters.

3. The Contradictions of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is one of those fashionable ideologies that takes less than five minutes of clear thinking to expose as fraught with insurmountable difficulties. Indeed, this is the common denominator of everything that comprises what we call “political correctness.” All of it requires that we not think clearly, and that we not process what is right before our eyes. All of it requires “doublethink.” Nevertheless, so many individuals – including well-meaning ones – are in such thrall to these positions that it is necessary to patiently refute them. One of the virtues of Duchesne’s book is his discussion of the problems inherent in cultural relativism – a theory which is sometimes not explicitly stated by Leftists, but which is nevertheless inherent in ideologies like multiculturalism.

Consider the case of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–2006) who was so convinced of the objective truth of cultural relativism that he could write comfortably of the burning of widows as “a spectacle of awesome beauty” (see p. 32 of Duchesne). One hears in this the voice of the fanatic, and can’t help but be repelled. But, as Duchesne remarks in a dense footnote, more problematic still is the difficulty of explaining – if cultural relativism is true – how Geertz managed to transcend his own cultural situatedness in order to appreciate the “awesome beauty” of something universally regarded by Westerners as unspeakably barbaric.

Cultural relativists are often accused of this sort of inconsistency. They appear to make claims which, according to their own position, are impossible. But Duchesne has a more interesting point to make. He draws our attention to a paradox that lies at the heart of cultural relativism: though it claims to have dispensed with Eurocentrism, cultural relativism itself is a product of European culture. No other culture has ever floated the idea that it is not “unique,” and that its beliefs and practices are no more true or valid than anyone else’s. Further, cultural relativism is based upon certain ethical assumptions that are uniquely Western. It is the West that gave rise to the idea that there is a “common humanity,” and that all human beings – and their cultures – must be treated with equal respect. And it is only the West that has extolled the objective treatment of other cultures, which requires a vigilant self-criticism, lest one’s own cultural prejudices distort one’s findings.

In the light of these simple and obvious considerations, cultural relativists appear as remarkably naïve. They believe that they have transcended their own ethnocentric culture, while all the time they are in the grip of it. They assume that their values are universal, when in fact they are uniquely Western. They never reflect on this, and in their harsh treatment of their own culture it never occurs to them to notice that it is only the West that gave rise to the ideals according to which they attack it. And it never occurs to them to consider that perhaps this makes the West rather unique. It is Westerners alone out of all other peoples who engage in this sort of ruthless self-criticism – some might say self-hatred. Why is this? The cultural relativists and revisionist historians have no answer to this question – but Duchesne, as we shall see later on, can give us some insight.

In the process of critiquing cultural relativism, Duchesne briefly raises some troubling questions about multiculturalism. This is a natural transition, since multiculturalism is founded upon cultural relativism. However, Duchesne packs his comments into a footnote on p. 32. Indeed, quite a few of his more “politically incorrect” asides are confined to footnotes, perhaps because he did not want to distract readers from the main argument of the text (which courts enough controversy). Duchesne writes “Is not the emphasis on cultural pluralism a form of [Western] universalism that requires modes of reflective reasoning (metacultural, historical, and anthropological) that are/were unavailable in other cultures and that threaten/have threatened the particular traditions and standards of diverse cultures?”

In other words, isn’t the pluralistic ideal of multiculturalism itself a Western cultural artifact, at odds with the anti-pluralism and parochialism of other cultures (e.g. Islam, to name just one)? And therefore wouldn’t the insistence that cultures co-exist and “harmonize” with each other require them to adopt alien, Western ideals of tolerance and, indeed, cultural relativism? Again, this is an obvious problem to which most multiculturalists seem to be totally oblivious – largely because, despite their professed interest in other cultures, they are in fact surprisingly ignorant of the often radical differences between them. They insist that somehow we will simply be able to “tolerate” all these differences. But, as Duchesne points out on the same page, “Can Westerners defend their liberal values by tolerating values which negate these liberal values?”

Finally, and most pointedly, he asks “Should Westerners be deprived of their own particular traditions in the name of the universal promotion of pluralism and diversity?” It often seems that multiculturalists believe that everyone has a right to practice and celebrate their culture, with the exception of Westerners, who must nip and tuck their culture to accommodate others. At the root of this, of course, is a deep and pernicious form of self-hatred: the feeling that we have no right to defend Western culture, for its history is just a long roster of sins against others. This is, of course, the net effect of decades of education and propagandizing by anti-Western, neo-Marxist historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, who have distorted the historical record and minimized or denied the West’s unique virtues.

The situation today is typified by a story recently told to me by a friend who teaches at an expensive private high school. He said that his school’s campus clubs include organizations for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics. Is there a club for European-American (i.e., White) students? Yes indeed, but its purpose is to promote multiculturalism and tolerance. In short, the only identity permitted to the white, Western students is the identity of the self-hating Westerner, who demands of himself what he would never demand of others: that he repudiate his own culture, in the name of “diversity.”

As I promised, it takes less than five minutes of clear thinking . . .

4. The Dishonesty of the Revisionists

Enter the late Jerry Bentley (1949–2012), revisionist historian. Bentley promoted the ostensibly valid claim that all the world’s peoples deserve serious study by historians. But he promoted this largely by denying that there was anything distinctive or unique about “classical Greece, the European Renaissance, the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution and Parliamentary supremacy, or the Enlightenment” (pp. 54–55). Now, at the risk of seeming to make a dogmatic claim, I submit that the only excuse for holding such a position would be ignorance of all the historical events or periods just listed. But Bentley was a university professor, and far from ignorant. One therefore feels driven to the conclusion that he was, like so many other academics, in the grip of an ideology, and being less than honest.

In academic circles it’s considered dirty pool to accuse a scholar of dishonesty. One must instead patiently refute their errors and carefully avoid hinting that one believes that those errors are less than honest. (And Duchesne, good academic that he is, plays this game, and generally avoids speculating about the motivations of his opponents.) This is the gentlemanly thing to do. But now and again one encounters a position that is so patently dishonest one feels a moral obligation to denounce it as such. And, in general, the dishonesty of the revisionists is pretty patent.

Consider, as another example, the case of Felipe Fernández-Armesto. You may not have heard this name, but he is one of the most highly-regarded academic historians today. His 1000+ page textbook The World: A History (2007) is utilized in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has been lavishly praised by other historians. It should instead have created a scandal, given that Fernández-Armesto devotes scant treatment to ancient Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe, while lavishing attention on Asia, Africa, and the Americas (p. 62).

To make matters worse, Fernández-Armesto’s treatment of European history is often absurdly distorted by his Left-wing ideological commitments. In dealing with classical Greece, for example, he asserts that “until recently” we hailed the Greeks as originators of democracy but “scholars today” have “revised” our assessment of them and exposed the fact that only privileged males counted as citizens. But, of course, this is not a recent discovery! It has been common knowledge for more than 2,000 years.

Duchesne writes that Fernández-Armesto “essentially walks over what was uniquely Greek – the existence of a government that allowed for the full participation of all male citizens – in the name of facts that were, in varying ways, common features of the rest of the ancient world” (p. 63). Historians of the past recognized the flaws in Greek society – the treatment of women as non-persons, the institution of slavery – but saw what was still exceptional about the Greeks in spite of their flaws. Fernández-Armesto’s ideology will not allow him to take such a balanced view. Because the Greeks were not feminists and egalitarians, they must be “exposed” and vilified, their achievements denigrated and denied.

Aside from the ideological blinders worn by the revisionists, Duchesne also exposes the inherent flaws in their basic methodology. In brief, the revisionists cherry-pick the evidence, accumulating only the facts that seem to support their own claims. Duchesne puts it more politely, observing that their approach is too Baconian and insufficiently Popperian. In other words, they think that you can prove a case simply by assembling evidence that confirms it, and do not seem to realize that one must come to terms with evidence that disconfirms it as well.

But the revisionists have a convenient way of dealing with disconfirming evidence: dismissal and denunciation. For example, a book by the revisionist historian Andre Frank wildly overplays the role of China in world trade in the 18th century. At one point he confronts some troubling but well-founded statistics from another source: Europe’s share of world trade in 1720 was 69%, and 72% in 1750. Frank’s response: “this unabashedly Eurocentric claim is disconfirmed by the evidence discussed in the present book.” In fact, Frank’s book offers no hard evidence to refute these statistics.

When it comes to colonialism, the fur really starts flying. One of the revisionists’ standard claims is that whatever Europe may have achieved in the modern period was accomplished through the ruthless exploitation of its colonial possessions and their inhabitants. The trouble with this claim, however, is that according to the best evidence Europe’s profits from colonial trade in the late 18th century amounted to no more than 2% of GNP. The revisionists also love to claim that the Industrial Revolution was made possible by colonialism. But Duchesne notes that profits from colonial trade were too small to have contributed much to the capital formation that made the Industrial Revolution possible. In the case of Britain, colonial trade was no more important than domestic industries as a source of the capital that went into industrialization.

From the fact that Britain was linked into a global trade network it simply does not follow that she was parasitic upon it. Duchesne writes:

Academics are so preoccupied with the moral implications of the slave trade, the plunder of resources, and the use of violence in the enforcement of mercantilist trade arrangements, that they cannot see the obvious: Britain earned her riches through her own virtues and talents as a nation that deliberately set out to achieve imperial greatness. It was Britain’s development of the best navy in the world, civil institutions, administrative and financial reforms that made it possible for her, in the first instance, to seize upon and appropriate raw materials and slaves in faraway lands. [p. 88]

And Duchesne points out other obvious problems with the claim that Europe’s links with the rest of the world – colonial and otherwise – were responsible for its achievements. First, all things considered the costs of colonialism – administration, taxes, defense – outweighed the gains. Second, Spain acquired huge colonial possessions but wound up undeveloped, lagging well behind other European countries that had fewer such foreign entanglements. Third, countries like Germany and Switzerland lacked colonial properties, but nevertheless became extraordinarily wealthy.

But the biggest problem of all is that – as mentioned earlier – the revisionists tacitly treat Europeans as passive agents whose destiny was determined by their situatedness within the “world system.” It is this “world system” – the web of relations between interconnected nations – that emerges as the only truly active “agent” in the accounts of revisionists. “The world system,” Duchesne writes, “is ultimately conceived as the active (structural) entity determining a country’s developmental possibilities” (p. 91). What of the desires, dreams, ideals, and aspirations of remarkable, farseeing men? What of the “doers,” who are not content to be acted upon and who, instead, act? The ideology of the revisionists simply contains no room for such men.

The revisionists are extremely keen to avoid doing the “bad old history,” which saw the rise of the West in linear terms as a history of progress. So they swing to the opposite extreme, avoiding any suggestion that there is a pattern to Western history at all. So what explains the extraordinary achievements and innovations of the West if not, shall we say, “Western characteristics”? Well, we’ve already seen one answer to this: the West was dependent on the rest. The revisionists also continually have recourse to the idea that the many revolutionary changes and innovations in Western history were essentially accidental. We were in the right place at the right time, as it were. Again, no great, exceptional men with exceptional minds and motivations. All are moved only; none are self-moved.

Duchesne writes: “In their extremist desire to strip Europe of any deep-seated, differentiating characteristics, revisionists have left themselves with no option but to treat [Western] history as an unending series of ‘lucky shots’ and abrupt turns” (p. 203). One revisionist historian writes that Europeans “weren’t just lucky; they were lucky many times over.” The truth is that Europeans were lucky indeed: lucky to be in possession of a singular genius and drive. But that this may have been our “lucky break” is a possibility the revisionists simply will not allow themselves to consider.

As I shall treat in greater detail in the next section, the revisionists also continually draw our attention to ideas and inventions that Europeans allegedly “borrowed” from others (even when the evidence for this is scanty). As Duchesne points out (p. 64) what they fail to realize is that being original does not preclude having debts to others – and that affirming the uniqueness of the West does not imply that it was self-contained (p. 177).

Japanese Zen was certainly indebted ultimately to the Indian sage Bodhidharma, but no honest man would call Zen “unoriginal.” Einstein was likewise indebted to Newton, but again no honest man would use this as a basis to dismiss relativity theory. But, to come full circle, we are not dealing here with honest men (though it is doubtful, in fact, that the revisionists would question the originality of Zen and Einstein!). We are dealing with men in thrall to an ideology, determined not just to deny the West’s greatness, but ultimately – in truth – to destroy it.

To be continued.