The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
Uncovering the secrets of the West's success.
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/05/images.jpg)The Uniqueness of Western Civilization by Professor Ricardo Duchesne is a refreshing and original book that breaks with the current Multicultural consensus to argue that Western civilization is indeed unique and has been so for a very long time, probably far longer than most people realize.
It is a daring text. Few other books have tried to cover such a vast canvass of thousands of years of history, and many of those who have attempted to do so were less successful than this one. In fact, it’s so full of information about many different societies, cultures and epochs that it’s rather challenging to do it justice in a few words.
This is a serious historical volume, filled with information on every page. It clearly wasn’t written as a “history for dummies,” but refers to a wide variety of important historical works dealing with the Industrial Revolution, Tang Dynasty China, ancient Egypt and Bronze Age Europe. I have read quite a few of the books mentioned here myself, but by no means all of them. I doubt whether most professional historians have read all of the works cited here.
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is packed with footnotes, to the extent that on certain pages these take up more space than the main text. This is both the book’s greatest strength as well as potentially one of its flaws. It is a dense, scholarly work which clearly was the result of many years of careful research. On the other hand, it’s not always light reading. I liked it personally, but I have an academic background and read extensively from all forms of history books. It is not absolutely necessary to have read many of the books mentioned in it in order to appreciate Professor Duchesne’s fine work, but this would undoubtedly constitute an advantage.
If I were to criticize anything of the contents, it might be that the references to Hegel and his ideas take up slightly too much space in certain sections. Overall, however, this is a very well-researched volume that largely succeeds in what it set out to do: To establish that what we call Western civilization — or more accurately, European civilization — is different from other civilizations, and has been for a very long time.
Ricardo Duchesne demolishes the arguments of historians such as Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, John Hobson, Jack Goldstone and others who suggest that China was on the same level as Europe at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and that it was more or less accidental that the IR started in Britain and Western Europe. In fact, European civilization exhibited unique characteristics not just during the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Exploration or the Christian Middle Ages, but perhaps even before the Roman Empire and Classical Greece.
The Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally attributed to the shadowy figure of Homer, may have achieved their present form after 800 BC; some scholars say after 700 BC. Yet they also partially reflect events and cultural patterns that are centuries older, perhaps dating back to the Greek Dark Ages or even all the way back to the Mycenaean Greeks of the second millennium BC, the oldest literate European culture, whose texts we can now read (the Minoan script remains undeciphered). This was long before Socrates, Plato or Aristotle walked the streets of ancient Athens, when Rome was still a swamp.
Duchesne shows that European culture was in certain ways unusual already at the time of the Mycenaean Greeks, ca. 1600-1200 BC. This was reflected in the earliest documented Germanic and Celtic peoples as well. The author’s thesis is that this uniqueness of European/Western civilization dates back at least to the Bronze Age of late prehistory, to the Indo-European expansion that most likely began in the steppes north of the Black Sea in the centuries before and after 3000 BC.
A number of modern scholars have suggested that Greece’s Homeric epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey – borrowed extensively from Near Eastern tales such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia. Ricardo Duchesne argues persuasively that although this is conceivable, the extent of such borrowing has often been exaggerated. Furthermore, the European stories diverge from such Eastern tales on a number of crucial points.
It is uncontroversial that the ancient Greeks borrowed from other cultures, as everybody else did before them and after. For instance, if you today visit the fine National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece, you can easily follow the way the Greeks studied ancient Egyptian art and were deeply inspired by it. Yet you can also clearly see how they moved steadily away from this towards unparalleled artistic realism in Classical times, and how even during the Archaic Period they displayed creative originality that departed from Egyptian models.
In the famous Babylonian law code known as Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia around 1750 BC, the king is presented as the only “I,” the only fully realized individual. This is comparable to the despotic god-kings of other Near Eastern or Oriental societies, such as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Yet in the Iliad, one of the most memorable characters of the Trojan War is Achilles, who was not a king. The early Greeks displayed a range of prominent personalities besides the ruler who were actual individuals capable of making their own choices. Duchesne believes that this aristocratic warrior culture exemplifies a distinct and long-lasting Indo-European legacy of encouraging the bold display of individual bravery and originality.
The author hardly mentions the word “IQ” throughout these 500 pages. In contrast, Michael H. Hart in his book Understanding Human History views the flow of human history primarily through the prism of IQ differences among various ethnic groups. This does indeed explain many things, although it has become politically sensitive to say as much in the Western world today, but it does not explain everything. No single factor ever does.
The most important thing that genetic intelligence measured in IQ does not predict is why Europeans have historically outperformed East Asians, despite the latter having at least a comparable mean IQ. Ricardo Duchesne for his part draws a pattern where Europeans have for a very long time – in fact thousands of years – shown a greater tolerance for individuals standing out from the crowd. He traces this characteristic all the way back to the Indo-European aristocratic warrior ethos of the Bronze Age steppes.
Thanks to this legacy, Europeans have displayed a unique culture encouraging individual bravery, not just for conquest (although that, too) but for exploration and all forms of daring that seek to achieve individual glory beyond physical death. It is this restless individualism, in which bold men display curiosity and daring to make their mark on history, that sets European culture apart from other civilizations throughout historical times.
While Ricardo Duchesne himself does not explicitly say so in The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, his presentation leaves the reader wondering whether it was this European restless spirit, individual curiosity and innate desire to seek out new horizons and boldly go where no man has gone before that eventually led humanity from donkeys to space travel. If any civilization or groups of people on this planet were destined to leave Earth behind and begin exploring the vastness of space, it was the Europeans. Evidence indicates that no non-European nation or culture, not even the most sophisticated of these, ever came close to making a similar breakthrough on their own. Pointing out this indisputable fact may annoy certain revisionist Multicultural world historians — but that doesn’t make it any less true.
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