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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Ian Morris: Why the West Rules…

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If you were to pick up Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—For Now, you would probably be wondering the same thing that I was wondering when I picked it up: “Why does the West rule?”

Is it because Westerners are somehow superior? Is it because the West is more deductive in its thought process? Perhaps it’s because the West got an agricultural or intellectual head start. Or maybe it was just the right ingenuity at the right time. Was it guns, germs, or steel? Democracy? Luck? How about divine providence? Ian Morris has the answer.

It’s because the West is in the west.

To the disappointment of some readers—no doubt—Morris claims that people are people (lazy, greedy, frightened) wherever you go, and the success of the West in particular can be attributed to the simple fact that its geography has historically kept its development a step ahead of the East—with notable exceptions. It’s an essentially determinist view of history: While we may be able to mitigate the effects of geography, we cannot overcome them. This is not a new idea. Neither is it an unpopular idea. If you want to understand this view of history, Morris explains it well—and weaves the scope of human history together impressively. But if you’re not too keen on a 622-page world history, here are a few blog-relevant highlights:

I. “East” and “West”
II. Axial thought
III. Islam as Western

I. “East” and “West”
Morris complains that people generally equate “the West” with certain values (of their choice), and then look back through time to find the roots of those values, coming to all kinds of self-serving conclusions. Morris instead observes the “easternmost” and “westernmost” extents of civilization at any given time. He acknowledges that this is a limitation, but (rightly, I think) prefers it to the former method. As you can already see by page 41, his methodology lends itself to a geographical explanation.

…if we want to know why the West rules, we first need to know what “the West” is. As soon as we ask that question, though, things get messy. Most of us have a gut feeling about what constitutes “the West.” Some people equate it with democracy and freedom; others with Christianity; others still with secular rationalism.

[I will treat] West and East for what they are—geographical labels, not value judgments.

II. Axial thought
To complement his view that “people are people wherever you go,” Morris espouses a Jaspers-style view of the Axial Age. Although early (c. 500 BCE) Eastern and Western thought developed independently, they were strikingly similar. Morris, humoring his Western reader, delves into Chinese philosophy to prove his point.

I should mention that the most striking disagreement in Chinese Axial thought, which Morris fails to mention, is regarding human nature (it really does help to understand this). Are we inherently good, bad, or neither? These questions, which underlie Chinese Axial thought, would not be so unfamiliar to Western Axial ears. Neither would the bitter disagreement about the answer.

The years 500–300 BCE were, in Chinese tradition, “the age when a hundred schools of thought contended,” and I want to take a moment to look at the extraordinary range of ideas within this single regional tradition.

“To subdue oneself and return to ritual,” Confucius insisted, “is to practice humaneness (ren).” This meant caring more about the living family than about ancestors; valuing honest reverence over showy sanctimony; esteeming virtue, not descent; performing rituals accurately with simple equipment; and following precedent. Confucius insisted that if he could persuade just one ruler to practice ren, everyone would imitate him and the world would find peace.

The fifth-century-BCE thinker Mozi, however, disagreed completely. As he saw it, Confucius had misunderstood ren. It meant doing good, not being good, and was about everyone, not just your family. … Dressing in coarse clothes, sleeping rough, and eating gruel, Mozi went among the poor and preached jian ai, a combination of universal sympathy and rigid egalitarianism.

Daoists, however, were as unimpressed with Mozi as they were by Confucius. The Way of the Universe is change, they argued: night into day, joy into sorrow, life into death. Nothing is fixed, nothing definable. … We must become one with the Way, but we cannot do so through frantic activity.

Mozi rejected Confucius; Zhuangzi rejected Confucius and Mozi; but the so-called Legalist Tradition rejected them all. Legalism was … more Machiavellian than Machiavelli … trying to transcend reality was stupid … Neither be good nor do good, because “A state that uses the wicked to govern the good always enjoys order and becomes strong.” And waste no time on rituals, activism, or fatalism. Instead, draw up comprehensive law codes with brutal penalties (beheading, burial alive, hard labor) and impose them rigidly on everyone. Like a carpenter’s square, Legalists liked to say, laws force messy materials to conform.

Chinese Axial thought ranged from mysticism to authoritarianism, and was constantly evolving. … Much of the same was true of Axial thought in … the West.

Eastern thought can be just as rational, liberal, realist, and cynical as Western; Western thought can be just as mystical, authoritarian, relativist, and obscure as Eastern. The real unity of Axial thought is unity in diversity.

III. Islam as Western
Considering Morris’s geographical focus, it is not too hard to believe that he counts Islam among Western traditions. The Western “core,” after all, spent most of its time along the eastern Mediterranean. But in the following, Morris goes even further, claiming (albeit briefly) that even Islamic and Christian thought—which split the West at one time—were of the same genus.

Conventional wisdom in eighteenth-century Britain, like that in seventh-century Constantinople, saw Christianity as the West’s defining value and Islam as its antithesis. The rulers of cores probably always picture those who move in from the fringes as barbarians, but … the Arabs were actually part of the larger second-wave Axial transformation of the Western core that had begun with the triumph of Christianity. … They came not to bury the West but to perfect it; not to thwart Justinian’s and Khusrau’s ambitions, but to fulfill them.

Plenty of political pundits in our own century find it convenient … to imagine Islamic civilization as being outside of and opposed to “Western” civilization (by which they generally mean northwest Europe and its overseas colonies). But that ignores the historical realities. By 700 the Islamic world more or less was the Western core, and Christendom was merely a periphery along its northern edge. The Arabs had brought into one state roughly as much of the Western core as Rome had done.

Although Morris doesn’t dig into the dirty details of Islamic and Christian thought, a later analysis clarifies his position. He claims that even though the “Islamic lands” are, no doubt, backward, Islam itself is undoubtedly compatible with modern upward trends in social development. His explanation for their backwardness is military, political, or economic (exploitation)—not religious. Though it reads like an awkwardly placed aside, he is not apologetic, which makes it more credible.

It is certainly true that not all cultures are equally responsive to changing circumstances. The Islamic lands, for instance, have produced notoriously few democracies, Nobel Prize–winning scientists, or diversified modern economies. Some non-Muslims conclude that Islam must be a benighted creed, miring millions in superstition. But if that were true it would be hard to explain why a thousand years ago many of the world’s best scientists, philosophers, and engineers were Muslims or why Muslim astronomers outperformed all comers until the sixteenth century.

The real explanation, I suspect, is that since 1700 many Muslims have turned inward in response to military and political defeat, just as many Chinese Confucians did in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Islam remains a broad tent. At one extreme is Turkey, which has modernized so effectively that it is a plausible candidate to join the European Union; at the other we find people such as some of the Taliban, who would kill women for showing their faces in public. Overall, though, as the Muslim world slid from being the core of the West to being an exploited periphery, its social development stagnated in a sense of victimhood. Ending that is modern Islam’s great burden; and who knows what advantages the Muslim world might then discover in its backwardness.

But note the ambiguity: Is Islam’s “great burden” ending the (1) exploitation (and subsequent stagnation) or ending the attendant (2) “sense of victimhood”?

Morris doesn’t have all the answers, but if you are seeking to understand geographic determinism in history, this is a good place to start. If nothing else, it comes with a side of good storytelling.

To come full circle: Will this book answer the question, “Why does the West rule?”? As Morris demonstrates, it depends what you mean by “the West.” If you were thinking of the West as geography, this will answer your questions. If you were thinking of something else, it won’t.

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Written by M. James

April 1, 2012 at 1:58 am

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