Thursday, May 23, 2013

Martin Hewson's Review of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Martin Hewson
University of Regina

In my continuing search for reviews on Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I have now come across one of the most informative, Martin Hewson's "Multicultural vs. Post-Multicultural World History: A Review Essay" (Cliodynamics (2012), Vol 3, Iss 2), which very clearly summarizes Duchesne's Indo-European thesis:
Chapter seven inquires into the origins of the West. Duchesne argues that Western culture should be traced back beyond the usual starting point of classical antiquity deep into prehistory to the Indo-Europeans. The Indo-Europeans, a Bronze Age people living about 5000 years ago, must have been unique in some way. Their tongue, the vernacular of a small pastoral tribe probably from the Pontic steppe, spawned offspring spoken from Ireland to Bengal. What lay behind this amazing linguistic expansion? The proximate cause was a combination of conquests and migrations. But why were they so successful for so long in conquest and migration? Duchesne attributes it to horse riding, cattle rearing, a healthy diet of meat and dairy, and a more aggressive, individualistic, aristocratic temperament.

In particular, it was the aristocratic culture of the Indo-Europeans that was the original dynamic of the West, argues Duchesne. By 'aristocratic' he means (1) a state in which the ruler is not an autocrat but first among equals in the elite; (2) a culture that is vigorous, free, and joyful; (3) a culture that is individualistic; and (4) an expansive, martial society made up of fraternal war bands. All these were features of the Indo-Europeans, and all subsequently were transmitted to European culture. The Indo-Europeans who expanded eastwards into Anatolia or India lost these characteristics. They were absorbed into an older social order.

It is noteworthy that Duchesne thinks individualism is not a modern invention. The modernist view has it that individualism arose from the breakup of premodern communal society. But, for Duchesne, individualism is a primordial characteristic of the West. One question mark hanging over this Indo-European thesis is that it is not clear how unusual the Indo-Europeans were. Were they one of the many nomadic arid-zone peoples who, like Turks, or Arabs, or Mongols, managed to conquer adjacent sedentary peoples? Or were they different? In his history of central Eurasia, Beckwith (2009), like Duchesne, maintains that the key institution of the steppe was the war band or comitatus bound together by oaths of loyalty and fraternity. But unlike Duchesne, Beckwith holds that there was a common central Eurasian culture, encompassing all the steppe peoples. In effect, Duchesne has given a unique twist to the established and convincing idea that the encounter between steppe and sown, nomad and sedentary, strongly shaped Eurasian history.

One significant piece of evidence for early aristocratic individualism in the West is that Duchesne finds a significant contrast between the heroic narratives of Greece and Northern Europe (the Iliad, Beowulf) and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. Personal heroism is the main theme of the former but not the latter. "Unlike the Iliad, which consists of battle scenes constructed largely out of individual encounters designed to enhance the specific deeds of singular heroes, there are no individuals with identifiable biographies in Gilgamesh" (413). Gilgamesh himself is an autocrat.

The final chapter (the eighth) attributes the accomplishments of Greece, Rome, and medieval Christendom to what might be called the spirit of agon, that is the restless, competitive, aristocratic ethos. Inspired by Nietzsche, Duchesne seeks to rehabilitate the idea of an aristocratic culture from the condescension of modernity. Beginning with interpretations of Hegel, Fukuyama, and Nietzsche, Duchesne proceeds to tackle the issue of how the violent culture of the Indo-Europeans was transformed into first the Greek then later stages of Western culture. In Greece, the aristocratic ethos was behind the free-for-all competition of philosophers and artists with their driving desire for fame and originality. Likewise the agonistic spirit was ingrained in the Olympic games, the wars, and the competitive politics of the city-states. The aristocratic ethos in Rome found expression in republicanism with its emblem of liberty (libertas). European feudalism was an aristocratic form of rule. The principle of sovereignty by consent, a hallmark of feudalism, was an aristocratic principle. Aristocratic privileges were the original inspiration for the idea of bourgeois rights and liberties. The main message is that "the creativity of the West was rooted in a culture of free aristocrats" (484). (pages 314-315)
One might infer that only this thesis interests me in Duchesne's book, but that's not the case. Rather, because this Indo-European hypothesis is the most controversial of his ideas, I'm focusing on it for my better understanding.

Read Hewson's entire review -- it's greatly informative.

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At 1:19 PM, Blogger Yule said...

I understand that there is a controversy over the extent of Indo-European genetic contribution to the modern European genepool. Some say it is minimal (just an elite), others say it is dominant (a continental population replacement). It's hard to tell who is right. Does the author address this?

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That, I don't know. So far, I've read only reviews, preparing myself for the book, which a friend has ordered. But I think that his argument is cultural, and that he considers the Indo-Europeans a conquering class whose culture took root.

Jeffery Hodges

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