Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Professor Andrei Znamenski Reviews Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Professor Andrei Znamenski, historian at the University of Memphis, is yet another scholar who has reviewed Ricardo Duchesne's book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization: "The 'European Miracle': Warrior Aristocrats, Spirit of Liberty, and Competition as a Discovery Process" (The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, v. 16, n. 4, Spring 2012, pp. 599-610). Here follows Znamenski's summary of Duchesne's argument on the ethos of the ancient Indo-Europeans and its contribution to European uniqueness:
Duchesne takes the discussion of the European Miracle to a new historical and philosophical level by viewing such issues as Europe's modern economic advancement and its political decentralization as fractions of a bigger question: What are the general sources of the rise of European creativity? Digging deep into ancient history, he comes up with a provocative argument: the cultural roots of what later evolved into the European Miracle should be traced back to the social ethos of the Indo-European warrior aristocracy, which he considers an "unusual class with a strong libertarian spirit" (p. 406). He does not dismiss the geographical, social, and economic factors, but at the same time he stresses that the spark that ignited the whole process was this particular cultural group and its ethical code.

The bands of Indo-Europeans who laid a foundation for modern German, Slavic, Roman, and Greek languages had originally resided north of the Black Sea at the Ukrainian steppes, whence they moved to central and western Europe, the Near East, and India. They migrated in several waves separated by long time periods between 4,000 BCE and 1,000 BCE. One of the last migrations was that of the notorious Germanic "barbarians" who dislodged the crumbling western Roman Empire. Duchesne informs us that a peculiar democratic ethos of the Indo-European warrior aristocrats became a sort of "big bang" that initiated the whole chain of historical events that together molded "Western spirit" with its individualism and autonomous institutions: "The primordial roots of Western uniqueness must be traced back to the aristocratic warlike culture of the Indo-European speakers who spread throughout Europe during the 4th and 3rd millennium" (p. 344).

Daredevil free spirits always ready to fight and prove themselves, intolerant of any imposition on their personal status, and well nourished by their meat diet, these "Indo-European speakers" were physically strong warriors, who, on top of everything, became extremely mobile by being the first in history to domesticate horses . . . . [T]hese Indo-European nomads and their descendants were not exactly nice people. From Scandinavian sagas, we learn that they were essentially a bunch of self-centered brutes obsessed with a megalomaniacal quest for prestige and status, constantly seeking to prove themselves in the eyes of their peers either by fighting each other or by throwing feasts.

Duchesne's point here is that out of this unattractive, individualized "military democracy" a strong sense of personal autonomy gradually grew, which these noble aristocrats later sought to codify and safeguard in such documents as the famous Magna Carta. Later, new groups of "aristocrats" (towns, universities, members of guilds, farmers, and, eventually in modern times, workers' unions) began to claim their personal autonomy, extracting from lords and governments their own "charters of liberty". To secure their liberties, all of these people eventually connected themselves with each other by a web of contractual relations. Thus, in the course of time what had originally emerged as the selfish ethos of Indo-European warrior aristocrats opened doors to the full expression of individual potential, which was channeled into various economic, scientific, creative, and political pursuits. Duchesne describes this process by using the Kantian expression "unsocial sociability." Of course, many writers and philosophers had already noted a long time ago the beneficial presence of this "unsocial sociability" in the Western tradition. The most well-known examples are Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbs and Adam Smith's famous economic dictum in 1776 about the invisible hand of the free market, when people working for themselves indirectly benefit the entire society.

This European libertarian ethos contrasted drastically with what existed in many contemporary non-Western societies, where individual initiative was suffocated and people were ruled, to borrow Ludwig von Mises's expression, by "virtue of command and subordination or hegemony" (1949, 196). At the same time, we know that the Indo-European bands migrated not only to western Europe, but also to the Near East and India. Why, though, did their allegedly libertarian ethos never materialize in these areas? Duchesne explains that in India and the Near East the Indo-Europeans represented a minority that was assimilated into local indigenous cultures that were heavily imbued with group-oriented ethics and in this way lost their individualized tradition of military democracy.
There is much overlap with previous reviews, but the usefulness of this summary lies partly in its accounting for why the Indo-Europeans had little influence on the development of individualism in India and the Near East.

I'll have to look into the expression "unsocial sociability," yet another paradoxical concept in this unfamiliar intellectual terrain . . .

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