Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Uniqueness of Western Civilization: Aristocratic Ethos of Individual Strife?

Stephen H. Balch
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Conservative scholar Stephen H. Balch, of the National Association of Scholars, wrote a serious review last year, Nowhere But the West (January 12, 2012), of what sounds like a very intriguing book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, by Ricardo Duchesne. Balch summarizes Duchesne's argument:
The West's uniqueness, and the West's endangerment, have called forth an important new work from an important new voice -- Ricardo Duchesne, professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Canada. The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is the fifty-year old author's first book. But even had it been his twentieth, it would be remarkable for its command of disparate literatures, its elucidation of complex controversies, the dispositive nature of its critiques, and its provision of a genuinely fresh interpretation of the West's achievement. Above all else it constitutes an urgently needed contribution to "a discourse" gone awry -- an evolving scholarly consensus that belittles the West except insofar as it can be denounced and demonized.

Duchesne is a scholar with a mission: the restoration of a proper appreciation for the West's spectacular exceptionality. And fittingly, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is every inch the embodiment of the striving spirit the author finds so characteristic of the endeavors of Western man -- a hankering after high achievement and a wish to make one's mark through the overthrow of accepted opinion. But Duchesne is no polemicist. For all its argumentative power, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization is old-school scholarship at its best: consequential, closely reasoned, richly evidenced, and professionally courteous.

In this case the received opinion to be overthrown is none other than that of contemporary Western (and American) academe. Of about forty years' ascendency, it encompasses a project whose scholarly roots stretch back to the early twentieth century and, within the broader culture, to Rousseau. Its dispositional pillars, carrying varying weight, are primitivism, relativism, and adversarialism, the last mainly compounded of Marxist alloys. Duchesne devotes his first chapter to its construction, describing the extensive edifice of "revisionist" interpretation has gradually been raised and the diverse worlds of learning it has come to overshadow.

Duchesne painstakingly charts three distinct currents that have contributed most to the West's intellectual downsizing, originating respectively in anthropologist Franz Boas's rejection of cultural hierarchy, "Critical Theorists" Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer's reimagining of science and technology as agents of barbarism, and "World System Theory" oracle Immanuel Wallerstein's attribution of the West's rise not to any inherent genius but conquest and expropriation.
Assuming that Duchesne is right, whence stems the West's genius? Balch again summarizes:
For Duchesne, Western exceptionalism is not just found in Industrial Britain or Periclean Athens, it is ingrained in the West's very tissue, present at every level of its existence and throughout the entirety of its history. The West constantly churns, fights with itself, splits, fractures, builds, and demolishes -- revolution may not be its everyday state, but change is always the order of the day. Where else have architectural styles, musical modes, literary forms, the visual and dramatic arts, weaponry and tactics, fashion in dress, philosophic schools, religious beliefs, business practices, and political systems shown such continuing fluidity? Other civilizations, after an initial spate of creativity, have settled into relatively enduring molds, with subsequent change generally a variation on well-established themes. By contrast, Duchesne argues, the West has ever been restless, its inhabitants "pursuing personal renown through heroic deeds," their heroism measured by the degree they can exceed, remake, or overthrow that which went before them.
But why are Westerners like that? Again, Balch explains:
For Duchesne, the West is the world's aristocratic civilization par excellence, not because it is unusually stratified, but because so many of its inhabitants have absorbed the psychology of aggressive one-upmanship and competitive honor-seeking characteristic of nobility. Westerners have in their social marrow an impulse toward nonconformity, a desire to make name and fame, a belief that they have been born into life in order to outdo both the living and the dead.
Interestingly, this implies that Western Civilization is founded upon a feature of barbarism, the strife among individuals characteristic of Indo-European nomads:
He anchors the West's tradition of aristocratic equality in the life of the Bronze Age steppe, particularly that part of it north of the Black Sea, from which at some time between the fourth and second millennium BCE, Indo-European horsemen dispersed into Europe . . . . In Duchesne's view, these Indo-European invaders -- unlike later steppe warriors such as the Scythians, Huns, Turks, and Mongols -- penetrated territories still uncivilized, and hence had a more lasting cultural impact on them. Moreover, when millennia afterwards the civilization they created radiated out of the Mediterranean and into northern Europe, its assertive spirit was refreshed, so to speak, through new encounters with still barbarous Germans, Norse, Magyars, and Slavs and, after that, in the unceasing struggles among European principalities.
A lot would have to happen in 'civilizing' this impulse toward strife, and Duchesne apparently deals with that. This is a book I'll have to read for myself. A large portion appears to be available at Google Books, but I prefer to read books offline . . .



At 5:05 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Now on sale on for the low, low price of $133.97 or $268.60!

Woo-hoo! Library, here we come!

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You can read a lot of it on Google Books -- just follow my link.

Jeffery Hodges

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