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Presenter: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Producer: Michael Blastland
Editor: Nicola Meyrick
White City
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Broadcast Date: 07.09.00
Repeat Date: 10.09.00
Tape Number: TLN036/00VT1036
Duration: 27’38”

Taking part in order of appearance:
John Roberts Author of ‘The Triumph of the West’
Nita Kumar Professor of Anthropology, University of Calcutta and Brandeis University, Massachusetts
David Landes Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Harvard and author of ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’
Andre Gunder Frank Author of ReOrient and visiting Professor at the Universities of Miami and Florida.
Mary Lefkowitz Professor of Classics, Wellesley College, Massachusetts
Jack Goody Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, author of ‘The East in the West’

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO ‘Western civilisation?’ said Gandhi. ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ But like it or lump it, the west does have a special place among the civilisations of the world. By contact, conquest, commerce and contagion, it’s affected – or infected – just about all the others. Historians argue about when and why the process started. Politicians ask how much longer it can last. If we want to perpetuate it we need to understand it. And there’s an underlying debate about values. Does western success mean western superiority? What good have Europe and America done the world? There’s not much doubt about the scale of their impact. For a start, western exploration and technology meshed the world together and created a global arena for the exchange of culture, ideas, learning. So says John Roberts, author of ‘The Triumph of the West’.

ROBERTS It has just had the most enormous effect on the rest of the world, possibly greater than any other centre of what we might call a civilisation - and we find them easy to recognise even if we don’t find it easy to find what that means abstractly.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So what is this influence. What’s the west done for the rest?

ROBERTS It’s changed things. It’s changed things irreversibly, indelibly for the rest of the world. For thousands of years, the rest of the world consisted of societies which were fairly separate and distinguished from one another and then from somewhere in the 13th or 14th century onwards Europe began to tie all that together. And Europe is the core of what we now call a western world.

Europe expanded at other peoples’ expense. But it wasn’t just western muscle, imposing on the rest of the world. There’s also western magnetism, drawing outsiders in. What do Gandhi’s compatriots in India today think of western civilisation?

KUMAR There is the elite in a country like India which is, I think, so much a part of western civilisation. They feel very personally involved in it and they feel very knowledgeable about it and responsible for it even.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Nita Kumar, professor of anthropology, interviewed between east and west, hotfoot between the University of Calcutta and Brandeis University, Massachusetts.

KUMAR They enjoy the best that western civilisation has to offer and has achieved. There’s the other part of a country like India which has little thought to give to western civilisation - it’s not that they’re unaffected by western civilisation - everything in their lives is totally affected by it - it’s just that they don’t give any conscious thought to it. The leaders, the elite, of the non-west, thinks very happily and enthusiastically about the west and, indeed, even while they’re critiquing it they’re participating fully in it’s spoils.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO The west seems to work as a global model – or, at least, as a cultural package of very wide appeal. David Landes, author of ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’, generally regarded as the most robust and eloquent defence of the west ever written, argues that this is because of special western qualities, which equip us for success.

LANDES Western civilisation lays emphasis on mastery of the environment, on rational attitudes toward nature - this is not to say that western civilisation has not retained all kinds of supernatural attitudes toward nature. I mean, we designate them typically as superstitions. But western civilisation is dominated, in general, by this practical, rational aspect and, as a result, western civilisation has been peculiarly successful from a material point of view.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So we’ve got what looks like a powerful case for western exceptionalism: a civilisation of unique experience and peculiar virtues. The difficulty arises when you look at other parts of the world: features supposedly special to the west turn up everywhere. All civilisations strive to master nature, with practical ambitions and rational restraints. The record of achievement proves that China, Islam and India have scientific traditions similar to Europe’s. Andre Gunder , formerly of the University of Amsterdam, now professor in Florida, summons the world to awareness of the inventiveness of the east.

FRANK There is tons of evidence that the Chinese, the Indians, Islamisists had science and technology of their own. For instance, a thousand years ago, the Chinese already had two stage rockets. The mythology that the Chinese invented gun powder but didn’t know how to use it and only the Europeans put it to use to blow each other up is simply false. The British East-India company first bought and then commissioned ships to be built for itself in India. A few years before the industrial revolution, the British imported Indian steel which was better than any produced in England. Textiles: the British imported textiles from India until very late - in fact, the net export of cotton textiles from India exceeded the imports until 1816.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO The examples could be multiplied. Scientific empiricism was an idea familiar in China long before it was documented in the west. The Chinese invented technologies on which western supremacy later relied: the blast furnace – the forge of industrialisation; nautical innovations which kept the west’s world-wide trade afloat; printing – the information-technology, until recently, of all large- scale communications; and paper money – the fodder of modern capitalism. But what about capitalism? Isn’t that peculiarly western? David Landes, who’s Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Harvard, argues that for a thousand years, Europe’s distinctive economic culture made westerners exceptionally good at seeking and creating wealth.

LANDES It was Europe that really took advantage of the wealth it created or, some people would argue, the wealth it was lucky enough to find, and use this to establish its pre-eminence around the world. It’s not an accident that it was Europe that crossed the oceans, it was Europe that found the treasures. It required important innovations in knowledge, in science, a certain nerve, if you will, based on greed, based on the prospect of finding other worlds and other treasures. In particular, the people who create the wealth have the opportunity to enjoy the rewards of their activity and creativity - and this is a major notion.

KUMAR Do you know about the Marwaris in Rajasthan, West India?


KUMAR I think they’re the world’s oldest capitalists, if I might say so.


KUMAR It’s a different form of capitalism because it’s family and community based. They employ, for instance, in their enterprises and in their trades, their own family and community members always. It’s always a personal kind of relationship and linkage which they build their practices, trade practices on. But otherwise its all the same thing as capitalism: a lot of accumulation, profit making, counting of pennies and rationalisation of activity and worship of the goddess Laxsmi, the goddess of wealth. So there is, again, an Indian form of capitalism which may pre- date western capitalism. At any rate its parallel to it, it’s apart from it, it has not imitated it or learnt from it. As Indians would say, according to their caste logic, they have it in their blood, you know, they are just born entrepreneurs.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So, I suppose the critics of this line of thinking would say, ‘well look, you know, if you're so clever why aren't you rich’?

KUMAR Well the answer to that, I mean, if you put it so simply is also a simple one - we were rich and we’ll be rich again.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Similar claims are made for early, indigenous capitalism all over Asia and in many parts of Africa. Although, then, it’s hard to isolate what’s special about the intellectual or economic characteristics of western civilisation, westerners certainly claim pride in a special political culture, which assigns a high value to the individual, prizes liberty-and-equality and leads the world towards democracy and human rights. On the face of it, these seem to be recent innovations: they tell you nothing about the longstanding traditions or deep-rooted character of our civilization – unless you take the view that we inherited them from origins in ancient Greece. But there’s an embarrassing gap in the record, isn’t there?

LEFKOWITZ I think that you’re right in saying that the Greeks’ form of democracy is only a very distant pre-cursor to what’s been developed since.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Mary Lefkowitz, Professor of Classics at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, author of a famous work on the Greek origins of our traditions.

LEFKOWITZ But I do think in the notion that debate is good, that argument is good, that you have courts of law in which both sides are argued and presented at equal length, is historically the beginning of it in the west and probably also a very good beginning. And now, generally, people are pretty awful and I think that that’s been true throughout history and all cultures but I think there are so many countries in which women and people in general don’t have the kind of rights we have in the west. I still think that, just to put it very personally, as a woman, I would be dead many times over if I’d lived in another century without the invention of modern medical science and without the comforts and conveniences provided by technology. And so just judging it on that level, yes, western civilisation does have something to offer women at least.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO If that sounds like a candid but rather passionless recommendation of the western record on human values, there’s a lot of passion on the other side of the question.

FRANK European values are nothing to write home about because Europeans use slavery, Europeans made a holocaust, Europeans just bombed the smithereens out of the Yugoslavs and the people in Kosovo in the alleged name of human rights. So, this business about values and humanitarianism is complete poppycock.


FRANK . Admirers of non-western societies insist that some of them have records of achievement in human rights every bit as impressive as ours. The Quran is emphatic about equality for women and some Muslims have put it into practice. China is no model of democracy but created a meritocracy in which the elite was open to talent, centuries before there was anything comparable in the west. There have been matriarchies in Africa and the Americas, queens in Islam, a thousand years of prodigious women’s literature in Japan. You don’t have to believe in ‘Asian values’ to see that there’s democracy, eastern-style, which is no worse – maybe better – than the western version, says Nita Kumar.

KUMAR Democracy in India is based on caste - not caste as in ancient India, caste as in villages or whatever. Caste as politically used by political parties and, you know, a new thing called Caste - Caste as a pressure group. This is egalitarian. Every community is, in principle, equal -they all can compete for the same resources, through the same means. They’re using the same term “democracy” - they’re talking about constitutions which are similar, they promise similar things but the practice is very different.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO The more expert opinions we gather, the harder it becomes to identify anything in particular in western culture which might explain the west’s success. But suppose, instead of taking them one at a time, we treat these features as a syndrome or a system – a linked series, of items which may be commonplace or even universal if looked at individually, but which are uniquely western in combination. Is there some underlying pattern – some dynamic, some cumulative process which joins them all together – or are they random accidents, unrelated to one another?

ROBERTS No. I don’t think they can be but I think that the kind of cultural history which would explain what it is that ties them together has still to be written. I don’t think we know it yet.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO John Roberts has devoted the best part of a lifetime as one of the world’s most eminent historians to this quest.

ROBERTS I used to think once that the key to the matter must lie somewhere back there in the Hellenic tradition, that it must lie in the emphasis on the autonomous mind, on the emphasis on rational examination which I used to think, perhaps, was central in a way that I could not find any other element to be. But if you come forward to the beginning of the period of European expansion and success, one of the things one is struck by is the way in which a sense of being marginal, of minor importance, moves into a sense of being on top of the world, it’s going your way, it’s going to be the one which has got the future ahead of it, and an enormous self confidence is generated after, I don’t know, 16, 1700 - something like that and it lasts very much down to our own century - and it’s beginning to wane now.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO For John Roberts, then, the west is home to a distinctive idea of progress, an awareness that history hurtles ahead and we can ride it, spurring it forward. Once people believe this, it becomes more than a mere idea – it starts inspiring action. If he’s right, the west owes a lot to the Jews, who are usually credited with originating our linear, progressive model of history: time’s arrow, providentially loosed and targeted. Except for Islam, other civilisations had little or no direct access to this Jewish heritage: so this could be a clue to what’s special about the west. Where does David Landes think western confidence in progress came from?

LANDES I would say it comes, in part, first of all from the Judeo-Christian tradition with it’s, really original, emphasis on the dignity and the rights of the ordinary person. I mean the notion that only the deity, only God really is entitled to some kind of special status and, otherwise, we’re all the same, you see. And I think that makes and enormous difference - the creation of a civil society in which people have value and dignity by virtue of being there. This is something that develops in the west but this, in combination with the material values of this system, this mastery of nature, this cumulation of knowledge, the very idea that people should think they know more than their ancestors, is such an exceptional innovation.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So can we all agree that western success begins with the Judeo-Christian tradition? Mary Lefkowitz, the classicist.

LEFKOWITZ Religion has played not an altogether positive role because it has kept down some types of thinking and the kind of freedom of thinking and questioning which Plato very much encourages and Aristotle encourages - was not altogether encouraging in the middle ages to put it mildly. And it’s when you get a return to classical thought in the Renaissance and that you get this breaking out. I’m probably too unkind to Judaism and Christianity which to me have always seemed rather like dogmatic religions but sometimes I think that the ability of Greeks to question the nature of their Gods - to say ‘Zeus, what are you doing to me - look at all I’ve done, I’ve sent so many contributions to the oracle at Delphi and look what you’re doing, you’re punishing me’, and the ability to ask questions like that without getting zapped, seems to me to have contributed greatly to institutions like democracy.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Instead of the inconclusive search for special western ideas, let’s look for a western sensibility. Deep in the realms of feelings, perhaps, lurk western longings powerful enough to fashion, society. Other cultures, the argument goes, rely on arranged marriages, extended families, kinship-obligations, totems and taboos to mesh society together, whereas in the west, we’ve made romantic love for sexual partners and fierce affection between parents and children into the force that binds individuals in nuclear households. It’s an engaging theory. Looking at it from outside, does Nita Kumar think love is a western invention?

KUMAR Well a certain kind of romantic love, yes, and a certain kind of demonstrative romantic love in which you commit yourself and you have to prove it again and again - that is distinctive of the west. But I think there’s a perfectly good alternative that exists in India which is sometimes satirised and made fun of, such as the fact that, you know, Indian movies, Indian movies are so erotic but they don’t show this kissing, you know, it’s just done in a different way. And at the same time there’s this great past in India of eroticism, you know, the Agentine (ph), the Lurine (ph), the Kamasutra and all that you know. So, obviously, Indians are perfectly capable of imagining and living out the whole business of love, right, but doing it in a very different way.

GOODY The corollary is that we had love because we had some kind of special endowment either from our civilisation or from our psyches.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Jack Goody, Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and doyen of British anthropologists.

GOODY That love is what made the industrial revolution go round; that love was connected with close relationships within the nuclear family; the whole notion that the invention of childhood, for example, was something which appeared in 16th century Europe. Previously, people had had a lot of children who died and until the rates of mortality fell, you couldn’t invest too much in your children. But if we look a little more seriously at the question, I mean, much of the troubadour literature was strongly influence by Northern Spain, by Spain and by Arab culture which had a great deal of love poetry just as China did and India did. And I certainly, in Africa, haven’t noticed any lack of sentiment at funerals in Africa when children have died.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Love is a human characteristic, not the property of particular societies. Sensibilities are individual, not cultural. If we want to understand Western world influence, maybe we should stop looking for anything special about the west and start asking what are the receptive properties of the world. Though western influence is unprecedented in scale, it’s part of a long history of exchange of influence between civilisations, a reciprocal learning process which is still going on and which is not and has never been uni- directional.

GOODY There’s always this argument that, you know, things don’t spread unless there’s some sort of proclivity in the receiving society for them. I think it has been our turn, if you want to put in that way, recently of spreading things around the world. So, I think it’s been, not now, but it has been, you know, going backwards and forwards. A lot of things still kind of came the other way if we think of the cotton we wear or the silk we wear. Now, it’s obviously dominant in the west mainly because of the system of industrial production which we developed - and that was quite a remarkable turnaround.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Jack Goody. The result of the exchange of influence is often a new synthesis. On the receiving end of western power, people in other civilizations can respond positively and selectively. For instance, when Nita Kumar studies the reception of western learning by Indian educationists in the last century, has she any regrets?

KUMAR In retrospect, yes, but at the time what the Indian leaders were doing is something I have a lot of sympathy with because they wanted to not to make extinct or throw overboard their own culture at all, they just thought they would achieve a new synthesis which would include the best in their own, and as well as embrace the best which the west had to offer. And they said, ‘well the British are strong because they eat beef and they speak the English language and they have Shakespeare so we are going to do these three things now’ - you know that kind of thing. But by and large I think the Indians were really enamoured of western science and you know western history and philosophy and so on, and they really wanted to learn it and it was an intellectual voyage of discovery, and they really did not think they were going to make … they were going to replace one thing by another, they thought they were going to bring two things together. And that's very much still the agent of many reformers and educationalists in India today - to produce this kind of a synthesis between the east and the west.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So instead of treating western influence as something extraordinary, which can only be explained by unique properties of western civilization, we should see it as an example of something normal: the to and fro of inter-civilisational exchange. It’s illogical to appeal to the longstanding continuities of civilizations, when trying to explain the short-term shifts. There’s no point in scouring the distant past for western peculiarities of character. That’s what Andre Gunder Frank argues.

FRANK It’s like the guy its like the guy who lost his watch and was asked why are you looking for your watch under this streetlight. He said well because here the light is better, even though I lost it somewhere else. So where is the somewhere else that could explain this temporary, and I underline temporary, advance of the west - and there are two reasons. The decline of the east and the rise of the west, both of these were due to world economic circumstances at that particular time and, therefore, looking under the British or the European streetlight is never going to get you anywhere when, in fact, the watch was lost and is to be found in the world economy as a whole.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Of course, if Frank is wrong, and western world hegemony lasts, or western civilization becomes global civilization, the west really will have established itself as a civilization like no other: the civilization to end all civilizations. In that case, we’d have to re-open the quest for an explanation. But will it happen? And is it what we want? Has the impact of the west on the world so far justified westerners’ pride in their achievements and hopes for the future?

ROBERTS I don’t know whether these things are good or bad. I only say they’ve happened.


ROBERTS These are enormous impacts, if you like, put it that way. I don’t think they’re good - I think the world might be a lot happier without some of them. The question of values is another question. I mean take, you know, the recent fashionable discussion about whether we’re heading for a clash of civilisations - now I think that that’s in some ways much exaggerated. But there's something there which has got to be taken into account and that is that there are still enormous conflicts between ways of living and ways of seeing the world and all the rest of it, and the outcome of them is not yet resolved.

LANDES Of course there are people who say that this is over.


LANDES That it was a historical accident that the great age of Europe is past and we’re going to return to other world leaders, in particular, East Asia, China above all etcetera. Well, I wish I could live long enough to test that but I don’t agree with that. Even in the more open world that’s still the west, which is producing the biggest gains in technology and knowledge and I think that the west is not going to retire.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO Andre Gunder Frank thinks otherwise.

FRANK The point of the title of my book ‘Re-orient’ is that the world is re-orienting - that is it is going back to a predominance of Asia in general and to China in particular and it is, therefore, not only time it behooves us to re-orient our thinking to follow them. We have to change our thinking to correspond to changing reality.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO So western preponderance could be a short-term blip or an enduring reality. But then, so could eastern resurgence. As Zhou Enlai once said in another context, ‘It’s too early to say.’ Whenever we look at the past, we tend to abuse it to try to explain the present or predict the future, whereas really the past teaches us no lessons except about itself. For as long as it does last, western civilisation’s special role in the world will remain unintelligible if we cloud our vision with self- congratulation. In the meantime we can learn more from self-criticism: it will make us feel less special, but it will help us appreciate that all civilisations are exceptional: paradoxically, that’s one of their most impressive common features.