“There’s a difference between the West and the Non-West”
Mr Hanson demonstrates not just what we owe to the Greeks, but how many of the issues they struggled with we still struggle with today: how to look at and understand the world, immigration and assimilation, voting rights, poverty and income equality, social justice, socialism and egalitarianism, and the role and rights of women in society.
Just from the opening:
“Places like India and China are becoming much more like us, if I can use that controversial term, than we are like them. And in our period here at home the irony of all this change, as it expands from the center, I think at the same time there’s never been a period in the West when people who are Western have so little confidence in what they have to offer the world. At the very time that India and China and South Korea and Latin America are embracing Western civilization, we in the West are questioning it. So much so that we created this alternative protocol called Multiculturalism. It sounds great, study all cultures. Two things to remember about it. The Greeks started Multiculturalism with people like Xenophon and Herodotus that were inquisitive and empirical, inductive in their interest in Persian and Egypt. And second, it doesn’t mean study all cultures, it means to advance them as equal to Western culture. I have no problem with that except it’s intellectually dishonest.
Because privately, we in the United States, and indeed in Europe as well, we live two lives. We profess a multicultural utopia, that all the world and the cultures and all the history are all of relatively equal merit, even though we see that China and India and all these countries are adopting business practices, language practices, transparencies like our own. But then we don’t live this multicultural dogma. If I can be very blunt and controversial, if we all want to travel and you have a choice between flying Nigerian Airlines and United, you’ll take United…If you want to say, you happen to be an atheist – God forbid – in this audience, but if you said ‘God is dead!’ you better do it in Salt Lake City – Mormon as it is! – than try to do it in Saudi Arabia where you’ll be executed.
Is it because of race? No. Is it because of genes? No. It’s because of a particular culture, a particular way of looking at the world. What is that way of looking at the world? Primarily it’s empirical. That a person starts his existence without preconceptions. We inherited that from the Socratic tradition. We are not deductive, we don’t start with a premise and make the premise fit the examples. We look at the examples…and then we come up with conclusions about it. The scientific method.
What else is this Western idea? It’s the idea that a person, an individual, has inalienable rights. We see that best epitomized in our own Constitution. But it goes back to Greece.”
And I’ll conclude with a spoiler from his finish because I think it’s so profound. Describing the fall of Rome to a band of thugs after a much smaller Roman Republic had defeated much larger and more dangerous threats:
“Fast forward to the 5th century AD, is this the Roman Republic, 1/4 of Italy? No. It now encompasses 70 million people, from Mesopotamia in the East to the Atlantic ocean in the West, to above Hadrian’s Wall in the North to the Sahara Desert in the South, one million square miles. And they’re attacked, not by a formidable power, the inheritor of classical military science like Hannibal, but a thug like Atilla with some Huns and Visigoths and Vandals. By any measure, the threat was nothing compared to the threat that Romans faced when it was much, much smaller. But why in the world could they not defend themselves….?
The answer is…in 216 BC a Roman knew what it was to be a Roman. And they were under no illusions that they had to be perfect to be good. All they believed was they had an illustrious tradition that was better than alternative and could be better even more…In 450 AD I don’t think the average person who lived under the Roman Empire…knew what it was to be a Roman citizen, he did not believe that it was any better than the alternative. And when that happens in history, history is cruel, it gives nobody a pass. If you cease to believe that your country’s exceptional and has a noble tradition, and it is good without without being perfect, and it’s better than the alternative – If you cease to believe that! – there’s no reason for you to continue, and history says you won’t. And you don’t.”
Can we learn and change course? Or are we doomed to travel that road once more?
22 thoughts on “Everything Old is New Again”
Hansen spends part of each week in the belly of the beast. Read “Mexifornia.”
Isn’t Latin American part of the West?
Thanks for posting that. Always a pleasure to hear/see him speak. Why couldn’t I have had a professor like that in my all-too-brief college experience?
Note to self: in the next life avoid Sociology Dept.
“he did not believe that it was any better than the alternative.”
Because by 450 AD it wasn’t better than the alternative. The empire ceased to be exceptional because of oppressive taxation, currency debasement, onerous bureaucracy, and depraved dysfunctional leadership. Productive citizens ceased to be free and many welcomed the end.
Djf – Latin America has adopted a number of practices that are known bad. Being part of the West is not a fetish or totem that protects from the ill effects of bad policy nor does bad policy eject you from the West. Italy did not stop being a western nation when it did the same thing but it’s certainly less functional than it could be and we all know it. As these laggard performers stop adopting non-functional ideas and replace them with better ones, they improve.
We can improve as well, I pray.
Yes it is genes. Culture is an epiphenomenon.
To Grurray – By 450 AD the Western Empire no longer existed except as a name. Real pwoer was in the hands of barbarians. When Attila was defeated at Chalon in 451 AD the so-called “Roman Army” mostly consisted of Visigoths, Franks, Buurgundians and assorted other German and Celtic barbarians. Even the “Roman” generals were mostly Latinized Germans.
To most inhabitants of the West at that there was no way to tell the “Roman” army from any other barbarian horde.
Luttwak made the point in his book on Roman grand strategy that Diocletian set up a series of fortresses along the German frontiers with troops stationed there to hold off raids and invasions. Later Constantine pulled them back to interior cities and towns, most probably to keep them close in order to help defend his regime against rebellions. As internal strife grew, the legions just kept on retreating inward until they all disappeared up their own arsholes.
Diocletion was not even Roman. He was born in Dalmatia and his palace is the center of the town of Split, Croatia.
Th western Roman Empire was mostly gone by 305 AD
Latin America and Italy share the role of the Catholic Church which has pretty much been a negative indicator in economics.
It has been said that, “The Industrial Revolution went to England with the Huguenots when the Edict of Nantes was revoked.”
The “Protestant Ethic” has been shown to be a pretty powerful influence. Spain was wrecked economically by Philip II who spent the fortune he got from the New World on warfare in the Netherlands and with England.
Having been raised in Catholic schools for 12 years, I think I can say that.
Theodosius the Great, who let the Goths into the Roman army (then used them mostly as canon fodder), passed a law in 391 allowing Roman provincials to own weapons and provide for their own self defense. Further evidence that rogue forces were pillaging the countryside instead of defending it.
“The “Protestant Ethic” has been shown to be a pretty powerful influence.”
Is there really any reason at all to think that the “Protestant Work Ethic” is anything other than an accident of history? It may seem compelling on the surface, but if Henry VIII hadn’t decided to plunder his nation’s cultural history, without anything like strong support from the population at large, I see no evidence that a Catholic England would have prospered any less in subsequent centuries than it actually did, and we’d be spared these sort of oversimplifications that obscure all sorts of other, far more important cultural impacts.
“Spain was wrecked economically by Philip II who spent the fortune he got from the New World on warfare …”
Mike, no doubt. Interestingly enough, Niall Ferguson suggests that the success that Spain had with “pieces of eight” was such that it devalued silver in Europe to such a degree that, as expenses grew, more silver had to be mined, and that silver was worth less and less as time went on.
“Primarily it’s empirical. That a person starts his existence without preconceptions. We inherited that from the Socratic tradition. We are not deductive, we don’t start with a premise and make the premise fit the examples. We look at the examples…and then we come up with conclusions about it. The scientific method.’
Could be, but that is entirely inconsistent with:
“What else is this Western idea? It’s the idea that a person, an individual, has inalienable rights.”
“Niall Ferguson suggests that the success that Spain had with “pieces of eight”
Technology creating destruction. I’m following an other Trump thread at Althouse about free trade and technology.
Philip spent his fortune on religious wars in Europe.
“I see no evidence that a Catholic England would have prospered any less in subsequent centuries than it actually did,”
I think there is a fair amount of evidence that France suffered as a result of the loss of the Huguenots.
Spain and Latin America are no advertisement for the Catholic Church economic doctrine. Calvinism may have had a lot to do with economic success just as the Mormon religion seems to be very indicative of “virtuous circles” whatever their doctrines.
There is a pretty good argument that Christianity is far superior to Islam in the development of science. This book makes a pretty good case, that culture has had a strong role.
I am a Stephan Pinker guy, personally, on the role of individual genetics but the role of culture seems pretty strong in civilizations.
I think history would be very different if Darius had won at Marathon or Xerxes at Salamis.
I read somewhere that the Imperial Roman army fought other Romans more often than outsiders.
My point is that what mattered to make England great, in its culture and people, was present in England in 1500 no less than in 1700. There was no great rupture between a Catholic England to suddenly impose a “Protestant Ethic” on its people. If somehow Philip II had decided to become Protestant and force it on his nation, it wouldn’t have made Spain suddenly a radically different culture.
” it wouldn’t have made Spain suddenly a radically different culture.”
Well, it is a thought experiment but I doubt it would have turned out as you think. Spain was a Catholic stronghold until Franco. The Latin American countries were ruled according to laws drafted in Spain.
The Enlightenment began in Scotland among “Nonconformists.” The Anglican Church was still an authoritarian institution.
Lister and his father were Quakers and Lister was dropped from the church when he “married out” by marrying the daughter of Syme, his professor and a non-Quaker.
Back on topic, I think that VDH confused anglosphere countries with Western countries when referring to Latin America. It’s clear that that the anglo-descended colonies have certainly fared better and acted as the centers of freedom and better (if not always good) government in their regions. I also think it’s fair to say the Enlightenment picked up where Greek philosophy left off. In the interim, the Romans carried a common language and culture across Europe laying the foundation of the West.
The Enlightenment began in Scotland among “Nonconformists.” Ahem, in Scotland it’s the Episcopalians who were the nonconformists; the Established Church was Presbyterian.
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