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I was recently asked by a friend why the West, and not the Chinese, birthed the modern world. I was actually somewhat surprised at the question, given that it was coming from an academic liberal. For such a person, it’s quite an intellectual feat to even think of the modern world as originating somewhere specific and neither being the product of multiregional cultural evolution, the inevitable march of history, or a function of Eurasian happenstance.
I imaging for such people, part of the difficulty comes from their false piety, an aspect of which includes a disdain for signs of ethnic pride and fear of being ‘racist.’ For them, connecting something as great as modernity with the West and Western Caucasians smacks of this vice. Not that they often say this. What they do say, and correctly so — when correctly so — is that many global factors contributed to the birthing of Modern life. The implication, of course, is that it’s not meaningful to see modern life as a Western contribution to the world — or, at least, certain aspects of modern life.
This argument is odd of course. We ascribe discoveries to scientists, yet we recognize the many influences that brought them to this. It doesn’t matter if Darwin was influenced by Lyell or Herschel, when it comes to evolution, he connected the dots and advanced the ideas; the others did not. In the same sense, no sane person would dispute that modern science, let alone the scientific method was developed to fruition in Europe. But then, as said, the oddity makes sense in light of the subcultural mores and pieties of these particular Western people. That and of course, their various political goals.
What is it that we mean by the modern world, anyways? That would be, among other things, a world including: democratic-republics, globalization, modern science, hyper-industrialization, modern economics, and some particular conception of what humans are; a world which resulted in changes that led to a rapid empowerment of humans with respect to elemental nature. I say empowerment, and avoid ‘advance‘ because, like others, I am also conscious of what was lost due to these changes. This empowerment involved an increase in knowledge about how the world worked and involved an increase in ability as to how to manipulate it.
These changes, of course, were not discovered, the discovery was the knowledge and technology that led to them, which happened, in some part, due to the unique ways of thinking which were collectively pioneered. People of different cultures have different ways of thinking about the world and thinking about thinking.
These ways of thinking and looking, or cultural perspectives, are culturally promoted ways in which we separate or combine basic elements of how we relate to the world, others, and ourself. That is, through mental synthesis and partitioning. For example, we typically relate to some entities, such as other people, subjectively and we relate to other entities, such as rocks, objectively — though sometimes what counts as what is debated. Regardless, how we relate varies across culture and time, and of course , across people within a particular epoch. And how we relate to one thing, effects how we relate to other things, as our ideas work in systems, and often dualities.
Western Caucasians pioneered a Rational-Empirical perspective, which allowed then to explore nature, or as some might lament, rape and pillage it in the most horribly productive way. This way of thinking came about, in part, due to the marriage of three unique cultural perspectives, ones adapted from the Hellenes, the Persians, and the Hebrews.
Western Civilization traces back to Rome and, via conquest and cultural incorporation, Greece. The Hellenes had a distinct bias towards naturalism. A naturalistic perspective entails thinking about the world as natural as opposed to supernatural; it also entails focusing on the experienced external world instead of the internal or transcendental world. Thinking of the world in non-supernatural terms involves not being overwhelmed by what Otto Rank calls, numinous, that is, the mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans, or the fear and fascination with the world. While aspects of the numinous were certainly present, it was less so than in other cultures. As a result, the Hellenic thinkers were relatively free of cosmic fear and as Bruce S. Thorton points out:
“Greek medical writers for the most part ignored supernatural explanations and focused instead on their own observations and the consistent patterns of nature.”
Unlike Confucian thinkers who revered tradition and ancestors, let alone the Europeans of Christiandom, the Hellenes were often openly impious. This sense of openness was related to their particular type of naturalism. Focusing on the external involves thinking in terms of the self and the world, and then concentrating on the later; Unlike as with the Hindus , for whom the world and the self often blurred, for the Hellenes, they were more and less more partitioned. This naturalism was also largely associated with logic based reasoning. There are many variates of naturalism; the type characteristic of the Hellenes was just one. It is interesting, in this respect, to compare Chinese and Western Philosophy:
“One common portrait of the difference between the Chinese and Western traditions posits a radical incommensurability on the very nature of philosophical inquiry. Chinese philosophy is “wisdom” literature, composed primarily of stories and sayings designed to move the audience to adopt a way of life or to confirm its adoption of that way of life. Western philosophy is systematic argumentation and theory. Is there such a difference? One reason to think so is the fairly widespread wariness in Chinese philosophy of a discursive rationality that operates by deduction of conclusions about the particular from high-level generalizations….Confucians are more willing to articulate their teachings in the form of principles, but such principles seem to function as designators of values or general considerations that ought to be given weight in judgments about what to do. …. Rules and values conflict in many circumstances, and there are no “super-principles” to supply ready answers. The appropriate resolution to each conflict depends very much on the situation. In Mencius 7A35, Mencius is asked what the legendary sage-king Shun would have done if his father had killed a man.Mencius replies that the only thing to do would be to apprehend him. Shun could not interfere with the judge, who was acting on the law.”
The Hellenic cultural perspective helps explain why there are a number of logically minded naturalists in the Greco-Roman Civilization, while, as Wing-Tsit Chan points out, there were few in the Chinese Civilization. In the East, Xunzi was a rarity; in the West, Diogenes was not. But logic based naturalism, itself, did not lead to these discoveries. The Greeks and Romans did not go technological. Rather it was the mix of this thinking with that inherited from Christianity. When the Roman empire weakened, for various reasons, Christianity, a Hellenized Semitic religion, took a dominate position in what was the West. Later, the religion acted as a bridge to incorporate the Franks into the West. With this, the split of the Empire, and the expansion of Islam in the East, the West moved West. During this time, much of the Hellenic perspective and knowledge was lost.
Given this shift, loss of territory, collapse of empire, and need assimilate a mass of new people, the question arises as why did the West and not the East manage to birth the modern world. The Chinese Civilization continually expanded in cycles of rise and decline, war and peace, from a relative center, gradually adding culture to culture and advances to advances. In the West, there was Greco-Rome Civilization and then Christendom. And between the two, whole axis of the West moved northwest, placing a large developmental cost on the Civilization.
Part of the answer has to do with the cultural influence of the Christian perspective. It did in part because the Christian way of thinking had, amongst others, two particularities. First, following the Jews, it has a dualistic ontology. Accordingly, the Creator is separate from creation. The real god is above and all, save those imbued with spirit, were things, materials, and objects. Ontologically, there is God, who is true reality and his creations; of these creations, humans, or earthy being, and angelic beings fall in the moral sphere, and are due reverence in themselves. Considerations to the other aspects of the world are contingent on the former. Violating the world, as such, was not going to bring the wrath of the spirits. One needed not fear the Dionysus of Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae,’ who tore the hapless prince to pieces for questioning the divine rites. The effect of this thinking can clearly be seen in modern philosophy. From Descartes to Kant and on, this way of thinking a/effected the direction of exploration. Second, following or at least amplified by the Persians the sense of Evilness and worldliness added to this. The world was sacred no doubt, but the sacredness did not emanate from life but was granted to it. In addition to these, as mentioned, Christianity was largely Hellenized with regards to the value of reason and inquiry. Together, these elements of the Christian perspectives made way for an ethos that led to the development of numerous intellectual and technological advances. As Lynn White mentions:
“A second pair of facts is less well recognized because they result from quite recent historical scholarship. The leadership of the West, both in technology and in science, is far older than the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century or the so-called Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. These terms are in fact outmoded and obscure the true nature of what they try to describe–significant stages in two long and separate developments. By A.D. 1000 at the latest–and perhaps, feebly, as much as 200 years earlier–the West began to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling grain. This was followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. From simple beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation.”
The Chinese, on the other hand, did not have such clear dualities in terms of mans relation with nature. For example, when we compare the Chinese version of Good and Evil to the Western, we can see a stark difference. In western thought, good and bad is accentuated. Likewise, the idea of nature and natural were different. Given this and the general way of pursuing knowledge, we can understand some of the differences in achievement.
But of course, this by itself did not lead to the birthing of Modernity. The Hellenes were relatively free from the sense of numenous, and so free to explore ideas. The Greek irreverence can be seen in their bible and their works. Nonetheless, they had a sense of sacred place. On the other hand, the Europeans of Christendom had a deep sense of piety, yet little sense of sacred ground. By having little reverence for the sacred spaces, per se, they were more inclined to explore the world. However, Christiandom was embedded in mystical thinking. By mystical, I mean something similar to Otto Rank’s numinous, which he discusses in ‘Das Halige,’ that is, the mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans, or the fear and fascination with the world. This thinking often limited the willingness of people to explore the world. As Marte Parmeggiani tells tells us, in “Times of Surgery“:
“During the Middle Ages both surgery and medicine, especially anatomical concepts, underwent a regression, resulting from the belief in recovery that was derived from prayers. Surgical practice was forbidden by the clergy, and quite frequently operations were conducted by barbers. In 1240 the Scuola Salernitana was established under the protection of Federico II. Ruggero di Frogardo wrote Cyrurgia Rogerii, which dictated surgical teaching and practice in Europe. In this period Ugo and Teodorica Borgognone assured that wounds would recover better and more quickly if they were nonsuppurating, having perceived by intuition the role of pus in patients’ conditions.3,4 Critical observation of every degree of the inflammatory process may suggest whether the wound is better, either improving via natural reaction or via countering just in time any possibly inflammatory change. Only during the Renaissance and 17th century was there a renewal in improvement of surgical techniques, with new operations carried out.”
It took the remarriage of the Greco-Roman impulse with this one. This began in the 1200′s with the Crusades and the recovery of Greco-Roman knowledge. It was largely possible, because, unlike with Islam and Greco-Roman thought, Christianity was already culturally compatible. And this influx of knowledge spurred on the development already underway; but more importantly the rediscovery led to a cultural sense characterized by a freedom of thought that birthed the Renaissances and Enlightenment. By the 1500s, the Renaissance had begun to spread throughout Europe and influence development. As White mentions:
“In the present-day vernacular understanding, modern science is supposed to have begun in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius published their great works. It is no derogation of their accomplishments, however, to point out that such structures as the Fabrica and the De revolutionibus do not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin. A few notable books– Theophrastus, for example–escaped the West’s avid new appetite for science, but within less than 200 years effectively the entire corpus of Greek and Muslim science was available in Latin, and was being eagerly read and criticized in the new European universities. Out of criticism arose new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities. By the late 13th century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from the faltering hands of Islam. It would be as absurd to deny the profound originality of Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus as to deny that of the 14th century scholastic scientists like Buridan or Oresme on whose work they built. Before the 11th century, science scarcely existed in the Latin West, even in Roman times. From the 11th century onward, the scientific sector of Occidental culture has increased in a steady crescendo.”
Thus, the modern Europeans were willing to use the Greek theories; when these were incorporated into the Christian world, a world was divested of sacred spirits, they were not disinclined to explore the world through reductionism and experimentalism:
“Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637),Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) turned the Athenian tradition into the Athenian-plus tradition. Inside the atomist doctrine, which they adopted in its essentials, they shifted emphasis from the shapes and sizes of subvisible particles to their movements, and these movements, they held, were governed by general laws that conceived of motion as persisting and relative. Descartes gave systematic expression to this conception of a world fully explicable through the imagined motions of imagined particles.”
This was a way which was quite different from the Chinese way, and Asian way in general, which can explain some of the difference then and now:
“Renaissance Europe also developed a third mode, which, unlike the other two, reflected in its forward-looking dynamism certain peculiarities of the civilization at large. This third mode of nature knowledge, bent upon accurate, magic-tinged description, developed an empiricism different from the Chinese variety in that it was marked by a drive toward domination or at least coercion of the natural environment.”
In short, Western thought is tied to overlapping partitions which helped push development. From Persia via Rome, it acquired a particular moral conception, from Jerusalem via Greece, a particular ontological perspective, and from Greece via Rome, a naturalistic one. These conceptions helped guide the direction of development, which helped pushing the unprecedented growth of knowledge and technology that the West experienced from the 1500 through the1900 hundreds. These development of course had many effects, many of which we are still experiencing.