TO: Platt, Thomas, Buff, Kevin and Rasheed
I agree with Thomas and gang who state that Arabic culture was more advanced
than Western European up until 1300 AD or so (as was Chineses culture). The
question though isn't so much what happenned to these and all the other
relatively static cultures around the world, it is to understand or explain
the two cultures that did advance quickly. The two cultures in question are
of course the Greeks of around 800 to 300BC and post-Rennaissance Europe.
First though, let me address a few of the earlier hypotheses posted on the
I believe Thomas' argument of Colonialism completelely misses the point.
Certainly Colonialism has left its marks (good and bad) on all parties
involved, but the real question is missed if we start with Colonialism. The
question could almost be rephrased to be WHY DID EUROPE COLONIZE OTHERS
RATHER THAN VICE VERSA. Students of history know that invading armies are as
old as agriculture. Certainly this tendency isn't concentrated to European
cultures. Southern Europe itself was often under the control of Islam -- at
least until modern times. The point though is that by the 16th or 17th
century Europe gained a vast edge in knowledge, wealth and power. After that,
struggles with other cultures were strongly biased in favor of the West. In
other words, Colonialism is more of a symptom than a cause.
Second, I think Buff was on to something with his comment on the greater
"Muslim sense of community." Sociologists can sort cultures on a scale of
those tending to strongly value responsibility, honor and family/clan as
opposed to the opposite tendency to value individualism and freedom (see JQ
Wilson's The Moral Sense and studies by WJ Goode). The first pattern of
values -- as practiced in almost all agricultural-based societies including
Japan, Islam and China -- tends to lead to values placed upon tradition,
duty, self control, conformity, respect for elders and authority and a strong
sense of tribalism. The freedom/individualism pattern, which is much more
prevalent in the West, tends to lead more to scepticism of authority and
tradition, rationalism and a belief in universal values. Each pattern has
strengths and weaknesses, however, the first is obviously more of a static
pattern, the latter is more dynamic. One suppresses experimentation,
creativity and change, while the other fosters it.
Third, I would apply a bit of a twist to Buff's take on the battle between
science and religion in Islam. The scientific method is wholly a Western
discovery. In the West, this battle was fought as science was being created.
In Islam, science is a suspicious import, but I agree that the battle did
not go well for science.
Fourth, I agree with Platt that victimology is a disfunctional way to look at
the world. However, I agree with Thomas that Colonialism and victimology
have indeed left their marks (again good and bad) on the world. Thomas is
right that it affects cultures, and Platt is right that they need to discard
that perspective as fast as possible.
But, to address the issue now...
WHAT WAS SO DIFFERENT ABOUT THE ANCIENT GREEKS AND POST-RENNAISSANCE EUROPE?
Why were these cultures so dynamic and creative and progressive? To
1) Both eras involved decentralized cultures that competed and yet cooperated
with each other. Both resisted empires and avoided centralized control, the
Greeks due to the vast span of decentralized City States throughout the
Aegean sea and surrounding area, the Europeans due to the rugged coast of
mountains, penninsulas and Isles. In both cases, the variety of competing
mini-cultures thus was able to resist collapsing into one static culture. At
any given time, some of the City-States or Nation States may or may not have
been progressive, but those that were gained power and influence at the
expense of those that weren't. On the other hand, they all were extremely
familiar with each other and could easily copy successes and avoid their
neighbor's failings. Thus, the competitive/cooperative environment
established a virtuous cycle reinforcing progressive tendencies.
2) Both eras were driven by those subcultures that were most dynamic at the
time. This created the potential for individualism, rationality, scepticism
and allowed both eras to resist being overly static. Both eras were notable
for those elements of society that craved knowledge and learning. (as an
example, I read somewhere that Spain translates more books written elsewhere
into Spanish in a single year than all the Islamic world has translated into
their languages EVER.)
3) Both eras were driven by significant improvements in knowledge management,
distribution and maintenance. The Greeks perfected the alphabet and borrowed
papyrus and became widely literate. The Europeans rediscovered Greek
concepts and supplemented it with their own thoughts widely distributed via
books enabled by the newly perfected printing presses. Both cultures were
thus able to accumulate knowledge and to use knowledge to generate more
knowledge. (As another counterexample, the predominant field of advanced
studies of Islamic students is in RELIGION.)
4) The competitive/cooperative environment of sceptical individualism and
knowledge management allowed these cultures to discover valuable techniques
to enhance their social, technical and intellectual abilities. Logic,
advanced math, philosophy, democracy, capitalism and the scientific method
all were either created or advanced by these two cultures. Each was powerful
on its own, but together they led to an unprecedented explosion in knowledge.
(another key to progressive societies is to get as many people as possible to
participate in the progress -- the West's greatest achievements may have been
the dissolution of slavery and the emancipation of all people and sexes.)
Virtually all the modern gains in wealth occurred with the advance of
science, capitalism and democracy. Those cultures adopting these techniques
have usually been able to make more progress in a matter of decades than
previous societies did in centuries. Those not adopting these breakthroughs
have tended to go nowhere.
Of course, to adopt them WELL, it requires that the predominant values of
each culture adapt. There are of course down sides to any set of values as
well as any potential benefits. Islam doesn't value or trust individualism
or freedom or those bad outcomes that often accompany these concepts, and
they are therefore resisting the change. The problem is that to compete, or
even to stay relevant, they have to change somewhat. Thus Islam is left with
the ugly choice of either preserving their cherished values as is and being
irrelevant in terms of power and influence, or adopting Western ways and
losing much of what they hold dear. I predict it will take generations for
them to work through the issues (just as it did in the West).
So, in the end, the issue can be characterized as conflicts in VALUES.
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