Friday, March 16, 2007

You can have the West

This thread at Dean's World about the movie 300 is stupefyingly predictable. One one side, people who know history. On the other, commentators like Kevin D who insist that the modern West was exclusively the product of Judeo-Christian values. Another commentator tries to explain to Kevin:

much of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks was brought back to Europe through the crusades... "Rescued" from the Muslims who had been protecting it. It's part of why Europe emerged from the Dark Ages.

Dave Schuler of the Glittering Eye chimes in as well, arguing,

Aristotle (and, I believe, Herodotus—our primary source on the Battle of Thermopylae) was unknown in the West until his works were promulgated in Latin translations of Arabic translations by Muslim scholars. Thomas Aquinas, for example, relied exclusively on one such translation.

Kevin's response?

So, we should thank the Muslims for stealing our stuff and being kind enough not to destroy it until we could get it back?

Well, there is a kind of logic to that.

Essentially, you're all saying that Islam didn't actually add to the West, it just held on to the documents the West wrote.

How about I rob your house and you can thank me for helping you get a TV when you come to take yours back? Deal?

In the above exchange - which takes place on the Internet, upon which detailed and informative articles about Aquinas and Ibn Rushd are just mouse-clicks away - Kevin seems almost proud of his anti-intellectual stance. I can't explain why someone would choose to be so doggedly ignorant.

John of Crossroads Arabia tries to educate Kevin:

I think the use of the term 'stole' is hysterically anachronistic. Really quite funny.

Now that, with Kevin's permission, we can redefine 'conquest' as 'theft', we can go about righting all sorts of historic wrongs, all the way back to the days Cro Magnon dealt from the bottom of the deck to Neaderthal.

Let the Goths give back to Rome what they took; let the Romans give back to Etrusca and Greece what they stole.

The Arab armies didn't 'steal' Western treasures. They didn't even share, for a long time, a common sense of what 'treasure' was outside of gold and jewelery. By the Medieval period, though, Muslim culture (formed by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish tought) did recognize the value of what they had in their hands. They didn't just store it, either, but interpreted it, used it as the basis of more modern ways of looking at the world. Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonedes were all products of that Muslim civilization that transferred 'Greek' wisdom to the West through their mediation, both physically and intellectually.

and another commentator DanielH also chimes in,

Science was advanced by Muslims during the European Dark Ages. Roger Bacon learned science by studying original works of physics, optics, etc. written by Muslims and translated in Toledo. The preservation of Aristotle is a minor, but laudable part of the contribution of Muslims to world civilization. One could add that it wasn't just Aristotle, but Aristotle through the perspective contemporary scholarship of Ibn Rushd that was soaked up by Aquinas et al in Paris.

and later provides a handy list of historical figures with links to their Wikipedia entries. However it's a safe assumption that Kevin's worldview, which hinges on a Christianized polemical reading of history, is largely immune.

The irony is that there was no West in antiquity, and the very concept of the West is still one that no one can satisfactorily define. Why not just go ahead and let The West be defined as the nonsensical phrase "civilization founded on Greek principles and informed by Judeo Christian values" ? Its just as arbitrary as any other definition.

I look at history and I see two civilizations - that of the Islamic-Christian arc, and the East (China). I also see a vast struggle between barbarians and nations. Those are the obvious dividing lines of history and even the modern day. Kevin can have the West; I don't care.


  1. That's the beauty of Dean's World - there are real experts alongside the rabble :) The thread was useful, if only to draw you gentlemen out :) As Dean tells me countless times, the lurkers are reading too.

    As far as whose civilization precedes whose, I just don't see any meaningful lines to be drawn between Persia, Greece, etc. Obviously they were distinct but they also were built on the same shared foundation of previous civilizations. It's like genetics - mixtures and sharing of ideas/genes freely flowing. Rewind the the tape far enough and everything that looks distinct today just melds into the amorphous mass.

    If Razib is reading this maybe he can comment on what population genetics models might be invoked to apply to civilizational analysis...

    At any rate, I tire of the whole concept of the West. Maybe we should just retire it and let people like Kevin claim ownership. The reality of history's tapestry is so much richer.

  2. Mr. Poonwalla,

    "The West" is a euphemism I think.
    This idea is very recent, a way out of saying "Christendom", as it was understood to be for about a thousand years. This was a religious and linguistic barrier.

    The fact is that the period of intellectual transfer across these lines was pretty darn short, was restricted to a few channels, and was blocked by social barriers in a way that intra-European relations were not. European princes did not habitually marry off their daughters to Muslim rulers in the same way that they sent them across Europe. Muslim scholars were not teaching in Paris or Bologna.

    After the fourteenth century, or possibly earlier, after the Europeans had equalized their archives, more or less, there seems to have been very little that crossed the religious line, right up to the 19th century.

  3. "Rescued" from the Muslims who had been protecting it.

    "Protected" the texts from what?

  4. Yes, "the West" is probably to a great extent Greek principles. In fact, I think one could argue the Muslims who began using Greek knowledge (and advancing it) were in many ways more Western then their European pre-Enlightenment contemporaries.

  5. dave s,

    Claims that we derive anything in our culture from Sparta, which left no written literature, law, or anything else and which is only known from the writings of others who had their own agendas strike me as incredibly far-fetched.

    Well, one doesn't have to leave one's own records to have an impact on history and culture. They were, after all, one of the first and most important constitutional republics. The Founders mention Sparta in their writings often. The Spartan name itself lives on as an adjective, and they gave us the word laconic as well.

    I'm not sure why one would feel the need to claim the most powerful empire in ancient Greece was irrelevant to Greek culture. I can understand being pro-Athenian, but it's just not sensible to claim Sparta's contributions are nonexistent. Certainly they are not as important as Athens', but they are there.

    Really, you should read through the whole thread before accusing me of ignorance and/or mysticism. I would do you that courtesy.

  6. I might also recommend:

    Cartledge, Paul. "What have the Spartans Done for us?: Sparta’s Contribution to Western Civilization", Greece & Rome, Vol. 51, Issue 2 (2004)

  7. Arcane said...

    "Protected" the texts from what?

    From Dark Ages Europe. Between bludgeoning each other with crude weaponary and feasting on one another's flesh, the Vikings, Visigoths, and others would have likely used ancient Greek texts as toilet paper or a substitute for firewood.


    Arcane's profile:

    "I'm an officer in the U.S. Air Force. I dedicate my time to studying and fighting the enemies of America and Western Civilization while simultaneously maximizing our national and civilizational capabilities, real and potential. Full spectrum dominance is essential; anything less is suicide."


  8. Aziz, how can you say there was no West in Antiquity? The "West" was the Western Roman empire -- which was the dregs of empire. All the action took place in Byzantium / Constantinople.

  9. Almost all words with political meanings have boundary problems. What's a girl, vs. a woman? What's conservative, what's liberal?

    While I accept that as the world grows increasingly interdependent the modern usefulness of the term "The West" is diminishing (it now includes places like Japan for goodness sakes), I'd say that in a historical context it's simply the nations of the old Western Roman Empire, and the civilizations they directly spawned as they moved westward. Historic Christendom, in other words.

    Although again, it's clearly diminishing in its usefulness, and is also being used perniciously by some people to set up a false conflict.

  10. From Dark Ages Europe. Between bludgeoning each other with crude weaponary and feasting on one another's flesh, the Vikings, Visigoths, and others would have likely used ancient Greek texts as toilet paper or a substitute for firewood.

    This is of course a popular perception, but is it true? Cite an example.

    Islam certainly did not "protect" books by any definition of the term. Uthman, after he compiled the Koran that we know today, destroyed all of the original sources and every competing version of the Koran.

    So, the idea that Islam at the time was somehow more "protective" of textual knowledge is wholly illegimate.