Why Civilization, Not Culture?

Peter Wood

I’ve been here before.  I suspect many others at this conference have been here too.  “Here” is the crossroads where we try to decide what the West is, why it matters, if it matters.  What if anything sets it apart from other civilizations, other cultures.  Whether it has exhausted itself, and will go down to dust as other civilizations before it. 

Here is not a happy place to be because it conjures the specter of defeat or at least severe self-doubt.  What if the multiculturalists are right?  What if everything from Plato to Shakespeare to Beethoven to Baryshnikov was merely a mask for power and privilege?

It is not wise to banish doubts. The multiculturalist indictment has been handed in. We need to defend our client as best we can, and recognize that we too are in the dock.  If you care about freedom, individuality, the pursuit of truth, the possibility of a transcendent god, the rule of law and a lot of other things, you stand accused of being part of the system that has oppressed and continues to oppress most of humanity. How do you plead?

I personally plead anthropology.

I have spent much of my life studying non-Western cultures. It is a lop-sided thing. I know more about Kwakiutl house construction than standard American building. I can talk at length about Polynesian fishing practices, but I’ve only a faint idea how our domestic fleet does its business.  Ask me how the Etero of central New Guinea handle village disputes, and I can fill an hour, but the American legal system to me is mostly a mysterious way of enriching lawyers and frustrating everyone else.  On it goes.  I made in my business from my early twenties on to learn as much as I could about the world’s diverse cultures.  But until relatively late in the game, I paid little attention to Western history.

I cannot be among those accused of nostalgia for the curriculum of my undergraduate youth.  I never took a course on Western Civilization.  In fact the only college history course I ever took was on sub-Saharan African history. When I took Philosophy 101, we didn’t read The Republic, but Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind—which is what led me into anthropology in the first place. What I learned about art was almost exclusively tribal art. Likewise music. 

Inevitably I learned something about the West, but mostly because I was a voracious reader of great Western literature—though of course I was also reading the novels and plays then pouring out of the post-colonial world. But my academic attention was riveted on Africa, Melanesia, and Native Americans. When it came to other civilizations—China, India, and the Middle East—I focused exclusively on the village-level ethnographic studies.  I did end up, paradoxically, writing my dissertation about the West, but through the lens of a contemporary rural American religious cult, that would have comfortably fit with Sir James George Frazer’s rubric in The Golden Bough, which depicts the survival of pagan magic and superstition under the veneer of Christianity.

I offer this confession of my strange educational path because to answer the question, “Why Civilization, Not Culture?” I want to establish my credentials on the culture side. I would face significant disadvantages if my goal was push hard on a claim that Western civilization has a monopoly on intelligent decision-making, advanced skills, imagination, religious insight, political acumen, or good reasoning.  It doesn’t. We don’t. The multiculturalists have a point. 

They would have an even stronger point if they actually knew what they were talking about.  But don’t worry. Very few multiculturalists bother to study the ethnographic record. They content themselves with “celebrating difference,” with no clear idea of what the differences actually are.  “Multiculturalism” superficially refers to the great variety of cultures in places such as Africa and New Guinea. But it quickly turns its attention to the differences among ethnic sub-groups in the United States and other Western nations. Multiculturalism then becomes a doctrine founded on exaggerating the small cultural variations in dialect, cooking, household customs, and dress that comprise the weave of modern life.  The truth is that, with the exception of small numbers of recent immigrants who have not yet begun to assimilate to the premises of Western life, we are all part of a single culture. 

A mega-culture. Or, more accurately, a civilization, that imposes itself on us unawares, even before we speak any of its languages or begin to recognize how it works. I am not at this point referring to Western civilization in the sense of the great narrative from Pericles to Paul and from Charlemagne to Charlie Chaplin.  I am instead referring to western civilization as that amoeba-like creature that engulfs and assimilates its prey, and that endlessly divides itself without changing its essential identity. 

Comparing Western civilization to a predatory amoeba is not very flattering and perhaps not what you expected during the opening address of this conference. But bear with me.  Herodotus, who knew nothing about amoebas, knew a lot about Greeks.  He contrasted them with the Egyptians, who rejected all foreign customs and remained proudly static in their civilization for thousands of years.  He contrasted the Greeks to the Persians who envied the prosperity of their neighbors and thoughtlessly added on whatever they could grab, good, bad, or indifferent.  Herodotus also glanced north to the Scythians, who so despised foreign customs that they put to death any of their own caught wearing foreign dress.

The Greeks, in Herodotus’s view got it right: they were open to foreign ideas, but careful in sifting them. They were curious about the rest of the world and ready to venture out and meet it; but they were fiercely protective of their own world, as King Xerxes was soon to find out.  There is something more in Herodotus too. He is not called the Father of History for nothing.  He exhibited that historical self-consciousness that is one of the defining features of Western civilization. Our civilization is not alone in having attained it, but it is a feature that we have developed to an extraordinary degree, and it would be hard to overestimate its importance.

Let me approach by way of an example of more limited self-consciousness.   

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, at the beginning of the second chapter of her classic but I fear now little-read book, Patterns of Culture (1934), tells an anecdote about a chief of the Digger Indians of California.  I should say immediately that the term “Digger Indians” is now understood as a racial slur, and that this chief belonged to a tribe called the Serrano. But Serrano is itself a Spanish word, and if these people had a name for themselves, it was lost centuries earlier in the Spanish missionization of the region.  They were the native people of the San Bernardino Mountains. What follows is the entirety of what Benedict says about these people:

[Ramon] was a Christian and a leader among his people in the planting of peaches and apricots on irrigated land, but when he talked of the shamans who had transformed themselves into bears before his eyes in the bear dance, his hands trembled and his voice broke with excitement.  It was an incomparable thing, the power his people had in the old days.  He liked best to talk of the desert foods they had eaten.  He brought each uprooted plant lovingly and with an unfailing sense of its importance.  In those days his people had eaten 'the health of the desert,' he said, and knew nothing of the insides of tin cans and the things for sale at butcher shops.  It was such innovations that had degraded them in these latter days.

One day, without transition, Ramon broke in upon his descriptions of grinding mesquite and preparing acorn soup.  'In the beginning,' he said, 'God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life.'  I do not know whether the figure occurred in some traditional ritual of his people that I never found, or whether it was his own imagery.  It is hard to imagine that he had heard it from the whites he had known at Banning; they were not given to discussing the ethos of different peoples.  At any rate, in the mind of this humble Indian the figure of speech was clear and full of meaning.  'They all dipped in the water,' he continued, 'but their cups were different.  Our cup is broken now.  It has passed away.' 

That’s it. Benedict says no more. I once spent about six months digging deeper into the Serrano background to this arresting image of the broken cup. Among the connections I was able to make is that the mortuary rituals of the Serrano involved taking the favorite pottery of the deceased up into the mountains and smashing it. Ramon’s broken cup was a Serrano image of death. Benedict never realized that.

Let us remember that Ramon was a Christian and that he and his people had assimilated to a cash economy based on commercial agriculture on irrigated land. He spoke in English. So in an important sense, he is someone who was already part of Western civilization looking back, through a veil, at the tribal past.  He possesses a kind of historical consciousness, but his tribal culture as he remembers it did not.  It was about shamans turning into bears, magical powers, and delicious wild plants gleaned from the desert. And his image of his culture—and of all cultures—is a ceramic cup for dipping water.

That image has startling depth and clarity, and it has distant cousins in Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and even Henry James’s novel The Golden Bowl—which we should recall was also broken when Maggie’s friend deliberately smashes it on the floor. Keats’ bowl curiously becomes an image of the long duration across the generations:

      When old age shall this generation waste,

                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

      Than ours,

James’ bowl is a symbol of a gilt and crystal social system that has a deep but hidden crack.  But Maggie, watched by her guilty husband, carefully picks up the pieces, “so sharp and so neat that if there had been anything to hold them the bowl might still, quite beautifully, a few steps away, have passed for uninjured.” 

In Keats and James, we are more than a few steps away from Ramon in his peach and apricot orchard. But my point is this. Culture, when it rises to the challenge of seeing itself at all, sees itself as a finished, complete thing. The bowl is entire. It has its fixed shape and its proper use, and that is that.  If it breaks, it is dead.

Civilization, by contrast, takes its bowls from wherever. Keats’ ode is on a Grecian urn, thousands of years old and no kin to him except for his imaginative engagement with the “still unravish’d bride of quietness” and the other figures painted on its surface. James’ bowl comes from a second-hand shop, with a built-in flaw, but even more useful after it breaks.

What is Western civilization?  The only civilization that busies itself with digging up the sherds of other people’s broken ceramics. The only civilization that vexes itself with the question, “What is civilization?”

So, why civilization, and not culture?  My first answer is that we have different attitudes about pottery.  Or, less metaphorically, cultures have low and poorly conceptualized ideas about their identities, usually emphasizing the need to perpetuate a fixed pattern. They defend themselves against history. They maintain strong boundaries against the outside world, or occasionally, they throw themselves into the vortex.  Civilizations, by contrast, have complex historical consciousness and a discriminating attitude towards the outside world, often oriented towards remaking that world in their own image.  They are typically aggressive, and while this usually means the pursuit of land and resources, it virtually never just means land and resources.  It means bringing the natives inside, or what the French used to call “the civilizing mission.”

This contrast between civilization and culture is important but it is not the only difference. Some other differences are easily stated but also easily slip from our attention.  Literacy is an invention of civilization—as it happens, not our civilization. It is one of the inventions that the West absorbed from the ancient Near East, but it proved pivotal in the development of historical awareness. That seems to have been its effect everywhere it developed, including among the Mayans. The past is too fluid in non-literate societies to permit certain kinds of intellectual review. Homer came down to us apparently through an oral formulaic tradition, but we don’t look to the Iliad or the Odyssey for exact historical detail. Greek and Roman civilization are literally unthinkable without writing.  Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word,” or logos.  For John Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, and the opening passages of Genesis have God speaking the world into existence. Language has this originating power in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, but the language of Genesis and John is written language, and without that literate record, the Bible, there would have been no synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens.

Out of this synthesis came other root concepts that are unknown in most of the world. Among the predicates for scientific inquiry is the idea that the world has an underlying order and that we can, by the powers of intellect, discover much of what that order entails.  We take this for granted most of the time, but it is really a legacy of our civilization, a first principle, and not something that can be proved.  Non-western peoples, sometimes at a low level of technological knowledge, often acquired fine-grained understanding of the world around them. We still benefit from their pharmacology.  But this knowledge was pre-theoretical.  It was what Claude Levi-Strauss called “the science of the concrete.”  There is no Galileo or Newton to be found in the Australian bush or among Plains Indians. This is not a cultural insult, but the result of cultural premises that were either present or not.

This is perhaps the moment to mention that widely acclaimed book by Jered Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s thesis is that the West rose to world dominance by accident and circumstance. We were lucky that many of the domesticate-able plants and animals were to be found in the Middle East, which gave the West a head start.  We were lucky that the Eurasian land mass is so large and so relatively easy to traverse, so that agricultural and technological innovations spread rapidly. We were lucky that many epidemic diseases that originated from domestic animals hit Western populations early on so that we gained relative resistance to them. And we were lucky with metallurgy which gave us an unbeatable edge in armed confrontations with un-metaled peoples.

Diamond aims to deflate Western conceits of superiority. He sees the forces of micro-evolution at work in everything down to the micrometers of thickness on harvestable grains.  The one place where evolution plays absolutely no part, in Diamond’s vision, is the human brain. Westerners ought not to think they are in any way smarter than anyone else.

This is a moral prohibition, not a scientific fact, and truly we don’t need a racial theory of Western domination. But it is a question that will probably never go away, especially as we learn more and more about human biodiversity. 

Diamond’s observations are useful to keep in mind. The rise of the West owed a fair amount to favorable circumstances, but that doesn’t help explain what Western civilization is or why we should care about it, other than to say it is the house we have the deed to—at least until other folks decided to move in.

Roger Scruton in his short book, The West and the Rest, written shortly after 9-11, offers some provocative thoughts about what makes the West distinctive.  Because he thinking primarily of the contrast with Islam, he starts with the observation that the West owes a great deal to its division between religious and secular authority.  We have had kings and priests, not king-priests or priest-kings.  Religious duty and political duty can and sometimes do conflict.  He cites Sophocles’ Antigone, trapped between her religious duty to bury her brother and her political duty to abandon his corpse.

Scruton says, “Freedom of conscience requires secular government.” And indeed he finds the whole idea of liberty, and the root concept of social contract, to be based in our age-old separation of powers of the church and the powers of the rulers. Scruton is not alone in attributing deep significance to this divide. The French philologist Georges Dumézil argued a thesis through many books that this division can be traced back to our ancient Indo-European roots.  Indeed, the caste system in India likewise separates the powers of the rulers from those of the priests.  That division is thus not unique to Western civilization but it is sufficiently unusual to be taken as one of the defining characteristics of the West.

Let me suggest what some of the others might be. Scruton points to the division between two kinds of authority.  We could go further in this direction. The West amplifies the division of labor to an unprecedented degree and it engages in what we social scientists unfortunately term, “institutional differentiation.”  For the division of labor think of Adam Smith’s picture of a pin manufacturer who has discovered the advantage of distinguishing the worker who make the body of the pin and those who place the head on the pin.  This kind of specialization is, needless to say, unthinkable in all small-scale societies, where the typical division of labor begins and ends with the differences between male and female labor.

Institutional differentiation is something else. The image to keep in mind is a cattle farmer in Ghana who stands in relation to his family as father to his children, owner of the family herd, productive laborer, boss of the family workforce, judge of disputes, enforcer of the law, priest at sacrifices, and representative to the broader community. Every other adult male he knows also spans this range of responsibilities.  Family, work, law, government, and religion are not separate institutions with their own personnel. If they are differentiated at all, it is by time of day and perhaps location in the village. 

The West is not like this.  Many of us have overlapping responsibilities, but the overlaps are typically strongly marked off. Family responsibilities are not blurred into military duty, even if the family has a proud tradition of service in the armed forces. One’s job and one’s political participation may inconveniently get in each other’s way, but they are not typically seen as two aspects of the same thing.

This is a very dry way of setting up a very rich point. Western Civilization opens up a complexity of choices and opportunities unknown to most of humanity for most of prehistory and history. We don’t all have to do the same things. We can entertain the idea that we have different talents and that it is perfectly good to cultivate one’s interests and abilities.

This is, for sure, not a perfect recipe for happiness.  Thwarted ambition can be a greater torment than a life behind the plow. Jude the Obscure is the story of the would-be scholar who is denied his opportunity. 

But the magnificent achievements of Western art and music are one the fruits of our at least partially elective division of labor and our institutional differentiation.

We should ask:  to what degree are these matters based of slavery and other forms of exploitation? A careful answer will recognize that slavery and exploitation are nearly universal in the human experience and that Western societies have done far more than others to end slavery and curtail exploitation. But it is in fact the case that Western civilization owes part of its achievement to the immiseration of millions who had no choice in the matter.

The predatory amoeba did not proceed with a conscience, at least not often and not until late in the day. But that points to two or three other characteristics of Western civilization not often shared with the cultures around us. We have not just a more complex historical understanding of ourselves, but also universal horizons. The Comanche spent no time at all pondering how great it would be if they could turn all their neighbors into Comanches too. The neighbors were there as prey.  The Mae Enga of Highland New Guinea have no desire to spread Mae Enga culture or law to other New Guinea tribes. They will fight those tribes if they must, but they would prefer to engage them in trade and competitive feasting. 

The West, however, has been in the business of trying to save the souls of the heathen at least since the time of the Apostles. Missionaries to the heathen readily sacrificed their lives among the German tribes, the Irish, and the Norse before venturing still further afield. The further they went, the more difficult the task. One missionary among the Marquesans went stark mad in less than a week. Other more recent emissaries of the faith, such as the missionary anthropologist Daniel Everett among the Amazonian Pirahã, ended up renouncing their beliefs in the face of unbridgeable cultural divides.

But what is astonishing about the missionary enterprise is how often and how well it succeeds.  We anthropologists generally don’t like missionaries who we see despoiling pristine cultures. But credit where credit is due.  Missionaries offer something the participants in those cultures want. And it is not just access to worldly goods.  The natives want what we want: freedom, justice, a horizon broader than the shoreline or the village palisade. Christianity offers these. It is how Western civilization creeps in. What follows is often ugly and distressing.  The transition from semi-autonomous culture to outpost of civilization can bring the dregs of civilization, the breakdown of tradition, despair, family dissolution, disease, migration, and collapse.  Is it worth the price to attain that civilizational horizon?  In any case, millions have made the choice and eventually found the other side.

Of course, part of what Western civilization is selling is individuality, and individuality inevitably conflicts with family in traditional societies, as it undercuts the basic hierarchy of family relations.  We in the West spend little time weighing the costs of individuality.  It is just there. But by insisting on our personal freedom to choose our mates, our work, our religion, and our residence we forfeit all of the security that smaller scale societies have fostered—and not just smaller scale societies.  The Arab Middle East, for example, is dominated by patrilateral parallel cousin marriage: a boy marries his father’s brother’s daughter.  The practice ensures that the family unit is tightly bound and inward turning. Anthropologists discovered long ago that marriage rules provide most of the social architecture of the world’s societies. And they explain the poor position of women in most of those societies. The West has long stood as a peculiar exception in its emphasis on preferring marriages between partners who are not kin to each other. 

Some anthropologists argue that this may be the single most important difference between the West and the rest.  Not Guns, Germs, and Steel, but Beaus, Balls, and Bells. But that’s a lecture for another time.

Earlier this week I received an email from a gentleman saying he would not attend this conference. He was—I quote—“surprised that none [of the speakers] seemed to take a critical approach to some of the awful things done in the name of western civilization and Christianity.”

I am not sure he was right in that prediction, but my own approach is to complicate things.  This is not a cheer-leading rally for Western Civilization. It is a conference that deals with difficult problems in what Western Civilization is and how it should be taught. Putting these topics on the table, however, is an act of defiance.

I referred earlier to Roger Scruton’s short book in the wake of 9-11.  He avers at one point to a “single theme” that runs through the humanities as they are taught today”  “the illegitimacy of western civilization.”  The universities with pride and deliberation set about inculcating hatred of the Western past by reducing all distinction to “culture,” and depicting this culture as “manufactured by the ruling classes in order to serve their interests and bolster their power.”  This has become a core belief, not easily overturned by reason or evidence.

That doesn’t mean that loathing the West is the final destination for our liberally educated college graduates or for the future of the university.  As it happens I am mid-way through Whitaker Chamber’s memoir, Witness. Chambers was a die-hard communist, supporter of Comrade Stalin, and traitor to the United States as he assisted Soviet espionage. He did all this in the fervent belief that Western civilization was terminally corrupt and exploitative and only a violent communist revolution could bring a better world.

Chambers went on believing this through the Red Terror, the Show Trials, and the murders of his underground acquaintances. And then he stopped believing it. 

A false and simplistic idea, and one that abets profound injustice does sometimes just run out of credibility. The answer to the progressive left’s visceral hatred of Western Civilization is not to wave banners on behalf of Virgil or to stage the rallies for John Locke.  It is rather to demonstrate what civilized inquiry really looks like.  In that spirit, welcome to our conference.


Image Credit: Public Domain

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