UNBOXED: The World Beyond the West & the Problem of Eurocentrism

Eurocentrism is the tradition of focusing on the ancient Greeks and Western Europeans to understand ourselves and our history.  Eurocentrism is based on the assumption that there is a separate and distinct culture known as “the West”, superior to other cultures in knowledge, wisdom and freedom, and this explains the impressive achievements of Western science, philosophy and politics.

Many authors, teachers and professors accept this assumption without question, but it is rarely demonstrated with direct comparisons, by comparing the ancient Greeks to the ancient Egyptians and Persians or by comparing the European Enlightenment to the earlier golden ages of China and Islam.  Though the Greeks got much from the Egyptians and Persians, as the Europeans did from the Chinese and Muslims, this is often ignored.  When comparisons are made, they often use a small number of examples to support the traditional Eurocentric view that the West is superior to all other cultures.

Eurocentrism cannot be found amongst the ancient Greeks or Romans, who did not identify with each other or with the tribes of Western Europe.  Romans thought Germanic and Celtic tribespeople were barbaric and inferior, owning them as slaves in Rome and depicting them as savages in art.  Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls were primitive, warlike, and immoral, justifying their conquest and enslavement.  These are the very things Europeans would use to justify the domination of Africa and the Americas thousands of years later.  Rome enriched itself and financed the construction of impressive buildings with the wealth and slave labor reaped from the conquered.  Western European culture was almost entirely destroyed and replaced with Roman culture.  This is why witches, the shamans of their tribes, were burned at the stake and are still portrayed as evil today.

After the fall of Rome, in one of the most remarkable cases of Stockholm syndrome in history, the conquered identified themselves with their conquerors and adopted Roman history and identity as their own to make claims to power and lineage.  Then, after the Protestant Reformation, many Western Europeans ceased to identify with Rome and chose instead to identify exclusively with the ancient Greeks.  As Christianity had passed from Greece through Rome to Europe, Protestants turned from Latin sources back to Greek to retranslate the Bible, discovering the wisdom and knowledge of the Greeks in the process.

Over the last five hundred years, as Western Europe rose in power, wealth and dominance, the Europeans explained their successes in terms of Greek and Roman history and identity.  What was in medieval times called Christendom, and then during the Enlightenment called the European race, is in modern times called “The West”, still portrayed as distinct and superior.  This is why the Nazis invented the Olympic torch run which passed a flame from Athens to Berlin in 1936, a symbol of the superiority of the Western mind and reason.  Hitler saw the Nazis as a rebirth of Western Civilization, and argued that the Germans should look to the Greeks and Romans to be inspired by their fellow superior Aryans, even though the Greeks and Romans thought that Germans were subhuman and incapable of reason or government.  Perhaps the Nazis were trying to prove the Romans were right.

Between the fall of Rome and the rise of Western Europe, the Tang and Song dynasties of China and the golden age of Islam developed much of the technology, scholarship and science that was crucial for the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  In 1620, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing were the most significant advancements of humankind, separating ancient from modern times, unaware that all three were Chinese.  Karl Marx argued that these same three inventions brought about capitalism and the middle class.  Along with these, paper, books, cast iron, gears, the belt drive, the chain drive, the spring, the waterwheel and the windmill all passed from China into Islamic lands and then into Europe.  The Muslims added algebra, possibly the most useful invention in history, based on Egyptian, Indian and Greek mathematics.  The Chinese and Muslims, like the Greeks and Romans, passed many things on to Western Europe, which was and is neither Greece nor Rome nor China.

The history of human thought and culture is our common heritage, which includes everything brilliant, and everything stupid, that our species has ever done.  All cultures have sought knowledge and wisdom, even though ignorance and arrogance is also all too human.  We can learn about ourselves from the achievements and problems of all cultures, and we inherit traditions and innovations from many cultures.  Why be Eurocentric when a wider perspective shows us much more?  Why pay attention to one set of cross-cultural influences, when the whole is our history?

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