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.


Unknown said...

After I'd said my piece I bowed out of that threat. It was driving me bonkers. 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.

And part of this was from the original poster, Dave Price, who describes himself as an empiricist. I thought that empiricism had to be based on facts, not on mysticism and ignorance of the facts. Silly me.

I like and respect Dave but, as I say, far-fetched.

Maybe I'll finish my post, “Our Persian Heritage”. Notions like universal law, individual freedom, and free will have much clearer antecedents in ancient Persian thought than they do in Greek thought.

And where are the Mysteries in the reckoning of those who claim that the Greeks are so central to modern Western culture? By nearly every account the Mysteries were central to Greek culture.

John Burgess said...

The film obviously cast the ancient Persians as the bad guys. The source material--largely the Greek historians--saw them as such. Persia represented an antithesis of what the Greeks considered good.

But as much as Western civ. is built upon Greek ideals, it also includes--though mostly invisibly--many aspects of ancient Persian theology. The changes that took place within Judaism, following the 'Babylonian Captivity' are directly linkable to Zoroastrian concepts of good and evil, of heaven and hell.

Dramatic films need villains, preferably villains who cannot sue for defamation. This time around, the Persians got slapped around.

But just because there were negative qualities to the Persian empires (however much exaggerated for filmic reasons), we should not assume (nor can I find a case where the filmmakers assumed) that Persia = Evil, forever and in all regards.

Mono-dimensional thinking is, by definition, stupid.

Unknown said...

The idea of Good vs. Evil (note caps) is itself Persian.

Aziz P. said...

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.

Unknown said...

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

Apply the models to a subset of civilization: language. The old tree model is creaky.

Arcane said...

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

"Protected" the texts from what?

Dhywd said...

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."


Snippet said...

Kevin D's response to the debt of gratitude we (allegedly) owe the Muslims who preserved Greek and Roman teachings was really not in my opinion worth a high profile refutation.

As someone who believes that The West, properly understood, is history's greatest accomplishment so far, I cringed.

The idea that The West is a meaningless concept is as wrong as the idea that The West developed every quality it prides itself on all by its lonesome.

"The West" refers to a culture/belief system/philosophy, whatever its complex derivation, that values individual freedom and rational inquiry more than any other culture.

The Spartans were a deeply flawed republic - democracy in its infancy, but it advocated freedom and made more of an effort to establish it than did the Persians. Also, Sparta rather famously defended baby democracy, and for that deserves our gratitude.

The scientific method - as opposed to intelligent aristocrat dilettantes who pulled a scientific gem out of their hats once in a while - is Western. Any qualified individual can topple a thousand years of scientific belief if he follows rules that apply to EVERYBODY, and our greatest scientific heros invariably did just that.

Aziz P. said...

"The West" refers to a culture/belief system/philosophy, whatever its complex derivation, that values individual freedom and rational inquiry more than any other culture.

"more than any other culture" ? Snippet, that's simply untrue. Look at the Mu'tazili rationalists or the Andalusian philosophers to start with, but there are many more.

In fact you posit a monoculture to the West but thats a fallacy right there.

Your definition of teh West as "a culture that valued reason" is too vague.

It also excludes most of Europe preior to the Enlightenment! So in that sense your definition, hinging in reason as it does, its also too narrow.

I'm sorry but you haven't provided any useful boundary to what this thing called The West might be.

Ron Coleman said...

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.

Snippet's Mother said...

"The West" is a place.

"The West" is a collection of really, really, really good ideas, tainted by a few really sucky ones.




Why a geographic designation - "West" came to represent the combination of individual freedom and rational inquiry that dominate those parts of the world that enjoy prosperity on an unprecedented scale and attract immigrants I am not enough of a historian to explain.

Why the seeds of freedom and rational inquiry took root and prospered in Europe and withered elswhere I DON'T KNOW.

"The West" is like that old SNL skit.

It's a place!

No, it's an idea!

Hey, you two, cut that out. It's a place AND AN IDEA!

The question of why ideas take root inone place and not another is interesting, but it cannot be denied that some ideas find certain places more conducive than others, but it cannot be denied that "The West" both as a place and a set of powerful ideas is a hugely significant feature of the landscape in which everyone participating in this conversation finds him (or her) self.

Dean Esmay said...

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.

Arcane said...

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.