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Western Civilization

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(Land Ways Give Place to Sea Ways)


JUDGED by the map, the three centuries from the beginning of the thirteenth to the end of the fifteenth century were an age of recession for Christendom. These centuries were the Age of the Mongolian peoples. Nomadism from Central Asia dominated the known world. At the crest of this period there were rulers of Mongol or the Kindred Turkish race and nomadic tradition in China, India, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, the Balkan peninsula, Hungary, and Russia. The Ottoman Turk had even taken to the sea, and fought the Venetian upon his own Mediterranean waters. In 1529 the Turks besieged Vienna, and were defeated rather by the weather than by the defenders. The Habsburg empire of Charles V paid the Sultan tribute. It was not until the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the battle in which Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, lost his left arm, that Christendom, to use his words, "broke the pride of the Osmans and undeceived the world which had regarded the Turkish fleet as invincible." The sole region of Christian advance was Spain. A man of foresight surveying the world in the early sixteenth century might well have concluded that it was only a matter of a few generations before the whole world be came Mongolian-and probably Moslem. Just as today most people seem to take it for granted that European rule and a sort of liberal Christianity are destined to spread over the whole world. Few people seem to realize how recent a thing is this European ascendancy. It was only as the fifteenth century drew to its close that any indications of the real vitality of Western Europe became clearly apparent.

Our history is now approaching our own times, and our study becomes more and more a study of the existing state of affairs. The European or Europeanized system in which the reader is living, is the same system that we see developing in the crumpled-up, Mongol-threatened Europe of the early fifteenth century. Its problems then were the embryonic form of the problems of to-day. It is impossible to discuss that time without discussing our own time. We become political in spite of ourselves. "Politics without history has no root," said Sir J. R. Seely; "history without politics has no fruit."

Let us try, with as much detachment as we can achieve, to discover what the forces were that were dividing and holding back the energies of Europe during this tremendous out-break of the Mongol peoples, and how we are to explain the accumulation of mental and physical energy that undoubtedly went on during this phase of apparent retrocession, and which broke out so impressively at its close.

Now, just as in the Mesozoic Age, while the great reptiles lorded it over the earth, there were developing in odd out-of-the-way corners those hairy mammals and feathered birds who were finally to supersede that tremendous fauna altogether by another far more versatile and capable, so in the limited territories of Western Europe of the Middle Ages, while the Mongolian monarchies dominated the world from the Danube to the Pacific and from the Arctic seas to Madras and Morocco and the Nile, the fundamental lines of a new and harder and more efficient type of human community were being laid down. This type of community, which is still only in the phase of formation, which is still growing and experimental, we may perhaps speak of as the "modern state." This is, we must recognize, a vague expression, but we shall endeavour to get meaning into it as we proceed. We have noted the appearance of its main root ideas in the Greek republics and especially in. Athens, in the great Roman republic, in Judaism, in Islam, and in the story of Western Catholicism. Essentially this modern state, as we see it growing under our eyes today, is a tentative combination of two apparently contradictory ideas, the idea of a community of faith and obedience, such as the earliest civilizations undoubtedly were, and the idea of a community of will, such as were the primitive political groupings of the Nordic and Hunnish peoples. For thousands of years the settled civilized peoples, who were originally in most cases dark-white Caucasians, or Dravidian or Southern Mongolian peoples, seem to have developed their ideas and habits along the line of worship and personal subjection, and the nomadic peoples theirs along the line of personal self-reliance and self-assertion. Naturally enough under the circumstances the nomadic peoples were always supplying the civilizations with fresh rulers and new aristocracies. That is the rhythm of all early history. It was only after thousands of years of cyclic changes between refreshment by nomadic conquest, civilization, decadence, and fresh conquest that the present process of a mutual blending of "civilized" and "free" tendencies into a new type of community, that now demands our attention and which is the substance of contemporary history, began.

We have traced in this history the slow development of larger and larger "civilized" human communities from the days of the primitive Palaeolithic family tribe. We have seen how the advantages and necessities of cultivation, the fear of tribal gods, the ideas of the priest-king and the god king , played their part in consolidating continually larger and more powerful societies in regions of maximum fertility. We have watched the interplay of priest, who was usually native, and monarch, who was usually a conqueror, in these early civilizations, the development of a written, tradition and its escape from priestly control, and the appearance of novel forces, at first apparently incidental and secondary, which we have called the free intelligence and the free con-science of mankind. We have seen the rulers of the primitive civilizations of the river valleys widening their area and extending their sway, and simultaneously over the less fertile areas of the earth we have seen mere tribal savagery develop into a more and more united and politically competent nomadism. Steadily and divergently mankind pursued one or other of these two lines. For long ages all the civilizations grew and developed along monarchist lines, upon lines of absolute monarchy, and in every monarchy and dynasty we have watched, as if it were a necessary process, efficiency and energy give way to pomp, indolence, and decay, and finally succumb to some fresher lineage from the desert or the steppe. The story of the early cultivating civilizations and their temples and courts and cities bulks large in human history, but it is well to remember that the scene of that story was never more than a very small part of the land surface of the globe. Over the greater part of the earth until quite recently, until the last two thousand years, the hardier, less numerous tribal peoples of forest and parkland and the nomadic peoples of the seasonal grasslands maintained and developed their own ways of life.

The primitive civilizations were, we may say, "communities of obedience" ; obedience to god-kings or kings under gods was their cement; the nomadic tendency on the other hand has always been towards a different type of association which we shall here call a "community of will." In a wandering, fighting community the individual must be at once self reliant and disciplined. The chiefs of such communities must be chiefs who are followed, not masters who compel. This community of will is traceable throughout the entire history of mankind; everywhere we find the original disposition of all the nomads alike, Nordic, Semitic, or Mongolian, was individually more willing and more erect than that of the settled folk. The Nordic peoples came into Italy and Greece under leader kings; they did not bring any systematic temple cults with them, they found such things in the conquered lands and adapted as they adopted them. The Greeks and Latins lapsed very easily again into republics, and so did the Aryans in India. There was a tradition of election also in the early Frankish and German kingdoms though the decision was usually taken between one or other members of a royal caste or family. The early Caliphs were elected, the Judges of Israel and the "kings" of Carthage and Tyre were elected, and so was the Great Khan of the Mongols until Kublai became a Chinese monarch. Equally constant in the settled land do we find the opposite idea, the idea of a non-elective divinity in kings and of their natural and inherent right to rule.As our history has developed we have noted the appearance of new and complicating elements in the story of human societies ; we have seen that nomad turned go-between, the trader, appear, and we have noted the growing importance of shipping in the world. It seems as inevitable that voyaging should make men free in their minds as that settlement within a narrow horizon should make men timid and servile.But in spite of all such complications, the broad antagonism between the method of obedience and the method of will runs through history down into our own times. To this day their reconciliation is incomplete.

Civilization even in its most servile forms has always offered much that is enormously attractive, convenient, and congenial to mankind; but something restless and untamed in our race has striven continually to convert civilization from its original reliance upon unparticipating obedience into a community of participating wills. And to the lurking nomadism in our blood, and particularly in the blood of monarchs and aristocracies, we must ascribe also that incessant urgency towards a wider range that forces every state to extend its boundaries if it can, and to spread its interests to the ends of the earth. The power of nomadic restlessness that tends to bring all the earth under one rule, seems to be identical with the spirit that makes most of us chafe under direction and restraint, and seek to participate in whatever government we tolerate. And this natural, this temperamental struggle of mankind to reconcile civilization with freedom has been kept alive age after age by the military and political impotence of every "community of obedience" that has ever existed. Obedience, once men are broken to it, can be easily captured and transferred; witness the passive rôle of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, the original and typical lands of submission, the "cradles of civilization," as they have passed from one lordship to another. A servile civilization is a standing invitation to predatory free men. But on the other hand a "community of will" necessitates a fusion of intractable materials; it is a far harder community to bring about, and still more difficult to maintain. The story of Alexander the Great displays the community of will of the Macedonian captains gradually dissolving before his demand that they should worship him. The incident of the murder of Clitus is quite typical of the struggle between the free and the servile tradition that went on whenever a new conqueror from the open lands and the open air found himself installed in the palace of an ancient monarchy.

In the case of the Roman Republic, history tells of the first big community of will in the world's history, the first free community much larger than a city, and how it weakened with growth and spent itself upon success until at last it gave way to a monarchy of the ancient type, and decayed swiftly into one of the feeblest communities of servitude that ever collapsed before a handful of invaders. We have given some attention in this book to the factors in that decay, be-cause they are of primary importance in human history. One of the most evident was the want of any wide organization of education to base the ordinary citizens' minds upon the idea of service and obligation to the republic, to keep them willing, that is; another was the absence of any medium of general information to keep their activities in harmony, to enable them to will as one body. The community of will is limited in size by the limitations set upon the possibilities of a community of knowledge. The concentration of property in a few hands and the replacement of free workers by slaves were rendered possible by the decay of public spirit and the confusion of the public intelligence that resulted from these limitations. There was, moreover, no efficient religious idea behind the Roman state; the dark Etruscan liver-peering cult of Rome was as little adapted to the political needs of a great community as the very similar Shamanism of the Mongols. It is in the fact that both Christianity and Islam, in their distinctive ways, did at least promise to supply, for the first time in human experience, this patent gap in the Roman republican system as well as in the nomadic system, to give a common moral education for a mass of people, and to supply them with a common history of the past and a common idea of a human purpose and destiny, that their enormous historical importance lies. Aristotle, as we have noted, had set a limit to the ideal community of a few thousand citizens, because he could not conceive how a larger multitude could be held together by a common idea. He had had no experience of any sort of education beyond the tutorial methods of his time. Greek education was almost purely viva-voce education ; it could reach there-fore only to a limited aristocracy. Both the Christian church and Nam demonstrated the unsoundness of Aristotle's limitation. We may think they did their task of education in their vast fields of opportunity crudely or badly, but the point of interest to us is that they did it at all. Both sustained almost world wide propagandas of idea and inspiration. Both relied successfully upon the power of the written word to link great multitudes of diverse men together in common enterprises. By the eleventh century, as we have seen, the idea of Christendom had been imposed upon all the vast warring miscellany of the smashed and pulverized Western empire, and upon Europe far beyond its limits, as a uniting and inspiring idea. It had made a shallow but effective community of will over an unprecedented area and out of an unprecedented multitude of human beings. Only one other thing at all like this had ever happened to any great section of mankind before, and that was the idea of a community of good behaviour that the literati had spread throughout China.

The Catholic Church provided what the Roman Republic had lacked, a system of popular teaching, a number of universities and methods of intellectual intercommunication. By this achievement it opened the way to the new possibilities of human government that now became apparent in this Outline, possibilities that are still being apprehended and worked out in the world in which we are living, Hitherto the government of states had been either authoritative, under some uncriticized and unchallenged combination of priest and monarch, or it had been a democracy, uneducated and uninformed, degenerating with any considerable increase of size, as Rome and, Athens did, into a mere rule by mob and politician. But by the thirteenth century the first intimations had already dawned of an ideal of government which is still making its way to realization, the modern ideal, the ideal of a world-wide educational government, in which the ordinary man is neither the slave of an absolute monarch nor of a demagogue-ruled state, but an informed, inspired, and consulted part of his community. It is upon the word educational that stress must be laid, and upon the idea that information must precede consultation. It is in the practical realization of this idea that education is a collective function and not a private affair that one essential distinction of the "modern state" from any of its precursors lies. The modern citizen, men are coming to realize, must be in-formed first and then consulted. Before he can vote he must hear the evidence; before he can decide he must know. It is not by setting up polling booths, but by setting up schools and making literature and knowledge and news universally accessible that the way is opened from servitude and confusion to that willingly co-operative state which is the modern ideal. Votes in themselves are worthless things. Men had votes in Italy in the time of the Gracchi. Their votes did not help them. Until a man has education, a vote is a useless and dangerous thing for him to possess. The ideal community towards which we move is not a community of will simply; it is a community of knowledge and will, replacing a community of faith and obedience. Education is the adapter which will make the nomadic spirit of freedom and self-reliance compatible with the cooperations and wealth and security of civilization.

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