Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Civilisation and its discontents


I found this on the net by Bernard Lewis, the leading historian of the Middle East, in a debate with that insufferable bore Edward Said: 

The Roman Empire and the medieval Islamic Empire were not conquered by more civilised peoples, they were conquered by less civilised but more vigorous peoples. But in both cases what made the conquest, with the Barbarians in Rome and the Mongols in Iraq, what made it possible was things were going badly wrong within the society so that it was no longer able to offer effective resistance.
Bernard Lewis and Romanian historian Neagu Djuvara are both 100 and both think it is inevitable that Europe will become part of the Muslim world. 

Are they right? 

And if so, is this comparable to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century? 

The Eastern Roman Empire, of course, fell to Islam many centuries later.

Dr Johnson defined the civilised world thus:
Outside the Christian and Mahometan worlds all is barbarism.
What is civilisation and what is barbarism today?

Can we use the terms?

Asking this question brings the academics running across the grass, with Olympian authority and weighty tomes, to 'deconstruct' the word civilisation. 

Long ago, after the First World War failed to trigger the workers' revolution in Germany, Marxists explained that Western civilisation was a form of false consciousness, preventing workers rebelling against their oppressors. I remember being taught something like this in history lectures at Cambridge. 

Take a bow, Dr Jay Winter, an American who has preached this stuff for decades to the future English elite, while enjoying the charms of dining on high table at a series of ancient Cambridge colleges.

Historians in the 19th century brought their unconscious assumptions to writing history - in the late 20th century academics brought others: anti-colonial, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical, feminist. 

Historians and academics in the USA and UK are now overwhelmingly on the left and even conservative ones tend to be pretty progressive on social issues. 

I, to quite a large extent, discounted this bias when I was an undergraduate, but it is very hard not to be affected when you're nineteen. 

We are rearing a generation of young people who think being a social conservative means being not only malign but also not very clever. 

I am not sure how much resistance we shall offer to the barbarians. 


  1. The amazing thing about Rome is that the fall of the empire in the West seems to have taken about 600 years! From around the late 2nd century BC right up until the end Roman civilisation seems to have been rotten beyond belief on the inside but too powerful militarily to collapse.

    It's depressing to think that the United States might follow the same trajectory. Inner putrefaction but the corpse is maintained by vast military power.

    Western Europe on the other hand has the inner putrefaction without the military power to defend itself. Unless we consider Europe to be merely part of the American Empire and therefore able to be propped up by US military might. Eastern Europe seems to be relatively healthy but maybe lacks the military power to defend itself.

    Of course another way to look at it is that Europe is the civilisation and the United States represents the barbarians at the gate. Maybe a few centuries from now the US will develop a civilisation of its own.

    Sorry, I seem to be in a bit of an apocalyptic mood this morning!

  2. Bernard Lewis and Neagu Djuvara are, of course, wrong. Reaching a certain age might be viewed by some as an accomplishment, but it does not guarantee a clear mind or sound judgement (sometimes, rather the opposite). I will hasten to add that I do not mean to say that Lewis and Djuvara have lost their marbles- I do not know either of the gentlemen personally and I would never presume to pass judgement on their mental fitness.
    The reasons for which they make those statements are their own but saying something like "everything will be all right" would draw only a big yawn instead of the attention they are getting (at least on this blog).

  3. What does the author mean by "social conservatism?" Religious indoctrination? Patriotism? Xenophobia? Male dominance? Suppression of sexuality other that that which is narrowly sanctioned within marriage? Whatever he means, I don't think that any of these things have much bearing on the continuance of civilization. Civilization will break down when the biological framework that underpins it breaks down. When agriculture collapses, for whatever reason, civilization will break down. This may come about slowly through climate change, or abruptly through nuclear war.

  4. You know what social conservatism means, it seems. It certainly includes patriotism and religious indoctrination, but I hope those things are valued as much on the left as on the right. I said that I feared that students are being taught that social conservatism is malign and a sign of low intelligence.