The Civilization Myth

As I’ve previously noted, the late author Leonard Shlain has written several insightful books that examine how literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. I was especially impressed by his analysis of the impact of the alphabet. I wrote a letter to the Financial Times in response to historian Josephine Quinn’s essay The Civilization Myth, which also identified the revolutionary impact of adopting the alphabet on Western culture:

… the arrival of the alphabet was more revolutionary than it may sound. It is apparently more natural for humans to record syllables than individual sounds…Reading and writing in one’s own spoken tongue may seem natural today, especially to English speakers. But for many it is a relatively recent choice, and in antiquity it was unusual…Literacy was a niche skill, learnt with great labor and only by scribes, until the inventors of the alphabet devised a neat trick. Each of their “letters” was originally a little picture, signalling for them the first sound of the word for the item depicted. So the sign for “a” was the head of a bull, “alef” in the Levantine language, “b” was a schematic house or “bet”, and so on. Because the signs represented sounds, not syllables, there were far fewer of them. And you didn’t actually have to learn them anyway: you just needed to know the language, and the trick.

The myth of civilizations

Quinn couched these comments in the broader context of superficially pluralistic “myth of civilization”, where Putin sees Russia as an “original civilization-state”; Chinese premier Xi Jinping has launched a new Global Civilization Initiative, to celebrate the world’s “unique and long civilizations . . . transcending time and space”. Meanwhile

Everyone is worried about the west. For some it is under attack, from refugees, terrorists or wokery. For others the west is itself the problem, forever imposing its own values as a universal good. But no one is sure what it actually is — or rather, where it stops.

She takes issue with scholars who promote the idea of distinct civilizations, “Western,” “Orthodox,” and “Islamic,” with these having roots in the ancient world of Greek and Roman civilizations.

Civilizational thinking of this kind depends on an idea of separate cultures growing like individual trees in a forest, with their own roots and branches distinct from those of their neighbors. They emerge, flourish and decline, and they do so largely alone.

The truth, Quinn argues, is that this view of distinct civilizations is “a modern confection, invented by 19th-century scholars to emphasize the superiority of their own nations and the justice of their empires.”

She sees the interaction between cultures as a critical driver of human social development:

Local and regional cultures come and go, but they are created and sustained by interaction. The encounters involved don’t have to be friendly. But it is those connections that drive historical change, from the boats that brought the African donkey and the Eurasian wheel to the Aegean in the third millennium BCE to the ships equipped with the Chinese compass that brought Europeans to the Americas 4,000 years later, to conquer them with Chinese gunpowder.

Angry White Men

Quinn concludes her essay by debunking the anti-immigration, white nationalism of the emerging authoritarians:

First promoted by the French activist Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, the theory that the white or indigenous European population is being replaced by immigrants in a form of reverse-colonisation is now a staple of rightwing conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and mass shooters around the world. This poisonous rhetoric depends heavily on the idea of a distinct civilization — French, British, western or white — that is under threat from different and alien cultures and especially from their children.

But it’s the idea of civilization itself that is the real problem, and in particular the notion that it is a zero-sum game, with higher cultures under threat from migrant, fecund foreign values. There has never been a pure western culture that is now under threat of pollution. No single people is an island, unless they’ve been there for a very long time and haven’t invented boats. And that’s a good thing: without new relationships between different people exchanging unfamiliar ideas, nothing much would ever happen at all.

Letter to the Editor

My one complaint with the FT is that the sub-editor who chose the title for my letter misinterprets Shlain. Literacy in the ancient world (the arrival of the alphabet) is precisely NOT like the internet for us. Better would be a title like ‘Rewiring brains for a return to feminine values.’

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

The top letter (splashed across the editorial page) was from John Azarias, of Paddington, NSW, Australia. He wrote:

Classical Greece will survive the relativists of the 21st century

I refer to Professor Josephine Quinn’s thought-provoking article in the FT’s weekend edition (“The civilization myth”, The Weekend Essay, Life & Arts, February 3).

Setting classical Greeks on a pedestal, as western Europeans did in the 19th century, is as wrong as reducing them to just any other civilization, as some early 21st century westerners seem to be doing.

Most civilizations have their moment of efflorescence. They may have absorbed foreign influences, but their particular contribution is to transmute those into something brilliant, exceptional and uniquely theirs.

In the case of the classical Greeks, one could argue that their major innovation was to develop conceptual frameworks around other peoples’ inventions. They introduced political and aesthetic theory, the philosophical and scientific method, grammatical and syntactical categories — all essentially principles of governance. Doing that well is very hard, and requires high levels of imagination and intellectual effort.

It is precisely this quantum, or “meta”, leap into governance that was the essence of Greek achievement. It has fascinated, and enriched, countless cultures over the past 2,000 years.

I would hazard a guess that the classical Greeks will survive even the relativism of some early 21st-century westerners.

Another follow-up email in the Weekend FT of Feb 24

Plaudits for piece tack­ling the civil­isa­tion myth

All credit to Pro­fessor Josephine Quinn (Life & Arts, Feb­ru­ary 3) for tack­ling the civil­isa­tion myth. Human know­ledge has exploded since Ancient Greece. The term “west” in this con­text is not geo­graphic. Much of Morocco is west of “west­ern” European cap­it­als. Our her­it­age has absorbed influ­ences from Phoen­i­cians, Greeks, Romans, Ber­bers, Nubi­ans, Bedouin, Copts, Jews and Arabs. Indeed, reima­gine our cur­rent tech­no­logy if math­em­at­ics were lim­ited to Roman numer­als. The concept of zero, decim­als and algebra taught in the House of Wis­dom in Bagh­dad in the 9th cen­tury did not trans­fer to Europe until the 12th. Des­pite sci­entific dis­cov­er­ies, the enlight­en­ment and the indus­trial revolu­tion, Europe’s upper classes remained fix­ated on clas­sical learn­ing, the allure of the Grand Tour only fad­ing in the late 18th cen­tury.

A greater appre­ci­ation of sci­ence, maths and engin­eer­ing at the highest levels of our soci­ety could tem­per mis­guided for­eign policies and boost eco­nom­ies that are cur­rently lim­ited by their overzeal­ous pro­mo­tion of the mer­its of rhet­oric based on a myth­ical link to selec­ted parts of the ancient world.

Dr John War­ren

Ipswich, Suf­folk, UK

Leave a comment
Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>