As an abstract idea, civilisation is not very easy to pin down, but civilisations as historical facts are easier to discuss. Even when historians disagree about how many there have been, or whether a particular candidate should be included in the list, or on many other questions, there is a list of civilisations usually accepted as such by virtually all serious students — those of ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt are on it and so are those of China, and of classical Greece and Rome, to name only some obvious instances. In naming them (or others) historians pick out major traditions within which human life went on across the centuries in ways unlike those of other traditions and often growing more unlike them as time passed. Because civilisations build up elaborate social organisation, permit massive concentrations of labour, devise writings which make the accommodation and exploitation of mental capital much easier and do many other things, they generate in time a cultural potential which cannot exist outside them. They thus make human differentiation yet more marked. Societies cradled by civilisations long continued to grow more diversified. For the whole of historical times the era of civilisations—people have thus had a much greater chance of living lives strikingly different from those of most other human beings than had their prehistoric ancestors. It might almost be said that with civilisation appears the first chance of a human being living a truly individual life.
Yet civilisations have identities. Usually, the societies which are their subdivisions, though distinct, look similar in their institutions, both social and political. They often share some generally accepted style or technology, and always many values and beliefs. Of course, within the same civilisation people may speak different dialects and languages, worship different local gods, obey different (and competing) rulers and wear different clothes. Yet they have in common things which they do not share with people in other civilisations. Frequently, one of these is a special way of looking at authority and the cosmos. Civilisations usually express their agreement about such matters in myths or religious structures, bodies of inherited images and metaphors. Until our own day, all civilisation has had some sort of ordered religious belief at its core. Such beliefs are often among the most important ties holding them together. Shared assumptions lie at the heart of a civilisation. Consequently, the differences between civilisations are the outstanding evidence that people are capable of living in very different ways. Such differences go very deep indeed. They are not just a matter of how you dress and what you eat, but about what you think eating means, about the way you conceive the natural world about you and the stars above you, about what you owe to your rulers, your slaves and servants, your community, your family and yourself. They are about faith and myth, and faiths and myths profoundly divide and differentiate human beings.
For most of the last five thousand years there have been several distinct civilisations living in the same world but apart, side by side. Until very recent times, there was often not much interplay between many of them. Even when in direct geographical contact, or locked in open conflict, they seem always to have been separated by invisible membranes which, though permeable enough to permit some cross-fertilisation, have proved immensely tough and enduring. Civilisations have co-existed for centuries, even sharing land frontiers, but still passing little to one another which led to any essential change in either. Their own unique natures remained intact. Sometimes, of course, even the simplest communication between them was lacking and they had no chance at all of learning from one another. The civilisations of South and Central America grew, matured and decayed, untouched for centuries by anything from outside their hemisphere, and, often, by anything outside their mountain or rain-forest fastnesses. It is possible that Chinese civilisation would have had a big effect on the Incas had it reached them: but it just could not get across the Pacific to pass on what it had to offer. Even when there was some intercommunication, it did not always lead to significant exchanges. For about four hundred years, from about 200 BC to AD 200, China was ruled by the Han emperors, one or two of whom may have had some diplomatic contact with imperial Rome, but that could not be described as a significant cultural link. China and Rome never underwent any real cross-fertilisation. Nor did China pass much directly to medieval Christendom; a trickle of trade and the reports of a few travellers do not really amount to very much. The technological knowledge from China which may have been taken up by Europeans, can only have come to the west via intermediaries. To the nearby islands of Japan, on the other hand, China could deliver direct a certain view of the state and family, a calligraphy, and an ethical teaching. Thus there appeared a Japanese civilisation, clearly related to that of China (though, once established, soon distinct and assertively independent).
One way of measuring how much richer and more varied human life became as the centuries go by is provided by very simple, everyday objects. Wheelbarrows do much the same sort of job in countries all round the world. Once we have used the word we have a fairly clear impression of what sort of tool is referred to. Yet some wheelbarrows are very unlike others. The kind of wheelbarrow the Chinese have used for thousands of years looks very different from its European equivalent. Though for many purposes mechanically more efficient (the wheel is in a different place and takes more of the load’s weight off the arms of the man pushing it than does that of the European model), it remains confined to one part of the world. It is a local answer to a universal problem; the same technical job does not always have to be done in the same way. Even within a single country such as England spades come in many shapes and sizes. All spades are used for digging; but different local materials, different craft traditions and different soils have led to widely varying designs. Weapons are another kind of tool; a twelfth-century crusader’s sword was quite different from that of the Saracen he fought, as an old story about Richard Lion-Heart trying to cut silk relates. The fine blade of his great opponent, Saladin, did the job much better than his heavy weapon. Both swords, though, were utterly unlike those later produced by the great sword-making artists of Japan.
Similarly, buildings have always had to do much the same jobs; they were meant to shelter, protect or impress. Architecture is the most utilitarian of all arts, yet it long varied widely from country to country and even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The availability of certain materials is one explanation. The presence of skills and experience is another. At that point, though, we come back to the human and traditional element, the selectivity of a particular culture. Men are not only restricted by materials; they also take account of tradition and models, whether by following or rejecting them. Salisbury Cathedral, Aurungzebe’s mosque at Lahore and the Meiji shrine at Tokyo are all religious buildings, but they are utterly unlike one another except in the implicit respect their builders showed for the laws of physics. True, they are all places of public resort, but that takes us no great distance. It is not the similarities, but the differences, between what goes on in a Protestant American church, a Nigerian mosque, or a Buddhist temple which are the most important explanations of differing architectural form. Even within the limited class of Christian religious buildings, attitudes changed across the centuries so that, for instance, it has been at some times and places virtually impossible to think of building a church except in one prevailing style (say, imitation Gothic), whatever secular buildings in the same society might look like.
Clothes, too, have long shown social differences. The human body is much the same the world round, give or take a few marked differences of skin colour, stature and distribution of hair and fat. But because climate, materials and accumulated skills have long varied from place to place and from time to time, different peoples have dressed very differently. One need not go to the extremes of Eskimos and Bantu for examples; over much of China cold winters and a shortage of cheap domestic fuel led to the adoption of the padded cotton clothing which has survived into the era of central heating, while Laplanders, on the other hand, dealt with their climate by wearing the skins of animals.
For almost the whole of history, then, clothes have been signs of group membership. The barbarian dress of the first Europeans to go to Japan fascinated Japanese artists, who recorded it in the first of a long series of sketches and paintings which went on being made for three centuries or so. The line begins with Portuguese gentlemen and their attendants painted on screens, and finishes with sketches of Commodore Perry’s officers and their accoutrements. Clothes also signal group differences within societies. The sari is worn in different ways in different parts of India. Even today, some Christian clergymen set themselves apart from other men by wearing cassocks, dark suits and clerical collars. Kilts, kimonos and the kente of West Africa, trousers, breeches and dhotis; uniforms and academic robes, top hats and spats have long made vivid the divisions of mankind. At a very deep level language itself divides men and makes them different. It is not just that grammatical structures, vowel sounds, accents vary enormously. The differences of language go deeper than these. They literally make (or fail to make) some thoughts possible. As anyone who has tried to translate poetry has probably found out, in some languages we cannot find exact representations of shades of thought we wish to express or structures which have the force of those with which we are familiar.
We have long taken this huge variety for granted. Our museums, libraries and books of reference are crammed with evidence of it. Tourist agencies exploit it: we pay to go to remote parts of the world to see how different they are from what we know. But why do we more and more avidly seek what is different? Why do we cherish and savour human variety? Perhaps because it is in danger as never before. An interesting cultural change is now beginning to appear right round the world. A new uniformity of human experience is in the making, apparently universal in scope. The world has recently—perhaps even suddenly—begun to seem much less varied, less differentiated, less picturesque, more bland, and perhaps a little more grey. ‘Recently’ and ‘suddenly’ are historical shorthand. The last century or so, in which this can be detected, is only recent or sudden by comparison with thousands of years of civilised life during which there was little to check currents moving towards diversification. It has only become too obvious a to be ignored in the last two or three decades—when, incidentally, it became much more rapid. This may be why we have to begun to value diversity more in those same few decades.
The simplest explanation is technological. If machines are to be efficient, there is little scope except in their detailed decoration for the preservation of traditional style or material. In consequence, a motor car looks much like any other motor car the world over, a ship is like a ship, an aeroplane like an aeroplane. What is more, a common technology standardises much else. Different routines and new patterns of work follow the arrival of new machines in a peasant economy, or of air-conditioning in a hot climate, or of cheap hydroelectrical power in a country poor in fossil fuels. Ballpoint pens, carbon paper and typewriters have all changed communication and the telephone does so even faster. Communications technology, indeed, makes the point most clearly. First writing and then printing helped to standardise forms, but recent innovations (particularly since the onset of satellites) have disrupted settled ways and traditions and imposed standard patterns much more suddenly and radically. They have reinforced the power of governments, have educated taste while tending to homogenise it, have disseminated new desires and ideas. More people now come to share similar impressions more rapidly than ever before. Even if new ideas make for change, moreover, it is often change in a common direction. Advertisement hoardings, transistor radios and cinemas have revolutionised men’s sense of what is possible. All over the world, they have changed aspirations and expectations. Yet they have increasingly directed them towards the same goals. Television has not yet had quite the same impact outside Europe and North America, but it is likely to have it in time. Looking back, it may be that the day when the first set came to an Anatolian or Iraqi village will be seen to have heralded far more rapid change for that community than the arrival there of the first iron tool, whenever that happened, thousands of years ago.
It is easy to underrate such changes. They sometimes creep up on us unnoticed. Sometimes they are denied. To misunderstand one another is the fate of men, and there are plentiful grounds for misunderstanding in language and culture to remind us that men and their societies are still very different. So they are, of course. It is wholly reasonable to point out that uniformity does not yet go very deep; life in an African village is not much like that in Nether Stowey. Does not Islam separate the Arab world much more from the Christian than they are brought together by the motor cars so prominent in both? Are not women treated differently in Bombay, Borneo and Bournemouth? Of course, the answers to such questions must be ‘yes’. But that does not mean that long-distinct cultures may not now be turning or beginning to turn on to converging courses, however vast the present gaps between them. Even if many material changes of the last few decades may well not be more than superficial, some of them already betoken transformations at much deeper levels, disturbing fundamental assumptions.
Trivial facts are often the best hints to what is going on. Let us stick to clothes. In no civilised society do people always choose all their clothes merely because they are useful, comfortable or cheap. Garments also symbolise; they are charged with messages about their wearers. Seen in this light, it is at least odd, at first sight, that the shoes, suit, shirt and tie worn by so many twentieth-century western city-dwellers in a very different climate, should have become the daily wear of thousands in modern Africa and Asia. What is the message this conveys? It is not easy to see why African women should want to wear the underwear European and North American women buy in Marks and Spencer, the Galeries Lafayette, or Macy’s instead of their traditional garb. Perhaps a Japanese businessman finds his Savile Row suit more convenient than the traditional robe of a gentleman in his country, but why should the Chinese of Hong Kong and Macao put on robes derived from those of medieval European clergy for the academic ceremonies of their universities? What is an official of the Nigerian parliament doing clad in the wig of an eighteenth-century Englishman? Armed forces in non-western countries prompt similar questions. The kepi survives in former French Africa. Like the Sam Browne belt elsewhere, this is probably a direct inheritance of recent colonial rule. Yet when the new post-colonial states set up their armies, they did not need sheepishly to follow the models of older nations. Their generals put on epaulettes, nevertheless, because Europeans wore them. The more dashing among post-colonial armies even adopted the beret, symbol of some crack units among the victorious armies of the Second World War, and a few, startlingly, took to kilts and glengarries.
Ceremonial occasions everywhere seem to call for unusual plumage, but that does not explain why it should be imported. It is at first sight hard to see why new nations do not turn more often to their own traditions in looking for it. African governments, for example, could, if they had wished to do so, have chosen to clothe their academic sages in the manner of witchdoctors or their soldiers in the leopard and lion skins of their own legendary heroes and warriors. But university ceremonies in Africa are usually carried out in western garb and even for dress parades African soldiers stick to uniforms of western cut (in contrast, the old imperial nations often enthusiastically maintained a version of local forms of dress when they put their subjects into uniform, as many an Indian or French colonial regiment showed). As the adoption of the bearskin by the British footguards after Waterloo (where the French Guard wore it) shows, an adoption of exotic dress is, surely, an act of homage. Few newly independent countries have failed to pay such homage to the western world in one form or another. India, perhaps, is one of the most conspicuous exceptions, but even India’s soldiers tend to stick to western models, to the extent of maintaining only the Indian military dresses which had been taken up by the British. The adoption of the symbols of a cultural tradition born and fostered elsewhere is a token, however disguised and reluctant, of admiration and respect—and it is far from being a new phenomenon.
Monomania can make such unconscious homage clearly apparent. Thus ‘Field-Marshal’ Amin promoted himself to a European rank, and solemnly conferred on himself a ‘VC’—a distinction literally meaningless except against the background of a centuries-old western tradition of military honours. A more blatant example is that of the former ‘Emperor’ of Central Africa, Bokassa. Imperator was originally a Roman military title. Various European languages later derived from it their words for a very superior sort of ruler. Bokassa took both the title and its trappings by derivation, drawing deliberately upon the imperial style with which he was most familiar the French. His coronation robes were modelled on those of the first Napoleon. He wore his crown like a medieval European king and carried in his hands a sceptre, the symbol of authority put in the hands of King David in the pictures of him which decorated medieval manuscripts, and one still given to English monarchs at their coronatjons. Like all rulers, Bokassa was consciously playing a role on a stage. But he chose it from an old, exotic and non-African script, the great drama of European monarchy. Written for the European theatre, it played there with great success for a thousand years, but of Africa, past or present, it had nothing to say. If we ask why Bokassa sought his symbolism in such a source, the answer can seem banal; imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Perverse as it is, it is a claim to a share in an admired tradition, even if it is alien. It stands for something grander and more efficacious than what is locally available and so confers prestige.
Other evidence can easily be found. Since 1945, most ‘prestige’ buildings round the world have been imitations, more or less successful, of European or American models. Or there is the spread of some languages world-wide. Chinese is the language of a state containing more people in the world than any other, but your social contacts will be limited if you travel armed only with it. English, on the other hand, will eventually get you understood almost anywhere in the world, and Spanish, or even French, will answer almost as well. Or there are institutions. These speak explicitly of adopted aspirations and goals as well as of prestige. Why do new nations set up ‘universities’ which give degrees to ‘bachelors’, ‘masters’ and ‘doctors’, and organise themselves in ‘faculties’? Institutions rooted in medieval Europe surely cannot be the only or the necessary models for organising higher studies. But such ideas as ‘higher studies’ or ‘graduate’ are themselves artefacts of a particular civilisation. Their adoption registers a successful cultural implant. Similarly, the Speaker’s wig in an African parliament or that on the head of an African judge suggests respect for parliamentary democracy, or at least lip-service to it and to a tradition of jurisprudence and procedure going back to the Middle Ages—but why? These traditions are not African and it is not obvious why more pride should be shown in them than in indigenous symbols of authority.
There is likely to be more than one explanation, of course. Inertia plays a part; many former European colonies have simply found it easier to go on in the old ways. But that can hardly be the whole story. After all, many countries have eagerly rejected a colonial past which seemed embarrassing, cumbersome or awkward. Yet some seem to have chosen deliberately to keep particular links with that past alive. They found that course more attractive. Some names, slogans, aspirations, forms and institutions appeared to them to have a superior power; they commanded the respect of civilised men in a way which alternatives did not. At times, such new nations look a little like those Germanic peoples of the fifth century who gazed in amazement at the reality of the Roman world they had invaded, and settled down to having their warlords take the title of ‘Consul’, and to learn to write—and so to think—in Latin.
Such parallels can seem remote and far-fetched. Yet there are also many recent and more rounded examples of change by conscious imitation. Japan today stands in the very vanguard of modernity. Yet for centuries she locked herself away from the world, above all from Europeans. They were forbidden to enter the country, the only exceptions being a few Dutch merchants who were allowed to come on an annual visit from the East Indies and to establish themselves for trade on a little island in Nagasaki harbour, Japan’s only point of contact with the West. Apart from this, Japan was a closed society. The Portuguese who had been the first Europeans to go there were expelled in the seventeenth century, when Japan’s rulers turned on the Christian religion some of them had at first found attractive. After that, as an island community, Japan was for about two hundred years able to protect herself against intrusion. A change came only in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Japan’s modern history began. The historical can-opener was a squadron of American warships under Commodore Perry; when it sailed into Edo Bay his demands for access to the island empire could not be resisted. His guns could have devastated Edo and cut off the waterborne food the city needed. The Japanese ceded to the threat of force, though only just, and opened their country once more to trade and missionaries from the West. They had to sign ‘unequal’ treaties with foreign powers, effectively establishing a system of special extra-territorial rights for Europeans and restraints on the powers of the Japanese to regulate their own trade. The Japanese had their sovereignty over their own affairs restricted, though they were not invaded and colonised, and foreigners soon began to arrive in some numbers. They were not content to be victims, though. They did not propose simply to allow things to go on happening to them. Instead, they sought to choose from what the West had to offer so as to strengthen themselves against further pressure. The result was within a few decades a nation in many ways astonishingly ‘western’.
To change a tradition is not an easy decision. Not all Japanese were pleased or easily convinced of the need to do so. Japanese had (and still have) a strong sense of personal identification with their culture; this sustained feelings of national pride and solidarity before the challenges of the modern era surfaced. ‘Although it is not an extensive country spatially,’ wrote one Japanese of his homeland early in the nineteenth century, ‘it reigns over all quarters of the world, for it has never once changed its dynasty or its form of sovereignty. The various countries of the West correspond to the feet and legs of the body. That is why their ships come from afar to visit Japan.
India, almost completely under British rule by the middle of the nineteenth century, and China, at that moment being driven to grave concessions by the ‘barbarians’, were standing warnings that there was another side to the West. Even while the official policy was still to shut it out, some Japanese scholars had pursued knowledge of it through what was called ‘Dutch learning’—the study of books in Dutch, or translated from the Dutch, since they were the only western people officially permitted to have contact with the Japanese. They learnt about medicine, science, technology, and they wondered. The traditional assumptions about the superiority of the Chinese culture so heavily drawn upon by Japan in the past began to waver. In 1811 an official ‘Institute for the Investigation of Barbarian Books’ had been created and some of the great feudal domains established schools of western science and languages. One can sense Japan hesitating between choices. Even before Perry, some of the clans were sending young men abroad to find out more about the source of the West’s mysterious power and his own report on his mission expressed his surprise at the level of information Japanese already possessed about western countries. The West was not regarded (as in China) with contempt, even if many Japanese felt hostile to it. There were two slogans current which stood for two possible futures for Japan; Sonno joi, which meant roughly ‘Honour the emperor, expel the barbarians’, and Wakon yosai, or ‘Eastern ethics and western science’. Government policy reflected hesitation. In 1825 an imperial edict had appeared with the title ‘Don’t think twice’—it urged that the foreigner should be driven out. This was the seventeenth-century recipe; having saved Japan from Christianity then, it might work again. In 1842, though, after reports were received of the pressure being brought to bear by the British on China, an order was promulgated that foreign ships in need might be provisioned, even though individual foreigners would not be allowed to land from them. It was hard to decide which way to go.
In the later 1850s and the 1860s the debate was thrashed out, partly in civil war. Most (though not all) of Japan’s rulers agreed that some adoption of western models was needed; virtually everyone agreed about the superiority of the barbarians’ artillery, for instance. To try to shut out the West altogether would have been very hazardous. The bombardment of Kagoshima by the British Royal Navy and the destruction of forts at Shimonoseki by a combined British, American, Dutch and French expedition brought home the hopelessness of resistance. Only too clearly, as the ‘unequal’ treaties showed, Japan might be driven down the road China was already travelling, bullied and exploited by superior western power. Some urged the adoption of western values—individualism and utilitarianism, or Christian idealism. The question remained: which models and what degree of adoption? For many Japanese, moreover, it was not just a matter of regaining power, but of retaining status, equality with western nations; modernisation was to be seen as a way to the recovery of self-respect.
In the end, Japan’s rulers avoided China’s fate not just by efforts to understand the West (they sent seven ‘diplomatic-cum-study’ missions to Europe and the United States between 1860 and 1867), but by falling back on Japanese history. The ‘shogunate’ which had governed Japan since the seventeenth century had already lost prestige because of its failure to resist the western intruders. In the winter of 1867-8, it was overthrown. The emperor, for two centuries a secluded, ceremonial, almost powerless figure at Kyoto, was now brought back to Tokyo and to the centre of the constitutional stage by the opponents of the shogunate. This was the operation now commemorated as the ‘Meiji restoration’, after the name of the emperor—a boy in his teens at the time, who lived to see his country transformed before he died in 1912.
The four greatest clans now surrendered their power and lands to the emperor. Japan’s rulers had decided in favour of revolution, even though they called it a restoration and focused it on the central institution which expressed the particularism of Japanese history, the unbroken imperial line of descent from the Sun God. Imperial authority was needed to drive through the changes ahead and to turn to such a source was only possible in a culture already very much aware of its national identity. It was also a brave and clear-sighted decision, because it recognised the difficulty of what lay ahead. Many nations have sought the rewards of westernisation without counting (or expecting to pay) costs in giving up old ways. This was a conscious decision to modernise, even though it was one to modernise (if possible) under control. In whatever mattered for the recovery of real independence, Japan was to become more western. So, in the next three or four decades, Japan began to turn itself into an industrial nation-state.
The new order started with important assets in hand. Japan had achieved over the previous century or so a high level of capital accumulation because her population had not grown greatly. The traditional loyalties to emperor and family could easily be adapted to a conscious nationalism more like that of European states. Sonno Kaikotu—‘Honour the emperor over the country'—became the slogan of the samurai who were the driving force behind public policy in the early Meiji era. ‘Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule’ said an official pronouncement by the emperor almost at the outset. Literacy was already high at the end of the Tokugawa period; the traditional economy soon revealed considerable potential for growth; an obedient, hard-working labour force existed in huge numbers; old notions of national and personal pride could be harnessed without difficulty to the acquisition of new skills. One Japanese intellectual, Fukuzawa Yukichi, born of a samurai family, has left a moving account of the sailing across the Pacific of the first Japanesecrewed steamship. ‘The voyage of Kanrin-Maru was an epoch-making venture for our nation,’ he wrote, ‘every member of the crew was determined to take the ship across unassisted by a foreigner.’
Above all, there was an internal sense of the need to preserve the national identity by adaptation. Even so, the state had to do much; early Japanese industrialisation had to be stimulated in hothouse conditions, and even protection and subsidy could not easily tempt private capital away from traditional investment. Innovation on other fronts, too, had to be vigorous. Foreign experts were hired to advise the new civil service. A written constitution set up a parliament of two chambers: seeking an equivalent to the British House of Lords, the Japanese created a new peerage, too. A new civil code reflected German influence and combined protection of older Japanese custom in the management of the family, with a new emphasis on property arrangements favouring individualism and the market economy. Compulsory education, railways, universal military conscription (a startling change in a country where great pains had been taken for centuries to keep arms out of the hands of the peasants), the Gregorian calendar, newspapers (sixteen were founded in 1868) and religious toleration followed. Feudalism and the system of retainers which had kept alive the old warrior class of samurai were abandoned, and conservative rebellion was suppressed. The British helped to train a new navy (which for a long time bought its ships from British yards, too; it was only in 1905 that the Japanese laid the keel of their own first battleship). On state occasions, ladies at court began to wear the hideously unattractive garments of contemporary Europe. Japanese soldiers and sailors adopted western uniforms. It reminds one of Peter the Great’s efforts to modernise Russia in the early eighteenth century; his example was much in the minds of some Japanese (whose own example, in its turn, was to inspire other reformers elsewhere).
Copying the West, especially in superficial matters, nevertheless made some people unhappy. New currents of thought could not be kept out. Some, indeed, were eagerly taken up—notably those drawn from Samuel Smiles’s best-selling book Self-Help or from notions of what Darwin was supposed to have said about the survival of the fittest. But there were out-and-out conflicts of values, too, heady debates which revealed the incompatibility of much in Japanese thinking with the universalism implicit or explicit in western ideas. The Meiji emperor himself is said to have disliked the use in his presence of the words ‘East’ and ‘West’ to signify cultural distinctions. In the year of his death an elder statesman committed suicide in order to symbolise Japanese alarm over the advance of what he saw, perhaps farsightedly, as western ‘hedonism’. The gesture was peculiarly Japanese, but westernisation from above has always generated cultural shock, as the Islamic world was belatedly to show. Nor was it only Japanese who did not like what was happening: foreign admirers and connoisseurs of Japan often agreed. Kipling regretted ‘this wallowing in unloveliness for the sake of recognition at the hands of men’ and others deplored the loss of refinement, politeness, morals and the capacity for simple happiness which seemed to follow change.
It was not long before there was a nationalist reaction. The catalyst was the failure in 1887 of attempts to negotiate away the disadvantages imposed upon Japan by the mid-century ‘unequal’ treaties. They were not to survive much longer, for renegotiation took place successfully in 1894, and Japan recovered full control over her own tariffs in 1911. But beyond this, antipathy to westernisation à outrance was widespread. Conservative misgivings tended to express themselves indirectly and cautiously rather than in rejecting change altogether; they neither stopped the Japanese reformers, nor seem to have blurred their very clear sense of just how far they needed to go. The men who presided over the first thirty or forty years of Japanese modernisation were largely drawn from the same domain lands of the old ruling class; they formed a very cohesive group. Such a continuity of elites made the management of change easier. They knew what they wanted: independence of foreigners. Foreign investment, for example, was by and large kept out of industrialisation; it was a corollary of this that the state should play a large part in it, because substantial investment resources in private hands were lacking. That meant heavy taxation; the discipline of Japan’s traditional society made its imposition possible. The Japanese underwent controlled westernisation, therefore, and much was deliberately left untouched.
So, for a long time, many sides of Japanese life looked
unchanged—as some things still do. A traditional role for women, established
patterns of education for children, the Confucian belief in filial piety,
willingness to sacrifice self to the community—all lived on. They can still
give an impression that Japan is a society resting on values many of which
remain alien to those of the West. Hence, in part, the lack of understanding
with which many western statesmen strove to grapple with the warrior Japan of
the 1930s and 1940s. Though there was much that was easily comprehensible in
Japanese imperialism, there was also something else, something harder to decode
which did not seem to go with the rationality of large-scale capitalism or the
diplomats in top-hats and morning coats. Yet this should not have been so
surprising; even in the 1930s, most urban Japanese were no more than a
generation removed from the traditional patterns of rural life, and fishermen
and peasants were still the most numerous occupational groups. How far change
actually went and whether it had been, in the end, controlled and demarcated as
the Meiji reformers hoped, is not, though, in question here. What matters for
our present purpose is that what had been done was done by conscious imitation
of the West. This was what had made Japan’s remarkable military prowess
The decision of the Meiji statesmen is an outstanding mark of the attractiveness and seductiveness of much of western civilisation to non-western societies—an attraction and seductiveness all the stronger because it included a promise to find a way to resist the West’s power. That promise has been sensed by many great reformers in other traditional societies over the last two or three centuries. A history of them could begin on the fringes of Europe with Peter the Great of Russia. He was often to be evoked as an example by later non-western modernisers, though it is doubtful whether they understood much of what he actually did. Like that of Frederick the Great of Prussia (another much cited exemplar), Peter’s symbolic achievement was a stimulus to those who learnt about him, often from western books and teachers. From him the line runs through nineteenth-century reformers like Mehemet Ali of Egypt, to Kemal Atatürk in twentieth-century Turkey and on to every ‘Third World’ leader who sets his sights on nation-building, democracy, industrialisation or anything else in the western mail-order catalogue of civilised living.
Nonetheless, conscious imitation is neither now, nor has it always been, the most important force disseminating the style, ideas and assumptions of western civilisation. The impact of western civilisation on the non-western world is much more complicated and ambiguous than that, as some facts already cited suggest. It is virtually impossible to measure objectively how far it has gone. It is not even true that the changes coming from the West have only helped to make people more alike. On the contrary, within nonwestern societies the onset of change has often accentuated existing contrasts or created new ones. Economic disparities which did not exist in earlier times have opened up sharply because of things which happened in the West. The life of a medieval European was probably much like that of his Asian contemporary in calorie-intake or buying power. This is certainly no longer true of their modern descendants. Attempts to offset the standardising culture of the West have sometimes led to new political fragmentation and polarisation too. Dramatic instances of outright and violent resistance to the onset of modernisation, particularly in Islamic countries, have caught the headlines increasingly in the last few years.
This underlines the unsurprising truth that the interaction of civilisations is a vast and complicated business. All we can do is to try to recognise trends. Even in the twentieth century, after all, when governments have great resources at their disposal, conscious change in social and cultural institutions is very difficult. For both good and evil, human variety is everywhere well buttressed and protected by inertia. The Indian republic’s constitution enshrines the respectable western platitudes of our era—democracy, secularism, republicanism—which have won lip-service the world round. Nonetheless, though India, so far as parliamentary and political history goes, has a better track record than many new nations, it still remains very hard to believe that, for most Hindus, the existence of caste is not just as important a consideration in daily life as their formal equality before the law. The problem of the untouchable has not gone away because of a constitutional provision (though there may be grounds for believing it will be swept away by the blind forces of economic and technological change). Indian civil servants still act on what astrologers say about auspicious days (for that matter, the very timing of the moment of Independence in 1947 itself took account of it), and Mrs Gandhi was said to consult them about elections. Further, while the Indian state is, undoubtedly, formally secular, Indian society is not: cows are not treated the same way in Benares as in Brittany. The support given by inertia to old forms can also be seen in much more trivial examples, some so familiar that they are easily overlooked. Even within the same zone of civilisation, Englishmen and Frenchmen manipulate knife and fork in a different way; but they both use knives and forks, whereas most Indians, including many educated men and women, prefer their fingers. Nor has chewing-gum quite replaced betel-nut in India. As for rituals and habits connected with sexual behaviour, these remain enormously diverse right round the world.
Nonetheless, when all has been said that can be said about the survival of variety, it is more a matter of survival than of creation. Not enough new differences are appearing within our world to persuade me that human behaviour is growing more diverse and human beings less alike. The tendency of the last hundred thousand years seems to be petering out. However we exactly measure the change, we are well into a discernibly new and unique phase of history. For the first time there is a trend towards a greater cultural homogeneity than has ever before seemed possible. Traditional and local ways are giving ground, often without recognising it, before tides of global scope. For the last few centuries, civilisations have been drawn more and more into direct contact with one another and their history has gradually become world history. Communications have never before transmitted the reverberations of events so rapidly and sensitively from one side of the globe to the other. The rhythm and pace of history are not only now much faster than a century ago but are shared by many more. Isolation is now impossible. This is the main reason why the world is now growing less strange, somewhat less exciting, a little less diverse.
The explanation of this appears to me to lie in the history of the West, and at more than one level. To tie together signs of growing material uniformity round the world and the huge economic and technological influence of the West cannot be the whole story. That connexion obscures a deeper and more important change, a growing world-wide acceptance of certain ideas and institutions. But these, too, are drawn from western civilisation. In fact, it has become exactly what so many in the nineteenth century believed it ought to become: the first world civilisation. That mankind might slowly grow more alike was first recognised, though only indirectly and imprecisely, by Europeans. The very idea of civilisation, of course, is a European idea, a cultural artefact which helps to illuminate our data—though on the basis of certain European assumptions. To see something as a civilisation is a selective, orientating act, a way of ordering and managing history. Among the first to go beyond religion as a way to do that were men who can now be recognised as pioneering figures of the discipline of sociology. Several of them tried to fathom the general processes of history. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Turgot and Condorcet sketched stages through which they assumed every society evolved. The Scottish students of the ‘natural history’ of man who were their contemporaries had similar schemes in their minds. They did not minimise the obvious differences between societies, but were more interested in what they saw as common patterns of evolution. In the nineteenth century Auguste Comte (the inventor of the word ‘sociology’) set out at enormous length the evidence and arguments for his view that all societies went through similar phases of organisation which reflected distinct stages in the growth of the power of reason in them. Karl Marx took a different tack, but still offered a general interpretation of historical development, this time as a projection of what he believed to be European economic experience. Like Comte, he seems to have thought that changes which were necessary (in the philosophic sense) would come about in actuality by the operation of something like natural laws which operated everywhere in the world, however long circumstances might delay their unrolling in any particular place.
None of these thinkers recognised that their own visions
and theories were not discoveries of universal laws but recognitions of the
power of their own civilisation to impose itself on others. History seemed to
point one way only because all round the world the European or western vision of
the world and history, of the laws of nature and society, looked increasingly
likely to displace other conceptions and values. The system by which we reckon
time in years is a good example. Though some important alternatives are still in
use (the Islamic, for instance) the western chronology has now spread almost
world-wide. Yet it encapsulates a whole world view and a periodisation resting
on Christian assumptions; why should so much of the rest of the world take up a
calendar so soaked in alien categories of thought? It can hardly be because
Christian dogma is taken as true. Evidently, a successful civilisation’s ideas
have enormous power. They impose new symbols, erase old differences, as well as
making possible (and encouraging) the formal creation of new institutional
arrangements which gradually ease men into new shared paths. And western
civilisation has been doing all these things in the world for some centuries. It
has been the major world agent of cultural change from the beginning of modern
times. Most of what we now think of as traditional Ethiopian pictorial art, for
instance, only goes back to the adoption of European models from Portuguese
visitors in the sixteenth century. Chinoiserie or the cult of the Japanese print
by Impressionists are mere episodes and fashions in the history of western art,
while Indian and Japanese artists now widely adopt western styles.
Western influence can be seen at its most paradoxical in the use of western ideas and mythologies as defences against the same West which spawned them. Bodies like the United Nations Organisation or the Organisation of African Unity are sometimes seen as defences against the West but they also express its ideological and institutional dominance. The idea of such international organisations, like the idea of the state itself, originated within western civilisation. The creation of such bodies shows both the prestige of western ideas and their insinuating strength. Africans and Asians do not merely wear uniforms like those of Europeans and Americans; they have also taken up the practice of appealing to democracy, nationalism, human rights and all the rest of western political mythology.
Such dependence can go very deep. Pan-Africanism and African unity are ideas which make no sense without a pre-existing concept of Africa. But Africa is a western idea, a geographical notion originating in the thinking of Greece and Rome, and fully defined only in the modern era. Until Europeans took the idea to Africa, no African knew that he lived in a continent which could helpfully be thought of as a whole. No African knew he was an African, until his European schoolmaster told him so. Of course, this is not to say that modern Africa is just the product of Europe. Africa is the outcome of centuries of simultaneous internal development and interaction with the outside world. During those centuries, African reality powerfully and often decisively influenced the external forces which played on it. Islam was for a long time by far the most important external force shaping it; then came the new diversities added by colonial powers, but they, too, had to respond to the huge variety of the continent. Huge differences existed between, say, the British West African colonies where so much depended upon a commercial and educated native elite, and those in Central Africa or Kenya, where not only were white settlers dominant, but quite different local potentials existed. There is no need to see European influence as a deus ex machina explaining everything in modern Africa, a Prince Charming awakening a dusky Sleeping Beauty with a technological kiss. Nevertheless, specific decisive western influences have determined Africa’s history in the last two or three centuries, and in no way more profoundly than by the introduction of new ideas—among them, a vision of Africa as a single discrete whole, materially identical with a particular geographical mass, capable of discussion in general terms and perhaps a focus for loyalty.
The cant of modern politics best shows the power of western ideas. In spite of occasional exceptions and violent reactions (especially from parts of the Islamic world) it is always interesting and revealing in an international forum when delegates stand up for the rights of women—a quintessentially western cause. The lot of most women in the countries of many of the speakers is often to act as bearers of wood and drawers of water (when not attending to the relaxation of the warrior or playing other traditional roles), and most of their fellow-countrymen are quite happy that things should stay that way. If the speakers actually believe what they are saying, this only shows how complete is their surrender to alien values created by a particular civilisation at a particular time; if they do not, their hypocrisy is not only the tribute of vice to virtue, but one paid by ideological weakness to ideological strength.
Usually, of course (though not always), it is only the elites of non-western countries who talk the language of the West. Whether telling people to rally round the national flag, turn out to vote in democratic elections, or turn on home-grown exploiters in quest of a more just and equal society, they use the language of an alien world. Like the man in Moliere’s play who spoke prose all his life without knowing it, they are using words whose significance they do not know, or, at least, do not know through and through, as part of their own heritage. In using them, though, they have in a measure abandoned their own tradition, however unwilling to do that explicitly. A few years ago, I attended a conference to discuss the state of the humanities in the modern world. It struck me (though no one else seemed to think it remarkable) that the notion of the ‘humanities’ was in fact very particularly and circumstantially rooted in European culture and that it made much less sense outside that culture than within it—unless, of course, European culture was to be assumed to be, in effect, world culture. Saying this awoke some hostility. One African writer became particularly indignant. He resented the idea that much which he treasured was, in some sense, a colonial imposition, even if benevolent, that his own culture might point in very different directions from those of western letters—which had led him towards such alien conventions as the novel and to use the exotic language of Shakespeare and Milton—and that the culture of the humanities might carry moral implications often wholly at variance with the traditions of his own society. His indignation would have gladdened any Eurocentric cultural chauvinist: a victory had been won for western concepts without, somehow, my interlocutor seeing it. Yet he was, in other, more conventional and less interesting ways, very anti-western, and took care we all knew it.
It is easy to be misunderstood in such matters. People sometimes find it hard to accept that recognising a particular civilisation’s historical success in spreading its ideas does not mean you admire or approve it. You would have to do so, of course, if you held the view that the course of history alone authorises moral values, but few would now agree to that. Nor has it recently been thought easy to assert that western culture is in some way better than the alternatives on offer. Fortunately, the ‘success’ of our civilisation does not have to be discussed in such terms. It is a matter of simple historical effectiveness. Almost all the master principles and ideas now reshaping the modern world emanate from the West; they have spread round the globe and other civilisations have crumbled before them. To acknowledge that, by itself, tells us nothing about whether the outcome is good or bad, admirable or deplorable. It only registers that this is the age of the first world civilisation and it is the civilisation of the West.
‘Modern’ history can be defined as the approach march to the age dominated by the West. It can now be seen that for three or four centuries after 1500 or so, western civilisation was on the move towards world dominance. Some of the consequences have been indisputably good, some, equally indisputably, bad. Most of them cannot be assessed in such terms. Possibly there is an undiscovered moral calculus which should enable us to say whether it would have been in some sense morally better or worse had history taken some other course than the one which it actually did. I do not believe that there is, nor that history can be talked about in such simple terms. I doubt whether an abstraction so general as ‘civilisation’ can meaningfully have words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ attached to it. It remains true that western civilisation has knowingly and unknowingly forced other civilisations to concessions such as they had never before had to make to any external force. Sometimes their own identity and coherence have almost given way in the process (as men like the Ayatollahs of Iran fear). Elsewhere things may not go so far. Yet, whatever the weight of Chinese tradition in practice, 1000 million Chinese are now formally and nominally ruled in the light of principles derived from a German philosopher of the late romantic era who was striving to understand the Europe of his day with the help of the economic science created by the first modern industrial nation, Great Britain. (It is ironic that Marx often and incidentally showed deep contempt for other, non-European, cultures.) But other countries have chosen different western teachers; their politicians try to cram the complicating and proliferating economic and social problems of their own societies into such Procrustean frameworks as are provided by Mazzinian nationalism or Natural Rights. These master categories, too, remain western, exotic to their own civilisations. Only in some Islamic countries does an intransigent and wholly alien spirit of resistance seem alive.
People have already seized on some aspects of this great change. They know, for example, that much of the last three centuries is the story of a triumph of the outright power of the West. Conquest and manipulation of the world by force, rule based on might—in short, western imperialism—is, they suggest, the only real success the West has enjoyed. This is welcome doctrine in many parts of the world and congenial to those in the West who cherish or writhe under feelings of ancestral guilt. It fits and seems to explain a lot of the facts: for a time much of the world was indeed ruled directly by Europeans, and often they could have their way with much of what they did not rule directly. Like all effective historical myths, a vision of the world-historical role of the West as an especially striking and far-flung episode in the old, old tale of sin, domination and power, has some truth at its heart.
Yet it does not go far enough. What the western impact on
human history has meant is not exhausted by describing a brief era of political
and military conquest, part of the complex truth though that undoubtedly is. In
1985, western Europeans rule no more of the world than they did five centuries
ago, yet their mark (and that of those countries of European stocks planted
overseas) is still being made afresh the world round. In 1978, for the first
time, the College of Cardinals contained more non-Europeans than Europeans
(fifty-six as against fifty-five) and this reflected the success of earlier
transplantation of the Catholic Faith; so successful that now Europe is no
longer the continent containing most baptised Roman Catholics. Yet most of the
story of world Christianity is the story of a western success in spreading its
ideas. The world has not conceded so much to western values and assumptions
just because forced to do so by naked power, however big a part that played at
times; it has for centuries been responding also to much else that came from
Some have tried to make sense of the western impact by reading it in economic terms. Essentially, they say, what has happened is that one economic system, capitalism, has triumphed over others (dispute often follows about whether this process is irresistible and necessary, or whether it could have been avoided or can be amended). But even if we can agree about a definition of ‘capitalism’, it is hard if not impossible to frame one which does not include much that is to be found in the economic systems of evidently ‘non-western’ societies. Yet their seeds of capitalism (if that is what they were) evidently did not sprout with the same vigour as in a few western countries. Why not? A close and elaborate examination of historical circumstance might give an answer, but there is no need to exclude a priori the hypothesis that a peculiar western factor was available at another level than that of economic organisation. For centuries, Europeans have looked very much alike to non-Europeans in terms of their culture and civilisation, and today some countries make little distinction between free-market American and socialist Russian exploiters and aggressors. It does not seem only to be capitalism which is the feature recognised by the rest of the world as distinctive of ‘the West’.
Such over-simple views need to be recalled, if only to clear the ground a little. They leave us with the task of identifying the real nature of the western impact, and of western civilisation itself. Ahead lies a task of discovery: of what ‘the West’ is, of the nature of this powerful but mysterious entity which has had so vast an effect on the world. The word is packed with ambiguities and paradoxes. If it is to be used so widely, and covers so much, it is because it is felt to be needed, and needed to focus a complicated idea. Sometimes, its particular references and connotations are easy to grasp—in the Cold War, for instance. But that narrow usage is only a recent development and has already begun to look outdated. Many of the world’s poorer countries see ‘the West’ as, simply, the rich; they would lump Cold War East and West together and throw in Japan, too, for good measure (a recent more fashionable distinction, of course, is North/South). But such distinctions cut across colour, religion and culture, leaving defenders of western values on both sides; some Latin American countries which fall historically and culturally well within the ambit of western civilisation have been said to belong to the ‘Third World’. As for the interpretation of the West in terms of imperialism it would have to include not only one country from the Cold War’s ‘East’, Russia, but one whose racial stock is non-European, Japan. Countries seem to have been able to move into (and out of?) such categories as time passes. Yet it would be a pity to think that we were using mere Humpty-Dumpty language, meaning no more than the users wanted it to mean, when we talk about the ‘West’.
Of course, it is a misleadingly simple, slippery term. There was never one simple, monolithic ‘West’, nor did it confront other simple monolithic abstractions like the ‘East’, or ‘Asia’, or ‘Africa’. Vast dualisms of that sort get in the way of understanding historical processes in which cultures and subcultures of great specificity act and react, interplaying with one another, offering ever-new opportunities for discovery and self-discovery. Westerners, though seen as ‘white men’, ‘hairy barbarians’ (as the Chinese called them) or under any other general name, were in fact sixteenth-century Spaniards, seventeenth-century Frenchmen, nineteenth-century Scotchmen and New Englanders—and many, many other things. What they shared across the centuries was a historical role. They were all agents for the transmission of different selections from the richness of one civilisation, that of the West, to other parts of the world. For all their variety, that civilised background identifies them with the same historical process. What follows in these pages is simply a sketch of an attempt to trace the nature of that process, the emergence of the West in its history and its effects on the world, its sheer impact.
As it is in its history that western civilisation reveals itself, can be recognised and defined, enquiry has to begin with historical soundings. To expect such soundings, in an exploration on this tiny scale, to catalogue all the sources of that civilisation’s supremacy would be unrealistic. All sorts of material factors would have to be taken into account, from the availability of quantities of land for easy cultivation, to the possession of certain tools at certain junctures; from patterns of climate, to obscure facts which subtly condition birthrates. To investigate any one of them properly would be a lengthy and laborious task. Only a few of the more obvious of them can be touched on here. In men’s responses to such material forces, though, in their use of them or search for protection against them, other sets of factors come into play. They are mental, spiritual, intellectual, ideological—the whole set of ideas, concepts, assumptions with which the participants in a particular civilisation are equipped by it to face the brute data of the material world. Part of that store of ideas, too, was the growing self-awareness of western civilisation, the vision that it had of itself, its own myths of what it was and where it was going. They are to be seen operating in its history, a part of its huge, complex, flawed and ambiguous triumph, for it is surely clear by now that western civilisation gave the world, among other things, an idea of what a successful society was and a notion of a burden to be shaken off—the seeds of the destruction of the West’s own political dominance. That destruction by something it had itself given the world is ironical, but history is full of ironies. It’s not likely our vanity will remain unscathed by looking at the past. ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ said the poet; there is a triumph (of a sort) in a discarded Coca-Cola can.
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