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Some Historical Observations on Western Civilization or Why Is Everyone Studying English These Days?

[The following is the text of a lecture given to a class of international students in Advanced ESL at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, British Columbia (now Vancouver Island University), on October 1, 2003, by Ian Johnston.  This text is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released October 2003]

Today I’d like to address an interesting question: Why are all of you here in Nanaimo, in this remote corner of the world, so eager to learn English?  And why is that all over the world students like yourselves are spending so much time and money doing the same thing?  Why aren’t English-speaking students from North America inundating Asian countries trying to learn something of your language and culture?  Of course, there’s an immediate and obvious answer to those questions—after all, the English language and the liberal capitalist way of doing business are increasingly what one needs to understand in order to get ahead in the world economically.  But I’d like to push the issue a little further and ask why this should be so.  How did it come about?  What happened to make what we might call the Western way, and especially the English language part of that Western way, so predominant, so important that you are making the considerable effort to leave home and spend time in this distant small town in order to learn English and become familiar with the Western way of doing business?

After all, if you had posed the following question in, say, the year 1400, “Which area of the world will emerge in the next few centuries to become the dominant world power?” I suspect most people would have suggested China or Persia or India, or the world of Islam—certainly somewhere in the East.  A few might have pointed to the wealthy and successful traditions of the Aztecs, Inca, or Mayan civilizations or, perhaps, to one of the rich and powerful African empires.  I doubt that anyone would have suggested Western Europe and least of all that small, backward, poor, and insignificant island in the north-west corner.  And yet within a relatively short space of time after 1400 the process of Western expansion and dominance began, a development that has continued more or less uninterrupted ever since.  Why should this be so?  And how is it that this process has for the moment given such prominence to the English language?

In order to address these issues I’m going to attempt three things: first, to provide a very sketchy historical overview of what we mean when we talk about the West or Western Civilization; second, to explore some of the reasons why this civilization has, in modern times (that is, in the last five hundred years), achieved such extraordinary global power; and, third, to offer some suggestions about why the English-speaking element of Western Civilization, as opposed to other elements (like, say, the Portuguese or the French), has for the past two hundred years or so spearheaded the western enterprise.

This is an immense topic, of course, and I can only skim lightly over the surface, cramming thousands of years of history of many different cultures into a short talk.  But I hope that by the end I have given you a few things to think about and left you with the beginnings of a better understanding of how you came to be here learning English rather than going to Spain to study Spanish or staying back home to teach thousands of students from all over the world your language and culture.

Western Civilization

Let me being by saying a few words about the term “civilization,” as I use it in the phrase Western Civilization.  Speaking very generally, what I mean by the term is a certain common background shared by people, on the basis of which they understand who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and how they should organize their lives; in that sense the term “civilization” refers to a cluster of beliefs, stories, ideas, and traditions which makes them different from other groups of people from different civilizations.

That notion of a cluster is important, since a civilization (in this sense) does not mean a single, uniform, monolithic set of ideas, traditions, or customs.  It refers rather to the collection of different (and often competing) ideas and stories and ways of seeing the world which a group of people living more or less in the same geographical area share.  And they share this frequently heterogeneous mixture for historical reasons—certain events have occurred which have brought and kept them together, although often in a state of considerable tension.

The best analogy I can think of for what I mean is that of a huge collection of ships, all sailing more or less in the same direction, an armada.  This collection of ships is made up of different smaller fleets which have amalgamated but which have not in the process resolved all their difficulties or entirely buried their differences.  However, the armada, for all the inner tensions, has some sense of overall purpose, enough to keep it sailing together, even though there might be frequent (and sometimes bloody) arguments about who should be in command, what the appropriate sailing course should be, and how authority should be structured in each ship.  The history of the armada will be a fascinating account of how these arguments proceed over time, and how they affect the combined enterprise, as all sorts of different attempts are made to rearrange every feature of the shared life at sea, and as the command and the direction of the armada change and then change again.  For the life of such an armada is always dynamic.

This group of ships will have been brought together for historical reasons, and the continuing course of history will affect its size in various ways (it may take in new fleets, or some parts may defect, or it may change direction or rearrange the order of ships, and so on). It will remain more or  less intact until such time as it is destroyed or assimilated by another armada or it self-destructs, and the various parts all fly off in different directions.

So in seeking to understand some very general things about the origin and composition of what we call Western Civilization, we might ask about where the main components of this armada came from.  What smaller fleets came together and remained more or less united over time and what held them together and enabled them to identify themselves as a unit in comparison with other civilizations?  And, over time, how did this armada change?  

We know that the first significant historical culture in Western Europe was made up of the Celtic people, Indo-Europeans who migrated there from the East and established throughout Western Europe a flourishing culture.  What happened to them?  What historical forces overwhelmed and assimilated them and created something much more complex and extensive, transforming Celtic culture into Western European Civilization?

I’m going to begin by focusing on four main components of the armada of Western Civilization and, at the risk of some generalizations of staggering simplicity, suggest that certain historical developments more than anything else essentially created and, with significant modifications, to a large extent still sustain what we call Western Civilization.  If we want to address the questions I raised at the start, we might well begin by looking at those elements which history brought together to make the historical entity we're talking about.

Before going through these different components, I should stress that the historical processes which brought these components together worked very slowly—with many fierce disputes along the way—and that what emerged at the end was much more the result of historical accident and luck than any concerted attempt from the start to create what is now known as Western Civilization.  These processes transformed the groups of people living in what we now call Western Europe, so that they acquired a sense of themselves as a civilization, an armada with a shared (if often disputed) purpose and a way of thinking distinctively different from other similar armadas.

The Greeks

The first component in this metaphorical armada we’re examining comes from the Classical Greeks, who provided a tradition which enshrined at least three things which have played decisive roles in the story and in the West’s sense of itself. 

The first is a spirit of individual self-assertion, the notion that the best, most beautiful, and most worthy lives are those lived in a spirit of individual competition.  To live the good life, according to this Greek tradition, one must assert one’s own individual excellence to the full, and that is best carried on in an ongoing climate of restless competition—intellectual, artistic, materialistic, athletic, and military rivalry   As a result of this Greek influence, Western traditions have, especially in recent centuries, had a much more pronounced emphasis on individual achievement and the self-realized life in competition than have other cultures (the modern roots of liberal democracy and capitalism have been strongly nourished by this old tradition).

A second important tradition derived from the Greeks is the concept of democracy as the basis for political order.  This idea, combined with the Roman tradition of republican government, has been a major inspiration for the often violent evolution of democracy in modern western states, since it provided a model for political life entirely different from the aristocratic old order ruling Europe.

The third important notion which the West derived from the Greeks was the spatial understanding of nature, the idea that the proper way to understand the natural world was not through history and historical destiny but through visual art and, above all, through mathematics, through geometry.  By initiating this tradition, the Greeks laid the groundwork for a way of thinking which was eventually to give the Western world not only its greatest artistic inspiration but also (and more importantly for our story) the physical power it needed to match its aggressive expansionist spirit, the power of science (more about this later).  Other  civilizations were much more advanced in mathematics than the Greeks and had astronomical traditions very much older, but such people (the Egyptians and Babylonians, for example, and later the Arabs) did not apply their understanding of geometry to an understanding of the world; that is, they did not use mathematical models to arrive at an explanation of how nature worked.

It’s true that in the early development of Western Europe, this Greek influence was submerged and repressed.  Early Christianity was very hostile to Greek ideas (especially since they might encourage pagan religion and nature worship or materialistic philosophy), and Western Europe was for a long time separated from the few remaining centres of Greek culture.  Hence, for centuries the Chinese and the Arabs were far ahead of Europeans in mathematics and technology.  But the Greek tradition never entirely disappeared, and when it was re-discovered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in that period we call the Renaissance, it helped to accelerate the development of Western power so rapidly that the rest of the world is still trying to catch up.

The Romans

The second component in the western armada to which I wish to call attention all too briefly is the influence of the Romans, who, by establishing and maintaining an empire throughout virtually all of Western Europe created the defined area which we identify as the first home of Western Civilization.  The Romans effectively set most of the permanent borders of Western Europe and maintained them for over five hundred years—much longer in some places.  The Romans, in this sense, gave Western Europe a collective identity—transforming the Indo-European culture of the Celts which had moved in centuries before.

This matter of establishing borders is interesting and important.  Europe’s western and northern borders are determined by the sea coasts, and the Romans pushed their influence throughout those regions (with the exception of Ireland and Scotland, where Celtic civilization remained influential).  They also determined Europe’s southern borders, by destroying the rival civilization of Carthage in North Africa, thus ensuring that (with one exception) Europe has never had to worry about invasion from the south, from Africa.  The parts of their empire the Romans had most trouble with were in the east—in Palestine, Parthia (around the Black Sea) and the vast plains east of the German tribes.  These are the places where Europe has always been vulnerable—they are the great battle grounds where Western European civilization has always collided with civilizations from the east.

In addition, the Romans provided some of the essential cultural forces needed to develop and sustain a sense common purpose among different people over a large geographic area.  They built cities and roads, provided an effective administration, promoted trade, and, once the Roman emperor converted to Christianity, made possible the spiritual unification of most of Western Europe.  Key elements in this consolidation were the Roman alphabet and the Latin language, both of which were vitally important unifying forces (that’s why all Western countries still have the same alphabet and many similarities in their languages and why the old Celtic languages have largely disappeared).  And the importance the Romans gave to the rule of law not only laid the basis for a great many Western European legal codes but also developed an abiding interest in and respect for written law.  These factors (and others) enabled the Romans to give the area we call Western Europe a shared cultural tradition and identity, something enshrined later in the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful cultural unifying force for the first fifteen hundred years of Western European history.

But the Roman contribution was much more than merely practical.  They also passed on two vitally important ideas.  The first was the notion of republican government in which power in the state is effectively in the hands of citizens or their representatives (not a system of government which the Romans invented, of course, but one which inspired the early years of their development).  True, through much of the Roman period, the republican nature of the government was a convenient fiction maintained by often tyrannical emperors for publicity purposes.  But the ideal remained, and became an inspiration for reform and revolutionary movements in the West centuries later (this ideal, for example, inspires much of the public architecture in the United States, which deliberately celebrates in classical styles the fact that its founding was inspired in large part by republican ideals inherited from Rome).

The second important idea the Romans developed was the notion of public service, the sense that the virtuous life was primarily one of duty to the state (rather than to a particular religion or clan or geographical area or a self-generated project).  In marked contrast to the Greek ideal of individual excellence through competition, the Romans celebrated those who put their talents into public service often in far-away places (as administrators, soldiers, engineers, lawmakers, elected officials, and so on) and who, if necessary, were prepared to sacrifice their immediate urge to assert their individuality in order to dedicate their lives to the glory of Rome itself.  This ideal made the Romans the best administrators and governors the West has ever produced and enabled the Empire to thrive, even when those at the very top (the imperial court) were ineffectual and decadent.  It also set a standard for public service upon which Western Europe (especially Britain) could draw when it began to develop its own empire overseas.

Jews and Christians

But the most important component in this Western armada came from the Jews, because from that culture Christianity arose.  From this development Western Europe acquired a sense of spiritual discipline and unity and a way of thinking about religion and about itself very different from religious thinking in most other cultures.

Christianity originated as a small Jewish sect in Jewish and Greek communities in the Eastern Mediterranean and spread quickly to other places, including Rome, the capital of the Empire.  For a long time, however, Christians were in a distinct minority amid all sorts of pagan religious cults, and it took centuries for the new faith to establish itself as a distinctive religion with a shared doctrine, a structure of authority, and an important presence in every community.  However, once the leading Roman political figures converted to Christianity (in the fourth century AD) and the church received imperial patronage, it very quickly became the exclusive religion of Western Europe (with the exception of the Jews) and gave the areas under Roman control what they had lacked up to that point—a common spiritual understanding of themselves.

This Christian tradition, developed from Jewish religion, has a number of characteristics which have decisively affected how people who belong to Western Civilization think about themselves and about others.  Nothing has shaped Western Civilization more distinctively than this tradition.  First of all, like Judaism, Christianity is historically based.  It believes that God operates in history to favour His chosen people and that He is leading them somewhere, to a promised land or a millennial time of judgment.  Religious belief is thus linked directly to political success in history, to a sense of historical progress.  For all the emphasis in Christian thinking about this life as a preparation for the next, religion in Western Civilization has always encouraged a way of thinking about life as something bound up with a purposeful historical development guided by God—our civilization is on the march somewhere better.  And since believers are God’s chosen people they naturally enough see themselves as having a historical destiny, a divine right if you will, to rule others (that is what God wants and has promised) or to shove them out of the way if they impede the march.  That’s what has always made it easy for Western leaders to justify their often extremely aggressive foreign policy with religious rhetoric, for political life is deeply fused with religious purpose (like, for example, “the axis of evil” or “the evil empire”).

Secondly, Christianity is extremely intolerant.  Having taken from the Jews the notion that there is only one God and that He is a jealous god, Christians have until fairly recent times left little to no room for other religions to co-exist happily alongside them.  Hence, as Christian religion developed, it imposed a strict uniform spiritual discipline on the community of believers and historically (until modern times) was generally cruelly oppressive to those who do not wish to share the faith.  There has always been a strong tendency in the West to see those who do not believe or who refuse to convert as inferior, as lost souls, a people deserving whatever punishment they get.  Hence, the Western world has historically found it relatively easy to treat strangers harshly, for non-Christians are damned souls.

Thirdly, Christianity has always exerted an influence to promote equality among the community of believers, since the value of every individual soul is equally important.  This sense of communal equality was, as we shall see, often contradicted by the organizational structure of the Christian Church and the ranked order of Christian society (with kings, popes, bishops, knights, and a strict hierarchy of authority), but it always remained latent in interpretations of scripture, and later this sense of equality exerted a decisive effect in the processes which launched Western success in the modern age.

Finally, the Christian religion derived from the Jewish faith has historically been very aggressive in extending its influence.  This, too, is part of the mandate from God.  We carry out what He wants us to do in the world by committing ourselves to spreading the gospel, converting pagans, ridding the world of evil nature worshippers, if necessary by violence—that is a part of our religious duty.  Many of the greatest heroic figures in the history of Christianity are missionaries who gave their lives in this enterprise.

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of these ideas in the development of Western Civilization.  Other cultures have often been cruel and expansionist and subjected other peoples to their tyrannies, but it’s rare for them to feel that these actions are essentially a religious imperative, part of their historical duty to the God they believe in (certain parts of Islam also share this particular characteristic—which may help to explain why the history of relations between Islam and Christianity, up to and including today, have often been so mutually hostile).  Other cultures may attack other people for glory or money or security, but not because those other people are evil, enemies of their God, whose religion must be supplanted or exterminated.  This religious belief, developed in Christianity from Jewish traditions, has enabled aggressive Western imperial advances into strange cultures to justify itself as a religious duty.

If one asks why Western powers have for so many centuries demonstrated again and again such a cruel and aggressive spirit against other cultures, one important part of the answer is clear: they find it necessary and easy to do that because that’s what their religion tells them God wants them to do (such a belief obviously helps to get rid of any compunctions one might have about the distress such aggression brings to strangers).  And such a religious belief, interpreted very strictly, has also acted to prevent what often eventually overcomes other successful aggressors (like the Mongols)—assimilation into the conquered peoples (although intermarriage with converted foreign peoples has long been a practice of Catholic colonizers).

Sometimes I wonder how the history of the world might have changed if some Asian empire had first landed in North America, established contact with the inhabitants, and started trading, and I ask myself why that didn’t that happen.  Well, I suspect it didn’t happen because the Chinese and the Japanese, for example, both of whom had the resources to undertake such expeditions, just weren’t interested.  They were under no divine compulsion to extend their empires—their god was not directing them outward on a spiritual mission.  And even when they had extended their presence outside their own borders, to judge from the behaviour of Chinese populations who did establish a foothold outside of China well before the Europeans (e.g., in Java), they would have lived happily and peacefully as traders among the indigenous populations without seeking to build fortresses, subdue and convert the local people, and establishing an imperial presence.

For a brief thirty-year period in the early fifteenth century China did experiment with an extraordinary effort, when the great Ming fleets made seven epic voyages to India and Africa, some of them with enormous ships in great numbers (much more impressive craft than Columbus or Magellan were to use seventy years later).  They had or acquired en route more sophisticated technology than anything the Europeans possessed (e.g., the compass, star measuring equipment, maps), and the voyages were immensely successful and profitable (one even brought back a live giraffe from Africa).  But in 1424 the emperor died, the policy was reversed, the ships' log books were burned, and the Chinese abandoned any attempt to continue such a trade policy.

[These voyages have remained largely unknown outside of China until the recently published book 1421 by Gavin Menzies, which argues that one of these fleets rounded the Cape of Good Hope in August 1421, sailed to the West Indies, and reached Florida.  The Chinese, in effect, discovered America long before Columbus.  His argument, however, has no hard evidence to support it.  For an introduction to the book, consult the following link: 1421]

The Franks and Germans

The final component in the early development of Western Civilization came from the northern warrior tribes, the Franks and the Germans, who moved in to fill the power vacuum created when the Roman Empire collapsed under pressure from the East.  These tribes, beginning with the Franks, established the political system which was to govern Europe for centuries, defended Europe from invasion, and enabled Christianity to consolidate and develop throughout most of Western Europe.

In the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the so-called Dark Ages, under the influence of Frankish and later German political structures, Europe grew in population slowly and steadily and its forested lands were gradually transformed into agricultural lands.  Eventually this led to the production of an agricultural surplus, so that European communities had more to trade.  Western Europe acquired a sense of itself as a distinct non-Mediterranean civilization, produced some impressive works of architecture and literature, and began developing major urban centres.  Hence, by the year 1200 AD (to pick a convenient but rather arbitrary date) it was possible to talk about Western Civilization as something distinctive—a hierarchical feudal society, overwhelmingly agricultural, governed by kings and hereditary aristocracies, held together by a shared institutionalized religion (Roman Catholicism) and some common political traditions and priorities (especially imperial rule based on dynastic succession among royal families).

The sense of unity among these Germanic states was institutionalized in a federation of increasingly independent states, some of them very small, called the Holy Roman Empire, which fused Germanic aristocratic political traditions, Roman Catholic Christianity, and the traditions of imperial rule inherited from the Romans (even though the Holy Roman Empire was never as tightly knit administratively or as militarily powerful as the Roman Empire).

In looking at this slow emergence of a distinctive civilization, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church which, in effect, created the unique mix of traditions which enabled Western Europe to emerge at all.  The Catholic church developed relatively slowly and took a long time to impose a more or less uniform set of beliefs and to expel or suppress (sometimes very ruthlessly) other alternatives.  It also evolved into an institution which played a vital and powerful role in politics (unlike other religions which encourage a turning away from the political world), in organizing and controlling major aspects of life in every community (often including economic and legal issues).  Senior Catholic clergy emerged as major political operators (with huge budgets, armies, corps of diplomats, impressive churches, and so on).  Central to Western Civilization as it emerged was the union (sometimes an uneasy or quarrelsome union) between political structures and religious institutions, so that political activity easily merged with religious purposes, with no clear border line separating the two.

For the most part, in this period (between the fall of the Roman Empire and about 1200 AD), under the influence of the Church, the Greek tradition was suppressed or forgotten, and the early Christian emphasis on a community of spiritual equals took a distant second place to the realities of a society based on a strict hierarchy of inherited rank (on the German model)—the conflict between these two traditions was a source of considerable tension within the church, since it, too, was a very hierarchical organization, with an intricate pyramidal structure of authority (demands for more attention to spiritual equality and attention to the poor were often met with imaginative adjustments, like the founding of the monastic orders—at other times the response was considerably harsher).  What kept Western Europe more or less unified as a distinct entity was the discipline enforced by the Church, a shared international language (Latin, the only written language), a tradition of law derived from the Romans, shared political structures (with aristocratic families often linked by marriage), and a common agricultural economy (except in the slowly emerging towns).  It was a combination which was remarkably successful and which, in effect, created Western Europe as a viable and distinct entity.

No doubt, part of that success was the result of an overwhelmingly common and long-lasting fear—invasion by the forces of Islam, which had swept across North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries, conquered Spain, and threatened southern France.  At the same time, Islamic forces were beginning to threaten from the East, as well, to move towards the Hellespont.  The armies of the Franks successfully stopped the advance into France (in 732 AD), but the threat of an Islamic invasion of Europe remained at the forefront of Western European thinking for another eight hundred years.  However the Christian princes in Western Europe might fight among themselves or with the Papacy, they all had one powerful common cause, fear of the Islamic infidels, and at times of political instability, they could derive a sense of common purpose from a Crusade against the infidels (interestingly the Arabic word for European, ifrangi, is derived from the name Franks).

Nonetheless, for all these remarkable achievements, by comparison with other places around the world, especially to the east, this civilization in 1200 was, as mentioned, relatively backward (culturally and technically), poor, sparsely populated, ignorant, isolated, intolerant, and vulnerable.  Its prospects were not particularly encouraging.  Nor did they get very much better in the next two centuries.  Western Europe was extremely lucky to avoid a Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century (the unexpected death of the Great Khan Ogedei in 1259 in Eastern Europe halted the Mongol advance) and at the end of the fourteenth century, right on the eve of the start of the great transformation, Western Europe was in a disastrous plight, following years of inconclusive bloody wars among some of the major power groups, conflicts between church and state, revolts of the starving poor, and the devastation of the Black Death, still facing the constant threat of invasion by Islamic forces.

The Beginnings of Western Expansion

One hundred years later—by the opening of the sixteenth century—things seemed quite different.  By 1500 Europeans had launched trading voyages to the Far East, discovered America, expelled Islam from Spain and checked a dangerous Islamic expansion in the east, and were enjoying a surge of confidence in a widespread cultural revolution called the Renaissance (the re-birth).  They had, in fact, in the final decades of the fifteenth century launched the Western enterprise to move out into the rest of the world—to make the rest of the world their market place, a process that has continued ever since.  So what was going on?

In part, this growth in the power and confidence in Europe was inspired by its rediscovery of the Greeks.  Under pressure from Islamic forces to the east (in Constantinople), some important Greek scholars, who had lived in an Eastern Christian culture largely cut off from people in Western Europe, had moved west into Italy, bringing their libraries with them.  They helped to set in motion a massive revival of interest in classical learning and some of its central ideas—an encouragement of individual self-assertion, scientific speculations about nature, and celebrations of physical beauty in art, architecture, and literature—all of which added up to a spirit of restless, optimistic experimentation, a sense of liberation from the old and limiting ideals of the Catholic Christian community.  Throughout Europe aristocratic courts began to sponsor and promote all sorts of cultural activity as part of a celebration of princely power and glory.  In the 1450’s Europe learned how to print books (something the Chinese had learned long before), so the spread of Classical literature was rapid and influential.  Christian Europe was beginning to develop a secular artistic tradition in literature and the visual arts—an explosion of energy for new ways of doing things in an invigorating spirit of freedom from old traditions.

That sense of assertion of royal power and magnificence was a factor also in prompting overseas trading expeditions.  At first, these expeditions, launched by Spain and Portugal, had only one goal—to establish a maritime trading route to the Far East.  And why was that so important?  What did Europe need from Asia?  The answer to that is, in a word, spices (especially pepper).  For centuries (since Roman times, at least) Europeans had had an insatiable appetite for Eastern spices which they could not grow themselves, and fortunes were made in the trade.  But overland trading routes were slow, complicated, expensive, and risky,  especially after the most important route to the Far East, the Great Silk Road, ceased to operate effectively after the collapse of the Mongol empire.  What these early voyagers wanted was a direct route to a fabulously profitable venture: What better way for a prince to celebrate his glory and to grow rich than to sponsor a bold new trading venture?

Here the Western Europeans were developing the one area of technology where they enjoyed a certain advantage over many other parts of the world—their knowledge of sailing, developed from their need to harvest the sea and travel from one part of Europe to another without having to cross mountain ranges (the most important trading routes in much of Asia were almost all on land, where there were fewer obstacles).  Many European countries were too poor to support themselves, and so for a long time they had developed important maritime traditions, usually in difficult waters (this may help to explain why so many of the poorer, less powerful nations, like England, Holland, and Portugal, emerged as such trading powerhouses, once Europe turned its attention to trading by sea rather than, as before, by land).

Whatever the precise reasons why the Spanish and Portuguese courts suddenly began patronizing ambitious trading ventures, they were astonishingly and quickly successful—in the space of a very few years (starting in 1480) they had established contact with places most Europeans had never heard of.  In some instances (as with Columbus, for example) the discoverers were ignorant of what they had found (Christian religious traditions stated that there were only three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—so there was no room in many people’s thinking for the existence of a place and a people completely foreign to their oldest traditions).  They did this without any accurate maps and thus, in many cases, no clear idea of where they were going (when asked how one reached America, Columbus is reported to have answered “Sail south until the butter melts, then turn right").  Sometimes they would establish a small trading post and then be unable to find it on a return trip.  It’s important to remember that until the closing years of the eighteenth century, there was no way of knowing one’s precise location at sea without the assistance of some known and visible landmark.  

                        Some of the Early European Voyages

Dias, around Africa, into the Indian Ocean (1487-88)
Columbus, voyage to West Indies (1492-1494)
Cabot, voyage to Newfoundland (1497)
Columbus, voyage to Venezuela (1498)
Vasco da Gama  around Africa to India (1497-99)
Ojeda and Vespucci, to South America and the Amazon (1499-1500)
Cabral, to Brazil, around Africa, to India (1500)
Corte-Real, voyage to Greenland (1500)
First Portuguese voyage to Malacca (1509)
Abreu, voyage to Malacca (1512-1513)
First Portuguese visits to Canton River (1514)
Ponce de Leon, voyage to Florida and Yucatan (1512-1513)
Magellan and Elcano, first voyage around the world (1519-1522)

So rapid was this development, that by the end of the fifteenth century (in 1493) the Pope had to intervene to set ground rules for the Spanish and the Portuguese—to set a line of demarcation (the famous Tordesillas Line, 730 leagues to the west of the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic) through the mid-Atlantic assigning to the Spanish all territories to the west of that line and to the Portuguese all lands east of that line (by chance or conniving the line included part of the coast of South America in the Portuguese area, thus giving them a foothold in South America, a fact which explains why in Brazil the language is Portuguese rather than Spanish; this also explains why the Spanish colonized the Philippines, while the Portuguese settled in New Guinea and Timor). 

The curious thing, of course, is that both the Spanish and the Portuguese at first were looking for the same thing—a route to the Far East spice trade; they were just heading in opposite directions (to the end of his life Columbus believed, along with many others, that he had reached Asia).  When the English joined in later, the only route to the East left for them to explore (in vain, as it turned out) was to the north, through the ice, the fabled Northwest Passage.

Once these expeditions had suddenly opened up the world, the urge to Christianize the heathen, to extend the gospel by converting all these new people provided a powerful incentive to virtuous monarchs to sponsor more trading expeditions and to send along with the merchants missionaries and soldiers to carry out the work.  From the beginning, Western expansion derived an enormous energy and support from its claim that there was important  religious work to be done (nor should we necessarily assume that all such claims were always hypocritical excuses to oppress, even if that was frequently or even generally the case—that would be a real disservice to the many devout missionaries who worked hard to ease the brutality the merchant adventurers brought with them).

Catholics and Protestants

Having established trading centres and imperial outposts in far-away places, the Spanish and Portuguese began to get rich from Eastern spices and American gold.  By fiercely protecting their new areas from other European competitors, they seemed ready to enjoy a long prosperity, as did the French from their expeditions to and settlements in North America and later in India.  Yet, that is not quite what happened.  Although these Catholic kingdoms get much of the credit for the heroic explorations and initial contacts, within a relatively short space of time, they had been overtaken and in many places supplanted by the expeditions from the British and the Dutch, who laid the ground work for the institutions which were to guarantee the later spectacular and continuing success of Western Civilization’s expansion throughout the world.

Without this shift in the major colonial powers, it seems likely that the Spanish and Portuguese and French might well have ended up being largely assimilated into the cultures where they had established themselves—after all, it was an important part of Catholic policy to work with the local populations, to convert them to Christianity, to intermarry, and thus, in a sense, merge European and foreign populations (as in South America, for example). Or, again, their commitment to these faraway places might well have ebbed in the face of their financial difficulties in Europe.  Whatever the case, the history of Western civilization would have been profoundly different and, one may hazard a guess, far less “successful” in extending its power and influence throughout the world if expansion of the Western enterprise had remained exclusively in the hands of Roman Catholic princes.

So what happened?  Why did these Catholic countries with such a decisive head start get supplanted in so many areas by two relatively small and poor countries?  Well, what changed the very nature of this extension of Western influence was a revolutionary break with the oldest and most important tradition in Western Civilization, the Roman Catholic Church.  In the sixteenth century, the development of Protestantism in Northern Europe launched a new, aggressive, and immensely powerful expansion of Western influence which we are still dealing with.

The term Protestant covers a wide range of different faiths, all born from Martin Luther’s break with Rome and the authority of the Pope in the opening decades of the sixteenth century.  Some Protestants, like the Anglicans in England, developed a church remarkably similar to Roman Catholicism in structure and the main points of doctrine (apart from recognizing the authority of the Pope).  Others, like the Lutherans, developed small, peaceful and largely non-political Protestant communities.  Some turned their backs on normal political and economic life and set up utopian communal experiments.  But there were some who were far more radical, egalitarian, individualistic, and revolutionary—the Puritans and the Calvinists (often in England called Dissenters, because they did not agree with the official Protestant religion in England).  These radical Protestants exerted a decisive influence in the regions where they lived—above all in Holland, Scotland, parts of England, and Switzerland.

What made the Protestants, particularly the more radical ones, so immensely powerful were three key elements central to their faith: the first was a willingness to abandon old traditions in pursuit of one’s personal salvation (for them the Christian life was highly individualistic, a solitary pilgrimage, rather than centred on membership in a Christian community controlled by the institutionalized authority of the church).  Hence, they were truly revolutionary in their demands for freedom from old and oppressive traditions, especially in religion.

But allied to this was their new attitude to money.  Because God had put them on the earth to demonstrate their piety through hard work, earning a profit was a sign that they were on the right track.  Whereas traditional Catholic doctrine had always seen money as a source of corruption and potential evil and had often sought to impose important restrictions on money lending, wages, and prices, the new radical Protestants embraced profit as a sign of one’s devotion, a mark of God’s favour.  So the aggressive energies of Christianity were set in a new direction—into individual business ventures.  At the same time, however, their stern faith did not permit them to squander money on themselves (with lavish houses, entertainments, feasting, and so on—nor even, in many cases, with charity).  And so the only place for them to place the profits they made was back into business—a recipe for increasing profitability.

Hence, the new Protestants spearheaded a radically new way of doing business—free market capitalism.  Because their religious beliefs had no room for ancient traditions giving religious authority to particular people or institutions (like the Papacy) or to community traditions and because they saw their lives in fiercely individualistic terms, they resented and fought against whatever stood in their way (some of them deriving political inspiration from the traditions of Roman republicanism), and when they were persecuted at home, they were prepared to travel across the world to live according to their often fierce and narrow calling.  They became the shock troops of the Western world’s march to world dominance because they were the first to set aside old traditions and demand a new kind of freedom: freedom to worship and to conduct business as they wished, without interference from the bishops or the king.  And so, when kings got in the way, they helped to foment rebellion to get rid of them, as in the Dutch wars against the Spanish occupiers, the English Civil War, and later the American War of Independence—all rebellions against the old order in the name of freedom to worship and do business and increase the political power of the business interests.

[Parenthetically, one of the best symbols of this new attitude is found on American money, where there is a religious slogan “In God We Trust” and a picture of a public building exemplifying the traditions of classical Roman and Greek architecture—a nice reminder of the union of religious fervour, profitable business activity, and republican political ideals.  Does any other country place an invocation of God's name on their paper money?]

This Protestant attitude made believers naturally interested in the new developments in science, many of which were stoutly resisted by the old order (as a threat to old traditions, especially in religion).  In the new science they saw a way of carrying out their work in the world more efficiently and profitably, priorities they identified with God’s will.  In these Protestants were merged the fierce sense of religious duty in history, derived ultimately from the Jewish religion, an untiring desire to work (often under desperately hostile conditions), and a commitment to scientific and technical innovation.  The science they were most interested in, we should note, may have derived much inspiration from the Greeks, but it was quite different in emphasis.  For Greek thinkers, a mathematical understanding of nature was primarily speculative, for many a form of spiritual training and discipline (without much interest in technical applications).  But the new science, especially as developed in England, had a thoroughly practical energy, determined to apply the new knowledge to improving manufacturing, sailing, navigation, and agriculture. 

Now that there was no uniform religious belief with a recognized authority for imposing discipline and adjudicating quarrels, there was a huge potential for dangerous conflicts over religious questions.  And, in fact, for about a century and a half Europeans persecuted and fought each other over religious questions.  At the end of that (in 1648), the countries of northern Europe, especially England and Holland, recognized that they should end attempts to exterminate all those who did not believe in a particular faith—they should stop fighting about religion.  And as way of easing conflicts, many leading thinkers advocated using the new science to sort out social problems.  This, too, was enormously important: parts of Europe, in effect, reduced the importance of their religious traditions, gradually promoted tolerance, and insisted that public debates should focus on seeking scientific answers to practical problems and promoting a healthy climate for business.  It may well be that Western Europe’s most decisive step in modern times was right here—to emancipate commercial life from religious and communal control and to make that commercial life, together with the technical innovations essential to it, the higher priority.

And the demand for freedom from religious interference soon prompted demands for freedom from political interference, demands for civil freedoms that would enable people to go about their business as they pleased, without having to seek royal authority or channel their energies only into economic activities approved by the government.  So as well as emancipating business from  religious control, these Protestant countries moved (often against considerable resistance) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to free business as much as possible from political control of the old aristocracy.  What emerged from that was the nucleus of liberal capitalism: a society of people free to worship as they pleased (at least in their own homes) and free to conduct business as they wished, within a code of laws equally binding on all.  In a series of revolutions, they placed control of the government firmly in the hands of the business class—those who understood money, many of whom had a fierce religious commitment to making the largest possible profits as a sign that they enjoyed God’s grace. 

Where the expansion of European trade and colonies into the rest of the world was concerned these changes made an enormous difference.  These Protestant realized that if the colonizing efforts were to succeed they had to make a profit over time; they had to repay the investment.  And so they organized such expeditions as business ventures.  Whereas in the Catholic countries, where the traditional royal families still ruled very autocratically, the monarchs continued to send out their explorers as representatives of the king, their patron, who supported them and to whom they reported, the English and Dutch explorers went out as capitalist businessmen, eager to set up a long-term profit-making company.  In fact, the very first joint-stock company in the world, with publicly owned shares purchased by the citizens (what now is the engine of world economic development) was set up by the Dutch in 1602 to develop trade in the Far East.  That’s why in the history of Western expansion, the Catholic expeditions are always linked to heroic names of great explorers (Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Cartier, and so on); whereas, the Protestant expeditions are linked to the names of famous commercial institutions: the Muscovy Company (1555), the Turkey Company (1583), the Plymouth Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Why should this matter?  Well, it matters because in the long run the economic viability of a colonial outpost is the most important factor in assuring its continuing existence.  If the profits generated are squandered by royal extravagance back home, then the venture is in trouble.  The Spanish and French gradually lost much of their influence in the new world because they spent so much of the money they received on European wars or unnecessary spending celebrating the glory of the king (like the palace at Versailles); whereas, the power of the Protestant English and Dutch merchants grew.  Ultimately, the English supplanted the Catholic powers in North America and India (just as the Dutch largely supplanted the Portuguese in the Far East) because royal appointees working for and dependent upon a far-away extravagant monarch were no match for hard-working parsimonious and ruthlessly efficient capitalist businessmen determined to earn a profit for their shareholders (it might be worth remembering that large portions of North America were simply purchased from European powers who needed the money back home—and other parts were ceded to England in the peace treaties to conclude European wars).

[An interesting example of these points is the career of the great eighteenth-century Spanish admiral after whom this college is named.  By any standard Alessandro Malaspina was a great explorer, intelligently aware of the potential value for Spain of his voyages to North America.  But his published work failed to have much influence back home, simply because he fell out of favour with the royal court (something like that had happened with Columbus, too, of course).  The very business-minded Protestant English government made no such mistake with their great contemporary of Malaspina, Captain Cook—they recognized only too well how important his work was for their own commercial interests].

These Protestants had one further dubious (but important) advantage: they cared a great deal less about the indigenous people they encountered than did their Catholic colleagues.  Whereas the latter had always seen their expeditions as important opportunities to spread the gospel and convert natives to Christianity and, no matter how rapacious and oppressive their work, some of them had gone to great lengths (often with beneficial results) to care for and protect their new Christian peoples, many radical Protestants had no such reservations.  For them the indigenous people were just one more obstacle God had put in their way, one more test of their faith, their calling.  So they found it much easier to ignore, abuse, push aside, or exterminate the local people—often seeing in this one more part of their divinely ordained historical destiny.  Hence, they were far less likely to let their pursuit of profits be held up by any concerns for the local people they encountered.  And there was no danger whatsoever of their becoming assimilated into populations they considered, as often as not, the devil’s spawn.

[That difference may help to explain some of the major differences between North and South America, especially the experiences of the indigenous peoples.  The Catholics in South American, over time, merged with the local population to create a culture very different from the original Spanish culture which had launched the colonization.  In North America, the English colonists had little interest in intermarriage or any special privileges or (in many cases) fair considerations for the indigenous people.]

These men—the Protestant capitalists from Northern Europe, especially the English, Scottish, and Dutch—were, as I have said, the vanguard of the modern age because they best exemplified what has become necessary for success in a world dominated by liberal capitalism—a firm rejection of ancient traditions, an unabashed admiration for scientific and technological innovation, a heroic dedication to a lifetime of practical work, a fierce resistance to interference from king or priest, a narrow and exclusive focus on the relentless pursuit of financial profit as the sign of a worthy religious life.  These characteristics gave them an enormous jump start on the modern age over those who, in the name of ancient traditions or inherited communities or religious scruples wished to limit or even prohibit certain potentially profitable activities or over those whose expansionist spirit was not linked to a fiercely aggressive religious conviction.

These qualities may serve to explain some of the reasons for Great Britain’s astonishing success in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The British developed an empire largely on the basis of their commitment to science and technology (which gave them the best ships and maps and guns), a moral belief that they were doing God’s work, a ruthless conviction that they were dealing with inferior or less progressive people, and a dedication to business.

The British had one additional advantage, an education system deliberately designed to promote the traditions of Roman public service—with a thorough immersion in and celebration of Latin literature from the great days of the Roman Republic, organized to produce citizens who could dedicate their working lives to the greater glory of the monarch and the Empire.  This quality made the English extraordinarily gifted as hard-working colonial officials, ready to take on years of work, often in remote and harsh conditions, in any corner of the world, to assume what came to be called “The White Man’s Burden,” the heavy but essential task of bringing the best of British civilization to every corner of the Empire.  Such a group of dedicated colonial administrators, teachers, bankers, soldiers, and trading representatives is essential if an imperial power is to sustain and extend its influence in far-off places for more than a few years (recently the suggestion has been made that the lack of such a group is a major problem for the development of American imperial interests—they have no such class of dedicated colonial servants of the empire, so the argument runs, because most educated Americans are unwilling to accept the lifestyle such service demands). 

Many of these characteristics of the colonial powers bent on expansion are well exemplified in the most famous dealings the British had with China, the so-called Opium Wars in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  Simply by the power of its marine artillery, Britain brutally forced the Chinese to legalize the consumption of opium (in order to crease a demand for something Britain could sell to China, so that its ships did not have to travel to Chinese ports from India empty).  The peace treaty required China to remove any restrictions on British trade, to assign specific ports for British merchants, and to permit the unrestricted propagation of Christianity throughout China.  But then a few years later, by all accounts, the British began to provide a productive, efficient, and peaceful colonial administration in those places where they were given control (e.g., in Hong Kong). 

Throughout the eighteenth century, the British were in often stiff competition with the French. However, as previously mentioned, the French suffered from an ultimately crippling liability—an all-powerful monarch who had little idea of the importance of applying a prudent business principles to political matters (like colonial expeditions or European wars).  By the end of the eighteenth century, the French government was bankrupt, and France was in the grip of a destructive revolution.  And the original colonial powerhouse, Spain, was in the midst of a long, slow economic decline (having squandered so much of its colonial wealth on European wars).

North America

The developments I have sketched out too briefly above were some of the key factors which ensured that North America should end up in control of England businessmen and that the language of North America should be English.  The French and Spanish may have arrived first and established a colonial presence well before any viable English culture manifested itself.  But the disastrous financial policies of the Catholic kings in Europe delivered North America eventually to the English Protestants—and with that, one might well argue, the eventual domination of the world by English-speaking capitalists was inevitable, a process that was enormously accelerated by the two world wars in the twentieth century, which guaranteed the emergence of English-speaking America as the dominant Western power.

It’s important to remember that both Canada and the United States in their present form were founded as liberal capitalist experiments.  The major difference between the two is that until recent years (when it threw in its lot with the United States) Canada still tried to retain close cultural and economic contacts with Europe (symbolized by a continuing, but nominal, recognition of the old Feudal Germanic traditions of royal authority); whereas, America was born in an act of revolution against that order (in the name of republican ideals and capitalist business practices).  Since that time, the millions of immigrants who have come from all over the world have, as a first requirement, had to leave their inherited communities and traditional ways in the search for a better economic future; hence, the non-aboriginal populations of North America are to a large extent self-selected to find capitalism agreeable (this is especially true of the populations on the west coast, whose families often reached the Pacific in a series of movements away from communities further east).  So these two countries are unique in one respect—they have virtually no traditions from before the age of liberal capitalism (other than those of the aboriginal inhabitants, which have had a minimal impact on the non-aboriginal population).  Hence, they both (but especially the USA) are tailor-made for all those things essential for capitalism to thrive with a minimum of objections or obstacles: a rejection of tradition, a willingness to innovate, a desire to make economic profit the major purpose of life, a commitment to restless experimentation in different locations and with different occupations.

In North America, the development of Western capitalism had enormous luck (quite apart from the immense natural resources).  First, the indigenous population of North America was no major obstacle to untrammeled development—they were relatively easy to push out of the way and, in many areas, kill off with disease or bullets.  Secondly, North America has never had to worry about any powerful neighbour who might invade (apart from some minor conflicts to sort out borders between Canada and the United States and the United States and Mexico). Hence, there was no need to create what was essential in many other parts of the world—a large standing domestic army to protect the territorial integrity of the country.  Thus, the political and private freedoms essential to the development of capitalism could grow with a minimum of interference from central authority (the development of South America, with its patchwork of rival, often fiercely antagonistic states has meant that people there could not benefit in the same way from this separation of domestic political life and a military which, as often as not, is a very powerful and often unwelcome presence in political life).

[This point is an important one.  There is obviously a vital connection between the development of liberal capitalism in Britain and British geography.  Since England is an island the major military requirement for protection is a standing navy rather than a standing army.  But a navy cannot be used for oppressing citizens at home nearly so easily as can a standing army.  So central authority in England, as in America, has in modern times, since the unification of the island, rarely had at its disposal, should the government want to enforce its will on its citizens, an effective domestic army.  It may well be the case that in those countries where there is a need for a large, effective, and politically motivated army at the disposal of the leaders, liberal capitalism faces obstacles which dramatically limit what it can achieve.  This will surely be something to watch for in China in the coming years.]

That America would become the leading champion of capitalism in the context of liberal democracy was inevitable, given its origins and its continuing appeal as a place for the world’s entrepreneurial spirits.  Simply put, there has never existed anything in America to resist the unchecked development of this modern idea—since its founding America has been and remains the leading spirit in capitalist innovation, destruction of traditions, aggressive exploration of other markets, hostility to anything that gets in the way, and an overtly religious fervour in exporting its way of life, if necessary by force.

Liberal capitalism, it’s important to note, is based on a gamble that, given the chance, people would rather have a chance to make money for themselves than limit those economic opportunities in the name of some religious or political or communal tradition.  Liberal capitalism offers the tempting promise of freedom to compete in order to create one’s own life.  But it exacts a price—and that price is setting old traditions and inherited ways of life aside and committing oneself to an uncertain, restless future where one is just as likely to fail as to succeed.  Liberal capitalism has maintained itself and grown in the West because it has sufficiently delivered on this promise to a sufficient number of people, so that they have been willing to accept the price.

Modern alternatives to this vision—especially the communist and nationalist alternatives—have failed to stand up to the economic power of liberal capitalism for the same reasons the old monarchies failed to prevail over it, that is, because they simply could not match its economic power.  And cultures based on old traditions, especially on Islamic fundamentalism, have frequently adopted a violently hostile attitude toward the spread of Western civilization in its modern form, because they sense, quite rightly, that the spread of liberal capitalism will erode their traditions as effectively as it has eroded established traditions in so many parts of the world.

That’s why what’s going on in China is so very fascinating.  There’s an experiment in capitalism underway there, in a country with strong and ancient traditions very hostile to everything that capitalism represents.  And these traditions people still value highly.  But is capitalism compatible with such traditions?  The experience of many other places would suggest that it is not, that inevitably the logic of capitalism will weaken and destroy those traditions (starting, of course, with linguistic diversity) and that this process is irreversible so long as capitalism remains the dominant system.  You people here will be participants in this fascinating process and will, no doubt, be called upon to act in a number of political developments brought about by the clash between the old ways and the new economic order.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For the time being, with the English-speaking liberal capitalist enterprise headed by the United States in full power of the world economy, the only alternative to casting in one’s lot with that enterprise would seem to be opting out of the most productive economic activities on the planet or actively opposing them by whatever means are available. Joining  liberal capitalism obviously requires one to learn Western ways, particularly North American ways, and that brings us back to where we started.  For better or worse, by design or chance, America sits in the driver’s seat, and America speaks English.  So those, like yourselves, who want to spend their lives interacting with and working in the modern international business environment have little option.

We are entitled to wonder, however, just how long this situation will last.  Capitalism, after all, is a ruthlessly unsentimental system.  Just as it respects no traditions, so it has no respect for the countries where it is most advanced.  If generating a profit requires the system to move away from the cultures which nurtured it and brought it to fruition, then that’s what it will do.  There are already some signs (very disturbing for American believers in the system) that liberal capitalism is ready to sacrifice American jobs and American communities and American interests, if business can be conducted more profitably elsewhere.  No wonder the “jobless recovery” we are witnessing right now is raising some awkward questions.  Many non-European civilizations have shown themselves to be fast learners of the system that made the West so powerful, so there is no guarantee the English-speaking nations will always be leading the pack.

And one might well wonder what language your children and grandchildren will be learning in order to keep abreast with the economic realities.  English may be the language of America at present, but there’s no law guaranteeing that it must remain so in the future (America has no legally official language).  And at the moment America is in the process of being re-colonized by Spanish-speaking peoples at such a rapid pace that the alarm bells are already being sounded about the future of English as the language of the bastion of capitalism.

Given the uncertainties of history, the remarkable developments which led to the wholly unexpected emergence of English as the language of the world’s economic powerhouse, we have no reason to suppose that things will always remain this way.  If there is a successful Spanish take over of the language of North American business or if the Chinese can successfully negotiate all the perils of an evolving capitalist economy and direct their enormous energies and talents into a full-blown capitalist system or if there is some unexpected development in a corner of the world which no one is even thinking about at the moment (of the sort which has happened so often in the past) then our North American grandchildren may well be traveling off to other parts of the world to learn the current language of international business, whatever that may be.

Beyond all that, of course, wherever liberal capitalism moves, we need to remember Marx's analysis of how capitalism in the long run generates increasingly unstable and unequal economic conditions, so that it will eventually provoke a forceful redistribution of wealth and the development of a different economic system, either within capitalist countries themselves or world wide.  As the gap between the rich and poor within the capitalist system continues to increase, with environmental disasters looming in many parts of the world, we have no reason to be complacent that the economic system which is apparently so triumphant at the moment will necessarily remain so.


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