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Barbarism and Civilization


Barbarism and civilization are salt and pepper concepts that are inextricably interlinked. In the Western world, "barbarism" is derived from the classical Greek word barbaros (barbarian) that referred originally to foreigners who did not speak Greek. In the modern world, barbarism carries a negative connotation of unrefined and savage. "Civilization" is derived from the Latin word civis (citizen) that referred originally to those living in a Roman city. In the modern world, civilization carries a positive connotation of education and sophistication.

Although "barbarians" and "barbarism" come from the ancient world, "civilization" does not. Fernand Braudel maintains that "civilization" first appeared in 1732 in regard to French jurisprudence that "denoted an act of justice or a judgement which turned a criminal trial into civil proceedings" (p. 3). In 1752 the statesman Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used "civilization" to describe a process of being civilized. "Civilization" stood firmly against its opposite of "barbarism." By 1772 "civilization" and its mate "culture" replaced "civility" in England and fostered Zivilization (civilization) alongside the older Bildung (culture) in Germany (see Braudel, p. 4).

Friedrich Engels: Barbarism and Civilization

Against this backdrop, the dual concepts of barbarism and civilization emerged in the works of Friedrich Engels (18201895), who was influenced by Lewis H. Morgan's (18181881) pathbreaking study Ancient Society (1878). Engels writes: "Barbarismthe period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity. Civilizationthe period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry and of art" (1972, p. 93). Homeric Greeks, native Italian tribes, Germanic tribes of Caesar's time, and the Vikings represent the upper stages of barbarism. Citing descriptions in Homer's Iliad, Engels continues: "Fully developed iron tools, the bellows, the hand mill, the potter's wheel, the making of oil and wine, metal work the wagon and the war chariot, shipbuilding with beams and planks, the beginnings of architecture as art, walled cities with towers and battlements, the Homeric epic and a complete mythologythese are the chief legacy brought by the Greeks from barbarism into civilization" (p. 92).

It is evident that modern Western ideas of barbarism and civilization have a hierarchy built in. On the one hand, barbarians are seen as belligerent precursors of civilization. On the other hand, civilization is considered a culturally advanced stage of human development. Many of these ideas begin in ancient Greece.

Herodotus and the Barbarians

The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484420 b.c.e.) divides the world into those who speak Greek and those who do not. Barbarians are the latter. Herodotus writes: "But the Greek stock, since ever it was, has always used the Greek language, in my judgment. But though it was weak when it split off from the Pelasgians [originary Greek tribes], it has grown from something small to be a multitude of peoples by the accretion chiefly of the Pelasgians but of many other barbarian peoples as well" (p. 57). Herodotus further punctuates the Greek language: "But before that, it seems to me, the Pelasgian people, so long as it spoke a language other than Greek, never grew great anywhere" (p. 57). The Greeks saw the barbarians as fascinating enemies whose "natural status" was that of the slave (see Harrison, p. 3). Herodotus scrutinizes two "barbarian" cultures on the opposite ends of the spectrum: the Egyptians and the Scythians. In Egypt, the sky rarely rains while the river always rises when others fall; in Scythia, the sky rains in summer but not in winter while the river never changes; in Egypt, the Nile unites the land while in Scythia, the Danube divides the land into many districts; in Egypt there is one king while in Scythia there are many; in Egypt, they believe themselves to be the oldest of peoples while the Scythians believe themselves to be the youngest; in Egypt, culture is marked by strict religious rituals that rarely change while the Scythian culture illustrates constant change and varying rituals (see Herodotus, pp. 138290, cf. Redfield, pp. 3537). As Herodotus claims, the Egyptians know many things while the Scythians know one great thing, "how no invader who comes against them can ever escape and how none can catch them if they do not wish to be caught. For this people has no cities or settled forts; they carry their houses with them and shoot with bows from horseback; they live off herds of cattle, not from tillage, and their dwellings are on their wagons" (p. 298). At the time of Alexander the Great (356323 b.c.e.), the Persians were the main barbarian adversaries. Fighting his way through Asia, he arrived at Maracanda (Samarkand, Uzbekistan) in Sogdiana, the first meeting point of Eastern and Western civilizations (see Arrian, pp. 351537). Although Alexander occupied the fortified citadel, he was unable to secure it because of counterattacks by Scythian coalitions. A major city on the Silk Road, Samarkand was the site for Chinese paper mills established in the early eighth century (see Gernet, p. 288) and the center of a Turkic-Mongol empire under Tamerlane in the fourteenth century (see Nicolle). Tamerlane's grandson, Ulugh-Beg (13941449), was an astronomer who built an observatory at Samarkand and was the first since Ptolemy to compile a star chart.

Toynbee's Rhythm of History

Paying close attention to the ancient Greeks and Romans, Arnold Toynbee did not subscribe to a linear, hierarchical view of civilization. Even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's dialectical approach to history resulted in successive stages of development toward a desired end (see Marx and Engels, pp. 2340). Although Toynbee's own vision of human history was nostalgic for the lost past and pessimistic for the future, his comparative theory of civilizations (East and West) was linked to an acute understanding of Greek philosophy and an essentialist view of Chinese philosophy. Toynbee concentrates on the idea of a "rhythm" of history. On the one hand, Empedocles' ancient Greek philosophy sees the universe caught in the ebb and flow of a rhythmic alternation of the "integrating force" of love and the "disintegrating force" of hate, a unity arising from plurality and a plurality arising from unity (see Toynbee, 1935, pp. 200201). On the other hand, Chinese philosophy sees the universe caught in the ebb and flow of a rhythmic alternation of the "shadow" force of yin and the "sunshine" force of yang: "Each in turn comes into the ascendant at the other's expense; yet even at the high tide of its expansion it never quite submerges the other, so that, when its tide ebbs, as it always does after reaching high-water mark, there is still a nucleus of the other element left free to expand, as its perpetual rival and partner contracts" (p. 202). Toynbee's assessment of the growth and breakdown of civilizations is a yinyang beating out of "the song of creation" through challenge and response, withdrawal and return, and rout and rally (Toynbee, 1939, p. 324).

Through this rhythm of history, tensions between state and church are disrupted by an interregnum of barbarians that Toynbee calls collectively the Völkerwanderung (the wandering peoples). In the Western world, this refers to Germanic and Slavic tribes from the north on the borders of the Greco-Roman civilization as well as Sarmatians and Huns from the Steppes of Eastern Europe. Although they were all overthrown by stronger forces of civilization, these wandering tribes represent a barbarian "heroic age" (Toynbee, 1939). The Vandals and Ostrogoths were destroyed by Roman counteroffensives, while Visigoths succumbed to both Frankish and Arabian assaults. In the long run, Toynbee felt the barbarians had little impact on Western civilization because the church was more powerful in regard to cultural and philosophical transmissions (see 1935, pp. 5863, cf. Bury, pp. 177230).

Toynbee could not apply his yin-yang theory of history in any great detail to China itself. In Reconsiderations, he laments the lack of a classical Chinese upbringing: "I should, of course, have taken Chinese, not Hellenic, history as my model, and I should have seen Chinese history as a series of successive realizations of the ideal of a universal state, punctuated by intermediate lapses into disunion and disorder the Yin-Yang rhythm would be cyclical without having any regular periodicity" (1960, p. 188).

China's Yin-Yang Polarities

A closer look at China validates Toynbee's suspicions. China had ancient words for both "civilization" and "barbarism" that are still in use today. Wenming refers literally to a bright and clear culture that possesses writing, art, and literature. In China's classical world, the most used term for barbarian was hu (beard), which gave rise to expressions such as huche (talk nonsense) (see Wilkinson, p. 724). The Chinese word for barbarian combined both the Roman idea of barbarus ("the bearded one") and the Greek idea of barbar ("talk nonsense"). The Han dynasty expression yiyi gong yi ("use barbarians to attack barbarians") (see Wilkinson, p. 723) is reminiscent of Julius Caesar's deployment of subdued Germanic and Gallic cavalry at Alesia against Vercingetorix's Gallic horsemen (see Caesar, pp. 186, 218, 221).

Although the Greeks, Romans, and Japanese share a centralized view of their own respective civilizations, it is only the Chinese who name theirs as such. In the Wei and Jin periods (220420 c.e.), Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) and Huaxia (Cathay) were syncopated into Zhonghua (Central Cultural Florescence) (see Smith, p. 3), making civilization both a geographic and cultural entity for all under heaven. Even today, the term for "middle kingdom" is retained in the name of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo ). As Richard Smith, a renowned historian of China, maintains: "Barbarian conquest affirmed and reinforced this Sinocentric world view rather than shattering it" (p. 3). Like Toynbee, Smith sees every aspect of Chinese civilization, including barbarian intrusion, as following the polarities of yin and yang. He writes: "Yin and yang were, then (1) cosmic forces that produced and animated all natural phenomena; (2) terms used to identify recurrent, cyclical patterns of rise and decline, waxing and waning; (3) comparative categories, describing dualistic relationships that were inherently unequal but almost invariably complementary" (p. 4). Hence, yin and yang are mutually conditioning linked opposites that are co-constitutive of Chinese cosmology. When Smith writes that "the boundaries of China waxed and waned in response to periodic bursts of either Chinese expansion or 'barbarian' invasion" (p. 11), he echoes Toynbee's universal rhythm for civilizations as "the perpetual alternation of a Yin state of quiescence with a Yang burst of activity" (1960, p. 188).

Mongols and Manchu Emperors

Non-Han peoples as "outsiders" were "dynamically and inextricably intertwined" with Chinese civilization (Smith, p. 11). Confucians felt that barbarians could adopt Chinese culture and become Chinese (see Ebrey, p. 179). Therefore, the history of China is the history of barbarian withdrawal and return. The pressure of the Ruzhen (Jurchen descendants of the Xiongnu) invasion in the Jin dynasty and the Mongol attacks of the thirteenth century forced the southern courts to establish strict civil service examinations. As the Mongols Genghis Khan (c. 11621227) and his grandson Kublai Khan (r. 12601294) adapted to Chinese culture, Confucian-style civil service examinations were reestablished. In 1313 the commentaries of the neo-Confucian Zhu Xi were included in these examinations, where they lasted until 1904 (see Smith, p. 37). The overthrow of the Mongols by Chinese patriots in the Ming dynasty saw the reinstatement of a Qin-Han structure of civil, military, and despotic reign. In turn, the Ming were ousted by the Manchu (Tungusic descendants of the Ruzhen), who marked the beginning of the Qing dynasty. The Manchu were organized under banners or civil-military units distinguished by colored flags. Before 1644, their administrative units for conscription and taxation recruited Chinese and Mongols. By 1648, the "multi-ethnic army" of bannermen included less than 16 percent Manchu (see Naquin and Rawski, pp. 45). Like the Mongols, the Manchu adopted Chinese culture, allowing for a renaissance of ancient philosophy and literature (see Goulding). While the first emperor of China burned most of the books in the known world, the Manchu established the largest known library that included literature and philosophy of China's classical age (see Smith, p. 3; cf. Wilkinson, pp. 273277, 485). Although censorship saw the destruction of many Ming books, the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (17721782) resulted in seven sets of thirty-six thousand volumes (see Naquin and Rawski, p. 66). Whereas the Western world annihilated barbarians in a quest for civilization, the Eastern world accommodated them as co-constitutive elements of its yin-yang cosmology.

See also Confucianism ; History, Idea of ; Marxism ; Yin and Yang .


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Jay Goulding

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