The following is an excerpt from a 1976 interview with David Bowie in Playboy magazine:
|Q:||Do you consider yourself an original thinker?|
|A:||Not by any means. More like a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.|
And so it is with Islam.
After overrunning much of the civilized world during the latter half of the first millennium, Islam set about becoming a tasteful thief of the science, art, technology, and culture of its vanquished foes. Whatever was useful and furthered the advance of Dar al-Islam was borrowed and adopted by the Muslim conquerors, and anything else was discarded and forgotten.
Several centuries later, as Europe emerged from the chaos that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, the Europeans also became voracious borrowers. But the nature of their borrowing was different, and the evolution of Europe’s hybrid culture diverged dramatically from that of Islam.
Several weeks ago, after the Counterjihad Vienna conference concluded, a group of the participants interested in sampling the local brew (Gösser) adjourned to a nearby pub during the evening for further discussions. It was a lively and eclectic conversation, always returning to the same primary issues — the EU and the imminent Islamization of Europe — but ranging widely over related topics from history, literature, science, and art.
Halfway through the second round we started discussing the nature of European exceptionalism, and the possible reasons for it. The essay below summarizes some of the ideas that were discussed.
Beginning during the High Middle Ages — somewhere between the 12th and the 14th centuries A.D. — European technical and cultural development underwent an unprecedented acceleration. Starting from a position considerably behind contemporaneous civilizations — China, India, and the Arab World — the backward and benighted peoples of Europe raced ahead, and in just five brief centuries exploded across the globe to create the most powerful and advanced civilization that the world has ever known.
How did this come about? What made Europe different?
Like the Arabs, the Europeans of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance borrowed prodigiously from any other cultures they encountered. But, unlike the Arabs, Europeans incorporated, elaborated, and extended the knowledge and technology they acquired. Not content with simply utilizing what they stumbled across, they analyzed it, tried to understand it, and placed it within the ever-growing corpus of “philosophy”, the body of knowledge that built on and extended the Roman and Greek classics.
But European philosophy differed from its Classical predecessors. Greek science was contemplative: the Greeks believed that all essential knowledge about the world could be obtained by thinking and reasoning about it. In contrast, what became modern experimental science was a practical invention devised over several centuries by the polymaths of the European Renaissance.
The Romans, on the other hand, were the quintessential practical engineers. They invented, collected, and improved any technology that was useful, without inquiring deeply into the theory that lay behind it. They were enormously successful, and many aspects of Roman technology that were lost after the fall of the Empire were not rediscovered until the second millennium.
European science merged the Greek traditions with Roman practicality, and added a layer of something that was new and unique to Europe: the idea that coherent laws as ordained by God lay behind the observed manifestations of natural phenomena. Christian doctrine asserted that God’s laws were consistent and could be discerned by observation. The men who laid the foundations of modern science began their investigations under the assumption that they were uncovering the laws of God through the power of human reason.
As a result of this innovation, European science leapt far ahead of the Chinese and the Arabs in a relatively short period of time.
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Was it a purely Christian development, deriving from the doctrine devised in the monasteries and the universities during the Middle Ages? Or was it dependent upon something else?
There’s no way of knowing for sure, because the rest of Christian civilization — in the Near East, Asia Minor, North Africa, Central Asia, and Russia — was either snuffed out or suppressed by the successive conquests of the Arabs, the Mongols, the Tatars, the Turks, and all the other barbarian marauders who destroyed much of higher civilization.
Europe remained as the sole crucible of Christian learning, and from that crucible came the ideas that in due course became globally ascendant.
Even in military technology — which the Arabs had a vested interest in mastering — Europe forged ahead. The Chinese invented gunpowder, but it was the ingenuity of Europeans that turned the explosive substance into the deadliest of weapons. The different political entities of Europe competed with each other to find the most effective ways of destroying city walls, or blowing up advancing infantry, or penetrating the most well-crafted armor.
The Arabs and the Turks were reduced to buying, stealing, borrowing, and imitating European arms. Although it was vital, aggressive, and expansionist, Islamic civilization was neither inventive nor innovative. Invention and innovation were left to the Europeans; Muslims were the tasteful thieves, and always a step or two behind.
If the Europeans hadn’t been so fractious and fratricidal, the Arabs and the Ottomans would have been unable to conquer as much of the continent as they did.
The explosive growth of European science came about through the merger of two separate and distinct fields: philosophy (along with mathematics) and technology.
Other civilizations valued the disparate applications of technology, but tended not to connect the dots. A body of abstract theory was required to bridge different disciplines and encourage the cross-fertilization that drives innovation. The Chinese invented the necessary precursors for printing, but failed to extend the concepts and produce a printing press. As Fjordman points out, printing technology in the Far East was confined exclusively to religious uses:
The invention of woodblock printing during the Tang dynasty in China (around the seventh or eighth century AD) was intimately linked to Buddhist monasteries and art. Stamped figures of the Buddha marked the transition from seal impression to woodcut. Buddhism came to Japan via Korea and China, and monks brought with them, in addition to tea and thus the basis for the elaborate Japanese tea ceremonies, other aspects of Chinese civilization, among them printing. Yet this invention remained tied to religion for a long time. Until the sixteenth century, at roughly the same period as they encountered Europeans, the Japanese printed only Buddhist scriptures.
Hundreds of years later, Europeans took the same idea, elaborated on it, invented movable type, and developed for the first time in history the means to mass-produce written documents. The first major application of the new technology was to produce Gutenberg’s famous Bible, but the use of the printing press wasn’t confined to religious purposes. It immediately spread to all other disciplines and occupations in which the reproduction of documents was important.
It revolutionized our civilization, and it happened only in Europe. Why?
Or consider the science of optics. Arabs such as Ibn al-Haytham made significant contributions to the field, yet it was the Europeans of the Renaissance who drew together the separate strands of technology and mathematics to design and construct complex optical instruments such as the telescope and the microscope.
Furthermore, the practical applications weren’t all that interested the philosophers of the European Renaissance; they were also fascinated with the way that mathematics could be applied to human perception. Sir Isaac Newton’s treatise on Opticks led the way in the science of visual perception, but artists strove to use the same mathematical philosophy to understand the human eye and apply the results to the creation of art.
The discipline was never a matter of pressing practical importance, yet a wealth of artistic genius — from Leonardo to Carpaccio, Durer, and many others, culminating in the masterworks of Canaletto — was expended developing the mathematics of three-dimensional perspective, and applying it to drawings, paintings, and etchings.
No one had ever previously attempted to derive from geometry the necessary systematic methods to enhance the beauty of a work of art by simulating the perception of three dimensions on a flat surface.
Yet the Europeans of the Renaissance did it. Why?
If the laws of God were assumed to be rational, then human law could be molded in the same way. Beginning in England, and emerging soon afterwards in various parts of the Continent, the idea that the power of the monarch must be limited and codified by law revolutionized the political economy of Europe.
Over the course of several centuries, the kings and queens of Europe were transformed from absolute monarchs into the ceremonial heads of governments that were bound entirely by law. The caprice of the sovereign was replaced by rules elaborated entirely by man.
The invention of the rule of law stabilized and strengthened political systems. A country that lived according to permanent laws was more powerful and flexible over the long term. The law-based systems that evolved during the second half of the second millennium were based on Greek and Roman models and elaborated further by Christian theology. These systems came to dominate the globe.
Yet they all derived from Europe. Why?
For a thousand years, beginning during pagan times, the cultures of Europe expanded and migrated across the rest of the planet.
The Vikings were first, navigating their longboats across the seas and up the rivers from Greenland to the Barbary Coast, from Labrador to Samarkand and Baghdad. Next came the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the Spaniards, the French, and the English. The European explorers created a web of trading outposts and colonies that spanned the surface of the globe.
Conquest and colonization were included in the modus operandi for European expansion, but they were not the entirety of it: idealism and curiosity were part of the mix. The exploration of Africa was driven as much by Christian evangelism and the desire to discover hitherto unknown territory as it was by commercial interests and the pursuit of power.
Wherever the European soldier and trader went, they were accompanied by the missionary and the scholar. The missionary endured privation, disease, parasites, and unsanitary conditions to bring Christian enlightenment to the heathen. The scholar did the same in order to advance his own understanding of the world.
The relationships among all the Indo-European cultures is now well understood. Their interconnectedness, with a common cultural and linguistic ancestor in the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, was always there, a fact waiting to be uncovered. Yet it took the fieldwork of English and German philologists in India and Iran to piece together linguistic relationships among the Indo-European languages.
No other culture took the trouble to construct a science of linguistics that could draw such connections. No other culture explored the world as if it were a text to be decoded or a puzzle to be put together, all in the service of scholarly curiosity.
Yet the Europeans did this wherever they went. Why?
The expansion of philosophy as the Renaissance graded into the Enlightenment led to the development of an epistemology that strayed further and further from its theological roots. Christian hermeneutics was no longer sufficient to encompass the knowledge that drove the European ascendancy. Science, art, and philosophy became divorced from God.
The process that began with Newton and Descartes reached its apotheosis — if such a word can be used to describe atheist orthodoxy — with Postmodernism and Deconstruction. In hindsight the entire path of European intellectual self-destruction is clear: the Deists, Rousseau, the French Revolution, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Proudhon, Einstein, Gramsci, Heisenberg, Marcuse, Sartre, Derrida, and Foucault: a progression that leads from the understanding via reason of immutable celestial laws, to relativism, nihilism, and the denial that meaning exists.
European genius contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. From the certainty and assurance of mastery to absolute self-doubt in just four centuries: Europe perfected the heuristics that would all but guarantee its own demise.
From unprecedented achievement to self-imposed barbarism in such a short time: how could it possibly happen?
The greatest civilization in human history arose in Europe, and then decided that it no longer deserved to exist.