Cenotaph for an Enlightenment Ideal: Why Europe Really Conquered the World

A cenotaph is a marker or monument to a person whose remains are interred somewhere else. Pictured above is Enlightenment architect Étienne-Louis Boullée’s famous design for a massive cenotaph in honor of Sir Isaac Newton. It is a wonderful example of the European hubris of the age, a hubris that cast a long shadow from which we, as Europe’s manufactured cultural heirs, have yet to fully emerge.

I am finishing William McNeill’s A World History, which, despite a handful of drawbacks, continues the author’s wonderful ability to step out of that shadow. For example, to appreciate Europe for what it is — a derivative culture (like Russia), a semi-barbarous fringe that, as it civilized, grafted itself imperfectly onto the high cultures it sacked and destroyed, namely Rome, and through her ancient Greece. Europe was never a true descendant. She wasn’t even adopted. She was just a really big fan.

That we are the legacy of ancient Greece is a myth invented after the Renaissance. Its falsity is evidenced by the sad fact that many of the works of Aristotle, who provided the entire foundation of medieval Scholasticism (on which the Renaissance was built), came to Europe, not from her supposed parentage, but through Islamic science, which had preserved them from the ravages of the very barbarian peoples now asking for them back. And in return we gave them the Crusades.
I want you to think about that for a moment. It’s as if we collectively invaded someone’s home, killed the family who lived there, burned most of their belongings, and then camped out on their front lawn for a few centuries. Staring at the husk of their house every day, and getting tired of living in a tent, we start to feel a kinship with the line we ended. So we make their house our own — with some changes of course — and tell everyone we’re the children of the people who lived there. And after asking the neighbors if they managed to save any of the dead family’s belongings — luckily they had —  we tried to burn their house as well. Failing that, we put up a fence and mimic the dead family’s old habits, at least as near as we can glean from a handful of pictures, and remark how clever we are for it, despite that we have no relation to those people at all.

Its not just creepy, it’s downright psycho.

McNeill is also good at avoiding the traditional trap of world history texts, which is the silo approach (see J.M. Roberts or the Durants). In other words: here’s what was going on in China; here’s what was going on in Persia at the same time; here’s what was going on in Europe after that; etc. While his chapters are geographically organized, McNeill addresses the world in one lot. Thus he can cover the rapid political consolidation that happened in Japan under Hideyoshi, and thence Tokugawa Ieyasu, in less than one page simply by pointing out that Japan was succumbing to the same package of technological, military, and civil bureaucratic changes that half a world away had consolidated Prussia, a completely novel European state, from so many princely statelets.

It’s fascinating to me because as much as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel explained why it was that people from the Eurasian landmass were always most likely to advance quickest (versus, say, Africa or the New World), Diamond did little to explain how it was that Europe, something of a backwater in 1450  — hence the need for her to invent auspicious parentage — managed to conquer the world rather than the most advanced society on the planet at the time, which was clearly China.

That, by the way, is the main reason I have always been fascinated by the “treasure fleets” of Zheng He, a eunuch admiral under the great Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, third ruler of the Ming dynasty. The fleets were massive, with some of the individual ships larger than the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria combined. Over several campaigns, they sailed as far as Africa and the Middle East, and this some sixty years before Columbus. China had a massive head start. And a ridiculous numerical advantage. And she invented gunpowder!

McNeill proposes no radical new theory explaining China’s eclipse, but he does a nice job of synthesizing some of the front runners. Of course, such a complex topic is going to see a lot of disagreement, particularly among experts, who often spend too much time pruning the trees to appreciate the forest, which is what the world historians do.

But first, it’s important to note there are different kinds of valid explanations. This rubs some people the wrong way — the dogmatically scientific in particular, who always want there to be one and only one answer to any question — but it’s real and especially acute in historical analysis, which must not only explain the cause-and-effect of why something did happen, but also why something else, which might have happened elsewhere, did not.

The scale of our explanations matter, as Richard Lewontin pointed out in his wonderfully short Biology as Ideology. Is the reason so many people died of cholera in the 19th century because they contracted a bug? Or because the economy and class structure of European capitalism prevented access to clean water by the poor?

One can give a seemingly satisfactory account of the turn in the balance of power from Far East to Far West that occurred from 1500-1850 solely by appealing to Europe’s intrinsic awesomeness — that she had the gumption to develop property rights, or a market economy, or a proselytizing faith, or whatever aspect of your current ideology you are looking to justify — and leave it there, completely omitting any discussion of why. You can do this kind of shoddy history and get major grants from conservative organizations looking for evidence that a low marginal tax rate on the wealthy is key to both national security and economic prosperity, and so make a big name for yourself.

But you’d be wrong.

One of the things science teaches us is that humans are not genetically diverse, less even than our closest relatives, chimpanzees. We’re simply too young of a species. All the peoples of the earth are, when gathered in sufficient number, possessed of the same basic faculties. There are smart, inventive people everywhere, and appeals to “intrinsic” superiority, besides being morally distasteful, flatly contradict the evidence from molecular genetics.

One can claim cultural superiority, but even if that’s true — and it’s never quite clear how we would measure it — that doesn’t really answer the question. It’s the same as blaming the cholera epidemic on a bug. If you accept that Europe’s culture was inherently superior, whatever that means, you still have to explain why or else you’ve merely passed the buck to the next turtle down.

The East-to-West turn has to be built on something solid, such as the physiography of the lands in question: their natural endowments, their flora and fauna, their diseases and disease vectors, and so on. Diamond’s book peeled back each of these layers so meticulously that it’s hard for me to imagine he might be wrong about Eurasia as a whole (but of course it’s possible). We’re on less solid ground when it comes to “why Europe and not China?”

McNeill’s synthesis is multifactorial, so those looking for a silver bullet will be disappointed. But it starts with landmass. China is effectively a broad plain centered around two massive river systems, the Yellow and the Yangtze, whereas Europe is one giant glacial scar pockmarked by high mountains — the Alps, unlike the Rockies, are still growing — and deep valleys with numerous and independent fast-moving rivers. China’s geography favors political consolidation, especially after the Grand Canal (segments dug in the 5th century BC but not completed until the Sui dynasty a thousand years later, about the time Rome was being sacked) linked the Yellow and Yangtze together. Europe’s geography does not.

What’s more, the prevalence of so many fast-moving rivers allowed for the creation of a middling mercantile exchange based on rough commodities. That is, the medieval sheep herders in the hills could afford to send their wool to market because there’s a river that takes it directly there, avoiding the exorbitant, largely road-less cost of land transport, as well as any kind of central canal system where commodities would be taxed by both middlemen and the sovereign. The goods brought to market in China, such as silk or that country’s famous porcelain, were predominantly for the wealthy since they were the only people who could afford to buy at market price. Goods bartered in Europe on the other hand included items common folk could afford, such as coarse woolen cloth, and this proto-middle burger economy, underwritten by geography, tilted power subtly away from central authority, especially compared to China.

Take Magna Carta. One has a hard time imagining a group of nobles squeezing such protections from the Chinese Emperor. But even for all its significance, Magna Carta applied only in England, one country in Europe — and at the time not even a very important one — whereas the Son of Heaven ruled all that he could see.

Furthermore, China’s advanced arts and sciences as well as her abundant rain fall — rice requires significantly more water than wheat but also produces significantly more calories per hectare — and proximity to the spice islands meant that there was little to interest her in the world. Zheng He brought nothing back that the Chinese coveted. In fact, he confirmed their suspicions that they were the Middle Kingdom, the center of the earth. When later Ming emperors tallied the cost of the treasure fleets and dismantled them in favor of a Great Wall and land-based military to protect her border with Mongolia, they made overseas travel — and the import of dangerous ideas — illegal. China’s political consolidation meant the entire nation had to comply. That no aristocrats significantly objected, or turned secretly to piracy, shows just how little they believed the rest of the world could inflate their position at home. China was just that far ahead.

By comparison, Europe was so politically (and religiously) fractured that she had no hope of ever mounting a coherent response to the Ottoman Turks, who overran the Christian Byzantine Empire in 1453, right about the time the Ming outlawed overseas travel. That gave the Muslims a foothold in the Balkans, and thereafter they inched closer to Vienna. But it also meant that, when a firebrand Christian fundamentalist couldn’t get support for his crazy ideas from his own sovereign, that wasn’t the end of it. He had choices. He could peddle his plan to conquer the Holy Land next door in Spain, who gave Columbus three ships. (His ultimate goal, by the way, was exactly conquest, but not of the New World. A short route to the spice islands would be lucrative and could finance a huge army with which to finally realize the Crusaders’ dream of a knife in the heart of Islam.)

Europe’s dense forests, rocky soil, and cool climate, especially its significant annual cloud cover, meant that much of the rare fruits and spices — pepper, bananas, sugar, etc. — that the wealthy so coveted couldn’t be grown. They had to be imported. Europe was just impoverished enough to make her covet her neighbors’ wealth, and after Columbus, she found much in the world to tempt her. What followed was an explosion: Cabral, Magellan, de Gama, Pizarro, Cortes, and so on — an arms race of discovery, not to conquer but to provide exactly what the Chinese didn’t find: wealth and leverage for the political struggle back home.

But Europe had a problem. China’s ample but dirt-poor peasantry ensured a steady supply of forced labor such that her aristocrats had no need to augment it with either machines or slaves from overseas. By contrast, Europe’s agricultural base, determined by her climate, couldn’t approach the Chinese model. Europe’s numerous swift-moving rivers, however, gave her an easy means of augmenting her labor deficits by harnessing the power of gravity — first in the form of highland mills (closer to the sheep, you see), which later provided a mechanical knowledge base upon which to realize the steam engine. Personally I’m not at all surprised Watt was a Scotsman.

But just as the Europeans began their penetration of the globe, the geographic separation of the New World tribes ensured their utter decimation at the hands of diseases that had long since become endemic across Eurasia. The Americas offered a bounty of natural resources, and enough silver to trigger a price revolution that stretched all the way to Japan. Yet, while the local peoples were incapable of mounting a defense — a circumstance that had never before in the history of the world faced a group of would-be conquerors and which arose, not from European inventiveness, but from complete geographic and biological happenstance — the lands those peoples now sparsely inhabited were absent the labor necessary to exploit them.

The European solution was cruel but effective. The combination of slavery and automation proved so ruthlessly efficient that within two centuries England could purchase slaves from Africa, ship them at heavy losses across the Atlantic, ship the cotton they grew to the textile mills back home, and ship the finished product from England all the way to India, and still undercut the price of locally-produced cloth. (No, globalization is not new.) It’s easy to imagine a more humanitarian solution would not have put Europe on such favorable terms vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and if European culture contributed anything unique, it was to extend the application of technologies invented elsewhere to their cold-blooded extreme: slavery, gunpowder, disease.

China, for her part, remained completely content at home — although no less brutal to her peasantry — and necessarily ignorant of what was going on in the Atlantic. When she abandoned overseas travel in the 15th century, Korean and Japanese pirates quickly invaded her coasts. When the Portuguese, with their superior ships and weaponry, displaced them in the 16th century, the Chinese barely took notice. To them, one group of barbarians had simply supplanted another. Smart, reasonable governors saw no reason for alarm because, as McNeill notes, there was none. There was no grand European plan, no hint of conquest. At each stage of the story, there were only people making the best decisions they could with what they’d been given, which is why understanding what they’d been given is so important.

Of course, I’ve hardly given the whole story, as if I could cover it all here! It’s important to remember that, even as late as the Napoleonic Wars, it was far from certain that Western culture would prove so enticing and corrosive that the Chinese, even as they cast off overt British rule a century later, would replace the political theory of Confucius, which had guided them for over two millennia, with that of a European, Karl Marx. (At least, for a time anyway… Hint hint.) We must remember that nothing is set and change always a possibility. At each era we must understand the why as well as the why not, and we must never look on the past as determined. For it was to those who lived it as the future is to us now.

However, I hope I’ve given you a taste of the kinds of novel scholarship now emerging from the long shadow of Enlightenment hubris, where the best explanations, even into the late 20th century, were some version of “Europeans are just intrinsically awesome.” Let’s hope the point of view implied by Boullée’s cenotaph is as dead as the man it honors.

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