Posted on May 13, 2011

Why the West Dominated

Steven Farron, American Renaissance, December 2009

The purpose of this article is to continue the discussion that was begun by Robert Henderson’s insightful and important article, “Why Have Asians Not Dominated?” which appeared in the October 2009 issue of American Renaissance. I will first demonstrate the little known but vitally important fact that by 1600 Europe was already far ahead of China in science, mathematics, and technology. Then I will propose a crucial cause of Western pre-eminence.

To illustrate the first point I will use what is arguably the most important single source for differences in achievement and culture between Europe and China: the diaries and reports that the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci wrote about his experiences in China from 1583 until his death in 1610. An edited version was published in 1615, and an English translation was published in 1953 with the title China in the 16th Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583-1610. Wherever Father Ricci’s account can be checked against Chinese sources, it has been found to be accurate. Sinologists recognize it as an invaluable historical source.

Soldiers from the Terracotta Army

Soldiers from the Terracotta Army

One of the most striking aspects of Ricci’s experiences in China was that wherever he went, he was accorded the highest honors, including being welcomed into the Forbidden City of Beijing. This is remarkable because, as Ricci recorded:

The Chinese look upon all foreigners as illiterate and barbarous … They even disdain to learn anything from the books of outsiders because they believe that all true science and knowledge belongs to them alone. If perchance they have occasion to make mention of externs [foreigners] in their own writings, they treat them as though there was no room for doubt that they differ but little from the beasts of the field and of the forest. Even the written characters by which they express the word foreigner are those that are applied to beasts. (pages 88-9)

He added:

The Chinese are so self-opinionated that they cannot be made to believe that the day will ever come when they will learn anything from foreigners which is not already set down in their own books.” (page 142)

Nevertheless, Ricci was treated with the highest respect. The reason was that Chinese officials, scholars, and common people were struck with awe by his demonstrations of European geographical and astronomical knowledge, theoretical and applied mathematics, and technology.

Wherever Ricci went, his maps and globes aroused amazement. In Nanjing, the president of the magistrates “took great pleasure in studying” a map of the world, “wondering that he could see the great expanse of the world depicted on such a small surface.” (pages 301-2) In Beijing, the emperor had twelve copies made in silk on large panels of a map of the world that Ricci had drawn, so that he could give them to his sons and other relatives. (page 536)

Father Ricci's map

Father Ricci’s map

These maps caused such excitement because, as Ricci explained, before he arrived, “the Chinese had never seen a geographical exposition of the entire surface of the earth, either in the form of a globe or as presented on the plane surface of a map, nor had they seen the earth’s surface divided by meridians, parallels or degrees.” (page 326)

[T]he Chinese . . . are grossly ignorant of what the world in general is like … [T]heir universe was limited to their own fifteen provinces, and in the sea painted around it they had placed a few little islands to which they had given the names of different kingdoms they had heard of. All of these islands put together would not be as large as the smallest of the Chinese provinces.” (pages 166-7)

“Formerly, they had thought that … the earth is flat. They did not know that the whole surface of the earth is inhabited or that men can live on the opposite side without falling off. (page 325)


Aristotle was 2,000 years ahead of the Chinese.

The Chinese were just as astonished by European theoretical mathematics and astronomy. Ricci had studied these subjects under Christopher Clavius, the German Jesuit who was one of the foremost mathematicians of the age and was responsible for the Gregorian calendar, which is now used in all non-Muslim countries.

Aristotle had explained the rules of logical deduction nearly two thousand years earlier. However, Ricci noted that the Chinese “have no conception of the rules of logic.” (page 30) Ricci and a Chinese Christian convert therefore translated the first six books of Euclid’s Elements (of geometry) into Mandarin:

[N]othing pleased the Chinese as much as the Elements of Euclid. This was perhaps due to … the Chinese … method of teaching, in which they propose all kinds of propositions but without demonstrations. The result of such a system is that anyone is free to exercise his wildest imagination relative to mathematics, without offering a definite proof of anything. In Euclid, on the contrary, they recognize something different, namely, propositions presented in order and so definitely proven that even the most obstinate could not deny them. (pages 476-7)

As for astronomy, Ricci recorded that the Chinese “did not realize that an eclipse of the moon was caused by the earth coming between the moon and the sun … It was new to them to learn that the sun was larger than the entire earth.” (pages 325, 327)

More significantly:

Their count of the stars outnumbers the calculations of our astronomers by fully four hundred . . . And yet with all this, the Chinese astronomers take no pains whatever to reduce the phenomena of celestial bodies to the discipline of mathematics … [T]hey center their whole attention on that phase of astronomy which our scientists term astrology. (pages 30-31)

Prague astronomical clock

The Prague astronomical clock, built in the 15th Century, is still running.

Elsewhere Father Ricci observed, “Their primitive science of astronomy knew nothing of eccentric orbits and epicycles.” (page 326) So he made “astronomical spheres and globes … illustrating the heavens … When these various devices were exhibited and their purpose explained, showing the position of the sun, the courses of the stars and the central position of the earth,” Ricci “was looked upon as the world’s greatest astronomer.” (page 169)

Ricci still assumed that the earth is in the center of the universe. His knowledge of astronomy had not advanced beyond the ancient Greeks, who were the first people who tried to explain the motion of the heavenly bodies. To do that, they hypothesized orbits. But they thought that the earth is in the center of the universe, and to make these orbits correspond to observed celestial movements, they had to make them off-center (“eccentric”), and to hypothesize smaller orbits (“epicycles”) that revolved in the larger orbits. That is what Ricci demonstrated to the Chinese. The Chinese were amazed because they had never attempted to explain the movements of heavenly bodies.

It was because Europeans kept trying to conceptualize the movements of heavenly objects that the ancient Greeks created a geocentric model; then Copernicus, dissatisfied with its awkwardness and inconsistencies, revised it; Kepler improved Copernicus’ revision; and Newton figured out the universal laws that explain Kepler’s improved version.

The eminent physicist Stephen Hawking wrote in A Briefer History of Time that “ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. We have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world.” (page 18) He is wrong. That craving began with the ancient Greeks and has existed only in European culture and those cultures influenced by the West.

By 1600, European technology and applied mathematics were also already vastly superior to those of China. Ricci wrote that a clock “was an object of wonder.” (page 201) The Chinese were amazed not only by the fact that clocks told time, but also that they rang a bell at each hour. Ricci noted that “they could never quite make out how it could ring of itself, without anyone touching it.” (page 194)


Quadrants were unknown to the Chinese.

Clocks were hardly the only European invention that dazzled the Chinese. One of the many that Ricci mentions was the use of quadrants with limbs graduated in degrees to measure distances. “They marveled that one could figure the height of a tower, the depth of a ditch or of a valley, or the length of a road by means of quadrants,” Ricci noted. (page 326) In Nanjing, he let the public view the presents he was bringing to the emperor: “[V]isitors came in crowds to see them. The novelty of the gifts surpassed their expectations to such an extent that astonishment robbed many of their power to praise them, and they seemed never to tire of examining them and of talking about them.” (page 348)

Ricci also noted that the Chinese calendar was inaccurate and that although Chinese astronomers spent a great deal of time trying to predict eclipses, they made “innumerable errors.” (page 31) After Ricci’s death, in 1629, the emperor’s astronomers predicted that a solar eclipse would occur at 10:30 on June 21 and last two hours. The Jesuits predicted that the eclipse would be at 11:30 and last only two minutes. The Jesuits’ prediction was accurate. As a result, the emperor asked the Jesuits to revise the Chinese calendar.

Among the other innovations the Jesuits introduced into China in the 16th and 17th centuries were the Archimedes screw pump (a cylinder enclosing a screw used to lift water for irrigation), algebraic notation, the telescope, logarithm tables, the slide rule, and such European tools for making instruments as graduated scales and micrometer screws.

Europeans and Multiculturalism

Roman sewer

Roman sewer.

I will quote one more of Father Ricci’s observations:

When they [the Chinese] set about building, they seem to gauge things by the span of a human life . . . Whereas, Europeans in accordance with the urge of their civilization seem to strive for the eternal. This trait of theirs [the Chinese] makes it impossible for them … to give credence … when we tell them that many of our buildings have withstood the elements for … a hundred years and some even for one or two thousand years … [T]hey do not dig into the ground to build up foundations, but merely place large stones on the unbroken surface of the ground; or, if they do dig foundations, these do not go deeper than a yard or two … [M]ost of their buildings are constructed of wood, or if made in masonry they are covered in by roofs supported by wooden columns. (pages 19-20)

It is typical of Ricci’s objectivity that he refers to Europeans in the third person: “Europeans in accordance with the urge of their civilization.”

Ricci also translated the Confucian Four Books into Latin because “it is no use at all to know only our learning without knowing theirs;” and, with another Italian Jesuit, compiled a Portuguese-Mandarin dictionary, for which they developed the first consistent system for transcribing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet. Father Ricci’s interest in other civilizations, his objectivity when describing them, and his desire to acquaint other Europeans with them have always been fundamental and unique characteristics of Western civilization.

From the beginning of European civilization, with the ancient Greeks, Europeans have been multiculturalists; and Europeans have been the world’s only multiculturalists. The first extant European history was written by Herodotus in the fifth century BC. The Greek word historia meant investigation, and Herodotus’ historia is as much what we call anthropology as history. He recorded and analyzed what he learned during his travels throughout Egypt, as far east as modern Iran, and along the coast of the Black Sea. He was fascinated by the diversity of human cultures and expected his readers to be fascinated. He was also rigorously non-judgmental, emphasizing that custom determines what people think is right and wrong; as he wrote in Book 3, Chapter 38, “custom is king.”

Ancient Greek literature reflected the same attitude to non-Greeks, beginning with the first extant work of European literature, the Iliad, which Homer composed in the eighth century BC. The Iliad narrates events in the tenth year of the Greek siege of Troy. Homer showed as much sympathy for the Trojans as for the Greeks. In particular, he portrayed the leading Trojan warrior, Hector, in a loving interaction with his wife and son, as well as the agony of Hector’s bereaved parents after he was killed by the leading Greek warrior, Achilles. Such sympathy is uniquely European. Surely, it never occurred to the author of the First Book of Samuel to depict the grief of Goliath’s parents after David killed him.

Aztec sacrifice

A sign of “surpassing religiosity?”

Sympathy often became self-flagellation. In the fifth century BC, Euripides wrote two plays — Hecuba and Trojan Women — in which he depicted the Greeks’ savage cruelty to the defenseless Trojan women and children after the capture of Troy. (All plays in Athens were performed before mass audiences.) The brutality of the Greeks to the defeated, defenseless Trojans was also a favorite subject of ancient Greek vase painting. By contrast, the narrative sculpture of the Assyrians, who dominated the Middle East from the ninth to the end of the seventh century BC, represented defeated enemies with pyramids of stacked-up skulls, communicating no feeling except triumph.

The ancient Romans had the same fascination with foreign cultures as the Greeks. Examples are Julius Caesar’s description of the Gauls in his Gallic War; Sallust’s of the peoples of North Africa in his Jugurtha; and Tacitus’ of the Germans and natives of Britain in his Germania and Agricola. No other ancient people had such an interest. When the ancient Egyptians mentioned other nationalities, they nearly always attached adjectives like “vile” and “lowly” to their names.

The Romans also shared the Greeks’ penchant for self-denigration. The Roman Empire extended from Scotland to the Sahara Desert and from the Atlantic Ocean to the border of what is now Iraq. The population of that huge area enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. To take two examples, literacy was so widespread that most orders and regulations in the Roman army were written, because all soldiers were literate; and the cities and towns of the Roman Empire had purer water and more efficient sewage disposal than any European city was to have again until the 1870s. Large areas of North Africa and the Middle East still have not recovered the level of literacy or of sanitation that they had when they were part of the Roman Empire. Also, contrary to Hollywood depictions, slaves never rowed ships in the ancient world, and slavery played only a minor role in the Roman economy. Nevertheless, the Romans dwelt obsessively on every injustice and brutality that they committed in their history. (When I would point that out to my South African students, at least a few would always observe, “So they were like Americans.”)

One way in which the Romans denigrated themselves was through the ethnographic descriptions of foreign cultures that I mentioned. These served two purposes. One was to provide information, which was usually accurate. But their authors also used them to cast a harshly negative light on their own, Roman, civilization.

Chief Seattle

Hollywood version of Chief Seattle.

Nearly every Roman who wrote a description of a foreign people created at least one vitriolic anti-Roman speech and put it into the mouth of an enemy of Rome. The best known is in Chapters 30-32 of Tacitus’ Agricola: The Romans are “robbers of the earth … They apply the fraudulent name empire to plunder, slaughter, and theft; where they create a desert, they call it peace.”

Another way in which the Romans used ethnographic descriptions to castigate themselves was with comparisons between the (usually imagined) virtues of other peoples and their own (greatly exaggerated) vices. The best known is in chapters 18-19 of Tacitus’ Germania, in which he contrasted the Germans’ marital fidelity with the casual attitude towards adultery of Roman society. Among the Germans, “no one laughs at vice; nor is seducing and being seduced called the spirit of the age.” I would add that Tacitus was not just the greatest ancient Roman historian; he was a senator, who held many high positions, including governor of what is now western Turkey.

Europeans have ever since used other cultures, especially primitive cultures (or even talking horses, as in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), to criticize themselves. Most readers of this article can think of many examples; I will provide only three. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was as erudite, intellectually sophisticated, and skeptical a man as ever lived. His motto was Que sçais-je? (What do I know?) Yet, in his essay Des cannibales (“On Cannibals”), he wrote that the natives of Brazil retain their “vigorous” “natural virtues” and “pure and simple” “naturalness” because they have been “very little corrupted” by contact with the vanity and frivolity of Europeans. The natives of Brazil “surpass … the conceptions and the very desire of philosophy … The words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon are unheard of [among them].”

Europeans have been so desperate to show the superiority of primitive peoples over themselves that they have even praised human sacrifice. That includes a Catholic priest. Father Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) wrote in his Apologia that the Aztecs “surpassed all other nations in religiosity, because the most religious nations are those that offer their own children in sacrifice for the good of their people.” He explained that “one could argue convincingly, on the basis of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, that God does not entirely hate human sacrifice.” (In fact, one of the main purposes of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is to show that God does not want human sacrifice. Las Casas must have known that the Old Testament repeatedly and vehemently condemns human sacrifice.)

Muslims were astonished that Europeans had translated the Koran.

My third example is more recent. In Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992), ex-vice president and anti-global-warming crusader Albert Gore quoted (page 259) as an ecological ideal the reply of Chief Seattle to President Pierce’s offer in 1855 to buy his tribe’s land, “How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us … Every part of the earth is sacred to my people … [T]he earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.” Gore describes this speech as “one of the most moving and frequently quoted explanations” of American Indians’ attitude to the environment.

It has, indeed, been frequently quoted, but only since 1971, when screenwriter Ted Perry wrote it for an ABC television drama. The real Chief Seattle, who owned slaves and murdered nearly all his rivals, praised President Pierce for the generosity of his offer. The American Indians, like all primitive peoples, slaughtered animals and destroyed vegetation with wanton recklessness.

In addition to a strong propensity to self-denigration, modern Europeans also share with the ancient Greeks and Romans a powerful desire to learn as much as they can about other civilizations. From the time of the Arab conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans studied Arabic and tried to learn about the Arabs. Pope Clement V (1305-14) urged universities to establish chairs in Arabic. Permanent chairs in Arabic were established at the Collège de France in 1538, the University of Leiden before the end of the sixteenth century, Cambridge in 1632, and Oxford in 1636.

Edward Gibbon recorded in his Autobiography (page 79 of the edition by D. A. Saunders) that when he entered Oxford in 1752, he considered studying Arabic because “Oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] learning has always been the pride of Oxford.” Well before that, Europeans had written many grammars and dictionaries of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish; translations and editions of Muslim books; and analyses of Muslim literature and religion. In fact, the first book printed by a printing press in England (1477), Dictes [sic] and Sayings of the Philosophers, was an English version of an Arabic book by Mubashir Ibn Fatik. By 1603, 49 books on the Turks had been published in English. Of all the books published in France between 1480 and 1700, more than twice as many were about the Turkish Empire as about North and South America. It was Europeans and Americans who deciphered the ancient languages of Egypt, Persia, and Mesopotamia and reconstructed their ancient histories.

Father Matteo Ricci

Statue of Fr. Ricci in Peking.

This fascination with foreign cultures is uniquely Western. The Chinese attitude to foreigners, which Father Ricci described, has characterized all non-Western societies. The Arabs ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years; the Turks ruled most of southeastern Europe for nearly 500 years. But neither the Arabs nor Turks had any interest in learning European languages. They used European converts to Islam as interpreters.

An excellent illustration of this parochialism is the most eminent Muslim historian of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Turk, Mustafa Naima (1665-1716), who lived most of his life in Istanbul. Naima was unusually objective, inquisitive, and open-minded for a Muslim historian. He was judicious and critical in his use of sources. Historians still rely on his major work, which was translated in 1832 with the title Annals of the Turkish Empire from 1591-1659 of the Christian Era.

However, Naima knew nothing about Europe. In the preface to his Annals, he saw nothing incongruous about comparing Europe of the time he was writing (1704) with Europe of the Crusaders. Both had many Germans and both had an emperor! (pages ix-x) Naima was a contemporary of Newton, Leibnitz, Leeuwenhoek, and Locke. Yet, after listing now totally forgotten Turkish religious scholars, he wrote, “This much is sufficient to awaken the envy of the Christians.” (page ix)

The French conquest and occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801 forced a few Egyptian Muslims to take Europeans seriously. Fortunately, one of them, Abdul Al-Jabarti, wrote detailed observations about the French in Egypt. An English translation has been published with the title Napoleon in Egypt: Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the French Occupation (expanded edition, 2004). Al-Jabarti criticized the French Republic’s hostility to Christianity and the granting of equal rights to Egyptian Christians and Jews. (pages 28, 32, 189-90) But he praised the French for their humane treatment of the Egyptians they employed in public works, to whom they paid wages, instead of conscripting them and driving them with whips, as Egyptian governments had done. (page 195) He also expressed wonder and amazement at European science and technology (pages 110, 195) and at the fact that “the glorious Qur’an is translated into their language! Also many other Islamic books … many verses of which they know by heart. They … make great efforts to learn the Arabic language … In this they strive day and night.” (page 110)

So, an obsession with self-criticism and a passion to learn as much as possible about other civilizations have been among the unique and fundamental characteristics of Western civilization since its beginning. These characteristics have undoubtedly contributed to another characteristic that is as uniquely and fundamentally Western: ceaseless, incessant change, adaptation, and improvement. This characteristic must be a basic cause of the West’s rise to world predominance, even over Orientals, despite their somewhat higher average intelligence.

To illustrate the importance of these characteristics, I will return again to Father Ricci’s diaries. He noted that the best Chinese paper was vastly inferior to European paper. “It cannot be written or printed on both sides … Moreover, it tears easily and does not stand up well against time.” (page 16) Yet, the Chinese invented paper centuries before it was used in Europe. In 1620, Francis Bacon observed in Book I, Chapter 129 of his Novum Organum (New Instrument) that printing, gunpowder, and the compass “have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world … no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” All three were invented in China centuries before Europeans began using them, but only Europeans developed them and applied them to transform their society and then the entire world. Ricci observed that “the Chinese are not expert in the use of guns and artillery and make but little use of them in war.” (page 18) By Ricci’s time, Europeans had used the compass to explore and map the entire world, while the Chinese thought that the world consisted of China and a few small off-shore islands.

Gutenberg printing press

Of these inventions, printing is obviously the most valuable. By 1500, less than fifty years after Gutenberg printed the first book with interchangeable metallic type, 236 European cities and towns had printing presses, and Europeans had printed 30,000 titles — about 20 million books in total — in more than a dozen languages. (By 1483, printing type had been cast in the Cyrillic alphabet and in Greek by 1501.) The Spanish had set up printing presses in Latin America by 1533 and the Portuguese in their colony of Goa, in India, by 1557. By 1600, when the population of Europe was approximately 100 million, between 140 and 200 million books had been printed. By 1605, newspapers had appeared, at first specializing in business news.

Everywhere else in the world, nearly all books continued to be copied by hand into the 19th century. The first printing press in the Muslim world was established in Istanbul in 1727, by a Hungarian convert to Islam, who employed a Jew as master printer. By 1815, 63 titles (an average of fewer than one a year) were printed in Istanbul, the intellectual center of the Muslim world; and most of these titles were printed in quantities of less than a thousand copies. The first printing press in Egypt was established by the French, when they occupied it in 1798. By contrast, the Qur’an in Arabic was printed in Venice in 1530, nearly two centuries before any book was printed in the Muslim world.

To anyone reared in the West, the indifference of the entire non-Western world to such a spectacularly useful innovation as printing seems amazing. The reason for this indifference is that all non-Western cultures have had the same attitude of smug self-congratulation and disdain for foreigners as Father Ricci noted among the Chinese.

The self-criticism and fascination with other civilizations that have characterized Western civilization from its beginning have been a crucial factor in its rise to predominance.

However, self-criticism and fascination with other civilizations could be positive forces only while large population movements between civilizations did not occur. When large numbers of non-Westerners began to flow into Western countries, these same factors became suicidal. Aristotle observed that there are two types of vices: those that derive from a vicious nature and those that are the excesses of virtues.