brueghel tower of babel

Another review from the archives while I am away, the last hopefully before normal service resumes on Pandaemonium. This is a review of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Civilizations, first published in the Independent on Sunday, 8 October 2000.

‘It can now be asserted upon convincing evidence that savagery preceded barbarism in all the tribes of mankind, as barbarism is known to have preceded civilization.’ So wrote Victorian anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1877 classic Ancient Societies. According to Morgan, savagery, barbarism and civilization ‘are connected with each other in a natural as well as a necessary sequence of progress.’

The idea of history as progressing in a series of natural stages from savagery to civilization is a very Victorian notion, testament to the values of a bygone era. Ours is an age deeply skeptical both of the idea of historical progress and of the capacity of humans to be civilized. No one articulates better such skepticism than the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The notion of ‘civilization’, he points out, is often a self-serving one, defining as ‘civilized’ the culture to which one belongs. This was particularly the case with nineteenth century European ideas of civilization, rooted in racial theory, which saw Europe at the summit of historical development, and the rest of the world as savage or barbarian. For Fernández-Armesto the idea of a progressive history is ‘repugnant’. History, he suggests, ‘lurches between random crises, with no direction or pattern, no predictable end’. It is ‘a genuinely chaotic system’.

But if Fernández-Armesto dismisses the Victorian concept of civilization, he doesn’t reject the idea altogether. Rather than describing civilization in terms of human progress, however, he describes it as a relationship between human beings and their natural environment. Civilization is the process by which nature is ‘recrafted by the civilising impulse, to meet human demands.’ In this sense every society is civilized, because every society is faced with a constant battle with nature. Certain societies, Fernández-Armesto believes, are more civilized than others, but only because they ‘more strenuously challenge nature’. This does not mean, as the Victorians thought, that such societies are in any way ‘better’. Indeed, according to Fernández-Armesto, civilization is often ‘irrational’ because in measurable ways such as ‘the durability of the way of life or the levels of nutrition or standards of health’, more civilized societies are often worse than less civilized ones.

Armed with this definition, Fernández-Armesto takes us on global tour of civilizations, defined by their relationship to the natural environment. Civilizations begins with those societies most in thrall to nature because they have been carved out of the most inhabitable environments – the frozen wastes of the Arctic, and the dead lands of the Saharan, Gobi, and Kalahari deserts. From there we move through the great grasslands, such as the North American plains and African savannah, through the temperate woodlands of Europe and the Americas, tropical lowlands such as the lower Amazon, highland civilizations such as those of the Andes, New Guinea and Tibet, seaboard civilizations like the Phoenicians and the Greeks, before finally arriving at the ‘Atlantic civilization’ which encompasses modern Europe and America. At each stopping-point on this journey, Fernández-Armesto reveals the ‘civilizing impulse’ that drives society – the itch of humankind to leave its imprint upon nature, the attempt to reclaim from nature a purely human domain.

fernandez armesto civilizations

Fernández-Armesto is a superb storyteller, with a barrel-full of anecdotes and a language as finely textured as many a novelist. civilizations is the kind of book you can dip in and out of, always sure of finding a new gem, a new way of looking at a particular society or a particular historical age. His description, for example, of the way that European explorers cracked the ‘code’ of the Atlantic wind system, and the importance of this for European colonial expansion, is a narrative tour-de-force.

But there is also something deeply troubling about his take on history. At first sight his multicultural approach, which rejects the idea of Western civilization as the summit of human achievement, and sees the civilizing impulse in every culture, appears to be a wonderfully democratic way of approaching human history. The democratic form of this narrative, however, hides an argument which is as deeply regressive as any Victorian history. In rejecting the idea of historical progress, Fernández-Armesto is forced also to reject the idea that cultural forms can have universal validity. Every civilization in his scheme appears to belong to the people that create it.

We can see this in his discussion of the ‘whiteness’ of Western civilization. Fernández-Armesto rightly points out that black people have played a vital part in the making of what he calls the ‘Atlantic civilization’ but their role has often been ignored, partly because of racism and partly because of the ‘acculturation of Black slaves in a society dominated by white values’. The result is that ‘western civilization’ is simply ‘another name for a white civilization of western European origin’.

This seems a perverse reading of history. Values are not black or white. They are right or wrong. Black slaves did not internalise ‘white values’. They educated themselves in a rich intellectual tradition that happened to have its roots in Europe, and more often than not used that tradition to challenge European domination. When, for instance, Toussaint L’Ouverture led the greatest slave revolt of modern times on the island of Haiti in the 1790s, he appropriated the ideals of the French Revolution and turned them against French colonial rule. When twentieth century revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Cesaire took up arms against colonialism, they did so in the name of universal values derived from the tradition of the European Enlightenment.

At the same time black slaves introduced into America (and eventually Europe) cultural forms derived from Africa – a process out of which jazz emerged, for instance. One only has to look at the work of contemporary writers as diverse as Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott to realise both that there is nothing ‘white’ about Western culture and that black thinkers draw deeply upon European traditions. Fernández-Armesto fails to see this, however, because he rejects the idea that cultural forms can be universal. Black civilization for him seems only to be that which is rooted in Africa; while cultures born in Europe are forever ‘white’. It’s a view of civilization as deeply dispiriting as that of any Victorian anthropologist.

Fernández-Armesto seems indeed to possess a dispiriting view of the human condition. He adopts the currently fashionable view that only human arrogance allows us to believe that we should attempt to master nature. Yet, as Civilizations itself reveals, what gives every human society its identity is its struggle to wrest a domain of civilization from the chaos of nature. Human beings are not simply objects of nature, as every other creature is, but also subjects, capable, to some degree at least, of shaping their own fate. It is this capacity to be subjects that lies at the heart of historical progress. Certainly, the Victorians were wrong in seeing history as following an inevitable course onwards and upwards to civilization, and in understanding such progress in racial terms. But they were surely right in aspiring to better, more civilized, forms of society. As Fernández-Armesto so adeptly details, they were not the first with such an aspiration, nor will be the last. How societies interpret the imperative to civilize is, of course, critically important. But without such an aspiration we stop being human.


The painting is Peter Breughel the Elder’s ‘The Small Tower of Babel’.

One comment

  1. Keith

    Historical Progress?? “without such aspirations we stop being human”??? NO I’m afraid you are wrong. We as humans are not all “modern”… Some of us are pre-modern in thought and view progress as a degenerative idea rather than an aspiration to attain. Has anyone ever heard about Hermeneutics?

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