A further shock to Western civilization: encountering other civilizations

In a couple of recent posts I have talked about the shocks which Western civilization has experienced in its history – far more, and far more profound, than has happened to other civilizations. So far I have looked at the Fall of the Roman Empire (which was accompanied by a massive decline in all elements of culture), and the Renaissance (which shook European thinkers out of a complacent acceptance of traditional approaches to knowledge). Another shock was impacting on Europeans at the same time as the Renaissance, which greatly reinforced the impact of both – between them these episodes started off further seismic shocks which were to utterly transform Western civilization.

The shock I am talking about was the discovery of the rest of the world by European explorers. This began almost simultaneously with the start of the Renaissance – the first Portuguese probes down the coast of west Africa began in the early 15th century; historians don’t really agree when the Renaissance began, but it was certainly also in the early 15th century.

Why these two episodes should have started at around the same time begs the question, did they arise from a common cause? Was there something happening in European society which made Europeans more adventurous than they had been before, or more hungry for new knowledge? I think there may well have been. The Black Death had ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century – did this loosen European civilization from its traditional bearings? And if so, why did it not have the same effect on the Middle Eastern countries, or on India or China?

These questions are for another day. For now I’m thinking about the impact that the voyages of discovery had on European civilization. The most obvious was that they opened Europeans’ eyes to the world beyond Europe.  In particular it made Europeans realise that there were civilizations beyond Europe which were at least as advanced as Europe. This in itself came as a shock to them – one that most pre-modern civilizations have been spared.

The encounters with the Aztecs and their huge capital Tenochtitlan; with the Incas and their enormous, well organized empire; with African kingdoms and cities such as Kongo and Benin; and highly sophisticated Indian societies – all these were an eye-opener for the Europeans. But the encounter which seems to have made the biggest impression was that with China.

The Jesuit mission, which hung out in Beijing from the end of the 16th to the early 19th centuries not only told the Chinese about Europe, they sent letters back telling Europeans about China. This set off a craze for Chinese things amongst Europe’s scholars, and, in a way that is hard for us to reconstruct now but which was clearly very significant, influenced the intellectual movement which we call the “Enlightenment”.

It has been argued that many inventions which were to revolutionize European technology were in fact based on blueprints of Chinese inventions outlined by the Jesuits – for example, the seed drill and the compound canal lock. More certainly, it is undoubtedly the case that the philosophy of Confucianism played an important part in moving Enlightenment thinkers towards rationalism as a founding principle of thought. And perhaps most important of all, the Jesuits’ descriptions of the way the Chinese empire was governed – by scholar-officials who were recruited and promoted on the basis of examination success –  caused Enlightenment thinkers to look with a more jaundiced eye on the hereditary monarchies and aristocracies (who claimed their right to rule based on God’s will) of their own continent. 

The Enlightenment is often regarded as a uniquely Western phenomenon, one of the things which gives Western civilization its distinctive character. But important elements in the Enlightenment were Chinese in inspiration. The encounter with this great Oriental civilization came as a shock to Europeans, a shock which, interacting with the shock of the Renaissance, helped moved Western civilization in new directions.

By Peter Britton