Author: Christopher Houtkamp (Board-member and Webeditor European Student Think Tank)
The West deems itself superior. Unfortunately that is an undeniable fact. We have democracy, rule of law, ‘Universal’ Human Rights. What’s more? Our culture is top-class and even in economic and military terms we’re still number one (though we’re on the verge of losing the latter two positions). In this blog I’ll discuss the origins of our misplaced sense of superiority.
We Europeans (by which I mean both the ‘old’ (inhabitants of the European continent) and the ‘new’ (Americans, Australians etc)) are superior to all other races and cultures. I might startle you by writing it down, but I’m sure that you, if you’re from the West, unconsciously agree with this statement. You mistrust the Arabs in the North-Africa and the Middle-east. Why would they even be capable of forming a solid ‘Western’ democracy that upholds ‘our’ human rights? The Middle East is inhabited by ruffians or, even worse, fundamentalists, who can only be ruled either by a dictator, either by an Islamic-fundamentalist movement (or both).Take a quick glance at our media and you’ll see that these unconscious beliefs are still firmly rooted in most Western minds. Just to make things clear: I think they are mostly based on nonsense. Below I’d like to present you the first of a twofold blog on the phenomenon our sense of superiority stems from: Eurocentrism.
‘Europe’ in Ancient times
The ancient Greeks and Romans considered ‘Europe’ to be nothing more but a geographical abstraction. In the Greek lore there exists a wonderful myth about the forming of this continent, as some of you might know. Europa was a beautiful girl that attracted the attention of Zeus, King of the Gods. Zeus transformed into a bull and seduced (or raped, the versions differ on that) Europa. After the act, the mighty God pieced together large pieces of the earth and formed a continent in her honour, letting it bear her name. But despite this wonderful story, the ancients had practically no sense of a ‘European’ identity: their attention was focused more upon the economically and culturally richer regions in the Mediterranean (Southern-Europe, North-Africa and the Middle-East).
The Middle Ages: the first signs of a ‘European’ identity
During the Middle Ages, the Western European started to develop a certain sense of superiority. In these times the main difference between ‘Europe’ and ‘the rest’ was based on religion. The Western Europeans claimed that they, and they alone, were the bearers of the ‘true’ religion, were the only ‘true’ believers in the holy Christ. I do have to add that a common religion was virtually the only thing that bound the Europeans: for the rest the political and cultural differences couldn’t be greater. Europe was nowhere near a unity. Anyway, from a western perspective, the orthodox Byzantines in the East were no bitter enemies, but inferior nonetheless. And I guess I don’t have to explain what the Kings and Pope thought of the Islam. I have to note however, that religion was the only ‘solid’ foundation on which the Western Europeans could build some sense of superiority. Our ancestors reigned over a backward region, coming nowhere near the vivid Byzantine and Arab empires in both cultural and economic terms. A strong Eurocentric thinking would be even more out of place than it is now.
The Renaissance: Eurocentrism is born
In the fifteenth century two major changes occurred. In 1453 the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell, forcing the scholars to flee the country, both to the West and towards Russia. It is safe to argue that this event was a great boost to the Western European culture. Because not only scholars, but also their works and culture migrated. My Western ancestors instantly had access to texts of Ancient masters such as Plato and Sophocles. The other event of great importance is the discovery of America in 1492. For the first time in history the Western Europeans were capable of really forcing their will upon another population. What’s more: compared to Europe, they (I’m referring to the Indians as you might have guessed) seemed to be greatly underdeveloped. But even more important were the immense riches that were imported from the newly founded colonies. It allowed the different European leaders to finance culture, science and the military. Result: the European cultural, scientific and military power knew no equal in the whole world. Europe was the best in virtually everything, and this provided fertile ground for Eurocentric thinking to be born.
The Nineteenth century and beyond: Neo-imperialism, racism, strong Eurocentrism
Those of you that know some modern history know what was going to happen next. Europe gained more and more colonies and flourished, even though it had to endure some bloody wars (the Thirty Year war, the Napoleonic wars, and the countless wars against the Ottoman Empire to name a few). Furthermore, the fact that the Industrial Revolutions took place in Europe, gave the continent the definite lead on the world stage. Add to this mix the, dangerous, component of social-Darwinism and you have an overconfident people that can ‘scientifically’ claim it has the right to dominate the rest of the ‘inferior’ world. What’s more, we even have the obligation to educate the ‘others’ so they can become just as superior as we are, the so-called ‘White man’s burden’. True, I have to admit that after the two great World Wars the European confidence level was at an all-time low for a short time, but nowadays it is as strong as ever. For example, the EU has made it official policy that it needs to export its values (democracy, human rights, rule of law, regionalisation etc etc.) to all other parts of the world. Officially our European leaders firmly believe that our Western values are universal, that all people from all different cultures ultimately wish to live just like we do. Arguably this is a modern-day version of the ‘White man’s burden’, though I find it difficult to go that far.
With this article I’ve tried to present a condensed version of the development of Eurocentric thinking over the centuries. I have to emphasise once again that Eurocentrism is far from dead. It’s also important to add that this theme is very complex, too complex to thoroughly discuss it in one or two blogs. In my next article I’ll discuss the dangers, and even possible advantages, of this rather peculiar phenomenon.
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