To be Civil in the Old Continent

England’s naval ships were the most advanced of their time in the 16th century – decades ahead of their competition. Their guns were designed more effectively to shoot at enemy ships at greater distances. They helped England’s balancing off the Spanish armada’s quantitative power at war.

Mercantilism’s rise was also in the 16th century. European monarchs were in constant competition, and at war with each other, to establish overseas trade routes through monopolized private enterprise and to accumulate more gold in their treasuries than the next country. Queen Elizabeth I, excommunicated by the pope, looked at the empires of the East for finding new trade prospects.

Those were the reasons behind a handpicked English naval ship’s arrival at the Ottoman Istanbul about a century after Constantinople’s fall. The ship was chosen to impress. It indeed looked like the starship Enterprise by its size, design, and weaponry comparing to the vessels sailed in the Mediterranean. The English envoys were successful in starting a fruitful trade relationship with the Ottomans over time. The empire demanded scrap metal for ammunition manufacturing. The Levant Company supplied the demand. But the state-of-the-art naval ship didn’t seem to impress the Ottoman officials. We know about the curiosity of the seamen and historians of those days, but not of the Ottoman navy or anyone who could make a difference. The sultan’s scribes cracked jokes over some trades people who ruled by a woman.

It wasn’t about power. Powerful people like fancy toys. With their enormous influence, high ranking Ottomans could have ordered one or several of “those ships” at a whim. It was about keeping things to a comfort zone.

The mercantilist competition in Europe would turn into state enterprise and colonialism in the following centuries. By the 1800’s, the English Kingdom would become the British Empire, and eventually pave the way to replacing mercantilism with capitalism. The West’s dominance in the world would be complete in the process. Except for Japan, nations and empires of the old world wouldn’t be able to adapt to the new forms of competition.

It is curious as the West was an open book over those centuries as it is today. Why the rest of the world couldn’t respond to the Western competition?

The probable answer is in what civilization is.

In a broad definition, civilization is a culture characteristic of a time and place. To make it more countable, we see cultures that are more elaborate with their product as “civilized.”

The Mesopotamian empires, the Mycenaean Greece, the ancient Egypt, the Hittites, the Mayans, the Aztecs were the earlier civilizations. They left only their structures behind. Their cultures did not survive. They were all highly centralized, authoritarian, therefore, extractive societies. A rigid ruling class model kept all to those in power, and everything died with them.

Then the Greeks developed another way of building a civilization, not by bricks but by ideas. Their geography didn’t give the Greeks the option of a central authority. Invaders couldn’t assimilate the Greeks either in their city states that were spread around the Aegean Sea. They were close enough to the Mesopotamia and Egypt to interact and trade. A slave economy supported the accumulation of wealth for the individualistic Greek aristocrats, who found their expression in Homer’s heroism. Eventually, the Greek aristocratic finesse became popular and was imitated by the common people when democracy took hold. A distinct Greek civilization was then born to influence all others.

The Greeks discovered the gymnasium and private tutoring as ways to preserve their culture. Later they expanded tutoring to common education. The average Greek woman or man would be educated rigorously, whether they lived in Athens or a distant colony in Syr-Daria. They were other than all the surrounding people in their minds and behavior. And that’s all it took to preserve the Hellenistic civilization. Only a fraction of the Hellenistic thought survived to our time in writing. But the Hellenistic institutions, especially common education, are alive and well. That is because other nations learned how to preserve their civilizations from the Greeks.

The conservatism of the late-Hellenistic period is apparent in what other civilizations take the example of. One can’t be conservative without already acquired material and cultural capital. Others did not always have these. Nevertheless, they applied the Greek method of building a civilization in minds successfully by filling the blanks as necessary. By the end of the medieval ages, peoples of the “old continents” mostly belonged to an isolated civilization. Civil interaction between any two cultures was a task for the eccentric, outsiders, and adventurers. War and slave trade, however, remained businesses as usual.

The late-Hellenistic method of education others adopted has been true to the original. Physical education and music had been discarded over time, probably because they wouldn’t support formal equality. They were valued. But they were activities for the professionally trained few. Literary style was the almost exclusive method of instruction. Not only literary styles remain subjective and compatible with formal equality, but also they serve to a person’s demand for arts. People like to see their worldviews in concretes in arts. The Hellenistic education proposed exceptionalism and delivered the proof by literature. Science was under-looked. Overall, civilization was meant for long term stability. Hellenistic civilization did not evolve. Neither did its education. It was all about revisiting what was done before for each generation.

Other nations and cultures adopted this late form of educational approach. To this day, it would be all too familiar to look at the “origin” textbooks:

Q. Which gods were favorable to the Trojans?

A. (In alphabetical order) Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Leto, Scamander

Q. Who was the King of the Trojans?

A. Priam

Q. Who was their general?

A. Hector

Q. Who were their counselors?

A. Polydamas and Agenor

Q. Their soothsayers?

A. Helenus and Cassandra, Priam’s children

Q. Their heralds?

A. Idaeus, and Eumedes, the father of Dolon, and Dolon himself

The example is from studying Homer “historically.” Suffice to say it doesn’t even matter whether the characters in question ever existed. The methodology is there to be taken and applied to any content.

You probably were exposed to the Euclidian geometry at school. It is based on five postulates (for example “a straight line can be drawn between any two points” and five common notions (for example “things equal to the same thing are equal to each other”). Billions of students studied it over the ages. A handful of them ever used it in real life. That is because it takes significant abstract thinking and a reason to do so. The Euclidian geometry is two-dimensional. It doesn’t mean anything in the real world by itself. Understanding it requires an understanding of concepts like a “postulate,” which is beyond the comprehension of school children. Teachers could be trained to that level of information, but they still couldn’t explain to their students. If one looks further, the matter comes to a choice of a theory of knowledge. The whole meaning and application of the Euclidian geometry must be ignored at schools for all practical purposes. Yet it has been there.

Going through such educational approach leaves the average citizen confused and the citizen of higher studies tormented. A civilization’s culture is a collection. The pieces that make the collection are not integrated to make a functional whole for practical matters. They don’t evolve either. They deliver long-term stability by giving individuals an identity and cooperative behavior by being familiar with what the next person says.

This method of civilization building is compatible with almost all ideologies and political programs except one: The natural equality principle. And that one happens to be delivering the progress of the last centuries. The lack of competition from the rest of the world against this competition lies in the lack of compatibility of the way they build their civilizations. That is, in a late-Hellenistic way.

It is very deeply rooted. There are countless reasons why it can’t be reformed. As a job for private enterprise, it could be rendered less effective by alternative teaching methods in textbooks. But who should have the motive and how?

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very useful to launch political revolutions in the non-Western world. But it might be useful to be aware of the matter. Not because it revolutionizes, but because it liberates, one at a time.


Ethics are rules of conduct. Philosophers formulate them based on their understanding of what the world is and how they know it. If they get these right (they seldom do), it all comes together and their ethics work. People apply them in their behavior. Over time, application of ethics becomes habits. This unconscious repeat of behavior improves the odds of the desired outcome. “You shall not lie” is an ethical rule. Lies lead other people to make decisions that are not in their benefit. If lies were permitted, people couldn’t trust in what they hear until they know it is true. That wouldn’t be practical. Nothing that involves more than one person can be done in the absence of trust.

So, it is of an individual’s long-term benefit to not tell lies. On the other hand, more people follow ethical rules; it becomes a greater spontaneous gain not to follow them. Laws and law enforcement find their place in eliminating that possibility. Those who break a rule must face a consequence. But it all begins in ethics. Without them, laws would be meaningless to people, and therefore, useless.

There are few important things to be understood about ethics. First, they are invented for common use in a given group – a political party, a tribe, a nation, etc. Ethics can’t be tailored for individuals without a lot of work. That would not only be very expensive service but also finding haute couture philosophers up to the job would be a big challenge. The only known example is Alexander the Great, who had Aristotle by his side. Accordingly, applying ethics is signing up for a group.

Ethics come around in very long spans of time. They become implicit in other information. Most of the ethics you have in your behavior came from your parents’ behavior, and theirs came from their parents -without explicit teaching at any point. Picking the ethics in information takes significant training without immediate benefit.

Higher-ups in any group tend to have problems with ethical behavior. There is relevance in that with the political structure of the group. An absolutist ruler practically owns the group and uses it for own benefit. So, ethics and laws wouldn’t apply to him. Members of the group try to find some benefit for them in the ruler’s own. An elected officer, in contrast, would be appointed to the job of managing the group’s affairs temporarily. If his powers are limited to doing the job, he would be subject to the ethics and laws of the group. However, more power accumulates around the office holder over time, which causes too many frictions in his conduct. He doesn’t become an absolutist, but the job he holds loses its function. In either case, things would be what they are until someone comes up with a new set of ethics, which lay grounds for replacing the corrupted system at hand.

People who don’t have material access to a group don’t find its ethics appealing. Outcasts, immigrants without prospect, and other groups with their own set of ethics should be counted out from ethical behavior expectations. Laws of the modern state and technology in its disposal suppress this matter but do not remove it. An individual may find too many challenges to ethical behavior in a cosmopolitan life.

Finally, ethics and laws do not always match. Ethics are the theory and laws are the application. Theories are bound to be disproven later when the world changes. One should not put too much faith in ethics. Instead, seeing them by reason would be the better approach.

These all bring us to the point of how to make ethics useful for the individual and the group simultaneously. It is an impossible task if ethics are taken at face value. They are for group benefits, which would be distributed as per the group hierarchy. Standing on the wrong side of the hierarchy doesn’t help. It is possible if one looks at the definition of the ethical rules.

The example above, “you shall not tell lies,” is good to begin with. It is true telling lies harm others in the short term and the liar in the long term. It is also true a group can’t exist in the absence of trust. But lies are still there in forms of white lies, “forgetting” things, lies for greater goods, lies to people who don’t matter, and so on. There are laws to keep the big picture together, but they either don’t apply to small pictures or applying them to small pictures outweigh the benefit for the procedures it takes. Accordingly, quite a few people turn “pragmatic.” Lies catch up with them eventually, but that doesn’t remove the immediate harm done to others. Not becoming “pragmatic” in that sense is also a bad idea as telling the truth doesn’t travel far when others have their guards against hearing lies.

The solution is in the definition of truth. The whole truth is somewhere out there, but others understanding of it is limited to their experience. Telling the truth is good and necessary for a happy life. Telling the whole truth, however, becomes volunteering information, which may or may not be true from the point of others. When interacting with others, one must use essentials that mean the same to everybody around. Air is not the same thing to a pilot and a meteorologist. It can kill one while making a paycheck for the other. But they both see air as the stuff they breathe. Keeping things simple, to the essence of them, is the way through about telling the truth. It can also be a terrific lie detector if the other person starts decorating around the simple things you say. If you don’t want to go out on Saturday night, just say you don’t want to when invited. It is much more trustworthy than explaining why you don’t want to. Even if you told the whole truth about why your words would only be information for the other person. Suppose the other person insists by explaining s/he really wants to go out on Saturday because of something personally very important. Then you can ask yourself why this information didn’t come along with the invitation in the first place. Because the other person didn’t want to sound needy? If so, what kind of friend are you to the other person? To be kept an arm’s length to do things on need to know basis? You don’t have to kick people out of your life for every little nuisance, but this gives you a lot of space for managing your affairs.

Other good ethics example is in altruism. Selfishness is used as a pejorative term against benefits of considering others in one’s actions. It is indeed very beneficial to be considerate, but before being considerate, one must first take care of self to be there. Where would be the fine line?

It is easy to suggest a tit-for-tat world, but then everybody watches each other before being good. Does it begin by someone’s taking a bold altruistic step and showing how it is done?

Unlikely. Ethical rules work when everybody applies them. One person’s altruism would be limited to his resources without showing any sustainable benefit to others. Besides, everyone’s capacity and resources differ. There is no measurement of fairness in everybody’s being altruistic. Inevitably it would fall apart. And it does.

The solution is in being altruistic when appropriate. Others can’t sleep or eat for you. Accordingly, you have your personal space of selfish action in life. Others recognize the size of your selfish space based on what you do – not what you think it should be. If you want your space to be bigger, you must do more in the eyes of others. If you push your selfishness beyond your recognized personal space, problems begin.

A case as such would be the corner office of a C-level corporate manager. That person would be entitled to be more comfortable and project more power than those who work in “cubes” because he would be doing something that makes more revenues than what those in the other jobs do. If he gets the corner office by cronyism rather than by doing what the job takes, others push his actual selfish space back. He would have to be increasingly altruistic for a corporate figure to compensate.