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.