Re: Why the West has 'won'.

Eric Watt Forste (
Mon, 04 Aug 1997 15:07:43 -0700

Sarah Marr writes:
> But that, of course, begs the question: how did the Roman Empire
> come in to being?

As a parasitic growth on Greek culture. It's well-known that
throughout the imperial period, the Roman armies were accompanied
by Greek engineers and scientists (very early on, Archimedes gave
the Romans a first-hand lesson in the military power of good
engineering). From the historical perspective of, say, Eastern
Europeans, the "real" Roman empire ended up being reabsorbed by
Greece: the Eastern Empire outlived the Western Empire by a millenium,
and its fall was as much due to the Crusaders (who sacked Constantinople
and burned the libraries) as to the later Turks.

Which begs the question: how did it happen that the Greeks were
the first to leave us surviving extensive theoretical writings on
astronomy, mathematics, political theory, rhetoric, logic, etc,
etc, etc? How did it happen that the Greeks discovered and developed
the idea of logical rigor? Like the early modern Europe that Dale
was discussing, Greece was politically divided, resistant to
unification, and constantly obsessed with the internal military-political
balance of power. Persistent pluralism is a fact of Greek political
life from its first emergence from the Dorian Dark Ages until the
Roman conquest (Alexander's successors, the Antigonids, controlled
Macedonia, but barely kept the various "true" Greeks in line).

Greek tradition credits the Greek sages and philosophers. Most of
the Greek sages and philosophers trace their lineage back to one
Thales of Miletus, who is probably at least partly historical, but
might be largely legendary. It's always been interesting to me
that Thales was active among the Greeks about the same time that
Zoroaster was active in Persia, that Lao Tzu and Confucius were
active in China, and that Siddhartha Gautama was active in India.
It's almost as if there were some sort of pan-Eurasian philosophical
renaissance going on in the fifth century BCE.

How did the Greeks get so cool? I dunno. I suspect the alphabet
may have something to do with it. The alphabet was invented in or
near Palestine or Phoenicia during the Greek Dark Ages, and the
Greeks were one of the first non-Canaanite peoples to pick it up.
(Why didn't the Canaanites take off? Well, the Canaanites were
more caught up in southwest Eurasian imperial wars and politics
than the Greeks, and the successor people that defeated and absorbed
the Canaanites -- the Hebrews -- turned out to be hugely influential
in their own way as well.) I suspect that it is easier for more
people to attain literacy in a society that uses an alphabetic
system of writing than it is in a society that uses the more complex
hieroglyphic or cuneiform systems. At the time of the emergence
of Greek civilization, the hieroglyhpic and cuneiform systems had
both become extremely complex, full of special cases and weird
traditions that make English spelling look sane, and guarded by an
elaborate trade union of scribes who didn't welcome any competition
that might drive their compensation down. The Greeks didn't have
these problems. I also happen to think that a lot of European
"supremacy" is due to the combination of the alphabet with movable
type (movable type doesn't make a huge economic difference in an
ideographic writing system, but it makes books *hugely* cheaper
under an alphabetic system). So a lot of this stuff might be due
to accidents in the development of communications technology.

That a lot of people hold theories like these somewhere in the back
of their minds explains some of the near-messianic fervor people
often experience soon after they first start learning how to use
the Internet effectively for research and communication.

Eric Watt Forste ++ ++ expectation foils perception -pcd