What were the factors in ancient history that led to the development of Europe’s unique cultural characteristics, and how do they explain Europe’s tremendous success on the global stage?
Historians, social scientists, and postmodern dilettantes have long pondered the nature of the success of the West. Not surprisingly, a number of causal hypotheses have been proposed. The majority of these contemporary theories concerning European hegemony are formulated along a predictable linear axis of environmental determinism, neatly packaged within a liberal-humanist moralistic paradigm, rooted within the morass of global cosmopolitanism. This essay, in contradistinction to its predecessors, will be premised upon the notion that the West is unique in the annals of history and extraordinary among its geopolitical peers, and that its uniqueness and hegemonic position are inextricably intertwined with – and a product of – an ongoing historical process of dialectical synthesis.
Before continuing any further, I feel that several points must first be clarified. The dialectical focus of this essay is not Marxist, nor strictly materialistic in nature, and as such it will focus upon an organic notion of dialectics, firmly rooted in metaphysics and philosophy. Particular emphasis will be placed upon dialectical sublation and the resulting civilizational transformation from this synthesis. Also of note, the term “the West” in the context of this essay constitutes the European world and the European peoples who populate it, from the subarctic “extreme north” of Russia to the antipodes of the southern hemisphere. As Dominique Veneer once held, contrary to popular opinion, the West is a distinct civilization of Europeans and not the signifier of some arbitrary relative direction. With these variables being clearly enumerated, let us begin by exploring the philosophical substratum that enlivens the European spirit.
The central tenet of Nietzschean philosophy and the philosophical superstructure which undergirds Western civilization is best epitomized by the concept of the “Will to Power” (German: der Wille zur Macht). Nietzsche’s conceptualization of the “Will to Power” was that it was the impetus which drove man – specifically European man – forward, towards mastery first of the natural world and then, ultimately, over one’s self. The principle of the “Will to Power” posits that human ambition, the desire for achievement, and status are achieved through the sublimation of instinctual impulses into consciously directed, externalized action, which manifests themselves as tangible power (German: macht). Thus, the Nietzschean concept of the “Will to Power” is achieved through a dialectical process of desire transmogrified into thought which is ultimately externalized via some type of purposeful and subjectively meaningful activity. Nietzsche’s philosophy extols self-actualization via the enduring of hardship, which ultimately leads to self-mastery. In short, European man, his intrinsic spirito-genetic nature, and the consequent achievements manifested by this nature, are the earthly externalizations of the Nietzschean “Will to Power.”
The German polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, summed up the collective European “Will to Power” in terms of what it isn’t when he wrote, “Everything which liberates our spirit, without increasing our mastery of ourselves, is pernicious.”1 This statement in turn implies that the success of European civilization, and by extension hegemony, is a result of the attainment, or rather the continual pursuit of the potential for the attainment of self-mastery and discipline. The pursuit of attainment and of becoming through self-mastery is analogous to the ordered workings of the natural world, specifically the “Natural Order,” as articulated by Plato in his metaphysical masterpiece, Timaeus. Plato believed that the universe was aesthetically beautiful and that this beauty was derived from, or rather was a product of, the purposive, consciously directed agency exuded by the cosmos.2 Thus, the cosmos is actively in the state of becoming, and man, specifically European man, can better himself and his people by channeling this force (German: kraft) into productive power (German: macht). European man, in his quest for self-mastery and by proxy historical agency, must transform himself into a microcosmic simulacrum of the Platonic conceptualization of the “Natural Order” via the sublimation of natural, primal impulses into consciously directed action. The harnessing of our baser, animalistic impulses through discipline and self-control can be transformed into a creative force of self-becoming of unimaginable magnitude and sublimity.
In short, by mimicking the universe, or more aptly by attempting to mimic the Platonic conceptualization of the universe, European man has become the agent of his own destiny. Thus, it is the resulting historical agency of the peoples of Europe, made manifest via the dialectical synthesis of internalized thought and externalized action in emulation of the cosmic order which has solidified European hegemony throughout the ages. The German philologist Bruno Snell, in The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature posits that the development of an internal mental dialogue, first evinced in Europe in the works of the literati of Ancient Greece, from Homer to Aristotle, provided the primary basis of the metaphysical superstructure which allowed for the historical conceptualization and subsequent preeminence of the “individual” in the Western world, along with the concomitant rise of rational thought.3 Continuing Snell’s hypothesis, aside from this internal dialogue forming the basis of the Western concept of the “individual” and later rationality, this monumental achievement allowed European thought to transcend the base, animalistic urges of biological survival and material comfort, compelling European thought to exceed the temporal in search of the abstract, the spiritual, and the infinite. Thus it was, and is, through the striving for self-control that we search for the infinitude of unfettered and consciously directed thought, which gives rise to the action of becoming, and from this action historical agency is birthed. In Nietzschean parlance, Europeans possess the unique ability to act as an “artist,” with the canvas being their own consciously-willed evolution, which in turn will bring about “a higher type of dominating and Caesarian spirit” capable of historical agency vis-à-vis the perpetual striving for what lays beyond the horizon.4
But this begs the question, from whence did the Greek predilection for rational thought, and more importantly the European affinity for the concept of infinity, originate? The indigenous peoples of Europe are descended from the mingling of at least two distinct, but presumably similar genetic peoples. Contemporary archaeological research posits that the actual home, or in academic terminology the Urheimat, of the Indo-Europeans was tentatively located within the geographical confines of modern-day Kazakhstan.5 Approximately 7-10,000 years ago, these Proto-Indo-European (PIE) peoples, originally from Central Asia, migrated into the vast steppes between the Black and Caspian Seas.6 4-5,000 years later, these fierce warrior people began moving both east and west in a series of punctuated, militaristic migrations, conquering all those in their path, and establishing themselves as hegemons over those who fell before the force of their arms.7
Contemporaneously, the indigenous inhabitants of “Old Europe,” megalith builders and farmers from the Neolithic Near East, established large and populous permanent settlements throughout the entirety of the European peninsula. In short order, these sedentary and relatively more passive indigenes of Europe were ultimately conquered by the bellicose and more vigorous Indo-Europeans. The indigenous farming peoples of the European continent possessed a sociocultural purlieu centered squarely upon the precepts of non-kinship-oriented egalitarianism and communalism. Conversely, the Indo-Europeans were a martial people whose society was guided by the warrior’s spirit: meritocracy and aristocratism. The aristocratic-meritocracy of the Indo-Europeans created a societal hierarchy which, in the learned words of the timeless and erudite scholarship of Julius Evola, “implies a natural dependence of the inferior ways of life on the superior ones – and, along with dependence, co-operation; the task of the superior is to attain expression and personhood on a purely spiritual basis.”8 Thus, the locus of Indo-European society was the “heroic,” and it is was this predisposition towards martiality and the consequent elevation of war as a means for individual expression that a unique, meritocratic social hierarchy was formed within Indo-Europe.
This elemental metaphysic of martiality wasn’t about defeating one’s physical enemy per se, but rather it was based upon the premise that victory comes from the conquering of one’s own self. Thus, as a result of what Nietzsche called “self-mastery,” the Indo-European warrior sought prestige, the social recognition of his deeds, through the elevation of his social status, which was immaterial or metaphysical rather than material. He sought the acclaim of his peers not only for the pomposity of personal honor, but rather as a means of bettering himself through the contest of the struggle and through the Nietzschean undertaking of self-overcoming. As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Life itself told me this secret: ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘I am that which must overcome itself again and again.'”9 Thus, it was this Indo-European quest for prestige and social acknowledgement and status that was transmuted into a pan-European desire for that which is divorced from the temporal and spatial, for that which is abstract, ethereal, and infinite.
From a sociobiological perspective, this martial culture of the heroic stems from the fact that the Indo-Europeans were originally nomadic pastoralists, and it was from the innate qualities of their initial pastoral existence, based upon (originally, at least) biological survival that incited their bellicosity. A pastoral life was by nature nomadic and warlike. Individuals in pastoral PIE societies were mobile, practiced transhumance (i.e., moving seasonally with their livestock), were territorial and feverishly guarded their grazing areas, and were militaristic in extremis, frequently raiding their neighbors, initially for resources and later for prestige and glory.10 Early Indo-European society was one of raiding, which eventually transformed a provincial people into a transcontinental elite and an aristocratic warrior society based upon conquest. The centrifugal force of the Indo-European world was what later came to be termed the Männerbund, a cultic warrior brotherhood, whose initiates were both warrior and priest, and it was from this subsequent dialectical synthesis of religiosity and bellicosity, manifested through a Weltanschauung that experienced life through an immersive lens of total sacrality, that imbued the Indo-Europeans with an unquenchable thirst for glorious struggle as a means for the attainment of eternity.11 Thus, for the Indo-European warrior, the greater the struggle and the fiercer the opponent, the greater the glory and the prestige, and the closer one came towards self-mastery and the beyond. According to Nietzsche, “man is a bridge and not an end,” and it was the traversing of the “bridge” through the agony of the struggle, both physical and metaphysical, that the Indo-European warrior honored the supernal realm and projected himself and his people into the immensity of eternity. Through struggle as a vessel of change, the Indo-European sought attainment through the act of becoming, which has no beginning or end and is thus a product of the infinite.
Beginning around 2500 BC, when waves of Indo-Europeans descended into Europe, the egalitarian-based communal culture of Europe’s indigenous population was infused with and synthesized with the aristocratic pugnacity of the Indo-Europeans through sublation. This blending of genetically similar peoples, coupled with the syncretic blending of two seemingly antithetical sociocultural milieus, gave birth to the European culture that we know today. I would posit that the inherent meritocracy endemic to a warrior, rather than a hereditary aristocracy – in essence, what Dr. Ricardo Duchesne terms “aristocratic egalitarianism” – was merged with the outright egalitarian sedentariness of the agricultural peoples of Europe, and it was this dialectical sublation and blending of two forms of non-kinship-based meritocracies, one warrior and one agrarian, that gave birth to the Europe that we know today, from the detritus of conquest.12
One could equate the sedentariness of the indigenes of Europe with a state of being, while the more vigorous Indo-Europeans, by their sheer love of struggle, were in a perpetual process of becoming. Thus, the striving for the infinite is a product of the ceaseless struggle between the various antipathetic traits of European culture: between thought and action, between the active and the sedentary, between inegalitarianism and egalitarianism, between becoming and being, ad infinitum.The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee proposed a similar, but more materialistic, hypothesis when he proposed that civilizations are created and maintained so long as they are continuously challenged, and that if they are in turn successful in rising to meet these challenges, then synthesis through continuation will result.13 Thus, in a circuitous way, Professor Toynbee was proposing that civilization endures via the process of becoming. These metaphysical racio-cultural traits and civilizational challenges, though seemingly mutually incompatible, interact through a dialectical process which is never truly resolved, and thus continues in perpetuity. More aptly, it is the irreconcilable differences and the ensuing conflicts that continually arise from these differences that guides the European quest for the distant horizon. The Faustian soul of Europe possesses an unquenchable hunger that by definition can never be sated.
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), p. 34.
- Plato, Timaeus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), passim.
- Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind (New York: Dover Publications, 2011), passim.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 534.
- David W. Anthony & Don Ringe, “The Indo-European Homeland from Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives,” Annual Review of Linguistics (January 2015). (accessed May 30, 2016)
- Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 30-32.
- Julius Evola, Metaphysics of War (London: Arktos Media, 2011), pp.14-15.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (Penguin: Westminster, 1961), p.70.
- William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), passim.
- Kris Kreshaw, The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbund (Washington, DC: The Institute for the Study of Man, 2000), passim.
- Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2012), p. 373.
- Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1 (Abridgement of Volumes I-VI) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), passim.