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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vivekananda was restating the essence of a theory put forward in the fourteenth century by the Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun

by Rich on Sun 29 Jul 2007 08:26 AM PDT Permanent Link Untold Potentialities:India and the World in the Third Millennium Richard Hartz Conquest, Assimilation and Progress
The changes that have swept the world in the last century have been partly a reversal and partly a continuation of the process that brought Europe and its offshoots to a position of global dominance. Any attempt to look into the future has to take this paradox into account. The dismantling of colonial empires and the rise of aspiring Asian superpowers are part of a transformation in political and economic relations with possible cultural implications. But many of the results of the age of Western expansionism remain and can hardly be reversed. The shrinking of the earth by technology is one of these. Globalization in one form or another is evidently here to stay and the only practical question is what to do with it. Modernization seems unstoppable and is hard to distinguish from Westernization. The potential role of India has to be considered in this context.
Let us glance briefly, then, at the last half millennium and consider where it has brought us. There are two starkly contrasting views of this period. Some regard it uncritically as an era of spectacular progress. For others, especially in the East, it was an upsurge of barbarism that overwhelmed societies more refined but less well‑armed than that of Europe.
Perhaps it was both these things. Some reported remarks of Swami Vivekananda suggest a way to reconcile the contradiction by showing how civilization can progress despite a contrary appearance of the most disconcerting setbacks. The Swami described a pattern that can be observed in various forms throughout history:
A certain race becomes civilized. Then comes a nomad race. Nomads are always ready to fight. They come and conquer a race. They bring better blood, stronger physiques. They take up the mind of the conquered race and add that to their body and push civilization still further.4
Vivekananda was restating the essence of a theory put forward in the fourteenth century by the Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun. The theory can be formulated more generally; the conquerors need not be nomads, strictly speaking, nor is it always physical strength that gives them their main advantage—Ibn Khaldun emphasized the cohesion of tribes in contrast to urban societies, while in more recent times the decisive factor has been technology. But whatever the details in a particular case, the general pattern is common enough: the conquest of the more civilized by the less civilized, who then proceed to absorb elements of the culture they have overpowered.
The warlike Romans conquered much of the ancient world, but took their culture largely from the Greeks. Eventually, they adopted a religion that had originated in a corner of their empire among a gifted but unfortunate Near Eastern people known as the Jews. The Roman empire, in turn, succumbed to Germanic tribes who converted to Christianity. Centuries later the descendants of these barbarians began to assimilate the legacy of classical antiquity transmitted to them by the Arabs. They also made their own improvements on technological innovations, including gunpowder, that came to them from as far away as China.
Soon these and other developments propelled them to an unprecedented expansion that brought most of the earth under their sway. The aggressive energy of the young civilization of Europe drove it to subjugate older civilizations such as that of India which had already reached an advanced stage and begun to decline in vitality.
But Asian civilizations have shown extraordinary resilience, surviving into an age of intense global interchange whose outcome is difficult to foresee. At a time of increasing interaction and cultural fusion, two possibilities stand out. If the present direction of influence continues, Westernization may prevail, swallow up what remains of other types of civilization and produce a global monoculture with few meaningful variations. On the other hand, it now seems increasingly likely that non‑Western cultures will successfully reassert themselves, retain their own distinctive identities—hopefully not by a reactionary clinging to the past, but by a creative evolution in response to new conditions—and make significant contributions to whatever world‑civilization may emerge.
Surprisingly, the cycle of catastrophes described by Ibn Khaldun need not lead to a pessimistic view of history. In Vivekananda’s version of the theory, the net result at each stage is to “push civilization still further.”5 However much we may deplore the injustices of imperialism, it is possible to see progress of a certain kind as the overall outcome of the last few centuries, providing a starting‑point for a new leap forward.

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