Are All Civilizations Equal?

Whenever I am in my car for more than a few minutes I listen to history lectures from the Teaching Company’s Great Courses. It has been my biggest lifestyle improvement of recent years. I can’t begin to convey how much I have learned about history, especially ancient history, in the last five years.

Currently I am listening to a lecture series on the conquest of the Americas. The professor is good, and conveys a lot of information, some of which is new to me. He is probably a lib, as he quoted Karl Marx at one point and effusively praised the Marxist historian Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. On the other hand, Braudel legitimately was a great historian and I too have benefited from his books. And in any event, I am happy to learn from libs.

So here is the point: the lecturer describes the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations as the “highest” in the Americas in the pre-Conquest era. He defines “highest” as having the most political, social, and cultural complexity. OK, fine. But if we apply the same criteria to compare those civilizations with Christian Europe, Europe’s civilization obviously would come out on top. It would be “higher.” But to admit this in today’s academic world is inconceivable, and the professor doesn’t go there.

On the contrary, a lecture or two later, in talking about Portugal’s exploration down the West coast of Africa in the 15th Century, he strongly emphasizes the claim that the European and African civilizations of the time were equal–exactly equal!–with respect to culture, politics and technology.

But not five minutes earlier, he had said that our understanding of the African culture and history of that era is limited by the fact that our sources are all European. We read the writings of European priests, ship’s captains and bureaucrats. Really? But why can’t we just read what the Africans themselves wrote at the time?

Because they didn’t know how to write. So the claim of cultural equality is frankly ridiculous.

As to technology, what were the key developments of that era? One was the caravel, the vessel that combined two types of sails to allow ships to sail into the wind. It enabled the Portuguese and slightly later the Spanish to venture out to sea and down the African continent and then across the Atlantic. But if the Africans were exactly equal to the Europeans with regard to technology, were African ships exploring northward on voyages of discovery to, say, Lisbon, Porto, Brest or London?

Just kidding.

The other great European technological achievement of that era was the building of soaring cathedrals that, with all due respect to the Greeks and Romans, dwarfed anything previously constructed. Did the Africans build anything comparable, that can now be seen or at least explored by archaeologists? No.

My point is not to belittle Africa. The history of that continent is probably more interesting than most people realize, and Europeans did trade with Africans on a fair and equal basis for a long time. And it is true, as this lecturer says, that 15th Century Africa was every bit as diverse as Europe and the Americas.

But if we begin by acknowledging that some cultures or civilizations are “higher” than others, the claim that 15th Century Africa happens to be precisely equal to the Europe of the same era is, by the same standards, ridiculous. That assertion is a political statement, not a historical one. And the fact that professors feel obliged to express it as a sign of the corruption of contemporary academia.

As for The Great Courses, I can’t recommend them highly enough. I have limited my exploration to my primary interest, history, but I know that Heather Mac Donald, for example, thinks highly of their courses on music. I access The Great Courses through There are so many favorites that I can’t begin to list them. The ones I appreciate the most are those that fill in major gaps in my knowledge, so let me just note three: Jeremy McInerney’s series on Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age; Kenneth Harl’s series on The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes; and Amanda Podany’s on Ancient Mesopotamia. Before listening to these three lecture series, I was pretty much ignorant of the Hellenistic era, how it came to be and how it related to the Roman Empire; almost entirely ignorant of the steppe peoples who occasionally showed up in European history–Attila and the Mongols; and thought the Akkadians, Sumerians and Assyrians were boring. How wrong I was!

There is nothing more fun than the study of history, as long as you substitute facts and logic for political correctness.

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