Benedict Anderson on the classical heritage and nationalism in Europe vs Asia

I enjoyed reading Benedict Anderson’s short memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries. I did a lot of Southeast Asia at university and so read many things by Anderson and his colleagues at Cornell, so it was a treat to learn some of the history and personalities behind those classic works. It’s mostly an academic rather than personal memoir, but the theme of learning different languages and understanding different cultures runs throughout, starting from his classical British public-school education.

In the conclusion Anderson uses an elder scholar’s privilege to speculate about grand historical themes, and suggests some ways in which Europe’s classical heritage differs dramatically from the cultures he has studied in Asia. He thinks that these differences make Europe somewhat less susceptible to narrow nationalism than Asia–which may not be what recent news headlines from Europe immediately bring to mind, but is still an interesting idea. Here’s the passage:

The Roman Empire was the only state ever to rule a large part of today’s Europe for a long period – even if this era is extremely remote in time. But it was not a ‘European’ state, since it controlled the entire Mediterranean littoral, a large part of today’s Egypt and Sudan, and much of the Middle East, and it did not rule Ireland, Scandinavia or much of northeastern Europe. Furthermore, over time, it drew its emperors from many parts of the Mediterranean world. No European state or nation has had any chance of claiming exclusive inheritance from this extraordinary polity, nor has any of Christianity’s multiple sects. The Empire is not available for nationalist appropriation, not even by Italy. Here there is a huge contrast with China and Japan, and probably also India, where antiquity is easily nationalized. …

Even better, a substantial part of the extraordinary philosophical and literary production of Graeco-Roman Antiquity survived into early modern times, thanks to monkish copyists in the West, but also to Greek-speaking Christian Arab scribes under the rule of Byzantium. As time passed, their translations into Arabic allowed Muslim thinkers in the ‘Maghreb’ and Iberia to absorb Aristotelian thought and pass it on to ‘Europe’. This inheritance offered ‘Europe’ intellectual access to worlds (Greek and Roman) which in profound ways were alien to Christian Europe: polytheistic religious beliefs, slavery, philosophical scepticism, sexual moralities contrary to Christian teachings, ideas about the formation of personhood from the bases of law and so on. Direct access to these worlds depended on a mastery of two languages which for different reasons were both difficult and alien. … Better still, [they] gradually became ‘dead’. That is, neither ancient Greek nor ancient Latin belonged to any of the countries in Europe.

For all these reasons (and others I have not mentioned), Graeco-Roman antiquity brought Difference and Strangeness to European intellectual and literary life right through till the middle of the twentieth century. Just as in fieldwork, this awareness of Difference and Strangeness cultivated intellectual curiosity and enabled self-relativization. There were city-states and democracy in ancient Greece. The Roman Empire was much larger than any other state in European history, and as its ruins were spread almost all over Europe, one could recognize its greatness no matter where one might be. The literature, medicine, architecture, mathematics and geography of Graeco-Roman antiquity were clearly more sophisticated than those of medieval Europe. And all of them were products of pre-Christian civilizations, products which had pre-dated the appearance of ‘messianic time’. While China and Japan tried to bar Difference and Strangeness with their ‘closed-door’ policies, Europe came to hold antiquity in high regard and adopted it self-consciously as its intellectual heritage. …

Before the late seventeenth century, when some French intellectuals began to claim the superiority of their civilization, none of the European countries denied that the civilization of antiquity was superior to its own, and they competed against each other to learn more about it in order to be civilized. Whether in wartime or peacetime, no country could boast that it was the centre of civilization, a European version of ‘sinocentrism’ as it were, and throw its head back declaring it was no. 1. Innovation, invention, imitation and borrowing took place incessantly between different countries in the fields of culture (including the knowledge of antiquity), politics, global geography, economics, technology, war strategy and tactics, and so on.

Nothing like this existed in East Asia, nor even South Asia. In East Asia, China and Japan both set up their geographical and cultural boundaries and often attempted to shut out the ‘barbaric’ outside world with drastic closed-door policies. The necessity of competition with other countries over politics, economics, technology and culture was only scarcely felt. Southeast Asia was probably the closest parallel to Europe. It was diverse in terms of culture, language, ethnicity and religion. Its diversity was further magnified by the historical lack of a region-wide empire (which was associated with frequent political turmoil), and later by the colonial rule of various Western powers. It also resembled Europe in its openness to the outside world through trade.

Probably the best single part of the short memoir is the chapter on comparison and translation; you can read much of that in a long excerpt over at the London Review of Books.

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