When Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were busy arguing their thoughts with their disciples little could they have imagined how their principles would have been imposed on the whole world over millennia dominated by European expansion.
Greek philosophy was adopted by the Romans as their own, as they recognised the superiority of Greek thought over their own. The Roman Empire stretched throughout the known world, reaching further and deeper, and importantly longer (much longer) than the Greek Empire had before. More importantly the Romans developed and enforced a legal code, the basis of which was Greek philosophical principles, including a number of basic individual rights. One particular right would have been highly contentious to many of the people they concurred – individual property rights.
Plato is not to be blamed for individualism. He was concerned with describing the ‘good community’ and not the ‘good individual’. Similarly he did not approve of private property. Aristotle, however, is another matter. He also considered private property as an unavoidable reality.
Property rights would have been of particular contention where these concern land ownership. Many of the ‘uncivilised’ peoples would have held land in communitarian ‘ownership’ (although I write this knowing that the very principle of ownership of land would have struck a wrong chord with these peoples, and ‘use’ would be a nearer concept). Of course this contrasted with all known ‘civilisations’ where aristocracy and tyranny were the norm, with a concentrated ownership of property at the top, and the majority of people being no more than serfs to the rulers. Because behind the rich monuments and the artistic and intellectual achievements, that’s what civilization was all about!
When the Byzantine Emperor Constantine (ruling between 312 – 337 AD) was converted to Christianity, of course in a short while the whole Empire became Christian. Law, philosophy, and now religion became instruments of domination over body, mind and soul. The Roman Empire, despite managing to become the longest surviving Empire, had a limited geographical distribution, its control extending through the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and into the Middle East. The Western Empire based in Rome did not survive nearly as long as the Eastern Byzantine Empire. It came under attack by the Germanic tribes which however, in their turn, also adopted Christianity and all it stood for.
Probably one would be safe to blame Christianity; with its emphasis on ‘self-salvation’, the growth of individualism was an outcome waiting to happen. It was an arduous struggle between those of different beliefs in the church, but private property and profit eventually became accepted concepts in Christianity, mostly thanks to particular protestant movements; of course the concept finding support in Capitalism, serving well their Industrial machine. In the eighteenth century it was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who maintained that every human being is an end in himself (read oneself). A little later Nietzsche wrote, “How can one praise and glorify a nation as a whole? – Even among the Greeks, it was the INDIVIDUALS that counted.”
The European core, modelled by Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christian morality, did not change much. The European impact on the rest of the world would have been negligible had not another piece of history facilitated this – European exploration, colonialism and imperialism. Explorers, venerated and romanticised by many for their undisputed courage, facilitated the expansion of the European races into hitherto unknown parts of the world. Europeans made their way into the Far East, Africa, the Americas and eventually Oceania. Early explorations were motivated by religion and plunder as the various kingdoms hungered after resources to finance their war efforts, while later explorations were more rather motivated by trade and influence.
Irrespective of the motivation, colonialism inadvertently spread those laws, philosophies and religion, by now adopted and adapted by the sovereign kingdoms and states of Europe, throughout the world as the imperialist European states’ controlling arm extended over most peoples of the world. With the rise of industrialisation and capitalism, the whole colonized world became a cog in the capitalist machine.
Capitalism, like the European legal code, European philosophy and Christian morality (if not religion) was imposed on all the conquered people of the world. Those with undeveloped systems of their own were least able to resist.
Countries with highly developed philosophies and religions (such as India) were able to resist the imposition of these, although not that of the legal code (and the principles of individual rights on which it is based). None could resist the exploitation by capitalism.
It is hard to realise, unless you are outside of Europe looking in, how similar European countries are at the core; despite the efforts of generations of nationalists who have emphasized the differences to satisfy their corrupt agendas.
One of the most ‘sacred’ declarations of modern time is a result of this Eurocentric domination. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like the United Nations itself, is the result of ‘collusion’ between the victors of the Second World War – all of them ‘European’ powers. Although there are no reasons to doubt the good intentions prevalent at the time, the result is that the world was forced to accept a declaration, in which few of today’s countries could have participated since they were still colonised states. What more, none of these countries can even hint at the possibility of reopening the debate on the declaration, for fear of heavy reprisal being brought to bear on whoever dares. The UDHR is protected as effectively as the Bible or the Koran by their respective believers. We have to accept it without question, or else.
Being a Green activist, this is of particular concern to me. On one hand I support human rights (as individual as these may be) and democracy (ah that elusive concept!), at the same time appreciating that these are very much Eurocentric principles; while compelled to advance human tights and democratic values I am reluctant to assist in the hegemony of western thought over the rest of the world.
What resulted through this whole Eurocentric process is very evident in Pacific Island Countries. I will take Solomon Islands to demonstrate the inadequacy of one of these Eurocentric concepts – the nation state.
An otherwise unknown group of islands, the Solomon Islands hit the news when an ethnic struggle between the populations of two of the islands in the group, claimed the lives of many, dislocated thousands, forced the government down with chaos and anarchy ruling for many months.
With the advantage of hindsight, Solomon Islands was a disaster waiting to happen. In the Solomon Islands we are faced with a situation where the state government acts under one system (that recognised by this Eurocentric world) while the rest of the Solomons works in a totally different and separate system (not to mention that the very concept of the nation state imposed on the Solomon Islands by colonialism, is still very much a foreign concept to most of these people). We therefore have a state government supported and recognised by the outside world, but lacking the same support and recognition internally.
But gods forbid that these people try to challenge that great Eurocentric concept of the nation state! The powerful nations do everything in their power to avoid this from happening and in doing so, fail to actually address the real problems, because addressing the root causes requires us to examine the viability of the nation state in such situations.
I sometimes wonder what a non-Eurocentric world would have been like. Some would argue that it would have been much worse. Possibly this holds true in some cases, when considering certain parts of the world at the moment in time when Europeans made contact with them. But this other world was not static, they were also developing their own paths before these were disrupted and controlled by European colonialism and other influences. What I wonder is what they could have developed into!
I know I have raised more questions and doubts than enlightenment of any sort, but hopefully through these cynical views, we may have some grounds for debate over reasonable amends. And I apologise to those readers who may have thought I was about to embark in answering the question that I chose for the title of this article.