The Continuous Creativity of Western Visual Arts

The white students you have seen recently vandalizing cherished Western paintings likely never read a book about the history of Western art. In academia today, the West is rarely a subject of praise and almost always a subject of derision. Anyone who approaches the history of visual arts from an impartial perspective—concerned only with aesthetics, creativity, and originality—can’t help but realize, as I am about to explain in this article, that Western art stands on a league of its own. Making this claim goes against the relentless promotion of immigrant multiculturalism across the West today, which necessarily comes along with the notion that the art of the diverse peoples of the world is equally good.

Not long ago the celebrated historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto called Kenneth Clark’s judgement that Greek art undoubtedly “embodies a higher state of civilization” than African art a “warped perspective,” “a crude perversion of prejudice.” No civilization can be said to be “better,” Fernández-Armesto insisted, since each culture, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is adapted to a specific environment. We must abandon, in our increasingly diverse West, the “delusions of self-flattery” by Europeans. Charles Murray’s book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 BC to 1950 (2003) has no such qualms: it enumerates the outstanding contributions of individuals to the arts and sciences of countries across the world from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, by calculating the amount of space allocated to these individuals in reference works, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Murray concludes that “whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishments in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America.” He estimates that the absolute number of great visual artists in the West is far higher than the combined number of the other civilizations: 479 for the West as compared to 192 for China and Japan combined (with no significant figures listed for India and the Arab World). Murray relies on the judgments of the knowledge community in his statistical inventories. He defines excellence in the sciences in a pragmatic and objective manner in relation to whether the scientific idea empirically reflects significant aspects of “reality” according to the methodologies now accepted cross-culturally in the world.

But what about excellence in the arts, where different peoples don’t rely on cross-culturally accepted standards? Murray defines “high aesthetic quality” differently. While acknowledging that it is difficult to apply a uniform standard of excellence, he adds that the ability to appreciate the quality of a work of art “varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it.” Those who know most about an artistic field have a deeper understanding of the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the works produced. The consensus one finds among art critics, notwithstanding some variations in individual judgements, reflect qualities that are inherent in the work of art. There is a strong degree of consensus about the greatest paintings and painters. The compilation of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books about the best art and artists reflects this consensus within each respective civilization.

My disagreement with Murray is that the numbers of 479 and 192 leave out a most peculiar characteristic of Western art: its exhibition of a continuous proliferation of highly original artists with new artistic styles, new ways of projecting images on a flat surface, new conceptions of light, new standards of excellence, and new conceptions about nature and man—in contrast to a nonwestern world where aesthetic norms barely changed or where artists were invariably inclined to follow an established convention without breaking new aesthetic paths. To appreciate the achievement of the West it is not enough to have separate lists comparing great artists across civilizations. Among the 479 great painters compiled for the West one will find a much higher number of original artists than among the 192 artists compiled for China and Japan.

I don’t need to be an expert to know this. Reading some of the best histories of art has been enough to convey to me this startling contrast between the West and the Rest. This article compares the artistic greatness of civilizations in painting by examining great books in the history of art. I have in mind four of the most widely read and authoritative books: H. W. Janson’s History of Art, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Arnold Hauser’s four-volume book, The Social History of Art, and Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. I also examine the highly regarded book, The Arts of China, by Michael Sullivan, in partial combination with James Cahill’s Chinese Painting (1960), to get the perspective of admirers of Chinese art. The focus will be on whether China really saw new “isms” or merely continuous refinements and slight alterations within an unbroken tradition set in the past. For the purposes of this article, China is the one civilization that can be compared to the West in having exhibited the highest number of great painters as well as some noticeable changes in artistic styles. This article will then try to convey the novelties of Western art by citing the judgements of Gombrich, Clark and, to a lesser extent, Hauser. Unless one is very knowledgeable about the aesthetics of painting, it is very difficult to express exactly what makes a particular painting or painter truly great and original. Time consuming as it has been, I have thus decided to rely on the aesthetic judgments of these authors, citing their words regularly.

H.W. Janson

H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962, with a sixteenth printing in 1971, which I am using, and numerous new editions thereafter, is an encyclopedic treatment of the history of art, with millions of copies sold in fifteen languages. Janson came from a Lutheran family of Baltic German stock. His criterion for choice of great art is “ORIGINALITY.” “Uniqueness, novelty, freshness” are the “yardstick of artistic greatness.” “An original work must not be a copy, reproduction, imitation, or translation.” But be careful: Janson warns against a flimsy understanding of what “originality” entails, making the key point that “without TRADITION…no originality would be possible.” Absorbing “the artistic tradition” of one’s time, learning the “established ways of drawing, painting, carving, designing” and the “established ways of seeing,” is a precondition for creativity (pp. 12-15) .

This criterion underpins Janson’s magisterial book. This book has three opening chapters on “The Art of Prehistoric Man,” “Egyptian Art,” and “The Ancient Near East.” The rest of the book, with the exception of a short chapter on “Islamic Art” and a short “Postscript” with the title “The Meeting of East and West,” is entirely about Western art. These traditions really interest him insofar as they “contributed to the growth of the Western artistic tradition” (p. 569). He ignored China, Japan, and India until the end because they were not a “vital source of inspiration for Western art” except in contemporary times. New styles of art, new techniques and schools, was a uniquely Western phenomenon. Short sections on Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Islamic art are sufficient to convey the aesthetic qualities of these traditions, with their ceremonial forms and eventual repetitiveness after a period of creativity. The East Asian tradition had a “refined style” characterized by “many centuries of continuous development” (p. 569).

It can’t be denied, however, that this marginal treatment of Chinese art is a limitation of Janson’s book. We will see that there were some variations in artistic styles in China, and truly great painters. But Janson had to make choices. It is a large size book of 600+ pages in small print because the originality of the West is persistently great. Conveying this originality required full separate chapters on Greek Art, Roman Art, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Romanesque Art, Gothic Art, Late Gothic Painting and Sculpture, The Early Renaissance in Italy, The High Renaissance in Italy, Mannerism and Other Trends, The Renaissance in the North, The Baroque in Italy and Germany, The Baroque in Flanders, Holland, and Spain, The Baroque in France and England, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture. History of Art was determined to convey to students precisely what stood out about the Western tradition: its continuous freshness and ability to generate one artistic epoch after another, rather than a relatively continuous and monotonous tradition.

Arnold Hauser

Arnold Hauser (1892-1978) was a Hungarian Marxist with Jewish ancestry, an admirer of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, writing at a time when students were educated without diversity and equity mandates. The Social History of Art, first published in 1951, the product of thirty years of labor, opens with eight short chapters on prehistoric, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian art, covering less than fifty pages in a four-volume book that is close to 1000 pages long. This rightfully valued book argues that art became more realistic and naturalistic as Europe became less aristocratic and hierarchical, more bourgeois, urbane and cosmopolitan. A “naturalistic style” actually prevailed through to the end of the Paleolithic Age in the way animals were depicted in a realistic way, although the art was concerned as well with the performance of magical rituals. This naturalistic attitude, which was “open to the full range of experience,” gave way in the Neolithic Age to a “narrowly geometric stylization” in which the “artist tended to shut himself off from the wealth of empirical reality.” This “formalistic” and “ornamental style” persisted through the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia, with minor variations (Vol 1: pp. 8-21).

The profound changes that accompanied the rise of these civilizations did not occasion fundamental changes to the Neolithic geometrical and formalistic style other than the addition of a monumental quality. We should not “underestimate the spirit of conservatism” of Egyptian art. In Egyptian art, “the person of the artist himself disappeared almost entirely behind his work.” Painters and sculptors remained “anonymous” and “undistinguished” craftsmen, “in no way obtruding their own personalities” (Vol. 1: p. 27). The art of the early period of Egyptian history was “stereotyped” and “stylized” in the Middle Kingdom (2040 -1782 BC), characterized by “conservatism and conventionalism.” “Ancient-Oriental art…is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette” (Vol. 1: p. 31-35).

There was a bit of naturalism during the reign of Akhenaton (1351–1334 BC), known as the “first prophet” and the “discoverer of monotheism.” But while one sees representations of everyday scenes and some aversion from the old monumental style, the art remained “thoroughly ceremonial and formal.” The civilizations of Mesopotamia, Babylonian and Assyrian, despite their more dynamic trade, industry and finance, were “more rigidly disciplined, less changeable” in their art than Egypt. One would have expected the higher urbanity of the Babylonians to have encouraged less rigid forms of art, but Hauser infers that the persistency of despotic rule and “the more intolerant spirit of religion” likely countered any individualistic and naturalistic impulses (Vol. 1: pp. 42-43).

It is only in ancient Crete that Hauser finally encounters a “colorful, unrestrained, exuberant life” in art. Hauser’s argument is not that from this point on Western art is persistently creative, never rigid and traditionalist. New artistic epochs emerge (Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Impressionism) in opposition to prevailing conventions with increasing acceleration from the Renaissance onwards, led by artists who purposely wanted to break away from the prejudices of their age, innovate and experiment, and demonstrate thereby their own artistic genius. Hauser’s heavy focus on social history and literature is the reason why I will be citing him less than Gombrich and Clark.

E.H. Gombrich

The Story of Art, originally published in 1950, is currently in its 16th edition. Wikipedia says that “over seven million copies” of this book “have been sold, making it the best-selling art book of all time.” It “has been translated into approximately 30 languages.” Unlike Hauser, who follows a Marxist conception of progress in the arts, Gombrich, born in Vienna into an assimilated family of Jewish origin, carefully rejects the idea of progress, believing that “each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value” (p. 3). Achieving originality in one age usually entails sacrificing aesthetic qualities emphasized by preceding generations. At the same time, Gombrich thinks it is possible, much like Charles Murray, to make judgements about the quality of art, as long as it is a critic with aesthetic sensibilities developed through years of education.

The Story of Art is a history of art from the beginnings to the present. Gombrich estimates that three chapters, out of twenty five, are enough to cover the achievements of primitive and nonwestern art. His reason for doing this is simple:

Western Europe always differed profoundly from the East. In the East [artistic] styles lasted for thousands of years, and there seemed no reason why they should ever change. The West never knew this immobility. It was always restless, groping for new solutions and new ideas (p. 131).

Among European painters there was an “urge to be different,” do something new, find a new way to enhance the aesthetic effect of the work, convey something different about the world, new life experiences along with permanent aspects of human nature. Using originality and restless creativity as his central criterion, Gombrich could not but pay far less attention to an Eastern artistic tradition that remained continuously the same through the centuries. He writes about Egypt’s “art of eternity.”

No one wanted anything different, no one asked him to be “original.” On the contrary, he was probably considered the best artist who could make his statues most like the admired monuments of the past. So it happened that in the course of three thousand years or more Egyptian art changed very little…True, new fashions appeared, and new subjects were demanded of the artists, but their mode of representing man and nature remained essentially the same (p. 42).

About Chinese and Japanese art, he observes:

The standards of painting remained very high…but art became more and more like a graceful and elaborate game which has lost much of its interest as so many of its moves are known. It was only after a new contact with the achievements of Western art in the eighteenth century that the Japanese dared to apply the Eastern methods to new subjects (p. 108).

Gombrich has a keen eye for what was distinctive about each epoch of Western art and what was original about each of the major painters. And so does Kenneth Clark. What I will do next is make a few introductory remarks about Clark’s book Civilisation, then write about the historical essentials of Chinese painting, before I return to what Gombrich, Clark, and Hauser say about Western originality.

Kenneth Clark

Clark’s book, as he says in the Foreword, “is made up of the scripts of a series of television programmes given in the spring of 1969.” The series, produced by the BBC under the same name as the book’s title, consisted of thirteen programmes, each fifty minutes long, singularly focused on European art from the end of the Dark Ages to the early twentieth century. Many were surprised by the “unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and 5 million in the US.” Everyone was impressed. Civilisation was “the first magnum opus attempted and realised in terms of TV”—”setting the standard for later documentary series.”

But complaints were inevitable in the thoroughly multicultural and feminist Britain of recent times. Overtly the objections came down to Clark’s “all men” and “all European” cast of great painters. They were upset as well by Clark’s identification of the word “Civilisation” with the creation of great art, combined with his belief that the West produced the greatest art. This may explain why the BBC announced in 2015 a new ten-episode sequel to Clark’s series to be called Civilisations (plural), with three presenters: “the committed feminist and anti-racist” Mary Beard, the Nigerian immigrant David Olusoga, and the Jew Simon Schama. This new series would emphasize “non-European cultures” to “convey a message of globalism” by “revelling in the variety of our species’ ingenuity on an international scale.”

Couldn’t these resentful conformists produce a series with a different title on the artistic achievements of women and nonwhites? No. The aim of equity and inclusion is to undermine the greatness of European culture by mixing it up with other cultures. Although Clark does not compare Western to non-Western art, and starts with the Dark Ages rather than ancient Greece, the following words in the beginning of Civilisation would have disqualified him today from any public appearance:

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of Civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world — that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony… There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world. But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium… Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in ancient Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted unchanged for six hundred years.

It is this conviction that Western art expresses the highest man has achieved in aesthetics that irks the new diversity-controlled Britain. Civilisation is a joy to read for its high minded learning and its enthusiastic appreciation of the sublime originality of Western art in its incessant striving for new forms of aesthetic perfection. Other civilizations remained content with reenacting the perfection they had achieved in the past. The West was different:

The great, indeed the unique, merit of European Civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration (p. 74).

What about Chinese Painting?

To assess Chinese painting I will rely on Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China, a comprehensive study of Chinese art and a long standing text for university students, now in its sixth edition. I will make some references to James Cahill’s beautiful book, Chinese Painting (1960), with its numerous color transparencies of paintings in plates. I can’t disagree with Cahill that “the Chinese tradition of painting [is] the richest and most diversified in world art outside Europe” (p. 5). Sullivan is also a keen admirer of Chinese art. The claim that Chinese art was relatively observant of tradition, or attached to old ways, is an interpretation Sullivan would deny as a matter of principle. Cahill less so. Yet, the overall message I take from Sullivan’s The Arts of China is that this art was very traditional. Much of Chinese “art,” it should be said, consisted of bronze casting, ceramics, and jade carving. This “art” was highly sophisticated in technique and decoration, but I hesitate to call it art. It should be categorized as applied art, the work of highly skilled craftsmen. As H.W. Janson writes, “originality is what distinguishes art from craft.”

While paintings with human figures were common from the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) until the end of the Tang (618 to 907), by the eleventh century landscape painting was the characteristic product until the end of dynastic rule in the twentieth century. Both the human figure and landscape painting operated within a stable craft-like tradition, occasionally exhibiting interesting variations, without epoch-making redirections. There is less individuality and self-consciousness in Chinese portraits. As Cahill observes about the painting below, which is a 12th century remake of an earlier 8th century original, the characters are conscious in their sidelong glances, their postures, the way the hands are poised and the heads tilted, but the picture “tells us nothing about the participants beyond defining their roles in this particular scene… nor is there any of the extraneous overlay—humor, drama, pathos, sentiment—that is so often present in Occidental genre art” (pp. 20-21).

Landscape painting occurred within a cultural matrix that encouraged standardization and regularity, rather than unpredictability and freshness. Sullivan tells us that the “Six principles of Chinese painting,” which the painter and art critic Xie He wrote in the 6th century, “remained the pivot around which all subsequent art criticism in China has resolved” (p. 95, my italics). These six elements were: “spirit harmony,” the way of using the brush, “fidelity to the object in portraying forms,” “conformity to kind in applying colors,” “proper planning in placing of elements,” and “transmission by copying.” The sixth principle “indicates reverence for the tradition itself, of which every painter felt himself to be a custodian” (p. 96). Overall this manual told prospective painters that:

Making exact copies of ancient, worn masterpieces was a way of preserving them, just as, at a later date, working “in the manner of” great painters of the past, while adding something of oneself, was a way of putting new life into the traditions (p. 96).

This passage sums up the underlying nature of Chinese creativity. New trends consisted in breaking from the regimented traditions of one’s age by reviving and putting new life into early traditions. Of course, within any tradition, painters were expected to add something of their own, otherwise they would have produced mere replicas. Not just in art but in philosophy, as I have argued elsewhere, every “new” philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism” or through different mixtures of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Sullivan mentions Daoist painters who deviated somewhat from “the rigidly traditional way of art and literature” and painters who were influenced by Buddhism late in the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), who nurtured a “new” tradition in Chinese sculpture that “contained a rich mixture of native and foreign elements” (133).

According to Sullivan, the “great masters of the tenth and eleventh centuries are sometimes called classical because they established an ideal in monumental landscape painting to which later painters were to return again and again for inspiration” (p. 169). Likewise, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) “occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese landscape painting” because “he united a direct, spontaneous expression of feeling with a deep reverence for the antique” (203). He is said to have gone “beyond the orthodox Song styles” by rediscovering “the brushwork of the long neglected southern manner of [the painters] Dong Yuan and Juran” from the earlier Southern Tang dynasty (937–975). In doing this, Mengfu, “opened the way…for almost all subsequent scholarly landscape painting up to the present day” (203). The “urge to penetrate the unknown,” identified by H. W. Janson as a hallmark of Western originality, was lacking in Chinese painting.

Sullivan indeed tells us that “up until the Yuan, each painter had built upon the achievement of his predecessors in enriching his pictorial vocabulary and drawing closer to nature.” But after Mengfu this “succession was broken, as artists began to range back over the whole tradition, reviving, playing variations upon, and painting in the manner of the great masters, particularly those of the tenth and eleventh centuries” (207). Sullivan calls this “a new and indeed revolutionary attitude to painting”—yet it was just a return to an older tradition. Again, we observe this same type of “revolutionary attitude” in Chinese intellectual history: breaking from a stultified Neo-Confucian tradition by going back to the original Confucian tradition, or by integrating Daoist elements into the Confucian tradition.

With continuous generations perfecting landscape painting, refining and elaborating different variations, Chinese painting could not but be masterful. Since landscapes are inherently diverse, there was always room to paint different things, pictures of flowers, birds, insects and animals. We find Bian Wenjin (1400-1440) specializing in painting birds in fresh ways. Chinese painters also portrayed scholars seated on mountain ledges gazing at some landscape or meditating. All in all, however, these variations occurred within an established tradition. In his Qingbian Mountains of 1617, Dong Qichang affirmed his philosophy that “the great Southern tradition must be not only revived and preserved, but creatively reinterpreted, for only thus could it live” (p. 229). A new generation would go back to an older tradition to find ways to express it in new ways. Once the “new” way became a tradition, stultification would set in. “The most characteristic intellectual achievement of the Qing dynasty was, like of the Ming, not creative as much as synthetic.” The Qing age was “an antiquarian age,” and not just in painting but in its overall obsession with the collection of classic books as well as paintings, porcelain, and archaic bronzes” (246).

Western Originality: From Ancient to Gothic Times

If you asked someone what exactly makes Greek art great, what was original about the art of Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Rembrandt, or what’s the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting, or what’s new about Mannerism, Rococo, Naturalism, Impressionism, and Surrealism—you will invariably get answers full of generalities without proper distinctions. It is for this reason that I have decided to go through the very time-consuming task of distilling some of the best passages from Gombrich and Clark (and a few ones from Hauser) that, in my estimation, bring out what was novel and truly great about particular Western artists and particular works of art.

Gombrich sees a “great wakening” in Greece:

It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit…in the sixth century BC. We know that before that time the artists of the old Oriental empires had striven for a peculiar kind of perfection. They had tried to emulate the art of their forefathers as faithfully as possible, and to adhere strictly to the sacred rules they had learned…[With the Greeks] it was no longer a question of learning a ready-made formula for representing the human body. Every Greek sculptor wanted to know how he was to represent a particular body. (p. 52, his italics).

One of the greatest artistic accomplishments of the ancient Greeks was “the discovery of foreshortening,” which relates to the way we perceive an object in space depending on the angle from which we see it. It was in Greece that “artists dared for the first time in all history to paint a foot as seen from in front.” It may seem exaggerated to dwell for long on such a small detail, but it really meant that the old art was dead and buried. It meant that the artist no longer aimed at including everything in the picture in its most clearly visible form, but took account of the angle from which he saw an object (pp. 53-4).

Then came Hellenistic art with its realistic portrayals of particular characters.

It is a strange fact…that the Greek artists…avoided giving the faces a particular expression…Greek statues, of course, are not expressionless in the sense of looking dull and blank, but their faces never seem to betray any definite feeling…It was in the generation after Praxiteles, towards the end of the fourth century, that this further great discovery was made in art. By the time of Alexander the Great…the heads of the statues usually look much more animated and alive than the beautiful faces of earlier works. Together with this mastery of expression, artists also learned to seize the individual character of a physiognomy and to make portraits in our sense of the word. It was in the time of Alexander that people started to discuss this new art of portraiture (p. 72).
This was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period. Ancient Oriental art had no use for landscapes except as settings for their scenes of human life…For Greek art at the time of…Praxiteles, man remained the subject of the artist’s interest. In the Hellenistic period, the time when poets like Theocritus discovered the charm of simple life among shepherds, artists also tried to conjure up the pleasures of the countryside for sophisticated town-dwellers (p. 77).

One should not presume, however, that the creativity of Hellenistic art was bound to continue. “The Hellenistics,” as Arnold Hauser observes, eventually “reached a dead end and simply went on repeating worn-out formulas” (97). Similarly, after Byzantine art expressed its own original style in the fourth century AD, it became rigid and inflexible, and while it experienced a “second golden age” in the ninth and tenth centuries, with some magnificent mosaic paintings, it became “formally stereotyped again…so conservative in fact that in essentials the icons of the Greek Orthodox monasteries were still being painted in the same manner in the seventeenth as in the eleventh century” (p. 128).

Gombrich—who starts with ancient Greece, in contrast to Clark who starts with the “Dark Ages”—ignores the contributions of Roman art, particularly the way in which Roman portraitures raised to a higher level the portrayal of the “real” personality of individuals. But it can’t be denied that this art, too, became stereotyped and conventional, including Rome’s unique architectural forms of the arch, vault, and dome, although through the passage of time the potential of these forms were fully exploited in the construction of a wide range of engineering structures, theatres, aqueducts, bridges, circuses, and temples.

The term “Dark Ages” is restricted to the period from about AD 400 to AD 1000, rather than covering the full Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Franks, who brought Rome down, and later the Northmen or Vikings who raided and pillaged Christian villages and monasteries, included highly skilled craftsmen capable of finely wrought metalwork and excellent wood carvings with intricately beautiful patterns. At the court of Charlemagne the tradition of Roman architecture was resurrected in the Palatine Chapel built in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) around AD 800, a copy of the famous the Basilica of San Vitale that had been built in Ravenna 300 years before. The notion of creating something different or original was still absent. Gombrich senses, however, an emerging disposition among medieval Christian artists “to express” what they “felt, beyond the Egyptian predilection to express ceremonial and stereotypical images, and the Greek-Roman predilection for a style that alternately emphasized realistic and idealizing elements.” While the painter of the figure of St. Matthew writing the gospel (dated AD 800) expressed his talent by copying an original copy as “faithfully as possible,” the painter of the same figure (dated AD 830), Gombrich thinks, “must have aimed at a different interpretation.”

Perhaps he did not want to represent the evangelist like any serene scholar, sitting quietly in his study. To him St Matthew was an inspired man, writing down the Word of God. It was an immensely important and immensely exciting event in the history of mankind that he wanted to portray, and he succeeded in conveying something of his own sense of awe and excitement in this figure of a writing man (114-15).

The Romanesque period did not simply resurrect the Roman art of vaulting large heavy buildings but through the eleventh and twelfth centuries was characterized by “ceaseless experiment” and the realization that “it was not really necessary to make the whole roof so heavy.” It was possible to fill the intervals between a number of firm arches with lighter materials, “arches or ribs crosswise between the pillars.” This revolutionary idea in architecture can be traced as far back as the Norman cathedral of Durham (p. 123).

Among the great works of art Kenneth Clark includes from the Dark Ages is the Cross of Lothair (about AD 1000), “one of the most moving objects that has come down to us from the distant past… an image of worldly imperium at its most civilized” (p. 19). It was “about the year 1100” that western Europe saw “an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence” with the “triumph of the Church” playing a major role. The Chartres Cathedral was a “masterpiece of harmonious proportion.” The main portal of the Chartres “is one of the most beautiful congregations of carved figures in the world. The longer you look at it, the more moving incidents, the more vivid details you discover” (p. 55). “One must remember,” Clark continues, “that to medieval man geometry was a divine activity. The Chartres, indeed, “was the centre of a school of philosophy devoted to Plato, and in particular to his mysterious book called the Timaeus, from which it was thought that the whole universe could be interpreted in the form of measurable harmony” (p. 52). God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles.

For Gombrich, the Gothic style further revolutionized the Romanesque vaulting method by means of crosswise arches “much more consistently and to much greater purpose.” For Clark, Gothic vaulting and the device known as flying buttresses “remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements.”

Since the first expression of civilised life in architecture, say the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to make them transcend it by means of proportion or by the colors of precious marbles, he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. Now by the devices of the Gothic style…he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit (59-60).

For Hauser, “the rise of Gothic style marks the most fundamental change in the history of modern art.”

The interior of the Romanesque church is a self-contained stationary space that permits the eye of the spectator to rest and remain in perfect passivity. A Gothic church, on the contrary, seems to be in process of development, as if it were rising up before our very eyes; it expresses a process, not a result (Vol. 1: pp. 175, 220).

The Gothic sculptor, writes Gombrich, “approached his task in a new spirit,” imbuing his statues with “an individual dignity” beyond portraying individuals as representatives of “sacred symbols” copied from religious texts. Gothic statues “look immensely energetic and vigorous.” Gothic “knowledge of the human body…was infinitely greater than that of the painter of the twelfth century miniature” (pp. 137, 139). Clark connects the Gothic world to a new world of chivalry, chastity, and courtly love.

Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the Civilisation of Greece and Rome, none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. It was entirely unknown in antiquity. Passion, yes; desire, yes of course; steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of an almost unapproachable woman; this belief that no sacrifice was too great, that a whole lifetime might be spent paying court to some exacting lady or suffering on her behalf, this would seem to the Romans or to the Vikings not only absurd but unbelievable; and yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature—from Chrétien the Troyes to Shelley (p. 64).

The “cult of ideal love” found expression in the “ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the thirteenth century” identified as “the Gothic Virgin and Child in ivory.” Clark notes that Gothic artists also took pleasure in leaves, flowers, and, most of all, birds in manuscript illustrations; “artists drew them with such obsessive accuracy, and I think the reason is that they had become symbols of freedom…Birds were cheerful, hopeful, impudent, and mobile.”

Gombrich says that the painting Faith (1306) by Giotto, born near Florence in about 1265,

gives the illusion of a statue in the round…[E]arly Christian art had reverted to the old Oriental idea that to tell a story clearly every figure had to be shown completely, almost as was done in Egyptian art. Giotto abandoned these ideas…He shows us so convincingly how each figure reflects the grief of the tragic scene…Giotto begins an entirely new chapter in the history of art. From this day onwards the history of art, first in Italy and then in other countries also, is the history of the great artists (pp. 144-148).

Clark thinks that before Giotto “Italian painting was really only a less polished form of Byzantine painting. It was flat, flowing linear style based on traditional concepts which had changed very little for five hundred years. For Giotto to break away from it and evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of the feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art” (p. 80).

Italian Renaissance

What was new about the Italian Renaissance? According to Clark:

Medieval architects had designed on a mathematical basis, but it seems to have been of immense complexity, as elaborate as scholastic philosophy. The Renaissance architects used much simpler geometrical figures – the square, the circle, forms which they believed to have some ultimate perfection – and they entertained the idea that these forms must be applicable to the human body: that each, so to say, guaranteed the perfection of the other…The same approach was applied to painting, in the system known as perspective, by which it was through that with mathematical calculation one could render on a flat surface the precise position of a figure in space. This too seems to have been invented by Brunelleschi, but we can see it best in the works of this two friends, Ghiberti and Donatello…The belief that one could represent a man in a real setting and calculate his position and arrange figures in a demonstrably harmonious order, expressed symbolically a new idea about man’s place in the scheme of things and man’s control over his own destiny (p. 96-99).

Gombrich says that with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)

we see at once that it [the Capella Pazzi) has little in common with any classical temple, but even less with the forms used by Gothic builders. Brunelleschi has combined columns, pilasters and arches in his own way to achieve an effect of lightness and grace which is different from anything that had gone before…To him, it seems, is due another momentous discovery in the field of art…that of perspective. We have seen that even the Greeks, who understood foreshortening, and the Hellenistic painters who were skilled in creating the illusion of depth, did not know the mathematical laws by which objects diminish in size as they recede into the background (pp. 163-5).

For Clark, “the invention of the individual” was the source of the Renaissance’s creativity. In medieval art, “people were presented to the eye as figures that symbolised their status” but in Renaissance portraits the personalities of individuals are revealed with details of their daily lives. Giorgione, “the passionate lover of physical beauty,” painted (1500-1510) a picture of an old woman with extreme realism, titled Col tempo, “with time,” of a woman who “must have once been a beauty,” her face ravaged by time.

Hauser makes an important observation about the “individualism” of the Renaissance: while “strong personalities already existed in the Middle Ages, yet to think and act individually is one thing and to be conscious of one’s individuality, to affirm and deliberately to intensify it, is another” (Vol. 2: p. 62). For Gombrich, it was Masaccio (1401-1428) who “brought about a complete revolution in painting.”

This revolution did not consist only in the technical trick of perspective painting…We can imagine how amazed the Florentine’s must have been when this wall painting was unveiled and seemed to have made a hole in the wall through which they could look into a new chapel in Brunelleschi’s modern style (p. 165).

There was something “entirely new” in the painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), says Gombrich.

He was the inventor of oil painting… What he achieved was a new preparation of paints before they were put on the panel… For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term (pp. 170-4).

In Piero della Francesca, Gombrich continues, “light not only helps to model the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth” (p. 189). In the equestrian statue which Andrea del Verrocchio made in 1488 of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni,

we see how minutely he studied the anatomy of the horse, and how clearly he observed the position of the muscles and veins. But most admirable of all is the posture of the horseman, who seems to be riding ahead of his troops with an expression of bold defiance (p. 213).

It is said that this statue was not a portrait of Colleoni but of the idea of a strong and ruthless military commander “bursting with titanic power and energy.”

In Leonardo da Vinci,

there was nothing in nature which did not arouse his curiosity and challenge his ingenuity. He explored the secrets of the human body by dissecting more than thirty corpses. He was one of the first to probe the mysteries of the growth of the child in the womb; he investigated the laws of waves and currents; he spent years observing and analysing the flight of insects and birds…Never before had the sacred episode [The Last Supper] appeared so close and so lifelike. (pp. 214, 216-17).

Clark believes that Leonardo “belongs to no epoch, he fits into no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes…he was the most relentlessly curious man in history…Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s note-books, one is absolutely worn out by this energy” (135). According to Gombrich, what stands out about Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in history,

is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her…Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is the effect of every great work of art (p. 218-19).

No artist before Michelangelo, adds Gombrich

had even come near expressing the greatness of the mystery of creation with such simplicity and force…It is one of the greatest miracles in art how Michelangelo has contrived thus to make the touch of the Divine hand the centre and focus of the picture, and how he has made us see the idea of omnipotence by the ease and power of this gesture of creation (pp. 224-7).

In stark contrast to most current academics who agree with Fernández-Armesto’s dogma that survival and woke politics are the qualities that define a civilisation, Clark sees “the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man” for having extended in his art the “powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.” For Hauser,

Michelangelo rises to absolutely unprecedented heights…He is the first example of the modern, lonely, demonically impelled artist—the first to be completely possessed by his idea and for whom nothing exists but his idea—who feels a deep sense of responsibility towards his gift and sees a higher and superhuman power in his own artistic genius (Volume 2: p. 60).

Raphael, says Gombrich, possessed a unique artistic capacity to achieve

constant movement throughout the picture, without letting it become restless or unbalanced. It is for this supreme mastery of arranging his figures, this consummate skill in composition, that artists have admired Raphael ever since…Raphael was seen to have accomplished what the older generation had striven so hard to achieve: the perfect and harmonious composition of freely moving figures (p. 234).

Clark devotes considerable attention to Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) a “very strange character,” “intensively self-conscious and inordinately vain.” “No man has ever described natural objects, flowers and grasses and animals, more minutely; and yet, to my mind, something is missing – the inner life” (151).

But if Dürer did not try to peer so deeply into the inner life of nature, as Leonardo did, nor feel its appalling independence, he was deeply engaged by the mystery of the human psyche. His obsession with his own personality was part of a passionate interest in psychology in general, and this led him to produce one of the great prophetic documents of western man, the engraving he entitled Melancholia…The figure is humanity at its most evolved with wings to carry her upwards…holds in her hands the compasses, symbols of measurement by which science will conquer the world. Around her are all the emblems of constructive action: a saw, a plane, pincers, scales, a hammer, a melting pot, and two elements in solid geometry, a polyhedron and sphere. Yet all these aids to construction are discarded and she sits there brooding on the futility of human effort. Her obsessive stare reflects some deep psychic disturbance (152-55).

In The Holy Night (1530), says Gombrich, we can see how Correggio (1489-1534), more so than Titian,

exploited the discovery that colour and light can be used to balance forms and to direct our eyes along certain lines. It is we who rush to the scene with the shepherd and who are made to see what he sees — the miracle of the Light that shone in darkness of which the Gospel of St. John speaks (p. 247).

Catholic Baroque and Mannerism

As you read the following passages, think about Leonardo da Vinci’s remark about the indomitable desire of the “wretched pupil” to “surpass his master.” This attitude is singularly European, completely absent in China, where the aim was to imitate, reproduce the perfection already believed to have been attained in the past. Clark sees the Baroque as a product of the Catholic revival of the sixteenth century, the counter-Reformation movement that, in the realm of art, “gave ordinary people a means of satisfying, through ritual images and symbols, their deepest impulses, so that their minds were at peace.” The Catholic Church, in its portrayal of the Virgin, unlike the Protestant North, gave “the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male.” It also had “another strength which one may say was part of the Mediterranean Civilisation—or at any rate a legacy from the pagan Renaissance: it was not afraid of the human body.”

Clark writes that “late Baroque artists delighted in emotive close-ups with open lips and glistening tears. The huge scale, the restless movement, the shifting lights and dissolves—all these devices were to be rediscovered in the movies. The extraordinary thing is that Baroque artists did it in bronze and marble, not on celluloid.” He says of Bernini that “was dazzlingly precocious,” “the work of Bernini is ideal and eternal… He not only gave Baroque Rome its character, but he was the chief source of an international style that spread all over Europe, as Gothic had done, and as the Renaissance style never did” (182). The Ecstasy of St. Teresa “is one of the most deeply moving works in European art. Bernini’s gift of sympathetic imagination…is used to convey the rarest and most precious of all emotional states, that of religious ecstasy” (191). Similarly, Gombrich judges that Bernini achieved an intensity of facial expression which until then was never attempted in art” (328).

There are so many great painters—Holbein, Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, van Dyck, Grünewald—and countless works of art one could spend countless hours thinking about. Hauser groups “late Baroque” artists under the label “Mannerism,” which retained the “passionately expressionistic aims of baroque, while showing “bodies struggling to give expression to the mind…turning and twisting, bending and writhing under the pressure of the mind.” Within Mannerism, he sees “two opposed currents—the mystical spiritualism of El Greco and the pantheistic naturalism of Brueghel” (Vol. 2: p. 92).

Gombrich says that Caravaggio (1571-1610), whom Clark views as “the greatest Italian painter of the period,”

was of a wild and irascible temper, quick to take offence…He had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal beauty’. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art afresh… Consider his painting of St. Thomas: the three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking with his finger into the wound in His side, look unconventional enough. One can imagine that such a painting struck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds—here they looked like common labourers, with weathered faces and wrinkled brows. But, Caravaggio would have answered, they were old labourers, common people (pp. 290-292).

One drawback in Clark’s book is that he ignores Spanish painters including one of the greatest ever, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), about whom Gombrich says that he “devoted his art to the dispassionate observation of nature regardless of conventions.” Of The Water-seller of
Seville
, he says:

No one who stands before this picture feels inclined to ask whether the objects represented are beautiful or ugly, or whether it is important or trivial. Not even the colours are strictly beautiful by themselves. Brown, grey, greenish tones prevail. And yet, the whole is joined together in such a rich and mellow harmony that the picture remains unforgettable to anyone who has ever paused in front of it (306).

In Rubens’s Head of a Child, Gombrich says,

there are no tricks of composition here, no splendid robes or streams of light, but a simple en face portrait of a child. And yet it seems to breathe and palpitate like living flesh. Compared with this, the portraits of earlier centuries seem somehow remote and unreal — however great they may be as works of art […] joy in exuberant and almost boisterous life in all its manifestations saved Rubens (1577-1640) from becoming a mere virtuoso of his art. It turned his paintings from mere Baroque decorations of festive halls into masterpieces which retain their vitality within the chilling atmosphere of museums (pp. 299, 302).

Dutch “Bourgeois” Painting

The seventeenth century, according to Clark, “saw a revolutionary change in thought” most visibly in the Netherlands “that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation” (p. 194). “Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism” with the “first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy.” Unlike the art produced in the past, which was feudal, aristocratic, and at the service of a Church that was rich and powerful, the “numerous group-portraits of early seventeenth-century Holland” are of individuals “who are prepared to join in a corporate effort for the public good” of their cities. While excessive capitalist wealth can produce a “defensive smugness and sentimentality” in art, it generated for some time a society in Holland were leading citizens came together to take “corporate responsibility” because they could “afford to do so” because they had “leisure” because they had “money in the bank.” Clark sees these new bourgeois individuals in such portraits as Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662).

Clark believes that “almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals” who are “to some extent a kind of summation of their times.” He includes Rembrandt among “the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe.” “Rembrandt was the great poet of that need for truth and that appeal to experience which had begun with the Reformation…Rembrandt, although in fact he was a profound student of the classical tradition, wanted to look at every episode [in the Bible] as if it had never been depicted before, and to try to find an equivalent for it in his own experience” (p. 203). Among the seven paintings he shows of Rembrandt is Bathsheba at her Bath (1654). He writes:

The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings goes beyond that of any other artists who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer-picture making. In the Bathsheba he makes use of studies from nature and from antique reliefs to achieve a perfectly balanced design. We may think we admire it as pure painting, but in the end we come back to the head. Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings as she ponder on David’s letter are rendered with a subtlety and a human sympathy which a great novelist could scarcely achieve in many pages (p. 205).

Gombrich agrees,

Rembrandt (1606-69)…one of the greatest painters who ever lived…Other portraits by great masters may look alive, they may reveal the character of their sitter through a characteristic expression or a striking attitude. Creations such as Mona Lisa…are convincing and impressive, but we feel that they can only represent one side of a complex human being. Not even Mona Lisa can always have smiled. But in Rembrandt’s portraits we feel fact to fact with real human beings with all their tragic failings and all their sufferings (p. 313, 315).

Included among other great Dutch painters are Frans Hals, Paulus Potter, who painted animals within landscapes with “uncanny realism,” Jacob van Ruisdael, “a master in the painting of dark and sombre clouds, of evening light when the shadows grow, of ruined castles and rushing brooks,” and Vermeer of Delft. “With Vermeer,” writes Gombrich,

genre painting has lost the last trace of humorous illustration. His paintings are really still lives with human beings. It is hard to argue the reasons that make such a simple and unassuming picture picture [The Milkmaid] one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. But few who have been lucky enough to see the original will disagree with me that it is something of a miracle (p. 324).

Clark prefers Vermeer’s landscape painting, “View of Delft,” about which he says:

His work is without a single parti pris, or a prejudice arising from knowledge, or the convenience of a style. It’s really quite a shock to see a picture that has so little stylistic artifice as his View of Delft. It looks like a coloured photograph, and yet we know that it is a work of extreme intellectual distinction. It not only shows the light of Holland, but what Descartes called “the natural light of mind” (209).

Rococo, Naturalism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism

Rococo “represented a real gain in sensibility…and captured new and more delicate shades of feeling,” “an art of elegance rather than greatness,” writes Clark. For Gombrich, it reflected “the taste of the French aristocracy of the early eighteenth century…The fashion for dainty colours and delicate decoration…which expressed itself in gay frivolity.” The paintings of Watteau, a sick man who died of consumption at the age of 37, is seen as the best expression of this new style, with his “visions of a life divorced from hardship…a dream life of gay picnics in fairy parks where it never rains, of musical parties where all ladies are beautiful and all lovers graceful in which all are dressed in sparkling silk without looking showy,” in the words of Gombrich (341).

With Naturalism the painter “lost all consciousness of an independent self” by immersing himself into the totality of nature to gain “thereby a more intense consciousness of being,” writes Clark as he examines Rousseau, the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the painters Turner and Constable (272, 291). He admires Turner above everyone else.

He was a genius of the first order—far the greatest painter that England has ever produced… No one has ever known more about natural appearances, and he was able to fit into his encyclopedic knowledge memories of the most fleeting effects of light—sunrises, passing storms, dissolving mists, none of which had ever been seen on canvas before… [Turner’s] new approach to painting… consisted of transforming everything into pure colour, light rendered as colour, feelings about life rendered as colour. It’s quite difficult for us to realise what a revolutionary procedure this was. One must remember that for centuries objects were thought to be real because they were solid. You proved their reality by touching or tapping them…And all respectable art aimed at defining this solidity…Turner declared the independence of colour and thereby added a new faculty to the human mind (284-5).

To sustain their originality, and find new ways of conveying our perception of reality, and surpass Turner, the “three great lovers of nature” of the late nineteenth century, Monet, Cézanne, and van Gogh, “had to make a more radical transformation”—giving way to a new ism: Impressionism. “An impression of what?”—asks Clark. “Of light.” Monet, for Clark, was the “original unswerving Impressionist,” with his view that all a painting can do is give an impression of light. In Monet’s words: “light is the principal person in the picture.” He shows Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, painted from his garden grounds.

Gombrich is fascinated by Impressionism. He believes it was Manet (with an “a”) and his followers who “brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tones which blend in our eye or really in our mind” (p. 388). The painting The Balcony illustrates Manet’s intentions. Compared with earlier paintings, say Ruben’s Head of a Child, or Velazquez’s Infant Prince, “Manet’s heads look flat.” “But the fact is,” adds Gombrich, “that in the open air, and in the full light of day, round forms sometimes do look flat, like mere coloured patches. It was this effect which Manet wanted to explore. The consequence is that as we stand before one of his pictures it looks more immediately real than any old master” (388).

A novelty about Monet (with an “o) that Gombrich brings up is the “idea that all painting of nature must actually be finished ‘on the spot'” which “demanded a change of habits and a disregard of comfort.” “‘Nature’ or ‘the motif’ changes from minute to minute as a cloud passes over the sun or the wind breaks the reflection in the water. The painter who hopes to catch a characteristic aspect has no leisure to mix and match his colours…He must fix them straight on to his canvas in rapid strokes, caring less for detail than for the general effect of the whole” (392).

For Hauser, perspective painting reaches its culmination in Impressionism, in “the reproduction of the subjective act instead of the objective substratum of seeing.” “Everything stable and coherent is dissolved…and assumes the character of the unfinished and fragmentary.” Impressionism was indeed an “urban art,” a reaction to “external impressions with the overstrained nerves of modern technical man…it describes the always ephemeral impressions of city life…it implies an enormous expansion of sensual perception” (Vol. 4: p. 158).

[T]he quivering, trembling dots and the happy, loose and abrupt strokes of the brush, the whole improvised technique with its rapid and rough sketching, the fleeting, seemingly careless perception of the object, and the brilliant execution merely express…that feeling of a stirring, dynamic, constantly changing reality” (Vol. 4: p. 159-60).

Renoir’s A Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, shows an open-air dance, which appears ‘sketchy’ and unfinished but the intention, according to Gombrich, was “to conjure up the gay medley of bright colours and to study the effect of sunlight on the whirling throng.” The figures remain the focus, however—how the “forms are increasingly dissolved in sunlight and air.” “We realize without difficulty that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but is the outcome of great artistic wisdom” (394-5).

Where do we fit Goya? As Gombrich writes:

The most striking fact about Goya’s prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical, or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions. Some are meant as accusations against the powers of stupidity and reaction, of cruelty and oppression, which Goya had witnessed in Spain, others seem to just give shape to the artist’s nightmares (p. 366).

Clark seems to associate Goya with a new Romantic “pessimism” that emerge in the early 1800s, showing Goya’s famous painting of a firing squad called The Third of May 1808, and pointing to the poet Byron as the main spokesman of this new feeling, which he contrasts to the romantic naturalism or sentimentalism of Rousseau, his “belief in the beauty and innocence of nature,” and Wordsworth’s “daisies and daffodils,” found in such painters as Constable. Romantic pessimism eulogized the “great forces of nature,” the roaring of lions, cataracts, and colossal storms—with the sublime. “Consciousness of the sublime was a faculty that the Romantic movement added to the European imagination,” says Clark (307). He pays respect to Théodore Géricault, whose most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, was of a disaster at sea he had read about in the newspapers, prompting him to study corpses from the local morgue.

Hauser, from a perspective that includes the study of literature, thinks that Romanticism “represented one of the most decisive turning points in the history of the European mind.” With Romanticism “all individual expression is unique, irreplaceable and bears its own laws and standards within itself.” The “intellectual atmosphere created by the [French] Revolution” nurtured an image of the artist as “the lonely human being…who feels himself to be different, either tragically or blessedly different, from his fellows” and the idea that art is “an activity of self-expression creating its own standards” (Vol. 3: p. 144). Were the Romantics, then, responsible for starting a dynamic that would eventually undermine (in the twentieth century) the standards of art, with their excessive subjectivism and preoccupation with their own feelings, with “everything dark and ambiguous, chaotic and ecstatic”? It has to be acknowledged that Romanticism was one of the most creative movements in Western history, combining the seemingly contradictory motivations of losing oneself in the unknown, the mysterious natural forces that overwhelm the confidence of the rational self, which Clark also saw in Naturalism, and an individual artist who feels, in the words of Hauser, that sincerity and creativity only comes through the creation of one’s standards “against the very principle of tradition, authority, and rule” (Vol. 3: p. 142).

Delacroix is the “pessimistic” painter Clark most admires. Delacroix “had the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived, for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress; and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it” (313). “The abyss did not horrify Delacroix: on the contrary, he gloried in it.” To escape from European Civilisation, he went to Morocco; and despite “many sordid and grotesque incidents in his life there,” he made us believe in the “nobility, dignity, and timelessness” of life in Morocco, with his painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

After Delacroix, the one artist Clark holds in the highest esteem is the sculptor Rodin, “the last great Romantic artist,” with “abundant animal spirits, creator of the greatest piece of sculpture “since Michelangelo.” Before the Romantic pessimists, he mentions the French painter Jacques-Louis David, as an artist already living, in the midst of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror, at a time that would “darken the optimism of the early Romantics.” He shows his famous painting, La Mort de Marat, 1793. Marat was one of the leaders of the Montagnards, a radical faction during the Reign of Terror. “Few propaganda pictures made such an impact as a work of art” (300). What he says about David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps reveals much about what Clark really thinks about “Civilisation”:

With the appearance of General Bonaparte the liberated energies of the revolution take a new direction—the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. But what has this to do with Civilisation? War and imperialism, so long the most admired of human activities, have fallen into disrepute, and I am enough a child of my time to hate them both. But I recognize that, together with much that is destructive, they are symptoms of a life-giving force (300).

Ruskin’s sentence—”No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers”—strikes Clark as “historically irrefutable.” He mentions a few more impressionists, Renoir, for painting “two of the most beautiful pictures of the period,” and, “the greatest of them,” Paul Cézanne, as well as van Gogh, showing a painting from each; and Georges Seurat for one of the “greatest pictures of the nineteenth century,” Baigneurs, “for the way it unites the monumental stillness of a Renaissance fresco with the vibrating light of the Impressionists” (341). He writes a bit about the “social realism” of Gustave Courbet and Jean Francois Millet, and says that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is “an impressive example of sympathy with ordinary people…By abandoning all pictorial artifice, which must inevitably involve a certain amount of hierarchy and subordination, and standing his figures in a row, Courbet achieves a feeling of equality in the presence of death” (339).

Clearly, for Clark, artistic greatness and originality were still visible in some works of the nineteenth century, although the art of this century, he also says, can be written “in terms of tunnels, bridges, and other feats of engineering.” A new age of machines had arrived, dedicated to the “glory of mammon,” money and gain, to which was eventually added a humanitarian feeling, as industrialization brought increasing affluence. Humanitarianism was “one of the greatest civilizing achievements of the nineteenth century.” This feeling that “kindness matters most in human conduct” was unprecedented in history. Tragedy and lofty subjects for painting were gone. Clark recognizes that the post-WWII decades brought us a pleasant atmosphere of “well fed” people along with many public schools and universities producing a “well read” public, though “there has been a little flattening at the top.” Of great art there can be no more.

Gombrich takes his survey up to his own time, the first half of the twentieth century. The period of the “Great Revolution in France” of 1789 “put an end to so many assumptions that had been taken for granted” for centuries. Essentially, there was a decisive break with lofty, aristocratic, sublime subjects, leading to a focus on ordinary or everyday subjects. To be sure, in the past, painters like Chardin (1699-1779) had started “to look at the life of the ordinary men and women of their time” (353), and in the sixteenth century we already had the paintings of Brueghel depicting scenes from daily life, and in some paintings we have shown above. At the same time, while some painters like Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) continued to exhort artists “to strive after lofty and dignified subjects,” “grand and impressive” art, Goya examined the faces of the aristocracy “with a pitiless and searching eye, and revealed all their vanity and ugliness, their greed and emptiness” (365). Great paintings continued, but the “foundations on which art had rested throughout its existence” were being undermined at an accelerated speed as the Industrial Revolution was added to the French revolutionary destruction of monarchical rule, the authority of the Catholic Church—by a new middle class “which often lacked tradition” and viewed art as a “perfect means of expressing individuality against all the rules and conventions.”

The history of Western art has always been characterized by individual expression and the creation of new possibilities for art. The difference now was that artists had no ideals of perfection, no sense of loyalty to their ancestors, no traditions to limit their pursuit of the truth solely through their personalities. The purpose of art was merely to express one’s personality, leading to a state of “permanent revolution” as artists “contested with each other over who was the most “creative.” It is in the twentieth century, however, that Gombrich sees artists who “proposed to make a clear sweep of all conventions…which ultimately led them to a rejection of the whole Western tradition” (427).

We saw his admiration for Impressionists, who “did not differ in their aims from the traditions of art that had developed since the discovery of nature in the Renaissance…Their quarrel with the conservative masters was not so much over the aim as over the means of achieving it” (407). He values the originality of van Gogh, who “liked the technique of painting in dots and strokes of pure colour, but under his hands it became something different from what these Paris artists had meant it to be” (408).

Van Gogh liked to paint objects and scenes which gave this new means full scope — motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just as a writer who underlines his words. That is why he was the first painter to discover the beauty of stubbles, hedgerows and cornfields, of the gnarled branches of olive trees and the dark, flamelike shapes of the cypress (417).

He views Cézanne (1839-1906), like Clark, as one of the greatest of this period: “he was constantly engaged in a passionate struggle to achieve in his painting that ideal of artistic perfection after which he strove” (408); while adding that Cézanne “had decided to start from scratch as if no painting had been done before him. The Dutch master [Willem Kalf] had painted his still life to display his stupendous virtuosity.”

In his tremendous effort to achieve a sense of depth without sacrificing the brightness of colours, to achieve an orderly arrangement without sacrificing the sense of depth—in all these struggles and gropings there was one thing he was prepared to sacrifice if need be—the conventional ‘correctness’ of outline. He was not out to distort nature; but he did not mind very much if it became distorted in some minor detail provided this helped him to obtain the desired effect (413).

Seurat “studied the scientific theory of colour vision and decided to build up his pictures by means of small regular dabs of unbroken colour like a mosaic.”

This, he hoped, would lead to the colours blending in the eye (or rather in the mind) without their losing in intensity and luminosity. But this extreme technique which became known as pointillism, naturally endangered the legibility of his painting by avoiding all contours and breaking up every form into areas of multicolored dots (414).

Conclusion

It is in the “experimental art” of the 20th century—in the quick succession or simultaneous movements of Surrealism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Abstract Art—that Gombrich sees a complete break with the Western tradition. The sole task of the artist was now to create “something new.” Many relied on non-Western sources for inspiration, African primitivism, Zen Buddhism, Chinese calligraphy, or “Egyptian principles.” Abstract and cubist painters wanted “to become as little children” in order to revitalize a spontaneity threatened by mechanization, to reproduce “the memory of childish scrawls.” The disregard for harmony and beauty was justified on the grounds of “honesty” for the truth. I agree with Gombrich that there was still great talent. I would mention such painters as Edward Munch, Picasso, Matisse and Dali. Gombrich mentions Kokoschka’s Children Playing, 1909, as a painting that “looked at children with a deep sympathy and compassion. He has caught their witfulness and dreaminess, the awkwardness of their movements and the disharmonies of their growing bodies” (431-2). But he struggles to find real greatness, as he moves swiftly from one movement to the next, without persuading us that Nicolas de Stael’s painting, Plage à Agrigente consists of “simple yet subtle brush strokes [which] often give us a sense of light and distance without making us forget the quality of the paint” (460).

I believe that Western art was bound to decline partly for the reasons Clark gives. Fundamentally this decline was a product of the culmination of the Western individualism that nurtured this greatness in the first place until it ceased to be sustained by any traditions. H.W. Janson is correct: “without tradition” the “uniqueness, novelty, and freshness” of Western art would have been impossible. Modern artists came to the conclusion that standards cannot be set by prior generations but are the self-expression of individual artists who are in a war of liberation against the very principle of tradition, authority, and standards. This very attitude has now led to the denial that Western art was “better” than the art of any other culture. We can’t restore the world of the past with its standards and world views. As Spengler told us: “Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” We can at least, however, recognize the artistic greatness of the Western past, and teach our students about the history of painting, so they realize what a horrendous crime it is to destroy great art.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar,” by Willem Kalf; painted in 1669.

The 50 Greatest Philosophers are Western

It could be that the most important historical question that points to a monumental contrast between the West and the Rest is the following: why did Western civilization produce all the greatest philosophers in history? If we agree that philosophy, at least until the first half of the nineteenth century, covered every branch of knowledge and dealt with the ultimate questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life, being and becoming, why there is anything rather than nothing, what is good and evil, what is the difference between knowledge and opinion, it follows that identifying the nationality of the greatest philosophers may be a most revealing factum in our evaluation of the comparative achievements of civilizations. One does not have to agree with Aristotle that the “highest good” is the pursuit of wisdom to take seriously his claim that, if “all men by nature desire to have knowledge,” and if the highest form of knowledge is expressed by philosophers, because, as Heraclitus said, “they are inquirers into many things,” then it can be reasonably stated that the civilization that produced the greatest philosophers is the civilization that achieved the highest.

The History of Philosophy = The History of Western Philosophy

When scholarly histories of philosophies began to be written after the mid-1750s, that is, histories based on a relatively comprehensive study of the sources, it was agreed that true philosophy began in sixth century BC in Greece when a group of men known as the Pre-Socratics introduced a new way of inquiring for the “causes and principles” of the natural world grounded on rational judgements rather than on legends, myths, or gods responsible for the happenings of the world. They generally agreed with Aristotle’s confident claim that Thales of Miletus (623-545 BC) is the first known “inquirer into nature” who can be distinguished from earlier poetical “myth-makers” such as Hesiod and Homer.

It is not only that histories of philosophy began their accounts with ancient Greece. These histories were almost entirely, if not completely, about the contributions of Western philosophers in the conviction that philosophy as a venture that relies on reasoned arguments for its truth claims—even in philosophers like David Hume who believed that “reason is the Slave of the passions”—is a uniquely Western achievement. G.W.F. Hegel’s “Lectures on the History of Philosophy” (1819–1831), which were given to students, and recently published by University of Nebraska Press in three volumes, devote a brief opening section on “Oriental Philosophy” and thereafter the three volumes are entirely dedicated to European thinkers, starting with Thales. For Hegel, the history of Western philosophy “shows us a succession of noble minds, a gallery of heroes of thought, who, by the power of Reason, have penetrated into the being of things, of nature and of spirit, into the Being of God, and have won for us by their labours the highest treasure, the treasure of reasoned knowledge.”

This conviction that philosophy was almost entirely a Western phenomenon was held by historians of philosophy from every school of thought until recently. The neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband, believing that philosophy concerns the “independent and self-conscious work of intelligence which seeks knowledge methodically for its own sake,” began his two volume classic, A History of Philosophy, published in 1892, with the ancient Greeks, without mentioning a single non-Western philosopher. Windelband believed that “the history of philosophy is the process in which European humanity has embodied in scientific conceptions its views of the world and its judgments of life” (p. 9). The historicist and existentialist Julián Marías, in his Historia de la Filosofía (1941), which went through countless editions, and was translated into English, also starts with the Pre-Socratics and ends with José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) without a word about a non-Western thinker—even though he says that “philosophy is a way of life,” which seems to fit with the “Eastern” tradition of seeing philosophy in terms of an inner or spiritual religious quest. The difference is that Marías thinks that philosophy is also about “knowledge” that “justifies itself [and] constantly demonstrates and proves its validity.” Therefore, philosophy is a way of life “that consists precisely of living according to a certain knowledge; therefore, this way of life postulates and requires this certain knowledge. It is this knowledge which determines the meaning of the philosophic life.” Of course, the word “knowledge” is also used in Eastern philosophies, but Marías agrees with the standard Western view that it was with the Pre-Socratics that “a completely new human attitude” emerged: a theoretic instead of a mythical attitude. The “mythic man” is enveloped by the surrounding world, lives in a world of things he can’t differentiate in terms of their properties and contrast to the thinking self. In contrast, the “theorizing” philosopher differentiates the knowing self: “instead of being among the things, he is opposite them, alienated from them, and thus things acquire a meaning of their own which previously they did not have” (1967: pp. 2-4).

The liberal-minded Will Durant, in his popular book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (1926), profiles only Western philosophers. In a “Preface to the Second Edition,” written in 1962, we see the first inklings of multiculturalism, however, as Durant faults his book for leaving out “Chinese and Hindu philosophy,” even though he adds that Chinese philosophers were “averse to epistemology” or to inquiries into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired. The analytical-empiricist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his widely known book, History of Western Philosophy (1945), which was cited as one of the books that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, took it for granted that the history of philosophy should be about Western philosophers. Philosophy began with the Pre-Socratics because it is only then that we see speculations on the nature of things with “appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.” Russell offered a chapter on “Mohammedan Culture and Philosophy” only to the extent that Muslims wrote commentaries on Aristotle. The Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston, in his magisterial work, A History of Philosophy, published in nine volumes between 1946 and 1975, began with Greece and stayed in Europe, including a volume on Russian philosophy, right to the end.

This Western-centric attitude was unquestioned until recent times. It was the typical perspective of texts for university students. Konstantin Kolenda’s Philosophy’s Journey: A Historical Introduction (1974) says that it was the ancient Greeks who “were able to think through to new, unorthodox questions.” “Mythical accounts about gods and about the world…do not necessarily concern themselves with the question of truth. Myth is something that is told and need not call for critical scrutiny, examination, justification. The idea of possibly discovering the true nature of reality behind the multiplicity of appearances and behind conflicting opinions is a most original and revolutionary idea in the intellectual history of man” (p. 5). It is not only that the ancient Greeks posed critical questions—“Is there some substance or some basic stuff out of which everything is made?”—but that their answers consisted of “reasoned” arguments. Not a single Eastern philosopher is included in Kolenda’s book.

In 1991, Norman Melchert published The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, in which he tells students that the value of philosophy is that it teaches you “to believe for good reasons.” Opinions are as good as the reasons behind them. “That’s what philosophy is”: teaching students how to think “clearly and rationally.” Every philosopher in Melchert’s “great conversation” is Western. But didn’t Nietzsche say that the “will to power” lies behind the grandiose claims of reason? And didn’t Heidegger deny reason’s ability to reveal the nature of being? Both Melchert and Kolenda include these two great philosophers for their originality and immense impact on contemporary thought. These thinkers, I will add, did not rely on mandates and conventions, educated in a world of myths and fables. The Nietzschean argument that behind the claims of philosophical reason lay a primitive unconscious will to power, archetypes inherited from the past long before any rational consciousness, articulated in-through an education in the rationalist tradition of the West. Heidegger attempted to access being (Sein) by means of a rigorous phenomenological analysis of human existence in respect to its temporal and historical character, conducting meticulous exegeses of philosophical texts from the Pre-Socratics onwards through the writings of medieval and modern philosophers.

The Great Philosophers, a 1987 BBC television series presented by Bryan Magee, which was made available in a book of the same name, only discusses Western philosophers in its 15 episodes, beginning with Socrates and ending with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is true that in recent decades there have been noticeable attempts to accentuate the word “Western” in book titles in order to make it clear that it is not a history of philosophy per se. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, edited by Richard Popkin and published in 2006, explicitly states that the book “has assembled 63 leading scholars to forge a highly approachable chronological account of the development of Western philosophical traditions”—from Plato to Wittgenstein and from Aquinas to Heidegger. At the same time, it says that “the Columbia History significantly broadens the scope of Western philosophy” to reveal the influence of non-Western contributions. There is a chapter “dedicated to Jewish and Moslem philosophical development during the Middle Ages, focusing on the critical role of figures such as Averroës and Moses Maimonides in introducing Christian thinkers to classical philosophy.” The book also acknowledges the influence of the Kaballah upon Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton, and the influence of Moses Mendelssohn upon the work of Kant. Nevertheless, the focus remains entirely on the Western tradition; Muslims and Jews are included insomuch as they were shaped by this tradition and contributed to it.

The book, A New History of Western Philosophy, which consists of four separate volumes published between 2004 and 2007, by the British philosopher and theologian Anthony Kenny, also focuses on those works in the Jewish and Islamic tradition that became important to the Western tradition. I am certain that if Popkin and Kenny really believed there were Eastern, or African, or Aztec philosophers, who had made philosophical contributions as significant as Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke, they would have included them. Using the term “Western” was likely in response to politically correct pressures to avoid identifying philosophy per se with “Western philosophy.” There have indeed been very strong pressures since about the 1990s for a more “inclusive” history of philosophy—in a Western world dedicated to multicultural immigration. A recent, highly publicized book is Taking Back Philosophy (2017), by Bryan Van Norden. It condemns American universities for “failing their students by refusing to teach the philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and other non-Western cultures.” Without a background in Western philosophy other than reading a few books by members of the Frankfurt School, Van Norden demanded that Western philosophy be seen as merely one current among many equally gifted ones. In a much commented NYT’s article, under the threatening title, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” he called upon universities “to look beyond the European canon in their own research and teaching.” As if aware that he lacked reasoned arguments to back his claim that Inca philosophy was as profoundly significant, Van Norden embraced Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive intolerance” idea in another New York Times article. We should tolerate leftist views only, for “justice dictates that access be granted to opinions and people…[that] benefit the community”—that is, multicultural communities. Those who disagreed with him were complicit with “nationalism” and “racism.” In support of him, Patricia McGuire, the President of Trinity Washington University, was direct in stating that inclusiveness in philosophy had nothing to do with the quality of non-Western philosophy: “Let’s face facts: there’s a Muslim Mayor in London, signifying the fact that even those who revere All Things British need to catch up with the now-settled reality of great diversity in contemporary life. The canon of learning should reflect that, including Philosophy.”

These mounting pressures to avoid “racist” exclusions of non-Western philosophers clearly account for A.C. Grayling’s decision in his otherwise great book, The History of Philosophy (2019), to include a “Part V: Indian, Chinese, Arabic-Persian and African Philosophy.” Grayling tries to argue that India, China, and Arabic-Persia developed schools of thought that discussed such perennial questions as what is truth, meaning, existence, and value – the truth, however, is that he has a hard time showing they did so in “intellectually rigorous ways.” At most, using his own criteria of what constitutes philosophy (which excludes religion, casuistry, apologetics, or beliefs devoid of sound reasoning) he shows that there was an incipient philosophical tradition in India, China, and, due to the influence of Aristotle, in medieval Islamic civilization. He does not demonstrate that in these civilizations (again with the exception of Islamic Aristotelians) there were sustained inquiries “into the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired.” While there were “inquiries into the nature of reality and existence” and into “what is good,” there were no treatises on what constitutes valid and sound reasoning. Moreover, it is implicitly obvious that Grayling’s account of these civilizations concerns an ancient or medieval period of creativity, consolidation of a few basic outlooks, followed by repetition or decline.

When it comes to “African philosophy,” Grayling finds himself in a quandary of his own making: “are there philosophical schools of thought in Africa that are distinguishable from traditions, religions, folklore, mythology, poetry, art and collections of maxims?” He can’t avoid suggesting that Africa did not produce a philosophical tradition. Only “if one attaches an extended and very loose sense to the label ‘philosophy'” it is possible to talk about African philosophy. But he cautions not to equate “denials of its existence” with “an implicit dismissal of Africa.” “There is much to discover in Africa, for example the rich and deeply attractive concept of Ubuntu.” This term stands for “kindness, goodness, generosity, compassion, caring.” While these virtues are not unique to Ubuntu, “it is appropriate that as humankind itself came out of Africa, so one of the best ideas about how it can flourish—the idea of Ubuntu—should emanate from there too.” This is actually how this otherwise very intelligent history ends: with a childish call upon whites to think about Ubuntu and with the implication that if whites want to go far, they need to practice Ubuntu towards the African migrants invading Europe.

The First and the Second List of the Greatest 50 Philosophers

Below is my list of the 50 greatest philosophers, all from the West. There are very strong reasons to exclude non-Western philosophers from this list. However, I have created a second list of the next fifty greatest, which do include a reasonable number of non-Western thinkers—insomuch as they had a profound impact on their respective cultures, and did contribute the best philosophies outside the West. How did I come up with these two lists? I did by trusting the authority of the histories of philosophy I have referenced above, including additional histories of both the West and the East to be cited below. Throughout my student days, undergraduate and graduate, and as a professor, I have read a sizable number of primary philosophical works in combination with many secondary books and articles. My own philosophical views have influenced to some degree the choices I have made, but overall I have relied on histories written by authors from a wide variety of perspectives, Kantian, Hegelian, materialist, phenomenological, empiricist, pragmatic, existentialist, analytical – and specialists in non-Western philosophies. I have also tried to bring out the best from ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary periods.

First List

  1. Abelard (1079-1142)
  2. Anaximander (b. 610 BC)
  3. Anselm (1033-1109)
  4. Aquinas (1225-1274)
  5. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
  6. Augustine (354-430)
  7. Bacon, Roger (1214-1292)
  8. Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)
  9. Bentham (1748-1832)
  10. Berkeley (1685-1753)
  11. Carnap (1891-1970)
  12. Democritus (460-360 BC)
  13. Deleuze (1925-1995)
  14. Derrida (1930-2004)
  15. Descartes (1596-1650)
  16. Fichte (1762-1814)
  17. Frege (1848-1925)
  18. Hegel (1770-1831)
  19. Heidegger (1889-1976)
  20. Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
  21. Hobbes (1588-1679)
  22. Hume (1711-1776)
  23. Husserl (1859-1938)
  24. James (1842-1910)
  25. Kant (1724-1804)
  26. Leibniz (1646-1716)
  27. Locke (1632-1704)
  28. Marx (1818-83)
  29. Mill (1806-73)
  30. Nietzsche (1844-1900)
  31. Ockham (1285-1347)
  32. Parmenides (b. 501 BC)
  33. Peirce (1839-1914)
  34. Plato (428-348 BC)
  35. Plotinus (204-270)
  36. Pythagoras (570-495 BC)
  37. Quine (1908-2000)
  38. Rawls (1921-2002)
  39. Reid (1710-1796)
  40. Rousseau (1712-1778
  41. Russell (1872-1970)
  42. Sartre (1905-1980)
  43. Schelling (1775-1854)
  44. Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
  45. Duns Scotus (1266-1308)
  46. Socrates (470-399 BC)
  47. Spinoza (1632-1677)
  48. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  49. Zeno of Lea (b. 489 BC)
  50. Žižek (1949 -)

This is a remarkable statistical fact. It needs to be emphasized this is not a comparison of the West against three or two other civilizations groups, but a competition of the West versus the Rest. Aside from the Muslim, Chinese, and perhaps the Indian world, no other culture in the world, not the Mayas, not the Aztecs, not the Khmer Rouge Cambodians, not the Tibetans, not the Aksum civilization, not the Egyptians, not the Assyrians, not the Bantus, not the Babylonians, not the Japanese, not the Koreans—NO other culture in the world, produced any great philosopher. Let it be repeated: this is not a list based on arbitrary, idiosyncratic, purely personal, or politicized assumptions. It is based on solid, widely recognized histories of philosophies. Before I go on commenting on this list, let’s take a look at my second list, created for the purpose of finding a way to include non-Western thinkers, for the sake of argument.

Second List

  1. Al-Farabi (870-950)
  2. Alghazali (1058-1111)
  3. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)
  4. Aurelius (21-180)
  5. Averroes (1126-1198)
  6. Bonaventura (1221-1274)
  7. Bergson (1859-1941)
  8. Böhme (1575-1624)
  9. Boethius (480 – 524 AD)
  10. Brentano (1838–1917)
  11. Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC)
  12. Comte (1798-1857)
  13. Confucius (551-479 BC)
  14. Collingwood (1889-1943)
  15. Davidson (1917-2003)
  16. Dewey (1859-1952)
  17. Diderot (1713-84)
  18. Dilthey (1833–1911)
  19. Dugin (1962 -)
  20. Dummett (1925-2011)
  21. Empedocles (490-430 BC)
  22. Epicurus (341-271 BC)
  23. Erasmus (1469-1536)
  24. Gadamer (1900-2002)
  25. Grotius (1583-1645)
  26. Habermas (1929-)
  27. Hempel (1905-1997
  28. Herder (1744–1803)
  29. Hsun Tzu (Xunzi) (298-238 BC).
  30. Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  31. Kojève (1902 –1968)
  32. Lao Tzu (604-532 BC)
  33. Lucretius (96-55 BC)
  34. Luhmann (1927-1998)
  35. MacIntyre (1929 -)
  36. Malebranche (1638-1715)
  37. Mencius (372-289 BC)
  38. Montaigne (1533-1592)
  39. Mo Tzu (479-438 BC)
  40. Merleau-Ponty (1907-1961)
  41. Ricour (1913-2005)
  42. Rorty (1931-2007)
  43. Schmitt (1888-1985
  44. Scruton (1944-2020)
  45. Seneca (4 BC –65 AD)
  46. Sextus Empiricus (ca. 200)
  47. Spencer (1820-1903)
  48. Strauss (1899-1973)
  49. Thales (624-548 BC)
  50. Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) (1130-1200).

If there is a bias in my lists, it is that I neglected philosophers of history (Spengler, Vico), philosophers of science (Kuhn, Nagel, Feyerabend), of mathematics (Hilbert, Lakatos), of language (Jakobson, Austin, Searle), of law (Pufendorf, Kelsen, Hart), of logic (Boole, Turing, Gödel), and social theorists that are no less philosophical than Chinese thinkers like Confucius (Montesquieu, Sorokin, Weber).

The Score

The score for the two lists combined is:

  • Europeans 80.5 = 80.5%
  • Jews 9.5 = 9.5%
  • Chinese 7 = 7%
  • Muslims 3 = 3%

If we add Jews to the European list, insofar as they were all educated in Europe, then the Western score is 90 = 90%. Augustine was a Berber according to Gerald Bonner’s authoritative biography Augustine of Hippo: “There is no reason to suppose that he was of any but Berber stock” (p. 36). Augustine was thoroughly educated in the West. The top four philosophical nationalities are the ancient Greeks, the Germans, the English, and the French. The fact that Indian philosophy can’t be divorced from India’s major religious traditions, or was never conceived as a separate intellectual pursuit, explains why I could not include Indian philosophers, great as they may have been as religious thinkers. Surendranath Dasgupta’s impressive five-volume work, A History of Indian Philosophy, published between 1922 and 1955, is fundamentally about Buddhism, Jainism, “the six systems of Hindu thought,” including the Bhagavadgita, the “most revered of all the Hindu texts,” the philosophy of Srikantha, which argues that the Shiva and the Brahman are the one and the same, and Saiva philosophy, which posits “the soul’s bondage within the fetters of existence.” Sue Hamilton, an expert in Indian philosophy, acknowledges that “what Westerners call religion and philosophy are combined in India, and that its philosophies are correctly referred to as soteriologies, or ‘system of salvation.’” The Indian philosophical tradition holds that “understanding reality has a profound effect on one’s destiny.” The attempt “to understand the nature of reality” is a “spiritual undertaking, an activity associated with a religious tradition.” The aim of Indian philosophy was to escape from consciousness, to obliterate the thinking self; and every philosopher, or every philosophical outlook, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, were preoccupied with the notion of reincarnation, the process of birth and rebirth, the transmigration of souls and the “release” of the soul from that process.

We know that a belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historical figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. But as Russell qualifies, the very Pythagoreans who believed that the “soul was subject to a sequence of transmigrations… gave rise to a scientific and more especially a mathematical tradition… in spite of the mystical element arising from the orphic revival.” Sue Hamilton agrees, adding that while in Western medieval philosophy the existence of God was taken to be true as an article of faith, attempts were made to separate truths established by means of reason alone, and to even establish the existence of God by means of reason. In modern times, Kant, a devout Christian, would go further by insisting that “what one could know for certain was strictly limited to what could be ascertained by means of reasoning…one could never have certain knowledge about issues of faith” (pp. 1-12). Nevertheless, Sue Hamilton, as is generally the case with Westerners who study Eastern thought, misleads readers with her view that Western philosophy “tends to be concerned with detailed and technical questions about kinds of logic and linguistic analysis” – whereas Indian philosophy is a “spiritual undertaking” about “big metaphysical questions” concerning the meaning of life and how to live one’s life in order to have an effect on one’s destiny. Van Norden also criticizes the notion that the West discovered the “one universal method of rationality.” Chinese philosophy has its own modes of reasoning and its own way of searching for the truth.

Let’s leave aside the fact that both India and China have now embraced the scientific rationality of the West, apparently with the conviction that this rationality is universally useful. The Western philosophical tradition contains the most reasoned critiques of the pretensions of reason in favor of alternative ways of finding meaning and making sense of the universe—intuitive, poetical, artistic, archetypal ways. The difference is that those philosophers who pointed to the limitations of reason would go on to develop alternative methodologies, or fully articulated philosophies, such as hermeneutics, phenomenology, and existentialism—by individuals well educated in the Western rationalist and empiricist traditions. I will return to this point below. Jacob Böhme, whom Hegel called “the first German philosopher,” and is included in my second list, had a major influence on Schelling, and German thinking in general, with his idea that an irrational force, the Ungrund, a groundless will, was the primary fount of being, not reason.

Seven Chinese philosophers out of 100 is more than enough. In China there are five major philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Mohists, and the Yin-Yang school. All these traditions emerged in ancient times, and thereafter, in what we called the “medieval” and “modern” eras, all we get are “neo” developments of these schools: “Neo-Confucianism” and “Neo-Taoism,” or philosophers who combined aspects of the various schools to produce slightly different ideas. The highly respected sinologist, Frederick Mote, goes as far as to say that every major philosophical outlook in China’s history occurred “within a revitalized Confucianism”—notwithstanding the role of Daoism and Buddhism. This is why I included only one philosopher that is not from ancient times, namely, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Xi is indeed seen as the philosopher who “exercised the greater influence on Chinese thought,” except for Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Hsun Tzu. He synthesized most currents within Chinese philosophy within a grand Neo-Confucian system, with his “most radical innovation” being the selection of “the Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean…as the Four Books, commenting on them, and making them the orthodox foundation of the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 to 1905 (1963: p. 588-90).

Including other Neo-Confucians in the list would have been the same as including notable European philosophers who followed in the footsteps of prior great philosophers, such as the so-called Cambridge Platonists: Henry More (1614–1687), Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), John Worthington (1618–1671), George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630–1679) and John Norris (1657–1711). Including Neo-Taoists would have required including many gifted Cartesians: Antoine Arnauld, Balthasar Bekker, Tommaso Campailla, Johannes Clauberg, Michelangelo Fardella, Antoine Le Grand, Adriaan Hereboord, François Poullain de la Barre, Edmond Pourchot, Pierre-Sylvain Régis, Henricus Regius, Jacques Rohault, Christopher Wittich.

Should We Really Include Chinese Philosophers?

We may indeed ask: Is Confucius really a philosopher? After all, Confucianism is a “doctrine of worldly social-mindedness,” a guide for proper moral behavior for the scholar gentry class of China’s despotic bureaucratic state, a doctrine that, in the words of Joseph Needham, became a “cult, a religion, based on a kind of hero worship and borrowing from the cults of nature-deities and ancestor worship” (1997: p. 79). Confucius never asked questions about the ultimate nature of reality. The Confucian term “all under heaven” does not refer to the universe, the infinite, but is a term that denotes the geographical area associated with the political sovereignty of the emperor.

One could seriously argue that China produced individuals better described as writers of guidelines on how best to rule, how best to meditate, contemplate nature, combined with some allusions and illustrations about the “boundless” and about the ways of nature, without “elaborate reasoning and detailed argument.” These last quoted words are from Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Yu-Lan, after stating that China has a rich philosophical tradition with contributions in logic and metaphysics; and after clearly stating that a “philosopher must philosophize…must think reflectively on life, and then express his thoughts systematically… [and offer] theories [that are] the products of reflective thinking,” (p. 2) goes on to say:

“The fact is that Chinese philosophers were accustomed to express themselves in the form of aphorisms, apothegms, or allusions, and illustrations. The whole book of Lao-tzu consists of aphorisms, and most of the chapters of the Chuang-tzu are full of allusions and illustrations. This is very obvious. But even in writings such as those of Mencius and Hsun Tzu, when compared with the philosophical writings of the West, there are still too many aphorisms, allusions, and illustrations. Aphorisms must be very brief; allusions and illustrations must be disconnected” (p. 12).

He adds that this way of thinking is “not articulate enough,” but that this “insufficiency” (“briefness and disconnectedness”) is “compensated” by the “suggestiveness” of the allusions (pp. 11-12). Yu-Lan is right that this lack of “elaborate reasoning” is “obvious” to anyone who reads Chinese philosophers. I will go further in saying that Chinese philosophy never rose beyond the pre-rational, mystical, poetical, bureaucratic, style of writing that prevailed in all cultures up until the ancient Greeks singularly discovered the faculty of reasoning and came to realize that there is a mind that reasons, and that this mind can generate its own rules of reasoning in conscious distinction to presuppositions from extra-philosophical beliefs.

This conscious differentiation of reason from its object, and appearance of free self-determination, this awareness by reason of itself as both tool and object of reasoning, reached its culmination in post-Kantian idealism, but it was Aristotle who did the most in ancient times to delineate what constitutes a proper philosophical statement about what there is and what constitutes a valid form of reasoning about why something is so. He invented formal logic, a precise language about reality, about what things can be said to be substances and the reasons why they are as they are. He showed that true philosophical statements are composed of basic categories—substance, quantity, quality, relationship, place, time—which express the various ways in which being is, and that these statements can be formulated to be subject-predicate statements. This is just a little part of what this incredible philosopher did.

In some ways Chinese philosophers resemble Pre-Socratic philosophers. Aristotle criticized the Pre-Socratics for failing to articulate fully criteria for differentiating faulty arguments from good arguments. This is what Aristotle sought to provide with his formal logic and the syllogism. Chinese philosophical statements are devoid of demonstrative reasoning. Chinese arguments lack clearly stated primary premises, with precisely defined categories. Actually, in fairness to the Pre-Socratics, even though they did not invent syllogistic reasoning, they did discover logos, that there is a rational order in the world and that humans have a faculty, nous, which they can employ in contradistinction to beliefs handed down without reasoned debate.

The words from Needham I cited above about Confucianism come from The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China: 1, which is an abridgment in three volumes of Joseph Needham’s magisterial project with the same title, which consists of twenty seven books dealing with the history of science and technology in China. Needham, still recognized as the most impressive scholar of Chinese culture, is the author of most of these books. While he was not keen about Confucian philosophy, he wrote admiringly about the Taoists, Mohists, and Legalists, claiming they made fundamental contributions to scientific knowledge, empiricism, and to a “mechanistic-naturalistic” conception of the world. He thinks that members of these schools rose above the “metaphysics” of philosophy. (Needham, by the way, was a Marxist who believed that science had rightfully displaced philosophy, and this is why he wanted to portray Chinese thinkers as harbingers of modern scientific thought. I reject this positivist downgrading of philosophy). As it is, all the passages that Needham brings up from Chinese philosophers strike me as poetical, mystical, and alchemical statements. The founding text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (300 BC) consists of a string of impressionistic statements about “the Way.” This book of five thousand words is as long as a magazine article. He claims that Lao Tzu wrote in a language similar to the proto-scientific language of the Pre-Socratics, citing the following:

“The ways of men are conditioned by those of the earth, the ways of Earth by those of Heaven, the ways of Heaven by those of the Tao, and the Tao came into being by itself” (90-1).

He cites many similarly worded passages from later Taoist texts; for example:

“All phenomena have their causes. If one does not know these causes, although one may happen to be right, it is as if one knew nothing, and in the end one will be bewildered…The fact that water leaves the mountains and runs to the sea is not due to any dislike of the mountains and love of the sea, but is the effect of height as such” (93).

But these statements are not at all “mechanistic” in outlook. They are not even at the level of the Pre-Socratic search for naturalistic causes. The way Taoists write about the Tao, the being that came to be by itself, lacks rigor; it is really a mystical way of apprehending a oneness that is complete onto itself, which they describe in hazy words, asserting that it is, but not deducing it. In contrast, when Parmenides wrote about “the One” he tried to deduce it from prior statements. Parmenides contrasts the expression that something is to the expression that something is not. He then argues that saying that something is not does not make sense since you cannot know what is not, and you can’t even express it. He writes:

“There are only two ways of inquiry that can be thought of. The first, namely, that it is (and that it is impossible for it not to be), is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other way of inquiry, namely, that it is not (and cannot be), is a path that none can learn at all. For you cannot know what is not, nor can you express it.”

Having said this, Parmenides follows up with his main point that only that which is can be thought about in a meaningful way, and only that which can be thought about can be:

It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. What can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be…One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is.
From here he infers that what we can say about the One is that it is eternal, indivisible, unmoving, that is, uncreated and indestructible. He offers a rational reason for making this inference, saying that if we say that the One became, or came into existence, or will cease to exist, then this would be the same as saying that it was not before it became, and that it will not be after it ceases to be, which would amount to making expressions about things which are not, which is impossible since you cannot know or say anything about what is not. Therefore:

[The One is eternal], for how can “what is” be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, then it is not. Nor is it, if it is going to be in the future. Thus, is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.”

Needham says that the paradoxes of the Mohist Hui Shih are similar to the paradoxes of Zeno. He cites this paradox from Shih: “The South has at the same time a limit and no limit.” But as I have argued elsewhere, paradoxes come in different degrees of difficulty; some paradoxes are “weak or shallow,” based on unfounded suppositions, faulty reasoning, or ostensibly vague wording. The philosophical evidence shows that Europeans conceptualized all the sophisticated paradoxes in history. The Western mind did so because it has a peculiar inclination to seek truths that don’t violate the self-legislated laws of reason, the law of contradiction, the law of excluded middle, and the law of identity. If a claim is illogically inconsistent, in violation of these laws, then the claim or the reasoning behind it must be reevaluated or rejected. This is why Europeans took Zeno’s paradoxes seriously, for they seem to suggest that one could reach a logically unacceptable conclusion on the basis of sound reasoning from apparently sound premises. They wondered whether these paradoxes revealed deficiencies in the way we reason, calling for improvements in our reasoning powers, a better system of logic and a more precise usage of language.

At the same time, however, some European thinkers did not conclude that paradoxes were mere expressions of faulty reasoning but a testimony to the limited nature of the human mind in its capacity to offer rationally consistent answers about the ultimate questions of the universe and life. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that reality was inherently contradictory and thus paradoxical. The intellectual culture of paradoxes in China was fundamentally different in degree of sophistication, the reaction of intellectuals to paradoxes, and the absence of philosophical reflections about the contradictory nature of the universe. The School of Names was the only one that brought up some paradoxical expressions, and this School remained an isolated moment in China’s intellectual history. The Confucians in control of intellectual discussions dismissed the paradoxical expressions of the School of Names as “bizarre expressions” that discouraged young minds from the proper use of language and the obligation of educated gentlemen to promote “ritual propriety and righteousness.”

Should we even include any of the major members of the Legalist school? As Frederick Mote says:

“Legalism is not a movement in philosophy. It is not concerned with truth. It is not reflective thinking on the great individual and social problems of life. It does not seek the general principles under which all facts can be explained. It is a system of methods and principles for the operation of the state, and even the state is given only the barest of ideological foundations. Legalists were content to justify their system by the single comment: “It works” (p. 108).

So, it looks like Hsun Tzu (298-238 BC), the founder of legalism, should be taken out from this list. Confucius too, and the Taoist mystics and the not so impressive Mohists. If we include the Legalists, then we should include many other European political philosophers I left out, starting with Machiavelli, Bodin, Cicero, Thoreau, Bakunin, Hooker, Calvin, Lenin, Harrington, Blackstone, Paine, Jefferson, Burke, Godwin, Constant, Madison, Gentile, Sorel, Oakeshott—to name some. Honestly, the 50+50 list is very conciliatory.

The Transcendental West Stands above the Embedded Chinese

Some sinologists believe that Chinese philosophers came to the realization—long before Western philosophers—that thinking inevitably occurs within a context and that it is not possible to transcend the culturally-specific context from which all thinking emerges. Among the publications which have made this case, the most comprehensive is Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture (1997), by David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames. This book draws a fundamental contrast between the “transcendentalism” of European philosophers and the “embeddedness” of Chinese thinkers. Early on in their history, this book tells us, Chinese intellectuals came to the “pragmatic” realization—well before Western pragmatism and hermeneutics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—that all thinking is “embedded” to a time and a place. Chinese abstained from the “naïve Western supposition” that intellectuals could transcend with their ideas the social context from which they emerged.

I believe it was precisely the transcendental capacity of Western thinkers to reason in terms of universal concepts independent of context that gave them eventually the “pragmatic” or “hermeneutic” ability to understand the ways in which knowledge-claims are culturally embedded. The West’s transcendental capacity did not spring out of the “human mind” as such, but out of its unique historical experience. The Chinese mind was embedded to its particular traditions and historical contexts without being self-aware of this, because the Chinese mind lacked a transcendental capacity. The transcendental capacity of Europeans did not emerge without historical conditions, outside a particular context, but developed over time, beginning in ancient Greece. The ability to generate “transcendental concepts” is the product of a culturally specific mind, which can only be understood by situating it within the specific background of Western history.

Hall and Ames believe there are no “universally human, culturally neutral grounds to which we can appeal as a basis of comparison of particular cultures” since any account will necessarily “presuppose something of the theoretical stance of the tradition from which the analysis and evaluation begins” (xii). Only a “pragmatic method” provides us with an escape from the Western arrogance of a “disembedded” or detached “I” capable of adjudicating over different traditions. We should rely on pragmatic thinkers such as George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, for an appropriate vocabulary for understanding how the self is socially constituted. This pragmatism, they argue, fits right in with the Chinese perspective that the person can never be identified in abstraction from the social roles that define and constitute the person. Besides pragmatism, Hall and Ames mention hermeneutics and poststructuralism, as forms of thinking that allow us to overcome the dualistic thinking of the West with its separation of mind and matter, self and society, and its pretensions to a view that is objectively valid.

Don’t these two academics realize that pragmatism, hermeneutics, and poststructuralism are Western products? They acknowledge this in a low-key way, stating that these schools of thought arose late in Western history; and yet their entire argument is that Westerners have been unable to understand Chinese thinking because they have relied on dualistic ways of thinking. Their pragmatic and “historicist” method are the best way to apprehend the meanings of Chinese words and writings, against Western-centric readings, which judge other cultures in terms of such Western concepts as “mind,” “self,” “transcendence,” “person,” “subject,” “object,” which lack corresponding terms in the Chinese language or have very different meanings within Chinese culture. So, implicitly, without wanting to draw attention to the irony of it all, and perhaps without even knowing what they are doing, Hall and Ames rely on Western schools of thought to criticize Western-centric readings of Chinese culture.

The very academics who claim that we need to contextualize our thinking, because it is impossible to have a view from nowhere, fail to contextualize the particular historical roots of their way of thinking. What Hall and Ames fail to realize, and this includes every Western academic condemning Western logocentrism, is that the Chinese have never self-consciously thought about the way knowledge is context-bound, the way the consciousness, will, desires, and ideas of individuals are culturally situated. The Chinese mind has been unable to stand back from its cultural surroundings to reflect upon the ways it has been culturally situated. In contrast, the Western mind was able to develop methodologies to understand texts from different eras and different cultures, because this is the only culture that learned how to draw ontological distinctions between mind and matter, individual and society, the three parts of the soul, and so on, in the course of which this mind eventually developed particular sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, botany, sociology, economics, etc.—to explain different aspects of reality, and newly emerging properties, while also realizing that the concept of “man in general” is limited by historically determinate factors. The prior ability of ancient Greek philosophers to discover the distinctiveness of the faculty of the mind, the distinction between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom) nurtured a transcendental outlook that allowed Western thinker to stand back from their context and view other cultural contexts in their own terms.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that all knowledge is historically situated, the expression of a particular people. If all knowledge is contextual, then all knowledge claims are equally valid. We have to ask why the West developed all the theories about how knowledge is context-bound, and why the West produced all the modern sciences. Self-conscious cultural relativism—a relativism in which subjects are not completely absorbed by their culturally specific world views—presupposes a subject that has come to a transcendental understanding of the relativistic views of other cultures, and is thus able to understand its own relativism, and in this way transcend it.

From a Piagetian perspective, as I argued elsewhere, we can say that the Chinese mind did not rise above the concrete operational stage, that is, above the third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. While the Chinese mind showed signs of formal operational thinking in some of its mathematical operations and rationalization of state bureaucracy, it did so only at an elementary level. In stark contrast to Hobbes, who conducted a thorough study of Euclid’s Elements and the mechanistic science of Galileo in order to reach generalizations about the nature of political power, the ideas espoused in The Analects of Confucius, for example, are tied to actual historical times and personalities. As Burton Watson notes: “In the Analects, therefore, the reader will find no lengthy discussions of terminology or expositions of ideas. Instead, moral and political concepts are presented in terms of particular individuals, the teacher Confucius and the disciple or other persons with whom he is conversing and the particular circumstances under discussion” (2007: p. 7). Like the concrete operational mind, the Confucian mind was limited to thought concerning things that were available to immediate perception about past virtuous rulers; it did not seek to reach general rules, or understand cause-effect relations detached from particular contexts. The writings of Confucius consist of aphorisms advising future rulers and officials how the ideal gentleman should comport himself if he is to meet the established conventions set in the past, the roles and rituals the ideal gentleman must follow in order to rule properly according to the Way.

In conclusion, if I may end on a realistic-pessimistic note on the current situation in the West: as immigration replacement accelerates, and as the populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, United States and other European nations, become thoroughly diverse, and the universities fulfill their current mission for “inclusiveness, diversity, and equity,” the teaching of philosophy will include as equally substantial names from all over the world. Already, as it is, research on the racism of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Aristotle, and many other philosophers, is one of the most lucrative, grant collecting activities in academia. These philosophers will be taught less for their philosophies than for their sins in racism and their threats to an open, tolerant, and inclusive Western world. As Karl Popper had already insisted, “we should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” While Popper did not call for the intolerance of these thinkers, he condemned and dismissed the philosophies of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as nationalistic, xenophobic and intellectually worthless. It was only a few steps for Herbert Marcuse to construct his argument that any views that don’t accept the spread of cultural Marxism should be suppressed and outlawed.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Seven Sages of Greece,” or “Plato’s Academy.” Roman mosaic, from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus, in Pompeii; ca. 100 BC to 79 AD.

Ancient Greek Mathematics: An Unrivalled Western Achievement

“In the history of civilization the Greeks are preeminent, and in the history of mathematics the Greeks are the supreme event. Though they did borrow from the surrounding civilizations, the Greeks built a civilization of their own which is the most impressive of all civilizations, the most influential in the development of modern Western culture, and decisive in founding mathematics as we understand the subject today. One of the great problems of the history of civilization is how to account for the brilliance and creativity of the ancient Greeks” [Morris Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times (1972)].

“Of all the manifestations of the Greek genius, none is more impressive and even awe-inspiring than that which is revealed by the history of Greek mathematics” [Sir Thomas Heath, A History of Greek Mathematics (1921)].

In this article, I argue that the contribution the ancient Greeks made to mathematics is superior to the combined contribution ALL the higher civilizations of the non-Western world made. Mathematics is usually left unmentioned in liberal arts accounts of the “Greek Miracle,” even though it had a direct, indispensable role in the rise of modern industrial civilization. We know that mathematics is characterized by rigorous reasoning and precise quantitative calculation; and that it has real-world applications in physics, biology, epidemiology, engineering, chemistry, technologies, computer science, social sciences, and finance. But mathematics is not a mere adjunct to the sciences and technology. Mathematicians have conceived many ideas decades before anyone foresaw their possible applications to science. Without the geometry of Bernhard Riemann, invented in 1854, and other mathematical ideas, the general theory of relativity could not have been articulated. “The revolution in modern physics which began with the work of W. Heisenberg and P. Dirac in 1925,” Eric Temple Bell explains in Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science (1931), “could never have started without the necessary mathematics of matrices invented by Cayley in 1858, and elaborated by a small army of mathematicians from then to the present time.”

The Greeks constructed an entire geometrical system known as Euclidean, the study of plane and solid figures, about the nature of reality, on the basis of axioms and theorems in a purely deductive manner, without physical evidence, which subsequently found verification and application in the development of modern physics. They were the first people to realize that the universe expresses itself naturally in the language of mathematics, and that mathematical truths have a validity that transcends the limits of time and space. It was this realization about the power of mathematics that persuaded Plato that mathematics comprehends a reality that exists independently of human beings and that mathematicians can apprehend this eternal reality through the sheer power of their deductive reasoning. One does not have to be a Platonist who believes that mathematical truths exist eternally and independently of reality, however, to agree with Adam Smith that mathematical terms express “the most abstract ideas which the human mind is capable of forming,” and that it was the Greeks who first conceived a mathematics based on rigorous proofs, which subsequently found experimental applications in Galilean and Newtonian science.

Since prehistoric times, humans have formulated conceptions of number and geometrical forms in creative art. But while there is evidence for the invention of the abstract concept of number, that is, the realization that three sheep, three fingers, and three days, share a common property of “threeness,” as well as for the idea of a one-to-one correspondence between the objects of one collection and those of another, including counting an ordered sequence of symbols, such as knots on a cord, basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—most of the cultures of the world made 0 contributions to mathematics defined as a specific field of knowledge, entailing a system of numeration, with a variety of arithmetical calculations with whole numbers and fractions, the solution of linear equations and the mensuration of simple areas and volumes. We only have the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Indians, and Islamic peoples to compare.

When we compare the Greeks to everyone else, two conclusions are inescapably supported by the best scholarly literature:

  1. The Greeks were the first to derive mathematical concepts from pure reasoning alone with little reference to the external world, that is, the first to think about numbers and operations abstractly, as products of the rational powers of man, and to realize that geometry is concerned not with physical objects but with points, lines, triangles, squares, as objects of pure reason. The Greeks invented deductive reasoning, a method wherein reason proposes self-evident premises or axioms from which it deduces theorems in a rigorously consistent manner. The Greeks thus provided proofs for their mathematical derivations, which not even the Indians, the Chinese, and the Muslims, who came after, accomplished at the same level.
  2. Although ancient Greek mathematics (600 BC-600 AD) came before Indian (200-1200 AD) and Islamic mathematics (700-1400 AD), with the latter allegedly “picking up the best from Greek and Indian mathematics and developing it further”—in truth the modern European development of analytic geometry, infinitesimal calculus, and the theory of functions, was substantially based on ancient Greek mathematics. Isaac Newton acknowledged the importance of Euclidean geometry in his articulation of his presentation of his laws of motion in the form of two mathematical theorems: “it’s the glory of geometry that from so few principles it can accomplish so much.”

“Multicultural Mathematics”

The mathematical achievements of the Greeks, and of modern Europeans who grounded themselves on these achievements, is deeply unsettling to the current effort of the West to become a multicultural place where the diverse races, cultures, and religions of the world are made to feel co-equals in the making of this civilization. The current zeitgeist is that mathematics has been a “global effort…spanning…multiple cultures,” or that the achievements of modern Europeans “involved an extensive exchange of ideas among individuals around the world.” “Multicultural mathematics” is now a major educational staple of the West. The book, Multicultural Mathematics: Teaching Mathematics From A Global Perspective, published in 1991, explicitly states that the “customs, heritage, history, and other aesthetic aspects” of non-European immigrants must be incorporated as “essential components” of “an effective educational program.” The key academic text is The Crest Of The Peacock: Non-European Roots Of Mathematics, by George Gheverghese Joseph, professor at University of Manchester. First published in 1991, reprinted 3 times by Penguin, republished by Princeton Press in 2000, with a third edition released in 2011, this book has been cited about a thousand times, with great reviews in prestigious journals. It claims that Europeans scholars have distorted and devalued non-European contributions as “part of the rationale for subjugation and dominance.”

Only two sources are referenced to back this claim: a book published in 1908 by Rouse Ball, and a book by Morris Kline, Mathematics in Western Culture (1953). The latter book in particular is faulted for ignoring “a considerable body of research pointing to development of mathematics in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, pre-Columbian America, India, and the Arab world that had come to light [by the time Kline wrote his book].” Gheverghese proposes a “new model” of the history of mathematics, in which multiple cultures are shown to have played equally significant roles with “cross-fertilization between different mathematical traditions” happening at various times. He flaunts his model as complex, cosmopolitan, and nuanced—superior to the simplistic, linear, one sided, parochial Eurocentric model. Both the old and the new research contradict and invalidate these claims. First, most of the books Gheverghese relies upon to construct his new model are authored by Europeans themselves.

Second, the book by Rouse Ball is actually very cognizant of the contribution of non-Europeans. The title is, A Short Account of The History of Mathematics, and it begins with four sections on “Knowledge of the science of numbers possessed by Egyptians and Phoenicians,” and “Greek indebtedness to Egyptians and Phoenicians.” Ball’s point is that theoretical-deductive mathematics originated with the Greeks.

Third, Gheverghese complains about the “neglect of Arab contribution to… mathematics” without telling his readers that Rouse Ball’s book has two long chapters with the titles: “The Mathematics of the Arabs” and “Introduction of Arabian Works into Europe, 1150-1450,” in which he affirms original contributions: “From this rapid sketch it will be seen that the work of the Arabs… in arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry was of a high order of excellence.”

Why would Gheverghese, in what is otherwise a solid book in its effort to bring out the best in non-western mathematics, distort the scholarly contribution of Rouse Ball in this manner? Because academics are committed to multiculturalism, and this ideology allows one to distort the truth, for the sake of fighting “white racism”.

Fourth, regarding Kline’s book, Gheverghese leaves out the fact that Kline’s book is specifically about Western mathematics: “The object of this book is to advance the thesis that mathematics has been a major cultural force in Western civilization.”

Fifth, why did Gheverghese ignore so many books published after the 1950s, such as Carl Boyer’s A History of Mathematics (1968)? This book has chapters dedicated to “Egypt,” “Mesopotamia,” “China and India,” and a chapter with the title, “The Arabic Hegemony.” Why did he ignore Kline’s subsequent book, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times (1972), possibly the most authoritative historical survey published so far, which opens with chapters on Mesopotamian and Egyptian mathematics, with an additional chapter on “the Hindus and Arabs?” Every book I have read has chapters on non-Europeans. We can go back to D.E. Smith’s two volume work, History of Mathematics, published in 1923, to find two opening chapters on non-European contributions, and one chapter plus half of another on “Oriental” mathematics, along with separate sections on Oriental contributions inside all the chapters about European contributions. Smith actually co-authored a book on Japanese mathematics.

The basic arguments that Smith presented in History of Mathematics are still valid. He offered an opening chapter on Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India, as “pioneers in mathematical development before 1000 BC.” Then chapters on the contributions of the Classical and the Hellenistic Greeks, from 600 BC to 400 AD. We are informed that during the “five centuries from 500 to 1000 AD… Europe was intellectually dormant,” while “there were four or five mathematicians of prominence in India” (p. 152); and, furthermore, that China saw the greatest accomplishments during the five centuries from 1000 to 1500 AD. While Smith may have neglected Muslim contributors, believing that they were “transmitters of learning rather than creators,” he did offer sections on the “greatest mathematicians” during the Islamic ascendancy from the eight to the fourteenth century. After 1200-1400, Smith’s focus shifted back to the Europeans because from this point on all the original ideas came from them alone.

Greeks Compared to Egyptians, Babylonians, and Chinese

The indubitable reality is that, if you look past politicized books on “multicultural mathematics,” the scholarly consensus coming from the best books on the history of mathematics for over a century now, and to this day, is that the Greeks, as Kline says in History of Western Mathematics, initiated a mathematics that “differed radically from that which preceded them” (p. 24). Dirk Struik’s A Concise History of Mathematics, in the 1948 edition that I am using, acknowledges Babylonian math “rose to a far higher level than Egyptian… in its computational technique” (p. 23), while arguing that “nowhere” in Babylonian mathematics “do we find any attempt at what we call a demonstration. No argumentation was presented, but only the prescription of certain rules” (p. 31). William Berlinghoff and Fernando Gouvêa follow a similarly developmental interpretation in Math Through the Ages: A Gentle History for Teachers (2015). This book, keep in mind, was published by The Mathematical Association of America, which is attuned to the multicultural sensitivities of teachers and students. They point out that, while the Egyptians “could solve simple linear equations… [and] knew how to compute or approximate the areas and volumes of several geometric shapes,” Babylonians “made use of extensive tables of products, reciprocals, conversion coefficients, and other constants,” and “they could also solve a wide range of problems that we would describe as leading to quadratic equations” (pp. 9-11). However, with the Babylonians, “the ideas behind the methods for solving quadratic equations were probably based on ‘cut-and-paste geometry’ [and] Babylonian geometry was devoted mainly to measurement…. The Greek mathematicians were unique in putting logical reasoning and proof at the center of the subject” (pp. 11-15).

Stuart Hollingdale, in his biographical book, Makers of Mathematics (1989) agrees that “the concept of proof [in Babylonia] is conspicuous by its absence; and there is no clear distinction between exact and approximate results” (p. 11). Carl Boyer’s text, A History of Mathematics, the revised version co-authored by Uta Merzbach (1989), is unequivocal in its assessment that “pre-Hellenic peoples had no concept of proof, nor any feeling of the need for proof… there are no explicit statements from the pre-Hellenic period that would indicate a felt need for proofs or a concern for questions of logical principles” (p. 47). In contrast, as Reviel Netz tells us in The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History (1999), Greek mathematics produced knowledge of general validity; not only about the particular right triangle ABC of the diagram, for example, but about all right triangles. In the polemical culture that Greeks inhabited, where intellectuals sought to outdo each other, where no one could claim control over what constituted the truth on mere utilitarian grounds, or reliance on their official capacities, sage-like status, or adherence to norms sanctified by kinship, making the most persuasive arguments was very important, and in deductive mathematics the Greeks saw the possibility of expressing incontrovertible truths.

But what about the Chinese with their long history, past ancient times, and their “greatest” mathematicians who lived during the Sung Era (960–1279)? “Chinese mathematical works… are in the spirit of the Babylonians rather than the Greeks. They consist of collections of specific problems and present a curious mixture of the primitive and the sophisticated.” In the course of their long history, the Chinese became “more advanced than the Babylonians in that they gave general rules, often with formal proofs” (Hollingdale: p. 93), and excellent mathematicians “flourished during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (p. 94), when the Europeans were experiencing their “long interlude” in the Middle Ages merely rediscovering the Greek works. Nevertheless, as Joseph Needham admitted, despite his enormous admiration for the overall accomplishments of the Chinese, “Greek mathematics was on a higher level, if only on account of its more abstract and systematic character.” In Chinese math, “there was an absence of the idea of rigorous proof.” In fact, the Chinese never developed a formal logic. “Mathematics in China was therefore utilitarian… Of mathematics for the sake of mathematics there was very little” (1995: pp. 62-64).

Boyer and Merzbach agree that the ancient Chinese were “repeating the old custom of the Babylonians and Egyptians of compiling sets of specific problems,” in contrast to the Greeks of this period who were “composing logically ordered and systematically expository treatises” (p. 222). Zhu Shijie (1249–1314) was “the last and greatest of the Sung mathematicians” but he was a lone, wandering scholar about whom little is known, author of two treatises, of which the first, Introduction to Mathematical Studies (Suanxue qimeng), was a “relatively elementary work” which was “lost until it reappeared in the nineteenth century.” His greater work, Jade Mirror of the Four Origins (Siyuan yujian), which also “disappeared in the eighteenth century, only to be rediscovered in the next century,” represents “the peak in the development of Chinese algebra, for it deals with simultaneous equations and with equations of degrees as high as fourteenth” (pp. 229-30). We will see below, however, that symbolic algebra was a product of early modern Europe, and that Greek mathematics was directly responsible for the development of modern mathematics. This is the reason Morris Kline’s text, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, ignores Chinese mathematics in preference for the contributions of Hindu and Arabic mathematics to modern Europe.

The Greeks Were the Forerunners of Modern Mathematics

While reasonable people will have no problems agreeing that Greek mathematics stood far above Egyptian and Babylonian accomplishments, many will find the additional claim that in ancient times the Greeks were already more accomplished than the combined civilizations of China, India, and Islam to be an exaggeration bordering on historical falsification. How could a small population in ancient Greece accomplish more than civilizations that lasted thousands of years, with China and India practicing mathematics after ancient Greece was gone, and Islam standing on the shoulders of Greek achievements? This makes no sense. The most popular argument taught to students today, which prevails online, even though it is not supported by serious scholarly research, is that Hindu-Islamic mathematicians, standing above the Greek legacy, nurtured the rise of modern European mathematics. Here’s the World’s #1 Online Encyclopedia: “Through contact with other cultures, and especially the absorption of Arab ideas and innovations, European learning in fields such as mathematics was able to go beyond the work of ancient scholars. New fields of study unknown to the Greeks were opened, leading to such developments as the calculus of Newton (1642-1727) and Leibniz (1646-1716), which would revolutionize both mathematics and science.”

The impression they want to convey seems reasonable enough: ancient Greek mathematics came before Indian (200-1200 AD) and Islamic mathematics (700-1400 AD), with the latter “picking up the best from Greek and Indian mathematics and developing it further.” The best historical scholarship shows, however, that the modern development of analytic geometry, infinitesimal calculus, and the theory of functions, was substantially based on ancient Greek mathematics. This same scholarship acknowledges that the modern West owes a debt to i) “Islamic scholars who collected, preserved, and translated the Greek mathematical texts” (Hollingdale: p. 101), and ii) the Hindu “creation of the decimal positional number system that is universally used today,” that is, separate symbols for the numbers 1 to 9, negative numbers, and the notation for a missing position, that is, a zero symbol (Hollingdale: p. 101; Kline, 1972: pp. 183-197).

What about the argument that, while the Greeks originated deductive geometry, the Hindus and Muslims added substantially new ideas to arithmetic leading to the rise of modern symbolic algebra and to trigonometry? Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780–850) is thus eulogized as the “father of algebra”, offering “the first” systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. Wikipedia informs impressionable students that he is “the first to treat algebra as an independent discipline.” Furthermore, Al-Biruni (973–1050), we are told, was among those “who laid the foundation for modern trigonometry,” which allowed Muslims to take Greek geometry to higher heights, since trigonometry studies relationships between side lengths and angles of triangles.

First, in response, we need to be aware that ancient Greek mathematics extended from 600 BC to 500 AD, which equals about 1100 years of history. It is commonly assumed that Greece’s greatness was restricted to the “Classical” period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the age of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Hippocrates, Herodotus, Thucydides, the defeat of the Persians, the rise of Athens, the birth of democratic citizenship, and so on. They forget the “Hellenistic” period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the rise of Augustus in Rome in 31 BC, and the fact that Greek high culture remained dominant through Roman times. The Classical Period is known as the “Golden Age”—but not in mathematics. The golden age of Greek science was during the Hellenistic era, and, within this era, the golden age of mathematics was from about 300 BC to 200 BC, the time of the three greatest mathematicians: Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius. There were many other great mathematicians before and after this age. The birth of mathematics in Greece is generally identified with Thales (623 –545 BC), about whom Aristotle said: “To Thales… the primary question was not What do we know, but How do we know it.” Among the things he is said to have proven is that “the pairs of vertical angles formed by two intersecting lines are equal.” The next great figure is Pythagoras (580-500 BC) who founded a very influential school, the first to classify numbers: real numbers, rational and irrational, integers, rational fractions, algebraic irrational numbers and transcendental numbers.

The list of mathematicians and their achievements is too long: Archytas (b. 428 BC), Hippasus (400 BC), Hippias (b. 460), Hippocrates of Chios (430, not to be confused with the “father of medicine”), Zeno of Elea (450), Anaxagoras (428), Democritus (460), and the greatest of the Classical Period, Eudoxus (b. 408 BC), known as the father of mathematical astronomy, and the first to formulate the method of exhaustion, which some see as a precursor to the methods of calculus. Menaechmus (380–320 BC) is known for his discovery of conic sections and his solution to the long-standing problem of doubling the cube using the parabola and hyperbola. These men wrote books, some of which have been lost, though we have commentaries on them and some of the titles; for example, Democritus wrote: On Numbers, On Geometry, On Tangencies, On Mappings and On Irrationals.

After the “golden age” of Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius, we have more greats: Aristarchus (310-230 BC), who wrote On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon; Eratosthenes, remembered for his almost accurate measurement of the Earth; Hipparchus (b. 180 BC), the father of trigonometry; Menelaus (100 AD); Ptolemy (100 –170 AD), the founder of Cartography and Geography, and author of the famous Almagest. Heron (62 AD) is best known for this formula: If a, b, and c are the lengths of the sides: Area = Square root of √s(s – a)(s – b)(s – c) where s is half the perimeter, or (a + b + c)/2. We could go on with Diophantus (b. 200AD), author of a series of books called Arithmetica, which is seen as the “highest point of Alexandrian algebra,” with its “most striking feature” being the solution of indeterminate algebraic equations (Kline, 1972: pp. 138-43). The last of the greats is Pappus (b. 290 AD), known for his Collection (c.  340), and his hexagon theorem in projective geometry, the full significance of which “was not realized until the seventeenth century” (Hollingdale: p. 90).

Archimedes (b. 287 BC) is consistently “ranked with Newton and Gauss as one of the supreme mathematical geniuses of all time” (Hollingdale: p. 64). Suffice it to list his writings that are preserved in full: On the Equilibrium of Plane Figures, Quadrature of the Parabola, On the Sphere of the Cylinder, On Spirals, On Conoids and Spheroid, On Floating Bodies, The Measurement of the Circle, The Sandreckoner and The Method. The Conics by Apollonius is known as a “masterpiece” containing 487 propositions proven by the “rigorous deductive methods characteristic of the Greek masters” (Hollingdale: p. 57). Before I address the role of Hindu-Muslim algebra, I will close with a few words about Euclid. His book, The Elements, has been “by far the most influential work ever written,” matched only by the Bible. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton all built their theories on the basis of Euclidean geometry. The Elements, which Bertrand Russell said was “one of the best books ever written,” compiles, organizes, and reworks many of the mathematical concepts of Euclid’s predecessors into a consistent whole. Its deductive method has been the most important procedure used by Westerners for demonstrating scientific certitude (“truth”) until the seventeenth century. No book in the non-west provided such a self-conscious presentation of what it means for a statement to be “known to be true.” It states that there must be some set of statements, called axioms, that are assumed to be true intuitively, from which point one can derive other basic statements or theorems. Some have said that a book entitled, Aryabhatiya, written in 499 AD by the Indian mathematician Aryabhata, is “somewhat akin to that of Euclid’s Elements” in that both are “summaries of earlier developments, compiled by a single author.” But as Boyer and Merbach point out: “There are, however, more striking differences than similarities, between the two works. The Elements is a well ordered synthesis of pure mathematics with a high degree of abstraction, a clear logical structure, and an obvious pedagogical inclination; the Aryabhatiya is a brief descriptive work” (p. 237).

Now, it is true, it was in the field of geometry, not arithmetic, that the Greeks constructed their Euclidean deductive method. In Greek arithmetic operations, which did include algebra, there is no “explicit deductive structure.” These are the words of Morris Kline, who goes on to say: “The work of Heron, Nichomachus, and Diophantus, and of Archimedes as far as his arithmetic is concerned, reads like the procedural texts of Egyptians and Babylonians, which tell us how to do things. The deductive, orderly proof of Euclid, Apollonius, and of Archimedes’ geometry is gone. The problems are inductive in spirit, in that they show methods for concrete problems that presumably apply to general classes whose extent is not specified” (1972: p. 144).

Kline, however, is less impressed by the achievements of Indians and Muslims in Arithmetic: “The high period [of Indian mathematics] may be roughly dated from about AD 200 to 1200.” “Hindu mathematics became significant only after it was influenced by Greek achievements…. The geometry of the Hindus was certainly Greek…. Geometry during this period showed no notable advances…. They did have a special gift for arithmetic.” They gave “rules for the multiplication, division, and square roots of irrational expressions…. They used abbreviations of words and a few symbols to describe operations…, The Hindus recognized that quadratic equations have two roots and included negative roots as well as irrational roots…. In indeterminate equations the Hindus advanced beyond Diophantus…. In trigonometry the Hindus made a few advances.” However, “the Hindus were less sophisticated than the Greeks in that they failed to see the logical difficulties involved in the concept of irrational numbers. Their interest in calculation caused them to overlook philosophical distinctions, or distinctions based on principles that in Greek thought were fundamental” (1972: 183-90). Moreover, by about 1200, “scientific activity in India declined and progress in mathematics ceased…. It is fairly certain that the Hindus did not appreciate the significance of their own contributions. The few good ideas they had, such as separate symbols for numbers 1 to 9, the conversion to base 10, and negative numbers, were introduced casually with no realization that they were valuable innovations.”

Regarding Islamic mathematics, Kline has this to say: “The cultural resources available to the Arabs were considerable. They invited Hindu scientists to settle in Baghdad.” Fundamentally, what “the Arabs possessed was Greek knowledge…. In arithmetic the Arabs took one step backward… they rejected negative numbers…. To algebra the Arabs contributed first of all the name. The word ‘algebra’ comes from a book written in 830.” They did not invent algebra: their algebra is “founded on Hindu and also Babylonian and Greek influences…. Arabic geometry was influenced mainly by Euclid, Archimedes, and Heron.” In conclusion: “The Arabs made no significant advance in mathematics. What they did was absorb Greek and Hindu mathematics, preserve it, and, ultimately, transmit it to Europe/”

This view is corroborated by the authors I have cited thus far. For example, Berlinghoff and Gouvêa say of Indian mathematics that “the main thing that is mostly missing from their texts is any explanation of how their methods and results were found. They did not give proofs or derivations” (p. 28). Boyer and Merzbach highlight the accomplishments of Brahmagupta (598–668 CE) for being the first to “give a general solution of the linear Diophantine equation ax + by = c, where a, b, and c are integers,” and they add that “the trigonometry of the sine function came presumably from India.” though Kline thinks that in trigonometry the Hindus made only “a few minor advances” (1972: p. 189). Overall, in the estimation of Boyer and Merzbach, there was a “lack of nice distinction on the part of Hindu mathematicians between exact and inexact results.” In their view, indeed, “analytic geometry and calculus had Greek rather than Indian roots, and European algebra came from Islamic countries rather than India” (245-50). According to Hollingdale, the period of Arab pre-eminence between the 9th-11th centuries, only “saw many useful—but not outstanding—advances in algebra, number theory, trigonometry, optics, and, to a lesser extent, geometry” (p. 101).

When all is said, for all the contributions made by Indians and Muslims, it would be Europeans in the modern era, on the direct strength of what the Greeks had accomplished, who would transform arithmetic/algebra into proper sciences by introducing symbolism and making “extensive and impressive contributions to the theory of numbers,” and thus learning to justify algebraic reasoning, by viewing algebra as an extension of logic in treating quantity, and by reversing the dependence of algebra on geometry, and indeed using algebra to help solve geometric constructions problems. When the Greco-Roman world ended in the sixth century, and Islam took the Mediterranean world, only a small part of the Greek mathematical corpus was known in Europe—until the 11th when scholars from Europe went to Islamic Spain to translate into Latin the works that Muslim scholars had preserved and commented upon. For some time, until about 1400, European mathematics benefitted from this Islamic legacy with its adoption of Hindu numerals. Through the 12th and 13th, Kline writes, Europeans “energetically sought out copies of the Greek works, their Arabic versions, and texts written by Arabs,” while contributing their own translations of Greek works into Latin rather than relying on translations that had passed through Arabic translations.

We should not forget, however, that this absorption of Islamic mathematics occurred within an emerging rationalist Christian framework, the “Renaissance of the 12th Century,” which included the invention of universities with a “rational” curriculum and a continuous sequence of scholastic philosophers. I will mention only a few names: Roger (not Francis) Bacon (1220–1292) is identified as beginning experimental science and for writing about the importance of mathematics to all science; and Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme are both acknowledged for their demonstration that “the effective velocity in uniformly difform motion was the average of the initial and final velocities.” It is even said that Oresme anticipated Descartes’ coordinate geometry, with “contributions towards the development of the concept of graphing functions and approaches to investigating infinite series.”

This broader rationalist atmosphere, together with the rise of universities, was absent in the Islamic world, despite its admiration for Aristotle. Only Christians would seek to provide logical proofs for the existence of God. Spectacles and mechanical clocks were both invented in 13th century Europe. Romanesque and Gothic architecture required more practical geometry than the architecture of other civilizations. For the sake of modesty, however, let us say that, up until about 1500, European mathematicians, “with their algebraic emphasis, derived more inspiration from Arabic and medieval mathematics than from the much richer inheritance of Classical Greece” (Hollingdale: p. 107). It still remains the case that the European breakthrough into modern mathematics that came in the 1600s was primarily grounded in Greek mathematics.

Before this breakthrough there was Leonardo Pisa, also known as Fibonacci (1175-1250), identified as “the most creative mathematician of the medieval Christian world,” who followed Islamic mathematicians “in using words rather than symbols and in basing the algebra on arithmetical methods/” His work, De practica geometrie (1225), however, was based on Euclid’s book. Nicolas Chuquet’s Le Triparty en la science des nombres (1484) explained the Hindu-Arabic number system and how to perform arithmetic with this system. This treatise was novel, however, in devising an exponential notation where the power of the unknown was indicated by an exponent; and in presenting an algebraic notation with an isolated negative number, though he viewed negative numbers as absurd. Girolamo Cardono “astonished” the mathematical world by giving algebraic solutions to both cubic and quartic equations in his book, Ars magna (1545).

After other prominent names, the most significant transition to modern mathematics came with the introduction of a fully symbolic algebra by François Viète [Franciscus Vieta] (1540-1603). Because Hindus and Muslims had placed their practical arithmetical calculations in the forefront of their mathematics, and had elevated algebra on an arithmetic rather than a geometric basis; and because the European transition to modern mathematics took place in arithmetic and algebra, it is commonly believed that Hindu and Islamic mathematics laid the groundwork for Vieta’s transition to algebraic symbolism, and subsequent developments in analytic geometry, calculus, and functions. Not true. Vieta’s book, In artem analyticem isagoge [Introduction to the Art of Analysis] (1591), was part of his “program of rediscovering the method of analysis used by the ancient Greek mathematicians,” as The Britannica Guide to the History of Mathematics recognizes (2011: p. 96). His algebra had a firm Greek geometrical foundation. “His aim was to uncover and restore the algebraic relationships that were, he believed, hidden behind the geometrical presentations of the Greek masters” (Hollingdale: p. 120). Vieta saw his new symbolic algebraic method “as an advancement over the ancient method, a view he arrived at by comparing the geometric analysis contained in Book VII of Pappus’s Collection, with the arithmetic analysis of Diophantus’s Arithmetica.” (The Britannica Guide: p. 96). Despite the attempt of this Guide to portray mathematics as a “global effort…spanning…multiple cultures,” it can’t hide the actual truth. Once this Guide hits the modern era, not a single non-European is mentioned since none participated in modern mathematics.

Vieta was the first to use algebraic symbols or letters deliberately and systematically, not only to represent unknown quantities but also as general coefficients. “The Arabs had not advanced one iota in symbolic notation.” The “turning point in the history of algebra” came with Vieta (Dantzig, [1930] 1954: 85-7). Before him, in Europe, letters had been used for the unknown, and the first abbreviations used from the 1400s on were p for plus and m for minus; the = was introduced in 1557 by Robert Recorde. These changes in notation, the use of special words and number symbols, were essentially abbreviations of normal words. In fact, prior to Vieta, it was only Diophantus (AD 200) who had consciously introduced symbolism to make algebraic writing more compact and efficient. Vieta’s education was overwhelmingly based on the writings of the ancient Greeks—Apollonius, Archimedes, Pappus, Diophantus; and the works of European mathematicians such as Cardano, Tartaglia, and Stevin. After Vieta, his analytic algebra was applied to the study of curves by his French countrymen Fermat and Descartes, who were also motivated by the same goal of applying new algebraic techniques to Greek geometry, leading to the development of analytic geometry. Vieta actually drew a conceptual line between his new symbolic algebra and arithmetic, calling the former a true algebra, with the potential to become a universal science. In other words, the arithmetic algebra of the Hindus and Muslims was not, in his estimation, truly algebraic.

The Mathematics of Perspective

This transition to modern mathematics was founded primarily on the Greek achievement, not as a mere intellectual exercise, but in response to the newly emerging scientific world of the Renaissance era, the age of exploration and the rise of Copernican astronomy. Copernicus’s heliocentric system, and Kepler’s (1571-1630) three planetary laws, were based on the Platonic belief that the universe was ordered according to a mathematical plan and that the truths of nature could be revealed in mathematical laws and geometrical terms—ideas that were absent in both the Islamic and the Hindu world. Renaissance perspective painting, the realistic depiction of scenes on canvas by incorporating three-dimensions, relative distances, size, and positions of objects, was likewise based on a thorough study of Euclidean geometry. The European cartographic revolution, the mapping of the world, was intimately connected to Greek mathematics; Gerard Mercator’s (1512-94) map solved the problem of projecting figures from a sphere onto a flat surface.

The advantage deductive geometry had over practical arithmetic, trial and error, or reasoning by induction and analogy, is that its validity came from the logical derivation of conclusions from self-evident premises, rather than from approximate inferences based on observations of empirical facts restricted to a time and place. Even if we were to argue that deductive mathematics is merely a conventional language that Westerners imposed upon the world, rather than an accurate revelation of the structure of the universe, the success of Euclidean mathematical models lay precisely in mimicking or predicting the behavior of physical bodies. In the ideal world of abstraction that Galileo created, without resistance or friction, in which physical bodies were reduced to geometrical forms, perfectly smooth bodies moving on a perfect plane, the principles of Euclidean geometry held. As Galileo declared, “the grand book of the universe…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed…the language of mathematics.” It was the Greeks who discovered the language of nature.


Ricardo Duchesne has written a number of articles on Western uniqueness. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: A folio from Synagogue (Collection) by Pappus, ca. 10th century AD.

John Locke’s Blank Slate and the Unique Development of Children’s Literature in the West

There is an elective affinity—a relationship of reciprocal attraction and mutual reinforcement—between (a) John Locke’s argument that a child’s mind initially resembles an “empty cabinet” or a “white paper void of all characters,” which can be shaped by controlling the education impressed upon the child’s mind, and (b) the origins of a literature specifically written for children in the 1700s in England. John Locke’s pedagogical book, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), with its thesis that “children’s minds” could be shaped “from without” by “those who have children or the charge of their education,” became “the moving spirit of the eighteenth century.” Samuel Pickering documents in his book, John Locke and Children’s Books in Eighteenth Century England (1981), the influence of Locke on the “form, theme, content, and diction” of early children’s literature. Pickering does not, however, draw connections between Locke’s blank slate thesis and the development of children’s literature. Below I will outline the history of children’s literature as a singularly Western phenomenon that calls for an appreciation of Locke’s blank slate thesis. The focus will be on English and American books, where the influence of Lockean philosophy was greatest, though we should keep in mind that other European nations were originating children’s literature. Folk tales, superstitions, songs, legends—that taught and entertained children—have been common throughout the world. Before the early 1700s, however, there were no books written specifically for children.

Children’s literature undergoes momentous changes in content and theme in the course of time as the West finds itself in a state of continuous modernization and cultural change, driven by new concepts of childhood: from purely instructional stories with practical advice in the 1600s, along with evangelical stories to keep the innate moral sinfulness of children contained, through to stories after 1700 offering both knowledge and recreation that encouraged children to be virtuous and kind to animals. From books in the early 1800s teaching middle-class children the values of thrift, hard work, and family uprightness, through to sentimental stories about the harsh lives of poor Victorian children, and stories encouraging the predilection of children for fantasy and imagination after the 1850s. From stories about heroes and the virtues of loyalty, pluck, and resourcefulness at the time of British imperial greatness, coupled with the rise of girl’s stories to prepare them to be wives and mothers during late Victorian times, through to stories about the unchanging trials of adolescent sexuality after WWII, combined with science fiction and comic books, to a new agenda of political correctness in matters of sex and race from the 1990s onwards, which brings about a degradation in the quality of children’s literature as it becomes a weapon aimed at indoctrinating children into accepting “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The Beginnings of Blank-Slate Children

Among conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who believe that humans are born with innate biological drives that explain their behaviors, motivations, and intellectual aptitudes, Locke’s blank slate argument is today dismissed as a major error driving the Left’s ideology that humans are malleable creatures who can be easily “reimagined” or “reconstructed” anyway one chooses. Everyone knows about the nature versus nurture debate. But what many on the dissident right have not paid due attention to, preoccupied as they have been with the science of genetics, is that the blank slate proponents, for all the “refutations” they have faced in the writings of such prominent scholars as E.O Wilson and Steven Pinker, have taken complete command of children’s books across all the schools, libraries, and publishing houses of the Western world.

They managed to do so because the West has been demolishing its “innate ideas” for centuries now, its kinship-based institutions and norms, its customs, folkways, and traditional religious beliefs. The in-group psychology dominating all traditional societies was fundamentally altered in Europe into increasingly individualistic habits of thinking and behaving as Europeans started demolishing their kinship institutions from the Middle Ages onwards, by prohibiting cousin and polygynous marriages and promoting monogamous nuclear families. This released Europeans from their kin-based obligations and encouraged them to choose their spouses, social friends and associates, which opened the door to the creation of voluntary (civic) associations, chartered towns, guilds, universities, monasteries, and representative institutions based on contractual agreements. Kinship was no longer determining the “innate” identities and norms of Europeans, their ascribed status and obligations, their sense of right and wrong, their normative relationships between family members, what values should be transmitted to children, what is sacred and what is profane.

European institutions and associations were now based on civic norms chosen by anonymous individuals on their own initiative. However, for a long time, through the medieval era, Christianity continued to act as a major collective source guiding Europeans in their families, education, and overall social life. But as modern Europeans began to talk about the “natural rights” of individuals to choose their own values and happiness within an increasingly commercialized society, the traditional values of the Church started losing their influence, particularly after the Enlightenment. This led to the expansion of the blank slate interiors of Europeans, and the rise of ideologies contesting over which values should command the lives of individuals. The West is indeed unique among civilizations in the origination of ideologies proposing a complete remaking of society: liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, feminism, fascism. Non-Western societies are innately based on their millennial traditions. The West became ideological during the French Revolution as a new intelligentsia consciously set out to remake society anew. Even conservatives became ideologues when they realized they could not restore the old monarchical order and the old aristocratic class, but had to accept the liberal principle of equality of civic rights and modern industrial development—if they were to preserve in a new form some traditional values. Western liberalism (which gradually came to include many sub-isms within itself, including modern conservatism) eventually defeated the two major contenders for power, fascism and communism, proclaiming the “end of history” in the 1990s.

In the England that Locke was born, a relatively new liberal society where parliamentary rule had displaced monarchical authority, and where the nation would increasingly come to be seen as a contractually-based covenant among anonymous individuals with natural rights, rather than based on kinship in-group loyalties, it made sense to reject innate ideas. The classical liberal disposition to accept nothing as true unless it was validated by one’s “impartial” rational judgment, amplified the intellectual creativity of the West. Painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, and novelists were encouraged to rely on their individual aesthetic judgments in the pursuit of the highest forms of beauty and literary expressions.

For all their individualism, however, modern Europeans, until recent decades, remained attached to their national heritage, creating nations based on a collective sense of history, memories, and ethnic identity. Christian traditional values continued to play a big role in the parenting and education of children through to the twentieth century. The liberal ideas of Locke were not calling for a world without any traditions and common heritage; his liberalism was sensibly aimed at encouraging the initiative, curiosity, and knowledge of children, in a world where formal schools for children were just beginning and most instruction was religiously oriented and paternalistic. Locke argued with reason that education should not be despotic and coercive but should account for the individual characteristics of children, encouraging their interest in knowledge, while disciplining their habits without indulging their subjective whims.

The Impact of Locke in the 1700s

There were books for children before Locke: The Petit Schole (1587) taught the rudiments of English spelling; A Method, or Comfortable Beginning for all Unlearned (1570) was about how to teach reading; and, before these two, there was Caxton’s Book of Curtesye (1477) about piety, neatness, honoring one’s parents. Children enjoyed some adult books, such as Plutarch’s Lives of heroic Greeks and Romans, the adventure, the great deeds, and the anecdotes. Richard Mulcaster’s Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581) actually encouraged laughter among children and the importance of exercise and games. Locke later elaborated upon this view, urging that education should involve “Play and Recreation” as a means of getting “continued Attention” from children, engaging the “liking of Children” for learning, which is “one of the hardest Tasks.” Children should be free to choose how they play, so they discover their individual tempers, inclinations and aptitudes.

But while England awaited Locke’s “monumental educational influence” in the early 1700s, it was the “Good Godly Books” by Puritans that constituted the greater part of books for or about children. There was a “flood of Puritan books” in the 1600s. Puritans advocated literacy among the young for two interconnected reasons: they believed that individuals should have direct access to the Bible and that encouraging children to read didactic literature was an excellent way to rescue them from their sinful impulses. “Play and idleness” gave children time for devilish temptations without fomenting an upright character. (The historian Percy Muir makes the revealing observation that “the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature lists no children’s books of a recreational kind before 1671”). A good example of Puritanism in books was James Janeway’s A Token for Children: being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of several young Children, published in 1671. In this book, abstinence from all forms of playfulness was insisted upon, with constant reminders to the parents of the inherent tendency of their children to sin, and the need to raise children guarded against the temptations of Satan by reading the Scripture. The same, however, cannot be said about John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). While this book was not intentionally written for children, it was widely read in the nursery and annexed by children as an adventure story about giants and fabulous monsters, sword contests, and a hero overcoming ill fortune. It has been said that Bunyan provided amusement, if “unintentionally”, and that he preferred to persuade children into righteousness instead of frightening them.

It was in the early 1700s that books expressly written for children came onto the market, guided by the Lockean conception that children were not born with original sin but resembled an “empty cabinet” that could be shaped according to their education. This Lockean idea was reinforced by a “new sensibility” attributed to Rousseau’s educational novel Émile, written in 1762, which argued that the natural state of being of children should be valued in itself, rather than viewed as an inferior state requiring the immediate imposition of adult ways. This emphasis on the “natural” ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling of children would eventually encourage the writing of books aimed at nurturing the unique imagination of children.

With the gradual modernization of Britain, there was a growing focus on the educational maturation of children. Up until about 1750, roughly speaking, almost one-third of young people died before 15 years of age. Coping with such regular deaths in their households, combined with the need to have young adults help with farming and craftsmanship, parents barely had time to think about their children’s education. But with improvements in agriculture, the rate of infant mortality started to decline very slowly but steadily through the 1700s, making parents more optimistic about the prospects of their children surviving into adulthood and the importance, accordingly, of an education in an emerging urban Britain where a vocational profession was important. Sunday schools that taught reading and writing and some arithmetic were growing in great numbers during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1800 there were 2,000 such schools, with about 10 percent of children between the ages of five and eighteen enrolled. By 1818 some 450,000 children were being educated in Sunday schools.

Apart from books aimed at preparing middle-class children for social accomplishment, such as Circle of the Sciences series (1745), an encyclopedia published by John Newbery about grammar, arithmetic, geography, we see a growing emphasis on books that taught moral and religious principles in a more light-hearted, liberal manner, acknowledging playfulness in children’s learning. A popular book was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749), about a girls’ village school with a teacher of virtuous character who tells her students that “the true use of books is to make you wiser and better.” A book that inspired a whole genre was The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), by an anonymous author, about a “do-gooder,” a poor orphan girl named Margery Meanwell, who goes through life with only one shoe until a rich man gives her a pair, and she tells everyone she has “two shoes,” and then becomes a teacher and marries a rich widower, with the story showing that virtue is rewarded.

A woodcut of the eponymous Goody Two-Shoes from the 1768 edition of the novel.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke encouraged parents to teach their children kindness to animals, warning that “the Custom of Tormenting and Killing of Beasts, will, by Degrees, harden their Minds even towards Men.” This outlook occasioned a debate about the contrasting natures of humans and animals, whether animals had souls, how should the Christian doctrine of universal charity be applied to animals, with the consensus being that while animals should not be elevated above humans, they should be put to death only when “necessary either for the food or convenience of man” without cruelty. Thomas Boreman’s Gigantick Histories (1740), which would eventually comprise a series of ten separate volumes, was endearing to children in its depiction of animals, with stories about lions, tigers, and leopards, all of which Boreman described and illustrated with woodcuts. A book viewed as “the most representative of children’s books”, in which animals began to be sentimentalized, is Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories (1786). The book emphasizes the virtue of social hierarchy, according to which parents are above children in their authority, humans above animals in terms of dominion and compassion, while conveying the message that kindness to animals during childhood can lead to universal benevolence adulthood.

It would take all our space to describe the onrush of children’s books during this period. One of the first and most prolific publishers of books for children and juveniles was John Newbury, who consciously followed Locke in his decision to link “a Knowledge of the Letters” to “Play and Recreation.” The first book he published, in 1744, was A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer, identified by some as “the first children’s book in history,” consisting of simple rhymes for each of the letters of the alphabet. Newbury “paid great attention to every detail” in the preparation of children’s books, “the titles, heroes, reputed authors, price, size, binding and pictures were scrupulously attended to.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Europeans invented childhood in the late 1700s as they started showing a keen interest in the individuality and personality of children. Prior to this time, children were depicted as small adults in their clothing, postures, and facial expressions. The appearance of boys at school was that of a “small-size adult;” it was only at the end of the 1700s that “special dress for children began to appear.” Children were expected to think and behave as mature people at about the same age as our children today embark on their primary education. In late 18th-century Britain one sees a new artistic interest (headed by the British) in young children, aimed at bringing out the distinctiveness of childhood. Children had their own identity already as infants. The paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) are very important in this respect. Art historian Ann Higonnet described this new artistic phenomenon as the invention of the innocence of childhood. It was this innocence that defined the distinctiveness of children, as conveyed by one of Reynolds’s child portraits entitled “The Age of Innocence.” An innocent child’s body was “defined by its difference from adult bodies.” The stages of maturation of children came to be clearly defined sometime between 1780 and 1820: between the infant and the child, the child and the adolescent, with authors delineating the specific educational needs for these stages.

Sir Joshua Reynolds “The Age of Innocence” (1785 or 1788).

Ellenor Fenn, author of numerous books, stated that “if you expect children to read with spirit and propriety they must be supplied with lessons suited to their taste, that is, prattle, like their own.” Fenn is now acknowledged “as an early advocate of child-centered teaching strategies.” A follower of Locke, she opined that “if the mind be a rasa tabula—you to whom it is entrusted should be cautious what is written upon it.” Her most popular book, Cobwebs to Catch Flies (1783), a reading primer, which consciously differentiated between reading age groups, with parts of the book aimed for children from three to five years, and later parts of the book aimed for those from five and eight. The book met children at their own age, experiences and interests, in how it addressed toys, pets, games, visits to the fair and other subjects.

Chapbooks, Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe

The first books written for the delight of children in rural poor homes were “chapbooks,” that is, half penny sheets covering a range of subjects from alphabet books and religious stories and prayers, to legends of ordinary folk, short biographies, heroic tales, crime news, songs and jests, and nursery rhymes, such as “Who Killed Cock Robin” and “Little Tommy Tucker,” miraculous or ghost stories, prophecies and fortune-telling, battle or adventure. Fables have always been the oral possession of the illiterate. The development of these fables and fairy tales into books began in the early 1700s. The Histories, or Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose (1729) was a translation of a book originally published in 1697 in the French, a collection of children’s tales including “Blue Beard,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” These stories were original adaptations in prose of preexisting medieval folk tales.

It is worth mentioning that, while folk tales are common to all cultures, being anonymous stories that communities passed through the generations by word of mouth, Europeans started a literary scholarship of folklore, collecting and writing down in published form these tales during the seventeenth century. The Grimm brothers, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), with their background in philology, meticulously recorded the tales exactly as the people told them, writing down every variation, publishing 86 fairy tales in 1812, and 217 unique tales by 1857. Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), a Danish author, not only collected tales but wrote dozens of original fairy tales—The Tinder-Box, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl—leading some to argue that he invented the literary fairy tale of pure fantasy about magical characters, such as wizards, elves, trolls, gnomes, goblins. By 1800, book publishing had increased substantially with one catalogue listing 213 “amusing and instructive books for young minds.” Many were adaptations for children of well-known tales, such as Mother Bunch’s Fairy Tales (1773), or nursery rhymes, Mother Goose Melodies, lullabies, and stories about animals, such as The Dog of Knowledge (1801), or The Adventures of a Bullfinch (1809). The most popular children’s book was The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog (1805), by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826), selling over 10,000 copies, about a male dog who is mischievous and a female cat who helps with various chores around the house.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was intended for an adult readership but soon educationists pointed to the pedagogical merit of this story, and its compatibility with Lockean pedagogical theory, providing “instruction with delight.” The New Robinson Crusoe: An Instructive and Entertaining History, for the Use of Children of Both Sexes by Joachim Heinrich Campe, published in 1788, was the earliest Crusoe for children, with countless children’s versions appearing over the years. Rousseau argued that Crusoe should be a primary text to raise children “above vulgar prejudices” and encourage them to form their own judgments by imagining themselves as “solitary adventurers” in a natural state, building their own life in circumstances of real utility. Today, Robinson Crusoe, is condemned as a story that “upholds a racist ideology of white supremacy.” Crusoe was certainly the embodiment of European individualism, the Lockean ideal of recreating society and oneself out of a blank slate, the quest to become one’s own. According to Ian Watts, Robinson Crusoe was the first true novel in history in not taking its plot from mythology, or history, or from previous literary genres; the first story thoroughly preoccupied with the primacy of individual experience rather than general human types, giving attention to minute details of ordinary life, with a highly introspective character where almost every action is a subject of self-examination, a monologue, centered around Crusoe’s feelings, beliefs, fears, judgments—in isolation, the self as master.

Victorian Morals, Imagination, and Sentimentalism

In the first decades of Victorian England, 1820-1850, children’s books reflected the ideology of the new middle classes: “modesty and moderation, prudence and self-help, respectability and thrift”—a combination of Puritan morality and self-reliance. The father was still the head and the role of the mother was to attend to the moral well-being of the family, which on average consisted of 4 or 5 children brought up on strict gender-based roles, with the sons expected to prepare for success in the public sphere and the daughters to become ladylike in preparation for a married life, though women did play a public role, becoming prominent writers of children’s books.

Barbara Hofland’s writing drew on the hardships of her own life as a widow and during her second marriage to an artist without money; in The Blind Farmer and his Children (1816), and Elizabeth and her Three Beggary Boys (1833), she depicted families struggling under hard circumstances (death of parents, bankruptcy) yet prevailing due to their moral integrity and Christian ways. The women in her tales showed strength not by condemning Victorianism (she was a firm advocate of marriage) but by showing strength as wives and widows, even if it meant having to set up their own businesses in the face of the father’s bankruptcy. Victorian “rigidity” however saw more than didactic moral tales. Harriet Mozley’s The Fairy Bower (1841) and Family Adventures (1852) portrayed children as they are rather than as mere vehicles for adult expectations, enjoying jokes, skating, and arguing about the propriety of their own behaviors. Peter Parley’s Magazine, an English children’s magazine published monthly from 1839 to 1863, contained articles about history, travel, animals, and moral tales about school boys, wicked uncles and other subjects, colorfully illustrated, aiming to instruct and please children.

There were adventure stories about overcoming ordeals, such as The Settlers at Home, by Harriet Martineau, in which a land is flooded, with mills and barns floating away, farm animals drowning, and everyone in great peril…four children are deprived of their mother and father…the two-year-old baby dies, and they have various struggles for survival…until they are rescued. Frederick Marryat’s The Settlers in Canada (1844) was about the adventures of an immigrant English family threatened by “Red Indians” and wild animals. His The Children of the New Forest (1847) was about 4 orphaned children during the Civil War, taught by a forester how to survive by hunting and farming. This age of realism and railways was also an age of the “romantic rediscovery of the imagination.” In addition to numerous new versions of Grimm’s folktales, and translations of Andersen’s tales into English, original works of fantasy were written, most notably Phantasmion (1837) by Sara Coleridge, a story of a prince who embarks on a journey, taunted and manipulated by mysterious spirits, and finally triumphs over the forces of darkness after multiple trials.

From its Puritan beginnings in the 1700s to 1870, American children’s literature experienced significant cultural shifts reflecting changed perceptions of childhood. Between 1650s-1750s children’s books were for instruction and a Puritan upbringing—to fight ignorance, the “mother of heresy,” and to restrain children’s “inborn depravity.” A widely read book was The New England Primer, published in the 1680s, illustrated with woodcuts, in verse for easier memorization of its teachings—with its famous opening “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Thumb bibles decorated with pictures were common; one popular book was The Duty of Parents to Pray for their Children (1703) by Increase Mather. The best known was John Bunyan’s English classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, of which 50 editions were published in America by 1830. Children enjoyed its strong dramatic narrative of Christian, an everyman character, journeying from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” seeking deliverance from the burden of his sins. Many new titles came out after 1750s: one publisher in Massachusetts published more than 100 titles between 1775 and 1800.

While the 1800s saw a gradual shift “away from the spiritual intensity” of Puritanism “toward a more generalized moralism,” the typical children’s story before 1850 did not encourage fantasy or imagination: the focus was on moral character, not entertainment. The Story of Jack Halyard (1824) was intended “to give an account of one family of superior excellence, as a model to others.” After 1850, a new kind of writing emerged, giving “childhood a value in and by itself,” an idealized perception of childhood expressed in sentimental stories about children “which was often put at the service of some social purpose.” The matter-of-fact deathbed scenes of earlier literature gave way to vivid, melodramatic narratives, such as The Angel Mother (1854), about a mother’s death and the prolonged mourning of her children. Stories of poor children, “filthy, ragged, barefoot even in winter,” such as Alice Haven’s Nothing Venture, Nothing Have (1854) about a tenement “crowded with families as poor, and as squalid as want could make them,” were common. With the rise of cities, there was a focus on secular subjects and characters: shopkeepers, newsboys, Italian boys singing on the streets for pennies. Series books in magazines were launched, adventure tales for boys. Horatio Alger was best known for his “rags-to-riches” stories of boys rewarded for hard work, acts of bravery or kindness. The most beloved book was Little Women by Louisa Alcott, about the fortunes of four sisters in their passage to young womanhood, which inspired numerous films.

Golden Age in England and America

The history of children’s literature points to the English as the most prominent, original writers. The period 1850-1890 has been identified as a “golden age,” with writers drawing on translations of the rich repertoire of Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and fables—at the same time as Europeans came to view childhood as a crucial phase in personal development, characterized by freedom from accepted conventions, vitality of imagination, and the child’s instinctive connection to the natural world, reflecting the earliest phases of the human psyche, and thus a window to the archetypes of the unconscious. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865) is judged as possibly the most brilliant and original children’s book. By removing the controlling voice of the adult’s narrator and having children speak for themselves, Alice’s was the first to allow the child’s mind to occupy the centre, as the adult re-enters into their sense of puzzlement. Charles Kingsley’s Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore (1855) was inspired by nature walks with children, to bring out “the miraculous and divine element underlying all physical nature.”

There was a sentimental belief in the child’s innate virtues, away from the earlier emphasis on original sin, characterized by a keen concern for the suffering of poor, homeless, vagrant children, the so-called “street arabs.” George Sergent’s book, Roland Leigh: The Story of a City Arab (1857), was about a small boy in the London underground abandoned even by the church. For Hesba Stretton children were society’s victims; her stories of children “starved of food and affection” were widely imitated; she popularized “baby talk.” Juliana Horatia Ewing, from a family of ten children, with a strong faith, is known for her efforts to bring out children’s feelings, closeness to one another and to their animals. Her stories, such as Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances (1869), are celebrated as the “first outstanding child-novels.”

The year 1877 saw the publication of Black Beauty, one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, written by Anna Sewell while seriously ill—about a horse dragged down by harsh masters and vain mistresses. It is an animal autobiography, in which the horse, Black Beauty, is given some human traits, such as thinking and talking, although only the readers can hear Black Beauty talking; none of the human characters in the text hear the horses, who communicate with human characters using gestures and actions. Like earlier books about animals, Black Beauty is anthropomorphic, with the horse playing the role of narrator, with the readers understanding the world through the horse’s own perspective. This story is now considered one of the first animal rights books in its exploration of the suffering faced by horses at a time before the invention of automobiles, when society depended on horses for transportation. Europeans have had a strong connection to horses since Indo-European peoples domesticated them in the Pontic Steppes during the fourth millennium, and then invented the techniques of horse riding, and chariots.

As England expanded across the world, adventure stories took off; one of the most widely known is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), a story with everything boys love: treasure, pirates, strange noises, seafaring—along with unpredictable characters, a fallible hero and a “formidable and smooth” villain. The novels of the French writer Jules Verne, “father of science fiction,” were very popular among English boys, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), taking his readers across continents, under the oceans, through the earth, and into space. George Alfred Henry’s stories, The Dragon & The Raven (1886), For The Temple (1888), Under Drake’s Flag (1883) and In Freedom’s Cause (1885), were also enjoyed, with their blending of the extraordinary with the probable, eulogizing honesty and loyalty, pluck and resilience—with his belief that the British were unequalled in these virtues. The late nineteenth century saw a sudden attraction for boarding school stories, attuned to the different interests and experiences of boys and girls. Talbot Baines Reed was the most popular writer of boys’ fiction about rivalry over games, school boy humor, and a muscular type of Christianity—The Fifth Form at St. Dominic sold 750,000 copies in 1907. The most prolific author of girl school stories was L.T. Meade; in addition to her books for adults, Meade wrote about 150 titles for “young readers;” A World of Girls: The Story of a School (1886) was about disruptive emotions, friendship, loyalty, and jealousy, along with Victorian attitudes of traditional roles of wives and mothers.

The enfeebled liberal West you see today publishing grooming stories about transsexuals to primary school children was once continuously creative. It was so because its blank slate individualism was still sustained by traditions, solid monogamous nuclear families, the continuing presence of Christian values, patriarchal authority, and a sense of national heritage. During the late and early twentieth centuries there is a marked preoccupation with the inner world of children, not merely with childhood as distinctive phase, but in rediscovering in the interior world of children the loss of human wholeness, the dismemberment of industrialized and wealthy humans from nature, overcoming anomie and rootlessness. The Secret Garden (1911) by F.H. Burnett has been interpreted many ways. It is through a secret garden drawn from fairy tales (outside modernity) that the orphaned Mary finds consolation and reconciliation after living as a selfish and disagreeable 10-year-old girl spoiled by her servants in colonial India and neglected by wealthy British parents. Mary finds an abandoned garden where she takes her disabled 10 year-old cousin Colin to see the garden, where he manages to stand up; they plant seeds together to rejuvenate the garden, and through their interactions with nature they discover meaningfulness and happiness in life.

But confidence in Western progress and empire was not faltering for everyone; certainly not for Rudyard Kipling, in whose stories the ideals of empire and manliness are celebrated, along with the code that public schools should train boys for their future role as rulers of the empire, as in Stalky & Co. (1899), which emphasizes the aggressive competitive aspects of boarding school as a preparation for life in colonial armies. Yet, for others, the strict moralizing lessons of Victorian times were becoming outmoded. There was an emphasis both on playfulness and on nurturing the imaginations of middle-class children, as we see in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), by Robert Louis Stevenson, which describes children absorbed in imaginary “make believe” games, boys transforming their surroundings through fantasy, turning meadows into jungles and populating a desert with pythons, pumas, and kangaroos.

It is hard to identify one clear literary trend: there was too much variety, intersecting and contrasting cultural trends, from the creative minds of British authors. Kipling also wrote Just So Stories (1902), fantastical tales encouraging children to wonder how animals came to evolve. Use of parody for comic effect can be seen in E. Nesbit’s Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901). Nesbit was a founding member of the Fabian Society who gained much attention with The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), of children who overcome perils through pluck, and The Wouldbegoods (1901), about a middle-class family fallen on hard times, which found great appeal for its special touch for depicting how children truly speak, feel, and behave. Then came J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), about a boy who refused to become an adult in an ideal world of daring and courage, interacting with fairies, pirates, and mermaids in a mythical paradise. And there was also Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), a bestseller from the beginning, written in order to amuse a sick 5 year-old boy, about a rabbit, who disobeys his mother, combining humor, adventure, and a moral lesson.

In the period 1870-1914 American children’s literature is said to have “changed radically” both in the proliferation of books with greater variety of themes and characters and the high literary quality. The liberal trend to avoid “preaching” in children’s stories, in preference of amusement, story-content, and overall optimism about prospects in life and the possibility of finding happiness. Some say it was a “golden age,” characterized by such classic titles as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), by Frank Baum; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), by Mark Twain. There were other classics in their own right. One was T.B. Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy (1870), hailed as a departure in traditional children’s literature for showing boys as they were, rather than as they ought to be, which started a “bad boy” literature, of which Tom Sawyer was one, and so were C. D. Warner’s Being a Boy (1877), W.D. John Habberton’s The Worst Boy in Town (1880), and J.O. Kaler’s Toby Tyler: Or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1877). These stories, with their realistic images of boys as irrational, primitive, and masculine, attracted many readers. This genre is now criticized for encouraging “toxic masculinity” rather than “nice,” “caring,” “gender fluid,” and docile boys who listen attentively to their TikTok feminist teachers. In truth, these “bad boys” had an instinctive sense of what was right, rooted in small town America, with their own unique personalities built from hardship and assertiveness outside a standardized suburbia.

Girl school stories, or coming of age stories, were very popular. One was Margaret Sidney’s The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew (1881), about a widowed mother who has to sew all day to pay rent and feed five growing Peppers, which she does with a stout heart, a smiling face, and the help of her blue-eyed Ben, the eldest and the man of the house at the age of 11. America was still a land that celebrated independence and self-reliance, not from the standpoint of the isolated, atomistic selves, you see today addicted to social media, but within concrete local communities. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), by Kate Wiggins, was about a girl who is sent to live with her lonely aunt after her father died, to whom she brings her youthful enthusiasm and imagination, with poems and songs, selling soap to help a poor family, growing up to be a proper young lady with a kind heart.

Another book now considered a classic was Pollyanna (1913), by Eleanor Porter, with its innocent formula that we should be “glad, glad, glad” about everything however hard it may seem, a story about an orphan girl who remains positive and animated in spirit despite a hard childhood and later tribulations, spreading love and joy wherever she goes, and finding happiness in the end, thus proving that a good disposition and positive outlook can compensate for the hardships we face. This story was followed by 11 more Pollyanna sequels known as “Glad Books.” Another popular book was Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), by Frances Burnett, about a boy who lives with his “Dearest” mother in poverty after the death of his father, who then inherits a British fortune, to be sent to live with the cold and unsentimental lord who oversees the trust.

Continuing Creativity Between 1914 and 1980

The period 1914-1945 in British children’s literature is downplayed as less original than the preceding periods—but didn’t J.R. R. Tolkien author The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1937-49)? British education was still rooted in tradition, Western-centric standards, and great books. Rings drew on a combination of Christianity and Germanic heroic legend, including the Norse Völsunga Saga, the study of Old English literature, Beowulf, and on Celtic, Finnish, Slavic, and Greek mythology. Tolkien gained access to this pagan tradition in-through early Christianity, where it continued, not by resorting to some neo-pagan new age version.
The early twentieth century saw many new children’s titles: 688 in 1913, which increased to 1,629 by 1938—despite WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. They were mostly books for the comfortable middle class, not for the children of parents who participated in the General Strike of 1926, the same year the lovely story of Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne, was published, about an optimistic, not very intelligent, but friendly and steadfast, teddy bear, with many other animal characters for children to identify with, Piglet, Tigger, and Roo. The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), by Margery Williams, was another popular book about a stuffed rabbit sewn from velveteen who becomes a boy’s favorite toy…but is thrown out of the boy’s house to become a real rabbit that the boy then encounters in the wild, showing how toy rabbits become real through the affection and imagination of children. Another classic was

The Story of Babar the Little Elephant (1934) about a baby elephant who flees the jungle after his mother is killed and moves into a big city where he is civilized and dresses in Western attire. The West was still unwilling to devalue its imperial history. Postcolonial theory was still in the future. The Lockean call for affection towards animals had nurtured uniquely Western stories of animals that live like humans, with human qualities coupled with toys in the shape of animals like a Teddy Bear or Babar dressed up like a human.

Illustration for the Nicest Girl in School.

Long running series of stories for boys and girls were common: M.E. Atkinson’s August Adventure (1936), Elizabeth Yates’s High Holiday (1938), Francis Joyce’s Yes, Cousin Joseph (1935), and Elizabeth Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet (1925) with its fifty seven sequels! The trend-setting writer of “modern schoolgirls’ stories” was the British Angela Brazil, author of some 50 boarding school books, beginning with The Fortunes of Philippa (1906). The Nicest Girl in The School (1909) sold 153,000 copies. Brazil was raised by a mother critical of the “traditionalism” persisting in Victorian English schooling, determined to raise her children according to the Lockean principle that children who experience a liberal education in literature, music, and science will become creative and nurturing. Notwithstanding the prior influence of Locke in intellectual circles and in the writing of children’s books, a traditional moralism continued to prevail in Victorian England about self-sacrifice for the nation, the moral virtues of patriarchal families, and the importance of abiding by Christian norms. Brazil’s books portrayed “independent-minded” female characters who openly challenged authority, were impertinent, enjoyed pranks, and expressed their youthfulness without worrying about the rigidified concerns of adults.

Children’s literature 1945-70 is characterized by historical realism, fantasy/science fiction, and “internationalism.” Kipling-type books eulogizing British imperial manliness gave way to books in tune with “the egalitarian, post-colonial mood” of a Britain without an empire. However, despite promotion of “international exchanges” and a few books about minorities, this period remained creative, even as it was undermining the conditions that made this creativity possible. As TV became a major form of recreation, authors came to de-emphasize this aspect of children’s books in favor of literary quality—for the newly constructed public schools and libraries. The rising literary status of children’s books is reflected in the growth of literary reviews, book awards, and new journals, such as Children’s Literature in Education. It is said that the 1950s and 1960s was “a period of exceptional artistic license for the children’s author”—because, while the prescriptive morality of the Victorian era had dissipated, the “new agenda of political correctness in matters of sex, class, and race” was still in the future, so authors were “unusually free of pressures to promote approved conformities.”

Incorporating historical research became popular. Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils (1964) integrated historical facts into stories she heard from her grandfather about family experiences during the American Civil War. Elizabeth Speare’s, Calico Captive (1957) was about a girl kidnapped by an Abenaki Indian raid on Charlestown in 1754. Jean Fritz’s book, George Washington’s Breakfast (1969) was about a boy determined to learn everything he could about his namesake, including what the first president ate for breakfast. Cynthia Harnett wrote novels, such as The Wool-Pack (1951) and The Load of Unicorn (1959), about daily life in Medieval England. Henry Treece’s The Dream Time (1967) was set in prehistory, about a boy with a bad leg cast out from his tribe because of his ability to draw wonderful (but forbidden) pictures, who embarks on a journey meeting many peoples including the last of the Neanderthals. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) uses Norse mythology to bring clarity to a child’s perception of the confusions of modern life.

Science fiction flourished. Science fiction is a modern Western genre (not to be confused with the fantasy genre) that originated as writers began to envision in the course of the industrial revolution how the world would be as technology developed continuously into the future. Its basic themes include prophetic warnings, utopian longings, imaginary worlds, titanic disasters on earth, strange voyages. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is a founder of this genre. The best children’s sci-fi books of this period include The Martian Chronicles (1950), by Ray Bradbury, a fascinating story about Americans who conquer Mars, the home of indigenous Martians, followed by the conquest of the Earth, by Martians, with the apocalyptic destruction of both Martian and human civilizations, both instigated by humans consumed by their militaristic scientific power. In contrast, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954) reflected an optimistic view about the possibilities of science, being a story about two boys who, upon reading a newspaper advertisement looking for a home built spaceship, decide to build one out of tin and scrap wood, which they then bring it to the advertiser, an inventor who makes a few improvements, gives them a special fuel, and tells them they must visit the mushroom planet, which is really a tiny habitable moon orbiting the Earth invisible to normal telescopes. This moon is covered in giant mushrooms and populated by small men with large heads and light green skin, who tell the boys that everyone on their planet is dying of a mysterious illness. The boys end up solving the natives’ problem before returning to Earth. Peter Dickinson’s trilogy, The Weather-Monger, Heartsease, and The Devil’s Children (1960/70) depict a repressive Britain in which machines are banned and people return to a primitive lifestyle. In fantasy, we must at least mention The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), a series of seven novels by C. S. Lewis, which has now sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. These stories call upon children to imagine what would happen in a land like Narnia where the Son of God, who became a Man in our world, became a Lion, seen as a marvelous retelling of Bible stories in a new Pagan way.

Post 1970: Blank-Slate Children without Families and Civic Communities

During the 1970s there is a noticeable trend in children’s literature towards “black pride,” “female heroes,” “interracial friendship” and “empathy.” In 1965 the Saturday Review published an influential article with the title: “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” This article sounded reasonable. If the US was founded on equal natural rights, and blacks have been an intrinsic component of this nation, should they not be reflected in children’s books? This article was not attacking whites as such, but asking whether the books at the time reflected the experiences of black children. This was just the beginning, however, of what would become a massive ideological movement aimed to transform the themes and contents of children’s literature, well beyond equal civic rights. In the late 1970s, some authors of children’s books expressed concern about the “censorial imposition” of “guidelines” over the use of “non-sexist” and “non-racist” language.” These guidelines began as mere “requests for tools” to eliminate “bias” in literature and include nonwhites in stories. A few decades later these demands would be radicalized into demands across all schools for “Books to Teach White Children and Teens How to Undo Racism and White Supremacy“.

The time was ripe for the complete indoctrination of children. Children were becoming more isolated than ever, as the nuclear family, the last bastion of blood identity, the “All-American Family” eulogized in the 1950s, was discredited as the US started to “embrace more progressive politics”. This was a time when the divorce rate started to rise, and a growing proportion of young adults began to postpone and then forgo marriage altogether. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), Robert Putnam noted a dramatic decline, from the mid-1960s onwards, in membership and number of volunteers across a wide spectrum of civic organizations, such as religious groups, labor unions, parent–teacher associations, military veterans’ organizations, volunteers with Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and fraternal organizations. In other words, liberalism was now undermining the very civic (contractually created) communities it had created in place of the old kinship tribal communities. A few years later, Putnam released the results of a comprehensive survey of over 30,000 respondents around the US, in which he “found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.”

The minds of children were emptied more than ever of any traditions, family experiences, and even attachments to liberal-created civic communities. Not surprisingly “chronic loneliness” is now “a modern-day epidemic,” with “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers increasing 70 percent in the past 25 years.” Children today are incredibly vulnerable to ideological manipulation, which has coincided with a massive increase in the number of new children’s book published in the US: from 2,001 in 1971 to 3,214 in 1979, and to 6,154 in 1991, and then to 21,878 new titles in 2009. It is not that good writers disappeared after 1970. Richard Adams’s highly popular Watership Down (1972) was an old-style animal adventure story in which a small band of male rabbits with their own history, language and mythology set out to start a new warren, facing numerous hardships, rescuing female rabbits from an evil rabbit to bring them to their warren, living happily ever after. Roald Dahl, author of the famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and numerous stories told from the point of view of a child’s imagination, also wrote The Witches (1983), criticized today for its “misogyny,” a dark fantasy featuring experiences of a boy and his grandmother in a world where child-hating societies of witches secretly exist in every country.

High quality historical fiction continued through the 1970s into the 1990s, even as it came increasingly with some PC motivations. Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of many great 1960s stories, such as Outcast, which tells the story of an orphaned child in Roman Britain who is shipwrecked on a coast outside of Roman rule, continued to write excellent retellings of myths and legends, including Song for a Dark Queen (1978), about the tragic life and military campaigns of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, against the Romans. Penelope Lively’s historical fantasy novel, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), about a ghost of a 17th-century resident, encouraged children to become aware of “layers of memory of which people are composed.” Jill Walsh’s A Parcel of Patterns (1983) is about a girl living in 1665, in a village, who tends her flock and teaches her young suitor to read, when one day a parcel of patterns, meant for a new dress for the pastor’s wife, arrives from London, carrying an infection that spreads with horrifying speed.

But the seeds of political correctness could not be stopped from giving birth to a generation of “progressive” authors. Robert Leeson’s historical trilogy, Maroon Boy, Bess, and The White Horse (1975-77), were intended to “fight against the oppression of black people, of women, and working people” in the present. The literary critic, Patrick Parrinder, stated that the aim of science fiction should be “social criticism” and the creation of a more progressive culture. Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone? (1976) was about a babysitter raped by one of the most respectable boys in town, that is, a white privileged boy. Autumn Street (1977), by L. Lowry, is a “candid and memorable” story about an interracial relationship. Again, these stories were still reasonable in comparison to what was about to be unleashed upon the fragile minds of children. Barbara’s Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974) is about a black boy who loses his ability to talk when he is raised by a white family because he can’t stay at his own house because his mother has gone back to Jamaica to care for her dying father—it deals with racism towards Donovan because of his immigrant Jamaican heritage. William Maynes’s Drift (1985) narrates a journey from the point of view of a white boy and then from that the view of an Indian girl with the intention of showing the “often limited quality” of the white view. Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) is an “empowering” book about an African-American girl with the message that she can be whatever she wants to be, regardless of what other people say, if she stays true to herself as a black girl.

But increasingly in the 1990s and 2000s, books instructing children that blacks were “victims of systemic white racism” would proliferate. Unimaginative, simplistic children’s books “about race and racism” now prevail in school curricula. As the West committed itself to mass immigration, the educational establishment coordinated its efforts to fill up the blank-slate minds of children with the slogan that “diversity is our greatest strength.” Government offices, the mainstream media, the journals, everyone in charge of education, began to dictate what was “appropriate reading” for children, reaching the conclusion that the most important way to educate them was to produce “Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion.” White children needed to be raised with guilt as a means of preparing them to inhabit a diverse world with proud immigrants. With the decline of the family, demands grew against stories that assumed that monogamous nuclear families with married fathers and mothers were “normal” rather than an “illiberal” prejudice. LGBTQ books skyrocketed, coupled with a dramatic decline in the quality of children’s literature, fluffy stories calling upon white children to be “kind,” “nice,” and “empathetic” through vibrant rainbow colors.

This is not to say that good books, great fantasy stories, ceased after the 1990s. Many classic stories continued to be published. Books written under the pen name “Dr. Seuss” in the 1950s and 1960s—The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham—gained in popularity. Who can ignore the explosive epic fantasy series that began in 1998 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, successfully adapted to blockbuster movies, a story about a wizard boy set in a magical boarding school? The Harry Potter series authored by J.K. Rowling “is far and away the highest-selling series of novels ever, selling over 500 million copies, 150 million more than the next-highest selling series.” Despite their length, many children enjoyed reading them, combined with the movies and the merchandise. Through all the wizardry and sorcery, the series emphasized standard values like friendship, humility, and bravery. Harry Potter was politically correct in its day, shining “a light on some surprisingly dark themes such as mental health and LGBT visibility.” But now the author Rowling is not so correct, provoking in recent years controversy “as a person who sees herself as a progressive due to her feminist values…but refuses to extend those values to…trans people in general.” “It’s Time for Progressives To Move On from Harry Potter,” opined Miles Schneiderman. The series, and the movies thereof, also came to be criticized for their “outrageous lack of diversity.”

It is time to embrace Marvel’s Black Panther children’s book series for “providing a lesson in diversity and representation in its celebration of black culture with an almost all-black cast.” As an “avenger of civil rights,” the “MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner” Ta-Nehisi Coates joined the Black Panther series in 2016, contributing a number of children’s books, including A Nation Under Our Feet, a story about “the indomitable will of Wakanda—the famed African nation known for its vast wealth, advanced technology and warrior traditions.” The Guardian noted in 2019 a “seismic shift” in the number of books by and about “Blacks,” “Asians or Asian Americans,” “Latinx,” and “First Nations.” This shift is inescapably tied to immigration replacement. A heavily-funded, institutional network, with full time salaried bureaucrats, has no other motto but that we need more diverse books.

Classic books are barely read in our schools nowadays. Many of the pre-1990s books listed above only make it as subjects in literary analysis about “How to Break Up with Your Favorite Racist Children’s Books.” The list of books getting cancelled include The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn, The Little House on the Prairie, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Cinderella, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Chronicles of Narnia. The latter was cancelled on the grounds that it “takes place in the northern regions of a world composed mostly of white people.”

We could go on with this depressing conclusion to the otherwise noble history of children’s literature. The way liberalism, through to the modern era, until a few decades ago, encouraged a highly gifted genealogy of children’s stories deserves our attention and admiration. It seems that liberalism remained a creative and positive force in the West so long as it was supported by family values, continuation of traditional Christianity, and, yes, strong civic communities and associations. It is a complex subject we only covered on the surface: why are Western educators disowning their magnificent legacy of children’s literature, replacing it with contrived stories promoting the sexualization of children and hatred towards their ancestors? Was liberalism bound to culminate in this situation?


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Ein kleiner Bücherwurm” (A Little Bookworm), by Eduard Swoboda; painted ca. 1902.

European Striving for Ars Perfecta in Linear Time

In academia, music is regarded as a “cultural universal” or “human universal” found among all peoples in history. This view is attractive both to a) multiculturalists who want to promote the idea of a “common humanity,” or a “cosmopolitan consciousness” in our diverse Western nations, and to b) scientists who believe that all humans are equally “hardwired for music“. Various theories have been offered on the origins and role of music: i) it evolved as an elaborate form of sexual selection, primarily to seduce potential mates, ii) as a “shared precursor” of language, iii) as a practical means to assist in organizing and motivating human work, iv) to encourage cooperation within one’s community, v) as a pleasant preoccupation or source of amusement, relaxation and recuperation, vi) to express one’s cultural identity and feel united with one’s culture through social celebrations, such as weddings, funerals, religious processions and ceremonial rites.

These explanations have a major, disquieting flaw: they can’t explain why Europeans were continuously creative in music for many centuries, responsible for the highest, most complex form of music, classical music, along with the invention of the most sophisticated musical instruments, the articulation of all the treatises on music on matters related to pitch, notes, intervals, scale systems, tonality, modulation, and melody. Classical music expresses the best that man as man has achieved in music. It is not that other cultures did not create great folk music, which is essential to a people’s identity. It is that their music was performed by custom over countless generations without exhibiting a continuous line of creative composers striving for higher levels of musical expression.

Treatises on Music

From its beginnings in ancient Greece, we witness systematic treatises about the nature of music, outlining its terminology, note names, tetrachord names, conjunct and disjunct tetrachords, the meaning of tonoi, harmony, species of consonances, names of octave species, as well as efforts at a scientific theory of acoustics. While Pythagoras is generally considered to have initiated a theoretical study of acoustics, the treatise Elements of Harmony (330 BC) by Aristoxenus is now regarded by many scholars as the first book to have argued that the nature of music is fundamentally different from the natural world, and that the laws of traditional mathematics by which the Pythagoreans explained natural phenomena can’t explain the phenomena of music. Music merited a science of its own.

Musical space is incommensurable, Aristoxenus argued, and the elements of music are not isolated entities but integral parts of an organic whole from which each part derives its meaning and position. Aristoxenus, according to Flora Levin, “accomplished something whose importance cannot be overstated: he freed the science of harmonics from the bonds of the Pythagorean theory of proportions, the numerical theory that is applicable only to commensurables” (p. 197). The correct way to determine the size of intervals was not by numerical ratio, but by ear. Other important Greek theorists of music with a predilection for rigorous thought and systemic definition and classification, include Cleonides (c. 100’s/200’s BC), Ptolemy (100 – 170 AD) and Aristides Quintilianus (35 – 100 AD). Of these, only parts of the writings of Ptolemy, famous for his outstanding works in geography and astronomy, survive under the title Harmonikon [Harmonics]. He followed the theoretical approach of the Pythagoreans, for basing musical intervals on mathematical ratios. Ptolemy also argued, with respect to tonoi, that the height of pitch was only one source in the variety and expression of music, along with the arrangement of intervals within a vocal register. Greek theory influenced all subsequent Western thinking on music.

In the Middle Ages, De institutione musica (524) by Boethius, which described the Pythagorean unity of mathematics and music, and the Platonic concept of the relationship between music and society, was widely read; but the most significant theoretical contribution came from Guido of Arezzo (991/992 – 1033), on the strength of his invention of modern musical notation (or staff notation) that replaced neumatic notation. The staff enabled scribes to notate relative pitches precisely and freed music from its dependence on oral transmission. Guido is also credited with the use of the “ut–re–mi–fa–sol–la” (do–re–mi–fa–so–la) mnemonic device, or memory device. Guido’s treatise Micrologus Guidonis de disciplina artis musicae [The Epitome of Guido on the Discipline of the Art of Music] was widely recognized among the educated.

Another important figure was Franco of Cologne, who codified a system of notation in his Ars cantus mensurabilis [Art of Measured Song] (1280), in which the relative time values of notes, ligatures and rests were clearly laid out. This led to the revolutionary invention of polyphony, a type of musical texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to just one voice—an aspect of Western music not duplicated in any other culture.

Then came Ars Nova through the writings of Johannes de Muris (1290-1355) and Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361). The former’s treatise, Notitia artis musicae [A Note on the Art of Music] (1321), is credited with dramatically increasing the “fidelity with which a musical notation system could represent complex rhythmic patterns… modeled on the astronomical method for mathematically organizing time.” The latter’s writings contain “a detailed account of the various uses and meanings of the coloured notes, and the introduction of additional durational symbols in the new notational system.”

Great Composers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

All the greatest composers in history were European. With the invention of the Ars Nova we can start identifying great individual composers, beginning with the Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut (1300-77), who adapted secular poetic forms into polyphonic music, not only the motet, which is based on a sacred text, but also secular song forms, such as the lai or short tales in French literature, and the formes fixes, such as the rondeau, virelai and ballade, into the musical mainstream. Francesco Landini (1325-1397) was the foremost musician of the Trecento style, sometimes called the “Italian ars nova,” and known for his virtuosity on the portative organ and for his compositions in the ballata form. Writers noted that “the sweetness of his melodies was such that hearts burst from their bosoms.” He may have been the first composer to think of his music as striving for perfection, writing: “I am Music, and weeping I regret seeing intelligent people forsaking my sweet and perfect sounds for street music.”

The English would produce their own great composers, most notably John Dunstable (1390-1453), who developed a style, la contenance angloise, which was never heard before in music, using full triadic harmony, along with harmonies with thirds and sixths. This time period also witnessed the Burgundian School of the 1400s, associated with a more rational control of consonance and dissonance, of which the composer and musical theorist Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) was a member, and who was known for his masses, motets, magnificats, hymns, and antiphons within the area of sacred music, as well as secular music following the formes fixes. This School originated in the “cosmopolitan atmosphere” of the Burgundian court, which was very prestigious in this period, influencing musical centers across Europe.

Creating a bridge beyond the Middle Ages, the Burgundian School paved the way for the Renaissance, which saw a rebirth of interest in the treatises of the Greek past. Franchinus GaffuriusTheorica musicae [Theory of Msuic] (1492), Practica musicae (Practice of Music] (1496), and De harmonia musicorum instrumentorum opus [A Work on the Harmony of Musical Instruments] (1518), incorporated Greek ideas brought to Italy from Byzantium by Greek migrants. These were the most influential treatises of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. There were significant composers during the early Renaissance, particularly Johannes Ockeghem (1420-97), with his Missa prolationum, a “technical tour de force in which every movement is a double mensuration canon.”

The most renowned, and possibly the first in the pantheon of “greatest composers,” is Josquin des Prez 1450/1455-1521), called the “father of musicians,” who made extensive use of “motivic cells,” easily recognizable melodic fragments which passed from voice to voice “in a contrapuntal texture”—a basic organizational principle in music practiced continuously from 1500 until today. This figure of the Renaissance distinctly aimed to raise music into an “ars perfecta,” that is, “a perfect art to which nothing can be added.” Theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino agreed that his style represented perfection. For Martin Luther, Josquin des Prez was “the master of the notes.”

The next giant in the pursuit of musical perfection was Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), the inventor of the antiphonal style (which involves two choirs in interaction, often singing alternate musical phrases) and an experimenter in chromaticism and rhythm.

Striving for Perfection versus Music outside Europe

This striving for perfection through a long historical sequence by individuals from different generations, seeking to outdo the accomplishments of the past, points to a fundamental contrast between the models of beauty and achievement in the Western and the non-Western worlds. The impression one gets from the study of the history of music in such civilizations as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, or Japan, is that of time standing still in a state of accomplished perfection after a sequence of achievements. In the Western world, the history of music is heavily characterized by linear time, continuous novelties, if sometimes slow and interrupted, but always moving; whereas in the East, after some initial achievements, further changes are rare, as if perfection, believed to have been achieved, needed to be frozen in a world of cyclical time.

To understand the European linear conception of perfection, their consistent striving for higher forms, it might be useful to go back to the ancient Greek ideal of arete, a term that originally denoted excellence in the performance of heroic valor by individuated aristocratic Indo-European warriors. In pre-Homeric times, it signified the strength and skill of a warrior. It was his arete that ranked an aristocrat (aristos = “best,” “noblest”) above the commoners; and it was the attainment of heroic excellence that secured respect and honor among aristocratic peers. The word aristeia was used in epic stories for the single-handed adventures of the hero in his unceasing strife for superlative achievements over his peers. In its origins, arete was thus “closely bound up with the physical power” of warriors. But starting with Homer, the word came to denote excellence in spiritual qualities. In the Odyssey, we witness a new type of heroic personality, Odysseus, who rejects Achilles’s brutal treatment of Hector’s body, and shows self-awareness and self-control, inventiveness and craftiness. Thereafter arete came to denote all kinds of actions and spiritual qualities expressing the best in human abilities. But the ancient Greeks still had a cyclical conception of time, which found philosophical expression in Plato’s idea that there are perfect Forms existing outside time, unchanging ideals that transcend time and space, and that humans require strenuous training and breeding to approximate these Forms. Nevertheless, the competitive aristocratic individualism of the ancient Greeks could not be contained, with subsequent philosophers before and after Plato proposing their own conceptions of truth, originating novel ideas, along with the development of geometrical deductive thinking, prose writing, government based on civic citizenship beyond feuding tribal identity; a sequence of masterful writers from Aeschylus to Sophocles to Euripides, the development of cartography, musical theory, and much more.

This ideal of excellence had a profound influence on the development of Christianity as a European religion that aimed at raising humans to the highest demands of God. Unlike the gods of non-Western peoples, which asked for submission and fear, Christianity called upon Europeans to rise to the skies in search of perfection. This ideal was one of the most important contributions of Greek thought to Christianity, “to honor the Most High God,” “to produce a well sounding harmony to the glory of God” (in the words Bach would use later on). As the individualism of the West took off with the demolition of kinship ties, the promotion of nuclear monogamous families, the rise of associations and institutions, based on legal contracts rather than kinship norms (cities, universities, guilds, monasteries), a historicized linear conception of perfection developed; the idea that perfection lay in the future, rather than in some golden past age, or in some Platonic Form frozen out of time.

In contrast, no linear conception of perfection emerged in a non-western world where kinship institutions prevailed and the individual was thus submerged within traditional collective norms and obligations. Artistic achievement in this world was measured in terms of the reenactment of past achievements, in some past golden age. The cultural and intellectual history of China was always characterized by a turning to the past, to restore the idealized society of earlier times, as admired by Confucius. The history of music in China (and the rest of the non-western world) is characterized by this traditionalism, coupled with a lack of individual creativity, stereotypification, conformity to a general pattern or type deemed to be already perfected. Once instruments of music had reached a reasonable level of efficiency, and once a level of expertise had been reached, these were passed on without any changes for hundreds of years.

Britannica Encyclopedia offers a long entry on the history of Chinese music, identifying it as one of “the most highly developed of all known musical systems.” It is true: as in many other endeavors, the Chinese musical tradition is relatively accomplished, with some degree of historical development. This Britannica entry, however, soon acknowledges that except for archeological records and a few surviving written sources, it is only from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) onwards “that there is information about the actual music itself.” Ancient Chinese written sources provide “images of courtly parties, military parades, and folk festivals,” but they do “not provide a single note of music.” The Chinese theory of music, as expressed in the “Yueji” (“Record of Music”) chapter of the Liji (Book of Rites) was about how “music is the harmony of heaven and earth while rites are the measurement of heaven and earth. Through harmony all things are made known, through measure all things are properly classified. Music comes from heaven; rites are shaped by earthly designs.” This basic philosophical outlook would remain intact throughout China’s history until Western influences came.

A tonal system was conceptualized to some degree in China. They created bamboo tuning pipes from which twelve pitches could be derived, and a “tonal vocabulary from which assorted scales—specific orderings of a limited number of pitches—can be extracted and reproduced on different pitch levels.” Still, the Chinese never conceived a science of music as a separate field. This is implicitly acknowledged in the Britannica article: “The five core tones of Chinese scales are sometimes connected with the five elements, or wuxing (earth, wood, metal, fire, and water), while the 12 pitches of the tonal system are connected by some writers with the months of the year, hours of the day, or phases of the moon Music merited a science of its own.”

They developed a system of classification of instruments; however, “this system was based upon the material used in the construction of the instruments, the eight being stone, earth (pottery), bamboo, metal, skin, silk, wood, and gourd”. This is very different from the classification system of the West, which was focused on the actual tonal range of the instruments:

  • Higher-than-sopranino instruments: soprillo saxophone, piccolo
  • Sopranino instruments: sopranino saxophone, treble flute
  • Soprano instruments: concert flute, clarinet, violin, trumpet, oboe, soprano saxophone
  • Alto instruments: alto flute, alto recorder, viola, French horn, natural horn, alto horn, alto clarinet, alto saxophone, English horn
  • Tenor instruments: trombone, euphonium, tenor violin, tenor flute, tenor saxophone, tenor recorder, bass flute
  • Baritone instruments: cello, baritone horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, baritone saxophone
  • Bass instruments: bass recorder, bass oboe, bass tuba, bass saxophone, bass trombone
  • Lower-than-bass instruments: contrabass tuba, double bass, contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet, contrabass saxophone, subcontrabass saxophone, tubax, octobass

The history of music in China through the medieval and modern eras consists in the effects of foreign instruments and ideas coming from the Persians, Arabs, Indians, and people from the Malay Peninsula, particularly during the Tang dynasty (7th-10th century). After this era, starting with the Song dynasty (960–1279), one sees the consolidation of earlier intra-Chinese trends, a more national rather than international cultural atmosphere. The Chinese did not produce a single treatise of music that we can identify as theoretical, on matters related to pitch, notes, intervals, scale systems, tonality, modulation, and melody. Britannica says that “the official Song shi (1345; “Song [Dynasty] History”) contained 496 chapters, of which 17 deal directly with music, and musical events and people appear throughout the entire work.” They also wrote manuals on how to play some instruments. However, these were descriptive works. The Britannica article does not mention one single Chinese composer. After all, China did not produce any classical music.

Revolutionary Epochs in Western Music

Europeans invented the opera. Britannica confounds Chinese musical theatre with “operas.” True operas could not have emerged outside Europe because opera is a drama that combines soliloquy (literary form of discourse in which a character talks to him/herself when alone or unaware of the presence of other characters), scenery, dialogue, continuous music inspired by literary ancient Greek tragedies and comedies, together with allegorical and pastoral interludes, with choruses and large instrumental ensembles—all without parallels outside Europe. As it is, Britannica admits that Chinese “operas…all tend to follow a tradition of using either standard complete pieces or stereotyped melodic styles (banqiang [musical text settings]).”

It should be noted, moreover, that the literary form of tragedy does not exist outside Europe. Tragedy could only have been possible in the West since tragedy supposes a heroic figure determined to achieve greatness, which will inevitably issue in one-sided actions that bring suffering to others and violate their legitimate rights and plunge the hero into actions that bring about his demise. Operas grew out of madrigals, and the madrigal originated from the three-to-four voice frottola (1470–1530); from the unique interest of European composers in poetry (particularly pastoral poems about shepherds), and from the stylistic influence of the French chanson; and from the polyphony of the motet.

It is not inaccurate to use the title “Confucian China” from ancient times until Mao, or to say Islamic civilization from the beginnings until the present, or “Hindu India” from the beginnings until recently—but it is very inaccurate to say Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Catholic, Protestant, Renaissance, Newtonian, Enlightenment, or Existentialist Europe. Europe sees a continuous history of grand epochs. These epochs, with varying titles depending on subject of study, can be found in all the realms of culture, painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy.

We can identify the Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation eras before the onset of the Baroque. There is no space here to list every major composer of “late Renaissance” Italy, England and Germany, but mention should be made of John Dowland’s (1562-1626) lute songs, and the increase in new forms of instrumental music and books about how to play instruments, of which the most influential was Michael Praetorius’s Syntagma Musicum [Encyclopedia of Music] (1614-1619), an encyclopedic record of contemporary musical practices, with many illustrations of a wide variety of instruments, harpsichord, trombone, pommer, bass viola—signaling the fact that Europeans would go on to create almost all the best musical instruments in history. The greats of the Reformation period included John Taverner (1490-1545), best-known for his masses based on a popular song called The Westron Wynde, and Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, as well as the composers Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and Robert Whyte (1538-1574). The greatest of them all, Giovanni da Palestrina (1525-94), called the “Prince of Music” and his compositions “the absolute perfection” of church style, composed 105+ masses and 250 motets, 68 offertories, 140 madrigals and 300 motets. He is remembered as a master of contrapuntal ingenuity, for his dynamic flow of music, not rigid or static, for the variety of form and type of his masses, for melody that contain few leaps between notes and for dissonances that are confined to suspensions, passing notes and weak beats.

Meanwhile, while the rest of the world would not yet see a treatise on music, Girolamo Mei (1519-1594) carried a thorough investigation of every ancient work on music, writing a four book treatise, De modis musicis antiquorum (Concerning Ancient Musical Styles), soon followed by Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna [Dialogue on Music Ancient and Modern] (1581), where he used Mei’s ideas to attack vocal counterpoint in Italian madrigal, arguing that delivering the emotional message of poetical texts required only a single melody with appropriate pitches and rhythms rather than several voices simultaneously singing different melodies in different rhythms.

The Baroque

The next epoch is the Baroque between 1600 and 1750. Baroque originally meant “bizarre,” “exaggerated,” “grotesque,” “in bad taste,” but then it came to mean “flamboyant,” “decorative,” “bold,” juxtaposition of contrasting elements conveying dramatic tension. This period saw instrumental music becoming the equal of vocal music as Europeans learned how to make instruments with far higher expressive capacities, replacing the reserved sound of viols with the powerful and flexible tone of violins, better harpsichords, and originating orchestral music.

It is not easy to demarcate new epochs in Western history for this is a continuously creative civilization in many interacting fields—music, painting, exploration, architecture, science, literature—with different dynamics and therefore different yet mutually influential cultural motifs and reorientations. Some figures are considered “transitional” figures. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is such a transitional musician between the late Renaissance (since there was no Reformation in Italy) and the Baroque. The originality of Western cultural figures, moreover, never came out of the blue but obtained its vitality from its rootedness in the European past, reinterpreting and readapting ancient Greek, Roman, and medieval Christian themes.

Monteverdi’s famous opera L’Orfeo (1607), for example, drew from the Orpheus of Greek mythology (as transmitted by Ovid and Virgil). Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna” was based on the Greek Ariadne myth. Orpheus, in Monteverdi’s adaptation, was a musician and renowned poet who descended into the Underworld of Hades to recover his lost wife Eurydice. Orpheus is allowed to go to his wife so long as he does not look at her, but overcome with his love, he breaks the law of the underworld, and looks at her, and loses her forever. Orpheus is a god-like figure in this heroic rescue mission, who experiences intense emotions in rapid succession; bravery, euphoria, and despondency. This adaptation was mediated by the personal experiences of Monteverdi, his intense grief and despair at the loss of his wife, combined with his chronic headaches and deteriorating eye sight. The cultural influence of Rome is evident in his trilogy, the operas Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), and Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia [now lost] (1641), inspired by a historical trajectory that moves through Troy, the birth of Rome to its decline, and forward to the foundation and glory of the Venetian Republic. Republican rule by proud aristocrats unwilling to submit to a despotic ruler is unique to the West, inspiring the American “res-publica.” In the 1600s there were 19 Orphean opera versions, and countless operas based on other mythologies about Venus, Adonis, Apollo, Daphne, Hercules, Narcissus.

The invention of the Italian madrigal found its highest expression in Monteverdi, whose first five books of madrigals between 1587 and 1605 are estimated as monuments in the history of the polyphonic madrigal. What made Monteverdi stand out among many other luminaries of his age (Henrich Isaac, Orlande de Lassus) was the way he established in his opera a complete unity between drama and music for the first time in history, a repertoire of textures and techniques “without parallels.” While Italian opera was flourishing in every corner of Europe except France, France would soon build up its own opera tradition, through the emergence of French tragedy in the grand literary works of Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699). To these dramatic works, opera added music, dance and spectacle, beginning with Italian born Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), the national director of French music as a member of Louis XIV’s orchestra.

This was merely the beginning of the Baroque achievement. The composers of this period constitute a veritable who’s who list. Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) was the first to create basic violin technique on the newly invented violin; Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) wrote 555 harpsichord sonatas and made use of Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish dance rhythms; Henry Purcell (1659–1695), recognized as one of the greatest English composers, is still admired for his “daring expressiveness—not grand and exuberant in the manner of Handel, but tinged with melancholy and a mixture of elegance, oddness, and wistfulness.” There is also Jean Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), known for his bold melodic lines and harmonies, and tragédie lyrique opera, and for his Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (Treatise on Harmony reduced to its natural principles), which sought to establish a “science” of music, in this age of Newtonian principles, deriving the principles of harmony from the laws of acoustics, and argued that the chord (a combination of three or more notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously) was the primal element in music.

There were also the giants Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote over 500 concertos, of which 350 are for solo instrument and strings, such as violin, and the others for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola, lute, or mandolin; as well as 46 operas, and invented the ritornello form (recurrent musical section that alternates with different episodes of contrasting material). Georg Handel (1685–1759), sometimes identified as the first “international composer,” though in reality deeply rooted in Europe’s cosmopolitan culture, born in Germany but becoming naturalized British, wrote for every musical genre, along with instrumental works for full orchestra, with the most significant known as Water Music, six concertos for woodwinds and strings and twelve “Grand Concertos”, and his masterpiece Messiah, judged as “the finest Composition of Musick that was ever heard.”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) mastered the organ and harpsichord and wrote over 1,000 compositions in nearly every type of musical form, driven by a search for perfection, to create music that would “honor the Most High God” and “produce a well-sounding harmony to the glory of God.” Bach assimilated all the music that had gone before him in his compulsive striving for arete in technique; and what he absorbed he shaped into his own endless variety of musical compositions. His music for the harpsichord and clavichord includes masterpieces in every genre: preludes, fantasies, and toccatas, and other pieces in fugal style, dance suites, as well as sonatas and capriccios, and concertos with orchestra. Bach was a Faustian man with passionate drives, measuring himself against other composers, hard to get along with, father of 20 children. Living in an age of mighty composers, it is said that he surpassed them in his harmonic intensity, the unexpected originality of the sounds, and his forging of new rules for the actualization of harmonic potentials. It is inaccurate to say that perfection is impossible. Europeans achieved it in many art forms, and would continue to do so in music, painting, and architecture through the 1800s.

The Classical Period

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment is often celebrated for giving birth to a cosmopolitan age in which the West embraced “universal values” for humanity’s well-being against age-old customs and beliefs limited by ethno-national boundaries. Kant’s famous essay, “Toward Perpetual Peace” (1795), is now seen in academia as a “project” for the transformation of millions of immigrants into “world citizens” of the West with the same “universal” rights. It does not matter that Kant was calling for a federation of republican states coexisting with each other in a state of “hospitality” rather than in a state of open borders.

This “Enlightenment project” has prompted many dissidents to reject the very notion of cosmopolitanism. Yet cosmopolitanism is an inherent product of the European pursuit of the highest in human nature, the ars perfecta. European national elites have always borrowed from each other, even as they developed musical styles and philosophical outlooks with national characteristics. Bach is very German in a way that Vivaldi is not—though he absorbed into his works all the genres, styles, and forms of European music in his time and before. Ars perfecta should not be confused with the pursuit of one uniform model that arrived at some point in history and then fixated into a state of unoriginal repetition thereafter. Ars Perfecta allows for national authenticity of performance, intention, sound, and personal interpretation. Authentic works can be deeply rooted in a nation’s history and personality.

When we read the German flutist J.J. Quantz writing in 1752 that the ideal musical style would be “a style blending the good elements” of “different peoples,” “more universal” rather than the style of a “particular nation“—we should interpret this as an expression of the reality that the language of classical music, which is singular to the “different peoples” of Europe (and should not be confused with a people’s musical folklore) was cosmopolitan from its beginnings. This is evident in the European preoccupation with a universal theory of harmonics, the nature of scale systems, pitch, and melodic composition. It is evident in the way Europeans went about, earnestly during and after the Baroque era, creating the most perfect instruments to achieve a maximum of musical flexibility, between strong and soft, crescendo and decrescendo, with almost imperceptible shades: perfect violins, violas, violoncellos, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, pianos. This strive for perfection was required to express and arouse all the shadings of human feeling as Europeans dug deeper into their interior selves to manifest in full their joys, afflictions, grandeur, rage, compassion, contemplation, and exaltation.

To be sure, the peoples of the world are “gifted with conscious rhythm.” Man “cannot refrain from rhythmic movement, from dancing, stamping the ground, clapping his hands, slapping his abdomen, his chest, his legs, his buttocks.” This rhythmic disposition, it is true, prompted all peoples to create musical instruments. Primitives developed a variety of simple instruments, drums, flutes, trumpets, xylophones, harps. These were “folk and ritual instruments;” but with the rise of civilizations in the Near East, India, and the Far East, we see a distinct class of musicians developing instruments with greater musicality and flexible intonation, enhancing the artistic expression of sounds. We see a greater variety of stringed instruments, new lutes and violins in Mesopotamia; and in Egypt vertical flutes with greater musical possibilities than the whistle flutes; and the complex double clarinet. Among Asiatic peoples, we see vertical and angular harps, lyres, lutes, oboes, trumpets. Instruments in ancient China include the mouth organ, pan pipes, percussion instruments, long zither; and in the medieval Far East we find the fiddle bow, flat lutes, resting bell, hooked trumpet. The gamakas are said to be the “life and soul” of Indian melody; the veena and the fiddle sarinda with its fantastic shape are found in India.

But in the West, with the rise of civilization in the Greek peninsula, we see both musical instruments and treatises on harmonics. It is really during the Renaissance that the West starts to outpace the rest of the world in the creation of more sophisticated and original musical instruments, including a tabula universalis, a classification of all wind and stringed instruments in all their sizes and kinds, as well as numerous scientific manuals on how to play them “according to the correct tablature.” By 1600, the level of sophistication and variety in kinds of European instruments is the highest; and then between 1750 and 1900 the quantity of timbres “increased astonishingly,” along with the quality of the sound of each instrument; for example, the harp was made chromatic after being strictly diatonic for 5000 years; and under the pressure of orchestration all instruments were developed to the “greatest possible technical efficiency.” The magnificent piano was invented and improved upon continuously.

It can be argued that with modern individualism, that is, the complete breaking out of individuals from kinship groups and norms, European music witnessed an intensification in the expression of personalities through music, leading to more sophisticated, refined, and specialized musical instruments—in order to express the wider range of personal feelings and experiences afforded by a liberal culture. This culture propelled modern Europeans to breach the medieval limits of the traditional order of consonance and dissonance, of regular and equable rhythmic flow, to improvise chromaticism, tonalities, and create many styles of monody, recitative, aria, madrigal, and the integration of theater and music for dramatic expression. It can’t be denied that modern Europeans did in fact originate a far greater variety of genres and instruments capable of bringing out the complex emotional and psychological constitutions of Europeans into the light.

The cosmopolitanism of Europeans in their striving for novel ways of achieving perfection has misled historians into thinking that the language of music expressed in Monteverdi, Scarletti, Bach, Rameau, Brahms was “global” and not limited by civilizational and national boundaries. While they acknowledge that each of these composers absorbed into his music their national traditions, they insist upon the “internationalism” of the music of the Classical era, believing that with Handel, Haydn, Mozart… we have “international composers.” Handel (1685-1759), they tell us, borrowed, transcribed, adapted and rearranged universally accepted practices in music, a German who became naturalized British. They hail Christopher Gluck (1714-84) as a “cosmopolite” who professed a new style of opera away from the particular embellishments and ornateness of Baroque opera towards the Classical (universal) ideals of purity and balance. They cite Gluck’s own words about how he created “music suited to all nations, so as to abolish these ridiculous distinctions of national styles.” Mozart (1756-1791), they insist, was a cosmopolite who travelled extensively throughout Europe, becoming familiar with every kind of music written and heard, his work “a synthesis of national styles, a mirror that reflected the music of a whole age, illuminated by his own genius”. While Haydn (1732-1809) was localized in Vienna, they tell us that his music was an outgrowth of an increasingly cosmopolitan Europe.

What this “cosmopolitan” interpretation misses is that classical music, in its origins and development, was 100% circumscribed to the continent of Europe; it had no connection with and no resonance outside Europe. When composers like Bach and Mozart absorbed all the genres, styles, and forms of music of their age, they were striving to express the highest potentialities in European music, rather than express “international music,” as we understand that term today. Handel said that when he composed his Messiah he was guided by the perfect hand of God, driven by a state of pure spirituality, in tears, ignoring food and sleep. It was a common belief among European philosophers that God is the all-perfect being embodying the perfections of all beings within itself. Schelling (1775–1854) then suggested that the perfection of God existed only in potentia, and that it was only through the human striving for the highest that God actualized Himself.

Conservatives often lament the restless striving of Europeans. They wish the West had been collectivist like China or the Incas, without a linear conception of time, attached to a golden eternal age in the past, without seeking to overcome the resistance of things, without disruptive individualists full of energy and fire trying to impose their subjective wills upon the world. They dislike Beethoven. They prefer the continuous tonic dominant harmonies of the eighteenth century, even before Bach. Beethoven is seen as an admirer of France’s 1789 revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity; the composer of the Eroica symphony dedicated it to Napoleon, the conqueror who is blamed for ending Europe’s monarchical order. Such has been the nature of European creativity.

Beethoven’s music was an expression of his propulsive inner state of being, for whom the elegant, highly refined sense of Mozart was not enough; he needed to bend classic rules with unexpected metrical patterns to convey his sense of conflict, transformation, and transcendence of his age. The Eroica (the Third Symphony) was very Western in its expression of the ideal of heroic greatness, which he saw in Napoleon, built into this civilization since prehistorical Indo-European times. With Beethoven, expression of inner feeling became more intense and personal, for European individuality had reached a higher level of inwardness. His Sixth Symphony, “the Pastoral,” is about his feelings aroused by delight in nature, apprehension of a storm approaching, awareness of the fury of the storm, and gratitude for the washed calm afterwards. He was drawn into his silent world of increasing deafness and solipsism, as he continued to compose. The great Romantic composer, Hector Berlioz, said that in the Sixth “the most unexplored depths of the soul reverberate.” Beethoven, a corporeal man who had a habit of spitting whenever he felt like it, a clumsy guy who could never dance, sullen and suspicious, without social graces, prone to rages, was nevertheless a man of immense inner strength, who once told a friend: “I don’t want to know anything about your system of ethics. Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest and it is mine.”

The Romantic Epoch

Only Western history is characterized by a continuous sequence of discontinuous revolutionary epochs. New epochs tend to be morphologically present across many fields from politics to science to painting and architecture, philosophy and music—although each field sees movements and schools peculiar to itself. The Romantic period in music runs roughly from 1830 to 1900; however, the variety of compositions is outstanding, with many characteristics of the preceding “Classical” period persisting, and new “Nationalistic” tendencies coalescing with it, along with new “Impressionistic” tendencies.

This makes the West incredibly hard to understand. The word “Hindu” or “Talmudic” can define a people for centuries. Not the West. “Romanticism” alone is very difficult to grasp. In literature, it spans a shorter period from 1790 to 1850, displaced by “Realism,” which does not appear in music. The different names associated with this movement bespeak of its intricacy: Joseph de Maistre, Rousseau, Stendhal, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Blake, Herder, Byron, Wordsworth, Delacroix, Wuthering Heights, Hölderlin, Novalis, Schlegel. In music one can choose Liszt, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Weber—but Verdi, possibly Wagner, and the Russian Mussorgsky are best identified as Nationalists. Brahms had little respect for most composers of his era, remaining a Classicist.

Perhaps the best composer to convey the meaning of Romanticism in music is Hector Berlioz (1803-69). It is said that “after him, music would never be the same… he did it all by himself, impatiently brushing aside convention.” He departed from the convention of “four-squareness” in melody, the rigidity of rhythms, and formulaic harmonies, expressing his moods and attitudes to the world. Experts say that Berlioz broadened the definition of orchestration by allowing each instrument to create sounds not heard before. He also expanded the use of programmatic music to accentuate the emotional expressiveness of the music by recreating in sound the events and emotions portrayed in ancient classical legends, novels, poetry, and historical events. He was a deep admirer of Western history and literature: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. and Byron.

What experts leave out is that the “intensity and expression of feeling” (to use the words of Liszt) in Romantic music was itself an expression of the amplification of the introspective consciousness of Europeans after the 1750s. Whereas expression of feelings in the Baroque era had been confined to a few moods, each at a time, now music sought to express the complex shadings of human moods in the same breath. To express this subjectivism, this period saw the development to the greatest technical efficiency and musical effectiveness of all instruments, with the piano reshaped and enlarged to 7 octaves with felt-covered hammers for both expressiveness and virtuosity. In the Romantic age, a need emerged for instruments that would go beyond the expression of a few general moods at a time, to make use of all possible timbres so as to express all the shadings of feelings, modulating from chord to chord—for Romantic Europeans, rather than being in one emotional state, anger or fear, until moved by some stimulus to a different state, were in a constant state of psychological flux, with unpredictable turns.

Evolutionary theory is incapable of explaining the intense subjective expressiveness of modern Europeans, the virtuosity and continuous creativity one detects from Bach to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and from the Classical composers to Schubert, the German Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner. The transcendence of European high culture over evolutionary pressures is one of its defining features. It is very hard for simpler cultures to rise above these pressures, and so they are easier to explain in evolutionary terms. Schopenhauer once said that classical music “is entirely independent of the phenomenal world, ignores it altogether, could to a certain extent exist if there was no world at all.” What he meant is that the history of European music does not obey evolutionary pressures but is an immaterial realm of freedom where pure aesthetics reigns supreme. This transcendence peaked in the Romantic era.

Evolutionary psychologists today believe they can instruct us about the “biological basis of human culture.” But they can only explain culture at its most basic level. They can only tell us, rather boringly, that music is a “cultural universal.” They can’t explain the difference between Beethoven and Berlioz, and between them and traditional folk music. For this reason, evolutionary theories are inclined to ignore, if not trivialize, high cultural achievements in philosophy, art, and literature. Steven Pinker once said that “the value of [European] art is largely unrelated to aesthetics: a priceless masterpiece becomes worthless if found to be a forgery; soup cans and comic strips become high art when the art world says they are, and then command conspicuously wasteful prices.” They see high culture as “gratuitous but harmless decoration,” without much import, as contrasted to what Marx called the real foundation of culture: eating, digestion, getting money, satisfying one’s appetitive drives.

The way to explain European cultural creativity is to recognize its greater freedom from evolutionary/materialistic pressures. European consciousness acquired the power to turn in upon itself, take possession of itself, not merely to be conscious but to be aware that its consciousness is uniquely its own, constituted as a centre from which all other realities, the successive data of sensory experiences, the pressures of the world, are held together in what Kant called a “transcendental unity of apperception,” which implies a unity of self, the discovery of the self as the agent of consciousness, doubling back upon itself, and thus rising to a new realm with its own autonomous inner life.

Age of Nationalism

It is invariably in regards to Western art and literature that scholars speak about their “timeless universal themes” in depicting love, suffering, good and evil, deception, heroism—that are “presentable in all cultures of the world.” They tell us that Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Mozart’s symphonies, speak for “humanity.” But they can’t quite persuade themselves about the qualities that make these works “universal.” What’s about Tolstoy’s War and Peace that makes it a “history through human beings and human beings through history” considering the strong presence of Russian national feelings and characters? German composers tend to be the ones identified with “cosmopolitanism.” Is this because Germans are generally judged as the best classical composers during the Baroque, Classical, and through the 1800s? They certainly had the greatest influence upon the rest of Europe, as the Italians did during the Renaissance and the early Baroque. This explains why Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1903) called upon his countrymen to develop their own musical style and deplored German influence: “If the Germans, setting out from Bach and arriving at Wagner, write good German operas, well and good. But we descendants of Palestrina commit a musical crime to imitate Wagner… We cannot compose like the Germans, or at least we ought not to; nor they like us.” Verdi is known as a nationalist. Yet he could not escape the cultural cosmopolitanism of Europe in his operatic adaptations of writers, such as Schiller, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, and Byron. And if his music is nationalistic, why is Verdi today considered a timeless composer with universal appeal? Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), with his mazurkas and polonaises, is also known as “the first of the great nationalists,” born in Warsaw, not quite a cosmopolis. Yet Chopin’s music is likewise seen as universal, not a mere reproduction of Polish folk melodies, although it is said that this folk tradition was part of his “racial subconscious.” In his abilities, he transcended his nationality and time, making the piano a total instrument, “an instrument of infinite color”—remembered today as a “perfect virtuoso.” Is this what universality means, striving for perfection and the Most High, even as you are a nationalist wanting your European nation to strive for the same universal greatness as the Germans?

Richard Wagner said that all great art must be based on mythology, “the sagas and legends of past ages.” Some say his music was not nationalist for it was not rooted on German folk music, but on symbolic-mythological themes that comprise “the archetypes of the collective unconscious,” which are common to human beings (and therefore universal). Can one say that his superlative accomplishments, combined with his originality, is what makes his music universal, a model of human achievement? We are told that “Wagner changed the rules of opera. His operas are ‘through-composed’—there are no stops and starts for arias and duets. Singers ceased to be the stars around whom performances were centered. He made the orchestra, and thus the conductor, into a crucial protagonist.” But others have countered that Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is based on particular Germanic mythologies, Teutonic gods, the heroic Wotan galloping in a storm, with a “nationalist German agenda” in opposition to “Semitic” cosmopolitan influences. Wagner’s Wotan constituted a resurgence of German primeval Indo-European passions, the archetype of a particular people.

The rise of Russian classical music certainly came with a very strong nationalist impulse rooted in the use of folk music. Of the so-called “mighty five” Russian composers who developed a classical tradition, Mussorgsky is credited with true masterpieces, though all he wanted was to express the soul of the Russian people. It has been noted that Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, which came a generation after the “mighty five,” contained a peculiarly Russian melody. However, while his early compositions quoted folk songs, his later music has been categorized as “more cosmopolitan,” although Igor Stravinsky insisted that it remained “profoundly Russian.” Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), a peasant from Bohemia, said that his music expressed his love for his native motherland. But what makes him a “genius” composer rather than a gifted provincial composer, was precisely his ability to absorb folk influences, while finding ways to integrate them into the perfectionist-universal-transcendental impulse inherent in classical music. In varying degrees, the greats were all rooted in their nations, combined with some degree of Pan-Europeanism, the singular tradition of classical music in Europe.

Modernism

Spengler famously wrote in 1918 that the 20C needed to confront “the cold, hard facts of a late life… Of great paintings or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question.” The last great composers of the late 19C and early 20C were: Tchaikovsky (d. 1893), Debussy (d. 1918), Stravinsky (1913, The Rite of Spring), Rachmaninoff (d. 1935), Bartók (d. 1945), and, for some experts, not the general educated public, Schoenberg (born 1874) and Webern (d. 1945). For Spengler, the West of his time had reached the “Winter of full civilization,” its vital forces were extinguished, its people were “traditionless… religion-less, clever, unfruitful” city-dwellers “with no ties to community and soil.” This observation carries weight. While the above names belong in the list of great composers, it is hard to deny that with Schoenberg and Webern, original and highly gifted as they were, classical music starts to lose something vital that may be traced to the effects that increasing urbanism, rootlessness, standardization, and abstract rationalism had upon European psychology. Heidegger once wrote that “everything essential and great originated from the fact that the human being had a homeland and was rooted in traditions.” This is half true. Through the modern era, up until the hyper industrialization and hyper individualism of the late 1800s, liberal Europeans were still sustained by Christianity, towns rooted in history, authentic folk sounds, foods, and sights from childhood. As these collective identities dissolved, Europeans were left with nothing else but the formal rationalism of classical notation. At the same time, it can be said that there was nothing left for Europeans to create: all the possibilities of music had been explored, or would soon be explored during the twentieth century.

The most original name above may be the “impressionist” Debussy, with his new concepts of light and color in music, intended to capture fleeting moods occasioned by the external world as perceived at a given time, a momentary impression of the sea, or a moonlight. Debussy did not care for Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. His musical “impressions” had no major unifying theme, with tonality almost dissolved, or with timbre, rhythm, and color assigned the same importance as harmony and melody. La Sacre du printemps by the Russian Stravinsky “was a genuine explosion” with its “metrical shifting and shattering force, its near-total dissonance and breakaway from established canons of harmony and melody.” For Stravinsky, a Russian expatriate who embraced suburbia in America, the goal of music should not be to “express” anything except music, since music is primarily about form and logic, incapable of conveying anything other than broad emotions. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is identified as a Hungarian nationalist who systematically incorporated old Magyar folk melodies. Yet, again, it would be a mistake to view Bartók as a folk musician in the same way that non western musicians are seen. Bartók’s music remained classical through and through: Richard Strauss and Debussy strongly influenced his musical development, and his large-scale orchestral works were in the style of Brahms and Strauss.

Notwithstanding the extended influences of nationalism, neoclassicism, and the original impressionism of Debussy, the deeper current in twentieth century music may be categorized as modernist. Modernism found expression in all the arts, including literature and philosophy, and it arose from the globalization of industrialization, rootlessness, anomie, and the emerging industrial world, new technologies and the standardization of life, scepticism about the meaning of life, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of massive urban growth, and the sense that everything had already been explored in music except “testing the limits of aesthetic construction,” “searching for new models in atonalism, polytonalism or other forms of altered tonality.”

Arnold Schoenberg (who proclaimed his Jewishness after his music was labeled “degenerate” by German nationalists) was the major composer initiating modernist techniques, aimed at deconstructing the millennial concept of tonality, to convey “a prophetic message revealing a higher form of life toward which mankind evolves.” He coined the term “emancipation of dissonance” in treating dissonances like consonances and renouncing a tonal center. His greatest influence was after 1950. His follower Anton Webern pushed the idea of “serial composition” in which no single tone was more significant than the other, for ephemeral, pointillistic sounds—abstract music, impersonal, music constructed like a precision instrument, based on mathematical relationships without substantial content. Edgard Varèse discarded every element of the past, employing new instruments to create new sounds, wails and shrieks; music without melody, harmony, or counterpoint. Steve Reich came up with a technique called “phase shifting” in which a single note or a pattern of notes was constantly repeated by tape machines at different speeds. National characteristics evaporated; every work sounded as if it had been created by the same abstract modern person, a nowhere man.


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “Three Young Women making Music with a Jester,” anonymous; painted ca. 1500-1530.

The Sustained Creativity of European Furniture Design

Chairs and benches are for sitting, beds and couches for sleeping and resting, chests and wardrobes for storage. Furniture may also be thought of as an indicator of social status. The chair has long been used symbolically to express authority and rank. Commoners were expected to sit on stools. But while standard histories of furniture emphasize the utilitarian and hierarchical nature of furniture, including changes in building techniques, they recognize that furniture provides a mirror into the aesthetic standards and cultural creativity of different societies, in different times.

Edward Lucie-Smith’s Furniture: A Concise History (1979) agrees with this basic way of examining furniture, while also trying “to show how furniture is related to the general development of society, and to the psychology of the individual” (12). But other than showing how a more urbane bourgeois life promoted modern attitudes towards furniture design, leading to a greater emphasis on comfort, away from the “stiff style” of the royal courts and aristocracies of Europe, and to new types of furniture constructed with industrial materials and technology, Lucie-Smith fails to apprehend how his emphasis on “the general development of society” is itself a unique product of the very European culture his book is almost entirely about. Apart from dedicating half a chapter to “Ancient Egypt” and “Western Asia”—along with Greece and Rome—the next eight chapters of his book are singularly about Europe. Why?

If pressed today, Lucie-Smith would apologize for his “Eurocentrism.” He can be faulted, to be sure, for ignoring such major civilizations as China, Japan, and India. Yet even more recent books that try to meet multicultural standards dedicate most of their chapters to European furniture.

Judith Miller’s Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary (2010), which covers more than 3000 years of furniture design in over 500 pages, packed with illustrations, dedicates a few pages to “Ancient Egypt” and “Ancient China,” with a few additional pages to India, Japan and China in the nineteenth century. Miller recognizes the aesthetics of furniture-making in these cultures, while implicitly noticing that once these civilizations created certain ideals in furniture design and decoration, these types remained in “continuous use” for centuries with slight variations until the West impacted them in the nineteenth century. She observes that the “golden age” of furniture production that was witnessed in the Ming era (1368-1644), with its ideal of “simple furniture with clean lines and sparse decoration limited to lattice work and relief carving,” would “remain entrenched” through to the entire Qing era (1644-1912), except that furniture pieces became larger and heavier (pp 24-5).

One gets the impression that the authors of furniture histories, and the related subject of interior design, believe it is only natural to focus primarily on Europe—because the historical reality, the images, drawings, and documentary evidence we have, demonstrate that Europe saw a continuous sequence of changing styles. A proper aesthetic assessment of these styles requires separate chapters and explanations. Authors don’t feel they have to justify their implicit Eurocentrism. It comes naturally to them, on the strength of Europe’s creativity. Conversely, they feel that the persistence of similar styles in the nonwestern world, or the prevalence of one model of aesthetics, justifies giving these civilizations less attention. One of the best books on this subject, History of Interior Design & Furniture: From Ancient Egypt to Nineteenth-Century Europe, by Robbie G. Blakemore, opens with a chapter on Egypt, and then, without any hesitation, as a matter of fact and reasonableness, dedicates the next 400 pages solely to European interior design of floors, walls, ceilings, chimneys, decorative materials, tables, chairs, windows, doors, beds, storage pieces, and stairways.

I have noticed the same Eurocentric tendencies in the popular subject of architecture. A World History of Architecture by Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett, Lawrence Wodehouse (2004) informs us that their book offers a “diverse sampling” of the world’s architecture, with one chapter assigned to “The Beginnings of Architecture” in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, another chapter to “Ancient India and Southeast Asia,” one to “China and Japan,” one to “Islamic Architecture,” and one to the Pre-Columbian Americas. Eleven chapters, however, are reserved exclusively for Europe or the West generally. Similarly, Architecture: A World History, by Daniel Borden, et al., is mostly a chronology about European architecture, once it covers the stereotypical models of ancient civilizations in the opening chapters.

But we can’t underestimate the pressures of multicultural politics in the West, the lucrative incentives provided to academics who follow the official university values of “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” Books are increasingly coming out purposely twisting and obfuscating the history of architecture, so the European legacy stands as one among many “equally sophisticated” legacies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This is what A Global History of Architecture (2017), by Ching, Jarzombek, and Prakash, is about. These authors “organized the book by time slots,” according to a chronology dictated by the impact of “global events” on architecture, rather than by changing architectural styles. In this way, the authors happily give the same attention to multiple cultures in the modern era that were equally impacted by “global connections,” regardless of whether any significantly new styles emerged. What matters, the authors declare, is to see architecture from a “global perspective” at all times, the relationship of architecture to global events, including European imperialism and colonialism—”rather than viewing the history of architecture as driven by traditions and essences” (p. xii). Very clever: emphasize European global imperialism in the modern era, its effects on the nonwestern world, and thereby include this world in the modern era, and forget the reality that nonwestern architecture was indeed driven by unchanging stylistic essences.

Let’s cut to the chase. The one architect outside the West who can be named in a list of the 100 greatest architects in history (before Western culture impacted the rest of the world in the 20th century) is the Ottoman Mimar Sinan. The civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas saw “monumental” stone buildings, pyramids and temples, constructed at the behest of state officials, but these architectural attainments were a one-time affair in their originality, deserving only one chapter or section in a world history survey.

Maya Postclassic period architecture (ca. 950–1539 AD).

The architecture of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia is more impressive but not on the same aesthetic and geometrical level of harmony as the ancient Greek Parthenon of Athens, built in the mid-5th century BC, the Doric Temple of Zeus at Olympia (460 BC), or the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion (440 BC). It is certainly below the level of proficiency and beauty attained by the ancient Romans. Once these ancient monuments were created, less originality followed thereafter: no new epochs in aesthetics, no major architects we can identify. The same continuity we see in these civilizations in other fields—science, historical writing, philosophy, painting, mathematics, technology—is apparent in architecture.

What about Chinese architecture? It is worth quoting what Nancy Steinhardt, a major expert, tells us about architects in Chinese Architecture: A History (2019).

Most of them were officials whose service at court included directing imperial-sponsored projects, perhaps occasionally even designing, and writing about construction. The classical Chinese language has no word for “architect,” only one for a person who engages in the craft of building. Instead, from as early as written records can confirm, the final millennium BCE, in every branch of Chinese construction—public or private, imperial or vernacular, religious or secular—principles and standards established centuries earlier dictated building practices. The standards were sanctioned and guarded by the Chinese court, and the government was the sponsor of all major manuals that dealt with official architecture. Craftsmen were not required to be literate, only to follow prescribed modules and methods so as to ensure that court dictums were followed. The treatises expound a standardized system of construction that is maintained not just in imperial buildings of life and death and a towering religious monument, but in temples hidden in the mountains, houses, and shrines, and in paintings and relief sculpture of architecture through the ages (Introduction, pp. 1-7).

All the popular talk about “Chinese Garden Architecture,” “Chinese Buddhist Architecture,” “Chinese Taoist Architecture,” or “Chinese Confucian Architecture,” cannot hide the standardized, bureaucratic reality of China. As a huge country with many different ecosystems and historical settings, different stereo-typified styles emerged in different regions. I say “stereo-typified” because once these styles were established, they became ready-made models for hundreds of years.

Confucian Temple, Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.

Only Europe sees a “developmental” history. The one memorable “architectural treatise” from China was the Yingzao Fashi, published in 1103, during China’s Song Dynasty. We are told that this work (entitled “Treatise on Architectural Methods or State Building Standards”) was written by Li Jie (1065–1110), the Directorate of Buildings and Construction. He was a bureaucrat in charge of continuing the standardized pattern of construction, not an “architect” with the cultural opportunity to challenge existing aesthetic models. We learn from Fu Xinian, considered to be the world’s leading historian of Chinese architecture today, that architecture as an academic discussion only entered China in the late 1930s, through the pioneering studies of Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), educated in the West and awarded an honorary doctoral degree in 1947 by Princeton University.

The conclusion cannot be avoided that Europeans originated a continuous sequence of major architectural stylistic periods (within which there were other national styles), each deserving a chapter in a fair-minded world history.

  • Classical (850 BC to 476 AD)
  • Romanesque (900 to 1200 AD)
  • Gothic (12th through to 16th century)
  • Renaissance (14th through the 17th century)
  • Baroque (late 1500s until late 1600s)
  • Rococo (1700 – 1760)
  • Neoclassicism (1760-1830 )
  • Victorian-Eclecticism-Restoration (1815-1900)
  • Art Nouveau (from 1890 to 1910)
  • Art Deco (from 1915 to 1930)
  • Modernism (early 20th century to the 1980s)

Furniture Making and Interior Design

Let’s get back to the main subject of this article: furniture design and interior architecture. I am no expert on this subject, but drawing my extensive research on Western civilization from a comparative historical perspective, I will surmise the following four interconnected key traits about Western interior design and furniture:

  • It exhibits the greatest variety within each kind of furniture; for example, in the variety of chairs, beds, and tables, including a variety of ceiling configurations (flat, coved, or vaulted, for example), chimney pieces, stairways, and spatial relationships.
  • Its artistic inspiration, creativity and originality, was driven by a Faustian will for recognition on the part of the artists, pursuit of individual renown, and a will to surpass prior accomplishments.
  • Close to 100% of pre-20th century treatises (fully articulated arguments) on the principles of furniture-making, architecture, the geometric shapes and patterns of room/spaces, height and configuration of ceilings, internal arrangement of stairways, chimneypieces, were written by Europeans.
  • The Platonic striving for perfection, the highest in beauty, the discovery of a “blueprint” of perfection, has been a very powerful motivation, notwithstanding the pursuit by each individual artist of his own style, and the subsequent powerful influence of technology, new materials, and mass consumerism in the twentieth century.

The epoch of continuous creativity in interior design and furniture making in Europe began in the Renaissance around the mid-fifteenth century. The Greeks built some of the finest architectural monuments in history, such as temples, theatres, and stadia, with their sophisticated geometrical proportions, perfectly straight lines and harmonious spatial configurations. The Romans mastered the Greek arch and vault as well as the use of domes to cover large areas with no internal support.

Interior of the Pantheon (120 AD).

The Romanesque and Gothic periods in the Middle Ages were likewise very significant, but it was only in the modern era that Gothic motifs would come to play a role in furniture making and interior design. There is, of course, a strong relationship between furniture/interior design and architecture. To this extent we must mention architectural accomplishments, insofar as they had a direct impact on the history of furniture making and interior decoration of ceilings and floors, chimneys and stairways.

Renaissance

Italy was the springboard for the Renaissance in furniture making and architecture beginning in the 1400s. A critical factor was the “rediscovery” of the legacy of classical antiquity, including a treatise written by the Roman Marcus Vitrivius Pollio (80–70–15 BC), a multi-volume work entitled De architectura. This work was very influential in launching the Renaissance style, with its idea that buildings should have “strength,” “utility,” and “beauty” or perfect proportions. It inspired Battista Alberti (1404-72) to write the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, emphasizing the layout of the interior of buildings.

Vitrivius, De architectura.

Bear in mind that we are speaking about treatises—not mere descriptive guidelines—but systematic, extensively argued discourses, in which the principles of a particular subject are discussed and explained. Alberti influenced the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), recognized for developing linear perspective in art and for designing buildings heavily dependent on mirrors and geometry, to express the highest perfection in Christian spirituality.

Antonio Averlino’s (1400-69) 21 book-treatise on architecture, and Sebastiano Serlio’s illustrated book on architecture, published in 1537-5, were both influenced by Alberti. The foremost architect of the 16th century, Andrea Palladio (1508-80), author of The Four Books of Architecture, was particularly interested in conceptualizing the function of each part of the interior of buildings in terms of their geometric form, and delineating thereby a hierarchy wherein a larger interior order would override a lesser order: the divine and perfect world of faith over the earthly world of humans.

At the same time, we should keep in mind the humanism that permeated the Renaissance, about the earthly world of humans with its emphasis on man as the highest form of creation. The Renaissance preoccupation with symmetry and horizontality, the idea that beauty was enhanced by calculating mathematical ratios, was indeed based on the measure, and actual potentiality, of the human body as a system of proportional relationships. The Renaissance employment of exact perspective to create optical illusion of three-dimensional spaces, depth and distance, played a very significant role in the unprecedented variety of decorative treatment of walls that characterized Italian interiors during the 15th and 16th centuries.

This period witnessed an unprecedented variety of wall decorations, ornately treated door refinement with classic elements, stop-fluted pilasters, pedestals, entablature. Flat, vaulted, and coved ceilings were prevalent forms with surfaces of every description. While chairs in the medieval period were rare status symbols, the Renaissance saw new types of chairs, including the sgabello, an armless back stool; the cassapanca, a multi-seat unit, which also served as a chest; the credenza, a cupboard with great variety in design; dining tables (rectangular, long, and narrow) were also introduced. And since Europe is made up of distinctive national peoples, there would be a French Renaissance with its own variations, for example, in types of materials used for floors: stone, marble, tile, brick, and wood.

Chimney, Château de Fontainebleau.

The number and size of windows increased substantially in the early years of the French Renaissance; and highly ornamented chimney pieces (such as the one at Château de Fontainebleau) became the focal point of the room, with a wide variety of decorated panels, carved relief designs, and freestanding statues. The caquetoire chair was introduced around the mid-16th century, a lightly scale wooden chair with a tall, narrow paneled back attached to the trapezoid seat; with storage pieces (called a buffet, armoire, dressoir, or a cupboard) becoming more architectural in the use of columns or pilasters carved with fluting.

The English version, 1500-1660, of the Italian Renaissance was influenced by German and Flemish pattern books, such as the 1577 book Architectura by Johannes de Vries, and the translation into English of a work by Sebastiano Serlio by Robert Peake published in 1611 under the title The First Book of Architecture. The English would soon write their own books, first a treatise by John Shute, entitled Chief Groundes of Architecture (1563), which set down the requirements for the “perfecte architecte;” and then a practical building guide by Sir Henry Wooton, entitled Elements of Architecture (1624). New to the English Renaissance was the use of stairways as a processional route to the high great chamber, upholstered pieces of furniture, with further improvements in board and trestle dining tables, and a new gateleg table which allowed the drop leaf of the table to be raised, thereby enlarging the tabletop surface.

Baroque

Italy remained dominant in ceiling decoration during the Baroque period, 1600-1700, a highly opulent, large scale designing style, involving incredibly intricate details, high contrasting colors, and elements of surprise through the use of light, preference for curves over straight lines, painted and vaulted ceilings, columns, arches, niches, fountains. The materials used were stucco, paint, and fresco, as well as an illusionistic perspective through the use of quadratura, which dramatically extended the vertical dimensions of interior spaces. A new chair with lower backs was designed, with boldly treated curves, detailed carvings on the legs. The storage pieces included the cassone, the credenza, the armoire, the cabinet, and the chest of drawers characterized by intricate moldings, and sometimes flanked by marble columns.

The French Baroque, 1600-1715, found its most creative culmination in the reign of Louis XIV, with France becoming the major source of artistic inspiration to other countries in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The most prominent architect was François Mansart (1598–1666), credited for works “renowned for their high degree of refinement, subtlety, and elegance;” the encouragement of vistas through the use of the enfilade in the arrangement of rooms, vistas from the main suites to the landscaped garden; and vertical perspectives through the dramatic use of light and dark contrasts in the staircase. Jean Barbet’s book Livre d’architecture (1632-41) and Jean Le Pautre’s Cheminées à la moderne (1661) were very influential in the design of highly complex, massive and sculptural chimney pieces with a variety of motifs: swags, scrolls, cartouches, pilasters, entablatures, pediments. The commode, a chest of drawers, was introduced, with some pieces ornamented with ebony veneer using marquetry of tortoiseshell and brass. André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) was “the most remarkable of all French cabinetmakers.”

Boulle, commode.

The English Baroque was a modification of ideas from France and the Netherlands. The premier British architects were Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, William Talman, and Thomas Archer. A spectrum of wall surfaces was used, wood paneling, mirrors, tapestries, textiles, leather, paintings. After the chimney piece, the most decorated feature of a room was the ceiling, deeply compartmentalised; with the most impressive houses using wrought or cast-iron balustrades for their stairways. The primary influence in the making of these stairways was the French smith Jean Tijou and his book, A New Book on Drawings (1693). Increasing importance was attached to the drapery of beds (patterned velvets, silk damask, chintz, and brocade) absorbing most of the costs.

King’s staircase, Hampton Court Palace.

Rococo

France was the setting for the next major epoch in interior and furniture design, which came along with a new emphasis on relaxation and pleasure, with furniture becoming more comfortable, designed for conversation, and chairs more graceful and informal, less stiff than in the Louis XIV period. This was a reflection of both the Enlightened court aristocracy and the nouveaux riche financial bourgeoisie. Rococo was a highly ornate, theatrical, over-the-top style developed as a reaction to the strictness of Baroque. It was a flamboyant, freer, more lighthearted style, with decorative elements that often emulated the look of shells, pebbles, flowers, birds, vines, and leaves.

The foremost French Rococo architect were Robert de Cotte (1656-1735) and Gilles-Marie Oppenhord (1672-1742), as well as the goldsmith and decorator Juste Aurele Meissonier (1695-1750), who published a book, entitled Livre d’ornements. Two types of chair became common, the fauteuil and the bergère, with floral carving, tapestry upholstery, with separate cushion, with emphasis on informality. Many kinds of tables were introduced, some multifunctional, while others for specific functions, such as gaming tables, work tables, serving tables, and coffee tables. Beds were of several types.

In England the style of the period 1715-1760 was “Georgian” rather than Rococo. The Georgian style is a unique combination of Classical and Baroque stylistic features. It is interesting that Lord Shaftesbury, who lived from 1671 to 1713, just before this style emerged in England, one of the most important philosophers of his day, insisted that “a man of breeding and politeness is careful to form his judgments of arts and sciences upon the right models of perfection” (Blakemore, p. 247).

The models of this time emphasized the architectural principles of classicism, the ideas articulated by Andrea Palladio, an expert on Roman architecture. Palladio saw perfection in the classical concept of harmonic proportion based on mathematical ratios. In 1715-1725, Colen Campbell published Vitruvius Britannicus, a survey of English Classical architecture of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Richard Boyle made a grand tour in 1714-15 through France, northern Italy and Rome, where he studied the works of Palladio. James Gibbs also visited Rome and Palladio’s buildings, publishing in 1728 the Book of Architecture and the Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732). Gibb’s influence is visible in the design of the White House, which employed both Classical as well as the Baroque features of floating pediments, scrolled shoulders and oeil-de-boeuf windows.

However, by the mid-18th century, Rococo became influential in England, with detailing of delicate linear motifs, undulating lines, and natural forms making their way into decorations and buildings. Isaac Ware’s book, A Complete Body of Architecture, published in 1756, emphasized the use of stucco ornamental material (lime, sand, plaster) for grand rooms. There was indeed a lot of variety in styles, combinations of Classical, Baroque, and Rococo motifs. Geometric patterns in floor design were emphasized in Batty Lagley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1739) and John Carwitham’s Kind of Floor Decorations Represented Both in Plano and Perspective (1739). Casement windows were commonly used while the double-hung window became standard in upper class houses. Windows were often rectangular but some had flattened, arched heads, while some were doubled lancets, representing the Gothic influence during the Rococo phase of the Georgian period. Some windows were more Classical or Palladian, characterized by an arrangement of three openings, with the central window being widest and having a round, arched opening, and the two outer windows flat cornices.

Two cabinet makers, William Ince and John Mayhew, published The Universal System of Household Furniture (1763), a collection of over 300 finely engraved designs in the English rococo style for parlor chairs, claw tables, sideboards, desks, ladies’ secretaries, bookcases, writing tables, candle stands, couches, draperies, girandoles, and more.

The most influential book on furniture was Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1754-62), an encyclopedic book offering a broad range of furniture designs with 160 plates covering a wide range of different styles, from a simple, undecorated clothing press to a highly adorned library cabinet with rococo ornaments. Among the wide variety of tables designed during the Chippendale period were the tea table, toilet table, sideboard table for use in the dining room, and a variety of gaming tables for backgammon, cards, and chess. The chest-on-chest (or tallboy) and bachelor chest became typical.

Chippendale, commode.

Neoclassic

The Neoclassic style began in France around the 1740s, in reaction to the “excesses, asymmetry, and perceived disorderliness” of Rococo. It came on the heels of major excavations of ancient cities and the emerging study of archeological artifacts and buildings. Jacques Blondel’s four volume work, Architecture françoise (1756), was instrumental in consolidating the French Neoclassic movement. While Renaissance architecture and Baroque architecture already represented partial revivals of the Classical architecture of ancient Rome, the Neoclassical movement was aimed directly against the decorative excesses and ritualistic arrangements of the Late Baroque, and the naturalistic ornament of Rococo, in favor of a purer and more authentic Classical style, adapted to the modern Enlightenment world, characterized by reserve, restraint, and self-command.

Walls were characterized by symmetrical features and rectilinear treatments. Embellishment was reminiscent of the Rococo style, but there was greater discipline and balance. Circular spaces for stairways were frequently used, along with rectilinearity and straight flights of stairs. Various shapes were used for the backs of seat furniture, including medallion, trapezoid, rectangle, and rectangle with a flattened arched cresting. Commodes were very common in many shapes and sizes; a new type was the demilune commode, which was semicircular in shape and featured two drawers in the front and a curved door on each side. Jean-Henri Riesener (1774–1792) was the foremost Neoclassic cabinet-maker in France with a style that was “pure Louis XVI” with its rectilinear side view and harmonious ornamentation.

Riesener, commode.

The English Neoclassic period, 1770-1810, also had a predilection for the linear and symmetrical. One of the most influential members of this movement was the architect and furniture designer Robert Adam (1728-92), author of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773). Adam actually rejected the Palladian style for what he thought was a more archaeologically accurate Neoclassic style. He emphasized the principle of “movement” that has “the same effect in architecture” as in a landscape, “to produce an agreeable and diversified contour, that groups and contrasts like a picture, and creates variety of light and shade, which gives spirit, beauty and effect to the composition” (Julian Small, The Architecture of Robert Adam). Among his many works are included the ceiling of the Red Drawing Room in Hopetoun House, with its dainty Rococo details composed of foliage, shells, and scrolls in an asymmetrical arrangement, but with some classical motifs. In his furniture designs, Adam also combined some Rococo details but in a more classical direction, as evidenced in his design of chairs with their thin, tapering, fluted legs; and in his lightly scaled and rectangular or semioval tables with their round or square sectioned legs. George Hepplewhite, author of The Cabinet Makers & Upholsterer’s Guide (1788), was enormously influential as far as the construction of Neoclassic furniture was concerned.

Robert Adam, chair.

Another great furniture designer was Thomas Sheraton, author of Cabinet-Maker’s Dictionary (1803), which included sixty-nine designs for furniture; he strove for lightness through reduction in the width and taller proportions; some characterized his style as feminine in refinement. Sheraton is generally identified with the “late Neoclassic” style, or the “Regency style” of the period 1810-1830, which was more eclectic in absorbing a wider diversity of styles in combination, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Egyptian, Tudor, etc. This eclecticism is apparent in the architect John Nash (1752-1835), who consciously combined discordant styles. The furniture designs of the cabinet maker George Smith, who published A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808) with 150 colored plates, showed Gothic, Chinese, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek influences.

Some say that Smith copied Thomas Hope’s designs. Hope, author of Household Furniture (1807), was inspired in the designs of his Regency interiors and furniture by his travels in Europe, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. It needs to be said that these were not “borrowings” of architectural styles from the East, but reinterpretations of these styles according to European conceptual principles. Europeans freely borrowed certain non-Western motifs and then integrated them within a European tradition, always searching for new ways while striving for aesthetic perfection. Hope’s influence extended beyond the Regency period, into the Regency Revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and even Art Deco design. Hope aimed to express three qualities in his furniture designs: character, beauty and what he called “appropriate meaning.”

Revival Styles in France and England (1830-1901)

Lucie-Smith thinks that the period between 1800 and 1850 saw more fundamental changes in furniture design than the preceding 200 years. It certainly becomes rather complicated to find clearly demarcated styles due to the combination (and revival) of different styles from Europe’s past and from other cultures, coupled with the persistent creativity and novelties introduced by new generations of gifted designers.

The French Revival was a continuation and further development of tendencies already visible during the Napoleonic Empire period (1805-1815), with its monumentality, the grand scale, and stateliness. The typical furniture pieces of this Empire period were heavy, severe, with sharp corners and little moldings, imposing, with uninterrupted flat surfaces, heavy bases for cabinet pieces, and symmetry. During the reign of Louis Philippe, 1815-30, the Napoleonic style remained paramount through to the Second Empire, 1850-70, with its most successful architect, Charles Gamier, combining the Baroque, Renaissance, and Rococo styles. In both England and France, the impact of the industrial revolution was felt as machine processes began to replace craftsmen, though high-style furniture continued to emphasize high quality skill work. There was a lot of variety in the treatment of chair backs, “upholstered, straight, backward scroll, rounded top, openwork centered with cross bars, arcade revealing Gothic influence with crocketed finials” (Blakemore, p. 383). Lavish display of upholstery was common, and multiple-seat units were produced; the tops of tables were round, oval, octagonal, square, or rectangular; and the legs were carved in the form of colonnettes, chimeras, sphinxes, lions, human figures.

The historical setting of the English Revival Style was the industrial transformation, the material prosperity achieved by the middle classes, and the opening of international markets with the spread of railway lines across the world. The word “eclecticism” is commonly used to describe this Victorian era because more than ever designers combined a variety of past styles adapted to contemporary uses. This was expressed in books, such as Henry Shaw’s Specimens of Ancient Architecture (1836), Robert Bridgens, Furniture with Candelabra and Interior Decoration (1838), which displayed Grecian Gothic, and Elizabethan designs. A. W. N. Pugin (1812-52) was a keen advocate of Gothic revival, publishing the pattern book Gothic Furniture in the Style of the Fifteenth Century, as well as Bruce James Talbert, author of Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture (1867). Belvoir Castle, completed in 1825, was a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo, Norman and Classical. The style of chimneys reflected this eclecticism, which came in different combinations; the chimney of the Drawing Room in the Carlton Towers (1873-77) reflected Gothic, Elizabethan, Adam, Georgian Revival, Rococo, and other styles. This variety of styles was reflected as well in furniture pieces.

Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism

Art Nouveau (1890-1914), Art Deco (1910-1945), and Modernism (1940s-late 20th Century) are difficult to compartmentalize into clear time periods and cultural movements because they evolved from combinations of intersecting artistic currents in different national European cultures with their own flavors and motifs, beyond buildings and furniture, with the latter two movements influencing the design of multiple industrial consumer items, cars and locomotives, radios and vacuum cleaners. Modernism alone includes many different styles, such as the Bauhaus school, Expressionism, Constructivism, Brutalism, Metabolism, and even Postmodernism.

Art Nouveau aimed at modernizing design and escaping the increasingly eclectic and historically oriented Neoclassic and Revivalist styles. It was modern in its rejection of the traditional hierarchy of the arts, the aristocratic elevation of painting, sculpture, and architecture over the craft-based decorative arts. We can say that it was “democratic” in its insistence that art should become part of the everyday life of citizens, not only the “high” arts, but ceramics, metalwork, fashion, middle class furniture and interior design, with a view to enhancing the aesthetic sensibilities of the wider public. But we can say that it was not “democratic” in its emphasis on high quality crafts and its criticism of the repetitive designs of mass-produced industrial furniture and decoration. It certainly remained aristocratic in its commitment to “Aestheticism,” the pursuit of “art for art’s sake,” exaltation of beauty and individual self-expression over the “restrictive conformity” and moralism of Victorian Revivalism. Shapes and lines (smooth curves, graceful bends and dancing lines) were very significant, sometimes combined with bright colors, from burnt oranges and mustard yellows, to olive greens and soft blues. There is no space to list the numerous artists from all over Europe associated with Art Nouveau. I will mention the Belgium architect and furniture designer Victor Horta (1861-1947), and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) who are said to have contributed the most to Art Nouveau furniture.

Majorelle, bedroom.

Art Deco, possibly the most talked about movement in history, is a product of the European modern aesthetic imagination, as well as the first truly international style in art, influencing the architecture of buildings around the world. It was a popular style that influenced not only buildings and furniture, but also jewelry, graphic arts, fashion, cars, gas pumps, trains, ocean liners, and everyday personal objects, such as radios and vacuum cleaners. It seems simple to identify with its sleek, streamlined features, vertical lines, zigzagged patterns and rectilinear shapes. But it is a complex movement influenced by divergent artistic currents, including the bold geometric forms of Cubism, the bright colors of Fauvism, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, and Modernism generally.

While Art Deco was influenced by archeological discoveries in Egypt, and the growing globalization of the European mind and ethnographic interest in the Orient and in African art, it was a movement that looked to the future, not to the past. Art Deco’s appearance is overwhelmingly reflective of the invention of industrial machines by Europeans and Americans, their advancements in the use of new materials, such as aluminum, stainless steel, glass and plastic, and their aesthetic imagination to create art out of the aerodynamic principles of motion originated by Western scientists. This futuristic orientation was evident in the Streamline Moderne version of Deco, which took off during the 1930s, featuring curving shapes, smooth surfaces, and long horizontal lines, in the industrial design of both moving objects, such cars, trains, ships, and of everyday consumer items, such as kitchen appliances, telephones, giving these products the impression of sleekness, motion and speed.

Mercury train, Chicago, 1936.

But if Art Deco was characterized by clean lines and smooth surfaces, and no decoration on the facades of buildings, it also saw an explosion of colors, bright and contrasting hues, in furniture upholstery, carpets, screens, wallpaper and fabrics. While Art Deco, similarly to Art Nouveau, emphasized the uniqueness and originality of handmade objects, Deco took the incipient anti-aristocratic impulses of Art Nouveau in a more democratic or consumer-oriented direction. Its aim was less to focus on art for art’s sake than to make machine-made objects aesthetically appealing to the increasingly affluent masses of the “roaring 1920s”: lamps, clocks, ashtrays, bicycles, and movies in Deco theatres. However, Art Deco did not promote cheaply made products; it certainly used very expensive materials to decorate the first-class salons of ocean liners, deluxe trains, and the lobbies of skyscrapers, though after the Great Depression the items infused with Deco motifs became less conspicuous consumer items.

There are too many names associated with Art Deco, if only because of the multiple ways it found expression in ornamental crafts, industrial designs, and consumer products. In furniture design some of the main names are the cabinet maker Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), a pure Frenchman, Maurice Dufrène (1876-1955), Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), and Paul Follot (1877-1941).

Ruhlmann, commode.

We can date the beginnings of modernism with Le Corbusier’s book, L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui, published in 1925, a polemical treatise against Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and in favor of the idea that furniture, buildings, and objects intended for practical uses should be devoid of any decoration and aesthetic motifs. “Modern decoration has no decoration,” declared Le Corbusier. A house was simply “a machine to live in.”

Writing about the deliberately functional, anonymous, and repetitive buildings of modernism may not be a good way to end an article focused on the unsurpassed aesthetic creativity of Europeans. It should be noted, however, that modernism was the one European movement that not only spread everywhere in the world, but encouraged nonwestern architects to make a contribution to this movement, with its principle that function, not aesthetics, is what matters.

Modernism was a by-product of the inherent nature of mass industrial societies to value anonymous practicality, culturally neutral technological efficiency, and the power of modernity. Its anonymous, impersonal character, is congenial to the belief that the West = Modernization = Globalism. Nevertheless, the best architects of the twentieth century were Western: Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Raymond Hood, Cass Gilbert, Hugh Ferriss, Le Corbusier, William Van Alen, John Mead Howells, Renzo Piano, Adrian D. Smith, John Burgee, John C. Portman, William Le Baron Jenney.

John Hancock Center, 1969.

We should avoid negative blanket reactions against modernism. It was a realistic expression of an emerging new world of mass industrial society with huge cities necessitating practical high rises for millions of inhabitants without the means to pay rent in high quality architectural buildings. We can’t ignore either the reaction against Modernism in the 1970 and 1980s, starting with the groundbreaking 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, by Robert Venturi. This book, and Postmodernism generally, agreed that in our mass societies many buildings must serve a function, be practical and efficient in use of energy and materials; however, it rejected the functional purism of Modernism, and called instead for creative mixtures of historic styles from the past, for buildings to be in tune with their environmental settings and in honor of local history and traditions.


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured: “The Front Parlor,” by Walter Gay; painted in 1909.

The West Conceptualized all Paradoxes

Defining Paradoxes

That Europeans conceptualized all the paradoxes in history, with a minimal contribution by the Chinese, testifies to a major contrast in the intellectual trajectories of civilizations. As R.M. Sainsbury writes, “paradoxes are fun,” but “unlike puzzles and teasers, which are also fun, paradoxes raise serious problems.” Sainsbury defines a paradox as “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises.” Patrick Hughes and George Brecht tell us that paradoxical propositions may be described as

  1. self-referential, in which the statement refers to itself;
  2. contradictory, in which the statement is false and true at the same time;
  3. and circular in which the statement is characterized by a vicious circle, or infinite regress.

Some believe that most paradoxes, whether they are semantic, set-theoretic, or epistemic, share the same underlying self-referential structure. Consider the famous Liar’s paradox: “This sentence is false.” Trying to determine whether this sentence is true or false leads to a contradiction. If we conclude that the sentence is true, then it cannot be true. If we agree that the sentence is false, then the sentence is true. Either answer leads to a contradiction, or a vicious circle. This paradox is self-referential in that the sentence is talking directly about itself.

What makes the Liar’s paradox more than a witty remark or a sophism is that both of the two contradictory conclusions were obtained by seemingly rigorous reasoning based on apparently sound premises. However, paradoxes come in different degrees of difficulty; some paradoxes, Sainsbury says, are “weak or shallow,” based on unfounded suppositions, faulty reasoning, or ostensibly vague wording. The famous Barber paradox, he thinks, is “not very deep.” This paradox asks who shaves the barber if the barber shaves all and only those villagers who do not shave themselves. This paradox makes the supposition that such a barber exists even though such a barber or such a village does not exist.

The Western mind came up with many paradoxes for which they attempted solutions—because this mind has a peculiar inclination to seek the truth according to its own self-legislated rational capacities, rather than in acquiescence to kinship norms or theocratic mandates. It is a most dynamic mind that came up with three fundamental laws of proper reasoning:

  1. the law of contradiction, which states that a proposition cannot be both true and false;
  2. the law of excluded middle, which states that for every proposition, either this proposition or its negation is true; and
  3. the law of identity, which states that each thing is identical with itself.

For the Western mind, if a claim is illogically inconsistent, in violation of these laws, then the claim or the reasoning behind it must be rejected.

Europeans took Zeno’s paradoxes seriously, for they seem to suggest that one could reach a logically unacceptable conclusion on the basis of sound reasoning from apparently sound premises. They wondered whether these paradoxes revealed deficiencies in the way we reason, calling for improvements in our reasoning powers, a better system of logic and a more precise usage of language. For example, Russell’s paradox (1901) of a set that includes all and only those sets that do not contain themselves as members, encouraged or was itself part of an investigation into the realm of the foundations of logic and the philosophy of mathematics, which revealed errors in classical logic that were instrumental in the development of modern logic and set theory. With this new logic, and the insights of physics and contemporary mathematics, many paradoxes have found a solution.

Reasoning Through the Contradictory Character of Reality

We would be mistaken, however, to assume that all European thinkers came to view paradoxes as mere expressions of faulty reasoning calling for a more logically perfect language, in which equivocation could not arise because all the ambiguity of everyday words was removed. Without denying the classic laws of logic, and agreeing that sentences cannot admit of self-nullifying contradictions, some Europeans came to the view that the nature of reality is contradictory, and that the human mind is limited in its capacity to offer rationally consistent answers about the ultimate questions of the universe and life. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that reality was inherently contradictory and thus paradoxical. Other European thinkers encountered complex riddles, conundrums, and puzzles for which they believed there were no rationally justified solutions. The ultimate questions of reality were inherently unanswerable or beyond rational solution or dogmatic certainty. Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD) believed that all belief systems were ultimately grounded in dogmatic premises or criteria for which any attempt at their justification inevitably led to an infinite regress. Roy Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (2003) is the best book in the English language about the many great European thinkers who have grappled for millennia with the most puzzling philosophical conundrums.

Immanuel Kant famously presented the four “antinomies of pure reason” as demonstrations of reason’s inability to reach completeness on the most fundamental questions of the universe. He believed one could give equally justified answers for

  1. the thesis that the universe has no beginning, and the antithesis that the universe has a beginning;
  2. the thesis that every composite substance in the world is made up of simples, and the antithesis that no composite substance in the world is made up of simples;
  3. the thesis that there is freedom in the world, and the antithesis that everything is ruled by necessity;
  4. the thesis that a necessary being is either part or cause of the world, and the antithesis that a necessary being is neither part nor cause of the world.

The rational inclination of the European mind should not be equated with arrogance. Kant believed that reason could come up with two impeccably solid arguments against the infinity of the past and against the idea that the past has a finite beginning, by rigorously showing how each of these positions leads to an equally absurd conclusion; and how each position is no less justified than the other. The thesis that there is no beginning, or an infinite past, leads to the absurd conclusion that we had to wait an infinite time to get to the present, and since we are living in the present, it follows that the past is finite with a beginning in time. But the antithesis that there is a beginning leads to the befuddling conclusion that there must have been a preceding time in which there was no world and no time, which leads to the conclusion that the past is infinite.

For Hegel, however, the very recognition by the mind that there are limits beyond which reason can’t provide answers is a demonstration that cognition understands its limits, and, in this respect, is capable of going beyond those limits, by realizing that the coexistence of opposites is inherent to the nature of reality: an antinomy is not, therefore, an imperfection or defect of the mind, but a demonstration that every determination in the actual concrete world is a unity of opposing contradictions. Hegel’s dialectical logic was an attempt to provide a new way of thinking through the contradictory nature of things. “Identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only insofar as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.”

While many contemporary logicians believe that Zeno’s paradoxes have been solved by transfinite arithmetic, originated by Georg Cantor in the late 1800s, and that there are logically consistent ways to “solve” all paradoxes, some have come to the neo-Hegelian view known as “dialetheism,” which proposes that some paradoxical inconsistencies or contradictions can be accepted without incoherence, in the sense that both “A” and “not-A” can both be true. Dialetheism is associated with the development of a paraconsistent logic to deal with sentences in which both its affirmation and its negation are true.

Lower Degree of Sophistication of Chinese Paradoxes

The only other civilization to have articulated and debated paradoxes is China. During the Warring States period (479-221 BC), a group of scholars identified with the “School of Names” (Míngjiā ) relished in the use of paradoxical and puzzling expressions, and in the discussion of the semantic relations between words and the world they pointed to. The intellectual culture of paradoxes in China, however, was fundamentally different from that of the West, in their degree of sophistication, the reaction of intellectuals to them, and the absence of philosophical reflections about the contradictory nature of the universe. The School of Names remained an isolated moment in China’s intellectual history. The Confucians in control of intellectual discussions dismissed the paradoxical expressions of the School of Names as “bizarre expressions” that discouraged young minds from the proper use of language and the obligation of educated gentlemen to promote “ritual propriety and righteousness.”

With the exception of brief texts attributed to Gōngsūn Lóng, very little first-hand knowledge of the figures associated with this School survived. What we know about Chinese paradoxes is mostly based on the Xunzi, which is an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical writings attributed to Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a 3rd-century BC philosopher associated with the Confucian tradition, who condemned paradoxical expressions as “frivolous.” While members of the Mohist School (479–221 BC) summarized many of the paradoxes of the School of Names, they did so only to offer counter-arguments against what they perceived to be sophistical ideas inconsistent with the commonsense use of language.

The current academic Chen Bo makes a strong effort to show that the School of Names reached the same level of logical sophistication and use of abstract universals as the ancient Greeks, or at least “comparable to Greek civilization to some extent.” But while Chen sometimes even tries to show that some Chinese paradoxes exhibited the abstract “concepts of class, kind, and membership” found in Russell’s paradox about classes discovered in 1901, in the end Chen barely shows that Chinese paradoxes reached the same degree of abstraction as Zeno’s famous paradoxes. He basically acknowledges this in his decision to define paradoxes in “quite a broad way, almost including all the fallacies, sophisms, puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes [which were] quite influential” in China. As Chris Fraser recognizes, there are expressions categorized as “paradoxes” that are best described as mere philosophical statements about the nature of reality, such as: “The ultimately great has no outside, call it the Great One. The ultimately small has no inside, call it the Small One.” Or, “Universally care for the myriad things. Heaven and earth are one body.”

Chen confounds his otherwise good analysis of Chinese paradoxes when he tries to argue that the mere utterance by Chinese philosophers of statements about whether “there is really an external world independently of us,” or “do we really know the states of external things,” or “do we really know other minds and their states”—actually constitute paradoxes, rather than basic epistemological and ontological questions. Chen is on stronger ground showing that the following Chinese paradoxes are “quite close to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and infinity”:

  1. “A Wheel does not touch the ground.”
  2. “The shadow of a flying bird has never moved.”
  3. “A one-foot stick has taken away half of its length every day, it will still not be exhausted after ten thousand generations.”

For example, number three resembles Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. This Chinese paradox says that a finite-long stick can be cut into infinitely many sections since half of the length of the stick will remain no matter how many times you cut it. Zeno’s dichotomy paradox states that you will never reach a finite destination no matter how fast and how long you run since any given distance that you try to cover will consist of infinitely divisible distances.

Chen admits, however, that from the Chinese version of this paradox we can only get the concept of infinite divisibility, not the concept that all motion is an illusion. Chris Fraser correctly points out that another Chinese paradox—”The barbed arrow at its swiftest, there is time when it neither moves nor stops”—which has been likened to Zeno’s paradox of the arrow, is actually different in that the Chinese arrow is neither in motion nor at rest, whereas Zeno’s arrow is at rest in every instant of time and does not move. Zeno invented his paradoxes in order to demonstrate through rigorous reasoning that any kind of change was impossible and that reality was indivisible, despite appearances to the contrary.

Fraser further notes that the “steps in the reasoning” behind the articulation of Chinese paradoxes are almost entirely based on second-hand accounts by critics of the Schools of Names, in which the reasoning about their meaning “remains confusing and the justification for them murky.” While we know Zeno’s paradoxes second-hand through Aristotle’s writings, we do so through the highly rigorous logical mind of Aristotle. Rather than dismissing them as sophistical, Aristotle tried to find a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes. Zeno’s paradoxes raised serious philosophical problems in the Western tradition because they were seen to be based on sound reasoning and thus to constitute a challenge to the claims of reason about its ability to understand the nature of things. The solutions offered in contemporary times have come from mathematics, modern logic, and physics.

Moreover, whereas Europeans would come up with numerous paradoxes, some of which came to be associated with crises in European thought and with revolutionary advances in logic, in China the tradition of the School of Names dissipated, never to be improved upon. Thus, the paradoxes remained rather simple; basically, their prevailing theme, as Fraser notes, was that the distinctions we observe in the world are “not inherently fixed but relative to a standpoint” or scale. For example, take the paradox “The sky is as low as earth, mountains are level with marches.” It simply says that by the scale of the Great One, the difference between the height of the sky and earth, mountains and marches, are insignificant. Another so-called paradox—”Eggs have feathers”—merely states that potential feathers are already possessed by the egg.

The most discussed Chinese paradox is one attributed to Gōngsūn Lóng that simply states: “The white horse is not [a] horse” (báimǎ fēi mǎ). An entire discourse developed around this paradox. The Mohist School in particular sought to counter it with the commonsense idea that words do represent or signify things and that language should be used to communicate by appealing to commonly shared use of language, for distinguishing similar and different kinds of things. Yet, interesting as this discourse was in generating sophisticated semantic discussions, this statement seems to lack a true paradoxical nature. It seems to be a semantic claim that insofar as the terms “white horses” and “horses” denote distinct features about horses, it follows that white horses and horses cannot be equated. Critics argue that it is simply a statement that refuses to distinguish the true claim that the term “white horse” is not identical with “horse” from the false claim that the less general term “white horse” is not part of the more general term “horse.”

Cheng Bo tries to argue that Chinese paradoxes use abstract universals, terms that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things, much like the ancient Greeks and Europeans in the modern era. The academic Fung Yu Lan claims that the Chinese terms “horse” and bái “white” are used to designate abstract concepts—”horseness” and “whiteness.” But Chad Hansen thinks that the grammatical structure of the ancient Chinese language was such that it lacked abstract entities, such as ideas and concepts. Chinese nouns are “mass nouns,” or nouns without a plural form, which do not inflect for abstraction and plurality. Thus, it seems that the best way to understand why the Chinese were unable to conceive paradoxes with a high degree of sophistication is that their mind barely reached what Jean Piaget identified as the “formal operational stage of cognition.” It remained stuck at the “concrete operational stage,” barely reaching the formal stage, until Westerners taught them how to think in deductive ways.

The Concrete-Operational Chinese Mind

Georg W. Oesterdiefkhoff, one of the foremost Piagetian theorists in the world, is convinced that many years of cross-cultural empirical research by Jean Piaget and his followers have demonstrated that the stages of mental development of children and adolescents (from sensorimotor, through preoperational and concrete operations, to formal operations) reflect the stages of cognitive evolution “humankind” has gone through from primitive, ancient and medieval, to modern societies. The cognitive processes of humanity have not always been the same, but have improved over time. Viewing Piaget’s theory as more than a theory about the cognitive development of children, Oesterdiefkhoff has elaborated it into a grand theory covering the cognitive experience of all peoples throughout history, from primitive peoples with a preoperational mind (characteristic of children ages 2–4), to agrarian peoples with a concrete operational mind (characteristic of children ages 6–12), to modern peoples with a formal operational mind (age 12 and up).

Oesterdiefkhoff observes that “thousands of empirical studies across all continents and social milieus, from the 1930s to the present” have been conducted demonstrating that, depending on the level of cultural scientific education, the nations of the world in the course of history can be identified as preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. The formal operational stage entails a capacity to think about abstract relationships and symbols in the absence of concrete examples, that is, a capacity to grasp syllogistic reasoning with hypothetical premises that may not refer to real objects, including a capacity to formulate explanatory hypotheses.

According to studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, even educated adults living in Papua New Guinea did not reach the formal stage. Australian Aborigines who were still living a traditional lifestyle barely developed beyond a preoperational stage in their adult years. As Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) had already observed in his Primitive Mentality (1923), dreams, divination, incantations, sacrifices, and omens, not inferential reasoning and objective causal relations, are the phantasmagorical doors through which primitives get access to the intentions and plans of the unseen spirits they believe control natural events. Adults in premodern civilizations, like ancient China, exhibit the concrete operational stage of thinking in the way they apprehend length, volume, time, space, weight, area, and geometric qualities. It is not that adults in primitive and premodern cultures are similar to children in modern cultures in their emotional development, experience, and ability to survive in a hostile environment. It is that the reasoning abilities of adults in pre-modern civilizations are restricted to what they apprehend at the perceptual level and are bound up with the sensory appearances of the world, barely transcending appearances and context-bound experiences through the development of hypothetical and abstract reasoning.

The abilities associated with the first two Piagetian stages (e.g., control over motor actions, walking, mental representation of external stimuli, verbal communication, ability to manipulate concepts involving concrete objects), have been acquired universally by humans since prehistoric times. In this sense, they can be called “biologically primary” qualities that children across cultures accomplish at the ages and in the sequence more or less elucidated by Piaget. They are universal abilities built into human nature, ready to unfold with little educational socialization. While the concrete-operational abilities of stage three (e.g., the “ability to conserve” quantities—e.g., to know that the same quantity of a liquid remains when the liquid is poured into a differently shaped container) are either lacking in primitive cultures or emerge at later ages in children than they do in modern cultures; these abilities may also be described as biologically primary insofar as they have emerged in all advanced agrarian civilizations.

It is also the case that in modern societies all individuals with a primary education acquire concrete operational abilities. The abilities required in the first three stages can thus be identified as “culturally universal.” Only formal operations cannot be said to be endogenously generated. The skills associated with this stage (inductive logic, hypothesis testing, reasoning about proportions, combinations, probabilities and correlations) are not cognitive skills bound to emerge in all literate civilizations. They are highly specific skills that a significant proportion of the population, even in modern Western cultures, fails to acquire. The abilities required in formal operational thinking are better described as biologically secondary abilities.

While the current Chinese population, after the arrival of Western modernization, has clearly reached the formal operational stage of reasoning, this was not the case in ancient China. In contrast, formal operational reasoning was clearly visible among the educated elite in ancient Greece. We learn in Reviel Netz’s, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History, that Greek mathematics produced knowledge of general validity; not only about the particular right triangle ABC of the diagram, for example, but about all right triangles. This formal operational trait—this ability to think about numbers and geometric relationships in a purely abstract way—is what makes Greek mathematics historically novel in comparison to all preceding concrete operational mathematics. This formal operational mind is amply visible in Aristotle’s magisterial works of logic, in the rise of theoretical geometry in ancient Greece, in the invention of trigonometry by Hipparchus, in Archimedes’ work on hydro-statics and the mechanics of pulleys and levers, in Eratosthenes and his calculations to determine the circumference of the earth. It is visible as well in the hypothetical-deductive form of Euclid’s Elements, in which circles, right angles, parallel lines are explicitly defined in terms of a few fundamental abstract entities, such as points, lines, and planes, on the basis of which many other propositions (theorems) are deduced. And in Ptolemy’s Almagest, which postulates epicycles, eccentric circles, and equant points, with the latter being imaginary points in space from which uniform circular motion is measured.

Joseph Needham, a great admirer of Chinese intellectual history, recognizes that “strong” as Chinese algebra was, it was “utilitarian” and “concrete,” “devoted to the [practical] problems ruling officials had to solve.” Unlike “the predilection of Greek science and mathematics for the abstract, the deductive and the pure over the concrete,” Chinese mathematics lacked “the idea of rigorous proof” but inhabited “a mental outlook which avoided the development of formal logic…and which allowed associative or organic thinking to dominate” (p. 62-3). So, in light of these intellectual realities, here’s a short list of the many paradoxes conceived by Europeans:

      Zeno’s Racetrack Paradox
      Paradox of the Heap
      Newcomb’s Trolley Paradox
      Prisoner’s Dilemma
      Paradox of the Ravens
      Russell’s Paradox
      Leonard Euler’s Paradox
      The Liar
      Achilles and the Tortoise
      The Arrow
      Sorites Paradox
      Forrester’s Paradox
      Class Paradoxes


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: “Day and night,” by Maurits Cornelis Escher, 1938.

Western Cartography: A History

A supremely high proportion of the greatest cartographers in history—reaching 100% after 1400—were Western. The history of cartography may indeed provide a window into what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) called the “principle of the European mind…which is confident that for it there can be no insuperable barrier and which therefore takes an interest in everything in order to become present to itself therein…to make this Other confronting him his own, to bring to view the genus, law, universal, thought, the inner rationality, in the particular forms of the world. As in the theoretical, so too in the practical, the European mind…subdues the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world.”

Chinese Cartography

While China did have a tradition of map-making, and did originate the rectangular grid system, most of its maps were lost, and a flat earth conception was at the basis of its cartography, whereas a spherical earth was at the basis of Western cartography from its origins in ancient Greece. Joseph Needham’s monumental 15 volume work, Science and Civilisation in China, contains a section on Chinese cartography, making the case that after the great ancient Greek cartographer named Ptolemy (100-178), scientific cartography “was unknown to Europeans” until about 1400 when they rediscovered Ptolemy’s writings, whereas the Chinese developed their own “scientific” tradition steadily from ancient times until they started copying the West after the arrival of the Jesuits. He has to acknowledge, however, that the Chinese had no conception of the determination of the size and curvature of the earth, and that a flat earth conception underpinned Chinese cartography. He persuasively argues that the “rectangular grid system” was “certainly” as old as Pei Xiu’s maps (224- 271 AD). He identifies Hsiu as “the father of scientific cartography in China”. Hsiu may rightfully be acknowledged as one of the “greatest cartographers” for his grid way of “depicting the correct relations between the various parts of the map,” and for his “method of fixing the lengths of derived distances from right-angled triangles”—as Chen Cheng-siang argues.

Needham and Chen bring up many other cartographers, and allude to many cartographic books and maps. But many of these books and maps were lost, so they rely instead on references to these maps and cartographers in other publications that seem to be bureaucratic reports. Reading the article by Chen Cheng-siang, “The historical development of cartography in China,” the impression I get is that improvements after Pei Xiu consisted in more precise grids, a greater quantity of maps with “a greater variety of alien lands and of frontier areas,” though many of the maps are heavily pictorial in their drawings of mountains, rivers, irrigation projects, cities, and palaces. I have yet to see a map from China superior to the famous Yu Ji Tu map of 1137 AD, which is quite remarkable.

The Yu Ji Tu map.

It is hard to accept without some qualifications Needham’s judgment that China cultivated a “scientific” tradition in cartography when it had no conception of the sphericity of the earth, no determination of the size of the earth, no coherent and systematic integration of geography and cartography, no idea how crucial it is to have a conception, in the words of Ptolemy, of the “known habitable earth as a unit in itself” to draw maps to scale, and no systematic integration of astronomy and cartography and how important astronomical measurements of latitudes and longitudes are for finding unknown distances.

Ptolemy

Claudius Ptolemy (100–170 AD) was the greatest cartographer in history before Geraldus Mercator came along in the sixteenth century. He was the culmination of a tradition of Greek cartography (combined with geography, astronomy and mathematics) going back to Hecataeus (550–476 BC), Pytheas of Massalia (350–306 BC), Eratosthenes (276-196 BC), and Hipparchus (190–120 BC). In the book Journey Round the World by Hecataeus, based on his extensive travels ending at the Atlantic coast of Morocco following the coast of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and in his “World Map,” you see a mapping ambition to look outward beyond one’s place of birth in order to grasp the totality of the earth’s geography—notwithstanding its complete lack of a grid.

World Map of Hecataeus

This worldly view is enhanced in Pytheas’s book, On the Ocean, which recounts an amazing journey (ca. 310BC) northward to Brittany across the Channel into Cornwall, through the Baltic Sea, the coast of Norway, and even Iceland. While the Chinese retained their flat conception of the earth until the Jesuits taught them otherwise, way back in ancient times, Eratosthenes (276-185BC) contextualized the location of Europe in relation to the Atlantic and the North Sea, and calculated the spherical size of the earth within 5 percent of its true measure.

World map of Hecataeus.

Then came Hipparchus, “the first to use the grade grid, and to insist that the map must be based only upon exact measurements of latitude and longitude,” to determine latitude from stellar measurements, rather than solar altitude, and to determine longitude by timings of lunar eclipses, rather than dead reckoning. Hipparchus also listed latitudes for several tens of localities and improved Eratosthenes’ values for the latitudes of Athens, Sicily, and southern extremity of India. But the consensus seems to be that Claudius Ptolemy (c. 85–165) deserves the honor of “father of cartography.” He was first to define the subject matter and explain that the key task of the cartographer is “to survey the whole world in its just proportions;” that is, to draw maps to scale. He realized that the “extent of our habitable earth from east to west…is much greater than its extent from the north pole to the south.” He was interested in mapping the whole earth, not just the habitable part, and to fit the earth into the scheme of the universe. He said, in fact, that cartography should be contrasted with what he called “chorography,” which merely consists in describing or mapping a region or district. Can we say that Chinese cartography was indeed chorography?

The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu map (ca. 1390). This is the only surviving Chinese world map created sometime during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), over a thousand years after Ptolemy, possibly at the same time as Mercator’s map.

Ptolemy insisted (following in the footsteps of Hipparchus) that astronomy and mathematics were indispensable disciplines in the task of mapping the earth as accurately as the heavens had been charted. He was interested in the relationships between the earth and the sun and the earth and the moon. His treatise Analemma was a mathematical description of a sphere projected on a plane and a method for specifying the location of the sun. His work Planisphærium described a sphere projected on the equator, with the eye envisioned at the pole. His Almagest lay down the foundation of trigonometry and set forth his famous geocentric view of the universe. His Geographike hyphegesis was, in his words, “the geographical guide to the making of maps,” both of the whole inhabited world and of the Roman provinces, including the necessary topographic lists, and captions for the maps, and the nature of the materials and expertise mapmakers require. Ptolemy was well aware that he knew about only a quarter of the globe. This treatise was not superseded until the 16th century.

Florentine map, ca. 1450–1475, based on Ptolemy’s projection.

The Age of Discovery

Needham tells us that China “steadily” developed its scientific map-making tradition over the course of its history as the European map-making tradition “degenerated” after Ptolemy into “religious cosmography”. This is true: Ptolemy’s maps provided a more realistic and accurate cartographic view of the world than the so-called medieval mappa mundi, which were pictorial in showing coastal details, images of mountains, towns and provinces, as well as figures and stories from the Bible and classical mythology. On the other hand, Chinese cartography, as I noted above, did not really improve upon what Yu Ji Tu accomplished in his 1137 AD map. Its “flat earth” perspective persisted.

Meanwhile the marvelous European age of discovery would begin in the fifteenth century, preceded by the world eventful travels of Marco Polo (1254-1324), which found expression in the Catalan Atlas of 1375, a synthesis of medieval mappa mundi and the travel literature of the time, showing compass-lines, and a rather accurate delineation of the Mediterranean. The fourteenth century also saw the emergence of the mariner’s compass, which made it possible to determine from the location of a ship any coastal feature, harbor or island. We should acknowledge the Islamic contribution of the cartographer al-Idrisi, who produced a large planispheric silver relief map that was original in not portraying the Indian Ocean in a landlocked way and in offering a more precise knowledge of China’s eastern coast. But Islamic geography would go no further. The first real turning point leading directly to the sixteenth century cartographic revolution was the Portuguese planned discovery and mapping, under the leadership of Henry the Navigator, in the course of the fifteenth century, of the African West coast down to the southern tip of Africa, rounding this massive continent and finally uncovering the full extent of this “Terra incognita” or “unknown land”. A mere two years after Diaz had sailed around the Cape, Henricus Martellus created his World Map of 1490, which showed both the whole of Africa generally and the specific locations of numerous places across the African west coast, detailing the step-by-step advancement of the Portuguese.

Martellus World Map

Similarly, a few years after the discoveries of Columbus, Juan de la Casa produced the first world map in 1500 to include the New World. And in 1507 Martin Waldseemüller produced his Universalis cosmographia, identified as the first map to use the name “America” in honour of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Waldseemüller was also the first to map South America as a continent separate from Asia, the first to create a printed wall map of Europe, and the first to emphasize the scientific importance of surveying and to use a forerunner to the theodolite, which he called the polimetrum, an optical instrument for measuring angles.

Martellus world map, ca. 1489.

There were other European cartographers but none as great as Gerardus Mercator, who solved the perennial problem of how to translate the spherical Earth into the flatness of a map.

The Mercator world map (1587).

What Mercator realized, among other things beyond my expertise, is that to create a proper projection of the globe onto a flat surface “the spacing of the parallels of latitude would have to be made progressively larger away from the equator toward the poles” and that “the spreading of the parallels would have to be in exactly the same proportion as the spreading of the meridians”. Mercator was not a lone soldier; in 1570 Abraham Ortelius, though not a cartographer himself, published the first edition of Theatrum orbis terrarum, which incorporated seventy maps created by many cartographers.

Waldseemüller map (1507). The first map to include the name “America.”

Mapping in the Age of Modern Science

Once the age of discoveries intersected with the rise of modern science and the development of geodesy, which began as a surveying technique to determine with accuracy positions on Earth, which involved the invention of accurate measuring instruments and the development of new mathematical techniques, all of which happened in Europe, it stands to reason that all subsequent cartographers in history would be European. Some of the surveying tools and techniques which allowed for detailed hydrographic surveying of sea shores and islands, the topography of lands, heights of hills and mountains, included the general use of the plane table, for establishing and recording angles; the method of triangulation to determine distance of remote objects without going there; angle, distance, and elevation-measuring instruments…and John Harrison’s (1693-1776) ‘longitude’ clock, which finally solved the problem of determining longitude at sea.

It is said that the Cassini family were the first to start mapping the interior of France, with César-François Cassini (1714-84) being the most illustrious in the utilization of new surveying tools such as triangulation and establishing that the Earth was flattened at the poles, and in the production of an accurate map of France.

Cassini’s map of France (1744).

James Cook (1728-1779) is best known as one of the greatest explorers ever, for his three voyages between 1768 and 1779 in the Pacific Ocean, reaching the southeastern coast of Australia for the first time in history, circumnavigating New Zealand, crossing the Antarctic Circle three times, and exploring the Northwest passage all the way to the Bering Strait. He embodied the Faustian spirit of exploration in its purest form, driven solely by a will to explore without economic self-interest or missionary zeal; confessing to an ambition which “leads me not only farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” What many don’t know is that Cook was also one of the greatest cartographers in history. His voyages were models of reconnaissance mapping. He produced the first hydrographic surveys of the coast of Newfoundland based on precise triangulation. He discovered New Zealand and mapped its entire coastline using the sextant, which measures the angular distance between two visible objects. He surveyed and mapped South Georgia. In his search of the Northwest Passage, he mapped the coast all the way to the Bering Strait. This is a kernel of what this man accomplished. Today he is disdained as a “colonizer” who did not discover anything because natives were already there—even though Cook exhibited “an entirely new civilized attitude towards the natives of the lands.”

There are too many great European cartographers to suppress. Francis Beaufort produced in 1792 the first map of Ireland, as the great hydrographer of his generation. He instructed map-making explorers that “the height of all headlands, isolated hills, and remarkable peaks should be trigonometrically determined…The nature of the shore, whether high cliff, low rock, or flat beach…the material of the beach, mud, sand, gravel or stones.” I won’t say anything about the men who started mapping the interior of India, and only a few words about the ones who began land surveying and mapping the United States. One has to start with Lewis and Clark, who conducted one of the most renowned journeys in history crossing the uncharted American West from August 1803 to September 1806, reporting in detail about the geography and wildlife, and producing about 140 maps of the area. They were followed by John Charles Frémont (1813-90), the first presidential Republican candidate, mapping explorer of the country between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains, Oregon and Upper California, and the “still and solitary grandeur” of the Great Salt Lake. Then there was Almon Harris Thompson, the mapper of Colorado through the Grand Canyon, southern Utah, part of Arizona—topographical maps to illustrate rivers, canyons, mountains, with a geological perspective.

Mappers of the bottom of the Ocean and the Universe

For all this, it has been estimated that in 1885 less than one-ninth of the land surface of the earth had been surveyed—which should not surprise us since the rest of the world remained asleep without much cartography other than the knowledge percolating from the West. In 1884, the West encouraged the world to adopt the Greenwich meridian dividing the Earth into the Eastern and the Western hemisphere, along an imaginary line of 0° longitude, establishing an International Date Line between one day and the next.

Map of the moon by Johannes Hevelius (1654).

With the merger of the Western technologies of aviation and the camera, including aerial photogrammetry, cartography was revolutionized yet again, leading the to the rapid mapping of the globe through the 20th century. From this point on, we are no longer speaking of trailblazers as much as institutionalized cartographers assisted by scientists sitting on desks, who would go on to develop newer technologies, automation techniques, electronic distance-measuring instruments, inertial navigation systems, high resolution radars, remote sensing, and computers—revealing great geographic details at long distances. These technologies allowed radar imagery to be converted into maps of impenetrable regions like the Amazon, including geologic and seismic mapping of the earth beneath.

They also began to map the mountains, chasms, and plains beneath the oceans, with the use of deep-sea echo sounders, magnetometers, and underwater sonars. And the universe. Europeans had begun mapping the moon back in the seventeenth century, with the lunar cartographer Johannes Hevelius producing his famous Map of the Moon in 1647. Today, hundreds of teams of scientists are working with complex technologies, such as the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, mapping everything from the far reaches of the universe to the most infinitesimally small particles within it. This Faustian drive for mastery of the unknown has now produced (as of 2010), based on the ground-based telescopes of the 2MASS Redshift Survey, 3D images of 43,000 galaxies.

Our universities can’t meet the ideal of “higher learning” if they ignore and suppress the achievements of Western Civilization merely for the sake of inflating “the self-esteem of non-mainstream students.” Our commitment must always be to the truth in appreciation of what Isaiah Berlin called “the peaks, not the valleys, of the achievements of mankind.”


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: “Europa regina,” printed by Sebastian Münster in Basel in 1570.

The European Discovery Of Time

Geology, a seemingly innocuous field concerned with the study of rocks and minerals, is the field responsible for the discovery of time. European geologists were the first to realize that the Earth had a history, that it came to be in the course of time, and that humans could discover this history by studying the rock strata and fossils of the Earth’s crust. Don’t confuse the measurement of time, which began with the invention of sundials in ancient Egypt, with the discovery of time. Neither calendar nor chronology was worked out with the intention of discovering the Earth’s time.

Every mythical account of the origins of the world postulated that the Earth was either formed through an initial “moment of creation” or that it was part of an “eternal order” embedded in a “cyclical cosmos”. Newtonian physics had nothing to say about the development of nature, but assumed that once God created the universe it had remained the same. The task of the scientist was to understand the “universal laws of nature at work” that ordered the repetitive movements of the world and its parts. God, in Newton’s words, was “like a watchmaker” who may occasionally tinker with the motions of the planets “to ensure that it continued operating in good working order,” but scientists essentially dealt with the world as it had been set in motion by God. The reigning consensus prior to 1750 accepted the Biblical narrative that the Earth was 6,000 years old. The notion that natural objects were formed over the course of millions of years was inconceivable—until the science of geology came into its own in the 1800s.

The Consolidation Of Geology As A Science

While evidence was accumulating about strange rocks with fossilized marine shells found inland in stratified layers, these anomalies were explained within the Creation-story and the accepted time-scale. Robert Hooke (1635-1703) reasoned that the Earth had a history characterized by earthquakes, floods, deluges, eruptions, which had altered the earth and its living organisms, but this history, he insisted, was explainable within the Biblical narrative. Thomas Burnet (1635-1715) argued in Telluris Theoria Sacra that the Earth was hollow with most of the water inside until Noah’s Flood, at which time mountains and oceans appeared, as the sun’s rays dried up the Earth and the crust was split open into continental land masses.

John Woodward in his Essay Towards a Natural History of the Earth (1695) argued that the ‘whole Terrestrial Globe was taken all to Pieces, and dissolved at the Deluge”. The existence of fossilized remains confirmed the Mosaic Flood as described in the Bible. New rock strata came to be formed, after the Flood, by a process of sedimentation, with the remains of animals and plants relegated to the deepest strata. This emphasis on the action of water through the Flood in the formation of fossilized rock strata came to be known as the “Neptunist” view of the Earth’s history. Other geologists like John Ray advocated the “Vulcanist” view that the mountains and dry land had been raised above the oceans by the internal fires of the Earth at the command of God.

While the Neptunist view tended to sit comfortably with the Flood cataclysmic narrative and the view that it was possible to explain the appearance of rocks, fish, animals, and man, in the order presented in the Book of Genesis, the Vulcanist view became associated with a more gradual process occurring over a longer time scale. John Whitehurst, in a daring book published in 1788, Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778), argued that the geological record suggested a much older history of the Earth than the Noachian Flood. The Italian Giovanne Arduino (1714–1795) even denied the Flood and contended that the rock strata of the earth, which he classified with the names Primitive, Secondary and Tertiary, also pointed to a much older Earth.

The beginnings of the idea of an older Earth, however, is associated with Georges Louis Leclerc (the legendary Comte de Buffon), who was less a geologist than a historian of nature and encyclopédiste. Buffon hypothesized that the Earth originated from a collision of a comet and the sun, much earlier than the Biblical 6000 year account. He suggested this argument in his multivolume work, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1788), and in his Introduction to the History of Minerals (1774), although it was in his The Epochs of Nature (1778) that he formulated in explicit terms the idea that “the surface of the Earth has taken different forms in succession; even the heavens have changed, and all the objects in the physical world are, like those of the moral world, caught up in a continual process of successive variations”. He inferred the age of the Earth experimentally by heating a small metallic globe and measuring the rate at which it cooled, which yielded an estimate of 75,000 years old.

While scriptural geologists attracted to the Neptunist view, such as Alexander Catcott in his Treatise on the Deluge (1768), would try to defend the Genesis account of a recent Creation by arguing that a global Flood could account for the geological record, the growing scientific temperament in Europe pushed the Neptunist view in a more secularized direction. The German geologist Abraham Werner (1749-1817) thus proposed that in the beginning the Earth was covered by a primeval ocean which gradually receded to its present location, depositing by a process of crystallization and chemical precipitation almost all the rocks and minerals in the Earth’s crust over the course of about one million years. In his estimation, heat was not an important initial geological force; volcanic heat from the interior of the earth was a late and a secondary rock-forming agency after the main strata had been consolidated through slow sedimentation. In the spirit of science, Werner devised a comprehensive color scheme for the description and classification of rock strata according to their mineral content and age. His Neptunist theory, however, could not account for the disappearance of the original ocean after the strata had been formed.

John Playfair, a Scottish clergyman, popularized Hutton’s ideas in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) and defended Hutton against the charge of atheism by arguing that uniformitarian geological processes were like Newton’s laws of regular planetary motion. Hutton’s theory, however, was not widely accepted by a British geological world unwilling to break altogether with the Biblical narrative. Meanwhile, the French Georges Cuvier, known as the “founding father of paleontology,” countered uniformitarianism with another geological hypothesis called “catastrophism,” which argued that the geological features of the earth, along with the history of life, could be explained by catastrophic events, not a single catastrophe, but several, causing the extinction of many species of animals and resulting in the sharp lines of demarcation between the successive strata and the presence of distinctive fossil remains in each layer of rock.

But soon a new perspective known as “uniformitarianism” came on the horizon thanks to the Scottish James Hutton (1726-1797), identified by some as the first student of the earth who may properly be called a geologist. In his The Theory of the Earth, or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe (1788), he provided a rigorous explanation, grounded in scientifically acceptable principles and based on the existing geological data, why the age of the Earth was indefinitely long. The same geological forces that are seen to be in operation in our present-day, he argued, should be used to explain the past geological formation of the Earth. “The past history of our globe,” in his words, “must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now… No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”

The powers of nature act uniformly through time, rather than suddenly through cataclysms. This is the uniformitarian principle. While stressing the internal heat of the Earth, he did not neglect the geological effects of water, observing two sorts of rocks in the Earth’s crust, one of aqueous origin and the other of igneous origin. The intense internal heat of the Earth was responsible for uplifting mountains to form land masses, bending and stilting strata, where they would then be subjected to erosion, re-deposition and volcanism; and these processes acted over a very long time scale.

In time, however, the uniformitarian school gained the upper hand, particularly after Charles Lyell published his celebrated three volume work, Principles of Geology (1830-33), which synthesized thirty years of geological discoveries in favor of Hutton’s uniformitarian theory. Although Lyell did not argue in favor of the transmutation of species, some in the geological community felt ill at ease with the notion that the succession of fossils in the rock strata pointed in the direction of the evolutionary succession of species.

The Anglican priest Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873), notwithstanding his proposal of the Cambrian and Devonian period of the geological timescale, thought that a uniformitarian history of the earth could be harmonized with the Bible, though he never explained how, other than objecting to the evolution of new species. It was not until Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859) was widely accepted that Lyell’s theory ceased to be widely opposed.

We often hear that Darwin obtained the idea of the mechanism of evolution from Thomas Malthus’s famous essay on population. We rarely hear that it was Lyell’s theory, in Darwin’s own words, that led him to the theory of evolution itself. Once the Biblical time barrier on the history of the Earth was broken by geologists, a historical revolution was precipitated in biology, leading to Darwin’s theory of natural selection about how species form and change over time. The current geological consensus today is that the Earth’s history is a slow, gradual process punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events.

Every participant in these debates was a European. The rest of the world was oblivious about this revolution in geology, as it was about Newtonian science, and the amazing revelation that the Earth’s history was very old and could be explained with the powers of the human mind.

Chinese “Geology”

Be on guard about the multicultural claim that geology began in ancient China. Joseph Needham, in his exhaustive work, Science and Civilization in China, offers a section with the title “The sciences of the earth: Geology and related sciences,” arguing that long before the “largely modern, post-Renaissance science” of geology emerged in the West, the Chinese in the eleventh century already “understood those conceptions which, when stated by James Hutton in 1802, were to be the foundation of modern geology” (293). However, no actual Chinese treatises on geology are brought up by Needham, for none existed. What we get instead are isolated passages from various Chinese “masters” which supposedly amounted to explanations of the “origin of mountains, uplifting, erosion, and sedimentary deposition”.

Here is one passage from Shen Kua written “about the year 1070” supposedly explaining “how the earth formed as a deposit from the water”:

Now I myself have noticed that Yen-Tang Shan is different from other mountains. All its lofty peaks are precipitous, abrupt, sharp and strange; its huge cliffs, 300 metres high, are different from what one finds in other places…Considering the reasons for this I think that the mountain torrents have rushed down, carrying away all sand and earth, thus leaving the hard rocks standing alone (292).

This is followed by another passage where Shen Kua explains the origins of “uplifted strata”:

…Naturally mud and silt will be carried eastwards by these streams year after year, and in this way the substance of the whole continent must have been laid down.

Needham provides pictorial representations of fossil animals along with descriptive passages to show that the Chinese anticipated modern European geology. He mentions “the most famous text” on the origins of the earth, namely, the “Collected Works of Master Chu Hsi” (1130-1200):

I have seen mountain conchs and oyster shells, often embedded in rocks. These rocks in ancient times were earth or mud, and the conchs and oysters lived in water. Subsequently everything that was at the bottom came to be at the top, and what was originally soft became solid and hard. One should meditate deeply on such matters, for these facts can be verified” (290).

These are the best passages provided by Needham. They are intelligent descriptions for their time, but nowhere near a science of geology. Isolated descriptions, without principles and without a theory, do not constitute a science. Geology became a science in the West in the wake of the Galilean-Newtonian science of mechanics, the theory of universal gravitation, the theory of the circulation of the blood, along with the consolidation of the science of chemistry, botany, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.

The Chinese believed that the Earth was flat until the Jesuits taught them otherwise in the seventeenth century. None of the geologists Needham mentions wrote a treatise that can be classified as “geological” in dealing with the origins of the Earth. If the Chinese were so advanced in their geological reflections back in ancient times, anticipating Hutton, how come no further insights came out of China in the next thousand years? After Hutton, Europeans would go on to develop techniques to date the rock strata of the Earth as well as a variety of methods to understand the Earth’s structure and evolution, including field work, rock description, geophysical techniques, chemical analysis, physical experiments, and numerical modelling.

The Treatises Of Theophrastus, Agricola, And Steno

As it is, the ancient Greeks were already writing treatises that were more theoretical in their geological insights than the descriptive passages of the Chinese. Theophrastus (372-287 BC) in his treatise On Stones, classified rocks and gems based on their behavior when heated, grouping minerals by common properties, and writing about the fossilized remains of organic life. The Wikipedia page on Shen Kuo (1031-1095) portrays him as a scientist in all the fields of human knowledge:

He was a mathematician, astronomer, antiquarian, meteorologist, geologist, entomologist, anatomist, climatologist, zoologist, botanist, pharmacologist, medical scientist, agronomist, archeologist, ethnographer, cartographer, geographer, geophysicist, metallurgist, mineralogist, encyclopedist, military general, diplomat, hydraulic engineer, inventor, economist, academy chancellor, finance minister, governmental state inspector, philosopher, art critic, poet, and musician.

Clearly, the multicultural establishment has lowered the criteria of what constitutes a science in their eagerness to be inclusive; yet they can barely hang on to China as a viable intellectual competitor. The etymology of all the sciences are European, because Europeans originated all the sciences; and so is the idea of logos, of making an argument through reasoned discourse, not through mere assertions and descriptions, but on the basis of explicitly stated principles.

The etymology of geology tells us that the root of this word is very recent; only in 1795 do we find explicit statements about geology as a “science of the past and present condition of the Earth’s crust,” from Modern Latin geologia “the study of the earth”. German Geologie is attested in 1785. The word-forming element meaning “the Earth” comes from the Greek term geo-, and the word-forming element meaning “discourse, treatise, doctrine, theory, science” comes from the Greek term -logia.

The Chinese did not write a single treatise on geology because they lacked a notion of writing treatises, doctrines and theoretical scientific works. Whereas Shen Kuo left us with no scientific treatises, we have two surviving botanical works by Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants, which are recognized as the first systemization of the botanical world with plants classified according to their modes of generation, their localities, their sizes, and their practical uses.

Before Hutton, we have the German Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), who wrote full treatises, including De Natura Fossileum, De Ortu et Causis Subteraneum, and De Re Metallica, where he attempted to explain the existence of mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes, recognized the power of wind and water as an erosive force, associated the hot interior of the Earth with volcanoes and earthquakes, and put together a classification system of the mineral kingdom. De Re Metallica remained the standard textbook on mining and metallurgy for over two hundred years. Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer before he became U.S. President, translated De Re Metallica into English in 1912, believing that Agricola was “the first to found any of the natural sciences upon research and observation, as opposed to previous fruitless speculation.” If anyone deserves to be celebrated for making an essential contribution to the beginnings of the science of geology, it is Agricola.

Then we have the Danish Nicholas Steno (1638-1686), who went beyond mere description to formulate path breaking geological principles in an actual treatise, Dissertationis prodromus, published in 1669. This treatise is acknowledged today for establishing, on the basis of inductive reasoning, four of the foundational principles of the science of stratigraphy: the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality, the principle of lateral continuity, and the principle of cross-cutting relationships.

The Earth Is 4.54 Billion Years Old

I left other names from this account of the discovery of geological time, such as William Smith, who published three works from 1815 to 1817, gave geology a descriptive methodology for assigning relative ages to the various strata of the Earth, and provided the first geological map of England and Wales. After the 1830s, geology became a professional vocation with many names making important contributions and reaching ever more accurate estimations of the Earth’s age with the assistance of European physicists and chemists.

In 1896 radioactive isotopes were discovered by the French physicist Henri Becquerel showing that heat from their decay pointed to an Earth hundreds of millions of years old. Between 1903 and 1906, the renowned New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) determined that isotopes could be used to date rocks. By the 1930s, through the efforts of Arthur Holmes, the age of the earth had expanded to about 2 billion years. In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method, radiocarbon dating, which allowed for the dating of organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14. This method provided objective age estimates for carbon-based objects that originated from living organisms. The “radiocarbon revolution” finally allowed Europeans to reach the conclusion that the Earth was 4.54 billion years old.


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: “The Geologist,” by Carl Spitzweg; painted ca. 1860.

Chemistry: The Western Invention

Chemistry is a relatively young field, becoming a science between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One can’t speak of a “science” unless it is a discipline with “its own concepts, its own techniques, and its own applicability” (Hall, p. 303). Whereas sixteenth century physics (mechanics/astronomy) was a “highly organized, mathematically sophisticated, theoretical science” (Rossi, p. 139), with a long line of great scientists going back to ancient times and the Renaissance, backed by figures like Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Copernicus, modern chemists were preceded by alchemists, druggists, iatrochemists, and sorcerers. It was only during Robert Boyle’s (1627-91) generation that chemistry started to become conscious of its own distinctive field of study with its own specialized concepts.

Some believe that chemistry came into the light only when the investigation of gases proceeded rapidly in the hands of Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), the theologian Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and Carl Scheele (1742-1786), when chemists came to see that air was an active ingredient in chemical reactions and not the only sort of gas; when Joseph Black showed in the 1750s that “fixed air” (CO2) was distinguishable from normal air, and when Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen theory of combustion was confirmed in 1772, and his book, Traité élémentaire de chimie, was published in 1789, the first modern chemical textbook with a new nomenclature, in which precise terms came to identify the nature of the substances, with hydrogen, for example, replacing the vague term “inflammable air, and oxygen replacing Priestley’s “eminently respirable air” term.

It was then, some argue, that a new scientific paradigm emerged in the study of matter deserving the name of chemistry. Today we can say that chemistry is the science that studies the properties and behavior of matter, or the way the atoms and molecules that make up the ultimate elements of nature interact and adopt new combinations to create compounds.

It would be a mistake, then, to have headlines about “Chemistry in the Ancient World” or “Alchemy and the Birth of Chemical Science,” as books on the history of chemistry, or chemistry books for high school students, are increasingly doing to be more “inclusive”. The science of chemistry was developed by Europeans. This does not mean that researchers in mineralogy, pharmacology and alchemy did not play a significant role in the eventual development of chemistry. A.R. Hall, in his classic book, The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800: the Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (first published in 1954), goes too far claiming that “it is almost useless to look to them [the alchemists] for the beginnings of a chemical attitude” (p. 307). It is true that alchemists had no criteria for distinguishing factual knowledge “from the products of their own extravagant imaginations” and believed they were searching for the ultimate elixir, an alchemical substance capable of turning base metals like mercury into gold, or affording immortality to humans. Everywhere in their writings there were invisible forces, vital agents, mysterious spirits inside matter.

Yet, in fairness, alchemists did explore and greatly expand our knowledge of substances and their reactions, including the Islamic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-815), who identified two elements, sulphur and mercury, and synthesized ammonium chloride. It may be an exaggeration to say that Paracelsus (1493-1541), a Swiss physician, took alchemy “on the road to becoming chemistry,” but he did forge a new field, iatrochemistry, which endeavored to unite medicine with chemistry; and he offered descriptions of the properties of mercury, zinc, cobalt, potassium and other metals. The nobleman from Brussels, Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644), despite his believe in vital animistic forces in matter, developed iatrochemistry in a more quantitative direction, adopted the theory of void space, and advanced an explanation of digestion as the action of acid as an agent in the transformation of foods.

Hall is far more sympathetic to the “empirical knowledge of the phenomena of chemistry” rooted in glass-making, the metallurgical industry of smelting and refining of metals, the pharmacological preparation of medicaments and the discovery of alcohol, including the differentiation of saltpetre from soda (which made gunpowder possible)—knowledge which emanated from a Hellenistic tradition centered in Alexandria, and from India, China and the Islamic peoples. The mineralogical and pharmacological knowledge of the Chinese, as Joseph Needham has documented, was considerable, their distinction between saltpetre, alum, and their knowhow in tanning, dyeing, painting and fire-work-making, but this scattered knowledge was descriptive and for practical uses, unguided by any scientific principles. It would also be a mistake to say that the origins of chemistry are to be found in the ancient Greek idea that everything on earth was made up of four foundational elements (earth, water, fire, and air) or that indivisible particles “generate all composite things”.

Perhaps the best candidate to represent the beginnings of the science of chemistry is the Anglo-Irish Robert Boyle. Boyle, a devout Anglican who sponsored missionary activities and wrote theological treatises, was a prominent figure in the articulation of the modern science of mechanics, with its idea that natural phenomena operated according to mechanical laws. He actually sought to integrate chemistry with physics as the two sciences that are seeking to explain the properties of matter. His book The Sceptical Chymist (1661) attacked the ancient doctrine of the four elements, proposed a clear definition of element as a “perfectly unmingled body, which not being made of other bodies…are the ingredients of which…mixt bodies are immediately compounded”—which anticipated the modern theory of molecules and atoms. He is known for his famous “Boyle’s law” which states that there is an inverse relationship between pressure and volume of gas, and for promoting the idea that air played a vital part in combustion. From this point on, there is a consensus among historians that the following names were critical in the consolidation of the science of chemistry: G. E. Stahl (1660-1734), Cavendish, Priestly, Black, and Lavoisier.

The Periodic Table

Once Lavoisier, who was raised in a pious Catholic family, set chemistry on a firm scientific footing, and established a good working definition of an element as a substance that cannot be broken into more fundamental constituents, it was a matter of time before new elements would be discovered. Don’t believe the incredibly deceptive Wikipedia claims about how the elements of gold, iron, copper, lead, silver, and tin were discovered in the ancient Middle East and Africa. These metals were used but not consciously discovered as chemical “elements.” It was only as the science of chemistry came into its own that elements came to be progressively discovered. Phosphorus in 1669, cobalt in 1735, nickel in 1751, magnesium in 1755, hydrogen in 1766, oxygen in 1771, nitrogen in 1772—by European names.

The big question in chemistry soon became how to classify the elements. This effort led to the development of the Periodic Table, one of the greatest scientific accomplishments in human history. John Dalton, teacher at a Quaker boarding school, played a crucial role in the classification of elements with the publication of his book, A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), with its observations that the atoms of different elements differed in size, weight and number per unit volume, and that when two elements combined to form a compound each atom of the first element united with one atom of the second element in a series of whole numbers. The studies by Swede Jakob Berzelius (1779-1848) and the Belgian Jean Stas (1813-91) on the atomic weights of the elements, and the law of isomorphism, which allowed Berzelius to determine the formulae of many salts and the atomic weights of their constituent elements, were also important steps in the classification of the elements in a scientifically accurate way.

The making of the Periodic Table included an all-European cast, consisting of Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, John Newlands, Lothar Meyer, and Dimitri Mendeleev. Newlands showed how if the elements were listed in order of atomic weight, each element shared properties with those eight and sixteenth places later. The German Lothar Meyer also noted the sequences of similar chemical and physical properties repeated at periodic intervals. The Russian Mendeleev is the one immortalized for drawing up the Periodic Table in 1869, spelling out systematically how the characteristics of the elements recur at a periodic interval as a function of their atomic weight. Meyer had produced a similar, if less systematic, version of the Table in 1868, but it was Mendeleev who applied himself to the elaboration and defense of his Table, predicting the properties of five unknown elements and what their compounds would be, even before their discovery.

Today the periodic table outlines each element’s electron configuration, the atomic number of the element, and the chemical properties of the element. Many great chemists would come in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish chemists from physicists. Ernest Rutherford, for example, was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908 “for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances” even though he was a physicist who believed that his main contribution was in the pioneering of the nuclear structure of the atom. Marie Curie, on the other hand, a highly gifted chemist, was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 for her work on radioactivity.

I could go on listing great chemists by naming Nobel Prize winners during the 20th century. Most of the names are European, though Jews do start winning prizes during the 1970s, a high number in the 1980s, and some afterwards, along with some non-Europeans. Nevertheless the basic thesis of this article stands: Europeans originated the science of chemistry, pioneered all the fundamental ideas, from the seventeenth until the twentieth century, created the research centers and university departments that would transform chemistry into an institutionalized field with thousands of scholars and researchers, working less as individuals than as members of research teams funded in the millions, and making new contributions, but relatively minor, and none in the macro scale of the pioneers listed above.


Ricardo Duchesne has also written on the creation of the university. He the author of The Uniqueness of Western CivilizationFaustian Man in a Multicultural AgeCanada in Decay: Mass Immigration, Diversity, and the Ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.


Featured image: “The Alchemist,” by Newell Convers Wyeth, painted in 1937.