Category Archives: Books

Reviews and reflections on recent reading

Barbarism, Civilization, and the Role of Scholar-Teachers

I am finally back at the Newberry and finishing research for the paper I am preparing for publication.  Currently, I am standing at my desk and enjoying the raised platform I created for my laptop.  It turns out that books are good for more than the advancement of knowledge and doorstops!

Recently, I ran across Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations, trans. Andrew Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). The first chapter is the only one directly applicable to my research, as he traces the notions of “civilization” and “barbarism” to their roots in ancient Greece, but the introduction and first chapter were so interesting that I bought the book so I can read the rest of it when I have more time. (I don’t know when that will happen, but it’s at least a theoretical possibility.) I would recommend the book to anyone interested in understanding the processes by which groups of people diminish others to justify invasions (yes, including the recent US invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan), conquest, colonization, and atrocities.  His arguments are thought-provoking, and although not all of them are pertinent to my article, I would still like to spend some time grappling with them.

Todorov defined “civilization” as the act of treating others with dignity and respect, actions in accord with the perception of another person or people as human. “Barbarism” is an act that demonstrates the perpetrator’s perception of the victim as less than human and therefore deserving of cruel treatment. Neither a person nor a society can be accurately labeled “civilized” or “barbarian” since these terms designate singular actions that grow out of one’s perception of the humanity or inhumanity of another.  Equally important, Todorov notes that to be human is to be barbarian and that acts of barbarism and civilized behavior are both part of human nature.  Thus, the equation of barbarity with inhumanity is incorrect.

In describing the process of civilization, Todorov suggests that there is a moral demand placed on the “civilized” person that has an intellectual dimension: “getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilization, since in this way you are enlarging the circle of humanity. Thus scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity” (10-11).

In this, I find the answer to a question I have been pondering since I began grad school – Why are scholars, historians in particular, important? (Are they?) I have been wondering for some time if I might better serve others in a different capacity. However, in this statement, I see that scholars’ pursuit of understanding serves a greater purpose and is not quite as selfish as it might first appear. Their efforts to teach people to see others in a new light and with greater sympathy, even empathy, is noble and necessary to help people progress towards more “civilized” mindsets and behavior. Todorov and his translator have eloquently stated why I found teaching high school history meaningful.  Exploring, discussing, and teaching history allows one to expand her view of the world, grow in her understanding of others, and consequently, make the world a better place through the compassion and empathy that greater understanding develops.

According to Todorov, an understanding of the past is a necessary component of the idea of civilization.  Those with limited historical knowledge and who have not learned about their own social codes, let alone those of others face significant obstacles on the path towards greater civilization.  Todorov goes further and states that they “will be inevitably condemned to moving only within his or her small group and excluding others from it,” doomed to a state of lesser civilization (12-3).

In a none-too-subtle shot at ethnocentrism in general, as well as French and American superiority complexes more specifically, Todorov asserts, “A culture that encourages its members to become aware of their own traditions, but also to be able to distance themselves from those traditions, is superior (being more ‘civilized’) to that which contents itself with pandering to the pride of its members by assuring them that they are the best in the world and that other human groups are not worthy of interest. We reach this critical distance by examining our traditions critically, or comparing and contrasting them with those of another culture” (23-4). [i.e. We become more civilized through education and encountering ‘others’, particularly in history, anthropology, sociology, and literature.]

While I agree that it is difficult to comprehend one’s own culture in relation to others without historical knowledge, I would contend that Todorov has overlooked the power of experiential knowledge.  Although he does not explicitly state that the knowledge to which he refers is transmitted through educational systems and books, it is implied.  However, informal education and first person interactions with people who practice different customs, speak other (foreign or barbarian, in the original sense) languages, and organize society in different ways can be just as powerful, if not more so, in reshaping one’s perceptions as formal education and knowledge acquired through reading.

To progress toward civilization, one must recognize the plurality of cultures and that this diversity does not make others more or less human.  One must also dissociate customs from value judgments.  For instance, the French could not see Amerindian marriage practices or sexual norms as anything but immoral.  However, since these customs did not violate social norms in Indian societies or consider some people as less than human or inhuman, these practices cannot be considered barbaric, according to Todorov’s modern definition.  Alas, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Frenchmen believed differently and linked the concept of barbarism with actions they viewed as immoral.

Claude Lévi-Strass wrote in “Race and History” (1952), “‘By refusing to see as human those members of humanity who appear as the most ‘savage’ or ‘barbaric’, one only borrows from them one of their characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is first of all the man who believes in barbarism’” (in Todorov, 38-9).  That is, by refusing to recognize the humanity of a person one categorizes as “savage” or “barbaric,” that person becomes a ‘barbarian’ herself. I understand where Lévi-Strauss is coming from and agree more with his statement than Todorov’s viewpoint in relation to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century perceptions.  Even more dramatically in the nineteenth century, Frenchmen considered those they labeled as barbarians to be either not quite as human or even inhuman and by this reasoning could excuse such cruel practices as torture, land appropriation, genocide during conquest, and unequal laws that contradicted their own Declaration of the Rights of Man.

On the other hand, Todorov makes a number of points that I wish more people understood in today’s society.  I wish they were understood in the past as well, but we can only change the present.  Most importantly, every person grows up in a particular culture, but she is only imprisoned by it if she so chooses.  Since it cannot be said that an entire culture is either civilized or barbaric, a person may develop more civilized principles grounded in his own culture, and this is true of any culture.

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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in Books, Research, Society


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