Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/May 1915/Barbarism, Culture, Empire, Union




THE word “barbarism” voices the contempt of the Greeks for the peoples of other speech about them. Barbarian (βάρβαρος) is one of the words called onomatopoetic, whose sense is in its sound. It sounds like mere mouthing, and “bellower” or “inarticulate speaker” is its original sense. A barbarian meant to the Greeks one denied the main channel of human sympathy—the gift of comprehensible utterance. His language is pure babble. The word traces the undeveloped manners, customs, polity, trade, craftsmanship, art, science, religion, of rude communities back to mutual misunderstanding among their members. They are barbarians because unable to take each other’s point of view. A custom is barbarous when it can not be followed without offending the sensibilities of others. A punishment is barbarous when its anguish to the victim would stay the executioner’s hand were he really alive to it. Mr. Chesterton has just told us that the barbarian is he who “lacks that little mirror in the mind in which we see the mind of the other man”; or, to vary the phrase, “in which we see what the other man has a mind to.”

The opposite of barbarism we call culture. Culture is the reflection within my mind of what my neighbor has a mind to. We owe the word to the Latins, who applied their term for “care” or “tillage” to that mellowed condition of the mental soil in which we come to feel things as other men have felt them. The culture of an individual is the whole body of the ideals he has absorbed from others. The culture of a nation, race or period is the sum and substance of the ideals transmitted from one individual to another until they have become the common property of all within its limits. It is in this collective sense that we speak of Swedish culture, Latin culture, the culture of the Renaissance. Civilization implies culture. The multiplication of common observances, common achievements, is impossible without mutual understanding, without tastes and aspirations shared. A civilization is a precipitate of all the ideals current among its citizens.

High civilization tends to confirm what it leaves of man’s native barbarism. The argument “Our ways are good; therefore no other ways are worth notice” is a non-sequitur dear to the human mind. The legendary order of Caliph Omar for the destruction of the Alexandrian Library bespoke culture and barbarism at once: “If these books confirm the Koran, they need not be preserved; if they oppose the Koran, they should not be preserved.” The Greeks called Egyptians, Latins, Hebrews, Hindus, alike barbarians, and disclosed their own barbarism in so doing. The Jews were to Jews the chosen people of God. To the Chinese the Chinese alone are Celestials. To us of the United States our own land alone is God’s country. The possession of these lofty and complex ideals but emphasizes the inability of their possessors to transcend them.

Barbarism may be either naїve or conscious. Incapacity to share in the desires of others may be betrayed either by ignoring them or by aiming to thwart them. We associate the attitude of indifference with the lower animals, and call it brutal; the attitude of frowardness with evil spirits, and call it devilish. The one betokens vacuity of mind, the other perversity of heart.

Beyond both indifference and frowardness, but barbaric like both, stands the spirit of empire; the impulse to impose my will, irrespective of what I will, upon others, irrespective of what they will. This attitude of mind is barbaric, for it reveals my inability to take to heart what others have at heart; but it is more than brutal barbarism, for it takes the wills of others into account; and it is more also than devilish barbarism, for it builds my own will as well as destroys theirs. It is neither dumb, like animal selfishness, nor is it outspoken in the words of Mephistopheles: “I am the spirit that denies;” but in the words of Napoleon: “I was born to bend the wills of other men to mine.” The instinct of empire is a social attitude in its external recognition of others; it is unsocial, in failing to make that recognition an inward fact.

Such an external recognition of another’s purposes is compatible, be it said, with unlimited instruction concerning them. For all intellectual apprehension of taste is knowledge about it; we must feel in order to know taste itself. The external attitude is even fostered by instruction; since knowing so much we may easily fancy we know all. We become pedants of culture, mistaking its cognitive shell for its sensitive kernel. However rich our information concerning the ideals of another, unless in some degree we share them, our culture as far as he is concerned is nil. Looking on without taking part, perceiving without experiencing, we remain essentially barbarian.

Culture, the actual assimilation of the ideals of other people, replaces the spirit of empire by a spirit which may be called that of union. The spirit of empire is a simple intention, namely, the establishment of my will, because mine, in place of other wills, because other than mine. The spirit of union proves to contain a triple intention. The penetration of another mind has three effects upon mine: the awakening of certain desires of the other in me, the missing of certain of my desires in him, and the recognition of a conflict between certain of my desires and certain of his. The spirit of union thus engenders three purposes: a purpose to partake in admirations, a purpose to impart them, a purpose to reconcile them. Were two minds in perfect union, each would be leader in the pursuit of its own independent purposes, each a cordial second to the independent purposes of the other, and each ready to settle their conflicts of purpose by any means which a sympathetic understanding of the purposes of the other would sanction, and only by such means. So a Christian and a Buddhist, had each a sympathetic grasp of the other's faith, might seek, the one to give, the other to receive, that joy in the Lord which Buddhism has lacked, and that interest in the fate of the whole animate creation which historical Christianity has lacked. So Russia, China and Mongolia, were the mind of each open to the mind of the others—a supposition still extravagant between any peoples—might weigh between them the question whether in the interest of all three Mongolia should remain under Chinese suzerainty, accept Russian rule, or become autonomous.

The spirit of union does not exclude the possibility that the end of a discussion between the parties may be disagreement, and change them from co-workers into opponents. But opponents each responsive to the interests of the other would fight, not for their own interests solely, but for what each believed to be the interests of both. This alone is righteous war. The saying of Benjamin Franklin: “There never was a good war or a bad peace”—was a pardonable exaggeration; but we make it a falsehood when we interpret it to mean that there never can be a good war or a bad peace. The spirit of union, which is the spirit of good will, aims at peace, but only in the interest of all; and may inexorably demand war, also in the interest of all.

To the lasting honor of this nation, the United States have been the first to enter into treaties embodying this third requisite of cultivated relations with other peoples. However infrequent the use of such machinery of discussion in advance of war, it will not rust ingloriously, for it is made of a metal that rust can not corrupt. No other machinery, thanks to man’s inventiveness, is needed to-day by the spirit of union. The freedom of intercourse between nations of the modern world in itself provides for the satisfaction of the two other impulses which make up the spirit of union—the impulse to offer to others our share, and to gain from them their share in the world’s ideals.

To which of these two spirits—empire, or union—does the future belong? To the spirit of union, for a reason partly psychological and partly mathematical. Conquests unite the conquered against the conqueror; and combinations tend to be stronger than individuals. Minds being what they are and numbers being what they are, a man is apt to avail more through his friends than through his own right arm. The clasp of the hand will outlive the blow; for there is the strength of two behind every grasp, and of but one behind any blow that evokes it.

A play on French words may serve to fix in mind the necessary evanescence of empire. We may fancy that the word derives from the verb empirer, signifying to deteriorate. By this burlesque etymology its root-meaning comes to be that of going from bad to worse; and an empire becomes accordingly that form of international organization which is foredoomed to decline and fall.

Even the short span of years which recorded history has yet covered brings ample evidence in support of this definition. Either external coalitions to overthrow them or internal coalitions to reject their yoke have ended, or threaten to end, nearly every known empire. The British Empire which still stands and even shows signs of permanence, has learned the lesson of union, and bids fair to become an empire in its name alone. British imperialism was once, as Professor Cramb has told us, the will to give all men under British sway an English mind, in the spirit of the boast of Alexander the Great: “I will make all men Hellenes.” But the instruction of England in the larger art of government, begun in North America, has been continued since, and her imperial aim is fast becoming a will to live with other men and let them live. The British Empire, if it last, will one day be what the Seven Seas choose to make of it, not what England alone chooses to make of it. The Irish mind, the Boer mind, the Hindu mind, will share with others in the process. The United States have of late been tempted to forget the lesson they themselves taught; but Cuba, Mexico and the Philippines stand as witnesses that for all our growth in power, we still hold fast to the doctrines of our Declaration of Independence. With a giant’s strength we have twice and even thrice refused to use it like a giant. Born a Union, we are engaged in laying the foundations of other unions. It is possible to conceive of but one more august political structure than these—one in which every sovereign people in the world should contribute each its own mind to a union which should ensure the perpetual development of the minds of all.

The conclusion of the whole matter may be put into modern American. Empire is the child of the barbarism out of which the world tends; culture the parent of the union into which the world tends. There is no middle term; for it is always barbarism to claim “I am It”; and culture always answers: “There are others.”