The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea

By Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea


Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M., Comparative Civilizations Review


Bruce Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea. University of Chicago Press, 2009

This is a book strong on definitions and bolstered by extensive citation from literature in tiie field. Professor Bowden is from Australia, where he teaches at the University of New South Wales, and his perspectives are not clouded by bias towards or against the United States, the West - meaning Europe - or some of the ideological clutter that filters analysis through political correctness.

The introduction to the book, which is also the first chapter, establishes the central question that remains in focus throughout the 231 page text, which is heavily footnoted by an additional 35 pages. There is also a bibliography and index, both of which are extremely useful for finding some of the myriad citations. Bowden repeats the issue raised by the 18' century French philosopher-historian, François Guizot, as to whether or not there is a universal civilization. Bowden shows that virtually every answer to that question about universal civilization is biased in favor of the European Enlightenment, American political hegemony, or both.

He poses Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, on one side with a rival Francis Fukuyama of fame for The End of History and the Last Man on the other. While the former is shown in the book to argue that civilizations are at war until one is left standing, the latter argues that conflict has already been settled in favor of progress. But both authors interpret the West as the definitive example of civilization.

This early serving-up of die central idea and its conclusions does not detract from the exhaustive analysis in historical perspective of how the term and the idea behind civilization have been used over more than two centuries.

In this second chapter, the French notion of civilisation is discussed with exhaustive detail about its origins in the Enlightenment and the various uses and misuses of the term to exalt the European experience. He compares the French approach to civilisation with the German method of Begriffsgeschichte because both more or less rely on a history of ideas that become the intellectual structure for justifying themselves.

Citing Norbert Elias, Bowden notes that this self-justifying terminology allows civilization to become empire, since bringing civilization to barbarians and savages entails making tiiem submissive to imposed political and social norms. The English, on the other hand, tend to follow what Bowden calls "the Cambridge School" that places emphasis on stages and historical evolution in civilizational advancements.

The German use of Kultur has been intended, says Bowden, as a response to the French use of civilisation, which is characterized as effete and elitist in meaning, whereas the German thinkers tend to view the vitality of Kultur as rooted in the experiences of the Volk. This anti-elitist sense of historical change can be found notably in Nietzsche. Yet, even this rebel views such contestation of imposed social values as driving history towards greater freedom, more or less what the Cambridge School and the French also bestow upon "civilization."

The third chapter focuses upon what the discovery of America meant to the theories of civilization. Bowden shows special skill in linking together the thought of Locke, Hobbes, the later Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith, and the anthropologist Louis Henry Morgan on the legal and commercial implications of encountering nonEuropean civilization. The author deftly swings to the Spanish experience with the Native Americas and back to the Europeans, Voltaire, Turgot and Condorcet.

He shows how these writers laid the foundations for Herder, Kant and eventually for Hegel, each of whom argued for the necessity of the state as the prerequisite for civilization. Societies that had no state, it was said, suffered a moral necessity for a state to be imposed. …

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