Europe and Mankind—English translation
This is currently unfinished, but I want the public to be able to see the sections that I have translated so far. Europe and Mankind is an interesting essay written by Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy (1890–1938), who happens to be a first cousin thrice removed. He was primarily a linguist, but occasionally wrote on historical and sociological topics. I am not an expert in the meta-historical domain whatsoever, so I can’t offer any informed commentary.
I merely stumbled upon this essay and found it extremely relevant to today’s world. However, there doesn’t appear to be an English translation available. I figured, I might as well translate it, and at the same time better understand the ideas of Nikolay Sergeyevich and others like him.
This is an interpretive translation. My emphasis is on getting across Nikolai Sergeyevich’s ideas as clearly as possible in standard modern English, without distorting them. If you are a scholar interested in closely analyzing the exact words and terms used, you should look at the Russian original.
Subheadings (below the level of “Preface”, “Part 1”, etc.), summaries, notes, and highlights are added by me. Since this is my personal website, I want to share my thoughts and interactions with the text.
Europe and Mankind
By Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy, Sofia, 1920.
Translated into modern English by Alexandr (Sasha) Trubetskoy, 2020.
The events of the Great War and Russian Revolution have moved Trubetzkoy to share his thoughts on European culture and identity.
He feels that more and more people agree with him and is now more comfortable sharing.
He hopes to rally his community of like-minded people to help implement these ideas.
It is not without hesitation that I offer this work to the world. The thoughts expressed here already coalesced in my mind some 10 years ago. Since then, I have discussed these topics with many different people, wishing either to test myself, or to convince the other person. Many of these conversations and discussions turned out to be rather beneficial to me, since they forced me to flesh out and deepen my ideas and arguments. But they did not change my core ideas. Of course I could not possibly limit myself to casual conversations. In order to verify whether the theses that I am defending are actually correct, I had to open these ideas up to a broader discussion, i.e. publish them. This I have still not done. And I haven’t done this because, over many conversations (especially early on), I got the impression that most of the people I came across simply did not understand what I was trying to say. They didn’t understand—not because I wasn’t expressing myself clearly, but because the majority of educated Europeans find these ideas inherently unacceptable, as if they go against some unshakeable psychological foundation that is the basis of European thought. People saw me as a purveyor of paradoxes, and my arguments as callously nonconformist. Needless to say, under those circumstances, I found debating neither meaningful nor beneficial, for a debate can only be productive when both sides understand each other and speak the same language. And since, at the time, I found hardly anything besides misunderstanding, I did not consider it timely to publicize my thoughts. I waited for a more opportune moment.
My decision to go to print is largely due to the fact that I am encountering more and more people who understand me; moreover, I am beginning to find people who agree with my core ideas. It turns out that many people have, completely independently, arrived at the same conclusions as I have. There seemed to have been a shift in the thinking of many educated people. The Great War and, in particular, the ensuing “peace” (which I am still forced to put in quotes), have challenged people’s faith in “civilized society” and have opened the eyes of many. We Russians are, of course, in a special situation. We have witnessed the sudden collapse of what we had called Russian culture. Many of us were shocked by the incredible speed and lack of difficulty with which it all happened, and many have pondered the causes of this phenomenon.
Perhaps this pamphlet may help some of my compatriots to clear up their own thoughts on the matter. Some of my positions could have been amply illustrated with examples from Russian history. This might have made my writing more lively and engrossing, but such digressions would have made the bigger picture less clear. In offering the reader these relatively new ideas, my main concern is to present these ideas clearly and in a logical progression. Furthermore, my thoughts apply not only to Russians, but to all other peoples which have in one form or another taken up European culture without actually having Romance or Germanic heritage. When I release this booklet to the world in the Russian language, I do so only because charity begins at home, and above all I would like for my thoughts to be received and understood by my fellow countrymen.
In offering my thoughts to the reader’s attention, I would like to remind the reader of a choice that they must personally make for themselves. One of the following must be true. Either the ideas that I am defending are false, and stand to be disproven logically; or these ideas are true, and we must draw practical conclusions from them.
Accepting the truth of the theses in this brochure obligates one to do further work. Having accepted these theses, one must develop and concretize them in order to apply them to real life, and to use this point of view to revisit many of the questions that present themselves throughout life. Many people nowadays are “reevaluating their values” in one way or another. For those who do accept the theses that I defend, the last ones will serve to indicate the direction in which this reevaluation should go. There is no doubt that the work that proceeds from the acceptance of these ideas, be it theoretical or practical, must be a collective effort. Any individual can abandon some idea or join a well-known cause, but it is the collective that must develop an entire system based on these thoughts and put it into practice. I invite anyone who shares my convictions to participate in this collective work. I am convinced that these people exist, thanks to a few serendipitous encounters. All they must to do is join forces in earnest, concerted effort. And if my brochure can serve as the catalyst to unite these people, I would consider my goal accomplished.
On the other hand, there are moral obligations that likewise befall those who reject my theses as false. If the theses that I defend are truly false, then they are toxic and must be opposed. But since (dare I say) they are grounded in logic, then their refutation must be no less logical. This must be done in order to save those who have tasted these ideas from getting lost. The author himself, without second thoughts, would forever toss aside these unpleasant, disconcerting thoughts that have haunted him for over a decade, if only someone would prove to him that they are logically false.
Chauvinism and cosmopolitanism
On the issue of nationalism, Europeans seem to fall on a spectrum with “chauvinism” on one end, and “cosmopolitanism” on the other.
In reality, the two are the same thing. Cosmopolitanism is just a chauvinism of Romano-Germanic values.
There is a fairly large number of positions that every European could hold regarding the question of nationalism, but they are all on a spectrum between two extremes: chauvinism on one side, and cosmopolitanism on the other. All nationalism is essentially a combination of elements of chauvinism or cosmopolitanism, a way of reconciling these two opposed notions.
There is no doubt that this is how a European sees chauvinism and cosmopolitanism—as two fundamentally, intrinsically opposite points of view.
However, one cannot agree with this setup of the question. The moment you take a closer look at chauvinism and at cosmopolitanism, you will notice that there is no inherent distinction between the two. You will see that the two are no more than two levels, two differing manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon.
The Chauvinist takes a priori the position that the best people in the world happen to be his people. His people’s culture is better and more complete than all other cultures. His people have the exclusive right to lead and dominate other peoples, who must submit—accepting the dominant faith, language and culture—and become assimilated. Everything that stands in the way of his Great People’s final triumph must be swept away with force. This is how the Chauvinist thinks and, accordingly, acts.
The Cosmopolite rejects any distinction between ethnicities. If such distinctions do exist, they must be annihilated. Civilized human society must be united and have a single culture. Uncivilized peoples must accept this culture and join it, entering the family of civilized peoples, so together they may walk the single path of world progress. Civilization is the ultimate good, in the name of which we must sacrifice our ethnic particularities.
When formulated this way, chauvinism and cosmopolitanism really do seem strikingly different. In the former, supremacy is claimed by the culture of a single ethno-anthropological group, while in the latter—by an overarching, post-ethnic human culture.
But let’s take a look at what European cosmopolites include in their definition of “civilization” and “civilized society”. By “civilization”, they mean to say the culture that was produced by the Germanic and Romance peoples of Europe. And “civilized peoples” refers, first and foremost, to those very Germanics and Romance, and only then to peoples that have accepted European culture.
And so we see that the culture that Cosmopolites believe should reign supreme, abolishing all other cultures, is the culture of the very same particular ethno-anthropological group whose dominance the Chauvinist dreams of. There is no fundamental difference here. In fact, the national, ethno-anthropological and linguistic unity of each of the peoples of Europe is only relative. Each of these peoples is a combination of different, smaller ethnic groups that have their own dialectical, cultural and anthropological features, but are related to each other by ties of kinship and common history that have created a shared stock of cultural values.
Thus, the Chauvinist, bestowing upon his people the crown of creation and deeming them the sole bearers of all possible perfection, is in fact the champion of a whole group of ethnic units. Moreover, the Chauvinist does, after all, want other peoples to merge with his people, losing their national likeness.
Those other nations that have already done this, forfeiting their national identity and taking on the language, faith and culture of his people, the Chauvinist will treat as his own people. He will praise the others’ contributions to the culture of his people—but, of course, only if these other people have truly taken on a disposition that is sympathetic towards him, having completely abandoned their previous national psyche. To the people that assimilated with the dominant nation, the Chauvinists always take a somewhat suspicious attitude, especially if the assimilation happened not long ago. But no Chauvinist fundamentally rejects the newly assimilated—we know, in fact, that among the European Chauvinists there are many people whose surnames and anthropological characteristics clearly show that, by origin, they do not belong to the people whose domination they so vehemently preach.
Now let us consider the European Cosmopolite. We see that, in essence, she is the same as the Chauvinist. The “civilization”, the culture that she considers to be the highest, to which all other cultures should bow down, also represents a known stock of cultural values common to a group of ancestrally and historically related peoples. Just as the Chauvinist ignores the particular characteristics of the individual ethnic groups that make up his own people, the Cosmopolite does away with the peculiarities of individual Romano-Germanic1 peoples and takes only those things that they share in common. She also recognizes the cultural value behind the activities of those non-Romano-Germanic peoples who fully embraced Romano-Germanic civilization, who discarded everything that contradicted the spirit of the dominant civilization, and exchanged their national likeness for one that is pan-Romano-Germanic. Exactly like the Chauvinist, who recognizes those aliens and foreigners that managed to fully assimilate with the dominant people as “his own”! Even the hostility experienced by Cosmopolites towards Chauvinists—and generally to those who separate the cultures of individual Romano-Germanic peoples—even this hostility has a parallel in the worldview of the Chauvinists. Namely, the Chauvinists are always hostile to any attempts at separatism by the separate parts of their people. They try to erase and obscure all regional particularities that could disrupt the unity of their people.
Therefore, as it turns out, there is complete parallelism between the Chauvinist and the Cosmopolite. It is essentially the same treatment of the ethno-anthropological group to which the person happens to belong. The only difference is that the Chauvinist takes a narrower ethnic group than the Cosmopolite. And in doing so, the Chauvinist nonetheless takes a group that is not entirely homogeneous—while the Cosmopolite, in turn, still chooses a particular ethnic group.
Thus the difference is only in scale, not in principle.
Cosmopolitanism is pan-Romano-Germanic chauvinism
Cosmopolitanism is pan-Romano-Germanic chauvinism.
It is founded on unconscious prejudice and an egocentric mindset, which all people have—everyone thinks their group is superior.
When evaluating European cosmopolitanism, you must remember that terms like “mankind”, “human civilization”, etc. are highly nebulous terms that act as cover for very specific ethnographic concepts. The culture of Europe is not the culture of mankind. It is a product of the history of a particular ethnic group. Germanic and Celtic tribes, having been subjected to various degrees of Roman cultural influence, and having strongly intermixed amongst themselves, created a well-known common way of life out of elements of their own national culture and Roman culture. As a result of shared ethnographic and geographical conditions, for a long time they lived a shared existence, with a common history and way of life. Their constant communication with each other made their shared elements so significant that they always unconsciously harbored a sense of Romano-Germanic unity. With time, like so many other peoples, they developed a thirst for studying the sources of their culture. The discovery of monuments to Roman and Greek culture brought to the surface the idea of a transnational world civilization, an idea that is very natural to the Greco-Roman world. We know that this idea was founded, once again, for ethno-geographical reasons. In Rome, the “entire world” meant, of course, simply Orbis terrarum—that is, the peoples that inhabited the Mediterranean basin or that gravitated towards it, who developed a set of shared cultural values as a result of constant contact, and who were finally unified by the homogenizing influences of Greek and Roman colonization and Roman military dominance. In any case, the cosmopolitan ideas of antiquity became the basis for European education. Falling upon the fertile soil of unconscious Romano-Germanic unity, these ideas generated the theoretical foundations for so-called European “cosmopolitanism”, more accurately (and frankly) termed pan-Romano-Germanic chauvinism.
These are the real-life historical foundations of European cosmopolitan theories. The psychological foundation of cosmopolitanism is the same as that of chauvinism. It is a variety of the unconscious prejudice—the particular psychological condition—that is best called egocentrism. A person with a markedly egocentric personality unconsciously considers himself the center of the universe, of all creation; the best, the most perfect of all beings. When considering two other beings, the being that is closer and more like him is better, while the one that is more distant is worse. Therefore, if this person is a member of any natural groups, he would consider them to be superior. His family, his estate, his people, his tribe, and his race are better than all the others. Likewise, the species to which he belongs—the human species—is superior to than all other mammals; mammals themselves are superior to all other vertebrates, and vertebrates in turn are superior to plants; and the organic world is superior to the inorganic world. In one way or another, nobody is free from this kind of thinking. Even science has not yet fully freed itself from this, and any scientific conquest towards liberation from egocentric prejudices comes with great difficulty.
An egocentric mindset permeates the entire worldview of many people. Very few manage to escape it completely. But in its extreme manifestation it is easily noticeable; its ridiculousness is apparent, and so it often elicits criticism, protest and ridicule. If a person is convinced that they are smarter and better than everyone else, and that they have everything going for them, they are usually mocked by those around them. And if that person is also aggressive, then they receive a well-deserved slap on the wrist. If a family is naively convinced that its members are all brilliant, beautiful geniuses, then they are laughed at by their acquaintances, who make amusing jokes about them. Such acute manifestations of egocentrism are rare, and they are typically met with resistance. It’s a different story when the egocentrism spreads to a wider group of persons. Usually, at that point, there is also resistance, but breaking this kind of egocentrism is more difficult. More often than not, two egocentrically-minded groups fight it out and the winner is able to maintain their convictions. This takes place, for example, during class warfare or social struggle. The bourgeoisie that overthrows the aristocracy is just as convinced of its supremacy over all other classes as was the aristocracy. The proletariat that fights against the bourgeoisie also considers itself the salt of the earth, the best out of all the social classes.
But the egocentrism there is fairly obvious, and people with a clearer head, those with a “broader view”, are usually able to rise above such prejudices. When it comes to ethnic groups, these same prejudices are harder to get rid of. In this area, people’s sensitivity in understanding the nature of egocentric prejudices is far from evenly distributed. Many Prussian pan-Germanists harshly criticize those fellow Prussians who hold Prussian people above all other Germans; they consider such jingoism laughable and narrow-minded. Yet, at the same time, the pan-Germans have no doubt whatsoever that the German tribe as a whole is humanity’s crowning achievement. So these people are unable to reach the level of Romano-Germanic cosmopolitanism. The Prussian Cosmopolite, meanwhile, resents his pan-Germanist compatriot, branding him a narrow-minded chauvinist. Yet the Cosmopolite fails to notice that he is very much a chauvinist himself, only a Romano-Germanic one, rather than a pan-German one. So it is only a matter of the scope of one’s sensitivity; one person’s egocentric chauvinist feelings are slightly stronger, the other’s are slightly weaker. Either way, the sensitivity of Europeans to such questions is quite relative. We don’t find very many people who rise beyond so-called cosmopolitanism, i.e. Romano-Germanic chauvinism. Do we know of any Europeans who would be willing to recognize the cultures of so-called “savages”2 as equal in worth to the Romano-Germanic culture? I don’t think such people exist.
Everyone should reject both chauvinism and cosmopolitanism
Both Romano-Germans (RGs) and non-RGs should condemn chauvinism because it is egocentric. RGs must also condemn cosmopolitanism, since it is their form of egocentrism.
Non-RGs, however, are not being egocentric when they subscribe to cosmopolitanism. Nonetheless, they should condemn it, since “the message of the sermon”—RG egocentrism—is “more important than the personal identity of the preacher.”
From the above it is quite clear how a conscientious Romano-German should treat chauvinism and cosmopolitanism. He must acknowledge that one and the other are both based on an egocentric mindset. He must acknowledge that such a mindset is not logically sound, and thus cannot serve as a basis for any theories. Moreover, it should not be difficult for him to understand that egocentrism is inherently anti-cultural and antisocial, and interferes with cohabitation in the broad sense of the word, i.e. the free interaction of all beings. It should be clear to everyone that any kind of egocentrism can be justified only by force, and, as written above, it is only the fate of the winner. That’s why Europeans do not go further than their Romano-Germanic chauvinism—any nation can be conquered by force, but the whole Romano-Germanic tribe in its entirety is so physically strong that it cannot be physically subdued by anyone.
But as soon as all of this reaches the conscience of our hypothetical sensitive and conscientious Romano-German, a conflict would occur in his soul. His whole spiritual culture, his entire worldview is based on the belief that the unconscious spiritual life, and all prejudices based upon it, must give way to the conclusions of reason and logic; that any theories can be constructed only on a logical, scientific basis. His entire sense of right and wrong is based on the rejection of those principles that hinder the free interaction of people. All of his ethics reject the resolution of differences by brute force. But suddenly it turns out that cosmopolitanism is founded on egocentrism! Cosmopolitanism, the pinnacle of Romano-Germanic civilization, is grounded in principles that fundamentally contradict all of this civilization’s primary mantras. The universal religion of cosmopolitanism, it turns out, is founded on anti-cultural egocentrism. The situation is tragic, but there is only one way out. The conscientious Romano-German must forever reject both chauvinism and so-called cosmopolitanism, and hence, the entire spectrum of views on the “national question” that lies in between.
But what position should non-Romano-Germans take in relation to European chauvinism, as representatives of those peoples who never participated in the creation of so-called “European civilization”?
Egocentrism deserves condemnation, not only from the standpoint of only European Romano-Germanic culture, but from the standpoint of all cultures, for it is a starting point that is antisocial and that destroys all cultural communication between people. Therefore, if among non-Romano-Germanic peoples there are chauvinists preaching that theirs is the chosen people, and that all others should submit to their culture, such chauvinists should be fought by their fellow countrymen. But what if individuals from a non-Romano-Germanic people appear, who preach not for the dominance of their own people, but for the dominance of some other, foreign people, offering their own countrymen to assimilate into this “world nation”? After all, there would be no egocentrism in such preaching—on the contrary, this would be highly allocentric. As a result, it is impossible to condemn this kind of preaching in the same way that we condemn chauvinism.
But, on the other hand, isn’t the message of the sermon more important than the personal identity of the preacher? If the domination of People A over People B was being preached by a representative of People A, that would be chauvinism, a manifestation of egocentric thought. Such preaching should be met with resistance by People A as well as People B. But would the whole thing really change, if the voice of the preacher from People A were joined by someone from People B? Of course not; chauvinism is chauvinism. The main actor in this hypothetical situation is, of course, the representative of People A. His mouth articulates his will to subjugate, which is the true meaning of chauvinistic theories. Indeed, the representative of People B may even have a louder voice, but she is essentially less significant. Representative B merely believed Representative A’s argument, took faith in the strength of People A, let People A take her over—or maybe was just bribed. Representative A stands up for himself, while Representative B stands for someone else: B’s lips move, but it is essentially A who is talking. Therefore we are always entitled to consider such preaching as the same chauvinism in disguise.
The hypnotic power of cosmopolitanism
It seems obvious that a culture shouldn’t preach its own self-destruction and assimilation into another culture.
Nonetheless, cosmopolitanism is spreading outside Europe and, in some cases, reaching new heights. This is because non-RGs are misled about its true intent.
All of this discussion, in general, is rather pointless. These are not things that are worth proving logically at length. It is clear to everyone how they would treat their fellow tribe member if that member began to preach that their people should renounce their native faith, language and culture, and try to assimilate with a neighboring people, say, People X. Everyone would certainly consider this person insane, or duped by People X, having lost all national pride—or, finally, as an emissary of people X, sent to spread propaganda for some appropriate compensation. In any case, behind this gentleman’s back, everyone would, of course, suspect him a chauvinist from People X, consciously or unconsciously controlled by their words. Our attitude toward such preaching would not depend at all on whether it came from a compatriot or a foreigner: we would see it without fail as emanating from the people whose dominance, in this case, was being preached. There is no doubt that our attitude toward such preaching would be strongly negative. No normal people in the world, especially a people organized into a state, could voluntarily allow the destruction of their national character in the name of assimilation, even with a “superior” people. To chauvinistic harassment by foreigners, any self-respecting people would answer as Leonidas of Sparta did: “Come and take them.” They would defend their national existence with weapons in hand, even in the face of inevitable defeat.
All this seems obvious, yet there are many facts in the world that contradict all of this. European cosmopolitanism, which, as we have seen above, is nothing more than Romano-Germanic chauvinism, is spreading among non-Romano-Germanic peoples quite rapidly and with very little difficulty. Among the Slavs, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Chinese and Japanese, there are already very many of these cosmopolites. Many of them adhere even more strictly to the ideology than their European counterparts, in terms of rejecting national characteristics, in their contempt for any non-Romano-Germanic cultures, and so on.
What explains this contradiction? Why was pan-Romano-Germanic chauvinism such an undoubted success among the Slavs, when even the slightest hint of Germanophilic propaganda would set off a Slav’s alarm bells? Why is the Russian intellectual vehemently repulsed by the idea that he may be a tool in the hands of German junker nationalists, while that same Russian intellectual is totally comfortable with subordinating himself to Romano-Germanic chauvinists?
The answer lies, of course, in the hypnotic power of words.
As stated above, the Romano-Germans were always so naively confident that they were the only people who could brand themselves as “humanity”, brand their culture as “human civilization”, and finally, brand their chauvinism as “cosmopolitanism”. With this terminology they were able to cover up all of the real ethnographic meaning that makes up these concepts. In doing so, these concepts were made acceptable to representatives of other ethnic groups. When giving foreign peoples those products of their material culture that could be considered the most universal (military equipment and mechanical devices for transport), the Romano-Germans also slip in their “universal” ideas and offer them in exactly this form, taking care to gloss over the ethnographic essence of these ideas.
So the spreading of so-called3 European cosmopolitanism among non-Romano-Germanic peoples is purely a misunderstanding. Those who succumbed to the propaganda of Romano-Germanic chauvinists were misled by the words “mankind”, “humanity”, “universal”, “civilization”, “world progress”, and so on. All these words were understood literally, whereas in reality they concealed very specific and rather narrow ethnographic concepts.
Questions that cosmopolitanists must answer
Non-Romano-Germanic “intellectuals” who were fooled by the Romano-Germans must understand their mistake. They must understand that the culture that they were presented under the guise of “human civilization” is, in fact, the culture of only a certain ethnic group of Germanic and Romance peoples. This insight, of course, should significantly change their attitude toward the culture of their own people. And it should make them think about whether they are right in trying to impose a foreign culture and eradicate the features of their people’s national identity, in the name of some “universal” (in fact, Romano-Germanic, i.e. foreign) ideals. They can only solve this issue after a mature and logical examination of the claims of the Romans to the title of “civilized humanity”. Before deciding whether to accept or not accept Romano-Germanic culture, the following issues have to be resolved:
- Is it possible to objectively prove that the Romano-Germanic culture is superior to all other cultures that exist or have ever existed on Earth?
- Is it possible for one people to fully participate in a culture that was developed by another people, while at the same time maintaining anthropological separation between the two peoples?
- Is inclusion into European culture (since such inclusion is possible) a good or an evil?
These issues must be raised and, in one way or another, resolved by anyone who is aware of the essence of European cosmopolitanism as Romano-Germanic chauvinism. And only with an affirmative answer to all of these questions can a general Europeanization be recognized as necessary and desirable. If any answer is negative, this Europeanization must be rejected and new questions should be raised:
- Is general Europeanization inevitable?
- How do we deal with its negative consequences?
In the following discussion, we will try to resolve all of the questions that we’ve just raised. But in order for the answers to be correct and, most importantly, fruitful, we must invite the reader to temporarily, completely abandon egocentric prejudices, the idols of “human civilization”, and in general the thought process that is typical to Romano-Germanic science. This abandonment is not an easy thing, for the prejudices in question are deeply rooted in the consciousness of every “educated” European person. But we must abandon these things in order to remain objective.
Any “evolutionary ladder” of cultures is illogical
Cultures can be grouped next to each other based on similarity.
But any linear ranking with a “start” and “end” has to be arbitrary.
In the above, we pointed out that Romano-Germanic cultural supremacism is based upon an egocentric mentality. As we know, in Europe, this concept of the utmost perfection of European civilization is given a scientific-seeming foundation, but the validity of this foundation is just an illusion. The problem is that the understanding of evolution as it exists in European ethnology, anthropology and cultural history is itself permeated by egocentrism. The “evolutionary ladder”, “levels of development”—these concepts are all deeply egocentric. At their core lies the assumption that the development of the human species has followed, and continues to follow, the path of so-called world progress. This path is imagined to be a known, straight line. Mankind has been travelling along this straight line, but individual peoples have stopped at various points, as if walking in place; meanwhile, other peoples have managed to move along a bit further, stomping around at the next point, an so on. As a result, when we take a look at the bigger picture of mankind’s current existence, we can see the whole evolutionary process4—at each step of the way that mankind has travelled, there remains today some stagnant people, stuck and walking in place. Thus the current human condition, taken as a whole, represents a sort of rolled-out, chopped-up film of evolution, and the differences between the cultures of various peoples represent different phases of overall human evolution, or different stages along the path of world progress.
If we suppose that this view of the relationship between evolution and reality is correct, we must admit that we are incapable of reconstructing the whole evolutionary picture. Indeed, in order to figure out which culture represents which evolutionary phase, we need to know exactly where lies the beginning, and where lies the end of this straight line of world progress. Only then can we determine what distance separates a given culture from the endpoints the aforementioned ladder of progress and, from there, determine that culture’s evolutionary rank. But we cannot determine the endpoints of the evolution without first reconstructing the whole evolutionary picture. This results in a cursed loop: to recreate the whole evolutionary picture, we need to know its endpoints, but to determine its endpoints, we need to recreate the whole picture. It is clear that the only way to escape this cursed loop is to unscientifically, irrationally claim that one particular culture or another is an evolutionary endpoint. We cannot arrive at such a claim scientifically or objectively, since this kind of evolutionary framework prevents any single culture from containing within itself any information on its position along the evolutionary line. Objectively, the only thing we see is traits of greater or lesser similarity between various cultures. Based on these traits, we can group the cultures of the world so that more similar cultures are put closer together, while more distinct cultures are put farther apart. We cannot do anything beyond this and remain objective. Even if we managed to do this much—to create a continuous chain of similar cultures—we would still not be in a position to objectively determine where the ends of this chain would be.
Let’s clear up this idea with an example. Imagine seven squares, each of which is colored with one color of the rainbow. We line these squares up by color and list them, left to right: green, cyan, blue, violet, red, orange, yellow. Now jumble these squares and ask a volunteer who hasn’t seen the original sequence to line them up, so that every color is between two similar colors. Since our volunteer doesn’t know how the squares were initially set up, it’s clear that if they were to arrange them in the exact same order as above, they would have done so purely by chance. Moreover, the probability of them doing so is 1 in 14.
A scientist who attempts to arrange the present-day human peoples and cultures according to an evolutionary sequence finds herself in the exact same position as our rainbow-arranging volunteer. Even if she places each culture between the two cultures that are most similar, she will still never know where to start—just as in our rainbow example, the volunteer doesn’t know to start with the green square, and to place the cyan square to the right of it, rather than to the left. The only difference is that there are far more than seven cultures, and thus there will be far more than 14 possible arrangements. The probability, then, of finding the “correct” sequence is far smaller.
So if the understanding of evolution that currently prevails in European science is correct, then it is impossible to reconstruct the picture of human cultural evolution. And yet, Europeans assert that they have determined the general course of this evolution. What is the explanation here? Has there truly been a miracle, have European scientists really received from some mysterious source a supernatural revelation, allowing them to identify the endpoints of an evolutionary sequence?
The “scientific” view of human evolution is egocentric
European scientists seeking to describe a “ladder of human evolution” end up placing Romano-Germanic culture at the top for egocentric reasons.
Such a ladder is, in fact, just a ranking of similarity to Romano-Germans.
If we look closely at the result of European scientists’ work related to the scheme of human evolution that they have apparently recreated, it immediately becomes clear that the source of this supernatural revelation was simply their own egocentric mentality. It was this mindset that showed Romano-Germanic scientists, ethnologists and cultural historians where to look for the beginning and end of human development. Instead of remaining objective and, upon seeing the logical dead end, attempting to find the source of this dead end and the incorrectness of the overall understanding of evolution; instead of attempting to fruitfully rectify this understanding, Europeans simply took the pinnacle of human evolution to be themselves and their culture. Naively convinced that they have found one end of the evolutionary sequence, they quickly built out the rest of the sequence. It never occurred to any of them that acceptance of Romano-Germanic culture as the pinnacle of evolution is purely arbitrary, and is a grotesque case of petitio principii. Their egocentric mindset turned out to be so rigid that nobody doubted the correctness of this position, and it was accepted by everyone without discussion, as if it were self-evident.
As a result, we get the “ladder of human evolution”. The Romano-Germanic peoples, and those that have wholly embraced their culture, stand at the top. One step below are the “cultured ancient peoples”, i.e. those peoples whose culture is most closely related to that of the Europeans. Then there are the cultured peoples of Asia: their literacy, good governance and some other cultural features allow one to find some similarities to the Romano-Germanics. The “ancient American cultures” (Mexico, Peru) are viewed in a similar way; these cultures resemble the Romano-Germanics even less, and are therefore placed somewhat lower on the ladder. Nonetheless, all of the abovementioned peoples have enough cultural traits in common with the Romano-Germanics that they are bestowed the flattering title of “cultured”. Below them are the “savages”. These are the representatives of mankind that have the least similarity to modern Romano-Germanics.
According to this evolutionary ladder, the Romano-Germanics and their culture really do represent the height of human achievement. Of course—the Romano-Germanic cultural historians humbly add—with enough time, mankind will travel even farther, and it’s possible that the inhabitants of Mars are already culturally superior to us, but here on Earth, we Europeans are superior and above everyone else. But this evolutionary ladder cannot possess any objective evidentiary value. It isn’t that Romano-Germanics see themselves as the “pinnacle of creation” because objective science has set up the aforementioned ladder; on the contrary, European scientists place the Romano-Germanics at the top of this ladder because they were convinced a priori of their superiority. The egocentric mentality played a decisive role here. Objectively speaking, this entire ladder consists of a classification of peoples and cultures according to their lesser or greater similarity to modern Romano-Germanics. It is the judgmental aspect, transforming this classification into a ladder with rungs of perfection, that lacks objectivity, and is introduced via a subjective egocentric mentality. Therefore the classification of peoples and cultures that is accepted in European science cannot objectively prove the supremacy of Romano-Germanic civilization over the cultures of other peoples. Even if something is self-evidently good, it does not follow that it’s the best in the world.
On trivial arguments for Romano-Germanic superiority
Let us look at the evidence that is brought up in favor of the overall supremacy of the Romano-Germanic civilization that stands atop the “evolutionary ladder”, as opposed to the “savage” cultures that sit at the “lowest level of development”. Amazingly, all this evidence is based on either the petitio principii of egocentric prejudice, or on the optical illusions that result from this mentality. There is no objective, scientific evidence whatsoever.
The most basic and widespread evidence consists of the fact that Europeans, it is said, are winning against the savages; that every time savages go into battle against Europeans, the battle ends in “white” victory and the “savages’” destruction. The vulgarity and naivety of such an argument must be evident to any objectively-minded person. It clearly demonstrates the extent to which the veneration of brute force, which featured nontrivially in the national character of those tribes that would create European civilization, is alive and well to this day in the consciousness of every descendant of the ancient Gauls and Germanics. The Gaulish “Vae victis!” and Germanic vandalism, systematized and deepened by Roman military traditions, are displayed here in all their glory, albeit masked in a semblance of objective science. Meanwhile, this argument comes up even among the most enlightened European “humanists”. Deconstructing the failure of its logic is, of course, not worth trying. Nonetheless, Europeans do attempt to mold it into a scientific force, giving it a foundation in the form of a theory of “fighting for survival” or “adapting to the environment”, but in the end they cannot sustain this historical viewpoint. They are constantly forced to admit that victory often falls in the hands of peoples “less cultured” than their vanquished adversaries. History is full of examples of nomads defeating sedentary peoples, even though nomadic peoples differ in their way of life from modern Romano-Germans sufficiently to place them below any settled nation. All of the “great cultures of Antiquity”, as they are called in European learning, were destroyed precisely by “barbarians”. And even though the excuse is frequently given that these cultures, at the time of their destruction, had already fallen into a so-called state of decay, there is a wide range of examples where this cannot be conclusively demonstrated. Thus, since European learning cannot claim the position that the victorious peoples are always culturally superior to the vanquished peoples, they cannot make any positive conclusions from the fact that Europeans have militarily defeated the savages.
There is an argument that European culture is self-evidently superior, since “savages” cannot grasp it.
But this does not mean they are inferior, since the same could be said of European grasping “savage” cultures.
There is another argument that is no less popular, but even less coherent. It consists of the idea that “savages” are incapable of perceiving certain European concepts, and are therefore considered to be an “inferior race”. The egocentric mentality here is especially strong. Europeans completely forget that if “savages” are incapable of perceiving some of the ideas of European civilization, then Europeans are likewise equally incapable of comprehending ideas from the savages’ culture.
There is an oft-repeated story about a Papuan who was taken to England, educated in school and even taken to university. Soon, however, he felt a longing for his homeland, fled to Papua, and threw off his European clothes to live like the “savage” he was before he was taken to England—not a trace was left of any European cultural concepts. And yet, people seem to completely forget the numerous stories of Europeans who decided to “simplify their lives,” settling among “savages”, but who returned to Europe and to all the trappings of a European lifestyle after realizing they were unable to keep up the charade. They point out that embracing European civilization is so difficult for the “savages” that many of them, after attempting to “become civilized”, went insane and became alcoholics.
However, in those rather rare cases when a European did earnestly attempt to assimilate into the culture of some wild tribe—embracing not just the superficial, physical lifestyle of the tribe, but its religion and beliefs as well—the majority of these “weirdos” met the same fate. It is sufficient to mention the talented French painter Paul Gauguin, who tried to become a real Tahitian, and paid for his attempt first with insanity, and then alcoholism, dying ingloriously after a drunken brawl. Clearly it is not the case that “savages” are less developed than Europeans, but rather, that the development of Europeans and savages goes in different directions, and that Europeans and “savages” differ to the fullest extent in their lifestyles and in the ways of thinking that they generate. Full assimilation into such a foreign mode of being is impossible for both sides, precisely because the mindset and culture of “savages” has almost nothing in common with the mindset and culture of Europeans. But since this lack of possibility remains commutative, making it just as difficult for a European to become a savage as it is for a “savage” to become a European, one cannot draw any conclusions about who is “higher” and who is “lower” in “development”.
On arguments that “savages” are psychologically inferior
That “savages” are childish
“Savages” may appear psychologically childish to Europeans, but this perception is mutual.
As we fail to recognize or understand acquired traits from a distant culture, we see only the innate ones, giving the impression of a childlike level of development (since children have fewer acquired traits).
We’ve taken apart some arguments in favor of the superiority of Europeans over “savages”. Although they may sometimes appear in scientific literature, the “arguments” presented so far have consisted of layman’s reasoning, naive and superficial. The scientific literature is dominated by other arguments, which appear far more serious and solid. However, upon more careful examination, these quasi-scientific arguments turn out also to be based on egocentric prejudices. In science, we find that the mentality of savages is often likened to the mentality of children. The comparison is practically self evident, for if observed directly, savages really do seem to Europeans like adult children. From there they conclude that the savages have “stopped developing” and therefore are lower than the proper adult Europeans. Here the European scientists once again demonstrate a lack of objectivity. They completely ignore the fact that the “adult child” impression when Europeans meet “savages” is mutual, i.e. the savages also regard the Europeans as adult children. From a psychological standpoint, this is a very interesting fact, and we must look for its explanation within the very essence of what Europeans mean by the word “savage”. We stated earlier that the word “savage” is used by European scientists to designate those peoples whose culture and mentality differ the most from modern Romano-Germans. This is where we may find the answer to the aforementioned psychological quandary. We have to bear in mind the following propositions:
Every person’s psyche consists of innate and acquired elements.
Among innate psychological traits, we must distinguish between traits belonging to the individual, to his family, his tribe, his race; as well as traits common to humans, mammals, and then animals in general.
Acquired traits depend on the environment in which the given individual lives, and on the traditions of the individual’s family and social group, and on the culture of his people.
In very early childhood, the entire psyche consists exclusively of innate traits; as time passes, those traits are increasingly joined by traits that are acquired. Moreover, as a consequence of trait acquisition, some innate traits may be softened or may disappear entirely.
When considering any person’s mentality, we only have direct access and understanding of those traits that we have in common with that person.
From these propositions it follows that when two people meet each other, if they belong to exactly identical environments and upbringings within the exact same cultural traditions, they both understand virtually all of each other’s psychological traits. This is because they have almost all of their traits in common, except for a few innate ones. But when two people meet each other and come from two completely different cultures that look nothing alike, then each person will only see and understand a few of the other’s innate traits, without understanding (or perhaps even noticing) the acquired ones, since in this domain the two individuals have nothing in common. As the observer’s culture becomes more and more different from that of the observed, the observer will be able to understand fewer and fewer of the other’s acquired psychological traits; the mentality of the other will appear to the observer to consist entirely of traits that are innate. However, a psyche that is dominated by innate traits over acquired ones always gives the impression of being rudimentary. We can imagine any psyche as a fraction where the numerator is the sum total of acquired traits, while the denominator is the sum total of innate traits that are accessible to us. The smaller this fraction (i.e. the greater the ratio of the denominator to the numerator), the more rudimentary this psyche will appear. From the above propositions, the third and fifth indicate that this fraction will be smaller if the culture and society of the observer is more different from those of the observed.
Since “savages” are, in other words, those peoples whose culture and way of life differ the most from modern Europeans, it is clear that their psyche would appear to Europeans as exceptionally rudimentary. But from everything we have stated above, it is also clear that such an impression would have to be mutual. The conception of “savages” as “adult children” is based on an optical illusion. In savages, we only perceive the innate traits, since they are the only ones we have in common (proposition 5). The acquired traits are entirely alien and incomprehensible to us, since they are based on the savage’s cultural traditions (proposition 3), which are entirely different from ours. But a mentality where innate traits predominate while acquired traits are nearly absent is the mentality of a child (proposition 4). This is why we conceive of the “savage” as childlike.
There is another circumstance that plays into this conception. If we were to compare the mentalities of two children, a little “savage” and a little European, we would find that from a psychological standpoint the children are closer to one another than their fathers are. They do not yet have the acquired traits that are to appear later, but they have many common elements as part of the universal human, mammal and animal psyches; the differences attributable to racial, tribal, family and individual psyches are not so great. Over time, some of this shared supply of innate traits will be displaced or modified by acquired traits, while other innate traits will remain unaffected. But what traits are acquired will differ between the two subjects. The savage will lose trait A, but traits B and C will be preserved; the European will lose trait B, while traits A and C are preserved. Furthermore, the savage will acquire a beneficial trait D, while the European will acquire a beneficial trait E. When the adult European meets the adult savage and observes him, he will find in the savage’s psyche traits B, C and D. Of these traits, D will turn out to be completely strange and incomprehensible for the European, because this part of the savage’s psyche, an acquired trait, stands in connection with the savage’s culture, which has nothing in common with that of Europe. Trait C is held in common by the adult savage and the adult European, and therefore it is quite understandable to the latter person. As for trait B, it is not in the psyche of the adult European, but this European remembers that he had this trait in early childhood, and can observe it now in the psyche of the children of his people. Thus, the psyche of the savage should inevitably appear to the European as a mixture of elementary features of adult psychology and of childlike traits. Needless to say, the European’s psyche would appear in the same way to the savage, for the same reasons.
That “savages” are like animals
The optical illusion that we just talked about is also the cause of another phenomenon, namely, the similarities that Europeans find between the psychology of savages and the psychologies of animals. We stated above that, psychologically, there is little difference between a savage child and a European child. If we take these two kids and add a young animal, then we would have no choice but to acknowledge that these three creatures have some things in common—mammal-wide traits or animal-wide traits. There may not be very many of these traits, but nonetheless they exist. Let us suppose they are called X, Y and Z. Later in life, the little European develops and loses trait X. Meanwhile, the savage loses Y, while the animal preserves all X, Y and Z. But those animal traits that are preserved by these creatures are, of course, preserved in a slighly different form compared to how they were displayed in childhood, for an adult animal’s psychological traits always differ in known ways from the psychological traits of the young animals from which they developed. Therefore, traits X, Y and Z take on the adult forms X’, Y’ and Z’, which means the European adult shows Y’ and Z’ while the adult savage shows X’ and Z’. When the adult European observes the adult savage, he sees in him, among other things, trait X’. How does he perceive this trait? It is absent in his own psyche. In the European’s tribe, the children have it in a different form, namely X. But in the psyche of mature animals the European can directly see X’. Naturally, he determines that this is an “animal” trait, and by virtue of the savage having this trait, he will consider the savage to be the closest human to an animal level of development. All of this, of course, applies to the savage, who sees trait Y’ in the European and makes an analogous conclusion based on the absence of this trait in him, and the presence of it in animals.
Extension to all cultures
Thus, the idea of the simplicity of the savage’s psyche, of its similarity to the psyche of a child or an animal, is based on an optical illusion. Even outside the context of savages—i.e. peoples that are maximally culturally different from modern Romano-Germans—this illusion remains powerful, applying to all peoples with non-Romano-Germanic culture. The difference is only in the degree of illusion. When observing a member of a “foreign” culture, we will understand only those acquired psychological traits that we have in common, which is to say, those that are connected to cultural elements we hold in common. Traits that are acquired but based on elements of his culture without a parallel in ours will remain incomprehensible to us. As for innate psychological traits, almost all of them will appear understandable to us, and some of them will appear childish. Due to the fact that we will almost entirely understand the innate psychological traits of this observed people, but will only grasp those acquired traits that are similar to our culture, we will always incorrectly judge the ratio of innate to acquired traits, with a bias toward seeing more innate traits. Moreover, this bias will be stronger when a foreign culture differs more strongly from ours. Naturally, therefore, the mentality of a people with a culture that differs from ours will always seem more elementary than our own mentality.5
Notice, by the way, that such an evaluation of another’s mentality can be seen not only between two peoples, but also between different social groups of one people, if the social differences within this people are very strong and if the upper classes have adopted a foreign culture. Many Russian intellectuals, doctors, officers and nurses, when speaking to the “common folk”, say that they are “adult children”. On the other hand, the “common folk”, based on their fairy tales, see in the “baroness” a well-known eccentricity and naive, juvenile psychological traits.
On the “historical argument”
Despite the fact that the European conception of the “savage” psyche is based on an illusion, this conception still play a prominent role in all the quasi-scientific contructions of European ethnology, anthropology and history of culture. Of all the ways this has affected the methodology of the aforementioned fields, the most significant has been that it allowed Romano-Germanic scholars to put a diverse set of the Earth’s peoples into one group called “savage”, “uncultured” or “primitive” peoples.6 We already mentioned that these terms encompass peoples whose culture is maximally different from that of Romano-Germans. This is the only characteristic these peoples have in common. This characteristic is purely subjective, and is defined negatively. But as soon as it created the optical illusion that gave rise to the Europeans’ flat characterization of all these people’s psyches, the Europeans took it as an objective and positive indicator. They united all the peoples whose culture differed most from Romano-Germans under the label “primitive”. European scholars refuse to reckon with the fact that this groups together peoples that are nothing alike (for example, Eskimos and Kaffirs7), since distinctions between various “primitive peoples” are based on characteristics of cultures equally far from Romano-Germanic culture, all equally alien and incomprehensible to a European. Thus they are neglected by scientists, who consider the characteristics secondary or insignificant. And this group—this concept of “primitive peoples” that is founded, in essence, on subjective and negative perceptions—is treated uncritically by European science as a real and homogeneous quantity. Such is the power of the egocentric mindset in European evolutionary science.
This illusion, and the associated habit of qualifying peoples based on their degree of similarity to Romano-Germanic culture, is the basis for another argument in favor of the superiority of Romano-Germanic civilization over all other cultures of the world. This argument, which can be called the “historical” argument, is considered in Europe to be the strongest—and it is one that cultural historians are especially eager to cite. In essence, it says that the ancestors of modern Europeans were originally also savages, and therefore, modern savages can be tought of as still existing at a stage of development that Europeans have long since passed. This argument is supported by archeological findings and ancient historians’ descriptions demonstrating that the lifestyle of modern Romano-Germans’ ancestors was marked by the same features as that of present-day savages.
The illusory nature of this argument becomes apparent as soon as we remember that the concept of “savage” or “primitive” peoples is itself artificial, since it unifies extremely diverse tribes from across the globe based on just one characteristic, their utmost dissimilarity to modern Romano-Germans.
Just like any culture, European culture has been constantly changing as has arrived at its present form only gradually, as the result of a long evolution. In each historical era, this culture was different in some way. Of course, in eras closer to modernity, the culture of Europeans’ ancestors was closer to its present form, compared to more distant eras. In the most distant of eras, the culture of the peoples of Europe differed the most from the modern civilization—it was then that the culture of Europeans’ ancestors was maximally different from the modern culture. But all cultures that are maximally different from modern European civilization are invariably placed by European scholars into the general category of “primitive cultures”. So, of course the culture of the distant ancestors of modern Romano-Germans must fall into that same category. No positive conclusions can be made from this. Since the term “primitive culture” is defined negatively, the mere fact that the epithet “primitive” is applied by European scholars to the most ancient of Romano-Germanic ancestors as well as to modern Eskimos and Kaffirs says nothing about how these cultures are similar to each other, only that they are dissimilar to modern European civilization.
Why “savages” always regress or stagnate
In this case, the distance \(AC=AB\) . In other words, it would turn out that this “savage” culture in a previous historical era different maximally from modern European culture. And since all cultures maximally different from European civilization are tossed by European science into big “primitive” pile, the European scholar in this case would not see any progress. He would instead recognize immobility, stagnation, no matter how great the path from C to B representing the trajectory taken by the “savage” culture during this historical epoch.
The second case: C lies within the circle. In this case the distance \(AC<AB\) . In other words, the savage’s culture went farther and farther from the point representing modern European culture. It is clear that the European scholar, considering his civilization the pinnacle of earthly perfection, could call this movement only a “regression”, “fall” or “ensavagement”.
Finally, the third case: C is outside the circle. Here the distance \(AC>AB\) , i.e. greater than the maximum distance from the culture of modern Romano-Germans. But values above the maximum are not perceptible to the human mind and are not accessible to the senses. The worldview of the European, standing at point A of our diagram, is limited by the circumference of our circle, and everything beyond the limits of the circle is no longer distinguishable. Therefore the European must project point C onto the circle to create C’, which leads to the first case—the appearance of stagnation.
Just as how he treats the savages, the European evaluates the histories of other peoples whose culture is closer or farther from modern Romano-Germanic culture. Strictly speaking, real “progress” is seen only in the history of Romano-Germans themselves, since it naturally features a constant, gradual approach towards the modern condition of Romano-Germanic culture, which is arbitrarily declared the peak of perfection. As for the histories of non-Romano-Germanic peoples, if a history does not end in the adoption of European culture, then all its recent stages—those closest to the present day—would have to be viewed by European scholars as stagnation or decline. If a non-Romano-Germanic people gives up its national culture and begins blindly copying Europeans, only then do Romano-Germanic scholars delightfully remark that this people has “joined the path of human progress”.
And thus the “historical argument”, the strongest and more convincing in the eyes of Europeans, turns out to prove just as little as all the other arguments in favor of the superiority of Romano-Germans over savages.
The question of superiority is not an objective question
Many may think that we are engaging in sophistry or are juggling vague concepts. Many will say that, despite the logic of all our reasoning, the superiority of the European over the savage remains an undeniable, objective and self-evident truth, which for this very reason cannot be proven—axions are unprovable, just as the facts of our immediate perception are unprovable, for example the fact that the paper on which I’m writing is white. However, self-evidence does not require proof when it is objective. Subjectively, it may be plainly obvious to me that I am better in every way than my acquaintance N, but since this fact isn’t apparent to N himself nor to many of our mutual acquaintances, I cannot consider it an objective fact. But the question of the superiority of the European over the savage is of precisely that nature: don’t forget that the people interested in this question are Europeans, Romano-Germans, or people who, despite not belonging to their race, are interested in their prestige, being totally under their control. If these people judge Romano-Germanic supremacy to be self-evident, then the superiority is not objective but subjective, and therefore requires more rigorous proof. But there is no such proof—the discussion above has shown this clearly enough.
They tell us, “Compare the contents of the mind of a cultured European with that of some Bushman, Botocudo or Vedda—is the superiority of the former over the latter not apparent?” But we maintain that the superiority here is only subjective. As soon as we allow ourselves to investigate the matter in good faith without prejudice, the self-evidence disappears. A savage, a good savage hunter-gatherer who has all the qualities that are valued in his tribe (since only such a savage can be compared to a real cultured European), possesses in his mind a huge reserve of all sorts of knowledge and information. He has perfectly studied the life of the environment that surrounds him, and knows all the animals’ habits, such subtleties of their lives as would escape the keen eye of the most attentive European naturalist. All this knowledge is kept in the savage’s mind in a manner that is not at all disorganized. It is systematized—albeit not by the same set of criteria that a European scientist would use, but by another set, more convenient for the practical purposes of hunting. Aside from this practical and scientific knowledge, the savage’s mind contains an often very complex mythology of his tribe, its moral code, its rules of etiquette (which can be quite complex), and finally, a more or less significant repository of his people’s oral literature. A savage’s head is bursting with material, despite the fact that its contents differ from that of a European’s head. And because of this difference in the substance of the intellectual life of a savage and a European, their mental contents should be considered incomparable and incommensurable, which is why the question of the superiority of one over the other should be considered unanswerable.
They point out that European culture is in many ways more complex than a given savage culture. However, this kind relationship between the two cultures is not observed when considering every aspect. Cultured Europeans are proud of the refinement of their manners, the finesse of their courtesy. But there is no doubt that the rules of etiquette and conventions of communal living in many savage cultures are much more complex and elaborate than those of Europeans, not to mention that all members of the “savage” tribe obey this code of etiquette without exception, while the Europeans’ etiquette is the domain of only the uppermost classes. In taking care of their appearance, “savages” often show much more complexity than many Europeans: remember the sophisticated tattoo techniques of Australians and Polynesians or the most complicated hairstyles of African beauties. Even if we attribute all these complications to some amount of impractical oddity, there are in the life of many savages some undoubtedly practical institutions that are much more complex than the corresponding European ones. Take, for example, attitudes towards sexual life, family and marriage law. How rudimentary is the solution to this issue in the Romano-Germanic civilization, where the monogamous family exists officially, protected by law, while unbridled sexual freedom flourishes alongside it, which society and the state in theory condemn but in practice allow. Compare this with the elaborate institution of group marriage in Australia, where sexual activity is strictly regulated and, in the absence of individual marriage, measures are nevertheless in place both to provide for children and to prevent incest.
In general, it is hard to say much about the degree to which a culture has reached perfection. Evolution tends just as often towards simplicity as it does towards complexity. Levels of complexity, therefore, can in no way serve as a measure of progress. Europeans are well aware of this, and only apply this measure when it is convenient for their own purposes of self-glorification. In cases when another culture—for instance, a given savage culture—is in some form more complex than the European one, Europeans not only reject complexity as a measure of progress, but even on the contrary declare that, in this case, complexity is a sign of “primitiveness”. This is how European science interprets all the aforementioned examples: the complex etiquette of savages, their care for complex body decorations, even the intricate Australian system of group marriage—all this turns out to be a manifestation of a low degree of culture. Notice that Europeans here cannot refer to their beloved “historical argument”, dismantled above: in the prehistory of the Gauls and the Germans (and even the Romans themselves) there was never a moment when all the aforementioned, ostensibly primitive, sides of “savage” life would have been manifested. Some ancestors of Romano-Germans had no conception of careful body decorations, tattoos or fantastically complicated hairstyles, they neglected politeness and “manners” much more than modern Germans and Americans, and the family was structured in the same way from time immemorial. There are a number of other cases where Europeans do not consider the historical argument, where its logical application would not favour of European civilization. Much of what in modern Europe is considered to be the cutting edge of civilization or the peak of yet-to-be-achieved progress is found in savages, but is then declared a sign of extreme primitiveness. Futuristic images painted by Europeans are considered a sign of high refinement of aesthetic taste, but totally similar works by “savages” are just naive attempts, the first awakenings of primitive art. Socialism, communism, anarchism—these are all “shining ideals of the highest progress to come” only when they are preached by a modern European. When these “ideals” are realized in the life of savages, they are immediately designated as a manifestation of primitive savagery.
There is no objective proof of the superiority of Europeans over savages, and there never will be, because when comparing different cultures, Europeans know only one measure: what is like us is better, and more perfect, than anything that is not like us.
But if this is the case, if Europeans are not more perfect than savages, then the evolutionary ladder, which we talked about at the beginning of this chapter, should collapse. If the ladder’s top rung is not higher than the bottom rung, then clearly it is also not any of the other rungs. Where we used to have a ladder, we now have a horizontal plane. Instead of the principle of ordering peoples and cultures by levels of perfection, we have a new principle of equality and qualitative incommensurability of all cultures and peoples of the globe. The idea of appraising cultures should be forever banished from ethnology and cultural history, as well as from all evolutionary sciences in general, because appraisal is always based on egocentrism. There is no “higher” or “lower”. There is only “similar” and “dissimilar”. Declaring those who are similar to us to be higher and those who are different to be lower is arbitrary, unscientific, naive, and finally, just plain stupid. Only by completely overcoming this deep-rooted egocentric prejudice and driving its consequences out of the very methods and conclusions that have so far been built on it, will European evolutionary sciences—in particular ethnology, anthropology and cultural history—become real scientific disciplines. Until then, they are at best a means of tricking people and justifying, in the eyes of Romano-Germans and their henchmen, imperialist colonial policies and vandalistic exploitation8 by the “great powers” of Europe and America.
And so, to the first of the above questions—“Is it possible to objectively prove that the Romano-Germanic culture is superior to all other cultures that exist or have ever existed on Earth?"—we must answer, “No.”
(To be continued)
Here the author introduces the term “Romano-Germanic”, meaning of Romance or Germanic origin. This is essentially the same as the modern term “Western”, but at the time of writing (1920) that term was not widely used. I stick with the author’s original, if cumbersome, terminology. The author himself seems to get tired of the term, at times using “European” as shorthand (while maintaining that “European culture” in the truest sense is not limited to Romano-Germanic culture). ↩︎
Important to note that the author distances himself from the claim that “European” and “Romano-Germanic” are synonyms. In the next few paragraphs he appears to use the terms synonymously, but really he is speaking as a cosmopolitanist. ↩︎
It’s important to note that people in 1920 did not have a 21st century understanding of evolution. In Trubetzkoy’s time, there were a variety of competing explanations for evolution, but it was widely seen as a linear process of constant improvement. We now know that evolution is neither linear nor always beneficial to an organism. To better understand how evolution was viewed up to 1920, see this Wikipedia page. ↩︎
The site with the Russian original text has an interesting footnote:
This conclusion is illustrated yet again by media from the perestroika period (1989–1991), when the Russian intelligentsia discovered America. In articles outlining the impressions of travelers, one would often read that “Americans are like children,” though Americans are obviously nothing of the sort. And conversely, this de-nationalized, ethno-marginal group, judging now from a foreign point of view, would soon afterward speak of “Russian infantilism”, even though Russians are not any more infantile than American “children”.
Another note from the site with the original Russian text:
Compare with modern terminology: advanced and backward nations.
I would use even more modern terms, developed or advanced nations vs. developing, emerging, or less developed nations. ↩︎
The Russian word used by Trubetzkoy is кафры, which translates to Kaffir in English. In 1920 it was not used in a pejorative way (in English or Russian) and referred, approximately, to what we now call Bantu peoples. ↩︎