No Center

2006-01-16

In The Measure of Reality, Alfred Crosby makes an important observation about the nature of Western culture (pp. 53-54):

Change was not greater in the late medieval West than it would be in that society a half millennium later during the industrial revolution, but it may have seemed so. Europe in 1000 had no set way to think about change, certainly not social change, while Europe of 1750 was at least acquainted with the concept.

Yet the West, compared with contemporary Muslim, Indian, and Chinese civilizations, was uniquely prepared to survive and even to profit from such an avalanche of change. Western Europe had the characteristics that physicians seeking means to counter the disorders of senescence hope to find in fetal tissue, that is to say, not so much vigor, though that is surely valuable in itself, as a lack of differentiation. Fetal tissue is so young that it retains the potentiality for becoming whatever kind of tissue is required.

The West lacked firmness of political and religious and, speaking in the broadest generality, cultural authority. It was, among the great civilizations, unique in its stubborn resistance to political, religious, and intellectual centralization and standardization. It shared one thing with the universe as described by such mystics as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno: it had no center and, therefore, had centers everywhere.

Here we see, early on, that Western cultures were decentralized. And I think they have become more so over time. In religion, for instance, Western Civilization in 1000 was much more centralized (turning, as it did, upon a central point in Rome) than it was to become soon after 1500 or, even more so, in 2000. Protestantism was in important respects a movement of decentralization.

I think we see a similar phenomenon in the realm of secular power, especially in those subcultures of Western civilization that are most dynamic. Consider the difference between, say, the Francosphere (which rotates around the sun of Paris) and the Anglosphere (which has major nodes in London and New York but many other quite significant nodes in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sydney, Toronto, and the like). The Czechs even have a word for it in their country: Pragocentrismus, the centralization of all national life in Prague.

Cultures that are resistant to centralization are also resistant to ossification, to what Carrroll Quigley called the decline of (productive) instruments into (obstructionist) institutions. Even today, there is much evidence that the foxlike cultures of the Anglosphere retain "the potentiality of becoming whatever is required" in order to meet the challenges of technological and social change (which all indications are will soon be faster and more radical than ever). Indeed, Western civilization and especially its Anglosphere subculture are not only prepared to react to such change, they are actively fomenting it. Headlong into the future we go. May we live in interesting times. :-)

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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