The Conquest of Civilization (selections)

By James Henry Breasted
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926

Publisher's introduction

James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) was a premier US orientalist, archŠologist and historian. He wrote extensively on ancient civilizations. As a founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which began in 1922 with a grant from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he contributed to the development of the idea of a "Western Civilization" by broadening the definition of Europe's cultural roots to include the entire "Near East" - well beyond the traditional fixation on just Greece and Rome.

These extracts are intended only to generate hypotheses that some enterprising students might wish to investigate. Here are some of the questions raised by the following extracts from Breasted:

  1. Why would a leading capitalist such as Rockefeller help establish the Oriental Institute and bother to fund its esoteric archŠological expeditions to Egypt and Mesopotamia? It was the practice of the "robber barons" to assuage their guilt or public hostility by funding expensive impractical projects such as astronomical observatories, and it would be interesting to know Rockefeller's intentions in this case.
  2. Note Breasted's adoption of the ideology of modern science and its laboratory method. This method aimed to isolate things, to remove or at least control their relation with the world outside the laboratory in order to reduce things to their essence and therefore expose any laws of motion that are truely universal. In historiography at the time, there was a comparable obsession with hard evidence, a reduction of things to bundles of empirical traits, at the expense of their representation as processes. By embracing the ideology of the laboratory, did historians create for themselves static objects of investigation that are profoundly a-historical?
  3. Did this undercut the nineteenth-century ideological function of historiography (historic consciousness being the cornerstone of liberty) and contribute to historiography's subsequent decline in relation to other social sciences in the twentieth century?
  4. The close association between Europe's predatory stance toward the rest of the world and the origins of world historiography has long been recognized. The world historian, Sir Walter Raleigh, is a case in point. Other world cultures generally don't assume that historiography should extend beyond one's own roots and relations with immediate neighbors. However, to suggest that world historiography was merely an ideolgy suited to the age of empire is probably a gross simplification. What was there about Europe's own history that required such a predatory stance and an absorption of the globe into its own history (as in von Ranke's Weltgeschichtge or Breasted's incorporation of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt into Western Civilization)?
  5. There seems to have been a contradiction in Breasted's attempt to broaden the scope of historiography to create such a large complex unit as the "Near East" and "Western Civilization." Reductionism aims to reduce complex wholes to simple stable elements and to represent change or emergent properties as a consequence of combining these simple elements into complex wholes. Research therefore begins with the analysis to complexities into its simple constituents, and on that basis to synthesize a complex whole that has properties emerging from that synthesis. However, didn't Breasted start with complex wholes and assume them to be essentially simple (shared culture, uniform race, shared bouyance of spirit)? Didn't in fact his widening the scope of historical units defined in empiricist terms result in unintelligible complexity? So, was there a contradiction between the method of historiography and its ideological need to encompass large units of analysis? Is "Western Civilization" inescapably ideological?
  6. Breasted redefined the nature of historical units. Rather than the state as a unit, the result was a cultural ecumene called "Western Civilization" that embraced "Mediterranean Civilization" and the "Near East," which in turn was a fusion of the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. By creating such a cultural interaction sphere, he could infer a predominant or essential cutural unity. However, this seems to contradict classic economic theory which argued that commercial interaction itself gives rise to new value. If true, then the interaction of cultures in the region of "Western Civilization" should have led to cultural diversification, not simple homogenization. In fact, of course, it did to complexity, and so how does Breasted reconcile actual complexification and his assumed simple essence to define the entire region?
  7. In the nineteenth century, Europe's global dominance joined with its governments' willingness to pour great resources into a rigorous scientific investigation of historical evidence the world over. This profoundly challenged the old historiographic verities. It was now longer so obvious that the Classical Civilization of the Mediterranean, which had long butressed European arrogance in relation with the rest of the world, was older and superior to the riverine civilizations of the Nile and Tigris and Euphrates. Did Breasted seek to restore Europe's faith in its own superiority by redefining the unit of analysis from the state to a cultural ecumene, and then to expand this cultural interaction sphere to include both Egypt and Mesopotamia? While that would not support the superiority of Europeans vis Ó vis their immediate neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it did maintain the superiority of this new entity, "Western Civilization," which Breasted helped invent, in relation to the rest of the world.
  8. There was another way in which modern science could lend support to European dominance. Toward the end of the nineteenth century emerged scientific racism. This was more than a universal tendency of people to become clanish as their social environment becomes problematic. It seems, rather, linked with capitalism's distinctive mode of exploitation, wage slavery. That is, like traditional legal slavery, the wage slave is provided only the means of social reproduction (the value of his time in the labor market calculated on the basis of what it would cost to reproduce it), not his or her development as a social being. In the age of imperialism, the intensity of exploitation could be reduced at home in order to maintain political order, by intensifying exploitation abroad. In his writings, why does Breasted argue that the people of "Western Civilization" are superior, have a greater "bouyancy of spirit?"
  9. Breasted takes some extraordinary liberties to justify this new order. He assumes below that people within the orbit of Western Civiliztion are white, and people outside it are of color and therefore inferior, lacking Westerners's bouyancy of spirit. I suppose he counted on people never actually visiting Egypt to discover that its inhabitants were people of color, but just in case, Egypt can be detached from Africa by incorporating it into a new unit called the "Near East." So Western dominance was due to the fact that Westerners, a cultural amalgam of Mediterranean and Near Eastern white people, were inherently superior. Is there such a profound contradiction in his view of history between what is actually observed and what he needs to see? Is the notion of Western Civilization fundamentally based on scientific racism and capitalist exploitation?
  10. Note Breasted's concern for the creation of a mass base of support for the expensive research carried out by the Oriental Institute. He was not looking for a mass funding source, as we might assume today, but felt that the knowledge created by the OI was politically useful. Is this simply a manifestation of the Age of Imperialism, which did not require active participation of the masses, but merely their acquiescence to the policies of the owners of capital? On the other hand, such a concern for a mass base for historiography was also manifest in H. G. Wells and in Geoffrey Barraclough, but they articulated the position that globalization required well-informed global citizens. Did Breasted share that higher ideal, or was he simply an apologist for imperialism? Has the word "civilization" become a cover for racist assumptions?

From the Forward of The Conquest of Civilization

The fact that man possessed the capacity to rise from bestial savagery to civilization. . .is the greatest fact in the history of the universe as known to us. . . . This amazing new capability. . .disclosed a kind of buoyancy of the human spirit. . .

But a laboratory for the study of man's [emph. in original] career from the earlier traces of his existence. . ., through the far-reaching generosity of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., such a laboratory known as the "Oriental Institute," has now been developed at the University of Chicago. Its object is to furnish the funds and facilities for the investigation and recovery of the early human career. . . [The OI publications] are intended to contribute toward a more nearly complete recovery and understanding of the evidence of man's gradual conquest of civilization [there follows a discussion of how the publications of the OI are reserved to a scientific Úlite, but Breasted intends his present work to illustrates how scientific conclusions can be reshaped for mass consumption.]

Of perhaps the most far-reaching consequence among newly discovered sources [is that] the earliest home of civilization was thus unquestionably the Near East, the contiguous area of northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia, whence its fundamentals passed to southeastern Europe [Greece]. Civilization arose in [the Near East], and early Europe obtained it there. . . The leading religion of the world - the one which still dominates Western civilization to-day - came to us out of the Orient.

From pp. 111-116

We are now in a position to define in its largest terms the scene of the evolution of civilization and to place geographically the region which brought forth the culture we have inherited. . . (p. 111).

The Great Northwest Quadrant [including all Europe, southwestern Asia and northern Africa] has been until recently the scene of the highest development of life on our planet.

The population of the Great Northwest Quadrant, from the Stone Age onward, has been a race of white men of varying physical type. The evolution of civilization has been the achievement of this Great White Race. . . .(p. 112).

The type of man with straight and wiry hair, round head, almost beardless face, and yellow skin - a man whom we call Mongoloid [context shows he means the Chinese]. . .did not develop civilization until long after civilization was already. . .far advanced in the Northwest Quadrant.

On the south of the Northwest Quadrant lay the teeming [interesting choice of words: it literally means swarming microorganisms or sexually prolific] black world of Africa, separated from the Great White Race by an impassable desert barrier [not only is the separation of black Africa and the Mediterranean a myth, but the suggestion that the Sahara separates Egypt from Africa supports the idea that "Africa" is a matter of skin color, not geography]. . . and unfitted by ages of tropical life for any effective intrusion among the White Race, the negro and negroid peoples remained without any influence on the development of early civilization [Enlightenment geographers had assumed that tropical life makes one lethargic, but Breasted subtly converts this into a more explicitly racist assumption that a tropical environment eventually alters one's genes to result in less boyancy of spirit than the Great White Race]. We may then exclude both of these external races [i.e., the great bulk of the world's population] from any share in the origins or subsequent development [n.b.] of civilization [in a note Breasted qualifies this by noting that the Chinese have been significant for modern European history.]

The Great White Race. . .includes a considerable range of types [to which belonged] the Egyptians (not withstanding their tanned [sic] skins), doubtless also the Semitics, and of course the [Mediterranean peoples] long loosely called "Aryan" because of their speech, which of course has no necessary connection with race (p. 113). [Notice how Egyptians and Semitic people in general are incorporated into a White (Caucasian) race, and that the concept "Near East" tends to distance Egypt from being essentially African].

Chinese civilization was geographically so remote that. . .it had no direct connection with the main stream of civilized development of which we of the west are a part. . . India received a great impetus from the west [following upon Alexander's conquest]. Chinese civilization must have received its material basis in agriculure and cattle breeding from western sources. . . (p. 114). [It didn't occur to Breasted that Chinese, Africans or Indians might have been able to create civilization on their own].

This culture diffusion. . .was obviously going on for thousands of years around the Old World center (p. 116).