The rise of Western power

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The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization written by Jonathan Daly is devoted mostly to the history of European civilization’s success and how this success was achieved. He describes many developed civilizations of different historical phases and compares them to Western ones, providing examples proving a dominant position of them. Daly gives a lot of examples and arguments in favor of Western civilization. As McNeill states, this book is a good example of literature describing a story of innovation and achievement of Western history. It has many insightful passages and details which are of interest to the research. However, it has some issues from the perspective of comparative history it is very controversial, though the comparative parts reach the amount of no more than 10 percent of the whole text (John R. McNeill. Review of The Rise of Western Power: a Comparative History of Western Civilization, 2014)

The goal of this research is to discuss, contrast and question the main arguments given in the book. The one is the concept that the world’s other great civilizations lacked the thirst for knowledge and innovations and delight in novelty, which were the main features of Europe in the late medieval and Renaissance periods. His ideas of the dominance of the Western civilization over the Eastern is explained by the fact, that his main topics of research concern Russian and European history. His studies explain how the West rose and formed the modern world.

Controversial facts described in The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization

Non-European civilizations and their importance in comparison with European ones

As it was mentioned, the comparative bits of the book seems to be its main issue. The author insists on the dominance of the West over the East concerning science, religion, and law. For instance, Daly compares China’s ‘contributions to world history’ (Daly, p. 13) against the Greeks’ and Romans’ ones. In his opinion, China made a seemingly less prominent contribution, the Chinese did not develop a philosophical system, unlike the Greeks did, that ‘fueled anything as momentous as the Scientific Revolution’ (Daly, p. 13). The author claims that China did not have any civil law and did not help to spread Christianity, as Rome did (Daly, p. 13). Due to all these facts, Daly’s work may seem to describe the history of the development of the civilizations as something like a horse race. He states that China started this race well due to ‘its enormous population’ and ‘good communications’ and then it slowed down. On the contrary, Europe’s start was not good enough at the start but finished first. Making such comparisons, in McNeill’s opinion, Daly uses implicit criteria without discussing their merits at all. (McNeill, 2014)’. From Daly’s perspective, the Roman civil law seems to greater contribution to world history than Confucian ideas and the spread of Christianity seems to contribute more than that of Buddhism. These ideas of Daly may be explained by the fact he is Christian, thus, they are based on his own beliefs. ‘One can almost hear one’s Chinese history colleagues groaning as one reads these pages (McNeill, 2014)’.

In his Historians Debate the Rise of the West, Daly emphasizes, that Voltaire (1694–1778) and many of his contemporaries such as Benjamin Franklin admired China greatly for its Confucian rationalism, well-ordered government, and the meritocratic civil-service examination and so forth (Daly, 2015). One may note that Chinese philosophical and religious ideas were of great importance for the Western philosophers, not talking about the Four Great Inventions which affected the whole Western progress. This fact may serve as one of the proofs of China’s prominent contribution that was not less than the European one.

In The Rise of the West, Daly also considers India’s contributions, consisting mostly of Buddhism and mathematics, to world history almost equal to China’s (Daly, p. 14). Byzantium is mentioned only in three sentences of the book (McNeill, 2014). Its contribution, from his point of view, was keeping ancient Greek learning and protecting Europe from Islamic crusaders and their attacks (Daly, p. 15) (though Byzantine Empire is sometimes called “the New Rome” (Mango, 1980). Islamic civilization’s contributions to world history are considered to be of more importance than Chinese ones due to the preservation of Greek ideas and such innovations as medicine, chemistry, astronomy, optics, and so forth (McNeill, 2014).

Daly in his book describes the Western civilization’s achievements, innovations, and improvements such as agricultural, urban, and commercial revolutions, the rise of feudalism, innovations in technologies, women’s social status, cultural, musical, and artistic achievements, cathedral building, and so forth. But he also provides some offensive comparisons. He states that Gothic cathedrals are preferable to other civilizations’ greatest buildings such as Japanese and Chinese pagodas and so on. Daly complains about their being divided into multiple stories cramped, narrow, low-lying, though the great number of them is beautifully decorated like, for instance, Eastern mosques. He acknowledges that some pagodas are not low-lying, but he also finds experiencing Gothic churches more attractive than towers and spires of pagodas. ‘these towers and spires cannot rival the magic of experiencing Gothic churches’. The same concerns Buddhist stupas, which seem closed, while cathedrals are welcoming and aesthetic (McNeill, 2014). Gothic cathedrals seem more welcoming to him because they are more unified and are tinted with a multitude of shades inside. This is achieved by the light streaming through colored stained glass. (Daly, 2013)’ The description Daly provides here adds to the idea that some of his inferences are influenced by his religion and life experience.

Thus, Daly estimates the Western and the Eastern buildings and architecture according to his requirements and preferences for those instead of objective comparison. As it may be concluded from his words, he is somehow prejudiced against Eastern culture. His conclusions seem to be based on his religion.

However, Daly can see the terrors of Western civilization. He mentions such issues as slavery, the Holocaust, imperialist violence, and so on,  in these chapters Daly. However, he doesn’t mention the East’s contribution to slavery, violence, and discrimination.

It is obvious that decision which civilization made the greatest contribution is hard to make. However, one can’t underestimate any civilization’s importance, especially when it comes to such civilizations as Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and so forth. Sometimes Daly’s ideas seem to underestimate the Eastern culture. Sometimes the basis of his worldviews may be built on his confessions instead of some objective factors.

Conclusion

Though The Rise of Western Power is a very controversial book and may cause a lot of debates and discussions, it does its job well: answers the question ‘why the West?’. To support the main idea of the book Daly claims that the Western civilization gave humans their rights and liberties, provided the evolution of toleration ethics, highlighted the importance of law, helped the development of self-government and political participation. In his opinion, these are the qualities of the Western civilization explaining its success and ascension (Daly, p. 402). Then he explains these important qualities that derive from only one basic source. This source is the Christian faith. Daly concludes in his book that it may be a key factor in the appearance and development of the qualities mentioned before. (Daly, p. 402). By making such conclusions he denies all the achievements and impacts of other religions on society in different civilizations, prominent achievements of Arabic, Indian, Chinese and other scientists who do not confess the Christian faith.

Daly’s book describes and explains the history of the Western civilization successfully but when it comes to comparison his work seems to be prejudiced. As it was mentioned before, Daly’s conclusions are sometimes based on his religion and personal views. His comparisons of the West and the East concerning art, culture, science, and so forth are too Eurocentric. This is not surprising because Eurocentrism is considered to be a “common sense” in modern education (Shohat, Stam, p. 1). Daly’s Eurocentrism possibly derives from his own beliefs and the fact that he teaches European and Russian history at the University of Illinois. Sometimes his book seems to be very subjective. Though one can’t underestimate Christianity’s contribution to world history, other confessions are also valuable and prosperous from this perspective.

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  1. McNeill, J.R. (2014). Review of The Rise of Western Power: a Comparative History of Western Civilization, (review no. 1678). Retrieved July 14, 2016.
  2. Daly, J. (2013). The Rise of Western Power: a Comparative History of Western Civilization.  Bloomsbury Academic.
  3. Daly, J. (2015). Historians Debate the Rise of the West. Sabon: Taylor and Francis Books.
  4. Mango, C. A. (1980). Byzantium: the empire of New Rome. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  5. Shohat, E., & Stam, R. (2014). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media. Routledge.
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