The cultural conversation of mankind

Isolationist thinking and exceptionalism is on the rise and our global culture is the poorer for it. Our civilisations thrive when in conversation with each other: ideas are exchanged and self-reflection is promoted.

An American Mercantile Building in Yokohama, 1861.
An American Mercantile Building in Yokohama, 1861. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

In Gore Vidal’s novel, Creation, a fictitious Persian diplomat called Cyrus Spitama, banished to Athens as an ambassador by his master the Persian King of Kings, remains largely unmoved by the Greek achievement; he is particularly bored by the interminable tragedies he is expected to sit through every other day. For a man who has spoken to the Buddha and debated the finer points of philosophy with Confucius, the Greeks are simply pompous bores. And what of their renowned philosophers? It is true that he makes the acquaintance of Socrates, but only so that he can hire him to paint the front wall of his house. Socrates needs the money. Vidal’s novel nicely cuts down to size the most famous philosopher of the ancient world and, in so doing, allows a Western reader to grasp the actual distance of her own past against its deceptive familiarity.

And Vidal perhaps had a point. In Peter Frankopan’s book, The Silk Roads: a New History of the World, Persia is portrayed as a beacon of stability and civilisation. By contrast, the Greeks are portrayed as small-time troublemakers, the kind that many German bankers think them to be today. Vidal, of course, liked to provoke. He was a mischief-maker. When asked on television in the 1960s whether his first sexual experience had been heterosexual or homosexual he replied: ‘To be frank, I was too embarrassed at the time to ask’.

As it happens we still celebrate the Greeks for their intellectual achievements, the thoughts of Socrates included. The ‘glory that was Greece’ was real enough, but today’s historians now know something that the historians of Vidal’s day didn’t: the extent to which the Greeks were highly indebted to the civilisations of the East for many of their most ground-breaking ideas. Possibly, wrote the German scholar Walter Burkert, the ‘Greek miracle’ owed everything to the fact that they were the most easterly of Western peoples.

None of this is really surprising. Contacts between civilisations are many and often surprising. The Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians and their astronomy from Babylon. A quarter of the Hellenic vocabulary has a Semitic origin. As for the extent of the collaboration between Greek and Babylonian thinkers, much may well have been lost to history, but we catch a rare glimpse of it when around 280BC a priest of the god Marduk founded a school of astronomy on the island of Kos where he wrote a book about his native Babylon in Greek. Some historians even go so far these days as to describe Hellenistic astronomy as Greco-Babylonian. Finally, the Greeks got the concept of money from Lydia. According to one writer it was the advent of monetisation in the 6th century BC that was the prime influence in the evolution of abstract thought and philosophy. Explanations of this kind tend to be over-schematic but they also help to demonstrate the ways in which imports from outside can influence intellectual developments in subtle, and often unacknowledged ways.

Even when it comes to philosophy (the Greek trademark) these days writers like Orlando Patterson, the author of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), are the first to acknowledge that the originality of Greek thought owed everything to the constant encounters with the ‘barbarians’ they aspired to despise. Take the case of the pre-Socratics – the philosophers who came before Socrates – and the most famous of them, Heraclitus. Like all early Greek thinkers, Heraclitus tried to identify the driving force of the world in which he lived. And just as his countrymen thought metaphorically in terms of the elements such as air or water, he chose fire as a symbol of what he considered the most important force in life: flux or change. A flame can flare up briefly, illuminating its surroundings, before diminishing and casting us back into the darkness. Knowledge can be said to do the same. We often catch a glimpse of what is real before losing sight of it, and philosophers then try to put us back in touch with reality again. So where did Heraclitus get the idea that fire was the essence of life? Quite possibly from the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. One of its principle tenets was the identification of wisdom with everlasting fire. The Persians worshipped the god ‘Lord Wisdom’. The word theos appears nine times in the fragments that have survived from Heraclitus’ work. Most translators elect to render the word into ‘god’, but the smart money these days is on the word ‘wisdom’. Hegel, for once, got it right when he wrote that Greek culture was the result of a confrontation with ‘the strangeness… it contained within itself’.

In the end, Western civilisation is no different from any other: it offers a series of styles which interact and overlap, and which converge at the poles of the pre-modern/modern eras, like meridians on a map. Western civilisation, like the few other civilisations to have survived into the twenty-first century, is highly diverse, and it is this diversity that is part of its underlying unity. As scientists discovered to their surprise in the 1970s, complexity is not an enemy of order, quite the opposite. The fact that an ecosystem is so complex is what makes it so stable.

In reality, wrote the Chicago historian William McNeill, ‘the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.’ And civilisations enable change thanks to what most possess: a lingua franca or unifying language(the language of the ruling elite) and the ability to network knowledge (think of the 48,000 miles of roads built by the Roman state). Think too of their centres of excellence such as schools and universities which tend to attract a community of scholars, many from abroad. All have helped to facilitate profound changes, both material and ideational.

But at the same time many people find these encounters and the changes they provoke profoundly disorientating; they often challenge the beliefs and values that civilisations brought into the world and helped to propagate. That is why they can provoke a backlash, a rear-guard attempt to protect society from corrupting influences from the outside world.


One of the most disturbing trends in the world today is the growth in some countries of an idealised existential version of civilisation in the often openly declared hope of giving a country a competitive edge in the zero-sum struggle for life. Immediately you may think of Social Darwinism which remained popular until it was finally discredited by the Second World War. It retained a following largely because of its pseudo-scientific claims. It suggested that there were inescapable biological laws which it was unwise to ignore. Race was considered to be a biological reality as well as the driving force behind history. And part of its appeal was that it could be invoked to justify the most ruthless market capitalism, as well as the most ambitious projects of social engineering. Its most famous formulation, ‘the survival of the fittest’, was coined, after all, by a renowned liberal writer, Herbert Spencer (one-time editor of The Economist).

Cultural Darwinism also allows politicians of different persuasions to claim that civilisations find themselves locked into a struggle with eternal enemies (usually the West). And, like Social Darwinism before it, it offers people a collective identity that is both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. It helps solidify the in-group while helping it to identify an out-group, which is to be defended against, not ignored in the discourse between the two.

Let me discuss three ideas that have gained some traction in China and Russia. The first is the claim that a civilisation has a unique cultural DNA, thanks to gene-culture co-evolution. The second is the claim that some languages are different — so very different as to make it next to impossible to engage in a cross-cultural conversation. And the third is the claim that we are shaped by the interaction between genes and geography. And all these myths share one thing in common: their use of metaphysical sledge-hammers to prise out hitherto unsuspected linguistic, genetic and genetic-geographical realities that are deemed to lock the world’s respective civilisations into a confrontational future.

What makes all of this so depressing is that they are also unapologetically transgressive. They throw into question the cultural diversity which is a hallmark of our species, the fact that though we wrestle all the time with the fear of losing touch with the familiar, we all have to deal at some stage in life with the problematic encounter with difference.


One of the publishing sensations in China in the early twenty-first century was a novel called Wolf Totem (2004). Its subject is life in the remote steppes of Inner Mongolia, the most northerly of China’s provinces, a life that is shared both by wolves and man. In an unremittingly hard existence, both compete for scarce resources. But both have also found a way to live in harmony, though this is now threatened by the demands of modern life. Wolf Totem is a totemic book. It has sold more copies in China than any work except Mao’s Little Red Book and has been translated into several Western languages. It has even been turned into a movie.

Its author Jiang Rong (a pseudonym) was a victim of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a period of particular political turmoil in China’s history. Jiang was exiled to Inner Mongolia where he eventually learned to prize a way of life even older than Chinese civilisation itself. For the nomadic peoples among whom he lived, Mao was not god; the sky was. And in place of Mao’s famous Little Red Book, with its revolutionary catechism, there was the wolf, both in the role of totem and teacher.

As it happens, the book is quite popular in the West. It is deemed to be ecologically sound. It is a favourite of many environmental campaigners who tend to take away a simple message: the goal of life should be the urgent need for coexistence with nature. But what they won’t find in any of the translations is the epilogue with its quasi-Cultural Darwinist message. They won’t find the bizarre claim that a country’s history is determined by its peculiar genetic inheritance, the fact that over the centuries various nomadic tribes crossed the frontier into China. During the Song dynasty they included Tanguts, Khitans and Jurchens to name but a few. Over time, they gradually intermarried with the local population.Today’s China is home to fifty-six different nationalities or ethnicities. Its great genius as a civilisation has been to persuade nearly all of them that they are Han Chinese.

But that is not actually the real message that Jiang Rong wants to get across. Instead he reminds his Chinese readers that their civilisation is a product of two different sets of genes: its ‘wolfish’ traits are inherited from the northern nomadic races, and its commercial ‘sheepish’ traits from the original Han people. And the distinctive rhythm of Chinese history – the rise and fall of its many dynasties – can be attributed to the fact that in every period in which the country has cut a figure in the world, its warlike genes have come to the fore. Jiang advocates returning to a ‘purer’ form of Confucianism, to the period when the values of ‘steely fortitude and valour’ were dominant. Indeed, the message of his book is to be found in an aphorism from The Book of Changes: a people should always strive for ‘self-strengthening’.

Tatar genes, by the way, also make an appearance in another socially constructed myth which tells the Russians that they are not a European or even a Slavic people, so much as a Eurasian one. Even Hungary’s right-wing Jobbik party links the Hungarians to the Turkic-Tatar peoples of Central Asia. For politicians looking for the main chance, a country’s genetic inheritance is a blank screen onto which they can project whatever primordial fantasies they think their supporters will find most appealing.


Culture, as Charles Taylor tells us in The Language Animal, is behind the expression of every thought. A word only has a meaning within a cultural context. It is not possible to understand a word or a sentence in isolation; or to put it more directly, we often have to know the cultural background to make sense of the linguistic foreground. Language structures our way of seeing the world and thus profoundly alters our experience of it, often in life-changing ways.

The point is that, whatever linguistic differences there may be, the major works of every culture are open to translation. And yet in today’s China there is a movement called cultural nativism (bentu zhuyi) that contends that the Chinese language is unique and that Chinese characters are an expression of the ‘national soul’; they penetrate its people’s thoughts and its collective unconscious (or dreams). In other words, they can be considered part of the Chinese peoples’ cultural DNA. Consistent with this belief, cultural nativists are demanding are turn to ‘native studies’, as well as an end to the practice of reformatting classical Chinese texts using modern (in this case Western) categories. And they are particularly scornful of Western sinologists, however gifted, for lacking what they call ‘cultural consanguinity’. What is being claimed is that a non-Chinese speaker, even one who has mastered the language, can never really understand China or its people. In other words, the Chinese language is essentially unintelligible to non-Chinese.

All of this is nonsense, of course. However foreign a text may appear on first encounter, it can always be translated into another language: that is why we have a world literature. Ideas can be communicated across time and culture. Ultimately, cultural nativism is a telling example of an objection to an age-old civilised belief that every educated person on the planet should make an effort to learn a language other than his own. That is why, to quote the Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, language is ‘the ultimate crystallisation of human civilisation’. He notes: ‘The written word is also magical for it allows communication between separate individuals, even if they are from different races and times. It is also in this way that the shared present time in the writing and reading of literature is connected to its eternal spiritual value.’

And what is the practice of international relations, asked the scholar Michael Oakeshott, if it is not what he called famously ‘the conversation of mankind’? It’s worth quoting him at length:

In conversation ‘facts’ appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; certainties’ are shown to be combustible, not by being brought into contact with other ‘certainties’ or doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between nations normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play around one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertion. Nobody asks where they have come from, or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no doorkeeper to examine credentials.

Unfortunately, the nativists want to reshape a culture with which they claim to have privileged intimacy. The doorkeepers are out there, intent on hobbling the conversation at the cost of narrowing the range of thought.


The famous Silk Road was, in the words of Peter Frankopan, ‘the key artery’, the international highway which for thousands of years brought China and the West into contact with each other. The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues that the intellectual achievements of Plato and Aristotle and the Hundred Schools of Thought in China, and the Nyaya School in India, owed everything to the long-range cultural exchanges that one geographical region in particular opened up. Eurasia really is the world’s greatest highway. If you were not part of the Eurasian world, you were marginalised in one way or another. Cut off from both Asia and Europe, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa were both dealt a poor hand by history.

Unfortunately, Eurasia today has taken on a quite different connotation in contemporary Russian thinking. For some nationalist writers, geography translates very conveniently into geopolitics. Russia, they insist, is both northern and eastern at the same time: it is the fulcrum of the Aryan race and it has an inner Oriental nature. Geography makes it unique: racially western, Asian by culture, and possibly even inclination?

We are back to metaphysics and, in this case, Oswald Spengler who was at his best when he left his wilder theories behind him in favour of memorable insights which, though not always demonstrably true, are nonetheless thought-provoking. One such idea was that whenever two civilisations interact with each other, one is bound to be more powerful, the other more creative. In this situation the more creative will be forced to conform outwardly to the more powerful civilisation’s cultural configuration although the latter’s ideas will never really take root. Spengler called the phenomenon ‘pseudomorphosis’ and thought it applied particularly to Russia – a satellite society that, in the reign of Peter the Great, was drawn into the field of European civilisation of which it never really became part.

Some Russian writers would agree with him; they prefer to see their country as a civilisational state as opposed to a nation state and argue that the country, when a young and undeveloped culture, was set back by Peter the Great’s attempts to modernise it along European lines. In Spengler’s rendering of the story, the burning of Moscow in 1812 by its own citizens can be seen as a deprogramming exercise, a rejection of Peter’s programme, even a primitive expression of a wish to return to its roots. The modernising Bolsheviks took a very different view: the novelist Gorky famously saw the Russian peasant as a ‘non-Russian nomad’ and argued that the country’s ‘Asiatic-Mongol biological heritage’ had significantly retarded its historical development. Yet it is precisely that historical inheritance that now divides Russian historians, with liberals insisting that their country should continue to see Peter the Great in the traditional light as the great moderniser, and conservatives insisting that Russia can only be true to itself if it re-engages with its Asiatic-Mongol heritage.

The latter will tell you that, on the great Eurasian steppes, a variant of Tatar genes got recoded. The process was described as ‘passionarity’ by one of the first Eurasianists, Lev Gumilev (the estranged son of the poet Anna Akhmatova). It is not a word that most Russians would recognise even though it occasionally appears in some of Putin’s speeches. It is the process by which organisms absorb bio-chemical energy from nature, in this case from the soil of Eurasia. Another writer, Peter Savitsky, later developed the concept of topogenesis, or ‘place development’, to explain the deep link between geography and culture. Cultural Darwinism doesn’t recommend itself only to novelists or poets; in Russia it has become a concern familiar to many political scientists. Group mentalities and invariant forms of biosocial organisation, unanchored in history, ethology or even mainstream textbooks on civilisation have become legitimate topics in teaching and research, and they are now well known to the country’s leading politicians. And that is one of the reasons why Russians are coming to self-identify in increasingly civilisational terms.

When you come to think of it the idea that civilisation is an organic entity is similar to Spengler’s belief that it is an organism that experiences life cycles from birth to death. As with Spengler, there are Russian nationalists who feel that their own civilisation is measured by the seasons and pace of growth – and the more pessimistic, feeling that winter is already setting in, are given to dreaming of one heroic last act. If you visit Moscow you may see cars with bumper stickers proclaiming ‘To Berlin!’ and ‘We can do it again!’ (Both are rather crude allusions to the nation’s achievements in the Second World War). In the West, most people are metaphysically tone-deaf but Russia is different; it always has been. And the concept of passionarity shows an interest in exteriorising the nation’s psychic state in a physical setting. Although distinctly strange to a Western audience, it offers Russians an emotional engagement with the environment – it allows them to reconnect with a history much older than the era of the great moderniser, Peter the Great.

And the message? It is a rather bleak one. Much of the recent writing on why Russia is a civilisational state turns, as we shall see, on the antagonistic relationship between two opposing forcesWestern cosmopolitanism and Russian nativism which may one day end in war. Unfortunately, all this is a telling testament to how the imagination can shape identities in bizarre ways; and how intellectuals in bed with a political class can hood-wink both themselves and others.


In Ismail Kadare’s novel, The Palace of Dreams, an empire (which is loosely based on the Ottoman) has a department which monitors its subjects’ dreams for signs and portents of disaffection. Once collected, they are sifted through, classified and ultimately interpreted to identify the ‘master dream’ that they share. Every country, Kadare implies, has dreams that are distinctive; every civilisation has a collective unconscious. If only it were possible to put a country and its people on the couch. (One can’t of course but then perhaps it will be possible one day – Cambridge Analytica, the pollster credited with helping Donald Trump win his election harvested masses of consumer and personal information from Facebook to build a ‘psychographic profile’ of the US electorate. If you know the personality of a people and what they are dreaming you can adjust your message to resonate more effectively. Anton Vaino, Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, is even more ambitious: he is working on a ‘nooscope‘, a device to measure humanity’s collective consciousness.) So, perhaps Kadare’s novel is not so left-field. Except for the fact that while electorates may dream, civilisations don’t. They are not unitary actors, unlike states, but that doesn’t stop governments from seeding dreams in the mind of their own citizens.

Regrettably, today’s political regimes in China and Russia prefer to exploit history quite cynically for their own purposes, usually to bolster their legitimacy. And they tend to hype up the elements of conflict in the encounters between societies in order to rally support for the status quo. Cultural Darwinism is useful for that reason, even if at the moment the competitive advantage it promises falls short of the ‘winner takes all’ message of the Social Darwinism that preceded it. But the message is bleak enough.

Ultimately, our encounters with other human civilisations always involve an encounter with ourselves. Frequently we may conclude that we are superior and more civilised, and perhaps even congratulate ourselves on being exceptional. Sometimes, however, we may even see ourselves in an entirely new, and not always flattering light. Claude Lévi-Strauss spent much of his academic life telling us that what we find in other cultures is our own in unfamiliar dress. If we are willing to dig deep we will find the same regularities, the same social patterns, the same myths, even the same cognitive maps. In The Savage Mind he claimed that the Australians revealed a taste for erudition and speculation, but it wasn’t the sun-bronzed surfers of Bondi Beach that he had in mind, but the country’s much-abused aboriginal peoples. In other words, occasionally our encounters with others can lead to a major breakthrough; sometimes they can get us to recognise that we are human only to the extent that others can see their own humanity in us.


Christopher Coker