Institute for Advanced Studies in
Social and Management Sciences
Discourse Politics Identiy
Working Paper Series
Working Paper No. 1
Civilisation and Barbarism
Dept. of European Studies
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Civilisation and Barbarism
Civilisation and barbarism belong together. If you point out others as barbarians you indirectly grant yourself a civilised role. The two concepts are normally used to draw up fundamental differences. Together they make up a powerful weapon in any differential semantics. Barbarians are not good. You cannot make friends with barbarians. On the contrary, they have a prominent role in any collection of enemy images. Barbarism is used as a synonym for the worst parts of human history. History is rich with barbarians. Many have been nominated. Who becomes a barbarian, and who turns out civilised, depends, however, to a large degree, on speaker position. Rarely would anyone voluntarily take on the designation barbarian. You are always the barbarian of someone.
In this paper, I will begin be outlining a history of the two intertwined concepts, in order to point out the sedimentation of some basic meanings. I shall claim – without
much evidence – that different layers of meaning were added to the two concepts during their use in history. Next, I intend to show how civilisation and barbarism are used as political battle concepts in contemporary discussion on friends and enemies in the Western world. It is my assumption that the two concepts – in their different wordings - play a
dominant role in the handling of friends and enemies. I am particularly interested in the way the American president George Bush, on a conceptual level, has dealt with enemies after 9/11. But I will also demonstrate how civilisation and barbarism is at play in the more friendly reflections on neighbours undertaken within the European Union. Although an effort is made to turn neighbours and strangers into friends within official EU rhetoric, differences of all kinds keep cropping up. Some of them are viewed in terms of civilisation.
The concept of barbarism
If we limit ourselves to consider the concepts of barbarism and civilisation, in a purely etymological perspective, barbarism comes first. Barbarism is derived from the Greek word barbaros (βάρβαρος) which connects the meaning of strangeness with incomprehensible speech. Barbaros is presumably an onomatopoeia which mimes incomprehensible sounds (Jones 1971). In the Iliad, the adjective bararaphōnos is introduced to designate a group of
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human beings that “speaks strangely” (Hall 1989: 9, see also Lund 2005: 9). In the Greek
thspeaking world of the 5 century BC the noun barabaroi became a standard term for
strangers. In his Histories, Herodotus consequently designate strange peoples as
barbarians. There is no doubt that Herodotus used the word as a general term for cultural differences. Is it debatable, however, whether it also carried negative connotations (Malitz 2002; Lund 2005). Most scholars seem to agree that the long lasting conflict between the Persians and the Greeks in the 5t century BC contributed to giving barbarism a more pejorative meaning for the Greeks. In the eyes of the Greeks, the Persians came to embody the negative barbarbarian whose behaviour contrasted sharply with Greek life. Aeschylus‟ famous tragedy, The Persians from 472 BC gave a systematic elaboration of
these contrasts (Hall 1989).Aeschylus condensed all differences between Greeks and Persians into a basic opposition between democracy and tyranny. The term barbarian furthermore served the political purpose of mobilising a Panhellenic identity in the struggle against the Persians (Lund 2005). In the view, Edith Hall, the Persian wars played a prominent role in turning the barbarian into the absolute enemy: “the „barbarian‟ in the most complete sense, the despotic adversary of free Hellenes everywhere, had well and truly been invented” (Hall 1989: 59). From then on, the barbarian was not only a stranger.
He was a dangerous enemy whose behaviour was inferior to Greek life. This double meaning of cultural inferiority and danger was to become the basic meaning of barbarism.
The indication of the barbarian‟s cultural inferiority does not necessarily build
on ethnographic observations. Important is only the marking of a dividing line between the superior position of one‟s own life and thus the inferior position of those living on the other side. For this reason, it is problematic to locate the concept of the barbarian within a cultural discourse which focuses on the conceptualisation of different ways of lives. The barbarian is first of all used to create a superior position for your own culture. He gives value to your own culture, so to speak, because he does not possess any value himself. As I shall argue in a moment, evaluation of one‟s own way of living is essential to a discourse of civilisation. If the barbarian first and foremost embodies the opposition to all civilised life, any culture has been written off. Barbaric life is typically described as a negation of civilised life. The barbarian lives irrationally, brutish and without any rules. He is viewed as less than human and reduced to a life at the limits of society (Pagden 1982: 16). Barbarians are those wild men, sylvestres homines, of the European middle ages who
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lived outside the gates of organised life. From this position outside they threaten to penetrate into civilisation and destroy it. The barbarians is thus a metaphor for the ultimate enemy against whom only the most radical steps can be taken.
Whereas the barbarian of the Greeks refers to those inferior strangers and enemies outside your own civilised world, the Roman barbarus, according to Y.A.Dauge becomes the symbol of everything threatening: “in it [the concept of the barbarian] is condensed and revealed all dimensions of evil” (Dauge 1981: 406; my translation). In the
Roman world, the barbarian can operate as an anonymous force, barbaria (barbarism),
that constantly threatens to emerge within civilised life. Barbarism can for instance be viewed as the brutish behaviour of individuals within one‟s own community. In his study of Roman “barbarology” – that is, the meaning and the use of the concept within the Roman world - Dauge demonstrates how barbarism is connected to a whole catalogue of negative terms such as irrationality, impotence, violence, ferocity, brutality, martial temper,
1discord and vanity (Dauge 1981: 424-440).
The meaning of barbarism is basically determined by its opposite, the civilised life. Barbarism is always presented as a negation of well-known and accepted values. The term is central to that rhetoric of negativity which is so dominant in many descriptions of strangers (Ifversen 2003). Barbarism is a typical “asymmetrical counter concept” as
defined by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck. Asymmetrical counter concepts belong to “a universalistic rhetoric” where particular pairs of concepts are intended to cover
the whole of humanity (Koselleck 1989: 218). They are used when one group makes claim to universality by excluding others. The position of the excluded is expressed in terms of inferiority, which thus also marks an asymmetrical relation between the two concepts in a pair. According to Koselleck the concept of barbarian developed as an asymmetrical counterconcept to the Hellene. Hellenic identity is therefore not to be viewed as an ethnic identity among others, but as a claim to universality. Together the pair of the barbarian and the Hellene designates humanity and its limits. But they are not operating on equal terms. The barbarian is always less than the Hellene and thus placed in an asymmetrical
1 The most important Latin terms that according to Dauge constitutes the semantic field within which barbarism is given meaning are feritas, ferocia, belli furor, discordia and uanitas. 2 In his study of asymmetrical counterconcepts, Koselleck is outlining the history of three pairs of concepts, Hellene and barbarian, Christian and pagan, Human and inhuman/superhuman/subhuman Koselleck 1989).
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In his historical analysis of the pair, barbarian and Hellene, Koselleck demonstrates how the barbarian at first is used in a spatial delimitation to conceptualise an inner, Hellenic space, for soon to be broadened to include an indication of temporal difference (Koselleck 1989: 220-223). Koselleck refers to Thucydides who compares contemporary barbarians with the Hellenes of the past: “And there are many other points
in which a likeness might be shown between the life of the Hellenic world of old and the
3barbarian of to-day”. This temporal delimitation was further developed by the Romans who inserted the barbarians at the lower stages of history (Dauge 1981: 486-494). By adding a temporal dimension to the barbarian, the range of meaning covered by the concept was expanded. Barbarians were thus not only strangers and enemies, but also primitives living in another time.
The universal rhetoric in which barbarian signifies the inferior and negative part, was transmitted from the Greek world to the Roman and Christian world. For the Romans, The barbarian was contrasted with the universal values as they were epitomized in the concept of humanitas romana (Dauge 1981: 537-544). Within the Christian world the
4barbarian fused with the pagan (paganus) (Pagden 1982: 20; Jones 1971: 387), who
signified all peoples outside the Christian community of faithful, congregatio fidelum. In the
late middle ages the role of the arch-barbarian was taken over by the Muslims, and especially „the eternal Turk‟ who was to become a long-lasting enemy image of the
European powers in their struggle with the Ottoman empire (Yapp 1992). The Ottoman empire was the most important of those “barbaric nations” that the Christians fought (Jones 1971: 393). With the barbarians located in particular nations the concept experienced a further “territorialisation” during the middle ages (Koselleck 1989: 239). This did involve any recognition of these “nations” as being of the same kind as the European “nations”. The asymmetrical relation between barbarians and Christians were kept intact
5by presenting Islam as a distortion of the true Christian faith (Said 1995: 59-61).
3 Thuchydides. The history of the Peloponnesian Wars, (Translated by R. Crawley.) The first Book. The Internet Classics archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.html 4 The term paganus originally referred to primitive life, rusticitas, cp.. James J. O‟Donnell, Paganus.
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/paganus.html 5 I think it is wrong as Jones does to claim that the concept of the barbarian in the middle ages is expanded from a limited religious meaning to a broader cultural one. In my view, the dominant religious meaning is what makes the universal rhetoric – and thus the asymmetrical relation – possible. In the dominant framework, Islam is not perceived as
a culture, not even as another religion, but as a „falsified‟ version of the true faith.
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The concept of civilisation
The concept of the barbarian presupposes a concept of civilised life. Romans and medieval Christians had significant terms for the universal contrast to barbarism, although they did not have a single word for (what we call) civilisation. The Romans inherited the
Greek perception of civilised life as confined to the organised community of the city, polis.
In Latin, political life was related to civitas, that, however, also had a broader sociological
meaning of civilised behaviour, expressed in the words civilitas and civilis (Fisch 1993:
687). Both the political and the broader sociological meaning were maintained in the middle ages, although the latter came to take a more dominant role. Consequently, civilised life was more and more seen in contrast to the natural and brutish life represented
thby the barbarian. In the 16 century civilised life increasingly became related to individual self control operating through a detailed set of behaviourial codes (Elias 1997: 157-166). The word civilisation appeared in French in 1756 (Ifversen 2000). This particular form of substantivization – with endings on –ion - which started appearing around this time in the
French language – signified a processus. Civilisation was the process through which individual and societies became civilised. In the Enlightenment, this idea of a processus was related to a universal view of history moving through stages. The introduction of the word thus marked a shift from a more spatialised perception to a new form of temporalisation, which placed the barbarians on a stage in history long surpassed by the civilised societies. Among the many efforts to locate civilised life within a universal history we find Adam Ferguson‟s Civil Society from 1767. On one hand, Ferguson‟s concept of
civil society confirmed the link between a political and a well-ordered life. On the other hand, it outlined a universal historical movement that placed civil societies ahead of “barbarian” and “savage” societies on a historical line of evolution. Consequently, the
barbarian was the primitive to be found as well in the European past as in the present
6colonies. Humanity is a key concept in placing civilisation at the positive end of a universalistic rhetoric. Humanity is both the object and the subject of civilisation. Humanity is acting to drive history towards its end, a human society. Apart from being a battle