Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid. And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.
This fascination with foreign cultures is uniquely Western. The Chinese attitude to foreigners, which Father Ricci described, has characterized all non-Western societies. The Arabs ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years; the Turks ruled most of southeastern Europe for nearly 500 years. But neither the Arabs nor Turks had any interest in learning European languages. They used European converts to Islam as interpreters. An excellent illustration of this parochialism is the most eminent Muslim historian of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Turk, Mustafa Naima (1665-1716), who lived most of his life in Istanbul. Naima was unusually objective, inquisitive, and open-minded for a Muslim historian. He was judicious and critical in his use of sources. Historians still rely on his major work, which was translated in 1832 with the title Annals of the Turkish Empire from 1591-1659 of the Christian Era. However, Naima knew nothing about Europe. In the preface to his Annals, he saw nothing incongruous about comparing Europe of the time he was writing (1704) with Europe of the Crusaders. Both had many Germans and both had an emperor! (pages ix-x) Naima was a contemporary of Newton, Leibnitz, Leeuwenhoek, and Locke. Yet, after listing now totally forgotten Turkish religious scholars, he wrote, “This much is sufficient to awaken the envy of the Christians.” (page ix) The French conquest and occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801 forced a few Egyptian Muslims to take Europeans seriously. Fortunately, one of them, Abdul Al-Jabarti, wrote detailed observations about the French in Egypt. An English translation has been published
with the title Napoleon in Egypt: Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the French Occupation (expanded edition, 2004). Al-Jabarti criticized the French Republic’s hostility to Christianity and the granting of equal rights to Egyptian Christians and Jews. (pages 28, 32, 189-90) But he praised the French for their humane treatment of the Egyptians they employed in public works, to whom they paid wages, instead of conscripting them and driving them with whips, as Egyptian governments had done. (page 195) He also expressed wonder and amazement at European science and technology (pages 110, 195) and at the fact that “the glorious Qur’an is translated into their language! Also many other Islamic books … many verses of which they know by heart. They … ake great efforts to learn the Arabic language … In this they strive day and night.” (page 110) So, an obsession with self-criticism and a passion to learn as much as possible about other civilizations have been among the unique and fundamental characteristics of Western civilization since its beginning. These characteristics have undoubtedly contributed to another characteristic that is as uniquely and fundamentally Western: ceaseless, incessant change, adaptation, and improvement. This characteristic must be a basic cause of the West’s rise to world predominance, even over Orientals, despite their somewhat higher average intelligence. To illustrate the importance of these characteristics, I will return again to Father Ricci’s diaries. He noted that the best Chinese paper was vastly inferior to European paper. “It cannot be written or printed on both sides … Moreover, it tears easily and does not stand up well against time.” (page 16)