No culture is without its blind spots. The Roman Empire embodied many errors, such as slavery and a widespread contempt for human life. These and other features of Roman society were called into question first by Judaism and then by Christianity. Yet even today we continue to refer with admiration to Roman civilization and its many accomplishments. By contrast, no one speaks of the former Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba in these terms. In short, most people do recognize that, at some level, there are qualitative differences between societies and cultures.
On one level, civilizational preeminence can be understood in material and technological terms. Civilization, however, has always implied more than technological prowess. The Greeks and Romans didn’t refer to outsiders as “barbarians” simply because of the latter’s apparent military inferiority. Educated Greeks and Romans also believed that certain aspects of their own cultures, such as the forms of government developed in the Greek city-states, the legal institutions forged by Rome, and the singular philosophies developed by thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero, accorded with the truth about how things should be and therefore constituted a standard by which to assess other cultures.
Hence, when Alexander the Great started adopting Persian dress and demanding that his Macedonian soldiers accord him the honors given to Asian potentates, the historian Arrian records that Alexander was openly criticized by some of his officers. In their view, one of the greatest warriors of all time was embracing habits they considered to be decadent precisely because they were incompatible with the Greek attachment to liberty, however imperfectly realized. Freedom, to their minds, was an intrinsically superior state of existence to one characterized by the despotism that had marked the far wealthier but defeated Persian Empire. (Read more.)Share