Ricardo Duchesne has another important article on Western uniqueness: “The Faustian Impulse and European Exploration” (The Fortnightly Review, June, 2012). It is a shorter version of an article that appeared as “A Civilization of Explorers” (Academic Questions 25:65–93, 2012).
TOO readers will be familiar with the general perspective, having read Alex Kurtagic’s wonderful “Ernest Shackleton’s Farthest South and Faustian Man’s Quest for Universal Conquest“). Like Kurtagic, Duchesne sees Western exploration as a prime example of the Faustian world view:
Faustian man differs from all others in his insatiable will to reach the infinite. He seeks to overcome with his telescope the dimensions of the universe, and the dimensions of the earth with his wires and iron tracks. With his machines he sets out to conquer nature. (In Kurtagic)
Duchesne’s theme of Western willingness to engage in death-defying deeds in pursuit of personal glory recurs throughout his The Uniqueness of Western Civilization— a volume of critical importance for understanding the people and culture of the West (reviewed here). In his article on Western exploration he reiterates this theme: Western exploration results from the unique Western “aristocratic ethos of competitive individualism. … The expansionist dispositions of Europeans as well as their literary and other achievements were similarly driven by an aggressive and individually felt desire for superlative and undemocratic recognition.”
Whether engaged in peaceful or warlike pursuits, the West has created “a strikingly vibrant culture driven by a type of personality overflowing with expansive, disruptive, and creative impulses.”
The novelty of Indo-European culture was that it was led by an aristocratic elite that was egalitarian within the group rather than by a single despotic ruler. Indo-Europeans prized heroic warriors striving for individual fame and recognition, often with a “berserker” style of warfare. In the more advanced and populated civilizations of the Near East, Iran, and India, local populations absorbed this conquering group. In Neolithic Europe, the Indo-Europeans imposed themselves as the dominant group, and displaced the native languages but not the natives.
Duchesne points to the fact that around 95% of all explorers have been European, and provides a concise overview of some of the major exploratory projects of the West. There is no attempt to sugarcoat this project. Describing the exploits of Hernán Cortés he notes that
these days many regard Cortés as something of a criminal, and this is true. The campaigns he conducted against the Mexicans were graphically barbaric. At the same time, Cortés was a prototypical Western aristocrat, or, as described by his secretary, a man “restless, haughty, mischievous, and given to quarrelling.’ [He was] a man who displayed, again and again, an extraordinary combination of leadership, tenacity, diplomacy, and tactical skill. Finding gold was a priority for Cortés and his men, but, as Cortés’s impassioned speeches and the character descriptions of his contemporaries both testify, he was above all a man driven by an “insatiable thirst for glory and authority;” “he thinks nothing of dying himself, and less of our death.”
Importantly, Duchesne sees in these traits the basis for the rebellious spirit of the West. It is same spirit that
drove Luther in his uncompromising challenge to the papacy’s authority: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” It drove the “intense rivalry” that characterized the art of the Renaissance, among patrons, collectors, artists, and that culminated in the persons of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian.It motivated Shakespeare to outdo Chaucer, creating more than 120 characters, “the most memorable personalities that have graced the theater – and the psyche – of the West.’
In the end, the Western pursuit of exploration went far beyond mundane concerns for wealth, religious conversion, or curiosity, even though these pursuits may also involve Faustian striving. Rather, exploration was for its own sake, and in it “we can see the West’s psyche striving to surpass the mundane preoccupations of ordinary life, comfort and liberal pleasantries, proving what it means to be a man of noble character.”
It is the complete antithesis of the modern Western model based on egalitarianism—and perhaps deriving from another strand of the evolutionary history of the West (see here, p. 64ff). And therein lies the conundrum, because it is certainly true that beginning with the Puritan revolution of the 17th century, the fundamental opposition in Western culture has been between the aristocratic ethos of competitive individualism and the ethos of radical—even stifling—egalitarian universalism, with the latter clearly winning out. This tendency has been massively exploited by our new hostile elite; in many areas it is enforced by all the power of the state, and everywhere it is a constantly recurring drumbeat spewed forth by the media and political class. Whatever is left of the aristocratic ethos is redirected into activities (e.g., physically dangerous sports) that do not threaten the political status quo or even strengthen it (e.g., some types of dangerous military activities; art of the left that rebels against traditional social, sexual, and racial norms).
Duchesne follows Spengler in noting that Western man possesses “the spirit of a ‘proud beast of prey,’ like that of an ‘eagle, lion, [or] tiger.'” Suffice it to say here that in an age of stifling conformity to an ethos of cultural and demographic suicide throughout the West, we can only wish for a reemergence of those proud, haughty, rebellious, difficult and striving spirits that made the West great.