Modernity and the West : How Ideas Travel

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Tyfene Jelstrup for winning the award!

What good has western imperialism done for the world? I asked this question to an acquaintance after she suggested I was maybe exaggerating the ‘evils of Western civilization’. I didn’t expect a reply, but to my surprise, I was given one. It helped spread modernity, said my acquaintance with confidence. The answer made me pause despite myself. I wanted to refute it categorically, but I doubted. Did modernity really come from the West? And even if it did, was its global spread even a positive thing?

What is modernity? It is probably the first question one should answer to understand such a problem. Modernity could mean many things in many different domains. Scientific advances maybe. A new artistic movement, going beyond the pre-establishment. Modernity is what is claimed to come after a revolution, a breakthrough. Calling a thing modern is welcoming the change it has brought to the world. In philosophy, modernity is a concept of the Enlightenment, that came after the decision to privilege rational investigation over superstition and religious dogma. Western society is often referred to as modern precisely because it has supposedly turned away from the ‘old ways’ and welcomed the age of reason.

Did modernity come from the West, then? It is a common Western belief that Modernity was born in Europe in the era of the Enlightenment, and spread to the other continents via colonization and the subsequent agenda to push forward the cultural authority of the West.
This idea is referred to as the theory of diffusionism. It implies that imperialism was a
necessary evil, which we should condemn for its violence but praise its result as ultimately positive for the other civilizations ‘blessed’ by the modern European ways. But although it is
commonly thought that the spread of modernity was of a diffusionist nature, born of some particularity Western brains possess then graciously shared with the rest of the world, this fact has been disputed, and even disproven. A more popular belief would have modernity be
a co-constituted phenomenon. Different ideas would have been born simultaneously in
different places and affected each other. Because evidently, not only Europeans travelled. A
proof of this can be found in Africa and the very existence of the African Enlightenment. For
instance, Zera Yaqob, the Abyssinian philosopher, has as much claim to the title of father of the Enlightenment as René Descartes. Zera Yaqob had never read Descartes, but one can still see similarity between the points discussed in his Hatata and the French philosopher’s preoccupations. They both see faith as something that needs to be reinforced through critical thought and understand the world as equally comprehensible through reason. There are of course differences in their philosophies -Descartes’ attachment to catholicism being one of them, in opposition to Yaqob’s faith in the Ethiopian tradition of orthodox christianity -, but they ought to be compared. It should be noted that it would even be impossible to claim that Yaqob had read Descartes and been inspired by him, considering the Hatata preceded him. It would therefore be more accurate to say that some modern ideas come from the West, but it shouldn’t be praised as the sole birthplace of modernity.

And is the spread of modernity even a good thing? The spread of modernity, whether it
comes from Europe or not, was accompanied by the spread of capitalism, increased industrialization and exploitation. It also allowed a part of the world population to grow richer, and for their lives to become more comfortable, but at the expanse of the more marginalized communities and the environment. Some have even theorized beyond the original modern ideas, as postmodernism can attest. Modernity is questioned in many ways by contemporary scholars and society as a whole, as we look back on history and find that is often accompanied by violence and destruction. Thus, we can conclude that if western imperialism has done the world any good, the gift of modernity is certainly not part of it.

Sebastian Conrad 2012, ‘Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique’. The
American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 4, pp. 999–1027.
Zära Yaḳob 1667, Hatäta (‘Inquiry’). Trans. Claude Sumner 1976, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. II: The Treatise of Zara Yacob and Walda Hewat, Text and Authorship. Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press.

Tyfene Jelstrup is a Third year Comparative Literature student at King’s College London. Born in Madagascar and raised in France, she comes from a mixed background which has prompted her interest in post-colonial theory and the literature derived from it. She is currently working on her dissertation on post-colonial adaptations of Sophocles’ Antigone, combining her love for the classics with her academic and personal interest in the studies of racism and imperialism.

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