The Delusions of Civilization, William Robertson in India

That civilized values and the civilized way of life are being threatened by terror has been the recent political rhetoric of American and British leaders. Such rhetoric implies an established consensus regarding what is civilized; it implies, fundamentally, that there is a universal standard of what is right and wrong. For example, in the infamous language of George W. Bush, “you are either with us” – and accept the political and social values of America (liberty and democracy being the key words) – or “you are against us” – and reject the American way of life. In this rhetoric there is no room for dissension.

What is civilized, in other words, is all things American. Such a view reveals a confidence and self-assurance in the American way of life. Such smugness is by no means a new phenomenon. William Robertson, the eighteenth-century, Scottish historian, noted in his History of America that all nations, however and wherever they lived, were satisfied with their way of life; he noted that a people were always reluctant to forsake the way they lived and adopt another mode of living. It was a nation’s smugness that led them to regard other nations with disdain, as the Europeans had done when they had begun trading and discovering other parts of the globe.

Europeans, Robertson suggested, had been led to treat the Native Americans, Africans and Indians as inferior, because they – the Europeans – took themselves, their political, social and religious organisation, as the standard by which to measure others. The Europeans, he implied, should have treated the Indians, at least, with more respect, as they had advanced, in terms of their subsistence (in other words they were no longer hunters and gatherers); but the Europeans ignored it:

Even in India, though far advanced beyond the two other quarters of the globe in improvement, the colour of the inhabitants, their effeminate appearance, their unwarlike spirit, the wild extravagance of their religious tenets and ceremonies, and many other circumstances, confirmed Europeans in such an opinion of their own pre-eminence, that they have always viewed and treated them as an inferior race of men.

Robertson argued that the Hindus deserved the respect and good treatment of the British in particular, who had, through the course of the eighteenth century, come to rule India.

For Robertson, civilization or progress was measured in material terms; it was advances in the mode of subsistence that Robertson believed wrought changes in all spheres of human affairs. For instance, a complicated system of government and justice was the direct consequence of a nation engaging in commerce. Robertson wanted to measure the progress of other nations, without making any normative statements. He wanted the Hindu people to be appreciated on their own terms.

With this intention in mind he had argued that Hindu literature provided evidence of ancient India’s refined manners. Robertson quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, and stated that the poem demonstrated the ‘genius of the poet’, as well as being ‘beautiful and pathetic’. Similarly, Robertson’s exploration of Indian drama also led him to conclude that such works could only be produced ‘among a people of polished manners and delicate sentiments’. He did however point out the lack of taste present in their literature, but concluded that they could not be judged by European standards, as vast differences of manners and religion existed between them: ‘we must not measure it by our own standard of propriety. Allowance must be made for local customs, and singular manners, arising from a state of domestic society, an order of civil policy, and a system of religious opinions, very different from those established in Europe’.

Robertson explored other aspects of Hindu life and pointed out their wisdom and refinement. And yet despite his best efforts, he could not avoid being influence by partial, preconceived notions. Robertson did measure the progress of India against that of Europe; despite stating to the contrary, he did point out that Indian literature fell short of European literary tastes. He also described the Hindus in terms that would have been familiar to his British audience, providing his readers with analogies from European experience. So the Hindu caste system was represented as an institutionalised separation of ranks; the state of land ownership was akin to the past feudal organisation of Europe; their philosophy was said to contain the same ideas as the Stoical school. In short, India was deemed by Robertson to be civilized, but only on European terms.

Robertson’s task would have always ended in failure, as given the absence of any absolute standard by which to measure others, the only remaining resource was one’s own experience: I can only decide by what I know, consequently answering the question ‘what is civilized?’ becomes a subjective exercise. Yet, what I know can always be contested by someone else. For example, the arts and sciences were a sign of refinement for Robertson, but for Rousseau they had been a sign of man’s enslavement and corruption. Which view was legitimate and who had the right to decide?

‘What is civilized?’ is a question open to debate and constant revision. Agreeing to disagree would seem to be the path that leads to the least conflict. Yet a superpower can always impose their will on others. So that what is civilized is often no more than who is the most powerful.

Asma Ahmad | Spring 2004