Is Eurocentrism Unique?

It would be hard for someone who comes to European historiography from another perspective–Greek, Roman or Islamic–not to notice an obsession, especially pronounced since the eighteenth century, with European superiority.

One runs into this obsession amongst all kinds of writers. It is already visible during the eighteenth century in Montesquieu, Hume and Kant. During the nineteenth century it was elaborated into historical systems by Hegel and Marx, erected into racial hierarchies by Blumenbach and Cuvier, and shaped into a pseudo-science of race by Agassiz and Morton. In recent times, this obsession may be observed in full bloom in several leading historians, including White, Brenner, Jones and Landes. When one stumbles into an exception, such as Needham or Hodgson, it is refreshing.

This obsession takes a variety of forms. It is claimed that Europeans possess qualities that no one else possesses, or they possess them in greater abundance. At various times, these claims have been asserted with respect to rationality, freedom, individuality, inventiveness, daring, curiosity and tolerance; not an exhaustive list. In addition, these qualities have always been translated into superior achievements. The Europeans have always excelled in governance, wars, technology, management, sciences, humanities, philosophy, historiography, romance, pornography, shipping, banking, capitalism and industrialization. Again, the list is not exhaustive.

The claims of superiority take two forms. First, there is the method of assertion; we control the production of knowledge, and we can say what we like about ourselves and others. A recent example of this is David Landes’ Wealth and Poverty of Nations. There are others who hit upon the strategy of starting the wagon train of Western civilization in Babylon, and moving it generally westward, through Egypt, Phoenicia, Israel, Greece and Rome, until it arrives at its final destination in Western Europe. A clever way to overcome a skimpy history, by extend it backwards some five thousand years in order to appropriate the greatest achievements of the ancient Near East.

These superior qualities and attainments were of course not accidental: they were produced by additional, deeper layers of superiority. Europeans excelled because they were descendants of Japheth, who had been chosen for divine preferment. Alternatively, they derived their superiority from their location, their favored continent, whose temperate climate, diverse environment, rivers, and abundant coastline, produced greater vigor and economic opportunities. There were many more who put it down simply to race: the whites were biologically superior.

What is it that drives this European obsession? In his essay, Eurocentrism, Samir Amin argues that Eurocentrism is historically specific to capitalism; it constructs an ideology of racial superiority to support capitalist Europe’s project of global domination. In the same way that orthodox economics obscures class divisions, Eurocentrism obfuscates imperialism and global inequalities.

Amin’s thesis contains important insights, but it also raises some questions. Why has this ideology been cast primarily in terms of racial–as opposed to cultural–differences? Have stronger groups involved in asymmetric relationships always mobilized ideologies of differences to perpetuate their superiority? And have they always employed the language of race, blood, or lineage? In order to begin to answer these questions, I turn to history to examine how different civilizations have articulated autocentrism.

A Variety of Autocentrisms

As I review autocentrisms across space and time, there is no pretense that these assessments are definitive or always rooted in exhaustive evidence.

Ascertaining the extent of autocentrism in any group can be problematic. A group’s autocentrism may change over time, and it may vary across different classes even at any point in time. Moreover, too often we rely on literary sources as our primary sources for evaluating autocentrism. This has pitfalls. The literary sources may reflect factional or elitist viewpoints. In the event, we need to look out for discriminatory practices, whether sanctioned by laws or custom, that may be rooted in autocentric ideologies. I take these to be more reliable indicators of autocentrism.

Ancient Greece. It appears that the Greeks first acquired a consciousness of their distinctiveness–separate from the barbarians–in the eight century BCE. However, this was not accompanied by a sense of superiority; this emerged much later, during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, in the course of their rivalry with the Persians.

Aristotle’s Politics represents Greek autocentrism at its most rigorous. He argues that barbarians are deficient in reasoning and lack the ability to govern–and hence, they are ‘by nature’ fit to be slaves, whereas the Greeks are born to be free and to govern others. Aristotle argued that the Greeks combine the virtues of Asiatics and Europeans while avoiding their defects. If only “they were united they would rule over everyone.”

It appears, however, that Aristotle represented a minority position. Further, even Aristotle’s arguments should not be equated with modern racism; the barbarians he excluded are not a racial category. Most remarkably, when Alexander went out and conquered the world, he disregarded the advice of Aristotle, his teacher. He refused to treat the defeated Persians as “natural slaves.” Instead his policies suggest that he wanted to create a joint Macedonian/Persian world empire.

Medieval Islam. There are two organizing principles that medieval Islam employed to classify societies: one based on faith, another on climatic zones.

Islamic society was a community of faith, whose membership depended only on the acceptance of Islam–not on color, class, lineage, or ethnicity. In theory, at least during the early period of Islam, this community of faith, Dar al-Islam (the House of Peace), was set apart from Dar al-Harb (the House of War). Islamic rulers were required to wage constant war against Dar al-Harb, though periods of respite were permitted. The wars could cease only when the Dar al-Harb was incorporated into Dar al-Islam.

Once the non-Muslims entered into Dar al-Islam they were granted rights as dhimmis, or protected subjects. The dhimmis did not serve in the military, and enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy over their civil affairs. On the other hand, they paid the jizya, a poll tax, but this did not apply to slaves, old or sick men, women, children and monks. Initially, the dhimmi status was accorded only to Christians and Jews, but it was eventually extended to nearly all non-Muslim groups.

In their climatic ethnology, the Islamic societies followed Greek precedents. They divided the northern hemisphere into seven latitudinal zones. It is the central zones–the third and fourth, neither too hot nor too cold–that possessed the greatest potential for supporting civilized societies. These zones contained the central Arab lands, North Africa, Iran, the northern Mediterranean, and parts of China. The first and second zones–because of their extreme heat–and the sixth and seventh zones–because of their extreme cold–did not support advanced civilizations. This climatic principle was not applied too rigidly. Although much of India and Arabia fell within the first and second zones, both were peninsulas, which allowed for cooling and brought them closer to the temperate climate of the central zones.

It should be noted that the essential thrust of this climatic ethnology–that civilizational achievements were correlated with climatic zones–had some basis in facts at the time. Nearly every one of the advanced civilizations and the great empires, both ancient and contemporary, were located in the central zones. On the other hand, the achievements of the peoples inhabiting the cold and hot zones–the Slavs, Turks, Bulgars, Franks, Sudanese and Ethiopians–were not comparable to those of the central zones.

There are other reasons for thinking that ideology may not have been the principal motivation behind this climatic construct. First, the cold and hot zones were far removed from the Islamic heartlands, allowing a freer play to the imagination in the description of these remote regions. Second, the denigration of peoples in the north and south was never complete. Thus, while the Franks are seen as coarse, filthy, sexually lax, and lacking in the sciences, they are also described as courageous, enterprising, disciplined and well-governed. Third, these regions did not constitute serious threats to the Islamic empire, at least during the early phase of Islamic conquests, when these constructs were developed. Finally, the central zones were not wholly Arab or Islamic; they included, both in the past and present, a variety of non-Islamic societies. The Muslim sources were nearly always very generous in recognizing the achievements of ancient and contemporary civilizations.

The West, Medieval and Early Modern. In defining their self-image, the West has not only drawn upon differences in religion, culture and climate, but from an early date their claims of superiority have been framed in biological metaphors, which gained greater salience over time. We also observe a tendency, again quite early on, to translate the ideologies of differences into systems of legal discrimination and worse.

Although Christianity was initially a Mediterranean religion–spanning three continents–it would acquire a European identity starting in the seventh century. This was the result of two parallel processes. While they destroyed the Roman empire, the Germanic invaders soon embraced Latin Christianity and carried it to the northern regions of Europe. As a result, the political unity of the defunct Roman Empire was replaced by a deeper cultural unity based in Christianity, a common language (Latin), and a hierarchy of priests centered in Rome. At the same time, as the Islamic empire conquered Christian domains outside Europe, a politically fragmented Europe increasingly emphasized its Christian identity. This identity found early expression in the wars against heretics, persecution of Jews, and the demonization of Islam.

The three remaining components of Western autocentrism–a superior geography, race and divine preferment–were derived from ancient Greece and Israel. Although, the Greeks had two systems of ordering the world, the division into three continents and the division into seven latitudinal climes, it is perhaps not too difficult to understand why medieval Europe opted for the former. The climatic scheme placed northern Europe in the less desirable fifth and sixth zones, whose frigid climate did not support intellectual vigor or high civilization. On the other hand, the continental system allowed Europeans to appropriate one of three equal continents, and endow it with a temperate climate.

The continental system had another advantage in constructing a European autocentrism: it allocated one continent to each of the sons of Noah. Denys Hay has shown in Europe: The Emergence of An Idea that a racial and continental construction of the Noachian legend began with Josephus, a Jewish scholar of the first century BCE, and it was firmly established by fifth century CE. Christian Europe was identified with Japheth, who had been promised dominion over the children of Shem and Ham, now identified with Asia and Africa. At the same time, the Africans, identified with the Hamites, would serve both Europe and Asia.

There is some disagreement about whether ethnicity in early medieval Europe was a social or racial construct. It is clear that the discourse about ethnicity, even in this early period, was framed in terms of racial concepts–including blood, stock, gens, natio–but Robert Bartlett, in The Making of Europe, believes that “its medieval reality was almost entirely cultural.” Richard Hoffman, in Studies in Medieval and Renaisance History, disagrees. He maintains that the use of such terms by medieval writers show “a fundamentally biological explanation of how the groups came into being.” In any case, even Bartlett speaks of an “intensification of racial feeling in the later Middle Ages” that was accompanied by a “new biological racism.”

The later middle ages are also marked by legal discrimination against native populations in Europe’s periphery–Ireland, Wales and Eastern Europe–controlled by the Germans, Franks and Englishmen. Starting in the fourteenth century, the towns and guilds in these areas began to restrict membership by race, residential areas were segregated by race, languages and cultural practices belonging to native populations were banned, and marriages between conquering and native populations were prohibited. Racism and discrimination intensified during the later Middle Ages.

The class conflict, between lords and serfs, during the Middle Ages is also framed in the language of racism, lineage in this case. According to Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, the medieval writers commonly describe the serfs as stupid, malformed, grotesque, dwelling in filth and excrement, and closer to beast than humans. In addition, this degradation of serfs is attributed to their lineage, their connection to the accursed line of Cain, Ham or both. In short, the serfs are savages who are fitted by nature, or their inherited sins, to the hard and humiliating conditions to which they are born.

The idiom of race enters into Europe’s autocentric discourse in a variety of contexts during the early modern period. While the persecution, expulsion and forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain may have been motivated primarily by Christian bigotry, conversion did not win the Conversos and Moriscos–the converted Jews and Muslims–acceptance into Spanish society. Careers in the church and state were restricted to those who could prove a Christian lineage before the Inquisition. The Moriscos were eventually expelled in the early seventeenth century.

In the Americas, the Spaniards quickly constructed a system of racial discrimination to justify their exploitation of the indigenous Indians. According to Peggy Liss in Mexico Under Spain they lost no time in imposing a “rudimentary apartheid policy” under which a white Spanish elite extracted labor and goods from the dark Indians. In 1550, Juan Sepúlveda, the royal chaplain and philosopher, produced an elaborate defense of these policies.

Although some medieval writers identified Africans as descendents of Ham, their systematic denigration as an inferior, savage race began only after the mid-fifteenth century when their blackness became a “master symbol” of all negative racial characteristics. In Spanish Americas, the ban on enslavement of Indians, introduced in 1542, would not be extended to Africans. Alden Vaughan and Virginian Vaughan, in The William And Mary Quarterly, attest to the “sheer accumulation of derogatory references [to blacks] in narratives, plays, poems, and other printed and visual material in the second half of the sixteenth century,” in Elizabethan England, and these denigrative images “transcended class, gender, age and levels of literacy.”

China. The Chinese have always cultivated a sense of superiority, but this was based on cultural rather than biological distinctions. The Chinese texts rarely make any references to the physical appearance of barbarians. It is striking that a biological racism did not enter into the Chinese discourse even during the three centuries of “endemic ethnic conflict” that began in the late third century CE.

The centrality of culture–rather than race–in the Chinese world-view had an important corollary. Nearly always, this translated into civilizing mission as state policy, not merely a propaganda tool. In the Confucian cannon, the chief instrument of this civilizing mission was always education. This policy produced not only an expansion of the boundaries of the Chinese state but the eventual absorption of the conquered peoples into the Chinese cultural sphere.

The one aberrant exception to this occurs towards the end of the nineteenth century when, defeated by the West, China’s reformers adapted the racist ideology of the West. Sun Yat-Sen spoke of Chineseness “running in the blood.” And these ideas became a central part of the Guomindang ideology in Taiwan.

Concluding Remarks

The review of autocentrisms across four civilizations has yielded results which are more often at variance with a priori expectations.

While theory would suggest that stronger groups, in asymmetric relationships, will seek to perpetuate their dominance with autocentric constructs, this was not always the case. The ancient Greeks adopted an attitude of superiority towards the Asiatics only briefly, during the fourth century BCE, when the Persians threatened them. In fact, Hellenic civilization moved east after Alexander’s conquest, and it was there, in partnership with the Asiatics, that it continued to flour-ish for several more centuries. Similarly, the power of Islamic socie-ties was rarely founded, in theory or practice, on a racial stratification. The Islamic elites claimed cultural superiority not for particular races, but for peoples living in central climatic zones, which included peoples other than themselves. While the Chinese empires claimed centrality, this too was based on cultural distinctions, not race. It was always their official policy to assimilate the barbarians, not to exclude them.

It would appear that the Europeans are the exceptions to this. The evidence suggests that stronger groups in Europe, as early as the twelfth century, rather quickly moved towards autocentric constructs with a racial content. This may be observed in their relations with subjugated populations that were ethnically or racially different, both inside and outside Europe. Moreover, the autocentric myths were also translated into discriminatory policies–sometimes, genocidal policies–against the weaker groups.

This means is that Samir Amin’s construction of Eurocentrism as a capitalist ideology, though fundamentally correct, needs to be modified in one important respect. It appears that the racist conceptions that underpin this ideology represent are not unique to the capitalist epoch. The Franks, Germans, English and Spaniards used race to justify their dominance well before global capitalism, and global inequalities, had taken a firm hold. The roots of European racism are older than capitalism.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. His second book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam.


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at