THE GREAT CONTINENTAL CURRENTS OF THOUGHT
Armando Martins Janeira
When we consider Eastern and Western values we should never forget the conditions under which they were created and developed, we should take into account the geographical, historical, social and other conditions of Asia and Europe. We should remember that Europe is a small continent, formed by relatively small nations, bound by common historical events and a common cultural tradition: the substratum of Greek thought, Roman expansion and discipline, the Christian mediaeval tradition, the movement of the Renaissance and the movement of ideas of the French Revolution. Besides, for centuries, Latin was the vehicle of culture, the language written by European scholars.
Asia is vast and has no cultural unity. Some of the Asiatic countries themselves have several cultural traditions, speak many different languages, each with its own literature. The Chinese have the political and literary genius of expressing different spoken languages by means of the same written language and consequently made the extraordinary achievement of having only one empire and one literature.
The vast distances in the Asiatic continent and the difficulty of transport incited the proliferation of local divisions into groups, clans, dialects, religious sects, restricted the intercourse among countries and races. The vast nationalities of Asia correspond to independent cultural entities.
It was division and smallness that in Europe fostered universalism. The unity forged by one sole religious creed, Christianity, and the easy circulation of ideas, made possible the general acceptance of certain values which transcend the others and became universal. The nations that originated those values were those which first matured politically and culturally. For a great part of European history, and during its periods of greatest height, the small nations have been the greatest contributors to European civilization. Disraeli wrote that “All great things have been done by little nations”.
In Asia it is the contrary: India, China, Japan are the outstanding examples. The larger the nation, the deeper or vaster is its cultural importance.
When, in this field we compare Europe and Asia we see that while the historical tendency in Europe has always been for the expansion and universalism of national values, in Asia each great country preferred to close itself to foreign contacts and explore and deepen its own particular ways of thought. China considered all other peoples inferior and barbarian, and Japan though old diplomatic messages “From the Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun to the Emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun” were addressed on an equal basis, has closed her doors during long periods of its history. Even Hideyoshi, the greatest Japanese historical figure, and one of the most far-sighted men in the world of his time, was responsible for withdrawing Japan from the contact with the West. In spite of his great political genius, the political action of Hideyoshi never had an important repercussion out of his country, though he had the ambition once to conquer Korea and China, inspirited by the example of, and by his talks with, the Portuguese sailors.
India, in the third century B.C., during the reign of Asoka, one of the most remarkable kings in History, sent missionaries to preach Buddhism to Ceylon, and Burma, even as far as Antioch and Alexandria (though we are not yet sure whether they reached these two cities or not). To Ceylon Asoka’s missionaries were lead by his own son and daughter, Mahindra and Sanghamitra, who took with them a branch of the sacred Bodhi tree and planted it in the center of the island, having converted the Ceylonese king, Tissa, and his subjects. To Asoka is due the extraordinary achievement of having given Buddhism, which was then only just one sect, the projection of a great religion.
China had a period of maritime expansion, which began with the founder of Ming Dynasty, a shepherd, beggar, Buddhist monk and bandit who became emperor under the name of Hung Wu, and continued with his successor Yung Lo, in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. A fleet of sixty five junks sailed to Ceylon and Calicut and went as far as the coast of Arabia. A net of tributary states was established, including Korea, Amman, Siam, Burma, Java and Malaya. The Malayan rulers remained under the suzerainty of Peking for a hundred years, until the arrival of the Portuguese ships.
Buddhism spread from India to the South and to the East and Chinese culture influenced South-East Asia and Japan. But we do not find in Asia continental currents of thought with a tendency to Universalism as we do in Europe.
Thrice in history, Asia was on the verge of conquering the European continent. The first was when the Arabs, an Asian race, established in the Iberian Peninsula, passed the Pyrenees and threatened to get hold of Europe from the Western side, having been stopped by Charles Martel in Poitiers in 732; later again Islam, represented by the Turkish armies invaded Europe, this time from the East, and went as far as Vienna, where it was defeated in 1683.
Another danger was raised in the thirteenth century by the Mongolians, the barbaric race that dominated the whole of West Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe and only the death of Genghis Khan’s son, Ogotai, prevented from invading Western Europe and conquering the Holy Roman Empire. Europe was then in risk of total destruction, as the vast Mongol power, the example of the most ferocious militarism in history, destroyed everywhere the spiritual values, leaving behind only barbarism and inhuman cruelty.
Europeans went to Asia for the first time with Alexander the Great, in the fourth century B.C. The artists of the court of Alexander have brought into Asia Greek art, and we can see today in the museums of Pakistan and Afghanistan beautiful statues of Buddha with the traits of young Apollo, the Attic elegance of the folding robes and the Hellenic grace of the smile appearing under the Asiatic serenity. This was the great fruit of the combination of Eastern and Western ideas, after the coming into Europe of Christian religion from Palestine, to be also transformed under the influence of Greek thought which gave it definitely a character of universalism.
The second adventure of Europeans in Asia, with the Venetian Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, besides intensifying the commercial traffic of the Silk Road, like that of Alexander had no continuation. It was only from the sixteenth century onwards, after the Portuguese discoveries that the currents of trade and thought were permanently established between the two continents. But the reciprocal knowledge of the art and thought produced by each continent begun only in the second half of the last century and only in our days is becoming universalized and entering a common patrimony of mankind.
America is still a young continent. It received its civilization from Europe. But particular trends are already salient in its development. The two main ones are the amplitude given to science and technique and their practical application to everyday life; and the importance given specially by the United States to the Eastern values. Through the first, the United States are penetrating in Europe, by means of their technology and capital investments; through the latter, North America is becoming the favourite place for the penetration of Eastern culture. This penetration is still in small degree, but much wider than in Europe. It was made easier by the after-war occupation of Japan and by the passing through Japan of one million Americans. America is showing today for the East the same enthusiasm that Europe had during the second half of last century. The United States is the only Western country that fully realized the great changes brought into world politics by the exceptional emergence of Japan. The same realism is not shown by Americans in what concerns the modernization of China.
Africa is a continent rich in cultural variety. The Islamic North has nothing in common with the Black heathen countries of Central Africa. In the South, Portuguese Africa with an harmonious intercourse of Black and White races where Western culture is developing, and the Republic of South Africa with her hard problem of the Apartheid which is a constant source of tension, present another different panorama. But what is distinct in Africa is the tradition of a poetic polytheism whose particular force comes from a dynamic divinization of the forces of nature. This primitive strength with a tribal origin springs from the intimate physical contact of man with nature. African dance, music and fetishism come directly from the powers of the earth magnified by a deep teluric sense and a vigorous poetic imagination.
This is what is peculiar and native to Africa. It is evident, though, that this alone cannot bring up to a culture formed by universal values, to a particular African civilization. Thus African culture, apart Islam, which though with brilliant cultural traditions did not develop peculiar African characteristics, is destined to be combined with Western civilization in much larger degree than Asian civilizations did. It is probable that, in the future, from this fusion of values, which is far from having been attained, a special African character will evolve.
The history of active and uninterrupted continental exchanges is very short. It was only in our days that intense exchange of ideas began, and this has been mainly from the West to the East and the South, the exchange on the other way round being still far from what it should be. We can foresee now that such exchange is going to be wide and fruitful both ways. There lies the hope that the world civilization which is approaching will avoid the dangers of a superficial universalism and will enrich and deepen itself by embracing the immense amount of variety of forms and diversity of values contained in all the continental cultures of which it will be nourished.