Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
From the moment it came into the world, or perhaps from the moment it was conceived, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena was destined for a turbulent life, for there was an apparent political motive behind the writing of it. As Bernal admits himself at the end of Introduction, the “political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lesson European cultural arrogance”1. While it may not have been conceived in sin, Black Athena was certainly conceived in opposition to, if not contempt for, the orthodoxy among historians regarding the formation of Greek civilization. The orthodoxy in this case is what Bernal calls the Aryan Model, which views the rise of Greek civilization as the result of the conquest by Indo-European speaking northerners over non-Indo-European speaking natives in the Aegean.
Bernal claims that this widely accepted view of the rise of Greek civilization was the fabrication of European intellectuals in the nineteenth century. For, up until the nineteenth century, the accepted view had been what Bernal calls the Ancient Model, which views the rise of Greek civilization as the result of colonization, around 1500 BCE, by Egyptians and Phoenicians who, with their cultural and military advantage, had civilized the native inhabitants. In contrast, the Aryan Model negates the role of Egyptians and Phoenicians in the formation of Greek civilization.
Much of Volume I of Black Athena is devoted to a detailed analysis of the fabrication of the Aryan Model—and, by implication, the fall of the Ancient Model—that took place in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The crucial period was the first half of the nineteenth century, when the Aryan Model was firmly established.
Bernal sees the fabrication of the Aryan Model as the result of the culture of “progress”, “Romanticism” and “racism” that dominated as the Zeitgeist of Europe from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. The Enlightenment was responsible for the rise of the culture of “progress”, a worldview that sees humans following a linear progression towards growth and perfection. In light of this kind of worldview, it was quite natural that Greece, which had been seen as an innocent and ignorant youth compared with a mature and knowledgeable Egypt, came to be seen as a youth full of vigor and imagination. In addition to the Romantic admiration of small but free Greek city-states, the culture of Romanticism was behind the rise of Romantic linguistics, which established the status of Greek as one member of the superior Indo-European language family. Further, the Romantic preference for the cold climate was combined with “racism” when Greeks came to be viewed as the descendants of a superior Indo-European race from the north.
What is the significance of Black Athena for us today, living in the globally interdependent world of the twenty-first century? To derive a meaningful answer to this question would require that we examine the relevance today of the culture of “progress”, “Romanticism”, and “racism” to which Bernal attributes the rise of the Aryan Model in nineteenth-century Europe.
As for the culture of “progress”, it appears that we no longer sustain the same kind of belief in the growth and perfectibility of humankind that European intellectuals held at the height of the Enlightenment. While such belief was supported by the rising standards of living since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of the civilized, middle-class way of life in the West in the nineteenth century, we have also witnessed too many failures and mistakes humankind has committed since then, including the crushing two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. In the economic arena, the culture of “progress” is now being replaced by the culture of “sustainability” as the limited carrying capacity of the earth is increasingly recognized and accepted.
The hallmark of the culture of “Romanticism” is the preoccupation Romantics had with “blood, soil, and tongue”. As Bernal documents in Volume I of Black Athena, the preoccupation with “blood” led to the downfall of Egyptians and Phoenicians in the formation of Greek civilization, that with “soil” to the preference for small Greek city-states, and that with “tongue” to the elevation of Greek among the Indo-European language family. The culture of “Romanticism” is also a byproduct of the Enlightenment in that it reflected the sentiments of the critics of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau and Wordsworth who saw the importance of feeling as opposed to reason as a force behind human actions. Rousseau’s idea of a “noble savage” and Wordsworth’s worship of “nature” show that their version of “Romanticism” took the form of the idolization of things that are primitive and natural. This version of “Romanticism” is still with us today in the form of environmentalism. And the Romantic fascination with small Greek city-states survives today in the form of localism, as a social movement against the forces of globalization that are sweeping the world. To the extent that globalization carries the same type of mentality seen in the Aryan Model, as is argued by the critics of globalization, the culture of “Romanticism” that survives today may actually be seen as a healthy check on the march towards uniformity and standardization of all cultures that seem to be taking place with globalization.
The culture of “racism” appears to be on the wane in most countries of the world today. To be sure, practice tends to lag behind theory in this as in any other humanistic ideas. But the idea of everybody having the same basic human rights has been steadily spreading since the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We may also point to the rise of the culture of “political correctness” in the US and other countries that made it socially unacceptable to suggest or talk about racial inequality. Racism, if it still exists today, is not a blatant and explicit variety but a subtle and implicit variety. With the spread of the culture of “political correctness” and the adoption of various legislations prohibiting racial and other discriminations in most countries, it is unlikely that the blatant and explicit variety of “racism” that we saw in nineteenth-century Europe will be revived to lend support to the Aryan Model.
Black Athena and the controversy it has instigated teach us important lessons for us living in the world of global interdependence today. First and foremost, there is a warning against “fundamentalism” in our conception of race and culture. As the concept of “race” cannot be clearly defined from the biological point of view, it is futile and therefore to be discouraged to bring the issue of race into any discussion about culture and civilization. What is needed is the humble acceptance of the idea that all of us came from some common ancestors, whether we live in Africa or elsewhere, the idea that Richard Dawkins calls the “African Eve theory”: “The African Eve theory is claiming not that these earlier Asians didn’t exist but that they leave no surviving descendants. Whichever way you look at it, we are all, if you go back two million years, Africans.”2
The whole notion of a superior Western civilization built by racially superior white Europeans is a product of the specific age in human history in which Europe ruled over the rest of the world with their superior military and economic power. It is a naïve view of a civilization at best, a “model” as Bernal suggests. It is clear that we need to abandon such a naïve and fundamentalist view of civilization in the world of global interdependence.
This brings us to the second lesson to be learned from Black Athena and the controversy that it has instigated. In the context of the history of civilizations that goes back over five thousand years, no civilization can be claimed to be a pure civilization that has evolved on its own without incorporating elements of other civilizations. Every civilization, in order to survive in the space of interaction among civilizations, has learned and absorbed elements of other civilizations. Thus, the second lesson to be learned is the acceptance of the fact that all civilizations, historical as well as contemporary, are hybrid civilizations. While Bernal optimistically conjectures that “the Ancient Model will be restored at some point in the early 21st century”3, the events that are unfolding in the world around us today—from the conflict in the Gaza strip between Arabs and Israelis, to the rise of the fundamentalist group who calls for the establishment of the Islamic State, and to the continued tension, if not animosity, between the West and the Middle East—suggest that we are still have a long way to go before his conjecture turns into a reality.
- Bernal, Martin, Black Athena, Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987, p. 73.
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, London: Phoenix, 1996, p. 61.
- Bernal, op. cit. p. 402.