Civilisation as Empire? Reflections on British Studies of Civilisational Dynamics (Part 1)

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

The emergence and rise to power of the British Empire is commonly associated with one of two narratives. Either the embodiment of a progressive unfolding of Western, universal civilization that invented and instituted freedom, democracy, market economy and human rights. Or else a history of colonialism that led to violence, oppression and capitalist domination across the globe.[i]

These two narratives appear to be diametrically opposed but share much more in common than might be at first apparent. First of all, both link the fate of civilisation to the question of empire. Second, the two approaches view history in terms of a more or less linear cycle of rise, decline and fall. Third, both tend to separate material from ideational or spiritual factors determining civilisations.

In this and in my next essay, I will examine British studies of civilisational dynamics. My focus will be the two narratives briefly outlined above. First, the Enlightenment narrative of Western civilisation, which in the British case rests on what the historian Herbert Butterfield has called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’ – the notion of civilisational history as an inevitable progression towards ever greater emancipation, freedom and knowledge that culminates in Western forms of liberal market democracy.

Second, the post-colonial narrative of Western civilisation, which (again) in the British case rests on a complete dismissal of the entire imperial legacy and the view of foreign cultures as wholly ‘other’. Either way, both narratives offer little by way of dialogue, as they impose largely liberal, secular, Western categories.

In the present essay, I will reflect on some British thinking about civilisation since the influential work of Edward Gibbon in the 18th century and Arnold Toynbee in the 20th century. In the next essay, I will focus on more recent contributions.

1. On the legacy of Edward Gibbon and Arnold Toynbee

British studies of civilisational dynamics have tended to focus on the question of empire since the influential work of Edward Gibbon. From 1776 to 1788, he published his seminal six-volume History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire, which received lavish praise from many luminaries over time – from David Hume via Adam Smith, William Robertson and Adam Ferguson to Lord Camden, Horace Walpole and Winston Churchill.

The former British Prime Minister raved about Gibbon’s magnum opus: “I set out upon [...] Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [and] was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. [...] I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all”. Part of the reason for Churchill’s praise was Gibbon’s style – a “vivid historical narrative, ranging widely over period and place and enriched by analysis and reflection”.

However, Gibbon’s approach reflects the dominant Enlightenment project of modernity as a harbinger of progressive evolution that liberated the West and the rest from the allegedly obscurantist outlook of the Middle Ages. Indeed, in one of his writings Gibbon refers to the medieval era in terms of “the triumph of barbarism and religion”.

Linked to this was his unqualified sided anti-clericalism, in particular his indictment of the Church for “supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it” and for “the outrage of [practicing] religious intolerance and warfare” (History, Book I, ch. XV and XVI).

The other major figure whose work has significantly shaped British thinking about civilisation is the historian Arnold J. Toynbee. From 1934 to 1961, he wrote A Study of History in 12 volumes, in which he examined the rise, decline and fall of 26 civilisations around the world, arguing that civilisations flourish when elite leaders and creative minorities respond to challenges with the power of ideas and spiritual force.

In the words of Toynbee, “Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort”.

Gibbon and Toynbee might differ on the role of spirituality and religion in the rise, decline and fall of civilisation, but both subscribe to a Whig interpretation of history. They view historical evolution and civilisational dynamics in terms of an inexorable march of progress from an obscurantist past to an enlightened future.

Both focus on liberal categories such as individual freedom of choice, representative democracy and scientific-technological progress (even if Toynbee emphasises the crucial contribution of spiritual forces).

Crucially, Whig history marks the triumph of liberalism that privileges individual rights, rationalism (with or without the support of spiritual forces) and the institutions of both state and market over mutual obligations, faith and moral sentiments as well as social and cultural ties in which the intermediary institutions of civil society are embedded.

In this manner, Whig history is compatible with a kind of liberal Christianity that is complicit with liberal ideology in imposing onto cultures categories of nation, ethnicity, economic class, and modern state sovereignty, which do not capture the complex socio-cultural patterns on which proper dialogue depends.

In the remainder of this essay, I outline a critique of the conceptual logic that underpins British Whig studies of civilisational dynamics.

2. Whig supercessionist conceptions of civilisational progress

First of all, Whig history traces the origins of the West to antecedents in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but it claims that the Western project only came to full fruition in the modern era when it exported its ideas and institutions to the rest of the world – for good or ill. The ‘long sixteenth century (ca. 1450 – 1650) assumes pivotal importance in the West’s ascendency to hegemonic status, as both British liberal and British Marxist historians agree.

Linked to this is a second point, notably that modern history superseded and ultimately replaced all preceding traditions. Such a supercessionist structuring of historical narrative is based on the idea of absolute breaks in history – the final demise of the eastern Roman Empire in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, or the discovery of the New World starting in 1492, or the 1555 Peace of Augsburg and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended the ‘wars of religions’, or again the French Revolution that abolished the collusion of clerical theocracy with monarchical absolutism.

In this supercessionist light, individual revolutions are seen as but one of a series of absolute ruptures with the past of which modern Western countries have been the vehicle.

Third, Western Whig hegemony is connected with the fall of catholic-orthodox Christendom and the rise of Protestant modernity, which is variously viewed as a harbinger of Enlightenment emancipation or as the source of fanatical supremacism (as for advocates of the post-colonial narrative).

Either way, the secularising effects of the Reformation are seen as instrumental in shaping the Western-centric world as we know it. This is reflected in the secular settlement of the Westphalian secular system that subsumes all institutions and practices under the absolute sovereignty of national states and transnational markets.

Taken together, these three points of convergence suggest that the transition from Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the modern era was somehow exemplary – either as a universal civilization that is compatible with a more global cosmopolitan (European) or a more national republican (US) vision, or else as a particular tradition of colonialism that seeks to refashion the whole world in its own image.

In short, modernity is considered to be both necessary and normative, whether as the beginning of the liberal culmination of history or the liberal transition to an eventual communist outcome. Once again it is clear that the Whig interpretation of history determines both liberalism and Marxism.

3. Civilisation beyond secular supercessionism

Yet one can question this prevailing Whig meta-narrative of civilisation. First of all, it uncritically accepts the conventional periodisations of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and modernity, which ignore deep continuities over time – including Greco-Roman law and participation in the polis/civitas, Christian constitutionalism and virtues of charity, or the shared tradition of religious freedom, free association and the dignity of the person, as a number of non-Whig historians have documented.[ii]

If one takes these continuities into account, then one can tell a more balanced story which reveals how change and stasis are always complexly interwoven. This is to embrace a more radical historicism which regards intellectual, social and political developments in terms of their specifically contingent cultural roots and their equally contingent, if habitually consistent, unfolding both over time and across space.

Second, this meta-narrative embraces a supercessionist model of historical change that underpins the liberal and Marxist accounts of progress, which dominate both the humanities and the social sciences.[iii] Variants of progressivism are all part of the Whig interpretation of history that the English historian Herbert Butterfield rebutted in his eponymous book.[iv] By treating the modern as an exemplification of historical evolution, supercessionist approaches commit the fallacy of historicism that treats contingent events as necessary norms.

Third, connected with this is the point that historicist supercessionism rests on an a-historical logic. The latter was invented by late medieval, proto-secular reason and progressively instituted by the forces of Protestant confessionalisation and the Enlightenment – two pillars of the Whig meta-narrative.[v]

In positing absolute historical breaks – which in reality were entirely avoidable, contingent and arbitrary – this logic is unable to demonstrate its own presupposition that the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern era was somehow inevitable, necessary and normative.[vi]

Fourth, this sort of historicism treats history as a fated and all-determining teleological process based on certain iron laws. Precisely for this reason, the genuine alternative is not to opt for a-historical, secular categories that are supposedly universal but rather to focus on specific, contingent developments – a real attention to historicity that recognises civilisations in their distinct diversity instead of subjecting them to the uniform categories of secular liberalism.

Far from being isolated events or absolute breaks in history, the emergence of the modern West was part of an era spanning the early fourteenth to the late seventeenth century during which both ideas and practices already nascent during medieval times achieved fuller maturity and developed into the secular modern phase of the Middle Ages.[vii]

4. Westphalia as the ‘modern’ Middle Ages

One can extend the critique of Protestant-liberal historicism and suggest that approaches, which are centred on notions of long duree or cognate concepts, also lack historicity. The reason is that many late medieval features of the international system endured until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and even intensified in scope.

This includes the complex connections between central state coercion and global market exploitation, notably the ‘possessive individualism’ of the social contract, agrarian surplus extraction, and piratical forms of trade.[viii] For these reasons, one can suggest that the modern Western system of national states and transnational markets marked an intensification of certain late medieval developments rather than a new phase of history. In short, the Whig meta-narrative suffers from being incorrigibly secular and modern.

Moreover, the logic that underpins the two dominant narratives about the West as a universal civilization or a particular form of colonialism is secular insofar as the Westphalian settlement of sovereign states is not limited to the functional differentiation of religious and political authority or the public settlement of the relationship between church and state that writes faith out of international relations.

By subordinating faith to secular categories, the secular ideas that instituted Westphalia did not merely de-sacralise the public square. They reinvested it with quasi-sacred meaning by sacralising secularity – the king, the nation, the state, the market, the individual or the collective. As such, Western secularism does not so much mark the demise of faith or the exit from religion as it represents an alternative sacrality – a secular capture of sanctity which, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, profanes the sacred and sacralises the profane.

5. The Axial Age

In addition, the two dominant narratives about Western civilization and colonialism tend to privilege a narrow, modern secular prism at the expense of a meta-historical account that understands the West in light of its origins during the Axial Age. Simultaneously yet independently, a variety of different traditions in Persia, China, India and the West produced profoundly transformative thinking in the period from 800 to 200 BC that laid the spiritual and intellectual foundations of humanity for two about two millennia.

The mark of the Axial Age was to fuse philosophy with religion in ways that in case of the West led to a synthesis of individual liberty and universal telos. In this way, human agency in the immanent order of being was for the first time in human history seen as compatible with a transcendent outlook – a conception that departed radically from both deterministic fatalism and the indeterminacy of random flux that had characterised much of pre-axial ancient thinking.

Linked to this was the rejection of political absolutism and moral relativism in favour of a plural universalism that blends particular practices with universal principles such as notions of the dignity of the person or the supernatural Good in God.

The axial synthesis also outflanked in advance the modern oscillation between metaphysical-political monism and dualism and accounts of history that were either linear or cyclical. Indeed, the plural universalist vision of the Axial Age in the West shifted the emphasis away from historical narratives of either progress or decline, or else some cyclical alternation between both, to the paradox of fall and redemption – an upward spiral of vice and virtue rather than a linear or cyclical process involving the forces of good vs. evil (however defined).

Here it is instructive to use analogically the notion of ‘strange loop and tangled hierarchy’ developed by the anthropologist Jacques Godbout.[ix] Accordingly, history in an axial sense can be described as a ‘strange loop’ because the transmission of traditions involves an practice of spiraling linkage through time rather than the perfect circularity of ‘give-and-take’ or a mutual stand-off in space between rival interests.

Likewise, it is a ‘tangled hierarchy’ because it involves continued guidance by ‘the wise’ and the ordering of some by others, but often in educative exchange and in such a way that some may lead for certain purposes while others lead for different ones. Just as the ‘strange loop’ links people inter-generationally, so the ‘tangled hierarchy’ is dynamic and transformative rather than static and defensive of the status quo.

6. Europe beyond East and West

Finally and crucially, the West in its universal, meta-historical sense (rather its narrow, modern meaning) marks the unfolding of this ‘organic’ plural universalism. Unlike static dynasties in ancient Egypt or revolutionary regimes in the USA and France, the rest of the West is not self-foundational but instead marks the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem with Athens and Rome.[x]

In the ‘long Middle Ages’ (c500-1300), Hellenized Christianity integrated and transformed other European traditions such Germanic law, Celtic, Slavic, and other languages as well as cultural-social ties the wider Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia.

But already after the fall of imperial Rome in the late fifth century, three different forces vied for the Roman legacy and shaped the West’s emerging civilization: first, pagan tribes from Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic territories; second, Christendom and its ecclesial ‘body’ of local parishes and transnational monasteries; third, Islam’s creation of a caliphate from Arabia to the Iberian peninsula.

Of these, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes, “the Christian Church is quite simply the most extensive and enduring, whether in the form of the Western Papacy or of the 'Byzantine Commonwealth', the network of cultural and spiritual connections in Eastern Europe linked to the new Roman Empire centred on Constantinople”.[xi]

In the West (which until the onset of modernity encompassed the European East), the Axial Age bequeathed a triadic ordering of the wider polity in terms of city-states, empires, and the Church.[xii] Today we are seeing a resurgence of such forms of political organisation in a new guise, as I have argued in these pages before.


Most of the predictions by Whig historians have not come true. There has been no global convergence towards Western liberal market democracy, and neither individual rights nor technological progress have secured the dignity of the human person and flourishing of mankind.

Crucially, the rise and fall of civilisations has not followed the pattern traced by the inexorable march towards emancipation and enlightenment, but rather a series of complex contingent factors – none of which are necessary or normative.

Just as many aspects of the imperial legacy continue to shape the present and the future (for both good and ill), so the Whig project is in crisis and its intellectual influence in retreat. My next essay will focus on some works by British scholars on civilisation and post-colonialism.


[i] For recent statements of these narratives, see, inter alia, Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, new ed. (London: Penguin, 2004); idem., Civilization: The West and the Rest (London: Penguin, 2012); Richard Gott, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt (London: Verso, 2012).

[ii] See, inter alia, Brian Tierney, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); J.H. Burns, ‘Introduction,’ in J.H. Burns (ed.), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 1-8; Julia M.H. Smith, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), esp. pp. 151-216, 253-92; Francis Oakley, Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Natural Rights: Continuity and Discontinuity in the History of Ideas (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 87-109.

[iii] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[iv] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: George Bell, 1949).

[v] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory. Beyond secular reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006 [orig. pub. 1990]); Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity. An essay on the hermeneutics of nature and culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[vi] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[vii] See Adrian Pabst, ‘The secularism of post-secularity: religion, realism and the revival of grand theory in IR,’ Review of International Studies, Vol. 38, no. 5 (December 2012), pp. 995-1017.

[viii] C.B. MacPherson, The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon 1962); Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London’s Overseas Traders 1550-1653 (London: Verso, 2003); Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648. Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003), esp. pp. 215-75.

[ix] J. Godbout, The World of the Gift,tr. D. Winkler, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998, p. 202.

[x] See Adrian Pabst, ‘Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem – A reply to Luciano Pellicani,’ Telos no. 162 (Spring 2013), pp. 164-176.

[xi] Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘Religion culture diversity and tolerance – shaping the new Europe,’ address given in Brussels, 7 November 2005, at; see also Dmitry Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (London: Sphere Books, 1974).

[xii] Pierre Manent, Les metamorphoses de la cite: Essai sur la dynamique de l’Occident (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).