Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads – Some Reflections for Political Philosophers


Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan opens his fascinating The Silk Roads: A New History of the World with a quote from Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History:

The accepted and lazy history of civilisation, wrote Wolf, is one where “Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberal and the pursuit of happiness.” (quoted in Silk Roads, xiii)

After the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama and the rise of the West – the title of William H. McNeill’s brilliant history – history was rewritten to create false continuity with the past (e.g., the “West” descends from ancient Athens) and to show that European dominance was inevitable. I was taught this history studying philosophy – the canon extended from Plato and Aristotle (leaping over the Romans and Medieval era) to Descartes, the “British” Empiricists (including the Irish bishop Berkeley and the Scotsman Hume!), Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant. Political philosophy was seen to have largely emerged in the 17th century with Hobbes and Locke.

I have only recently come to understand how misleading it is. In a world in which the silk roads are reemerging and Europe and the United States are increasingly two powers among others, political philosophers need to come to terms with a different narrative of the world – one in which colonialism and imperialism are integral, but also one in which people and cultures have intermingled for millennia.

Frakopan’s books focuses on the region “lying between east and west … running broadly from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas …” that he describes as the “very crossroads of civilization.” (xiv-xv)


[I take this map from his website]

His history ranges from Persia in the 6th century BCE to present day. Here are a handful of reflections mainly related to political philosophy that do not begin to do justice to this extraordinary rich book.

One of the most fascinating themes of The Silk Roads is the globalization and cross-mingling of religions that defy historically uniformed contemporary stereotypes. We tend to think of Christianity as European (with acknowledgement of its origins in Jerusalem). In contrast, Frankopan notes:

But in fact every aspect of early Christianity was Asian. Its geographic focal point, of course, was Jerusalem, together with the other sites related to Jesus’ birth, life and crucifixion; its original language was Aramaic, a member of the Semitic group of tongues native to the Near East; its theological backdrop and spiritual canvas was Judaism, formed in Israel and during the exile in Egypt and Babylon; its stories were shaped by the deserts, floods, droughts and famines that were unfamiliar in Europe (38).

He notes:

Indeed, even in the Middle Ages, there were many more Christians in Asia than there were in Europe. After all, Baghdad is closer to Jerusalem than to Athens, while Teheran is nearer the Holy Land than Rome, and Samarkand is closer to it than Paris and London. Christianity’s success in the east has long been forgotten.  (55)

Frankopan also notes the role reversal of the stereotypes about Christianity and Islam:

While the Muslim world took delight in innovation, progress and new ideas, much of Christian Europe withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and a dearth of curiosity. St. Augustine had been positively hostile to the concept of investigation and research. “Men want to know for the sake of knowing,” he wrote scornfully, “though the knowledge is of no value to them.” Curiosity, in his words, was nothing more than a disease.

This disdain for science and scholarship baffled Muslim commentators, who had great respect for Ptolemy and Euclid, for Homer and Aristotle. Some had little doubt what was to blame. Once, wrote the historian al-Mas‘ūdī, the ancient Greeks and Roans had allowed the sciences to flourish; then they adopted Christianity. When they did so, they “effaced the signs of [learning], eliminated its traces and destroyed its paths.” Science was defeated by faith (95-6).

Philosophical dogma tells us that Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe through the (what is now Spanish territory) Muslim polymath’s Averroës’ (Abū al-Walīd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd’s) brilliant commentaries. What is overlooked is that philosophy did not retreat in the “dark ages” – rather, it took place elsewhere. “European philosophy” is the wrong category for the history of ideas – what is needed is a narrative that adequately encompasses the world with all of its interactions and does away with the simplistic slogan “Judeo-Christian heritage”.

Islamic political institutions also compare favorably to their Christian counterparts:

In Spain, attention focused on Muslims and Jews, at a time of growing religious and cultural intolerance. The former found themselves expelled from Andalusia by force of arms, the latter issued with an uncompromising order to convert to Christianity, leave Spain or be executed. Desperate to liquidate their assets, a fire-sale ensued, with property scooped up by investors who picked up vineyards in exchange for pieces of cloth, as estates and fine houses were sold for a pittance. What made it worse was that within a decade these bargains were to soar in value.

Many Jews chose to head for Constantinople. They were welcomed by the city’s new Muslim rulers. “You call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” Bāyezīd II purportedly exclaimed, greeting the arrival of Jews in the city in 1492, even though “he impoverishes his own country to enrich mine.” This was no simple point-scoring: in scenes which would bemuse many today but which evoke the early days of Islam, Jews were not just treated with respect but welcomed. The new settlers were given legal protection and rights, and in many cases were given assistance to start new lives in a strange country (194-5).

Frankopan also punctures myths about Europe and its rise, often retold as a story about values and institutions that supported freedom, entrepreneurship, and scientific progress. He writes:

There was a price for the magnificent cathedrals, the glorious art and the rising standards of living that blossomed from the sixteenth century onwards. It was paid by populations living across the oceans: Europeans were able not only to explore the world but to dominate it. They did so thanks to the relentless advances in military and naval technology that provided an unassailable advantage over the populations they came into contact with. The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale. The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the progression towards democracy, civil liberty and human rights, were not the result of an unseen chain linking back to Athens in antiquity or a natural state of affairs in Europe; they were the fruits of political, military and economic success in faraway continents (197-8).

It is no secret that the European states were forged by almost continual warfare. Frankopan goes further, suggesting that the violence of Europe was in some respects exceptional:

It was not that aggression did not exist in other societies. As numerous examples across other continents would show, any conquest could bring death and suffering on a large scale. But periods of explosive expansion across Asia and North Africa, such as in the extraordinary first decades of the spread of Islam or during the time of the Mongol conquests, were followed by long periods of stability, peace and prosperity. The frequency and rhythm of warfare was different in Europe to other parts of the world: no sooner would one conflict be resolved than another would flare up. Competition was brutal and relentless. In that sense, seminal works like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan were quintessential texts that explained the rise of the west. Only a European author could have concluded that the natural state of man was to be in a constant state of violence; and only a European author would have been right (253).

Hobbes’ Leviathan is arguably the foundation text for modern Western political philosophy, framing much of the discussion with the unit analysis a closed society united by a sovereign whose monopoly on violence guarantees stability and peace between its members. Hobbesian political philosophy – along with realist theories in international relations – lacks the resources for constructing an ethical vision for the world (and not states imagined as isolated, self-sufficient systems).

Even supposed uncontroversial moments of moral triumph do not emerge unscathed. Writing about the end of the Second World War and negotiations with Stalin, Frankopan points out:

The narrative of the war as a triumph over tyranny was selective, singling out one political enemy while glossing over the faults and failings of recent friends. Many in central and eastern Europe would beg to differ with this story of the triumph of democracy, pointing out the price that was paid over subsequent decades by those who found themselves on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. Western Europe had its history to protect, however, and that meant emphasizing successes—and keeping quiet about mistakes and abound decisions that could be explained as realpolikik.

This was typified by the European Union being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012:

how wonderful that Europe, which had been responsible for almost continuous warfare not just in its own continent but across the world for centuries, had managed to avoid conflict for several decades. In late antiquity, the equivalent would have been giving the prize to Rome a century after its sack by the Goths, or perhaps to the Crusaders after the loss of Acre for toning down anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Christian world (383-4)

Single dates for turns in world history are necessarily misleading, but the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is useful symbol for a changing world order that many people have yet to fully grasp:

As the two bullets left the chamber of Princip’s Browning revolver, Europe was a continent of empires. Italy, France, Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, even tiny Belgium, only formed in 1831, controlled vast territories across the world. At the moment of impact, the process of turning them back into local powers began (309).

Intellectuals in the West have arguably spent the last hundred years unable to come to terms with a world in which its changing place has only begun to be apparent. Frankopan’s reorientation of history to the silk roads is enormously valuable in rethinking presuppositions. By looking backward with fresh eyes, perhaps we can start looking forward to adequately articulate how political philosophers can adequately approach the post-1914 world.

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