Obelisks and Tentpoles

A certain amount of confusion arises in cross-cultural comparisons from the difference between what I call “obelisks and tentpoles”. An obelisk, in this metaphor, is a creative genius who comes up with a leap into the future — but whose work is rejected by contemporaries. Averroes of Andalusia (Islamic Spain) is one of the most striking of these obelisks. He attempted to merge Aristotelian logic with Islamic theology in the hope that rigorous logic would eventually eliminate the many theological disputes that tore Islam apart. Unfortunately for Islamic civilization, his ideas did not catch on. 

Thomas Aquinas exemplifies the tentpole. He championed Averroes’ ideas applied to Christian theology. He too met opposition, but his ideas were eventually embraced by Christendom, which in turn furthered the progress of mathematics and science. In other words, where Averroes stands alone as a solitary genius, Aquinas pulled up the culture around him, bringing it up to his level. Where Aquinas contributed to the progress of Western civilization, Averroes’ genius was lost on Islamic civilization.

This is important because it explains why so many civilizations failed to advance as rapidly as Western civilization in the second millenium. Consider the case of India. It has given birth to many stellar mathematicians. Brahmagupta, for example, developed the concept of zero a hundred years before Greek mathematicians got going — and those Greeks NEVER understood the concept of zero; the West learned the idea from India (via Islamic civilization) over 1500 years later. Indian thinkers developed many other mathematical ideas, but Indian civilization never developed anything like science. These geniuses, then, stand as obelisks in Indian history: brilliant footnotes whose ideas failed to spread through Indian society.

Chinese history sparkles with such obelisks. I am just beginning my voyage of discovery of Chinese intellectual history, and I have already encountered some brilliant people, but few of them had much impact on Chinese society. Confucius had a huge impact; he is certainly the tallest tentpole in Chinese history. A number of other Chinese thinkers were also tentpoles. But none of the thinkers who developed the concepts of rationalism, logic, mathematics, and scientific method amounted to anything more than obelisks. They stand out as lonely heroes in Chinese history, not the authors of change.

By contrast, many of the biggest tentpoles in Western intellectual history advanced the cause of rationalism, logic, and science. Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton were giants who profoundly changed the way that Westerners thought. Newton famously wrote, “If I see farther than others, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” (Although the idea was first expressed 500 years earlier by Bernard of Chartres.) Western civilization had provided Newton with a crowd of giants on whose shoulders Newton could stand. The same giants in China and India were ignored in favor of other giants who did not look in the direction of rationalism, logic, and science. 

Thus, the true explanation of the success of the West in science and technology (as compared to the weaker efforts of Chinese and Indian civilizations) lies in the culture, not the individuals. Averroes was arguably smarter than Aquinas, but they lived in different societies. 

This means that the deeper question we must answer is: “Why was Western civilization amenable to these ideas where Islamic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations were not?” That is the subject of a later essay.