The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

by Tzvetan Todorov

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The relationship between Western democracies and Islam, rarely entirely comfortable, has in recent years become increasingly tense. A growing immigrant population and worries about cultural and political assimilation—exacerbated by terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and around the world—have provoked reams of commentary from all parts


The relationship between Western democracies and Islam, rarely entirely comfortable, has in recent years become increasingly tense. A growing immigrant population and worries about cultural and political assimilation—exacerbated by terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and around the world—have provoked reams of commentary from all parts of the political spectrum, a frustrating majority of it hyperbolic or even hysterical.

In The Fear of Barbarians, the celebrated intellectual Tzvetan Todorov offers a corrective: a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the problem, rooted in Enlightenment values yet open to the claims of cultural difference. Drawing on history, anthropology, and politics, and bringing to bear examples ranging from the murder of Theo van Gogh to the French ban on headscarves, Todorov argues that the West must overcome its fear of Islam if it is to avoid betraying the values it claims to protect. True freedom, Todorov explains, requires us to strike a delicate balance between protecting and imposing cultural values, acknowledging the primacy of the law, and yet strenuously protecting minority views that do not interfere with its aims. Adding force to Todorov's arguments is his own experience as a native of communist Bulgaria: his admiration of French civic identity—and Western freedom—is vigorous but non-nativist, an inclusive vision whose very flexibility is its core strength.

The record of a penetrating mind grappling with a complicated, multifaceted problem, The Fear of Barbarians is a powerful, important book—a call, not to arms, but to thought. 

Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books

“Fascinating and important. . . . Now, of all times, there is a need for cool heads, such as Todorov, who approaches the limits of free speech with admirable dexterity.”

— Ian Buruma

New York Review of Books - Ian Buruma
“Fascinating and important. . . . Now, of all times, there is a need for cool heads, such as Todorov, who approaches the limits of free speech with admirable dexterity.”

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By Tzvetan Todorov


Copyright © 2010 Polity Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-80575-7

Chapter One

Barbarism and Civilization

There has never been any value of civilization that was not a notion of femininity, of gentleness, of compassion, of non-violence, of respect for weakness ... The first relation between a child and civilization is the child's relation with its mother. Romain Gary, La nuit sera calme

If we are to talk of the relations between peoples or societies, we first need to tackle a difficult question: can we use the same criteria to judge acts that arise within different cultures? One often has the impression here that it is impossible to escape from one excess without immediately falling into another. Those who believe in absolute, and thus trans-cultural values, risk taking as universal values those to which they are accustomed, and falling prey to naive ethnocentrism and blind dogmatism, convinced that they have eternal possession of truth and justice. They risk becoming really dangerous on the day when they decide that the whole world needs to benefit from the advantages proper to their society and that, so as to better enlighten the inhabitants of other countries, they have the right to invade them. This is the line of argument taken by the ideologues of colonization in previous times, and it is also the line frequently followed by the current apostles of democratic interference. The universalism of values thus threatens the idea that human populations are all equal, and hence the universality of the species.

However, those for whom all judgements are relative - relative to a culture, a place, a historical period - are in turn threatened, albeit by the opposite danger. If every judgement of value is subject to circumstances, will we not end up accommodating everything, just so long as it happens in other countries? That would mean accepting that human sacrifice is not necessarily to be condemned, since certain societies practise it; the same applies to torture, and to slavery. It would mean deciding that one people is ripe for liberty, another not, and eventually leaving each of them to its fate, and ourselves too - since our values are not necessarily better than others'. As this relativism systematizes itself, it gradually ends up in nihilism. And if each person, equal in principle to every other, chooses his values arbitrarily, the unity of the species is again denied, albeit in another way, since people no longer have any common spiritual world.

Dogmatism and nihilism are the Scylla and Charybdis of transcultural judgement, and sometimes seem inevitable. And yet, every day, we are required to comment on deeds and customs that arise in different cultures, and we would like to transcend this alternative. We would simultaneously like to acknowledge the infinite diversity of human societies and have some unique and reliable scale of values that will enable us to find our way around them. But how?

To advance some distance in that direction, I propose to start with an old word filled with meaning, and to use it as a thread through the labyrinth. This word is barbarian.

Being a barbarian

I do not intend to relate here the story of this word 'barbarian' and the ideas that it covers, a story that has already been studied by various specialists. Rather, I would like to reread certain pages of the past with a different aim in mind: starting with various older uses of the word, I will construct a meaning that can be of use to us nowadays. Between the past and the present there will be neither a complete break nor a strict identity, but rather the quest for a certain coherence.

As everyone knows, the word itself comes to us from Ancient Greece where it was part of common usage, especially after the Persian War. It was contrasted with another word, and together they made it possible for the population of the whole world to be divided into two unequal parts: the Greeks (or 'us'), and the barbarians (the 'others', the foreigners). In order to recognize whether a person belonged to one or other group, you resorted to the Greek language: the barbarians were all those who did not understand it or speak it, or spoke it badly.

We might well decide that there is nothing to object to in such a usage, even if Plato in The Statesman mocked those who behave as if all non-Greeks formed a coherent population, when in fact all those peoples had no resemblance to each other and, worse, did not even understand each other. But, after all, distinguishing between those who understand and those who do not understand our language is not a way of passing judgement, but of providing a piece of useful information. It is just that, for reasons to which we will need to return, the distinction was from the outset given a secondary meaning, and a judgement of value, with the contrast barbarians/ Greeks being accompanied by a contrast - let us say, as a first approximation - between 'savage' and 'civilized' peoples.

The savagery of the barbarian was not defined with precision, and from one document to another the meanings of the word do not always overlap. It is, however, possible to isolate a set of characteristics that are convergent and suggestive:

1 Barbarians are those who transgress the most fundamental laws of common life, being unable to find the right distance to observe between themselves and their relatives: matricide, parricide, infanticide on the one side, and incest on the other, are definite signs of barbarism. In Euripides, a character speaks of Orestes who has murdered his own mother and says: 'Not even a barbarian would have dared to do that!' In the first decades of the first century ad, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote a book in which he stated that the inhabitants of Ireland practised ritual cannibalism, and were thus barbarians. 'They are man-eaters as well as herb-eaters, and [...] count it an honourable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them.' They did this so as to absorb the father's power, thereby making no distinction between spiritual proximity and material absorption.

2 Barbarians are those who postulate a complete break between themselves and other men. Strabo, again, depicts the Gauls as barbarians since, he says, they have a particular custom: 'when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes [...] We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices.' By extension, those who systematically resort to violence and war in order to settle the differences between them are perceived as being close to barbarism. Here, the opposite of barbarism consists in practising hospitality, even towards strangers, or indeed in cultivating friendship: you give to other people what you would like to receive yourself.

3 Another sign of barbarism: when performing the most intimate acts, certain people ignore the fact that they may be visible to others. In Ireland, according to Strabo, 'men openly [...] have intercourse, not only with other women, but also with their mothers and sisters', as if it were animals and not men who were gazing at them. To couple in public, Herodotus had already said, is to behave like 'cattle'. Modesty is a specifically human trait; it means that I am aware of the gaze of others.

4 Barbarians are those who live in isolated groups instead of gathering in common habitats or, even better, forming societies ruled by laws adopted in common. Barbarians are people of chaos and randomness; they are unacquainted with social order. In another way, countries are close to barbarism when all who live within them are victims of the tyranny of a despot; and countries are not barbaric when citizens are treated on an equal footing and can participate in the conduct of the business of the community, as in Greek democracy. In the view of the Greeks, the Persians are barbarians in a twofold sense: because they do not speak Greek and because they live in a country subject to a tyrannical regime. 'O tyranny, beloved of barbarian men!' as an ancient fragment puts it. Helen, in the tragedy by Euripides that bears her name, utters these striking words: 'in barbarian lands all except one man are slaves'.

These characteristics of barbarians, and some others too (we shall be returning to these), can be subsumed into one main category: barbarians are those who do not acknowledge that others are human beings like themselves, but consider them as similar to animals and thus consume them, or judge them as being incapable of reasoning and thus of negotiating (they prefer to fight), and unworthy of living freely (they remain in subjection to a tyrant); they frequent only their blood relations and are unacquainted with the life of the community as ruled by common laws (they are savages and live scattered apart). Parricide and incest, in turn, are categories that do not exist for animals; the men who commit these acts start to resemble beasts.

Barbarians are those who deny the full humanity of others. This does not mean that they are really ignorant or forgetful of their human nature, but that they behave as if the others were not human, or entirely human. This meaning of the word is not defined in this precise way in classical Greece, but it is suggested by usage. It is not universal in the sense of being already accepted at all times and in all places; but it may become universal: as it does not espouse the point of view of any particular population, this definition could be adopted by all.

If the Gauls cut off their enemies' heads and tied them to their horses' necks, this was not because they viewed these men as monkeys or wolves; it was because they wanted to proclaim loud and clear their victory over their rivals - a victory that was all the more precious because these rivals were, precisely, human beings like themselves. Nonetheless, by so doing, they refused to treat them as beings that resembled themselves, denying that they belonged to the same humanity as themselves: defeating these enemies was not enough for them, nor even their death - the humiliation of these former rivals, now mere booty, had to be displayed to the gaze of all, at the gates of the town; this is what made the Gauls barbarian. One passage in Herodotus makes this particularly clear. A Spartan military chief, Pausanias, has won a battle over the Persians. A Greek witness gives him this piece of advice: following a previous battle, the Persians had cut off the head of the king of Sparta and nailed it to a post; to avenge himself, Pausanias ought to do the same. But the latter vehemently refuses: 'that would be an act more proper for foreigners [barbarois] than for Greeks, and one that we view as blameworthy even among foreigners'. Such reprisals carried out on the corpses of vanquished enemies would amount to doing to others something you would not wish to have inflicted on yourself, and you would then resemble barbarians. By refusing to imitate his enemies, to show them that he can beat them at their own game (violence), Pausanias emerges from a relation of rivalry and behaves like a civilized person.

The Greeks had merged together two oppositions, one formed from terms with an absolute moral value (barbarian/civilized), the other from neutral, relative and reversible terms (being able/unable to speak the language of the country). Their thinkers soon pointed out and criticized this conflation. In the third century BC, Eratosthenes, the author of a treatise on geography and ethnography that has since been lost (but is frequently quoted by Strabo), argues in these terms: 'Now, towards the end of his treatise - after withholding praise from those who divide the whole multitude of mankind into two groups, namely, Greeks and barbarians, and also from those who advised Alexander to treat the Greeks as friends but the Barbarians as enemies - Eratosthenes goes on to say that it would be better to make such divisions according to good qualities and bad qualities; for not only are many of the Greeks bad, but many of the Barbarians are refined - Indians and Arians [i.e. Persians], for example, and, further, Romans and Carthaginians, who carry on their governments so admirably.' Not only do Greeks and non-Greeks resemble each other, but moral virtues are not divided up in virtue of the language one speaks. The opposition between vice and virtue needs to be maintained, but cannot be confused with the distinction between 'us' and 'them'. Strabo, who quotes these lines, does not agree with Eratosthenes on everything, but he himself sometimes sticks to the relativist conception of barbarity: barbarians are those who do not speak Greek well, 'as is also the case with us speaking their languages'. So he knows that, to the 'barbarians' whose language we do not understand, we appear as barbarians.

We may well wonder, however, whether the coexistence among the Greeks of the two senses, absolute and relative, of the same word was a matter of confusion. It might be possible, on the contrary, to see a continuity between the first meaning of 'barbarian' (not acknowledging the humanity of others) and the second (not speaking the language of the country in which you happen to be). A being who cannot speak appears to be incompletely human. The use of the same word, logos, to designate 'word' and 'reason' simultaneously makes it easier to emphasize the value placed on being able to speak a language. The ignorance of my language that is characteristic of the foreigner prevents him from perceiving me as completely human; thus he is a barbarian. Linguistic impotence becomes a sign of inhumanity, and it is in this sense that the relative and absolute meanings come together. When the Greeks call foreigners 'barbarians', they admittedly omit to say that this 'barbarity' is provisional and easy to cure: you merely need to learn the language of others, those among whom you happen to find yourself, or, even more simply, to return home to your own people. The ignorance proper to the foreigner is a very temporary form of barbarity.

A first set of conclusions can be drawn from this quick reminder of the past. The concept of barbarity is legitimate and we must be able to draw on it to designate, at all times and in all places, the acts and attitudes of those who, to a greater or lesser degree, reject the humanity of others, or judge them to be radically different from themselves, or inflict shocking treatment on them. Treating others as inhuman, as monsters, as savages is one of the forms of this barbarity. A different form of it is institutional discrimination towards others because they do not belong to my linguistic community, or my social group, or my psychological type. Not all uses of the word 'barbarian' correspond to our definition; it is sometimes used to stigmatize those who attack us or those whom we do not like, and it sometimes helps disguise might as right, or camouflages our will to power as humanitarian intervention and a struggle for justice, since we are punishing 'the barbarians'. However, in spite of these abuses, the concept itself deserves to be preserved.

This choice does not coincide with what we have inherited from the Christian tradition. Within the framework of the latter, there has rather been a tendency to consider the notion of 'barbarian' as irrelevant, since it did not easily fit into Christianity's universal message. St Paul declares, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 'There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.' Barbarity has here become a mere question of point of view. For the true Christian, all that counts is unity in the faith, since all separations between human beings are held to be negligible. Thus, in ad 395, St Jerome summarized several remarks by the Apostle Paul: 'And since even in the flesh, if we are born again in Christ, we are no longer Greek and Barbarian, bond and free, male and female, but are all in Him.' From this point of view, the category 'barbarian' has lost its raison d'être. However, in the world in which Christians dwelt, the category could not entirely be done away with: it was no longer used to designate all those who spoke the local language badly, or did not speak it at all, but those distant foreigners who appeared as a threat and were distinguished by their ferocity and inhumanity - the Germanic tribes who swept down from the North to pillage the Roman Empire, for example, or the Huns who emerged from the Mongol steppes.


Excerpted from THE FEAR OF BARBARIANS by Tzvetan Todorov Copyright © 2010 by Polity Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Tzvetan Todorov is a historian and political essayist and the author of many books, including Conquest of America: The Question of the Other and, most recently, The Defense of the Enlightenment. Andrew Brown has translated numerous books from French, including Todorov’s The New World Disorder.

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