D. A. (Daniil Avraamovich) Khvolson.

The Semitic nations online

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Semitic Nations,






Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1874, by BLOCH & CO.
in the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington.



In studying the histories of different nations and re-
flecting upon their mental products, their endeavors,
aims and ideals, the question arises : Why has this or
that nation acted so and so and not otherwise, why has
it pursued such and such aims, why has it brought forth
such and such mental products, while another nation
acted altogether differently, strived after something alto-
gether different, and produced something altogether dif-
ferent '.' W herein lie the causes of these different and of-
ten opposite tendencies ? Accident this cannot be, for
there are no accidents. All that comes to pass, is a
necessary result of a foregoing cause. Shortsightedness
alone sees the reign of chance in small and, at times,
even in great events. Let us, who occupy ourselves with
historical studies, t. e. with the natural history of spirit-
ual man, follow the example of natural historians, who
inquire after the causes of every phenomenon, and hence
arrive at the establishment of general laws, of which
these phenomena are to be regarded as necessary results.
Contemplating thus more closely upon the varied phe-
nomena in the history of nations, we too, perhaps, may
succeed in discovering some general laws pertaining to
their varied characters, of which these historical phe-
nomena are to be regarded as their necessary results.

Wherein then lie the causes and motives of those he-
terogeneous actions and endeavors of the nations?

Some say, in Religion; this, they say, has put a defi-
nite stamp upon the character of every nation, and guid-
ed its actions. But this is not true, for two reasons.



For in the first place we find, that one and the same re-
ligion produced different effects in different nations, and
in the second place we see, that one and the same relig-
ion assumed different forms in different nations. The
beneficent and ennobling influence of Christianity, was
by far the greater upon the so called barbaric northern
nations, than upon the cultivated nations of the ancient
world. Had not Christianity imparted a moral stamina
to those northern nations, they would have been morally
ruined and physically weakened as they advanced upon
the corrupted cultured countries of the south. It is
through Christianity, in preserving those nations morally
and physically, that our modern culture was made possi-
ble. But the influence of Christianity upon the cultured
nations of antiquity, was by far less beneficent, and al-
though it has not destroyed that ancient culture, as some
historians maintain, still has it certainly hastened the
fall of it, because the main principles of Christianity are
characteristically' antagonistic to the specifically heathen
culture of antiquity. The same can be said of Moham-
medanism and Buddhism, for these religions too have
exerted totally different influences upon different nations.
Every religion, which springs up in a civilized, or even
in a semi-civilized nation, is the product of a new form
of civilization ; represents always a new beneficent idea ;
but how a nation understands and practically utilizes
that new idea and form of civilization, depends chiefly
upon the character of the nation, which has accepted
this new religion. It is not merely the seed sown that
is of importance, but chiefly the soil in which it is put.
On the other hand we see also the same religion as-
suming among different nations a totally different form
and character, so that at times it seems incredible, that
one and the same idea should manifest itself in such dif-
ferent ways. I will not point out here the different
forms merely of Christianity in the Orthodox ( Greek,)
Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Jacobite, and Abyssi-
nian churches ; we see that one and the same form even,
assumed a different character among different nations.
The oriental orthodox church among the Slavic nations,
has a partially different character from what it has among
the Greeks ; the character of the Catholicism of Italy,
differs very much from the Catholicism of Germany, and


this again differs from that of France, and this lastly
differs from the Catholicism of the Spanish nation. So
Mohammedanism aUo assumed a totally different form
among the Persians fnun what it has done among the
Arahs. \Ve shall n-vert to this point again. On the
other hand we notice also, that similar religious tenden-
cies and institutions develop themselves among kindred
nations, who proless different religions, which are based
on different and even op|>osite principles. Of this we
will adduce striking examples further on. Religion,
therefore, though we admit its great influence uncondi-
tionally, does nevertheless not determine absolutely the
character of a people, but, on the contrary is itself modi-
fied and transformed by the views and innate inclina-
tions of the people professing that religion. t

L<iirx <nul xtafe irvftUutions, say others, have exerted
the greatest influence upon nations, and determined
their characters. Nations, they say further, develop
themselves differently in countries where we find liberal
institutions, and differently in countries where the free
movement and self-direction of the individual is hemmed
in by restrictive regulations ; and lastly they say, the de-
velopment of a nation is different in autocratic, in con-
stitutional and republican states. But at the basis of
this assumption, there is a confounding of effects with
their causes. It is just the very question : Why have
such and such laws and state institutions developed them-
selves in one nation, and other and even opposite ones in
another nation ? Why has a mighty aristocracy formed
itself in one nation, a democracy in another, a state au-
tocracy in one, a tightly drawn centralization in another,
restrictive laws in one, and perfect freedom of the indi-
vidual in the other? We observe here too the same phe-
nomenon, which we did in religion, viz., that the same
laws and state institutions which are productive of the
happiest effects in one nation, may conduce to the utter
destruction of another nation. Do we not see that those
very free institutions, which brought the Anglo-saxou
race to the highest flourishing state, served the Spanish
race only to its destruction, and resulted in confusion
and anarchy? Thus we see that the autonomy, which in
one nation promotes the prosperity of the individual and
establishes a true freedom, only multiplies tyrrany and


arbitrary rule in another nation. Here too then, the im-
portant point is chiefly the soil, in which the seed was

Another erroneous assumption was advanced more re-
cently, and has found many adherents. It was maintain-
ed, that the climate, the constitution of soil, and the geo-
graphical situation of countries have conditioned and de-
termined the lot and the actions of their nations. The
chief promulgator of this view, is the well-known Eng-
lishman Buckle, whose doctrines were regarded in a
measure as a new scientific revelation. This doctrine has
apparently much in its favor, but is nevertheless, accord-
ing to my conviction, fundamentally false. It is evident
enough, that inhabitants of an inland country can not be-
come navigators, but that those of a coast or island will
become sucn, more or less; that inhabitants of a widely
extended plain, where there are no minerals and no mines,
will betake themselves to cattle raising and lead a no-
madic life, while the inhabitants of mountain regions
will adopt a more settled life; that finally the self-pre-
serving instinct will drive the inhabitants of a cold and
unfruitful land to activity, while the South sea islander,
who can satisfy his wants with a few easily gotten fruits,
will spend the best part of his life in idleness. But this
is only appearance and deception, the result of confound-
ing the mode how the character of a nation manifests it-
self, with the real character of the same ; for climate, soil,
and geographical situation of countries, are only condi-
tions of the way in which the character of a nation mani-
fests itself; nay, they even impart to the character its pe-
culiar individual stamp, but they do not create that char-

Navigation does not form the character of the
English people, but is only a mode, a manifestation of the
enterprising spirit, which characterizes that people. If
Englishmen lived in an inland country, they would mani-
fest their enterprising spirit in a different way. English-
men and North Americans are active and enterprising in
South America and the South sea islands; but South
Americans and South sea islanders would be as lazy in
England and North America as they now are. What
was said here, can be demonstrated by countless instances,
where different nations inhabited successively the same


country and played quite different parts in the history of
the world. Take Egypt as an example. This elongated
narrow strip of land, closed in by deserts on the east and
west, anil traversed by a mighty stream, presents by its
situation, its immense fertility, and its yearly recurring
innundation, a decidedly expressed physiognomy which is
peculiar to itself; and yet, what a neavenwide difference
between the Pharaonic and the Mohammedan Egyptians !
What a prosperity, what a power, what an enterprise,
and what a high development of the arts in its days of
yore, and what a misery, what a poverty, and what an
insignificance in its later days ! What have the ancient
Egyptians not done in culture and art, and what have the
Egyptians of the Caliphs, the Alides, the Mamelukes and
the Turks done, invented or accomplished? The form-
er have built the pyramids, those astounding structures,
the objects of admiration for thousands of years; they
created mighty works of art, channeling the whole land ;
invented the art of writing, studied astronomy, mathe-
matics, and medicine; the later Egyptians plundered the
pyramids and the magnificent graves of the ancient
kings, destroyed the works of architecture and art,
neglected the canalization of the land, and studied the
Koran and its commentaries !

A little further north of Egypt, there lived a small na-
tion on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, who
owned a small strip of land, not larger than about fifty by
a half or one miles, and how great was that small nation?
Its industry was the vastest one of antiquity, its ships
plowed all the then known seas, and its colonies and mer-
cantile stations extended from India to the Atlantic coast,
and from southern Arabia to the Caucasian mountains.
Its fleets often vied with those of Greece in its prime,
and in the ranks of its armies were found Persians from
the distant east, as well as men from Asia minor and
Africa. We speak here of the Phoenicians, whose mer-
chants the prophets call "Princes" and " the honorable
of the land." But, yes, says some one, the Phoenicians
had nothing to eat in their small land, and so were com-
iKilled to seek their subsistence by means of navigation.
To this we answer : that neither have the Mohammedan
inhabitants of that land, in later times, enjoyed any too
great abundance of food, and yet they stayed at home,


and rather preferred to study their Mohammedan tradi-
tions concerning the relation of their prophet Mohammed
to hi.s numerous wives and female slaves, or busied them-
selves with questions of similar import.

Almost on the very spot where once Carthage was,
stands now Tunis, but where are now the Tunensian
Hannibals, Hasdrubals, and Hamilcars? Where are now
the Tunensian fleets, which made the Mediterranean in-
stinct with life? Lastly, where are now the Tunensian
armies, who traversed the Alps, and brought mighty
Rome frequently to the brink of destruction? All these
exist no longer on the soil of ancient Carthage; but in-
stead of these, there is a pitiable Bey, who does not
Say his debts, and whose Hannibals and Suffets study
iligently Beidhawis' commentary on the Koran, or learn
by rote the Arabic grammar composed in verse by Ibn

One more example: The ancient Phoenicians settled
early in Spain, founded there a mighty colony, whence
their war-fleets, their armies, and colonies were sent out
in all directions. Of their vast mining operations we
have yestigesyet to this day. The old Basques in Spain,
were brave, obstinate, and self-willed, as they are to this
day, and although not altogether without culture, still
have they not accomplished anything near that, which
their neighbors the Phoanicians have. Later on, there
lived in Spain the Goths and the Arabs together; yet
how different was the degree of culture, the mental and
religious tendencies of these two nations, while they have
yet lived together, and even after the former expelled
the latter from the land. Yes, it is Spain, which offers
the most striking evidence of the futility of that theory,
that climate and soil have a decided influence upon the
inhabitants of a country. No land in Europe, says
Buckle, is so like the tropics as Spain. But, says he,
there prevails in that land a mode of regarding nature,
which inflaming the fancy of men, promotes their super-
stition and frightens them away from investigating such
threatening phenomena, in other words prevents them
from the creation of science. No other part of Europe,
he says farther, is so designed by nature to become the
seat and refuge of superstition as Spain. In reference to
this assertion, a man of genius and deep thought, Geiger,


asked some years ago already: " How does it happen,
that that same Spain, which according to Buckle, must
by a natural necessity fall very low, should in spite of its
droughts and earthquakes and enfeebling heat, yet have
flourished so highly under the Arabs? While science
and arts were almost wholly banished in the Middle
Ages from its neighboring kingdoms, they found their
richest cultivators just in Spain; cheerful poetry and
deeply penetrating keen research exalted the soul, force
and grace ennobled industry, and everything that pro-
moted the .welfare of society found there the greatest care.
Mohammedans and Jews distinguished themselves by lof-
tiness and clearness of spirit, and even kindled many a
spark in Christian Spaniards, etc. After the Moors were
banished from Spain, then its former flourishing agricul-
ture fell to decay, so that entire tracks of country, which
were formerly in the most flourishing condition, became
almost total deserts, and are even so in part to this day.
With the expulsion of the Jews from bpain, there van-
ished industry, commerce, and enterprise, so that many
cities became insignificant and uninhabited. Yes, this
expulsion of the Jews, was in part the cause of the moral
decay of the country; for the high rise of Spanish litera-
ture in the fifteenth century, originated for its greatest
part from the Jews, who in consequence of the terrible
persecutions at the end of the fourteenth century, went
over in masses to Christianity, and, according to the
Spanish literary historian Amados del Rios, brought
Spanish literature to its highest state of prosperity. Nay
more, after the departure of the Jews from Spain, there
were entire districts without any physician, so that peo-
ple were obliged to invite physicians from abroad and
pay them high annual salaries. How then does it hap-
pen, that of two races, who lived under the very same
climatic conditions, the one should distinguish itself in
art, |>oetry, and science, and the other should equally
distinguish itself in mental stupidity, narrow mindedness
and laziness-? The causes of this mental difference can
evidently not lie in the climate, soil, and geographical sit-
untion of the country, but must be sought somewhere else.
Where then do the determinative causes lie, in conse-
quence of which, one nation, under given conditions, be-
comes so and so cultivated, acts so and so under given


circumstances, while another nation, under equal con-
ditions and circumstances becomes differently cultivated
and acts differently? In order to answer this question,
we will pursue the path of natural historians, who main-
tain, that the whole can not be understood before the in-
dividual parts are examined and thoroughly searched
through. Let us, therefore, turn our look away from the
nations, and direct it to the single individuals of them.

Not only individual nations, but individual men too,
differ in their views, conceptions, moral inclinations and
actions. This we have occasion to observe daily, and
here too the question, why is it so, is perfectly justifiable.
In times past it was believed by some, that man comes
into the world a perfect tabula rasa, and that it were pos-
sible to make any thing you please of him by education.
There is no need of bringing up evidences against the
radical falseness of this view. We meet daily with in-
dividuals, who have enjoyed the best education, who have
had the best of examples before them, yet who have
turned out the most vicious reprobates, and on the other
hand, the instances are frequent also, of persons, who
have had no education, or a very bad one, and who had
bad examples before them, and who have turned out to
be excellent and virtuous individuals. Religion, climate,
education, and social standing can certainly not explain
these phenomena ; for we observe those differences taking
place among the different members of the same family,
who live together. Religion, climate, etc., are, therefore,
only the conditions of the form, by which the character
of the individual manifests itself outwardly. The main
thing is, the inborn character of the individual, which to a
certain degree can, indeed, be mollified and modified but
can not be either created or destroyed by any thing.

With the same character, with which the individual
human being is born, with the same he descends into the
grave. The kindly disposed does not become ill-disposed,
the judicious does not become thoughtless, the firm does
not become instable, the stingy does not become benevo-
lent, etc. By education one may acquire knowledge,
good or bad views and opinions and prejudices, which
will of course have their influence upon his actions, but
his native character and inclinations, these can not
change essentially. Age and education may, indeed,


soften and modify also, to an extent, this or that trait of
the character, but it itself they can not radically recon-
struct. Social position may exert an influence upon the
way how the character manifests itself externally, but by
no means can it change that character itself; for when
the man of the lower class practices his cheating in the
second-hand shop, or when he of the middle class swin-
dles on the exchange, or as a director of a bank, or when
he of the upper class, as governor of a province, or head
of a cabinet, falsifies public opinion, deceives his mon-
arch by false representation, then all these three do one
and the same thing essentially, only under different forms,
which are conditioned by their different social positions.
It is therefore, ridiculous to exhort the vacillating to be
firm and persevering, the thoughtless to be thoughtful,
or the coward to be courageous, as absurd as to exhort
the fool to be wise. The character of a man, whatever
it be, can as little change itself into its opposite, as the
lion can change itself into a horse, yet, we hear it often
said, that a man should be master of himself; this in-
deed he should be, if he can. But the weak individ-
ual can as little do this, as a child can lift a heavy bur-
den. It isrsaid often, indeed, that this or that man was
formerly a mean reprobate, but has changed now, reform-
ed, and became a very excellent and noble man. But
this is not true, this happens only in novels and plays,
not in real life, for the mean and reprobate man never
becomes noble or excellent. But this indeed may come
to pass, that a man of a dependent character, may by
associating with bad men, be led to wickedness, and then
again by associating with good and moral men, be led
back to virtue ; so also another man, whose actions are
the results of false and demoralizing doctrines and views,
may be reformed by proper instruction.

We see, therefore, that the actions of men are deter-
mined chiefly by their native characters and inclinations,
ami that all other circumstances either have only a sub-
ordinate influence upon them, or operate only upon the
manner how the human character shows itself externally.
But a nation consists of single individuals, and who will
deny, that every nation has a character peculiar to itself,
more or less sharply pronounced. What is a nation but
a great collective individuality. But every race too coii-


sists of a variety of individual nations and no one will
dispute, that there are characteristic traits which are pe-
culiar to entire groups of nations and races. That one
nation should have acted so and so, and altogether differ-
ently from what another one did, that the bent of mind
of one nation should totally differ from that of another,
these all proceed from the native character and inclina-
tions of the individual nation. All depends upon the
preponderance in that nation of the mind over the heart,
or upon the equipoise of these ; upon its intellectual endow-
ment or the want of it, upon its thoughtfulness or its
levity, upon its love of order or negligence, its persever-
ence and patience, or its vacillation and fickleness, upon
its enterprise or its inertness, etc. These good or bad
qualities of the nations, always determined their moral
and material actions, and conditioned their several places
in the history of the human race. All other circum-
stances had, indeed, their influence, but subordinately
only, and determined, as above said, chiefly the mode of
the phenomena. And when individual great men have
accomplished great things, and have transformed their
nations, they could do it, only because they had good
material to work upon, because that material Was capable
of being formed at all. With a nation of Hottentots,
neither Alfred nor Peter the Great could have achieved
for their states a historic importance. The best of wheat
can not. thrive in a sandy soil.

The character of a nation is as immutable as is that of
an individual ; the main characteristic traits of the
modern nations, were peculiar to their ancestors a thou-
sand and even two thousand years ago. The following
sketch of the character of a certain nation, which 1 will
not yet name, is given by a spiritual historian : " In its
individual communities there is a want of harmony, of
firm government, of an earnest sense of citizenship, and
of consequential endelvor ; the only order which they
brook is the military, whose disciplinary fetters dispense
the individual from the heavy burden of self-restraint.
Its prominent qualities are : personal courage, a tree,
impetuous mind, open to any impressions, much intelli-
gence, but at the same time extreme mobility, want of
perseverance, opposition to discipline and order, boast-
fulness and perpetual contention as consequences of inor-


dinate vanity. Two things this nation holds in great es-
teem, viz., fighting and esprit, (wit.) Every thing this
nation can turn into the service of fame, even a wound,
which is frequently enlarged after it is received, so
that it could be boasted of with its greater scar. Of
duelling too they are especially fond,"

Who might this people be who are thus described ?

Is it not the French nation? Yes, and also no!

The dr>rription is that of the Gauls of the time of Ca-
millus and Julius Caesar, and yet how admirably apt too
of the modern Frenchmen ! The ancient Gauls had to be
sure, not yet had, that organized imperially patented de-

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Online LibraryD. A. (Daniil Avraamovich) KhvolsonThe Semitic nations → online text (page 1 of 6)