Arminius Vámbéry on Education in the East and the West

by Dr. David Mandler

In 2007, my translation of Arminius Vambery’s Memoirs of a Tartar appeared in an interdisciplinary journal called Shofar (see From the Memoirs of a Tartar ♦ 13 Vol. 25, No. 3 ♦ 2007). At the time, two other chapters I translated did not make it into the print version and were uploaded to Shofar’s website. Since that content is no longer available, I have decided to let those who are interested in reading these two fascinating chapters access it here: VamberyAristocracyEducationMandler

“Considering moral education, in the realm of feelings and attributes of the heart, we incontrovertibly surpass the Frenghis, no matter how the latter praise their humanism, since our merhameti Islam or Muslim compassion greatly outshines them. As a dervish in Asia and a fakir in Europe, I have had the opportunity to witness compassion in these two worlds, and comparing the two, I have found that the Frenghis’ benevolence is not directly correlated to their wealth and affluence, and that people with us, living in humble or poor circumstances, are more inclined to perform good deeds sincerely and surpass the West in the noble virtue of compassion. In any case, one should applaud those extremely rich Frenghis who establish humanitarian endowments when they give millions to open schools, hospitals, and poor houses or respect those philanthropist Frenghis who act in distant lands in order to liberate and ennoble humanity regardless of color or creed. Moreover, this is the more praiseworthy considering the fact that Muslim compassion mostly extends towards fellow Muslims and does not provide as much help to people of different religions as the religious Christian does towards Muslims or heathens. But this virtuous performance of the Frenghis is restricted to a few benevolent and noble-thinking individuals and is not prevalent in society, whereas, thankfully, it is so in the Islamic world. In times past, when God’s blessing along with power and wealth were ours, we also had famous philanthropists who lived humbly yet gave millions to construct roads, sewers, wheat or rye warehouses, hospitals, schools, etc., with the difference that they hoped to receive a fatiha (silent prayer) from the beneficiaries of their endowments, while many Frenghis hope to receive the sparkling signs of imperial grace or the wonderment of the masses. This golden era has disappeared a long time ago, yet compassion and beneficence have survived even in impoverished circumstances. We still share our meager meals and dilapidated apartments eagerly with the needy because giving alms is one of the main pillars of our religion and, as experience has taught me, more people die of hunger in a major European city than in the entire Muslim world in years. Such examples in the obdurate and heartless Frenghi societies are but natural consequences of the greed and feverish money chasing, and, frequently, not even a spark of humanism appears in the wild orgies of miserliness. Horribly naked selfishness is much more at home with them than it ever was in Asia!

But even when it comes to tenderness, good manners and ethics, the palm of superiority could scarcely be extended to the Frenghis despite their frequent requests for it. That in Asia, people transgress less in their ethical or moral behavior than does the European is readily admitted to by those acquainted with our world. Family life is much purer with us than in the West where the repulsive cloacae of prostitution is not only accepted but is regulated by the authorities. We respect our elders more and value our thinkers more than in the West; but even the women find more protection with us; while the Frenghi women can travel alone in our midst without being disturbed, I would not advise any Muslim woman to travel alone in the West because the Frenghis frequently cannot even protect their own wives from being assaulted. Despite their poor appearance, many a Persian, Turk, or Arab, despite being illiterate, proves to be more polite, dignified, and well-brought-up than the European who exudes elegance and cultivation. Not only is this the case in the higher circles of our society in which etiquette and politeness frequently degenerate into servile submission, but also in the lowest social strata of the artisans and peasants. Anyone comparing the behavior of simple Persian or Arab peasants with their counterparts in the Western world would find my above assessment correct. German, French, and English peasants appear unpolished, hapless, slow, and graceless or clumsy compared to the peasants of Muslim Asia whose refined manners and speech have enchanted many a Frenghi traveler. The forms of ancient Asian culture have become imprinted deeper than the relatively younger European culture, and the reason the ancient culture has not elevated everywhere the people’s moral standing or purged their morality is to be found in the rule of tyranny, which has been in force since antiquity.

The perpetual pressures under which our fellow countrymen live have spawned cunning and dishonesty everywhere. And just as snakes curl up when stepped upon, so do the people in their thinking without, however, damaging honesty in our lives, our families, and our more immediate society as I have witnessed in the Frenghi world. With us, it is unheard of and impossible to find the phenomenon of a few individuals causing enormous amounts of damage to the masses, the unflinching exploitation of profit-chasing Europeans, or the heartless offenses against life and property. It was the Europeans who, in order to enrich themselves using fraudulent insurance claims, hid bombs on ships, endangering the lives of hundreds; others, induced by a desire to increase profits, poisoned the food supply of entire towns to exterminate their residents; still others spread false news, thereby casting thousands into poverty. Indeed, Asia has never been this low and vulgar! On the other hand, I do not want to conceal my opinion that only in the unification of the ethical and intellectual strands of education have I found the most effective means of defense against the wickedness and falseness of humanity, and color or religion notwithstanding, humanity can be ennobled only through high culture.

When I recall my sojourning with the totally primitive Turkomans—nomads who have heard little of Islam or other religions—and when I envision those ancient types of humanity who could distinguish between good and evil only with the help of their whims and individual apprehensions as governed merely by Deb (laws of habit) and still rarely transgressed morality, I imagine witnessing the first stage of cultural life. The second stage in Muslim culture is occupied by a somewhat progressive individual who is a transitional, half- finished creature, standing behind these nomads without being bested by his European counterpart, while the thoroughly educated Muslim should be viewed as occupying the highest stage if his ethical education keeps up with his intellectual one, and if modern science has completely illuminated him. If I were to measure the various levels of education among Frenghis with the same standards, I would find mostly similar results. There are no totally primitive uneducated Frenghis today. Here, people can be divided into uneducated, semi-educated, and totally educated individuals. The first are rough, uncouth, but are not devoid of a few pleasant characteristics that would remind us in their simplicity of cavemen. Almost everywhere, these people are used as blind tools in the hands of the ruling classes, and their enlightenment proceeds but very slowly. The semi-educated comprise the majority of the Frenghis, or even their totality, since the thoroughly educated make up such a vanishingly small percentage of the total population that they may be compared to the stars in the night, the lights of which are but pale, barely illuminating the sky without shedding any significant light onto the earth. Though they have begun the journey with increasing inclination, having the means of learning at their disposal in abundance, real and serious cultivation, humanity’s real ennoblement is in its beginning stages even amidst the wealthy and powerful in Europe ruling the rest of humanity. What you see from the distance and find so attractive is merely false gold, only the red glow of the rising sun but not the beaming rays that they want us to believe.

I find this deception, to which I also became a victim at first, totally natural. The incomparable greatness of a comfortable life, spread all over in the West, has enabled the middle class to take possession of all those formalities and means that, at first glance, make them appear to be refined creatures, enlightened by culture. In their clothing, manners, speech, and hand gestures, and in their treatment of people, and their short allusions to science and culture, one might take them to be perfect representatives of 19th century progressivism. In most cases, however, this is but a very thin exterior veil of culture covering their nonchalance, ignorance, and bestial nature. While culture may have lapped around them, they parade empty formalities, throw around morsels of musical, artistic, or literary culture, however, very quickly revealing their rough core and bestiality. To be honest, we should call these Europeans culture-beasts [kultúrállatok] who, in addition, impertinently boast, and look down upon us because we do not dress as elegantly, do not paint our faces, and cannot babble so much stupidity about novels or the theater. The culturebeast still occupies the highest positions in the cultural world in Europe and does not merely appear in the middle class. The circle of the greatest lords and the aristocracy, almost without exception, belongs to this crowd. A real cultured person is one whose interior has been reshaped by the modern spirit of the age. A Westerner we could choose as an example who is truly enlightened and bereft of prejudices is indeed a great rarity.

Thus, the Frenghis, I think, are not at all justified to regard themselves as demi-gods and to impress us with their general education. We have to admit, as we do so now, that they are on a better path and that their circumstances of climate and historical developments were more advantageous, enabling them to reach the goal more easily. The level of education can be discovered most easily by its geographical proliferation. The Eastern part of Europe, in its general education, is about a hundred years behind the Western part. Germans are the most academically oriented people in Europe, but the sad unbalance between cursory apprehension and deep comprehension is felt in every branch of political and civil circles. They resemble a youth who does not know his own strength and abilities and, glancing at his father or guardian standing in front of him at every step, cannot conceive of all the things he will accomplish. The French and the Italians are less well educated in the sciences, are less speculative, but are the more inclined for action. Yet, they are worthy representatives of European intellectual cultivation and as such surpass the Germans. The most perfect embodiment or quintessence of Frenghism are the English and the Americans who are, after all, one and the same nation. Although the Germans surpass them on the scientific field, they are nonetheless at the forefront of European culture, for they are eminent in all those qualities that characterize a Frenghi: political freedoms, the spirit of entrepreneurship, indefatigableness, taking initiatives, perseverance, lack of sentimentality, daring thinking—all of which put them in a diametrically opposite position with the Easterners. I gradually experienced this when I progressed from the inner parts of Turkestan towards the sacred country of the English. I felt quite at home in many respects in Russia, the Austrian provinces and in the Eastern part of Germany. I found people less encumbered by problems, more garrulous and compassionate. They value time more, though, than we do, but they are not as economical with it as the English, and even though they move faster than we do, they do not run around as insanely and unreasonably after business as in England where I was ceaselessly pulled into the mad rush of humanity, pushed and shoved whenever I wanted to stop for a little to rest. Moreover, I swear by Allah, this is not life but rushing around, frenzied raging where even the birds compete in speed with humans.”

–From the Memoirs of a Tartar ♦ 13 Vol. 25, No. 3 ♦ 2007

You may read the entire piece as a pdf file: VamberyAristocracyEducationMandler