Earlier today, I was discussing Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and a very interesting phrase came up that brought me back to my first post.
One extremely important aspect of More’s Utopia that helped the tiny island sustain itself and defend against damages caused by less enlightened and reasoned cultures was that Utopia was an “omnivorous culture.” (I do not believe More ever uses that term, but a more intelligent man than I am came up with the omnivore phrase as a summary of More’s description while discussing the book with me.) Omnivorous not in the sense that both meat and vegetables were consumed by the Utopians (although I’m sure that’s true, too), but instead in the sense that Utopia was open to foreign ideas and customs, and could incorporate those ideas into Utopian society. In the book, More describes the ease by which Utopians incorporated Christianity and Greek philosophy into their own culture without letting those aspects consume Utopian values and ideals.
The basic thought behind the “omnivorous culture” is that a society can expand, grow and develop as it learns from other societies. Additionally, the “consumption” of outside cultures and societies serves as an alternative to the more traditional approach of expanding global powers, which is to simply crush and suppress the cultures of their conquered peoples.
So where do the United States and the Roman Empire come into play?
Well, as it turns out, both the United States and the Roman Empire are prime examples of More’s notion of an omnivorous culture in the real world.
This is not to insinuate that the United States is a modern-day empire in the form of the Roman Empire. There are arguments to be made to categorize America as a modern cultural, economic or military empire, but I’ll leave that argument for a different day. For the purposes of this piece, let’s simply discuss how both the US and the Roman Empire have successfully used an omnivorous culture to establish themselves as global superpowers.
As the Roman Empire conquered more and more of Europe and North Africa, they often incorporated aspects of the conquered cultures into their own. The most obvious example being the adoption of Greek gods into Roman mythology.
While the United States has not been conquering other countries in an attempt to extend a territorial empire (maybe an empire of influence, but once again let’s not go there), America has similarly faced an increasingly heterogenous society under its control as has responded to this change by adopting an omnivorous culture.
As mentioned in my post on the melting pot analogy, America has responded to subsequent waves of immigration by ultimately incorporating these foreign cultures into our culture. Whether it be pizza, burgers, Tex-Mex, California sushi rolls or Panda Express, the omnivorous culture in this country has Americanized and adopted these foreign features. That being said, you would be hard-pressed to claim that the introduction of Italian and Chinese restaurants has somehow made our country less American in nature.
Such is the beauty of the omnivorous culture. Alas, the sadness of it is that very few countries or societies could fully adopt such a culture. After all, America is the only major non-ethnocentric country in the world. Like Utopia, America is based on certain fundamental ideals and values. Compare this to a country founded on ethnic nationalism; it would be extremely hard for such a country to “consume” foreign cultures and ethnicities without fundamentally changing the ethnic and cultural composition of the country, on which the state is founded on.
It is a very interesting idea, and certainly something to think about next time the immigration debate comes up that quite possibly America’s ability to maintain and promote itself as a world power rests on its ability to welcome and incorporate outside cultures. (If the United States and other Western nations are in a “clash of civilizations” with East Asian and Muslim civilizations, as described by Samuel Huntington in his controversial thesis, what does this say about our ability to maintain our position in the world? By buying into what some neocons consider an West vs. East or Christian vs. Muslim war, are we destroying our ability to “consume” Muslim culture in order to maintain peace?)
There are a few problems with the notion of the “omnivorous culture” and my points here that need to be addressed, though. First of all, the Roman Empire was eventually torn apart and weakened from the inside despite having an omnivorous culture. (I believe that the introduction of Christianity promoted a belief that the consumption of other cultures would dilute “the truth,” and as a result the Roman Empire lost its omnivorous culture, which in turn led to an inability to properly satisfy and address its heterogeneous society.)
Second problem, England is a nation based around ethnicity, and they certainly had a sizable empire. (England is, but Great Britain is composed of three ethnic societies. If I recall correctly, Britain adopted a degree of omnivorous culture at the height of its empire, though nowhere near the extent of the American or Roman omnivorous cultures.)
Lastly, it would be foolish to assume that power stems from an omnivorous culture. I’m not making that argument. Furthermore, a degree of power, authority and national identity must be sufficiently established before a country can attempt to consume foreign cultures and identities.
Even with all of this, a strong argument can be made that an omnivorous culture at the very least creates the potential for a strong country to become stronger and expand its influence. Along with the expansion of power and influence, an omnivorous culture can promote the sustainability of power and influence by reducing social friction in an increasingly heterogenous population that a state purveys over.
If we carry this argument from the national level to the global level, couldn’t we say that the nations of the world have been forced to adopt a degree of culture consumption through the effects of globalization? This should promote greater peace and prosperity in the world over the course of time just as it promotes within an individual nation, correct? I hope that’s a true statement, but globalization has force-fed cultures to ethnic nations that did not want to consume other cultures. (Remember the conditions necessary to adopt an omnivorous culture?) How these two conflicting stories interact with one another in the next few years will play a major role in our security and prosperity in the future.