Voyages of exploration and discovery aren’t unknown among non-Western peoples. We know that the Silk Road led Chinese merchants as far west as Antioch in the later Roman Empire, and Arab travelers made regular visits to the steppes of Russia. Intrepid Polynesians set out in their canoes to cross thousands of miles of the sun-drenched Pacific, and while there is no evidence that African sailors crossed the Atlantic before Columbus, it is not beyond imagination.
Joseph Campbell even informs us that the hero’s journey is a universal cultural archetype, as it tests and transforms the hero. But no other civilization has embraced and channeled the passion and desire to know what’s on the other side of the horizon as the West has from its earliest beginnings.
The ancient Phoenicians ventured as far as the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and possibly as far as the British Isles and Cornwall, in search of tin and profits. Shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, Pytheas of Massalia explored the coast of northwestern Europe, beginning in the south at Cádiz and continuing to the mouth of the Don. His description of his voyage (now lost) recorded the ancient world’s first contact with the Scandinavian ancestors of the Vikings — the archetypal representatives of the West’s roving instincts.
Ancient Greece was also the birthplace of the greatest work of literature about a voyage into the unknown, the Odyssey, although of course Odysseus was sailing out in order to get home, not just for the hell of it. Likewise Jason and his Argonauts were on a specific mission, to find the Golden Fleece, and they don’t seem to have ventured farther than the Black Sea coast of Georgia — child’s play for a later Viking sea warrior coming down from the Baltic.
Yet these are extraordinary developments in their time and place. Whatever cultural strictures or religious taboos limited that impulse in other places were progressively worn away with the rise of the West. In fact, the impulse directly contributed to that rise. Acting on our curiosity to learn what’s on the far side of the horizon became a matter of habit, including finding out what’s in the deepest part of the ocean, or in the most profound secrets of the atom and the genome.
It was one of the early Arab travelers, al-Ghazal, who left an account of his encounter with the people who first institutionalized that Western questing instinct — the Vikings — while on a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Denmark. What he found shocked him, including the relative freedom enjoyed by their women and the casualness with which the Norsemen set out on journeys that would take them to the farthest ends of the earth. Modern readers are still astonished by how far the Vikings felt compelled to travel in their longships, from the shores of the Black Sea to Constantinople to Athens, where they scratched runic inscriptions on a stone lion, and then across the Atlantic to North America.
The Vikings were out for plunder and loot, of course, but they also sought out opportunities for trade and exchange. In the end, their command of the seas, especially the North Atlantic, enabled them to pursue both goals. In fact, the peculiar geography of northern Europe, including the British Isles, provided a rich series of outlets for voyages across the Atlantic and around the coast of Africa, a geography that the Vikings’ successors were able to utilize for the same purposes. The most famous — or now the most notorious — was Christopher Columbus, with his multiple voyages across the Atlantic starting with his landing on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, in the first visit by a European to North America in 500 years.
Columbus’s name is tainted today because with hindsight we can see how his quests led to the creation of great empires across the Americas and the extermination and exploitation of native peoples. But Columbus’s original intent was to establish trade with the Orient. Portuguese sea voyagers sought the same end by sailing in the opposite direction, around the southern tip of Africa to India. The western coast of Africa that they explored eventually became the haven for buying slaves from native rulers for the mines and plantations of Latin America, and eventually for English-speaking colonies in North America.
Nonetheless, the initial impulse was always the same: to travel farther than the last voyager, to be willing to sail into hitherto unknown waters in order to bring home knowledge as well as wealth. That was the impulse that would characterize all of Columbus’s successors, from the Portuguese and the Dutch to the English in the age of Elizabeth I.
Their story is the most revealing of the West’s impulse for exploration. What started out as an effort to enter the lucrative slave trade turned into something else entirely. With Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577, and subsequent voyages by a series of adventurers, merchants, and privateers, an entire English-speaking seafaring–maritime culture developed, stretching from Cornwall and Wales to North America and deep into the Mediterranean. With it went the skills needed for dominating the seas — self-reliance, teamwork, and masterly adaptability to rapidly changing conditions, from a sudden squall to a hostile sail breaking the horizon — that became the hallmarks of English government and society.
It was no coincidence, then, that the rise of the Royal Navy coincided with the rise of the ideal of self-government and the rule of law, not to mention economic prosperity based on the free exchange of seaborne goods for mutual benefit. These changes transformed Britain and became the basis for the same skills and ideals in the American colonies. But even as it focused on policing the world’s sea lanes, the Royal Navy never checked its original hankering for plotting voyages to unknown places. It was Royal Navy officers who spearheaded the discovery of the farthest reaches of the Pacific and the coast of Australia, while their colleagues at home defended freedom from tyranny, from Louis XIV to Napoleon to Hitler. At the height of the British Empire, the navy charted the world’s oceans and sea lanes, gave birth to the global economic system, and stamped out the remaining slave-trading havens in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The British demonstrated that control of the sea gives a free people control over their own destiny and an unending source of cultural renewal and intellectual growth. The farther out we push, the more we learn about ourselves as well as others.
Thanks to the British and the Vikings, freedom and curiosity go together as the twin passions of Western history. That history charts the growth of institutions and practices, including what we know as modern science, that preserve and promote both freedom and curiosity. The seas became the pathway to discovery and riches and empire, but also to expanding human knowledge. It was no coincidence that Charles Darwin had a berth on the HMS Beagle on its surveying expedition of the South American coast, or that the catalogue of our knowledge about the non-Western world got its earliest start from scholars and scientists at British universities and the Royal Academy.
Their curiosity about the polar reaches of the globe ultimately brought British explorers such as Scott and Shackleton to the same mission as the modern descendants of the Vikings, Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole, and Fridtjof Nansen, the first person to cross the Greenland ice pack.
But the questing instinct is more than simply the property of the Anglosphere or the Nordic countries. It remains one of the most important characteristics of the modern West — the desire to venture to far horizons and into the unknown.
And just as earlier explorers revealed that the oceans are one, so their successors realized that the sky above them imposed no limits on human ambition and self-discovery. John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and the Space Shuttle crews all tapped into the same universal impulse and need to stretch the boundaries between the known and the unknown, and basked in the admiration we shower on those who test that limit. The entrepreneurs who have taken over the effort to explore space recognize that space represents the last great frontier for bold new initiatives like those of the Vikings in their longships.
When someone asked the historian Jacob Burckhardt when we’d know that Western civilization was truly dead, he replied: when Greek statues no longer appeared beautiful. I predict that another sign will be when the questing instinct no longer appears heroic but rather as an ugly or useless part of Western “privilege.” The removal of statues of Christopher Columbus shows how far down that road we’ve gone in certain quarters. But as long as statues of Leif Erikson remain in place (the one in Seattle was recently taken down — but for cleaning, not removal) and audiences show up for the latest movie installment of Star Trek or Star Wars, I’d say there’s hope for us yet.
Read in National Review