22 / CHRONICLESnVIEWSnTHE MOST UNBELIEVABLE THINGnby Robert NisbetnThe following is the text of Professor Nisbet’snspeech at the 1985 IngersoU Prizes AwardsnBanquet:nOne of Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-known storiesnbears the title “The Most Unbelievable Thing.” Anking offered a fortune to the subject who created the mostnunbelievable thing in the arts. Competition was intense andnprolonged. When at last the day of judgment came, thenjury, after inspecting all the entries, settled on a marvelousnfusion of a clock and calendar, one with hundreds ofnmoving parts, set in rare metals and crowned by preciousnstones. This, said the jury, is surely the most unbelievablenthing. But as the king was about to ratify judgment andnmake the award, a competitor, insane with jealousy, camennnup with sledge hammer in hand and smashed the beautifulncreation into a thousand pieces. The crowd was horrified.nBut the jury said: “Why, surely, this is the most unbelievablenthing, to smash so perfect a work of art.”nWestern culture may be neither unbelievable nor perfectnas a work of history. But for 2,500 years it has commandednthe admiration and awe, and not seldom the covetousness,nof countless peoples. Set as it is upon a small promontory ofnthe vast Eurasian continent. Western civilization has been,nfrom at least the fifth century B.C., the unique object ofnwonder for peoples from almost all parts of the world. Wentake nothing away from the civilizations of ancient Egypt,nPersia, and China when we declare the West withoutnserious rival as the collective culture hero in world history.nFor this the West has, however, paid a price; the price that isnalways exacted of the great and noble by the envious andncovetous. From the Persians turned back at Thermopylaenand then the Germanic-barbarian invaders of Rome, downnto their successors, the Mongols, Muslims, and Slavs, thenWest has been a uniquely desirable civilization in the world:nthe barbarians have sought to invade it from the outside, asnthey still do in our day. Worse, Western civilization hasnhad, especially in modern times, those from within whosenimpact upon their own civilizahon is hardly less than that ofnthe barbarians beyond the walls.nThere are various reasons for the West’s remarkablenfertility of culture, and there is no time for exploring any ofnthem in proper measure. There is one reason, though, thatnI want to stress here: the West’s unequaled profusion ofninventions during its two and a half millennia of existence.nI am referring to more than the mechanical inventionsnwhich immediately come to mind, though I do not deprecatenthese. Almost all cultural change has in it invention ofnone kind or other. This is as true of systems of morality,nmusical composition, statecraft, literature and its forms,nand painting and sculpture as it is of technology andnscience. So much that we lazily ascribe to “growth” andn”development” is in fact the child of Western man’sninvenhve genius.nThere is no other civilization known that can match thenprodigality of inventions in the West. The reasons arenseveral and begin with the generally freer air that has existednfrom the beginning. But there is one that I want particularlynto note here: the conception of time in Western thought.nMan is a time-binding creature, a faculty that along withnlanguage gives him uniqueness among the species. Tomor-nRobert Nisbet received the Richard M. Weaver Award fornScholarly Letters on November 22, 1985.n