Wednesday 28 September 2011

What was the happiest civilization in history?


The answer depends on how the question is interpreted.

My interpretation is that society is happiest which would not swap their situation for any other.

A society that is not nostalgic for a better past nor anticipating a better future, nor jealous of any other society elsewhere.


This answer excludes pre-civilization hunter-gatherers - who were probably the happiest people ever to have lived (no matter where they happened to be).


My answer is: Constantinople through much of the Byzantine Empire (most periods from the foundation to 1204).

The reason these people can objectively be defined as the happiest in history is that they are probably the only significant mass of population (not just a particular class) over a significant timescale of several generations who would not have swapped their situation for anywhere else in the world, past, present, or elsewhere.


The Byzantines believed they were living in the City of God, in a replica heaven-on-earth: not the real heaven, of course - not perfect by any means - but a model and a preparation for the real heaven.

Whoever the Emperor was, they were ruled by the thirteenth Apostle, Christ's Vicegerent - chosen by God for their own benefit and salvation: and whatever their own positions in the earthly hierarchy, this was a divinely-ordained hierarchy.


Not coincidentally, this was the most devoutly Christian society of any size and duration; every life was permeated with prayer, worship and ritual; with passion, beauty, sublimity.

For the Byzantines, there was nowhere that the grass was greener than Constantinople.



mr tall said...

This is a highly speculative question, of course, but in my gut I agree with you. I have been fascinated with Byzantium almost from the moment I learned it had existed, and its art has always seemed to me closest to letting through unsullied a gleam from the eternal.

Incidentally, I'm commenting here for the first time, but I've been reading for a while, and I also wish to thank you and convey my admiration for your writing.

The Crow said...

Bruce, The Scholar, speaks :)
He would know stuff like this.
I would have said pre-Chinese Tibet.
Buddhism was a huge part of daily life, the entire population revered the Dalai Lama, and none of them knew anything else with which their civilization could be compared. Total ethnic homogeneity; no outsiders.
Close to Heaven, close to the earth, close to direct cause and effect.
I don't know the truth of this, but I imagine it was close to my description.

My own direct experience points to an England that existed up to the early sixties. We all knew that England was the best country on earth.
Was it Rudyard Kipling that wrote:
"To be born English, is to win first prize in the lottery of life"?
Then - as we know - it all went pear-shaped.

Wurmbrand said...

Hi, Crow! I am eagerly awaiting the next volume of David Kynaston's chronicle, which should cover the late Fifties and early Sixties in Britain. It will be interesting to see if voices that he quotes chime in with what you write. I would have guessed that Cold War tensions would have dulled much of the brightness that you suggest. But I was a kid in Utah around that time....

The Crow said...

Dale: I was responding to Bruce writing:
"...society is happiest which would not swap their situation for any other.

A society that is not nostalgic for a better past nor anticipating a better future, nor jealous of any other society elsewhere."

Cold war, or no, England was very happy with itself, at the time. The English generally didn't dream of any other place being superior, although there was a certain envy, among some, concerning the wealth of America.

Wurmbrand said...

Historically, problems always arise when the two realms of God's governance are mixed up.

God governs by the Gospel in the Church, that is, by love. The Church's primary responsibility is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake, the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with God's Word by means of the office of the Holy Ministry, etc. "My Kingdom is not of this world." The Church brings good news to guilty sinners. It tells them that God is reconciled to them for Christ's sake. To be sure, it must excommunicate from its fellowship and its sacraments those sinners who are publicly impenitent. The Church is to pass on, faithfully, the deposit of the Faith and so to make disciples.

God governs "indirectly" by reason and even by fear in the secular realm. The state's primary responsibility is the maintenance of justice for the sake of good order. Officers of the state have the vocation of formulating and enforcing good laws. The innocent are to be protected and the guilty are to be punished. The state is not to devote itself to reforming evildoers. Heaven help anyone who falls into the clutches of governments that set themselves to "cure" people. Of course, all modern states do set themselves to do just that, to some degree at least. See C. S. Lewis's "Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" for why this is so bad. The state operates on the basis of reason rather than faith. It is not supposed to dictate to people what they are to believe. The state may rightly use fear to curb proclivity towards bad actions. The recent English rioters clearly were not afraid of serious punishment. They thus damaged private property with impunity; soon after, various pundits set themselves, often with little warrant or expertise, to "explain" and even to justify this hooliganism. To the extent that officers of the government (such as police constables) put themselves in the position of condoning criminality, they are betraying their calling and frustrating the purposes of the God who has established earthly government. It's hard times for the law-abiding when this happens, though it may be a fun time to be a lawbreaker. To get a kick again, the lawbreaker will need to escalate the degree of the offense....

When Church and secular government get mixed, the Church is apt to take upon itself the state's agendas, with the lamentable results we have seen in various totalitarian states but also in relatively free ones. Pastors do not have the vocation of enlisting parishioners in state campaigns. Pastors are not to enlist in secular agenda e.g. for gay rights. Conversely, when the state takes upon itself to enforce beliefs about God, the soul, etc., here too you end up with trouble -- persecution of heretics and so on.

I don't know Byzantine history nearly well enough to comment on how things went there.

The Continental Op said...

What happened in Byzantium that led to its decline and fall?

Is there any point where Byzantium got so low where one could say, "good riddance to rubbish." Or was there substantial good to the end?

I'm trying to calibrate my attitude towards my own culture. It's so bad now anything seems better. Shoud I pray for a transformative catastrophe?

Gabe Ruth said...

And yet the adjective Byzantine is a pejorative in current times. What books would you recommend reading to correct this impression?

I think any society since the end of feudalism would lose because of belief in progress, capitalized or not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - I went to my two local scholarly libraries and took out a couple of dozen books about Byzantium, written over the past 100 years - and dipped into these. Some of the oldest were the best at communicating a feel for the civilization.

TCO - Constaninople was fatally weakened by the Fourth 'Crusade' in 1204 when the Latin Christians probably destroyed (and stole) more treasures in a shorter time than anything in history.

Then a few decades later the Empire got going again until it was finally overwhelmed by the Turks in 1453 - the empire in these last years was barely keeping-going economically and militarily, but there was not a decline in spirit rather a cultural renaissance, and their devoutness was undiminished: there was no surrender, they fought to the death to defend their city and empire, but they were simply overwhelmed by relentless assault from superior forces.

Wurmbrand said...

In a society in which Church and secular realm are close, to diverge from orthodoxy is to commit an offense against the state. The state has the power of the sword, i.e. it has the right to enforce obedience with the threat of violence. The Church doesn't compel compliance. It has the right to excommunicate the impenitent, but not to terrify them into compliance.

When the realm of the Gospel and the secular realm are mixed, then there inevitably arise worldly motives for participation in Churchly things. If one must be baptized (and in the state church at that) in order to secure privileges of a full citizen, then people will be baptized under false pretenses, a very grave matter indeed. If one must take Communion once a year to satisfy civic requirements, people will do so under false pretenses, although the Apostle warns people about unworthy Communicating.

In entrusting the means of grace to His Church, Christ also stated plainly that His kingdom is not of this world. Hence the necessity for a clear distinction between the realm of grace and the realm of politics, etc.

This is not to say that Christians should not serve in government. Many will have the vocation to do just that. Conversely, a Christian in a democracy may vote for a non-Christian candidate, even where that candidate's opponent is a Christian, if the voter believes the non-Christian is better qualified to serve.

And by the way, here in the States what a sad pack they are, the prominent candidates who make a point of their Christian affiliation. Not that those who don't are necessarily any the more attractive.

In a society in which Church and secular government are close, Churchfolk will be tempted to kowtow to the state in order to attract to themselves disbursements of tax money.

I suspect it would be a good thing if the state were gradually to divest itself of most of its involvement in areas that should be seen to by families and churches -- for example, education. The state probably should guarantee a "three Rs" type of education, paid for by taxes, for all children whose parents want to send them to school rather than educate them privately. But the purview of a state education should be limited. It should not be "enough." For the rest of what a young person needs, private efforts of one sort or another should be the way to go, e.g. church schools, yeshivas, madrasses (sp?), home schools, and so on. At the least this type of arrangement sounds attractive to me. As a university teacher of undergraduates, I am appalled (even after 30 years' experience) by how poorly many of my students appear to have been served by their 12 or more years in American public schools.

Bruce Charlton said...

@mr tall - thanks for your comment and your attention.

Bruce Charlton said...


All you say may be the best that can be done under particular circumstances - but could always be improved if - above these arrangments - was the unifying authority of a divinely ordained Emperor; for lack of which the religious state and the secular state will perpetually be engaged in turf wars - or will hammer-out a seedy compromise for mutually beneficial exploitation of the masses.

So the society of medieval Europe was ruled by national King and international Pope; but needed - above these - an international divinely-chosen (but not divine)Emperor; i.e. properly anointed by the Pope as recognition of his right, but not chosen by the Pope. The Byzantine Emperor in the East was such, but the Holy Roman Emperor of the West was not.

The draining of the religious from secular life - which follows on the emergence of an autonomous and purely secular realm - must be a maiming of the religious itself, because it is a destruction of unity.

If society is not ruled, from the top, according to Christian principles - then it is to that extent defective. Salvation is that much more difficult and rare and fragile; sancitity is that much less advanced.

Matters are not therefore impossible, it is not a cause for despair, but it *is* sub-optimal - as I think we can see from examples of historical societies which did better.

BTW I do not advocate Christian political parties - I do not advocate democratic changes at all - rather I advocate a politics which arises-from and is subordinated to a highly religious society; a society which is (therefore) monarchial (but not necessarily or usually hereditary) and hierarchical.

I do not advocate 'the divine right of kings'; but its opposite: kings who rule by divine right.

And of course for this to happen requires a sufficiently devout society that the divine will can (on average, and over time) be recognized and acted upon.

James B. Oakley said...

I do not advocate 'the divine right of kings'; but its opposite: kings who rule by divine right.

Which, by the way, was the original interpretation of the meaning of "divine right of kings". Bertrand de Jouvenel has a fine passage about this in "On Power":

"[The Middle Ages] repeated the formula of Saint Paul: 'all Power comes from God', but less to invite the subjects to be obedient to Power than to invite Power to be obedient to God".

Here's the original French in case my hasty translation is as incomprehensible as it seems to be:

“On répète la formule de saint Paul: ‘tout Pouvoir vient de Dieu’, mais beaucoup moins pour inviter les sujets à l’obéissance envers le Pouvoir que pour inviter le Pouvoir … à l’obéissance envers Dieu”.

Fine post, by the way.

ski said...

"A society that is not nostalgic for a better past nor anticipating a better future, nor jealous of any other society elsewhere."

How rare is this really? I certainly know that I grew up in such a society-- America before 9/11 and the Bush Presidency.

"For the Byzantines, there was nowhere that the grass was greener than Constantinople."

Just switch "Byzantines" with "Americans; and "Constantinople" with "America."

I was 14 on 9/11, and before we had actually invaded Afghanistan but were preparing to do so, I came up with my own plan to ensure the most just AND compassionate solution possible- we would conquer Afghanistan and then make it the 51st state! After all, America is the greatest country ever to exist and the terrorists only attacked us 'cause they're jealous-- my plan would not only serve justice but would also solve the problem of Muslim jealousy based terrorism by making them Americans. It would be the greatest philanthropical project in history! Who cares that Afghanistan is half the way around the globe in central Asia? We're America! We can do anything! We put a man on the moon dammit-- turning towel heads into Americans is nothing!

Now obviously I was a little naive at 14 years, but honestly the way I thought wasn't so different from the way many if not most Americans thought until the Iraq war started proving a bit difficult and the nation became polarized around it and the Bush presidency. Maybe I'm romanticizing things a little bit and partly remembering the idealized view of a 14 year old rather than the an actual national 'zeitgeist,' but I think so for the most part. Too many adults around me confirmed my view of America as being the closest thing to heaven on earth.

Even liberals who may have seemed "anti-American," firmly believed that "nowhere was the grass greener than America." The actual despising of America common nowadays was pretty darn rare as I remember it. Europeans were mistaken if they thought liberals of those years were in any way "humble," about America; it was more an attitude of "yeah of course we're better than everyone else-- but you right wingers are making asses of yourself by talking about it so much-- when you're the best (which we are) you should keep quiet about it." Nowadays most liberals actually do think Sweden is better than America.

The liberals did have weird objectively anti-American beliefs like white guilt etc. but somehow this did not make them anti-American! You just had to be there to understand it. Even the types of folks burning flags thought they were living in "the heaven on earth that is America." They just had a different version of what that heaven was. Or maybe they did really hate America? I don't know-- I do know that 95% of the population found it impossible to believe that anyone could *really* hate America. I for one thought these folks must have just been confused weirdos. I figured every country-- even the greatest-- has to have at least a few mentally ill people right? That's how most people thought back then, any amount of truly anti-American sentiment was seen as mental illness. Any sort of belief in any country being better than America was seen as akin to a belief in the moon being made of cheese.

The whole Bush thing and Iraq followed by Obama changed it all (and yes, that's a gross oversimplification). Now conservatives think we're losing our country and liberals think that the evil racists are retaking the country-- and now lots of Americans really do hate America. But you've got me in such a good mood reminiscing on the good ol' days when I believed I was living a perfect life in the perfect country that I can't bear to say much about that now.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow re; England in the fifties and 'ski' re: the US pre-9/11 -

These societies (as you describe them, although in fact I would not agree with the descriptions) are examples of future oriented societies - where people believe (let's say) that things are improving and the future is going to be better than the present.

This implies that people in such societies would prefer to live in the future than the present - which is analogous to wanting to live in another country or to live in another kind of society.

Any progressive society is thus unhappy, by this definition. And socialist society is unhappy (because this society now is unjust compared with the desired future state), and capitalist society is unhappy (because this society now is too poor, too weak by contrast with the desired future state)... and so on.

That's what I'm getting at.