Thursday 8 February 2018

The fake insight of the cycle of civilisation

I learned about the supposed cycle of civilisation, and its despair inducing futility, as a pre-adolescent child. You know the one about civilisations having a barbaric youth of growth, an adult maturity of... civilisation, and then... inevitably... a senescent, decadent decline.

There are many variations; but here-and-now, for us moderns, this is essentially a fake insight.

Why? Because we are living in modernity 200-and-some years after the industrial revolution, which was the greatest non-cyclical change in the history of Men (the first and greatest non-cyclical change was the invention and spread of agriculture).

Insofar as there is truth is the cycle of civilisations idea, it refers to the agrarian era - that part of human history between the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  Indeed, if there is any meaning to 'civilisation', it is restricted to the polities, empires, nations of that era.

But the idea has deep errors built-into it. One is to reify the abstraction of 'civilisation' - as if it was 'a thing', and a primary thing at that... rather than merely a by-product and a collection of creative causes.

By their revealed preferences - by what they actually do, nobody at all ever puts civilisation first; nobody builds, enjoys, defends or indeed genuinely cares-about a 'civilisation'.

The so called civilisations were not made by people who were trying to make civilisations - which is why, after a while, they 'decline'. They decline mostly because nobody is even trying to sustain them (whatever they are) - people always have other priorities - and these priorities differ by time and place.

Looking at a couple of the longest-lasting 'civilisations' - the Ancient Egyptians (3000 years) and the Byzantines (1000 years) were religious societies, who strove to sustain and defend and live-by their religion, primarily. Everything else was secondary, and dispensable - as revealed by the end of the Byzantine empire with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. They were defending their religion - to the death; and they would not sacrifice their particular Christianity to the imperative to save the city or the civilisation or empire*.

What's my point - what am I trying to say? That we should not be sucked-into an insincere and futile attempt to save something that doesn't really exist and nobody genuinely cares about as a number one priority. But instead should try to save and promote that which we most deeply value.

At best, a civilisation is a temporary and grossly flawed thing of mortal and material life. We, personally - as immortals, will outlast all present and possible civilisations.

At most a civilisation is merely a means to an end - and that end should be spiritual and eternal.

*Note: The impulse of romanticism in Germany led to a distinction between civilisation and 'Kultur' - in which civililisation was seen as superficial, explicit, artificial and French; while Kultur was seen as deeper, more a thing of the heart and soul, and German. By this distinction, civilisation might be subject to cycles and to be a thing that could collapse and disappear; but Kultur would be something that might prove indestructible - remaining viable and powerfully motivating hidden, coded, latent, inexplicit, and beloved. 



Seijio Arakawa said...

Or will you join that nameless tribe
Of those who reckon Right and Might?
And in their sullen village find
Not totem-poles, but heads on pikes:
Upon each pike an Emperor's head
Beneath a sky the colour of lead.

And there, in answer to our questions
Of how to heal a ravaged Empire
The heads of all the creeds and nations
Will speak aloud with one refrain:

"What is Empire? Merely foam
On the swirl of thirteen seasons
Scarce observed by mortal men;
A deception of deceptions,
While the true and right decrees
Are acted far outside our narrow ken."

Hrothgar said...

For my part, I have for quite a few years - since I gave the question any serious thought at all really - been inclined to view civilization as essentially a byproduct of religion. Specifically, of organized religion, as individual spiritual experiences of a more shamanistic type do not entail a high degree of communal activity in the first place, nor foment a shared notion of ideal cosmic/divinely ordained order amongst a community, this probably being the most important requirement for a population to work towards bringing what we know as Civilization into being; and being motivated to sustain one, once it exists.

Contemporary thought seems to get this issue precisely backwards, though - like many other important matters, so I suppose there is no surprise there. I would like to nominate Göbekli Tepe as an obvious counter to the mainstream presumption that organized religion is in some way dependent on civilization for its existence, rather than the reverse.

Chiu ChunLing said...

There is quite a difference between seeing something as a means to an end, especially an unbounded or eternal end, and not caring about it at all.

Of course I'm saying this as someone who doesn't have any ultimate ends at all, but it really should hold true for anyone that is not profoundly hedonistic and mistakes all present enjoyments for ends in themselves.

Chiu ChunLing said...

We leave out a crucial step when we fail to mention that religion creates civilization by making the military possible. It is the military that actually creates civilization, and the key to a military is gathering together men to go and fight people who are dangerous rather than those who are helpless. A group of men who, all else being equal, would pick on the helpless rather than the dangerous are just bandits, not a military, they have no power to create civilization.

And without religion it is impossible to gather enough men together to form a military. Only insane (or perhaps we should just call them extremely eccentric) men will fight dangerous foes rather than helpless ones for any reason that is not fundamentally religious. The rarity of such men is not the central problem, no matter how many of them you can find, making a military out of them is fundamentally impossible (like trying to command an army of spiders).

"Socialists" often forget that humans aren't ants or bees. They have totally different reproductive capabilities and thus entirely different instincts. While the formalized faith of the 'civilized' often sneers at the 'irreligious' character of the typical military man (who is not an officer), fighting men are deeply religious by nature reinforced by experience if they live long.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL. Thta is true; but it seems we must order those things we care about - otherwise a minor care may usurp a major purpose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - "religion creates civilization by making the military possible".

Good point. I suppose the original military unit is the clan of genetically related men who have been raised together, but above that relgion is necessary.

""Socialists" often forget that humans aren't ants or bees. They have totally different reproductive capabilities and thus entirely different instincts. "

Yes, however, one response has been the attempt mentally to cripple people so that they lose their reproductive instincts and interests. This has always gone on to some extent - currently psychopharmacology is one agent for it.

Of course, it is politically self-defeating to make a society cohere and be odedient by destroying mass capability and insticts; but if the ultimate aim is evil (ie anti-Good, ie negative and destructive) then such contradiction need not matter.