The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited
11 June 2009
Last month in The Phenomenon of Civilization, after briefly surveying some possible fates not merely of our civilization, or of any one particular civilization, but of civilization on the whole, I concluded thus: “The present world would seem to offer no clues as to which scenario we should favor. Certainly there are many possibilities, and scenarios can be spun endlessly, but there is no dominating fact of the development of our time, or of the character of civilization of our time, that points to any one course of evolution or devolution.”
I now have reservations about the claim that there is no dominating fact of the development of civilization. Civilization is a temporal phenomenon and it has exhibited a significant measure of historical viability. That, in and of itself, is significant.
Although particular civilizations have come and gone since the origin of the first civilizations, there has been no time since that origin that the phenomenon of civilization itself has been completely extinguished, however dimly the flame may have burned during some periods of time and in some places throughout the subsequent history of civilization. While there has been much savagery and barbarism since our ancestors first began to live settled lives in cities supported by agriculture, there have been at least an equal number of Golden Ages and cultural high points. The continuum of civilization is riddled with exceptions and discontinuities.
It could be argued that the proven historical viability of civilization has slowly and gradually increased the robustness of civilization over time, making the continued likelihood of civilization higher than its possible disappearance from history. The longer civilization lasts, the stronger, the more durable, and the more pervasive it seems to become. The Greek Dark Ages from about 1200 BC – 800 BC were dark indeed, but elsewhere in the world civilization carried on at a minimal level. The Dark Ages of later Western history were not nearly so dark (nor as protracted) as the Greek Dark Ages, but, relative to the level of civilization immediate prior and immediately following, the European Dark Ages represented a low ebb of civilization.
Recent scholarship has reacted against the very idea of a “Dark Ages” and the term is scarcely used today, but it remains a useful way to characterize western European civilization from about 400 AD to 800 AD (roughly speaking). In Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective, I observed that, “No one reads Spartan poetry. No one admires Spartan architecture. The Spartans themselves had little use for such niceties.” It could be similarly observed that, while there is surviving literature from the European Dark Ages, it is not widely read today. Beowulf, the best-known classic of the early Middle Ages, comes from the ninth century, already a period passing out of the Dark Ages, as testified by the production of classic literature. Thus civilization did reach a low ebb, but it flourished elsewhere, beyond western Europe, and ultimately returned to western Europe.
The above considerations imply that the overall development of civilization does point to a pattern of development, and that pattern of development suggests that, if future will be like the past (the basic premiss of inductive reasoning), then civilization has a future that is stronger and greater (in a quantitative sense) that its history to date. But whether it is ever adequate to characterize civilization in quantitative terms is at least questionable: what we rightly value most in the history of civilization are the qualitative achievements that show themselves to exemplify an ideal not previously even conceived, much less concretely realized.
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