Counter-Cyclical Civilization

10 October 2009

Saturday


Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

In several posts– The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, and Revisiting Civilization Revisited — I have argued that the increasing integration and viability of the elements of technological civilization demonstrates that civilization is becoming more robust over time, not less. In other words, we are not facing the end of the world by any manner of means. While I continue to believe this to be correct, I will acknowledge without hesitation that a case can still be made for the contrary position, and today I would like to consider some ramifications of the organic model of civilization.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

In the organic model of civilization, civilizations are like organic entities that experience a natural life cycle from birth through growth to maturity and senescence and finally death. In a strong formulation of the organic model, each civilization would be absolutely unique and incommensurable with other civilizations. It is unlikely that this idealization of organic order is realized in fact. It is easy, however, to conceive any number of less rigorous formulations that admit of degrees of the organic character of civilization. From the organic model several suggestive conclusions can be drawn, such as the impossibility of preserving a civilization beyond its natural life span.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

To a certain extent, the organic model of civilization can be assimilated to the argument that I made in The Phenomenon of Civilization, in so far as we distinguish the fates of individual civilizations from the fate of civilization taken on the whole. The latter view, that we can say meaningful things about civilization on the whole, of which individual, particular civilizations are mere constituent parts, might be termed the mereological model of civilization. (Mereology is the theory of parts and wholes.) There is no reason that civilizations might not exhibit both a mereological and an organic structure or aspects of both such structures (except in the case of the strong formulation of the organic model noted above, which also suggests a strong formulation of the mereological model).

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

As I remarked above, a compelling argument can be made for the organic model of civilization with many illustrations drawn from history of a natural cycle of the birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death of civilizations. If this is the case, it would seem likely the our modern Western civilization that displaced the civilization of medieval Europe has at least peaked and may perhaps be well on its way in decline and eventual death. This view is emphatically not novel: it is a favorite and familiar theme of both high-brow and low-brow fiction. But there is a novel suggestion that can be made to add some interest to the organic model, and we can do so by drawing on an extended biological metaphor.

Within the overall phenomenon of civilization we can distinguish parts of civilization and how they overlap and intersect with each other.

Usually we need to grasp an idea first in its simplest form, and among the simplest forms of the biological model is that mentioned above of a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death. However, even a passing acquaintance with biology will make one aware that different life forms have different life cycles. A dramatic example of this is the metamorphosis of some insect life cycles. There is nothing quite like thing among “higher” organisms such as mammals. So while we begin a consideration of the organic model of civilization with the simplest idea of organic life, we need to pass on to more varieties of possible life cycles, as well as combinations of features to be found in a fully articulated conception of an organic life cycle, in order to converge upon a more subtle and sophisticated conception of life cycle that might be profitably applied to something as subtle and sophisticated as the concept of civilization.

There will always be questions about the scope of civilizations. Here we assume that the phenomenon of civilization can wholly contain subordinate wholes of civilization, which in turn can wholly contain civilizations, but this descending chain of civilizations cannot be continued indefinitely.

Suppose, as we said above, that our contemporary Western civilization is in terminal decline. As part of a natural life cycle, it could then be expected that natural forces would emerge to facilitate this natural cycle by contributing to the disintegration and fragmentation of civilization. We could put it like this: but for the unprecedented Industrial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, and Technological Revolution, our civilization would have run its course and would, but for an exception to the ordinary course of history, be in its terminal stages of decline. Our world today on this interpretation would be a counter-cyclical civilization. Also under this interpretation, the emergence of nihilistic, iconoclastic fundamentalisms — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu alike — are in accord with the ordinary course of history. Such movements emerge as part of the perennial pattern of history, appearing on the scene to perform the service of clearing the ground of the decayed civilization so that a new civilization can emerge in due course.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

Fundamentalists, then, are the white blood cells of civilization, which usually serve an important function such as the Christians who focused on destroying the legacy of classical antiquity so that a new, Atlantic-facing civilization could emerge in Western Europe — a development that would have been impossible under the shadow of a surviving Roman Empire. But something has changed. In the meantime, we have learned how to perform transplantation in order to preserve the vital functions of our society. If the transplantation is to be effective we must learn how to suppress the immune response of the body politic so that the foreign tissue will not be attacked and the altered body not destroyed by its own white blood cells. This, then, is our extended biological metaphor.

Iconoclasm with Chinese characteristics during the Cultural Revolution: as the early Christians destroyed the images of classical antiquity and the Protestants destroyed the Catholic civilization of images to make way for the modern world, the Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution attempted to destroyed the artifacts of the past to make way for a communist civilization.

The enthusiastic fundamentalists who are the enemies of civilization have emerged at the late stage of our civilization, just as the Christians emerged in the late stages of classical antiquity. As the Christians set about destroying the great monuments of art and architecture that were the pride of classical civilization, so today the fundamentalists set about destroying the great monuments of knowledge that are the pride of our modern civilization. They are performing their historical function, which in other circumstances — the circumstances of established precedent in which no countervailing forces had emerged to reinvigorate a decaying civilization — would result in a catastrophic collapse of civilization increasing in rapidity with the passage of time. Fundamentalists plant the seed of what would ordinarily be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that we are living in the end times. But this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.

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