Yet Another Thought on Civilization

19 December 2009


Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang the First Emperor of China, discovered near Xi'an and dating to about 200 BC.

One cannot expect in the context of a blog a systematic exposition of anything, least of all a systematic exposition of the nature of civilization. Being, essentially, an online diary — thinking in public, as it has been called — the thoughts come when they come, and I record them when they come. I’ve written quite a lot of posts about the nature of civilization and have thought that at some time I might try to collect them together into something more systematic. But an effort at systematic exposition would involve an effort at synthesis. It is pleasant to think about civilization, but it would require something more than pleasant contemplation to synthesize anything like a theory of civilization.

For the moment, I will not make this effort of synthesis, but will merely offer another observation about civilization, not entirely unsystematic but not entirely integrated in a unified theoretical context either. Someday, perhaps, I will have both the leisure and the intellectual energy for the latter.

The earliest civilizations around the world have shown little or no interest in individuality, and even less interest in individual freedoms. Even in ancient Greece, where Athens experimented with democracy, there was little interest in individual liberty and far more in the collective interests of society. Early societies were not merely uninterested in individual freedoms, but often openly hostile to them. In Hegelian terminology, the earliest societies knew only that one was free, and that one was the despot claiming divine sanction.

Hegel went on to characterize the development of political society as the discovery of greater freedom, claiming that in classical antiquity it was recognized that some were free, while it was only in the German society of his own time that it was finally recognized that all are free. I agree with Hegel that the development of civilization was demonstrated a growing recognition of freedom, but I do not agree with Hegel that this is the result of development of the worldspirit (Weltgeist). Hegel’s “explanation” is no explanation at all.

If there is a greater recognition of human freedom in contemporary civilization than in the past, why is this? What mechanism would account for such a development? I suggest that early civilizations had their hands full simply trying to maintain themselves as a going concern. Social order was so difficult to come by that it took precedence over all other social concerns. As peoples under the more successful of the early repressive regimes became wealthy they probably agitated for greater liberty, but such states were organized exclusively for the purpose of survival and there existed no mechanisms by which individuals might exercise any freedoms.

We know in retrospect that even the most successful of ancient civilizations could not ultimately maintain themselves, even putting all their energies into mere survival; the empires of antiquity collapsed, and the civilizations of which these empires were the bearers collapsed along with the political collapse of these societies.

I have argued here, against a pervasive strain of dystopianism and apocalypticism in contemporary culture, that our civilization is becoming stronger and more robust over time. World civilization today does not depend on any one political regime, or even upon several political regimes. Individual societies are the bearers of civilization, but if any one society fails, civilization itself does not fail. Civilization is widely distributed and widely represented.

A survey of the history of civilization reveals that the earliest dark ages between periods of civilization were the darkest and deepest, while later dark ages were somewhat less dark. During the Greek dark ages, the art of writing was lost and had to be independently reinvented in the west. During the dark ages in the west after the collapse of Roman power literacy became rare, but it did not go extinct and did not have to be reinvented.

I suggest that that greater individual freedoms that we see today in almost all societies are a function of the relatively robust civilization of our time. As civilization has become more stable, energies once directed toward mere survival are now being expressed in many more diverse forms of civilized activity, including the activity of individuals seeking to make the most of their liberties.

We can formulate this as a principle: individual freedoms within a given society are proportional to the strength of the civilization of which that society is a bearer.

If civilization were to come under serious threat, so much so that the continued existence of civilization appeared uncertain, societies that are the bearers of this civilization would re-prioritize social order, forcing the abridgment of individual liberties so long as the perceived threat to civilization endured. I think that this pattern has been borne out many times in miniature with the small battles over freedom of expression, and that this pattern we have seen play out so many times in miniature is also an overall principle that affects civilization itself.

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One Response to “Yet Another Thought on Civilization”

  1. […] (in Yet Another Thought on Civilization) I formulated this principle on the relation between the robustness of a civilization and the […]

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