In the Shadow of Civilization

28 September 2012


Submerged Civilizations: another species

An early modern depiction of a Viking temple from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) by Olaus Magnus.

to add to the zoo of civilizations

I have learned many valuable lessons from hostile criticism. It was Bertrand Russell’s criticism of Bergson (across several different books) that led me to read Bergson himself, and when I did so (mindful of Russell’s own advice that, “to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him”) I realized that even if all of Russell’s criticisms were technically true in the narrow sense, that none of them touched the spirit of Bergson’s philosophy. Like Russell, Walter Kaufmann was a master of the deftly-executed hatchet job, done with a clear conscience. By calling some of Kaufmann’s criticisms of other philosophers “hatchet jobs” I am not saying that they are wrong or illegitimate, I am only making a point about the spirit in which they are executed.

You will not be surprised to hear, then, that it was Walter Kaufmann’s essays on Toynbee that led me to read Toynbee, so I began my reading of Toynbee with Kaufmann’s criticisms ringing in my ears. Kaufmann took up Toynbee in the last two chapters of his From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Chapter 19 “Toynbee and Super-History” and Chapter 20 “Toynbee and Religion.” After you read these two chapters you are likely to feel dumbfounded that Toynbee had the temerity to publish such half-baked thoughts. There is, then, an element of incredulity involved when hostile criticism leads you to look up the original author to see what he really said.

Just as Russell was right about Bergson, Kaufmann was right about Toynbee, but i have still returned to Toynbee and found something of value — not all the baroque details of the exposition, and not even the grand schema of his thought, but the occasional idea, plucked out of context here and there. I have, in this manner, plucked many ideas out of Toynbee, who has proved to be a fertile source for ideas about the typology and classification of civilizations.

I have been explicit in my own criticism of Toynbee, as when I pointed out in Why We Are All Eskimos that Toynbee had it exactly backward when he classified Eskimos (and, more generally, nomadic hunter-gatherers of the far northern latitudes) as an “arrested civilization.” Nevertheless, I find the ideas of arrested civilizations (Eskimos and Polynesians for Toynbee) and abortive civilizations (Vikings and the “Celtic Fringe” of Irish Christianity in late antiquity and the early middle ages) to be quite useful and, indeed, enlightening. In coming to a comprehensive understanding of civilization, we also need to study the blind alleys of civilizations and sub-civilizational development.

Toynbee also discussed “fossil” civilizations (this seems to have particularly irritated Kaufmann) and another kind of civilization that he does not name or explicitly identify, but illustrates with an imaginative story:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their domination and failing to convert them to its Faith — we can imagine the Mass being celebrated mysteriously for centuries in the underworld of a new society in which the prevailing religion was the worship of Aesir. We can also imagine this new society, as it grew in wisdom and stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religious heritage of the Scandinavian Völkerwanderung and seeking for the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which, when the Völkerwanderung had subsided, the new society had found rest for the sole of its foot. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as in our Western history witchcraft was stamped out when it caught the attention of the Church, might have been rediscovered as a hidden treasure; and some religious genius might have met the needs of his age by an exotic combination of the submerged Christian rite with latter-day barbarian orgies derived from the Finns or the Magyars.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 1, Part One, 1, C, I, b (p. 99 in my edition)

There are many features of this passage that perfectly illustrate the qualities of Toynbee’s thought that rightly irritated Kaufmann. Toynbee was definitely of the “tender-minded” temperament, and he tried to place his own religious faith in the best possible light. For my part, I should much rather participate in the orgies of the Finns and Magyars and leave Christianity submerged, but Toynbee had a touching attachment to his Christianity, and I have no doubt that Kaufmann was right when he identified this as the source of Toynbee’s thought and his popularity, especially in America. Amid all the tedious details about internal and external proletariats, people want to be reassured that all is for the best and good will triumph in the end. Well, we need not fall to this level of vulgarity to find something of value in Toynbee’s conception of a submerged civilization.

Toynbee’s fantasy of a submerged Christianity in the underworld of a triumphant Viking civilization is, in fact, the exact opposite of what did happen: a submerged Viking civilization in the underworld of a triumphant Christendom. And I think it is right to say that Viking civilization was submerged and that it didn’t just vanish in a puff of smoke when the leadership of Scandinavian society was converted to Christianity. In fact, Viking civilization moved to Iceland. Iceland remained Viking and pagan for quite some time after the Scandinavian continent was firmly under Christian control.

Even after Iceland, too, was converted to Christianity (a transition that is captured in Njal’s Saga) it continued to be culturally part of the Viking legacy for hundreds of years. It was not until the high middle ages that the Icelandic sagas were set to paper, constituting one of the world’s great literary tradition, and in a sense even expressing the essence of Viking civilization after than civilization had effectively disappeared from history.

In several posts (among them, Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm, Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology, and Axialization and Institutionalization) I have suggested a generalization of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, so that the one-off process that Jaspers identified can be conceived as a more general process of axialization that occurs in different societies in different times. I will not try to give a full exposition of this at present, but I realize now that the idea of an Axial Age can be made both more general and more particular. Among the Axial Age that Jaspers identified, a global transition of world history manifested in many different civilizations, we can identify subdivisions within this Axial Age, as, for example, the axialization of Hindu civilization and the axialization of Buddhist civilization, etc.

This sketch of the concept of axialization can then be applied to submerged civilizations, and what I am here suggesting is that in the case of Viking civilization that it achieved its axialization after it became a submerged civilization, with its axialization taking the form of the literature of the Icelandic sagas. In so far as the essence of a civilization may continue in its submerged form, even after that civilization has disappeared from history in its explicit form, its essential elements may yet be expressed in a posthumous axialization.

One way to express this would be to say that abortive or arrested civilizations attain their fully civilization status only in the event of ex post facto axialization. Or this observation can be employed as the ground of a distinction, and we can distinguish between abortive or arrested civilizations with and without ex post facto axialization.

The Christian occlusion of Viking civilization was permanent, although Viking civilization continued in the shadows for centuries allowing it to come to a furtive axialization. There is also the possibility of the temporary occlusion of a civilization. Civilizations conquered or colonized almost always result in the native civilization going underground and becoming a submerged civilization. An obvious case of this is the civilization of the native peoples of the Americas, which continues to this day, more than five hundred years later, as a submerged civilization. Who is to say whether or not this submerged civilization might not rise again in the fullness of time, although the thorough-going syncretism of Latin Christianity and native elements argues against this.

A perhaps less obvious example might be that of the temporary occlusion of Hindu civilization during Britain’s three hundred year rule of the Indian subcontinent, or any of the other major colonizations of world history, when that colonization eventually came to an end and a post-colonial regime attempted to restore the civilization that preceded conquest and colonization. In the case of Hindu civilization in India, the submergence was relatively brief; it could be argued that there was also a submergence of Hindu civilization under the Muslim Mogul emperors.

Civilizations across Africa, Asia, and the Americas were all submerged to a greater or lesser degree. Some have reemerged into the light of day; some, like the Vikings, have been permanently extirpated, but may yet experience a posthumous axialization. But the widespread fact of submerged civilization points to the importance and usefulness of the concept.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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