Cognitive Dissonance in Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization
28 March 2015
What could explain the particularly brutal symbolic celebrations of mortality salience I described in Agriculture and the Macabre (notwithstanding the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy)? In my previous explorations of this idea I advanced no causal mechanism or explanatory framework for the prominence of the macabre in agrarian civilization, but further thought on this question has suggested a possible explanation, or, rather, a cluster of related explanations that bear upon unique features of agrarian civilization that differentiate it from other modes of human life.
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is differentiated from the hunter-gatherer nomadism that preceded it both in its economic basis and its ideological superstructure, or, as I prefer to name the two, both economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure. For obvious reasons, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) of our hunter-gatherer ancestors differs radically from the settled life of agricultural peoples, and this alone would be sufficient to introduce a biologically-based discomfiture of settled peoples, whose way of life is essentially at odds with their instincts, the latter refined over millions of years, while their farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species. There is, then, an existential mismatch between the economic infrastructure of the EEA and the economic infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
There is also a mismatch between the intellectual superstructure of agrarian peoples and nomadic peoples. Joseph Campbell frequently made the point that the mythologies of hunter-gatherer peoples differs profoundly from that of agricultural peoples. A hunting people needs to reconcile itself with the daily practice of killing, while agricultural peoples often have myths of sacrifice, because the agricultural cycle demonstrates that life comes out of death, so that to make more life, it is necessary to make more death. The cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is a function of the agricultural mythos of sacrifice, which regards the individual as dispensable, and the intrinsic interest the individual has in his own existence. This sacrificial mythology of settled agricultural peoples is the ultimate affront to individualism, and no matter how much justification and rationalization is deployed, this affront would have been felt by every individual within an agricultural economy at some level.
It is often claimed today that individualism is a social construct of Western Civilization that is not present in other cultures, or, at least, not present to the extent that it shapes western thought. Now, it certainly could be argued that the particular conception and understanding of individualism as we know it today is a result of contingent factors arising from industrial-technological civilization that first emerged in Western Europe. One could readily identify points along the seriation of western civilization at which the individual took on a particular importance — Periclean Athens, the value of each individual soul in the Christian tradition, Florence under the Medici, the priesthood of all believers in Protestantism, the American Revolution, and the special place accorded to individual celebrity in today’s winner-take-all society. However, the idea of the individual, and the presence of individualism in the human condition, is not limited to the particular expression given to individualism since the advent of industrial-technological civilization, nor is it specific to western thought.
Individualism has a biological basis. In a famous paper, “What is it like to be bat?” (to which I previously referred in What is it like to be a serpent?), Thomas Nagel wrote that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” We might similarly observe that there is something that it is like to be an individual. The kind of organisms that we are makes our individual bodies a locus of sensation, consciousness, and action. Each individual body is such a locus, sensing on its own, feeling on its own, acting on its own, and conscious of itself as an individual and as a unity. The very idea that there is something that we call the “human condition” is a reflection of the ontological individualism of human being.
One of the features of the human condition that has shaped the human mind most profoundly has been the loneliness of our individual consciousness. The existential loneliness of the self is a function of its emergence from a single brain, which is in turn a function of the kind of individual organisms that evolved on our planet. One might suggest many possible counterfactuals in relation to this isolation of the human condition, but the possibility of alternative forms of consciousness does not alter the individuality of our consciousness. The individuality of human conscious has issued in individualism as a social principle, realized in many different ways across different cultures. Egalitarianism is the social expression of the recognition of the individual as a locus of consciousness and agency. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer bands that dominated the vast bulk of human history before the recent emergence of civilization was in part a reflection of this biologically-driven individualism.
There is another counterfactual that interests me more at present than the counterfactuals of other forms of consciousness. Above I wrote, “farming practices have at no point been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time to decisively shape the evolution of a species,” and this is a statement that requires qualification. “Decisively” is the operative word in this context. Farming has undoubtedly shaped our species, but not yet decisively in the sense of resulting in speciation (keeping in mind that behavioral adaptation often precedes structural adaptation, so that the behavioral adaptation of farming might be expected, over a sufficiently long period of time, to give rise to structural adaptations). This suggests an interesting counterfactual, namely, an intelligent species that invents settled agriculturalism and maintains this way of life at a certain equilibrium (a high level equilibrium trap) for a biologically significant period of time, so that the species in question self-domesticates, and this domestication to settled agrarian life is reflected in changes in the genome — and perhaps also eventually in the phenotype.
Important qualifications need to be made to the above. We know from the fact that the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not hold that evolution is always occurring, even at a small scale that is only incrementally recognizable at in the genotype and phenotype. This is micro-evolution, and only results in cladogenesis over very long periods of time (more or less Darwin’s original gradualist model); macro-evolution resulting in cladogenesis over shorter periods of time probably involves specific selection pressures. The disruption to human life patterns caused by the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism ought to be sufficient for the emergence of a new species, Homo agrariensis — not metaphorically, as we have so often come to speak of a “new breed” of man, but biologically — except that the developments of civilization continue to disrupt human life in new ways, so that no stabilizing selection occurs specifically driven by the agricultural mode of life.
Settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and even as our civilization today continues to ever so gradually replace the ideological infrastructure of agrarian-ecclesiastial civilization — like the planks replaced one-by-one in the ship of Theseus — much remains of the agricultural past (and even the agricultural macabre) in our institutions today. Industrialism is extremely recent in evolutionary terms.
While settled industrial-technological civilization has inherited much of the cognitive dissonance of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and one might assume that civilization simpliciter involves a radical departure from pre-civilized life that must entail compromises with the instinctual life (as was apparently Freud’s position in Civilization and its Discontents), this is not a necessary aspect of civilization. Other kinds of civilization have existed that did not entail the severe instinctual curbs of settled agriculturalism, and other forms of civilization may yet arise that are more in tune with human nature and the human condition.
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