On the Longevity of Submerged Civilizations

27 December 2015


Toynbee imagined a counter-factual in which Christian worship was forced underground in a civilization dominated by Vikings. This illustration of the worship of the Idol of Storjunkar is from Johannes Gerhard Scheffer's Lapponia: The History of Lapland, 1673.

Toynbee imagined a counter-factual in which Christian worship was forced underground in a civilization dominated by Vikings. This illustration of the worship of the Idol of Storjunkar is from Johannes Gerhard Scheffer’s Lapponia: The History of Lapland, 1673.

How long can a civilization be submerged and still be recovered or reconstituted as a viable project? At what point do we pass beyond the possibility of the recovery or reconstitution of a submerged civilization and the attempt at recovery is rather a reconstruction that must inevitably involve the interpolation of novel elements that were no part of the original civilization?

What do I mean by a submerged civilization? When a smaller or less powerful civilization is overwhelmed by a larger or more powerful civilization and the former is entirely assimilated to the latter, one of two things can happen: 1) the assimilated civilization is lost for good, or 2) the assimilated civilization is “submerged,” that is to say, essential elements of the civilization are preserved but are forced underground, perhaps to be cultivated in secrecy and silence, or perhaps to be mostly forgotten until the appropriate opportunity arises, when conditions are right for the submerged civilization to reassert itself.

One might also assimilate civilizational dark ages to the submergence of a civilization, although in the case of dark ages a civilization has been submerged without some other civilization being the cause of this submergence but is, rather, submerged by non-civilization, or by a lower state of development of the submerged civilization itself. An account of submerged civilizations could be given in terms of submergent properties, which are an expression of negative organicism. Under conditions of submergence, those vital properties of a civilization are submerged while its essential properties may remain unchanged.

Toynbee, in the first volume of his A Study of History, gives us a fantastic depiction of counter-factual submerged civilization:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their dominion 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 imagine this new society, as it grew to full stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religion of Scandinavian barbarians and seeking the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which the new society had come to rest. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as our Western society stamped out witchcraft 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 I, I “Introduction,” C “The Comparative Study of Civilizations,” I “A Survey of Societies of the Species,” (b), p. 99

Toynbee’s choice for a submerged civilization is an interesting one, as in Toynbee’s scenario the agent of submergence is the civilization that was in fact submerged by western Christendom, viz. Viking civilization. (Of course, the early Christians did practise their religion in semi-secrecy during the persecutions, but this was a secret practice of a nascent movement building in strength, not a formerly powerful faith forced underground.)

Civilization in the western hemisphere is particularly rich in submerged civilizations because of the nature and the character of the Spanish (and Portuguese) conquest of Spanish America. Large numbers of native peoples were subjugated by a relatively small number of Spaniards, which meant that the practical details of administering the new Spanish empire in the Americas had to be delegated to native representatives. Moreover, the Spanish routinely took wives and concubines from the native populations and thus rapidly created a Mestizo population that inherited the culture both of their mothers and their fathers. In this cultural mix a civilization submerged by conquest might be readily kept alive just below the surface of daily life.

Implicit in the idea of a submerged civilization is the possibility of its re-emergence, when the submerged tradition is recovered and returned to the world as a living tradition. A paradigm case of a submerged civilization would involve its re-emergence from a continuous but hidden tradition, so that it is understood that the submerged civilization had gone into hiding during times of adverse conditions, but was sufficiently robust to return to the light of day when those conditions changed.

Implicit in the idea of a civilization re-emergent is the original question above, with which I began: how long can a civilization be submerged and still retain the essential identity of its traditions so that its recovery is not an ex post facto artificial reconstitution? This question in turn implies the question of how a distinction is to be made between the recovery of a civilization and the reconstitution of a civilization. There are several ways this distinction might be made, presumably contingent upon some continuous living tradition essential to that civilization, whether the language, come cultural practice, or the maintenance of some essential idea. Ideally, we ought to adduce examples of both recovered and reconstituted civilization for purposes of comparison.

Does terrestrial history provide a single example of the unambiguous recovery of civilization? Probably not. There are possible instances that might be cited, but all are ambiguous or problematic. It is arguable that Indian civilization was submerged during the colonial period, and reemerged following decolonization. Similar claims could be made for most of the colonized regions of the world. The Soviet Union during its expansionary phase imposed Soviet Civilization throughout geographically contiguous lands, submerging the endemic civilizations of these regions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these peoples rapidly threw off the remnants of Soviet Civilization and returned to their traditions as though the Soviet period had been a bad dream.

This suggests a general rule: wherever there is a failed civilization, there is the possibility of a predecessor civilization or civilizations being reasserted. This general rule suggests further possibilities. For example, a Suboptimal Civilizations would be an obvious candidate where a strong but submerged civilization might break through again to the surface (cf. also Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations). Another example would be nascent civilizations not yet fully asserting their authority over subject populations, or a decrepit civilization near the end of its powers. The failure of the pagan civilization of classical antiquity, in the face of an emergent Christian tradition coming into the fullness of its powers, may be taken as an example of the latter.

Rather than “pure” forms of submergence and re-emergence, mostly what we have seen is descent with modification, and that modification has always been sufficient to constitute a new species of civilization, rather than a recovery or reconstitution of the old civilization. But if a new civilization has some continuity with a predecessor civilization, and carries this tradition forward under changed conditions, this may be the only circumstance in which a civilizational tradition experiences continuity.

Perhaps the closest we have to a concrete example of the long-term submergence of a civilization which was eventually re-asserted is that of Mayan civilization. When the Spanish arrived in the New World the Mayan civilization was already effectively over, with only a few remaining pockets still active, while the greatest Mayan centers had already been abandoned and reclaimed by the tropical rainforest of Mesoamerica — the common fate of Civilizations of the Tropical Rainforest Biome when they fail. Nevertheless, due in part to conditions cited above, Mayan culture and language remained strong among the Mayan people. In Mesoamerica, the majority population to this day remains predominantly native, which increases the likelihood of the survival of a submerged civilization. The (partial) reconstitution of Mayan civilization is happening in our own time, as the record of the Mayan civilization has been painstakingly reassembled by the methods of scientific archaeology, and subsequently re-introduced to the peoples who have retained in living memory the language and the culture. In the documentary Breaking the Maya Code, a fascinating account of deciphering the Mayan written language, there is a remarkable coda in which Mayan peoples are reintroduced to their history, read off from deciphered monuments. The Mayan peoples of Mesoamerica, with their language intact and their history rediscovered, are in a position to take their reconstituted tradition into the future and to give the Mayan civilization a second chance.

The problem of recovered and reconstituted civilizations after a submergence event may be assimilated to the more general problem of the effacement of history that I began to address in History Effaced. Most historical effacement leaves an unrecognized absence that is passed over in silence; the Stalinist re-writing of history, in which individuals who had fallen out of favor were literally painted out of official pictures, aimed at this kind of historical effacement as an ideal. In order for us to understand that an effacement of history has taken place, we must be aware of the ellipsis, and this awareness is the first step toward recovery or reconstitution.

The problem of historical effacement is more general than the above problem of civilizational submergence, because effacement occurs throughout historically sedimented knowledge and is not confined to civilization. Nevertheless, these reflections on the submergence of civilization may have some relevance for the recovery and reconstitution of effaced history of all kinds. And vice versa. As the historical sciences explicitly seek a reconstruction of the lost past, so too a science of civilization might explicitly seek a reconstruction of lost civilizations, which suggests the possibility of giving a systematic account of the relations between recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction. But that will be an inquiry for another time.

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Worship of an idol of Thor.

Worship of an idol of Thor.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “On the Longevity of Submerged Civilizations”

  1. xcalibur said

    Really interesting stuff, I remember reading that particular passage.

    I’m not sure if it’s related, but I’ve noticed a pattern in the “modernization” or “westernization” of many parts of the world. These terms suggest a thorough change in the composition of society, but that’s not what happens. Instead, there’s a shallow change in which a society borrows certain technologies, and puts on a thin veneer of current western culture – but underneath, the basic social structure and forces are still profoundly different. This is apparent to me in the Middle East and Far East, and there are probably other examples.

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