18 June 2013
Ten Thousand Years of Civilization
From the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution
I have adopted the term “industrial-technological civilization” to refer to the civilization that we now have, and I have argued that this civilization can be defined in terms of a unique thesis, the industrial-technological thesis, as well as its implied contrary, industrial-technological disruption, which disruption ensues when the mechanisms of industrial-technological civilization go awry.
Industrial-technological civilization was preceded by agricultural civilization. Like industrial-technological civilization, agricultural civilization is multifaceted and represents a robust macro-historical division between hunter-gather nomadism, which precedes it, and industrial-technological civilization, which follows it. Agricultural Civilization is the “middle ages” of macro-historical periodization, coming between the long epoch of hunter-gatherer nomadism (from the emergence of homo sapiens to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution) and the youthful energy of industrial-technological civilization (from the industrial revolution to the present day).
I have earlier attempted to characterize the nature of agricultural civilization in many posts, including the following:
Recently I have realized that as our civilization can be characterized as “industrial-technological” to bring out the main features of the age, we might similarly identify the agricultural civilization that preceded our civilization as “agrarian-ecclesiastical” civilization. This hyphenated form brings out the main features of the age: both the agriculturalism of the economic structure and the ecclesiastical form of society that maintained the agricultural economy in trans-generational equilibrium (that is to say, the ideological superstructure).
The distinctive differentia of agrarian civilization is institutionalized religion, just as the distinctive differentia of industrial civilization is technological change driven by science. This does not mean that technology is the religion of the industrial age, or that religion was the surrogate “technology” of agricultural civilization. What it means is that fundamentally distinct forms of civilization are based on fundamentally distinct ideas. This is an idea that I attempted to explore some time ago in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations.
Institutionalized religion — from the worship of a living god in early agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization (as in Egyptian and Mayan civilization, for example) to the elaborately structured monotheistic religions of the late medieval and early modern period — is uniquely suited to the social demands of a risk-averse agrarian economy that was entirely innocent of growth and progress, but was exclusively concerned with stability and continuity. This focus on stability and continuity — eternal verities of society mirroring the eternal verities of the spiritual realities posited by institutionalized religion — meant an economy structured to provide sufficiency for a traditional way of life, but not sufficient for economic growth or social mobility. What was wanted was not incremental improvement in the way of life, but eternal perfection — heaven on earth.
Agrarian-Ecclesiastical civilization is predicated upon trans-generational equilibrium no less than industrial-technological civilization is predicated upon trans-generalization disequilibrium. To this end, social and economic structures embodied counter-market mechanisms — economic checks and balances that maintained the economic status quo to the greatest extent possible. Social change was also systematically hamstrung. Given this commitment of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to stability, continuity, and permanence, the catastrophic failure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is to allow a revolution to take place — any revolution, whether commercial, scientific, social, or economic. Peasant rebellions have occurred with some regularity in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations, but these rebellions have a ritualistic character that distinguishes from them the revolutions of industrial-technological civilization.
When the overall structure of the economy, despite its mechanism to slow and stifle unwelcome developments nevertheless resulted in change, there were uprisings from below, popular revolts that sought to slow and stifle these unwelcome developments. Almost all peasant rebellions in the European middle ages were conservative rebellions, in which the motivation was to restore the status quo ante. Marxist historians of the recent decades have reviewed the record of repeated peasant revolts in the middle ages — and there were many, most prominent among them being Wat Tyler’s Rebellion of 1381 and the Great Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 — and drawn conclusions about a nascent stirring of class consciousness among the agricultural proletariat, but these peasant rebellions never questioned the structure of authority. Indeed, peasant rebellions often appealed to the political trope of “good king, bad advisers,” and believed that if they could only get to the king to make their grievances known, that all would be put right.
In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we find capitalism without a free market — carefully channeled within traditional guild structures that limited entry into the professions, limited competition, and maintained the professions and the trades as traditional modes of life no less than the traditional lifeways of peasants and nobility. The legal infrastructure of capitalism without markets, guilds and monopolies, constrain and restrict trade exclusively within ideologically-approved channels. We can compare this systematic limitative structuring of the economy with Erwin Panofsky’s famous thesis in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. In this famous study, Panofsky argued that the medieval mind expected to see its ideas explicitly manifested, as we see in the argumentative structure of scholastic philosophy and the physical structure of gothic architecture, with its ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. Panofsky’s thesis could be extended to the legal institutions of the economy which made social position similarly explicit through mechanisms such as sumptuary laws. The elaborate legal codes that enforced the commercial structures of guilds and monopolies can also be seen as exemplifying this thesis.
Later in the development of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, mercantilism was essentially finitistic capitalism, and as such represents the survival of the finitistic assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization into nascent modernism — though modernism not yet far enough advanced to have crossed the threshold of industrialization and therefore falling short of the macro-historical revolution that defines the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
In an economic environment in which there is no steady expansion (and therefore no inflation built into market mechanisms) in the currency, in which currency (in so far as it was used, i.e., rarely) was tied to some commodity (gold or silver or real estate), and in which no systematic expansion of industry or exploitation of resources occurred, the finitistic, steady-state, zero sum assumptions of mercantilism were true, even if they are no longer true today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization.
Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations built on the presumption of non-development aimed not at progress but at perfection. Perfection is a finite good, a finite ideal; once realized, nothing remains to be done. Thus perfection as a social goal embodies something like Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory. Contemporary civilization, at least since the industrial revolution — i.e., industrial-technological civilization — has often been criticized for its faith in progress, but this is not quite the naïve belief that we have made it out to be. The cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization — science developing new technologies that are engineered into industries that provide improved instruments for the further development of science — is intrinsically infinitistic; as such, it is the negation of finitistic political theory. Progress, in contradistinction to perfection, is an infinitistic ideal; there is always the possibility of further progress.
Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory was an expression of the finitistic, backward-looking assumptions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. In agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, transcendence is an exteriority, lying outside time; in industrial-technological civilization, transcendence is immanent, and nothing outside time exists. Perfection as a virtue and as an ideal no longer applies to expanding societies engaged in the continual process of self-transcendence. In infinitistic contexts, progress replaces perfection, although progress itself is as problematic an ideal as perfection.
Each macro-historical division of civilization — of which agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is one — embodies distinctive assumptions, has risks and opportunities peculiar to its socio-economic structure, and struggles with distinction problems, none of which may be found in other macro-historical divisions. Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, for example, was entirely free of large-scale industrial accidents, which are intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization, but was subject to permanent risk of famine, given the intensively local nature of the economy, in which economic units were isolated and people would starve if local crops failed.
Another example: in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization one of the most central social and political issues is the control of the institutionalized church within the boundaries of political control. In industrial-technological civilization, this imperative of ecclesiastical control virtually disappears. The most successful economy of industrial-technological civilization, that of the United States, is predicated upon separation of church and state, to the point that there is complete laissez-faire in matters of religion, which we have discovered is conducive to the smooth and seamless functioning of a market economy. But, as we have seen above, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations tolerated only capitalism without markets, or highly restricted markets within traditional and legal parameters, so that for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization the problem of how to contribute to the smooth and seamless growth of a market economy was a problem that literally did not even exist.
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31 January 2012
A revaluation of agricultural civilization
In several posts I have made a tripartite distinction in human history between hunter-gatherer nomadism, agriculturalism, and industrialism. There is a sense, then, from the perspective of la longue duree, that the macro-historical division of agriculturalism constitutes the “middle ages” of human social development. Prior to agriculturalism, nothing like this settled way of life even existed; now, later, from the perspective of industrialized civilization, agriculture is an enormous industry that can feed seven billion people, but it is a demographically marginal activity that occupies only a small fragment of our species. During those “middle ages” of agriculturalism (comprising maybe fifteen thousand years of human society) the vast bulk of our species was engaged in agricultural production. The very small class of elites oversaw agricultural production and its distribution, and the small class of the career military class or the career priestly class facilitated the work of elites in overseeing agricultural production. This civilizational focus is perhaps unparalleled by any other macro-historical epoch of human social development (and I have elsewhere implicitly referred to this focus in Pure Agriculturalism).
The advent of agricultural civilization was simultaneously the advent of settled civilization, and the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism left the institution of settled civilization in place. Other continuities are also still in place, and many of these continuities from agriculturalism to industrialism are simply the result of the youth of industrial civilization. When industrial civilization is ten thousand years old — should it survive so long, which is not at all certain — I suspect that it will preserve far fewer traces of its agricultural past. For the present, however, we live in a milieu of agricultural institutions held over from the long macro-historical division of agriculturalism and emergent institutions of a still-inchoate industrialism.
The institutions of agricultural civilization are uniquely macabre, and it is worthwhile to inquiry as to how an entire class of civilizations (all the civilizations that belong within the macro-historical division of settled agriculturalism) could come to embody a particular (and, indeed, a peculiar) moral-aesthetic tenor. What do I mean by “macabre”? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “macabre” as follows:
1: having death as a subject: comprising or including a personalized representation of death
2: dwelling on the gruesome
3: tending to produce horror in a beholder
All of the above characterize settled agricultural civilization, which has death as its subject, dwells upon the gruesome, and as a consequence tends to produce horror in the beholder.
The thousand years of medieval European society, which approximated pure agriculturalism perhaps more closely than many other agricultural civilizations (and which we might call a little bit of civilization in its pure form), stands as a monument to the macabre, especially after the experience of the Black Death (bubonic plague), which gave the culture of Europe a decidedly death-obsessed aspect still to be seen in graphically explicit painting and sculpture. But medieval Europe is not unique in this respect; all settled agricultural civilization, to a greater or a lesser extent, has a macabre element at its core. The Agricultural Apocalypse that I wrote about in my previous post constitutes a concrete expression of the horrors that agricultural civilization has inflicted upon itself. What makes agricultural civilization so horrific? What is the source of the macabre Weltanschauung of agriculturalism?
Both the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the lives of settled agriculturalists are bound up with a daily experience of death: human beings must kill in order to live, and other living beings must die so that human beings can live. Occasionally a human being dies so that another species may live, and while this still happens in our own time when someone is eaten by a bear or a mountain lion, it happens much less often that the alternative, which explains why there are seven billion human beings on the planet while no other vertebrate predator comes close to these numbers. The only vertebrate species that flourish are those that we allow to flourish (there are, for example, about sixteen billion chickens in the world), with the exception of a few successful parasitic species such as rats and seagulls. (Even then, there are about five billion rats on the planet, and each rat weighs only a faction of the mass of a human being, so that total human biomass is disproportionately great.)
Although nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists both confront pervasive experiences of death, the experience of death is different in each case, and this difference in the experience and indeed in the practice of death informs everything about human life that is bound up in this relationship to death. John Stuart Mill wrote in his The Utility of Religion:
“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate?”
While Mill wrote that human existence is girt round with mystery, he might well have said that human existence is girt round with death, and in many religious traditions death and mystery or synonymous. The response to the death that surrounds human existence, and the kind of death that surrounds human existence, shapes the mythological traditions of the people so girt round.
Joseph Campbell explicitly recognized the striking difference in mythologies between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agricultural peoples. This is a theme to which Campbell returns time and again in his books and lectures. The mythologies of hunting peoples, Campbell maintained, revolved around placating the spirits of killed prey, while the mythologies of agricultural peoples resolved around sacrifice, according to the formula that, since life grows out of death, in order to create more life, one must create more death. Hence sacrifice. Campbell clearly explains a link between the mythologies peculiar to macro-historically distinct peoples, but why should peoples respond so strongly (and so differently) to distinct experiences of death? And, perhaps as importantly, why should peoples respond mythologically to death? To answer this question demands a more fundamental perspective upon human life in its embeddedness in socio-cultural milieux, and we can find such a perspective in a psychoanalytic interpretation of history derived from Freud.
It is abundantly obvious, in observing the struggle for life, that organisms are possessed of a powerful instinct to preserve the life of the individual at all costs and to reproduce that life (sometimes called eros or libido), but Freud theorized that, in addition to the survival instinct that there is also a “death drive” (sometimes called thanatos). Here is Freud’s account of the death drive:
“At one time or another, by some operation of force which still completely baffles conjecture, the properties of life were awakened in lifeless matter. Perhaps the process was a prototype resembling that other one which later in a certain stratum of living matter gave rise to consciousness. The tension then aroused in the previously inanimate matter strove to attain an equilibrium; the first instinct was present, that to return to lifelessness. The living substance at that time had death within easy reach; there was probably only a short course of life to run, the direction of which was determined by the chemical structure of the young organism. So through a long period of time the living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways to death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts, would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we now know it. If the exclusively conservative nature of the instincts is accepted as true, it is impossible to arrive at any other suppositions with regard to the origin and goal of life.”
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, authorized translation from the second German edition by C. J. M. Hubback, London and Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922, pp. 47-48
The death drive, or thanatos, does not appear to be as urgent as the drive to live and to reproduce, but according to Freud it is equally implicated in society and culture. Moreover, given the emergence of war from the same settled agricultural societies that practiced a mythology of sacrifice (according to Campbell), there has been a further “production” of death by the social organization made possible by settled societies. It is to be expected that the production of death by sacrifice in order to ensure a good harvest would become entangled with the production of death in order to ensure the continuity of the community, and indeed in societies in which war became highly ritualized (e.g., Aztec civilization and Japanese civilization) there is a strong element of sacrifice in combat.
Freud’s explanation of the death drive may strike the reader as a bit odd and perhaps unlikely, but the mechanism that Freud is proposing is not all that different from Sartre’s contention that being-for-itself seeks to become being-in-itself (to put it simply, everyone wants to be God): life — finite life, human life — is problematic, unstable, uncertain, subject to calamity, and pregnant with every kind of danger. Why would such a contingent, finite being not desire to possess the quiescence and security of being-in-itself, to be free of all contingencies, which Shakespeare called all the ills that flesh is heir to? The mythologies that Campbell describes as being intrinsic to nomadic and settled peoples are mechanisms that attempt to restore the equilibrium to the world that has been disturbed by human activity.
Agricultural civilization is the institutionalization of the death drive. The mythology of sacrifice institutionalizes death as the norm and even the ideal of agricultural civilizations. As such, settled agricultural civilization is (has been) a pathological permutation of human society that has resulted in the social equivalent of neurotic misery. That is to say, agricultural civilization is a civilization of neurotic misery, but all civilization need not be neurotically miserable. The Industrial Revolution has accomplished part of the world of overcoming the institutions of settled agriculturalism, but we still retain much of its legacy. To make the complete transition from the neurotic misery of settled agricultural civilization to ordinary civilizational unhappiness will require an additional effort above and beyond industrialization.
Despite the explicit recognition of a Paleolithic Golden Age prior to settled agriculturalism, there is a strong bias in contemporary civilization against nomadism and in favor of settled civilization. Both Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (both of which I have cited with approval in many posts) make broad evaluative judgments to the detriment of nomadic societies — an entirely superfluous judgment, as though the representatives of settled civilization felt that they needed to defend an existential orientation of their civilization by condemning the way of life of uncivilized peoples, who are called savages and barbarians. The contempt that has been shown for the world’s surviving nomadic peoples — the Sami, the Gypsies, and others — as well as programs of forced sedentarization — e.g., among the Kyrgyz — show the high level of emotional feeling that still attaches to the difference between fundamentally distinct forms of life, even when one pattern of life has become disproporationately successful and no longer needs to defend itself against the depredations of the other.
Given this low esteem in which existential alternatives are held, it is important to see settled agricultural civilization, as well as its direct descendent, settled industrial civilization, in their true colors and true dimensions, and to explicitly recognize the pathological and explicitly macabre elements of the civilization that we have called our own in order to see it for what it is and therefore to see its overcoming as an historical achievement for the good the species.
We are not yet free of the institutions of settled agricultural civilization, which means that we are not yet free of a Weltanschauung constructed around macabre rituals focused on death. And despite the far-reaching changes to life that have come with the Industrial Revolution, there is no certainly that the developments that separate us from the settled agricultural macabre will continue. I wrote above that, given the consolidation of industrial civilization, we will probably have institutions far less agricultural in character, but it remains possible that the industrialism may falter, may collapse, or may even, after consolidating itself as a macro-historical division, give way to a future macro-historical division in which the old ways of agriculturalism will be reasserted.
I count among the alternatives of future macro-historical developments the possibility of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism. In any civilization largely constituted by either the historical processes of pastoralization of neo-agriculturalism, agriculture would once again play a central and perhaps a dominant role in the life of the people. In a future macro-historical division in which agriculture was once again the dominant feature of human experience, I would expect that the macabre character of agricultural civilization would once against reassert itself in a new mythology eventually consolidated in the axialization of a future historical paradigm centered on agriculture.
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4 April 2010
Theses on the Occasion of Easter Sunday
A Theoretical Account of Ritualized Celebration
1. Distinctions must be made among myth, ritual, and celebration.
1.1 Myth, ritual, and celebration, though distinct, are logically related.
1.11 A celebration is an occasion for a ritual,
A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth,
Therefore a celebration is an occasion in which to participate in a myth.
Q. E. D.
1.2 Rituals of burial are older than agricultural rituals of life-death-rebirth, even extending to other species (Neanderthals, now extinct), and may well be the origin of life-death-rebirth rituals.
2. Among the most ancient of continually observed celebrations is that of the life-death-resurrection of the Year-God, eniautos daimon.
2.1 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, is at least as old as settled, agrarian society.
2.11 Agriculture and the written word together produced settled, historical civilization.
2.12 Settled historical civilization has defined the norm of human history from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution.
2.2 Settled agrarian society coincides with the origins of civilization.
2.21 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, coincides with the origins of civilization.
3. Once the breakthrough to history has been made by way of the written word, it is the nature of historical civilization to commemorate nodal points of the year, whether with solemnities, festivities, or both.
3.1 Historical civilization is predicated upon the presumed value of the history that brings that civilization into being.
3.2 Nodal points of the year celebrated in historical civilizations are observed as validation of their historicity through the performance of rituals.
3.21 In a temperate climate, summer and winter solstices and spring and fall equinoxes are nodal points of the year.
4. The mythology of a settled, agricultural civilization emerges from the same regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.
4.1 The calendrics of celebration emerges from the regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.
4.11 The mythology and calendar of celebrations of settled, agricultural civilizations come from the same source.
4.2 Celebrations are the points of contact between the two parallel orders of mythological events and the actual historical calendar.
4.21 A civilization validates its mythology by establishing a correspondence between mythological events and historical events.
4.3 Enacting a myth in historical time, by way of a ritual, makes that myth literal truth by giving to it a concrete embodiment.
5. Easter is one species of the genus of life-death-rebirth celebrations.
5.1 The particular features of the Easter celebration are the result of the adaptive radiation of the dialectic of sacrifice and resurrection.
6. Easter is that species of life-death-rebirth celebration specific to Christendom.
6.1 Christendom was primarily a construction of the Middle Ages.
6.11 Christendom was the legacy of Medieval Europe that disappeared with the passing of medieval civilization but which, like the Roman Empire before it, is with us still and remains a touchstone of the Western tradition.
6.12 Christendom was an empire of the spirit and of the cross as Rome was an empire of the will and of the sword.
6.13 To have once been Roman, and then to have been Christian, and finally to have become modern, is the condition of Western man.
6.2 Easter is a celebration specific to civilization, the civilized celebration par excellence.
7. The naturalistic civilization that is emerging from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution represents the first significant change in the social structure of human society since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.
7.1 With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have ceased to be an agrarian society.
7.2 For the first time in history, life-death-rebirth celebrations face interpretation by a non-agrarian society.
7.21 Not only should we not hesitate to find new meanings in ancient celebrations, of which Easter represents the latest adaptive radiation, but rather we should actively and consciously seek meanings relevant to the present in such celebrations.
8. As the painters of the renaissance drew upon the traditions of pagan antiquity already at that time a thousand years out of date, so too the post-Christian Western civilization will draw upon the traditions of Christendom for hundreds if not thousands of years to come.
8.1 The period of time that we have come to call the modern era — roughly the past five hundred years — has not been the modern era proper but rather has been the period of the formation of modernity.
8.2 Modernity simpliciter has but begun.
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