Sunday


David Hume

Today I had a new comment on a blog post that I wrote ten years ago. The comment was from Luke Thompson, and the blog post in question was Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I had to re-read my ten-year-old blog post to remind myself of what I had written, and of course I don’t recall in detail what I had in mind ten years ago.

In my ten-year-old post I discussed how the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution (what I would subsequently come to call the Three Revolutions, of which these constitute two) have changed the pattern of previous civilization, which seems to have more-or-less exemplified an organic model of civilization, such that civilizations behave like biological individuals and pass through predictable life cycles from birth to growth to maturity to decline to death. I argued that the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution had disrupted this pattern and thus suggest that the organic model of civilization is inadequate to describe civilization as we know it today. These revolutionary forces are “counter-cyclical” to the predictable cycle of the organic model of civilization.

Mr. Thompson asked what exactly I had meant in that blog post where I had written, “…this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.” In my response I offered a number forces present in the modern world that apparently work counter-cyclically to the predictable forces of decay and disintegration that begin to break down a civilization when it has run its course and started on its decline.

In my recent post David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire I described the “dark underbelly of the Enlightenment,” that is to say, the aspects of the Enlightenment that we are less apt to discuss, like Hume’s eagerness to burn the books of “school metaphysics” (by which he meant Scholasticism). Reflecting on this in the light of reading my old post about the organic model of civilization and counter-cyclical forces working against cyclical decline, I see now that I could have (had I remembered) characterized the Enlightenment era interest in book burning and clearing away of the relics of the past as a predictable force in history. When a new kind of civilization appears in the world — in this case, Enlightenment civilization — it is on the rise as the traditional form of civilization is on the decline. Thus Enlightenment civilization, as it emerges, engages those familiar forces of the organic model of civilization, hastening the decline of its predecessor so that it can more rapidly take its place in history.

The high-water mark of communism in the twentieth century similarly sought to eliminate the traces of traditionalist civilization in Russia and China, and in the domains controlled by these superpowers during their communist phases, so that that communist millennium could all the more rapidly take its place as a new communist civilization. During the twentieth century, when communism was the revolutionary ideology par excellence, the transition to a communist social order was seen (and was theorized by Marx to be) the inevitable outcome of historical progress, and all the devices of historiography and philosophy were mobilized to make it seem so. One of the examples I like to cite in this connection is the idea of a new “Soviet Man,” Homo sovieticus, that would mark a new stage in the development of humanity, and not merely a new stage in the development of history.

As catastrophic as the Enlightenment willingness to preside over the destruction of the medieval past, Soviet purges, and the Cultural Revolution were each to the past of the relevant society, these disruptions of the historical record must be considered little disruptions in history, because the intent of those engaged in these historical projects was to continue civilization, but to continue in a radically new direction. This meant that some of the ground had to be cleared in order to make way for the new civilization, but it did not necessarily demand that the entirety of the past be erased.

Radical disruptions in history sometimes do call for the complete effacement of the past and as the necessary step toward clearing the ground for a new civilization that will rise de novo from the ashes of the former civilization. The early Christians and some Muslims today often have this attitude to the past. Some revolutionary groups have this attitude to the past. The most radical communist groups, like the Khmer Rouge, who emptied out cities and sought to force the population into utopian rural agrarianism, had this attitude to the past.

This distinction between limited effacement (like Hume’s book burning) and radical effacement of the past (as in the collapse of Roman civilization) may be useful in theorizing the scope of historical disruption, and it could be employed to further articulate the organic model of civilization in relation to non-organic conceptions of civilization.

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Tuesday


What can possibly be said about the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris? Notre-Dame de Paris was a symbol of civilization, and now that symbol has been partially destroyed by fire. For anyone who cares about our heritage, it is heartbreaking, and words cannot express the horror of seeing an icon in flames. Of course, it will be rebuilt, and since the building was in restoration at the time of the fire, the building is extensively documented and some of its fixtures were stored away from the site. Still, the damage cannot be understated, and, when it is rebuilt, we will visit a rebuilt Notre-Dame de Paris, rather than the Gothic building that was mostly intact from the Middle Ages.

As with any ancient building, Notre-Dame de Paris had been extensively damaged in the past, although its basic structure was virtually intact since it was built. Statues were damaged during the Protestant Reformation and again during the French Revolution, and most of its interior furnishings were looted or destroyed during the revolution. It is the rare structure that passes through hundreds of years of history without extensive damage, and rarer still the building that survives with its furnishings and fixtures intact. The only intact building of classical antiquity (of which I am aware) that has survived into modern times is the Pantheon. The interior of the Pantheon seems to be intact, but its furnishings from antiquity are long gone. The only way that we know about the furnishing and fixtures of ancient buildings is what we know from written records, pictorial records (paintings, drawings, mosaics, etc.), and what has been discovered by archaeology, as when the structures of Pompeii were rapidly abandoned and then filled with volcanic ash.

Classical antiquity is removed from us by a couple of thousand years of history; Notre-Dame de Paris is removed from us by less than a thousand years. We are fortunate that we have many intact buildings from the Middle Ages, and even some with the furnishings intact and preserved in situ in their original context. This is remarkable, and it a treasure to be safeguarded, and that is precisely why the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris is such a disaster. We have only a few authentic survivals from the period, so each one of them is unique. Once destroyed, the knowledge that they represent is lost forever.

Hegel famously called history of slaughter-bench. One could also call history a conflagration. Joseph Campbell called life an ever-burning flame of sacrifice. It seems to be pretty plain what Hegel or Campbell meant, but I see now there are a couple ways to construe this. And part of the reason I have arrived at this reflection is my previous post, David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire. Whether we take history to be a slaughter-bench or a conflagration, slaughter or fire bring our efforts to naught, so that history is this process of effacement, but the more that history does its “work,” the less of history that there is remaining.

This paradoxical formulation is the result of using “history” in two distinct senses. “History,” as we all know and have heard, can mean either the actual events of the past, or the record and scholarship of the events of the past. The more events fill history, the more of the record of the past is effaced, and the more the record of the past is effaced, the less than we know about all the aforementioned events that populate history. The Notre-Dame de Paris Fire (about which there is already a Wikipedia entry) is a new historical event that occurred at the cost of the actual physical materials consumed in the blaze. This is clear illustration of the processes of effacement: the processes of history consume prior history.

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Sunday


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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