Friday


Review of Part I

In Part I of this series of posts on technological civilization, it was asked, What is technological civilization? And in the attempt to answer this question, a model of civilization was applied to the problem of technological civilization, it was asked whether technology can function as the central project of a civilization, and an inquiry was made into the idea of technology as an end in itself; from these inquiries preliminary conclusions were drawn, and the significance of these preliminary conclusions for the study of civilization were considered.

It was asserted in Part I that a technological civilization in the narrowest sense (a properly technological civilization) is a civilization that takes technology as its central project, and in a civilization that takes technology as its central project, the economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure cannot remain indifferent to technology, so that technology must be assumed to be pervasively present throughout the institutional structure of a properly technological civilization. However, it was also determined that properly technological civilization are probably rare, and that the common usage of “technological civilizations” covers those cases in which technology is absent in the central project, or only marginally represented in the central project, but is pervasive in the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.

In this post, Part II of the series, we will further investigate what it means for technology to be pervasively present throughout the institutional structure of civilization, and how this pervasive presence of technology throughout society distinguishes technological civilizations from civilizations that employ technology but which we do not usually call technological.

Australian firehawks intentionally spread fires by carrying and dropping burning sticks.

The prehistory of technological civilization

Technological civilizations do not appear suddenly and without precedent, but have a deep history that long precedes civilization. Thus we must treat technological civilizations developmentally, and, as we shall see, comparatively; technological development and comparative measures are closely linked.

The prehistory of technological civilization is the history of technology prior to civilization, and the history of technology prior to civilization can be pushed back not only into human prehistory, but into pre-human history, and even the use of technology by other species. Whereas it was once a commonplace and human beings were the only tool-using species, we now know that many other species use tools. Perhaps the most famous example of this are the observations of chimpanzees in the wild stripping leaves from a branch, and then using this bare branch to extract termites from a termite mound, which are then consumed. Primate tool use (as well as primate modification of the environment that they inhabit) is now sufficiently recognized that there is a growing discipline of primate archaeology, which employs the methods of archaeology developed for studying the human past in order to study the material culture of non-human primates.

Other species have even been observed using fire, which is another instance of technology previously assumed to be unique to human beings. Australian Firehawks have been observed in the, “transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks,” intentionally spreading fire for purposes of fire foraging (cf. Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia by Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer). The deep history of technology in the biosphere, then, recognizes that many species have used tools, and have done so for millions of years; the scope of technology is both larger and older than human history. In this context, the human use of technology is a continuous development of earlier tool use, bringing tools to a level of development and sophistication far beyond that of other species.

One of the unique features of human tool use (in so far as our present knowledge extends) is the production of durable tools that are used repeatedly over time, and, in some cases, continuously modified, as when a chipped stone or flint tool is used until it becomes dull, and then the edge is sharpened by additional chipping. Tool use by other species has not involved the production of durable tools used over time. However, if we interpret shelters as tools, then the nest of the weaver bird or the lodge of the beaver are durable constructions used over time and often repeatedly improved. (Shelter can be understood as a form of niche construction, and it would be an interesting inquiry to examine the relationship between niche construction and technology, but we will not explicitly consider this in the present context.)

Another unique feature of human tool use is the use of tools to make other tools. When a flint cutting edge is used to cut strips of bone and tendon that are then layered together to make a compound bow, this is the use of one tool to make another tool. The iteration of this process has led ultimately to the sophisticated tools that we manufacture today, and nothing like this has been seen in other species, even in other hominid species (though future investigations in archaeology may prove otherwise). Human ancestors used durable stone tools for millions of years, often with little or no change in the design and use of these tools, but the use of tools to make other tools seems to be restricted to homo sapiens, and perhaps also to the Neanderthals.

The point of this discussion of prehistoric technology is to emphasize that tools and technology are not only older than civilization, but also older than humanity, although humanity does bring tool development and use to a degree of complexity unparalleled elsewhere in terrestrial history. Given this deep history of tools in the biosphere, the late appearance of civilization in the past ten thousand years emerges in a context in which human technology had already reached a threshold of complexity unequaled prior to human beings. At its origin, civilization already involved durable tools of iterated manufacture. If this is what has been meant when we speak of “technological civilization,” then the very first civilizations were technological from their inception; in other words, technology according to this usage would provide no differentiation among civilizations because all civilizations are technological.

Charles Darwin approached the origin of civilization naturalistically, which was, in his time, the exception rather than the rule.

Darwin’s Thesis on the origin of civilization

Civilization, then, begins in medias res with regard to technology. Technology gets its start at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve, incrementally and with the simplest0 innovations. The emergence of distinctively human technologies represents an inflection point in the development of technology. This inflection point occurs prior to the advent of civilization, but civilization contributes to the acceleration of technological development. With civilization, more time and resources become available for technological development, and, as civilization expands, technology expanded and grew in power and sophistication.

The origins of civilization, like the origins of technology, are similarly simple and incremental. In an earlier post I posited what I called Darwin’s Thesis on the origin of civilization, or, more simply, Darwin’s Thesis, based on this passage from Darwin:

“The arguments recently advanced… in favour of the belief that man came into the world as a civilised being and that all savages have since undergone degradation, seem to me weak in comparison with those advanced on the other side. Many nations, no doubt, have fallen away in civilisation, and some may have lapsed into utter barbarism, though on this latter head I have not met with any evidence… The evidence that all civilised nations are the descendants of barbarians, consists, on the one side, of clear traces of their former low condition in still-existing customs, beliefs, language, &c.; and on the other side, of proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilisation, and have actually thus risen.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter V (I have left Darwin’s spelling in its Anglicized form.)

It may seem pointless to assert something as apparently obvious as Darwin’s thesis, but the state in which the study of civilization finds us (i.e., that it does not yet exist in anything like a scientific form) makes it necessary that we begin with the most rudimentary ideas and state them explicitly so that they can be understood to characterize our theoretical orientation, and can be tested against other similarly rudimentary ideas when we reach the point of being able to perceive that we are assuming these other ideas and that we therefore need to make these other ideas explicit also. Our understanding of civilization — like the origins of technology and civilization themselves — must begin simply and incrementally.

There is a characteristically amusing passage from Bertrand Russell in which Russell mentions beginning with assumptions apparently too obvious to mention:

“My desire and wish is that the things I start with should be so obvious that you wonder why I spend my time stating them. This is what I aim at because the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, 2, “Particulars, Predicates, and Relations”

Elsewhere, and in this case specifically in relation to history, Russell mentioned the rudimentary beginnings of scientific thought:

“…comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history.”

Bertrand Russell, Understanding History, New York: Philosophical Library, 1957, pp. 17-18

Perhaps Russell may have distinguished the scientific from the philosophical understanding of history such that philosophical understanding ends in paradox while scientific understand does not. In any case, whether we take Darwin’s Thesis to be too obvious to state, or to be a small and humble generalization (or both), it is at this level of simplicity that we must begin the scientific study of civilization.

The passage quoted above from Darwin makes reference to “barbarism” and “savagery,” which we today take to be evaluative terms with a strongly condescending connotation, but in Darwin’s time these were technical terms, and, moreover, they were technical terms related to a people’s level of technological development. These terms were very common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and subsequently fell out of use. In falling out of use, we have largely forgotten what these terms meant, and so there has been an prochronic misreading of older texts as though these terms were being used formerly as they are used today.

In my post Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization I discussed the taxonomy of human development developed by Edward Burnett Tylor and expounded by Lewis Henry Morgan, which distinguished between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. For Tylor and Morgan, savagery extends through pre-pottery developments, barbarism from the invention of pottery to metallurgy, and civilization is reserved for societies that have a written language. This taxonomy is broken down in greater detail into eight stages of technological accomplishment — three stages of savagery, three of barbarism, and one of civilization (cf. Chapter I of Morgan’s Ancient Society).

Thus when Darwin wrote that savages have raised themselves by their own efforts a few degrees in the scale of civilization, what he meant was that hunter-gatherer nomads have, over time, developed technologies such as pottery, agriculture, herding, and metallurgy — something that most today would not dispute, even if they would not use the particular language that Darwin employed. Indeed, if Darwin were writing today he would himself employ different terminology, as the Tylor and Morgan terminology has been completely abandoned by the social sciences.

Edward Gibbon focused on the decline and fall of Rome, but he also noted that some technological achievements survived the process of decline he detailed.

Gibbon on the Continuity of Technology

Societies thus, following Darwin’s Thesis, begin in an uncivilized condition and raise themselves up through stages of technological development, and, following Tylor and Morgan, these stages can be quantified by the presence or absence of particular technologies. One might disagree concerning which particular technologies ought to be taken as markers of civilizational achievement, and yet still agree with the principle that technological development over time can be used to differentiate stages of development. One might, for instance, chose different representative technologies — say, the use of the bone needle to sew form-fitting clothing, the production of textiles, etc. It would be another matter to throw out the underlying principle.

Darwin also mentioned the possibility that, “Many nations… have fallen away in civilisation,” which implies that technological accomplishments can be lost. Implicit in this claim is the familiar idea of a cyclical conception of history. One might maintain that societies rise up in technological accomplishment, only to experience a crisis and to be returned to their original state, starting over from scratch in regard to technological development. We find an explicit argument against this in Edward Gibbon.

Gibbon is remembered as the historian of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and given Gibbon’s focus on declension it is especially interesting that Gibbon argued for the retention of technological achievement notwithstanding the collapse of social, political, and legal institutions. At the end of Volume 3 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon wrote a kind of summary, “General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West,” which includes Gibbon’s thoughts on the technological progress of civilization. Gibbon presents a view that is entirely in accord with common sense, but one that is rarely expressed, though Gibbon has expressed this view in a strong form that probably admits of important qualifications:

“The discoveries of ancient and modern navigators, and the domestic history, or tradition, of the most enlightened nations, represent the human savage, naked both in body and mind and destitute of laws, of arts, of ideas, and almost of language. From this abject condition, perhaps the primitive and universal state of man, he has gradually arisen to command the animals, to fertilize the earth, to traverse the ocean and to measure the heavens. His progress in the improvement and exercise of his mental and corporeal faculties has been irregular and various; infinitely slow in the beginning, and increasing by degrees with redoubled velocity: ages of laborious ascent have been followed by a moment of rapid downfall; and the several climates of the globe have felt the vicissitudes of light and darkness. Yet the experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed, that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism. The improvements of society may be viewed under a threefold aspect. 1. The poet or philosopher illustrates his age and country by the efforts of a single mind; but those superior powers of reason or fancy are rare and spontaneous productions; and the genius of Homer, or Cicero, or Newton, would excite less admiration, if they could be created by the will of a prince, or the lessons of a preceptor. 2. The benefits of law and policy, of trade and manufactures, of arts and sciences, are more solid and permanent: and many individuals may be qualified, by education and discipline, to promote, in their respective stations, the interest of the community. But this general order is the effect of skill and labor; and the complex machinery may be decayed by time, or injured by violence. 3. Fortunately for mankind, the more useful, or, at least, more necessary arts, can be performed without superior talents, or national subordination: without the powers of one, or the union of many. Each village, each family, each individual, must always possess both ability and inclination to perpetuate the use of fire and of metals; the propagation and service of domestic animals; the methods of hunting and fishing; the rudiments of navigation; the imperfect cultivation of corn, or other nutritive grain; and the simple practice of the mechanic trades. Private genius and public industry may be extirpated; but these hardy plants survive the tempest, and strike an everlasting root into the most unfavorable soil. The splendid days of Augustus and Trajan were eclipsed by a cloud of ignorance; and the Barbarians subverted the laws and palaces of Rome. But the scythe, the invention or emblem of Saturn, still continued annually to mow the harvests of Italy; and the human feasts of the Læstrigons have never been renewed on the coast of Campania.”

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West,” end of Chapter XXXVIII: Reign Of Clovis. Part VI.

Gibbon himself had detailed the extirpation of private genius and public industry in the case of the decline and fall of Rome, but he had also observed that, “…the more useful, or, at least, more necessary arts,” can survive on a local level which does not (or perhaps need not) experience dissolution even when larger social and political wholes fail and result in the extirpation of private genius and public industry on a larger scale. Gibbon concluded this summary as follows:

“Since the first discovery of the arts, war, commerce, and religious zeal have diffused, among the savages of the Old and New World, these inestimable gifts: they have been successively propagated; they can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion, that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.”

Edward Gibbon, ibid.

In making the distinctions he did, Gibbon provided a relatively nuanced historical account of technological development, such that certain developments like the scythe would continue to be used even while more sophisticated manufactures fell out of production, and eventually out of use. Certainly this is what appears to have occurred with the decline of the industries of classical antiquity.

At some point in the ancient world, industry advanced to the point that it could produce artifacts like the Antikythera mechanism, and then at some point this industrial capacity was lost. One can speculate that the Antikythera mechanism was probably produced in the workshop of some city in which science, technology, and engineering had come together in a critical mass of knowledge and expertise to allow for the construction of such a device, and when Roman cities failed, this critical mass was scattered and the capacity to build devices like the Antikythera mechanism was lost. However, at the same time, the manorial estates and small villages to which urbanites fled when their cities ceased to function were able to keep lower levels of technology functioning. An estate or a village would have a forge at which iron sufficient for agricultural purposes could be produced, even if the ability to manufacture more sophisticated technologies was lost.

This idea of certain technologies being preserved in broadly-based human knowledge, in contradistinction to the technological accomplishments of gifted individuals or public institutions, I will call Gibbon’s Thesis on the Persistence of Technology, or, more simply, Gibbon’s Thesis. If contemporary civilization were to fail catastrophically, Gibbon’s Thesis would suggest to us that the heights of our technological accomplishments would be lost, but that technologies and techniques that could be locally produced and maintained, even without any particularly gifted individual or a larger socioeconomic structure, would persist — perhaps electric lights and basic telephone service, for example.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Technological Horizons

Darwin’s Thesis and Gibbon’s Thesis are theses on the origins and development of technological civilization, but the examples employed by Darwin and Gibbon do not bring us up to the level of technological accomplishment that we usually associate with the term “technological civilization,” though we could clearly associate their examples with nascent technological civilization, or embryonic technological civilization.

Gibbon’s Thesis can be used to define what I will call a horizon of technological development. I have previously discussed the archaeological use of the term “horizon” in Horizons of Spacefaring Civilizations, in which I quoted three definitions of horizon in archaeology, including David W. Anthony’s definition: “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” While I have taken the term “horizon” from its use in archaeology, I have adapted it a bit (or more than a bit) for my own purposes. An artifact type may be an artistic style or a particular technology; in the present context we will only consider technologies and classes of technology that become common and hence widely represented in material culture.

The archaeological usage distinguishes horizon from tradition, and tends to view horizons as being of short duration (and traditions as being of long duration). I will use “horizon” to mean any relatively rapid expansion of some cluster of technologies, which may be the initial appearance of these artifact types, which may (but may not necessarily) remain common from that time forward, until their terminal horizon, if they disappear rapidly. For example, if human civilization were suddenly destroyed by a nuclear war, the technosignature of our EM spectrum radiation into to space would have a sudden terminal horizon when these EM signals ceased at about the same time.

The commonly used and understood technologies that Gibbon’s Thesis posits will survive the absence of gifted individuals and larger socioeconomic institutions are technological horizons of widely available technology that spread rapidly (though rapidity is relative to historical context) and which, if archaeologists were to excavate the appropriate layer, would be commonly represented in the material culture of a given time. When archaeologists dig up classical sites, they find pottery sherds everywhere; they find oil lamps; they find agricultural implements. To date, only one Antikythera mechanism has been found; it is the exception, and not the rule, so it represents a level of accomplishment, but not a horizon.

If a future archaeologist were to dig up the future remains of the present age, in what were industrialized nation-states there would be a horizon of electronic devices — computers, smart phones, DVD players — although outside the wealthy regions of the contemporary world these devices would be much less in evidence. And perhaps, in some technological enclaves, the ability to produce devices like this might continue even when a wider social order had failed. This is doubtful, however, so it may be necessary to reformulate Gibbon’s Thesis a little. Most of us today use technology that we do not understand, and we do not seem to be converging upon a society of engineers and technologists in which most people would understand (and be able to re-create) most of the technology they employ on a daily basis.

With this reflection, we have one possible way to distinguish proper technological civilizations: they are civilizations in which, because technology is the central project of the civilization, knowledge of technology is so widespread and so enthusiastically received that the technological horizon of the society is maintained at such a high level that even a small, local community could produce and maintain the advanced technologies they use on a daily basis.

If the ancient world had attained this kind of technological horizon, archaeologists would find devices like the Antikythera mechanism in every small town, and this kind of technology would have stayed in use and continued in development, rather than being lost of human memory. Our society today also is not at this technological horizon. Our most advanced technologies would be lost in a great social disruption, rather than continuing in use and development.

Those technologies that do persist in use throughout social disruptions also tend to continue in development, though that development may be very gradual. Gibbon cites the example of the scythe; we might also cite the example of the plow. From the first digging sticks employed at the dawn of agriculture to the mechanized plows of today, the plow has been in continual, gradual development for thousands of years. There is scarcely a period of human history in which plow technology did not experience some slight improvement, because it was a widely used technology, easily understood by those who used the technology, and so subject to continual minor improvement.

The Horizon of Industrialization and Technological Civilization

Agricultural civilization coincides with the horizon of agricultural technology. From a human perspective, the thousands of years of agricultural civilization is in no sense rapid or sudden, but from an archaeological, and even more so from a geological or paleontological perspective, the whole of agricultural civilization would represent a very thin layer in the geological record, a layer that in most cases would be lost due to other geological processes, but which is so widely present in the Earth that it could probably be found (especially if one knew what to look for).

Industrialized civilization coincides with the horizon of industrial technologies, and it is from the industrial technologies that our present advanced technologies are derived. Our present advanced technologies give us a hint of the technologies that might be available to a truly advanced civilization — say, a civilization that experienced the equivalent of our industrial revolution and then continued to develop for thousands of years, i.e., the development of industrial technologies on an historical order of magnitude equivalent to that of our experience of agricultural technologies. And this is probably what we intuitively have in mind when we use a term like “technological civilization.”

When industrialized civilization has endured for thousands of years, possibly with several minor disruptions, but not enough of a disruption to prevent the persistence of basic technologies (as per Gibbon’s Thesis), industrialized civilization, like agricultural civilization, will leave only a very thin and easily expungible layer in the Earth’s geological record. But this thin layer will be the industrial horizon, and, from the point of view of a future archaeologist who is digging up the Anthropocene, there won’t be much differentiation between the earliest part of this layer and the latest part of this layer, which latter is several thousand years beyond us yet. In this compactified history of industrial civilization, we are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from an advanced technological civilization.

Looking Ahead to Part III

Part II has been a bit of a detour into the origins and development of technological civilization, a departure from the more theoretical concerns about the institutional structure of technological civilizations introduced in Part I. However, this detour has allowed us to introduce and discuss Darwin’s Thesis, the Tylor-Morgan taxonomy, Gibbon’s Thesis, and the idea of technological horizons, which can then be employed in future installments for the exposition of further theoretical issues in the definition of technological civilization.

In Part III we will introduce more theoretical concepts to complement those of Part I, but which bear upon the development of technological civilization, unlike the theoretical concepts introduced in Part I which could be taken to characterize the structure of a civilization irrespective of its history or development.

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Tuesday


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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Grand Strategy Annex

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