A Civilized Countryside

21 February 2013

Thursday


Tuscan countryside

When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.

In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:

“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography

There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.

Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”

It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.

The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.

A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.

At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.

But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.

I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.

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Thursday


Permutations of Militancy, Hierarchy, and Settlement

militancy hierarchy settlement 2

as Predictors of Post-Civilization Successor Institutions


War is coextensive with civilization. Or, to add an important qualification, war has been coextensive with civilization so far. Another way to express this is to say that warfare is an invariant property of civilization as we know always known it. Where there is civilization, there will be war, and where there is war (except for the Hobbesian war of all against all) there is a civilization making that war possible.

War is not the only invariant property of civilization. I can think of at least two other civilizational invariants, namely hierarchy and settlement. Civilizations as we have known them to date vary according to the particular kind of militancy, the particular kind of social hierarchy, and the particular kind of settlement practised, yet the possession of some kind of militancy, some kind of hierarchy, and some kind of settlement has proved invariant in the history of civilization.

I have addressed this question previously in separate posts that did not make clear the systematic relationship that holds among invariant properties of civilizations. For example, in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I emphasized that war and civilization are locked in a coevolutionary spiral. It could with equal justification be said that civilization and hierarchy are locked in a coevolutionary spiral, or that civilization and settlement are locked in a coevolutionary spiral.

In Invariant Social Structures I observed that the one social structure that remained constant in the transition from agrarian civilization to industrialized civilization was, “a very small political elite in positions of real power and the vast majority of people without any access to power at all.” It could with equal justification be said that war and settlement also remained constant in the transition from agrarian to industrialized civilization.

In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled and in Settled Life, Settled Thought I tried to show how settlement is intrinsic to civilization and is central to the thought of civilized peoples. It could be said with equal justification that militarism and hierarchy have been constitutive of the thought of civilized peoples.

In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled, in distinguishing between settled and transient civilizations, I observed that transient civilizations (such as the Vikings, the Mongols, and the plains Indians) were exceptions to the rule of settled civilization, that there had not yet been an industrialized transient civilization, and that this possibility, i.e., transient industrialism, remains an unfulfilled possibility of human history. A related thought appeared in What comes after civilization? in which I speculated on the possibility of post-civilizational social institutions. I took this thought a step further in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology, in which I wrote the following:

“…the conception of civilization without war is far more radical than the conception of civilization without technological progress. It is, in fact, so radical, and war is, in fact, so inherent to civilization, that the end of war would also mean the end of civilization. Civilization could not survive intact the excision of war. The end of war would mean not the emergence of a civilization without war — war and civilization have been co-extensive — but rather the emergence of some new social institution that would supplant civilization.”

Taking together the civilizational invariants of militarism, hierarchy, and settlement, we arrive at eight possible permutations, one of which is civilization as we know it today, while the others may have some vague historical precedents — the most radically distinct social institution of nomadic egalitarian pacifism bears a striking resemblance to what has been called the Paleolithic Golden Age — but which may also be understood as templates for post-civilizational successor institutions.

war hierarch settlement 1

1. settled hierarchical militarism

2. nomadic hierarchical militarism

3. settled egalitarian militarism

4. nomadic egalitarian militarism

5. settled hierarchical pacifism

6. nomadic hierarchical pacifism

7. settled egalitarian pacifism

8. nomadic egalitarian pacifism

war hierarchy settlement 2

It is an interesting corollary the entanglement of civilizational invariants that, not only is each engaged in coevolution with civilization, but each is also engaged in coevolution with the others, so that there is a coevolutionary spiral of war and settlement, of war and hierarchy, and of hierarchy and settlement.

There has been a scientific revolution in historiography that has unfolded for the last several decades, and, in so far as history studies civilizations, the next step is to think scientifically about civilization. Thinking scientifically about civilization is obviously going to result in difference according to how one conceives science and how one conceives civilization. While my approach to this is rather different than mainstream historiography, I have written about the possibility of The Future Science of Civilizations, and the above investigation in the invariants of civilization may be taken as representative of how I would approach such a science of civilization (as well as of post-civilizational successor institutions).

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