Title card to the opening of Episode 1 of the BBC series, Civilisation (1969). Image Source: BBC via Wiki.
Over the past generation, the word, 'civilization,' especially as it relates to 'Western Civilization,' (in capital letters) has become a contested subject. A politicized view in academic circles inverted the concept once taken for granted in the 1950s and 1960s. Scholars have challenged the idea of civilization as a source of racism, blind arrogance and violent imperial domination of other societies. Sometimes the critique looks at the Christian religion as a source of benighted oppression. Sometimes the fatal flaws of 'civilization' are colonialism, discrimination and power imbalances around race, class or gender. This post describes that Western/post-Western debate. It also considers how that debate has distracted from, and obscured, the evolution of new institutions and social conditions which constitute an emerging new establishment.
A good example of the debate around 'civilization' is found in chatter around the retirement at the end of May 2013 of 81-year-old Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale. He is noted for his support of Western Civ courses over the past 40+ years. At Yale, he raised $20 million in the early 1990s to fund a Western Civ course and defended the canon curriculum so stubbornly that he faced resistance within the university. The funding was lost due to controversy.
A renowned political and military historical scholar, Kagan's four-volume account of the Peloponnesian War, published by Cornell University Press from 1969 to 1991, was described by George Steiner as "the foremost work of history produced in North America in this century." All four volumes were distilled by Kagan into a single 2004 book intended for a broader readership.
Yet the Peloponnesian War could be seen as one of the first fault lines in Western Civilization, when ancient Athens was brought to her knees by Sparta in the fifth century BCE. The defeat of Athens marked the end of Greece's golden age. One could say that each of these competing ethe ['ethoses'] became an archetype. In one way or another, we have seen Athens and Sparta in conflict in the west, ever since.
Kagan claims that the culture wars in the 1990s, especially in the academy, were "totally lost!" In his farewell April 2013 lecture, he remarked: "'I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness.' He called the study of history not only essential to the humanities but also paramount in them, for its attention to 'high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books, and ideas.'" He believes that this cultural void derives from the student protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s:
Critics were quick to respond favourably to Kagan's retirement as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education - they see him as the source of western decline (while he sees them as the source of decline):For him, campus opposition to the Vietnam War derived not from principle but from guilt at leaving the fight to draftees, who lacked college deferments: "And how do you square that circle? You have to say that it's not cowardly or indecent to avoid taking on the risks that everybody else is taking; in fact, it's noble."
However, another commenter on the Chronicle article remarked:"Let's not forget Donald Kagan's support for PNAC [the Project for the New American Century], an organization that pushed for the war in Iraq (see the PNAC pos-9/11 letter to Bush: "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism"), among other atrocities."
Kagan has a case. The consequence of the morbid self hatred so characteristic of western society in the last 50 years is that most 'educated people' have no comprehension of where western society came from and why it functions the way it does. They glorify people like Ed Said who simply say what they want to hear. Since they do not understand their own culture they cannot understand how others interact with it.
I am a biologist. One of the things that annoys me about so much science teaching is that is ... taught with no historical context. Sure it saves time but it makes a biochemistry textbook look like a book of magic and many students treat it that way. Try explaining modern biology, geology, chemistry and physics to someone who accepts immediate causation (Jew/Christian or Moslem). It just does not work.
It is curious that Kagan's cautious supporter comes from the sciences. Perhaps this commenter recognizes the need for humanities to give context to science and technology.Still if Kagan had read Pryce-Jones and read a bit about the [B]ritish experience of Iraq and Afghanistan he would not have been enthused about the entirely predictable disasters that the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be.
That need for context as science and tech transform our societies and realities points to a problem with aimlessness, a loss of the sense of time and cultural purpose. That is not all that surprising in a time of massive cultural change. Ironically, in the very decades when the Internet (a western invention) has made 'Western Civilization' global, ubiquitous and culturally paramount, that very source society is plagued by self-doubt and torn by internal and external criticism.
In 1969, another scholar argued that any successful and highly developed society must have confidence in a central idea and core ideals, which convey its essential spirit. That aim, that 'soul' of 'civilization' (contested as the term is) is most clearly expressed through art. Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) opened his 1969 BBC series, Civilisation, which recounted western history from Roman times, with a quote from John Ruskin (1819-1900):
'Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds; the book of their words; and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last.' On the whole, I think this is true.
Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in Greece in the 5th century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history. So complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye that it existed, practically unchanged, for over 600 years. Of course, its art became very stereotyped and conventional. But there it was. The same architectural language, the same imagery, the same theatres, the same temples. At any time for 500 years, you could have found them all 'round the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, North Africa, or in the south of France ... . That [Greco-Roman] world must have seemed absolutely indestructible. ...
What happened? Well, it took Gibbon nine volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and I shall not embark on that. But, thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? First of all fear: fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague, fears that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things or planting trees or even planning next year's crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything. The Late Antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions that destroyed self-confidence. And then: boredom, a feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity. ...
There's a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy, a poem in which he imagines the people of some Late Antique city, waiting every day for the Barbarians to come and sack it. And then finally the Barbarians move off somewhere else. And the city is saved. But the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing.
Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity, enough to provide a little leisure. But far more, it requires confidence. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one's own mental powers.
Here is Cavafy's poem, which Clark mentioned, about the loss of a great society's self-belief:... Energy, vitality. All the great civilisations or civilising epochs have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. Well, these can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what makes a civilisation. And a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So, if one asks why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.
Waiting for the Barbarians
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
(C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992.) See the original Greek version here.
Some people talk of a conflict between Western Civilization and its enemies (especially given night after night of riots in Stockholm and the savage and appalling recent news about a British soldier beheaded by two Jihadist attackers in southeast London; see other reports here, here, here and here). But as Cavafy's poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, suggests, there is a larger issue here: "what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution." The false answer, an outer enemy - an aggressive 'other' - reflects and responds to a deep loss of social confidence. The real answer lies within.
Understanding the evolution of global culture must involve an awareness that moves past the outmoded concept of 'Western Civilization.' At the same time, is it appropriate to assume simply that the west is decadent, in fatal decline and doomed? The technological and communications revolutions are western in origin and carry within them a family of core western ideals.
The belief that 'Western Civilization' is rotten to the core is a narrative of the 20th century, cultivated in an age of rising and falling nation-states. That story does not account for a world where communications are instantaneous, where many different traditions, values and languages coexist - all in an originally western framework. That very fact raises the question: what is this new establishment? Is it western? Is it non-western? Is it global? What is its nature? What are its new ideals?
We need a new language and a new way of looking at these questions, which step back from the moribund left-right battles between secular and non-secular orthodoxies, with their Hegelian-Marxian dialectics, these polarized conflicts which never reach synthetic conclusions: 'rich versus poor,' 'capitalism versus socialism,' 'man versus woman,' 'power versus weakness,' 'west versus east' etc. etc. etc. Conceived over the past two centuries, all of these well-worn arguments offer well-worn answers. They have become short-cuts to thinking. They do not describe the current reality, the huge transformation and integration of societies, worldwide.
A new establishment is emerging from the early Millennial technological crucible. But what it becomes could be great - or terrible. Late last year, Cornel Bonca revisited Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003). No longer was this piece considered 'too dark'; Bonca realized that DeLillo had predicted the 2008 economic meltdown and its twin Millennial legacies: a nearly-unstoppable faith in, and optimism about, rampant technology; and a heart-tearing soul-sickness which emerges from that intermingling of the virtual and the real - and which nonetheless has a capacity for tragic transcendence. DeLillo concluded that anyone in this new order would be trapped between the rock of the real and the hard place of the virtual in a way that had no resolution; his hero, Eric
Packer’s tragic trajectory takes the form of an Icarusian plummet from Brilliant Young Turk to Absolute Zero. The tragedy also has a powerfully philosophical edge: Packer is like somebody dreamed up by Martin Heidegger to illustrate the peculiar despairs of technologically advanced civilization. For Heidegger, technology is exactly the distancing device that prevents us from achieving some full and direct encounter with the real — what he called Being itself. The “essence” of technology, Heidegger said, isn’t machines or systems of production, but a point of view that looks at reality only in terms of its instrumental use value: for example, it looks at a tree for the lumber it provides, not for the tree’s intrinsic tree-ness (its Being), or in Packer’s case, looks at, say, trading billions of yen exclusively as a game of profit or loss rather than something that has real-life effects on real-life labor, real-life consumers, the real-life environment. Looking at the world “technologically” is what alienation is, and Packer’s is the ne plus ultra of Heideggerian alienation. What’s worse, he knows it, and so in his despair designs an end for himself that will at last bring him some measure of contact with the real, even if it comes in the form of a bullet to the back of his head.
"I'm your Chief of Theory": scene from Cosmopolis (2012), dir. David Cronenberg with Robert Pattinson and Samantha Morton. Video Source: Youtube.
That question of 'how to Be' in the new order, and whether we will be decent or savage, is still up in the air. A few headlines show a nasty side to the emerging new establishment:
- The rich see a different Internet than the poor (Hat tip: Kate Sherrod)
- Techniques for misdirection and control of an Internet forum
- Internet Explorer's Flash whitelist
- US spy operation manipulates social media
How does that unknown way of being online become perceptible? And how do we use the Web to reflect and find the better angels of our nature, to build a better new establishment? To salvage the best of the past, and prevent the onset of a horrific future?
Just when art should matter most as a means for rediscovering direction, purpose and knowledge about the changing nature of reality, popular art has become commercialized and mass produced for a technologically-derivative mass culture. And fine art and the higher humanities are taking a battering, since they are considered 'non-bankable' under the current economic conditions.
Forbes has called for mass closure of humanities departments, because humanities graduates ('arts' graduates don't even come up on their radar, they are so far beneath notice), are "unemployable." This is a remarkable thing to say during the most unprecedented communications revolution in history, when the only people who will have a chance of making sense what is happening to global society are those immersed in the arts and humanities. Forbes's claim that the humanities are bankrupt indicates the loss of purpose, soul and confidence in higher social ideals against which Clark and Kagan (challenged and outdated as they may have become) warned.
At a conference a couple of years ago, I got talking to a group of economists, who seemed to think that the only way of expressing Enlightenment rationality was through economic analysis. I pointed at the paintings on the walls behind them: "Are those paintings not rational? Do they not express a different kind of rationality?" This was beyond them. But it should not have been.
There are indicators elsewhere that support for the arts has waned, as with the massive decline in government-sourced arts funding since 1983:
Government per capita support has dropped 33.69 percent since 1983. Indeed, from peak per capita support in 1990, government support in 2011 had dropped by 48.37 percent. Private support, by contrast, was in per capita terms more than double the 1983 level as of 2011 (the peak was in 2007, when private support was 291.51 percent of its 1983 level). Whereas government support constituted 28.68 percent of total funding in 1983, it constituted only 7.94 percent in 2011.The recession resulted when the technological capacity of global society outpaced its productive, social and moral capacities. Without a focus on the arts as loci of deeper understanding of how the world is changing, the soothsayer role has been shouldered by self-appointed hacktivists. Hackers are inching toward new forms of government, but their instincts are not always encouraging. The future cannot simply be made by technocrats, for technocrats. It needs an ineffable human and humane component, not already captured and enslaved by marketing, politics or the knee-jerk critique which sees any counter-activism as a source of automatic good.
Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet mentioned above, also wrote a poem entitled, Ithaca. The island was described in Homer's Odyssey (9.21-27) as follows:
- "dwell in shining Ithaca. There is a mountain there,
- high Neriton, covered in forests. Many islands
- lie around it, very close to each other,
- Doulichion, Same, and wooded Zacynthos--
- but low-lying Ithaca is farthest out to sea,
- towards the sunset, and the others are apart, towards the dawn and sun.
- It is rough, but it raises good men."
When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
an angry Poseidon — do not fear.
You will never find such on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, and your spirit
and body are touched by a fine emotion.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
a savage Poseidon you will not encounter,
if you do not carry them within your spirit,
if your spirit does not place them before you.
Wish for the road to be long.
Many the summer mornings to be when
with what pleasure, what joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time.
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase the fine goods,
nacre and coral, amber and ebony,
and exquisite perfumes of all sorts,
the most delicate fragrances you can find.
To many Egyptian cities you must go,
to learn and learn from the cultivated.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better for it to last many years,
and when old to rest in the island,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would not have set out on the road.
Nothing more does she have to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
The original Greek version of the poem is below.
- Σὰ βγεῖς στὸν πηγαιμὸ γιὰ τὴν Ἰθάκη,
- νὰ εὔχεσαι νά ῾ναι μακρὺς ὁ δρόμος,
- γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
- Τοὺς Λαιστρυγόνας καὶ τοὺς Κύκλωπας,
- τὸν θυμωμένο Ποσειδῶνα μὴ φοβᾶσαι,
- τέτοια στὸν δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δὲν θὰ βρεῖς,
- ἂν μέν᾿ ἡ σκέψις σου ὑψηλή, ἂν ἐκλεκτὴ
- συγκίνησις τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ σῶμα σου ἀγγίζει.
- Τοὺς Λαιστρυγόνας καὶ τοὺς Κύκλωπας,
- τὸν ἄγριο Ποσειδῶνα δὲν θὰ συναντήσεις,
- ἂν δὲν τοὺς κουβανεῖς μὲς στὴν ψυχή σου,
- ἂν ἡ ψυχή σου δὲν τοὺς στήνει ἐμπρός σου.
- Νὰ εὔχεσαι νά ῾ναι μακρὺς ὁ δρόμος.
- Πολλὰ τὰ καλοκαιρινὰ πρωινὰ νὰ εἶναι
- ποῦ μὲ τί εὐχαρίστηση, μὲ τί χαρὰ
- θὰ μπαίνεις σὲ λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους.
- Νὰ σταματήσεις σ᾿ ἐμπορεῖα Φοινικικά,
- καὶ τὲς καλὲς πραγμάτειες ν᾿ ἀποκτήσεις,
- σεντέφια καὶ κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ᾿ ἔβενους,
- καὶ ἡδονικὰ μυρωδικὰ κάθε λογῆς,
- ὅσο μπορεῖς πιὸ ἄφθονα ἡδονικὰ μυρωδικά.
- Σὲ πόλεις Αἰγυπτιακὲς πολλὲς νὰ πᾷς,
- νὰ μάθεις καὶ νὰ μάθεις ἀπ᾿ τοὺς σπουδασμένους.
- Πάντα στὸ νοῦ σου νά ῾χεις τὴν Ἰθάκη.
- Τὸ φθάσιμον ἐκεῖ εἶν᾿ ὁ προορισμός σου.
- Ἀλλὰ μὴ βιάζεις τὸ ταξίδι διόλου.
- Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλὰ νὰ διαρκέσει.
- Καὶ γέρος πιὰ ν᾿ ἀράξεις στὸ νησί,
- πλούσιος μὲ ὅσα κέρδισες στὸν δρόμο,
- μὴ προσδοκώντας πλούτη νὰ σὲ δώσει ἡ Ἰθάκη.
- Ἡ Ἰθάκη σ᾿ ἔδωσε τ᾿ ὡραῖο ταξίδι.
- Χωρὶς αὐτὴν δὲν θά ῾βγαινες στὸν δρόμο.
- Ἄλλα δὲν ἔχει νὰ σὲ δώσει πιά.
- Κι ἂν πτωχικὴ τὴν βρεῖς, ἡ Ἰθάκη δὲν σὲ γέλασε.
- Ἔτσι σοφὸς ποὺ ἔγινες, μὲ τόση πεῖρα,
- ἤδη θὰ τὸ κατάλαβες οἱ Ἰθάκες τὶ σημαίνουν.
Greece is the founding society of western civilization. To understand how 'to Be' and how to build the new establishment in a way that moves beyond the west - without total western immolation - we must return to Athens, understand why the art of living has collapsed, and recover it.
Vice Report (22 May 2013): Sisa: Cocaine for the Poor (Part 1 of 2; see Part 2 here) Video Source: Vice via Youtube.
Caption for the above video: "Greece's infamous new drug, sisa, is basically meth and filler ingredients like battery acid, engine oil, shampoo, and cooking salt. The majority of its users are poor, often homeless, city dwellers reeling from the psychological and physical impacts of a country in the grip of economic collapse."