“justice has nothing to do with victor nations and vanquished nations, but must be a moral standard that all the world's peoples can agree to. to seek this and to achieve it - that is true civilization.”
― Hideki Tojo
“individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
― Vince Lombardi
civilization - what is it
A quick online search would suggest that civilization might be the stage of human social development and organization considered most advanced. Historians and linguists will amongst themselves debate the fine details, but we can assume that this is the most widely understood explanation. This definition has neglected to communicate the complexity of civilization whilst too reinforcing hierarchical compartmentalization of comparable cultures. If we are to be more accurate, the definition might read:
Civilization is the stage of human social development and organization considered most advanced relative to other cultures or from the perspective of the culture assessing said civilization.
This definition shows that civilization is relative. Understanding this is how we unravel the mystery of what seems to be the never-ending conflict between cultures. Victorian society measured civilization by the concepts of progress and institution, a perspective that has held to this day and accepted in western culture as the measure of a sophisticated society. But what is progress exactly? This is where it all starts to get a little grey. Is it wealth accumulation and it’s associated developments? Is it breakthroughs in science and technology to better understand our world? Is it social equality and an how do we define equality? Is it growth or sustainability? Is it in the institutions created by and for a society or the organizations created by individuals? Is it empathy or detached aspiration?
Of coarse it’s a combination of all these things and great societies have historically thrived amidst periods of perceived progress coupled with relative equilibrium. When a society thrives however, it can be very easy to appoint credit to an overarching ideology. A formula, if you will, of how to thrive. As an attractive civilization expands, its ideology is perpetuated until it becomes an immovable mantra almost always becoming aggressive in the belief of its superiority. If we say that 50% of a civilizations formula is strong, making it a dominant culture, it is easy to for this culture to believe that it is excelling in all areas (proven to itself only by its dominance). A civilization that does this, often refuses to learn from cultures it deems less successful. It loses the ability to self-reflect and improve itself. We have seen this throughout history and we can safely say that the falling of great civilizations have been due to their immovable ideologies.
Major conflict between cultures stems from each civilizations unwillingness to self-reflect, both dominant and less dominant. This behaviour translates too, and is exacerbated by, the real or perceived humiliation and subjugation experienced by less dominant cultures. Societies will evolve. A lasting civilization is one which remains open and evolves whilst retaining the essence that brought it to the fore in the first place.
This brings us back to the question of civilization. Are we more civilized today than, say, the Romans? Is Australia’s living aboriginal society less civilized than the overwhelmingly European population of today? We could argue that modern western culture is showing all the telltale signs of failure 300 years sooner than was witnessed in The Roman Empire, a time when communication and connection is simple and immediate. Today's modern Australian is the worlds highest polluter per capita and has very little understanding or respect for the land which remained under the wise sustained stewardship of an ancient people for millennia.
When speaking about civilization and being civilized, we must remember that the concept is relative and should be prepared to highlight our individual and collective shortcomings whilst quietly embracing the pride from the successes.
A Greater power - fear, order and the imagination
Existential ideologies have contributed much to the evolution of our civilizations, in fact they are what drove progress and increased social cohesion within communities. With increased awareness and multi-generational passed knowledge, we began to ask questions pertaining to the reasons for life. In our surroundings we observed clear cycles with distinct beginnings and ends. Life, being the puzzle that it is, is still something that holds seemingly impenetrable mystery. We understand far more today of the mechanical functions to life, however our reportedly unique ability for imagination places our species in a very interesting position. A naturally inquisitive nature has us wanting to know how and why. This, along with other quite particular physical attributes, have been the key formula for our species domination over our environment.
That overview is obvious and accepted, but we seem to be a lot less analytical when we try to understand the evolution of our belief systems. We know an awful lot about our environment, with this recorded information increasing exponentially, but it would be arrogant to believe that we have little more to learn. There are bound to be some incredible breakthroughs in understanding in the coming decades and centuries. The expression ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ is as relevant today as it has ever been. We can prophethize what those discoveries may be based on existing theories, but we cannot know what all-new information will transpire.
During our earliest years of civilization when communities began to form and knowledge was transferred verbally through generations, we saw patterns in the world around us. We witnessed weather patterns, geographical markers, animal behavioural patterns which we remembered and communicated between ourselves to better ensure survival. We investigated the reasons for these occurrences and imagined ways in which we could manipulate their properties to further assist in our survival. This scientific method lead to larger and larger questions ultimately leading to the largest question of all. Why life?
The collective memory, the connections we made to people and places through our lives, the pains and joys, gains and losses, all needed to be understood. Being so very aware of our existence and the existence of life, we needed to have an explanation for it all. With nature as a veritable force, so incredibly strong and consuming, it is no surprise that our earliest belief systems formed around it. Everything around us had some beginning and end (day, night, life, etc) and would have proved quite terrifying a prospect when imagined in the context of self.
At first we created stories for understanding observed patterns and potential obstacles. These later grew to be larger more complex stories as we began to settle longer in places. With relative safety and food supply improving, the 'big questions' began to change. The focus moved from explaining observed phenomena to the functions of life and the reason for its existence. Stories emerged that not only explained the unknown, they provided rules of behaviour required for cohesive social interactions within growing communities. Strong references to the interconnectedness of nature evolved to systems of belief that placed ourselves above nature. The evidence was clear, we could manipulate nature to suit our needs making us greater than it, but some external unseen force had powers that from time to time devastated our efforts. Religions based on unseen gods emerged, later evolving into the diverse yet strangely similar religions of today.
Of coarse, these evolutions of beliefs did not occur in the step by step narrative I’ve laid out here. They evolved in different ways and at different speeds largely influenced by geographical location and manipulated depending on the particular social structures that emerged from or around them. In societies that evolved to operate with a clear control structure, the power of individuals or groups over other people was tied intrinsically to an unseen god. More egalitarian societies tended to have a number of gods that watched over parts of a persons or groups lives in a providing or punishing capacity. Ritualistic behaviours emerged appealing to the familiar, safety, predictable, ordered drivers of our species. These rituals performed in groups appealed further to our social, community, kinship drivers ultimately making these existential belief systems very attractive to individuals.
The predicament we find ourselves in today has emerged from thousands of years of a species asking the question ‘why’, but without having yet developed the ability to answer all those questions. That ability changed in the last 200 years with the scientific method, speeding up as more questions were answered. The formalized scientific method has emerged as a more accurate way of making sense of our surroundings, but not without significant resistance.
if we understand that existential belief systems developed in isolated pockets of human population over large periods of time creating entire cultures of value systems and ritualistic behaviours, we could easily blame technological and scientific development for the conflict we see today. In fact, many that follow these existential belief structures as a fundamental law, often dismiss the credibility of scientific thought processes even if the measurable evidence is considerable and consistent.
This brings me to the other darker face of these belief structures. If we say that these belief systems emerged to fulfill the first two base human drivers mentioned earlier, Safety and Exploration, their worldwide adaptation in almost all larger societies was made possible through the manipulation of the last two base drivers, Proliferation and Fear. Although these two drivers may be witnessed in our day to day lives (not always in a negative form) they were manipulated to great affect in the expansion of existential belief structures. The stories developed to explain life and our environment in one group often conflicted with the stories of another. A commonality between these ideologies is that their belief system and theirs only is the true belief system. This sets the scene for compartmentalization disaster… an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture just waiting for conflict. Add to the mix an individual or elite groups base ‘Proliferation’ driver asserting in a way where this person/group are able to alter the recorded text of a belief structure to suit their own objectives (for power / notoriety) by instilling ‘Fear’ into it’s followers through the text itself. It became understood that the most effective method for a smaller group to control a larger group was to instil fear first, and then provide instruction.
I would argue that religion mastered the tactic of domination that is all too often visible in the other social ordering systems that manage our lives today. Add to this the incredible suffering witnessed over the centuries as conflicting existential belief structures collided over the control of citizens and consolidation of power/property. It becomes questionable as to whether these belief systems are suitable models for social cohesion at all, especially in a world that is more connected, populated and interdependent.
It’s often cited that a world without religion would be a world without values or empathy, but i would dispute this. Atheists, for instance, seem to have extremely high levels of empathy and honesty when supported by a strong community network. Rather than applying these values to a small group of a like-minded kinship circle, they project these values to all that they meet as equals, even when their views are not shared. That’s not to say that all people with religious views operate on segregation, but the propensity to do so appears far more prevalent in the religion model than it is in the no religion groups.
As religious belief is so intertwined with cultural evolution, there is a fear in perception that a shared atheistic world view would mean the end of the colourful diversity of culture we see in the world today. Well this is occurring on its own right now through the globalized capitalist system. Emerging economy nations aspiring to emulate cultures that they perceive to be successful. Shared language for better cooperative communication. We often project far too much romanticized nostalgia on the past whilst ignoring the failures in those periods. The truth is that any culture, be it a number of cultures spread around the world or a single world culture, will always have many facets and incredible depth with a variety of interest groups exploring their own understandings. This can never be removed, not even under the strictest of totalitarian rule.
Any proposed alternative model to social order will need to recognize these variances in society and encourage their proliferation whilst at the same time providing them with a sense of inclusion in the broader social structure, encouraging a sense of responsibility to it.