Are Civilizations Mortal? by Dr. Nicole Morgan, CACOR Board of Directors.
Abstract. “We now know” sighed Valery one day, “that civilizations also are mortal.” It was a difficult blow for the Occidental psyche, already shaken by Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God.
Must those who were no longer confident in a passing world also have to abandon our hope in the eternity of transcendental reason—the arrogant faith of the Enlightenment philosophers? Fernand Braudel tried to reassure us, as we reassure infants in speaking to them of a long life followed by a long sleep: “One thing that the historian of civilizations can say, better than anything else,” he assured us, “is that civilizations are realities of very long duration.
They are not ‘mortal’ on the scale of our individual life especially, in spite of the too-famous phrase of Paul Valery.
I want to say that mortal accidents, which do exist and can shake civilizations by their roots, hit them far less frequently than we think.
In most cases, they just rouse us from slumber.”
But children grow up and the anguish has resurfaced in double strength with the particularly painful awareness that (1) the supremacy of the Occidental civilization of reason has been lost ineluctably, (2) that locally adaptive cultures are rapidly becoming extinct, and especially (3) of the probable death of humanity in the medium term due to its inability to reasonably manage its resources and master its techniques. The remaining hope, if there is one, is displaced to the notion of an ecology of knowledges, of a single, global civilization. The essential values of such are beginning to reveal themselves but are so foreign to us that they put into question the species stability of “homo sapiens”.
Nothing new under the sun?
In 1919, when Europe emerged crippled and exhausted from a war particularly if not stupidly murderous, Paul Valery reflected the European anguish of the times by penning the celebrated lament: “We now understand that our civilizations are mortal.” The idea was hardly original; the theme of human finitude comes back periodically in the myths and epics that humanity recounts to itself with more or less talent. Solomon and Plato gave us the forecast a long time ago. Why be astonished? “There is nothing and never will be anything new under the sun.” Life here below, individual and collective is doomed to death.
Christianity took up the theme with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession but these groans had nothing of despair for they were the basis for the promise of a former world impeccable, eternal and immutable, the realm of the Ideas for the philosophers or of God for the believers.
The key essential is that death, a concept insupportable to the human psyche, be transcended.
We can face the ineluctable return to dust when we are promised that it will be bathed in eternal Light.
The spark was rekindled by the philosophers of Enlightenment, of course, and described as the evacuation of the former religious worlds and the advent of reason. That is not quite exact. It is true that the Philosophers expunged the mystical revelations of former times and renounced a paradise peopled with angels, but they kept more pure than ever he desire for immortality in replacing one word (God) by another (transcendental Reason).
They just displaced thereby the hope of a beyond toward this side of an historic eternity which they named “the march of civilization”, extending to the horizon of all humanity.
We are speaking here not of a simple over-taking of individual life by that of a family or culture or a civilization, the strongest of human groupings, but rather the over-taking of individual life by the Idea most commonly called progress. The Platonic ideal archetypes turned into categorical laws enunciated by Kant. The master of Konigsberg persuaded himself without much difficulty that he had proved forever the mathematical validity of moral laws.
Any who did not accept them were, as in Athenian times, considered to be outside the ideological walls of the “city”, place of “The civilization” and of “The culture”, was a “barbarian”.
The “mornings which sing” promised by Marx and other promises of progress would replace the paradise full of angels.
Let us add that the two forms of evidence, religious and philosophic, were not exclusive, offering thereby a double guarantee to those distressed by the thought of a return to nothing but dust. The most confident could think that not only their collective values were going to civilize the world from century to century, but that after their death they could rejoin God.
The suspicion could not be contained. The despair of finitude impregnated occidental thought little by little from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, an epoch particularly fertile, we note, in shaking up arrangements of all kinds. Nietzsche announced in 1882 that after a long agony, not only was God officially dead, but, Zarathustra tells us, “his body was stinking up the world”.
In 1918, Oswald Spengler advanced in The Decline of the West the hypothesis that human history had no determined direction which presided over the advent of “THE” civilization. There is no civilization but rather some cultures, withdrawn within themselves and having no communication, influence or reciprocal comprehension. Like every individual entity, they are born, grow old and die. Western civilization, of which Spengler announced the imminent decline, would certainly not be an exception and had, according to him, begun its entropic descent.
A few months later it was Valery’s turn to launch the shock phrase that we know. The Occident takes a distance in relation to itself. It became conceivable that the complete corpus of ideas, of art, of laws and of sciences which form our “high civilization” the incarnation of the Ideal, was only a body like any other, among the others, and therefore destined to finitude and total disappearance. One must read Valery’s text to its end to understand that his lamentation is not an impulse of the romantic spirit but rather the recognition of historical relativism.
We other civilizations now know that we are mortal. We have heard talk of worlds entirely disappeared, of empires engulfed at peak with all their men and machines; fallen to unexplorable depths for centuries with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences, pure and applied, with their grammars, their dictionaries, their classics, their romanticists and their symbolists, their critics and the critiques of their critics… .
Elam, Nineva, Bablyon were beautiful vague names, and the ruin of these worlds was as little significant for us as even their existence. But France, England, Russia…these would also be beautiful names. Lusitania is also a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is as great for all the world. We sense that a civilization has the same fragility as a life.
It was the era of shock phrases. Under a dimming light, Dostoyevsky dealt the coup de grace in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist anything is permitted.”
If the phrases are terse and the expressions make the intelligentsia shudder, in the real time of villages and cities the beliefs in God and/or Progress existed side by side and sometimes confronted each other in violence, at other times in good humor thanks to the talents of Marcel Pagnol or Giovannino Guareschi, to cite only them. Strengthened by knowledge and in full expansion in the domain of the social sciences, historians distanced themselves with nuanced expressions.
Fernand Braudel, among others, tried to reassure us as we reassure our children who discover death, speaking to them of long life followed by a long sleep. “What the historian of civilizations can affirm, better than any other,” he promises us, “is that civilizations are realities of very long duration.
They are not ‘mortal’ on the same scale as our individual life especially, in spite of the celebrated phrase of Paul Valery. I want to say that mortal accidents, if they exist, and they do exist surely enough, and can dislocate their fundamental constellations, hit them infinitely less frequently than we think. In most cases of presumed death, they have likely just gone to sleep.
Other instances of the species are possible and have been the object of numberless studies: some civilizations have disappeared utterly, others have persisted but have been more or less assimilated by other civilizations, some have woken up after periods more or less long from the sleep spoken of by Braudel, some others seem asleep forever, some are petrified, others transform themselves.
But if they don’t all die, all of them get old.
By the measure of this classic sketch, the Occident gets old, inevitably, and loses the hegemony of which it had been beneficiary for centuries.
Its economic superiority is no longer, its military superiority is put into question, its culture is no longer pre-eminent, except for that of Hollywood, and its still mainly Christian values are questioned on the outside and the inside by other civilizations that seem re-born from their ashes, after the long slumber mentioned by Braudel.
The question stands out in higher relief and the words sink in. The Occident ponders the end of its own civilization of light in terms of a return to barbarism, outside the walls in the strict sense of the word, but also in its bowels. The anguish and phantasms take the classic form of intense fear of an overwhelming young generation and the coming back of a yellow peril or the warriors of Islam.
Our children are no longer our children!
Even though our collective memory has retained the image of barbarian horsemen which nearly destroyed Greco-Roman civilization, our primary fear, shared by all civilizations, is that our own children are going to destroy their heritage. Chronos devoured his at birth in order to escape a fate that we also would like to deny.
Plato, philosopher of the anguish of temporality, made it the foundation of his Republic. Honor, the moral code of timocracy is led astray by its sons who wallow in the luxury offered by their fathers, the courageous warriors. Plato looked for and thought he had found a political model that was going to stop the unsustainable process allowing us to die assured our values are eternal and our passage on earth would not have been in vain.
The sequel is a long litany (in all civilizations) of plaints by the elderly who no longer recognize in their progeny, always qualified as decadent. Each epoch has its chroniclers and poets of the generational spleen fueled the real hostility of youth toward older persons.
At the dawning of the third millennium, the passage is difficult enough that it goes beyond the classic plain of abandoning the values of a culture to become anthropological anguish. The new technologies (informatics and bio-tech) are changing the essence of the political animal by altering the way human beings metabolize nourishment, be it material or cognitive. These changes are neither individual nor cultural but universal, and integrate themselves into the genetic code. Would the homo sapiens who was as stable as the climate for thirty thousand years become mortal? The question of the post-human has left the domain of science fiction and become the object of attentive colloquia and of university studies.
Yellow peril and warriors of Allah
This distress is for the moment a budding awareness: other demographic fears are more present if not more urgent in western thoughts.
There is a plethora of works on the same theme: a demographic explosion within and without the walls is in motion that will topple the balance of powers and destroy the Occident.
The fears of explosive and devouring immigration are strongly expressed in the United States. Some, like Mark Steyn in his evocatively titled book America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, compare the growth of Muslim population in the bosom of Europe to a genocide. According to him, Europe, for failing to reproduce will be invaded demographically. America is the sole hope for survival of civilization.
To this Patrick J. Buchanan replied, in a book titled just as evocatively The Death of the West, that the United States enfeebled by the overflowing of its own melting pot would not be able to take over and is doomed to the same fate. The unassimilable barbarians, he states, of different races and religions and in great number, are in the city and at the gates of the city which is today incapable of maintaining its hegemony and integrating into its culture the primitive immigrants coming from the third world. In Canada we designate the foreigner by the vague and rightly controversial term of “visible minority”. It is projected that in five years the visible minorities in Toronto will be a majority—a rapid change considering that they were still “invisible” demographically speaking in 1950.
Is this truly new?
The dynamic of migratory movements has after all formed Europe and North America, and cultural boundaries broke down in the melting pot.
But here it is a different dynamic at work. For this one is declared “visible”; it is not so much the color of the skin as the affiliation to other civilizations. Up to 1950, migratory movements in Europe as in North America were indigenous to the Christian world which formed the moral and political plinth of what we call occidental civilization. The “same” integrated the “same” and the few little differences of language and regional customs were no obstacle to political laws and business practices. They added only some nuances. Today the immigrant is “the other” so much “other” that he often flaunts a religion loudly and proclaims his desire to remain different—if not the conqueror of the welcoming territory.
Some others speak of a conquest of the Occident led on two fronts: internal radicalization and terrorist warfare from the country of their origin.
The success of Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations must be understood in this context. In anxious, ominous speeches, the end of Occidental civilization of which we speak is indeed that of the end of Judeo-Christian civilization to the profit of Islamic civilization among others which will impose forcefully its values, its rights and its morals to colonize from the inside.
The Occident feels all the more threatened because 1) Europe and North America represent no more than 11.3% and 5.1% of world population and those percentages are going down, 2) and especially because some emerging countries like China are on the way to taking over leadership of the world economy, followed by India.
That said, is it a change of civilization or simply the displacement of power centers within a global civilization universalized by techniques and means of communication, an amalgamated civilization which is in the continuity of occidental values: recognition of the individual, belief in progress, development of the neutral and universal sphere of science and technologies, taking social charge for the education of the young. This is the way to understand Francis Fukuyama’s theme in his controversial book, The End of History and the Last Man. This book has been criticized severely, by Derrida among others, and badly understood.
Fukuyama has not congealed time in a Kantian goal of an eternal peace. He has simply highlighted the universal structure which presides over the globalization and unifies everything in destroying some of the multiplicities.
Let’s take the example of languages, carriers of cultures and of civilization. It has been calculated that 3500 languages have been reduced to silence in the last 100 years. The movement is accelerating: every 15 days a language sinks into oblivion.
According to a study carried out by the Institute for the Survival of Threatened Languages and the National Geographic Society, in a hundred years, half of the 7000 languages existing today—80% of the planet’s people communicate through 83 languages—will have disappeared. Certainly we are going to witness a flourishing of initiatives to preserve some linguistic pockets, but we should not be deluded. Globalization imposes its means of survival, including participation in conventions of financial exchanges which do not permit eccentricities. Folklores and exoticism will last; they will be even favored by the mega-industry of tourism and travel which call for variety of scenery, flavors and customs, but every culture, small and great, can continue to express itself only through a framework that is not determined by its place and of which it does not manage the time.
If we wanted an example of this integration of the multiple into the one, it suffices to go into the quarters reserved to restaurants in big cities. Never have human beings had such a choice of foods and dishes offered by all the cultures. One humanity talks, exchanges, eats together, borrows recipes, creates others of them, but it is not an iridescent mosaic. The new Thai restaurant, the vendor of Lebanese brochettes, the merchant of artisanal ice creams, the baker from the remote village; all must work within a strict body of laws and commercial necessities directed from outside any territory. No one of the cultures will any longer be true proprietors of their place. They are tenants forever.
In the same vein, it is enough to leaf through magazines to understand the choice of modes of life, borrowed a little everywhere. All appears effectively so different, new, revolutionary, exotic, but “the medium is the message” to pick up McLuhan’s famous formula, and it is the structure that identifies the actual singularity.
Are we asking the right questions?
Are we heading into a clash of civilizations or a global civilizational integration? The question is the object of intense university debates on time and history. To the point where one forgets to think about space, in the altogether banal sense of the term: space of the power and space of the population.
Let’s start with power: Up to now, every civilization had a geographic centre of power out of which it radiated. Our universal civilization in the making that is being has no place and its power, today mainly monetary, dwells in no castle or palace but is in constant movement without attachment and particular responsibilities to any place. It has this in common with Attila the Hun, who had power to conquer thanks to superior techniques but who never built anything. Once the invaded territory was exhausted, he went somewhere else.
The time factor is put into question, since starting from a place, cultures and especially civilizations must inscribe themselves in the long duration of rhythms and repetitions that mark and define time. Globalization appears as an immense machine to homogenize and innovate, destroy and reactivate, to brew and to distil in a duration that does not last. It is not a “new world order” as some want to think, but rather a vortex, that is to say a movement without roots, a force without duration, a time without space.
Gauged by a demographic explosion which reduced human space per capita to a clump of earth, the issue has become the survival of humanity in a totally predatory vortex which can endure only if it finds other territories. The answer must surely be found in the essential characteristic of human space:
it is limited. Although humanity has spent its existence escaping into time, we can’t leave the place of the time. The myth of progress, Ronald Wright tells us, must be reconsidered from top to bottom.
The awareness of a common good we must manage if we want to survive as humanity leads us to not conclude on a prediction which smells of the prophecies of the apocalypse: “humanity is mortal”. For the first time in their history, the inhabitants of the planet are feeling responsible for humanity (and no longer of their clan, culture, etc) and will have to negotiate their survival around new criteria of international law. If they want to improve our chances of attaining the 4th millennium, a charter of collective rights will have to be written.
Do we have time to do it? Nothing is less certain, but thinking will continue anyway. Every civilization is after all only the collective expression of hope. The global civilization is no exception.