Extract: West and East

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817), JMW Turner, Tate Britain.

Extract from Politics, Ethics and Culture in our Time: A Post-Civilizational Perspective [forthcoming]

Introduction to Part I: West and East

We are now undergoing a historic transformation in the destiny of mankind that is in many ways as decisive as any of those in the historic past, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic Revolution. For the very first time in history mankind has come together in a global society that some have called a technological civilization. It is certainly thanks to technology that this unification of previously separated human groups, be they tribes, nations or civilizations, has been made possible. Whether this will result in a truly global civilization is still a moot point which it will be our concern to investigate. But undeniably the conditions of human living have become more alike all over the globe, and these are certainly utterly unlike those of any of the previous civilizations. In short, we are entering a new age in the development of the whole of humanity.

Ever since the Neolithic Revolution the majority of human beings had been acquiring their sustenance either as peasant farmers or pastoralists. Only a small minority were able to live in cities, whose number and size reflected the size of the agricultural surplus that a particular way of farming could afford. It was this creative minority of city dwellers who were responsible for the civilizations which cropped up in various localities at different times throughout history. Some of these civilizations were the loci of the High Cultures which attained the achievements in religion, art, literature, philosophy and the early beginnings of science that we treasure to this day. Each of these unique and distinct civilizations developed its own variants of universal cultural forms.

What is happening now is in many ways the inverse of what took place throughout the history of civilizations. Now most people are living in cities whose size has grown to gigantic proportions never thought possible in the past. Only a small minority of farmers cultivate the land, but thanks to science and technology they can produce enough to provide for a previously unimaginable standard of living to a total population many times that of the past, one soon to reach ten billion. By contrast, the cultural productions of our time pale in comparison to those of the past. In religion, art, literature and philosophy we seem to be no longer capable of creating anything that bears comparison with the achievements of past civilizations, above all our own Western Civilization.

We are now faced with an overwhelming paradox: materially we are much better off than ever before, but culturally we are much the poorer for it. It is almost as if we have bought well-being for our bodies at the cost of the impoverishment of our souls, or nourished our flesh at the expense of the starvation of our spirit. But that is an old-fashioned theological way of putting it, which hardly any sophisticated person could now entertain. Another perhaps more intellectually acceptable way of putting it, is that we are confronted with a paradox of Progress. For while humanity has undoubtedly progressed in so many material ways, it has undoubtedly regressed in others, those which we call cultural, for short. This paradox of Progress is a most peculiar existential condition never before encountered in human history. Our main aim in this work is to elucidate it and show how and why it arose in the first place.

To understand the nature of the changes that the whole of humanity is now undergoing, and to appreciate the magnitude of these epochal transformations, we must go back to the very beginning of history. By the beginning of history, we do not mean the start of the evolution of homo sapiens as a species, or even the much later culmination of that evolution in the recognizably human achievements of early human cave dwellers. Rather, we mean something relatively more recent than that, which is encapsulated in the opposition between prehistoric Man in contrast to historic mankind. Hegel had articulated a similar distinction between historic and nonhistoric peoples, which in his time was more or less cognate with that between civilized and primitive people, often then referred to as savages. The comparison we have in mind is nothing as invidious as that, but corresponds to the one that anthropologists make between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists or pastoralists.

On the basis of this distinction, we might postulate that history begins with the Neolithic Revolution, which first arose in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and spread from there to Europe and India; or alternatively occurred as independent developments, in New Guinea, Africa, America and many other places on earth. The Neolithic Revolution was crucial to the start of history for it was only then that human beings ceased to be completely dependent on Nature’s bounty – on what the environment in which they found themselves provided – and became capable of transforming it by means of their own labour.

On this view, liberation from the thrall of Nature is the beginning of history, which from then on transforms itself into an ever-greater domination of Nature, which is how the Frankfurt School thinkers, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno portray it in works such as the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer stipulate that what we have now attained is the total domination of Nature through technology and the capitalist mode of production at its most developed; and also, therefore, at its most repressive and exploitative (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972). Once Nature is thus completely mastered, then this completes the preliminary phase of human development and leads to an end of history in this sense, or what Marx called pre-history, prior to true history. The Frankfurt thinkers, however, were more in accord with Hegel’s view of the end of history than with Marx’s view. But we need not elaborate this difference here as it is not germane to our main topic.

We are not concerned with the end of history, only with the end of civilization. History and civilization are not coextensive. There was a long period of history between the Neolithic Revolution and the start of the first civilization, again in the Middle East some eight or nine millennia later; and there might be as long a period following the end of civilization. Civilization might only have been a stage in history, one of approximately 5000 years duration. What follows civilization we have referred to as a post-civilization condition, and by that we do not mean a post-historical condition (Redner, 2013).It might well turn out that civilization will prove to have been a special historical formation whose time is now past. We have no way of knowing this for we cannot predict the distant future. But we can know that what is now happening amounts to a failure of civilization which might be permanent or might prove to be only temporary. In some form or other civilization might eventually return, but it is also possible that it will never come back. But these are imponderable matters about which it is idle to speculate.

We do not know and do not presume to prophesy what will happen after civilization. However, we do know what has already happened to civilization. We can examine the present state of our own Western Civilization and that of all the other civilizations that were coeval with it, in particular the Chinese, Indian and Islamic and seek to assess where they have come to over the course of the last few centuries. It is perhaps easier to see what has happened to the others than to ourselves, namely, to our own Western Civilization, because we ourselves, during the so-called colonialist phase, were the perpetrators of much of the damage that they suffered. This has now translated itself into a sense of guilt that has had unfortunate consequences for historical scholarship, for some historians are inclined to attribute virtues to the colonized societies that they never possessed; and they even ascribe such qualities to the States that are the heirs of these past civilizations. These States are now proceeding along the same lines of post-civilizational technological development that the West has already undergone, hence they are no longer civilizations in the old sense.

As for the West itself, culturally considered, it is also no longer a civilization, though in most other respects, economic, political, military, scientific, technological and so on, the West is still maintaining its standing for the time being. But this is not really relevant to the issues of civilization, since it must be stressed that civilization is first and foremost a cultural matter before it is anything else. Certainly, without a material and organizational basis a civilization cannot maintain itself, but what makes it a civilization are the values and qualities of civility that reside in its culture. A civilized person is above all a cultured human being.

If we focus on the role of culture in history then a very different account emerges than if we emphasise material and organizational factors. Effectively, this negates a Marxist reading of history, or at least it revises it substantially. This is true no matter what period of history we focus on in order to start an analysis, and applies throughout all the crucial subsequent stages. If we take the Neolithic Revolution as the start of history, then it follows that a purely materialist account, such as we find in Marxist palaeo-archaeologists such as V. Gordon Childe and many others, must also be revised. In other words, the Neolithic Revolution was much more than a mere turning to agriculture and pastoralism, that is, a transformation of the mode of production, it was also a transformation of human culture. And this is precisely what the latest discoveries have revealed.

From the latest findings into the origins of the Neolithic Revolution, it can now be concluded that the crucial changes were cultural in nature and that they preceded the material changes, rather than vice-versa, as the conventional account has it. In other words, the Neolithic Revolution was a cultural revolution before it became an agricultural one. It is not that agriculture gave rise to a new kind of religion, but more likely that a new type of communal worship instigated a turning to agriculture. This is the view of the palaeoarchaeologist Jacques Cauvin who maintains that the invention of the gods came first, before the changes in sustenance through a new form of labour (Cauvin, 2000).

This view has gained considerable support from the recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey, where, according to the leading palaeoarchaeologist, Klaus Schmidt: “The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization” (cited in Mann, 2011, p. 57). Thus from the very start of historical development, all aspects of proto-civilization that made possible the much later origins of civilization proper are fundamentally linked to cultural factors and not just to material resources or social relations. The fact that we now command such huge resources and are socially and politically so well organized makes not a jot of difference to our civilizational standing if in cultural respects we have fallen into the twilight of a Dark Age.

The Neolithic Revolution was the very first and perhaps the most decisive of all the cultural transformations that mankind has undergone in history. It was followed by three other cultural revolutions prior to the present stage of globalization. First, there came the beginnings of the early civilization; second, there ensued what Karl Japers has called the Axial Age or the start of the higher civilizations; and third, there was the origin of what might loosely be called Modernity, half a millennium ago within Western Civilization, that of Christian Europe around 1500 (Jaspers, 1953, p. 2).

It so happened that Europe came first in the race for Modernity. But if for some counterfactual reason, Europe had been unable to fulfil this role, perhaps through a recurrence of the Black Death or because of Ottoman conquest, then one or other of the then extant civilizations would have done so somewhat later. Which of these might have been the one to develop? There is no telling as this is a purely hypothetical and speculative matter. We might point to Japan or China or India or Persia as already possessing many of the preconditions of Modernity in commerce, statecraft, technology and the rudiments of science. Could one of them have brought these together into the one coherent undertaking? There is no point in offering purely conjectural answers. What a non-Western Modernity might have been like is also a matter of historical imagination not susceptible of any demonstration. Whether it would have resulted in a world without the major problems facing humanity at present is, therefore, an unanswerable question.

Modernity was a unique development which could only occur once. Since it inevitably embraced the whole world, it contrasts sharply with the rise of civilization itself. This happened many times in different places at various historical dates. The issue of how many such early civilizations there were altogether, a problem that much preoccupied Arnold Toynbee, depends, of course, on what qualifies as a civilization and is not one that concerns us here; and neither is the question of why civilizations arose in the first place. We merely note it as a fact that the very earliest, such as Sumer and Egypt, were what Karl August Wittfogel has termed hydraulic civilizations, ones based on irrigation works, which rivers afford in dry regions, as in Mesopotamia and on the Nile (Wittfogel, 1957). This also holds for the early civilizations of China on the Yellow River basin and that of India on the Indus. The West, as we shall see, had a very different origin as a network of cities by the sea, and this meant that it developed in a different way. The fundamental divergence in development between East and West is what shall concern us most in this Part I.

It is crucial to note from the very start that not everything in history falls into neat civilizational categories. There are all kinds of developments that transcend civilizational distinctions, such as common activities carried out by groups of people who are indifferent to the fact that they are separated by different civilizations. People can trade with each other and exchange religions or philosophies or sciences even though they are divided by civilizational boundaries and are culturally quite diverse in every other way. The people of the Mediterranean have been doing this ever since the fall of the Roman Empire and its replacement by at least three different civilizations. It is also the case that within the one political entity, such as an empire or large-scale state, there can be people of vastly different civilizational provenance, as was the case in the Persian Empire established by Cyrus and his Achaemenid successors, which contained Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians and, of course, Persians and Medes, the ruling strata. What is even more crucial is that religions can easily cross over from one civilization to another, and these need not necessarily be universal faiths, for most religions can adapt themselves to different civilizations. This is also true of philosophies, scripts, styles of art and almost anything else one cares to mention. Thus, for example, Greek philosophy and art travelled over most of the Eurasian continents with the possible exception of the Far East, but even there, Buddhism brought in some of it heavily disguised as Indian.

This means that it is possible for the one civilization to contain different religions, philosophies, styles of art, scripts, languages, political forms, economies, and almost anything else one cares to mention. Rome is a case in point of an extremely diverse and mixed civilization; by contrast, China was a very internally unified one. In China there was predominantly the one race of people, the Han, speaking different dialects of the one language and utilizing the one commonly understood script, and sharing indigenous religions and philosophies, with the exceptional importation of Buddhism. Even though Rome was a very varied civilization in just about all respects, nevertheless there was a common Roman way of life, one based on city living with its amenities for common activities: the forum for law, government and trade, the amphitheatre and theatre for leisure pastimes and art, the baths for relaxation and reading, and the various kinds of schools for study. There was the participatory political status of being a citizen, a privilege granted to more and more people as time went on till it became universal for adult males.

It is clear from the example of Rome that our idea of a cultural ethos or way of life that defines a civilization is not very precise but, nevertheless, consistent. It makes the concept of civilization indispensable in accounting for large historical and cultural differences between people. It is easy to apply it in the early stages of the rise of civilizations when this occurred among people in different localities at different times. But as civilizations enlarge and spread, and as mixtures between them develop, then it becomes much more difficult to separate one from another. This is the reason that Spengler and Toynbee, who insist on seeing civilizations as distinct entities, have to resort to purely arbitrary constructions, such as Spengler’s Magian or Toynbee’s Syriac civilizations (Redner, 2013, pp. 11, 44, 303, 323, 330). Such supposed historical entities are of dubious value for they arise merely from the theoretical requirement that everything should be categorized in terms of distinct civilizations.

According to Spengler each civilization is almost hermetically sealed off from every other. Each is like a separate plant springing from its own racial soil and undergoing a predetermined quasi-biological life-cycle of youth, maturity, senescence and death. This organicist view of civilizations clearly derives from the racism and Lebensphilosophie of Spengler’s time. It also leads him to apply to all civilizations in history the Kultur-Zivilization distinction current in German thought in his era and the stock-in-trade of German propaganda during the war. According to this idea, every society goes through an early Kultur phase followed by a late Zivilization phase, which is established with the formation of an empire embracing the territories across which the civilization has spread. This leads Spengler to a fruitless hunt for homologies in seeking to establish when these phases begin and end, and when the dividing imperial caesura took place. On this basis, he arrives at what are obviously absurd conclusions to specialist scholars of the different civilizations, which they did not hesitate to point out to him. But he was not fazed by any such criticism.

Toynbee, too, went in for a hunt for homologies and produced tables setting them out to his own, but hardly anyone else’s, satisfaction. However, he did correct some of Spengler’s worst errors. Spengler had broken up Western Civilization into two halves, each of which he deemed a quite separate civilization. The first he took to be the Classical Apollonian civilization of Greece and Rome and the second the Christian Faustian one of Europe, with the second having not much to do with the first. And, as if this fragmentation of Western Civilization were not enough, Spengler separates Byzantium from either of the two halves and treats it as belonging to his quite distinct Magian civilization.

Toynbee is obviously unhappy with this division of the history of Christianity before and after the fall of Rome into distinct religions belonging to different civilizations. But instead of simply abandoning the whole Spenglerian schema he tries to rectify it by linking the separate halves into a generational sequence of first, second and third generations; Minoan civilization is the first generation, Classical civilization is the second, and the European Christian the third. Linking the latter two is the history of Christianity, which is formed in the chrysalis of the Roman Empire and transcends its fall and the resultant Dark Age interregnum, to be reborn in Christian Europe. Thus, an Augustinian view of the City of God is joined to a Spenglerian schema of the fall of civilizations.

Neither Spengler nor Toynbee took any account of what Karl Jaspers later defined as the Axial Age, the almost concurrent rise of the great universalist religions and philosophies, which took place in Greece, Israel, India, China and Persia during the period 700 to 300 BCE. Jaspers followed some suggestions along these lines provided by his friend and mentor Max Weber. Neither Spengler nor Toynbee took any notice of Weber and this is a damaging omission in their work on civilization. It is not possible to write on civilization without taking account of Weber’s treatment of the fundamental differentiating factors of Western and Eastern civilizations. The same point holds for Jaspers’ idea of the Axial Age, which Toynbee fails to mention. In what follows we shall seek to do justice to both these crucial historical thinkers.

But perhaps an even worse failure in both Spengler and Toynbee, due to their fixation on homologies, is that it made them oblivious to the utterly different character of the modern West, which does not fit into any of their civilizational schemas, because it cannot be likened to anything that happened in the previous history of civilizations. The West, due to its recent developments over the last four centuries, is not like any other civilization; it is not simply another specimen of the genus civilization comprising twenty-one species, according to Toynbee. Perhaps it could still be seen in those terms if one restricts oneself to the medieval and even Renaissance period, but not once it entered into what is called Modernity. For it was then that there arose what we have elsewhere called the Forces of Modernity, namely modern capitalism, the modern State, science and technology, and these later began their expansion right across the whole globe, until now they are universally prevalent (Redner, 2013, p. 109).

All this was utterly unprecedented in history and it means that out of Western Civilization there has developed a new historical stage for the whole of mankind. Not only is this a turning away from all previous civilizations, but also a turning away from civilization as such. For what had eventuated in the West, at least from the late twentieth century onwards, has been a process of civilizational self-dissolution, as this civilization has developed the Forces of Modernity to a stage where they have consumed the very civilization that gave them birth. Western Civilization is destroying itself in transforming itself into a globalized entity, which in an earlier work referred to above I have described as a state “beyond civilization” (Redner, 2013, pp. 331–332). This is not the collapse of civilization back into barbarism, which has occurred before and is a regression into a pre-civilizational stage, but the transformation of civilization into a post-civilizational stage, a possibility hitherto never encountered before. To explain how and why this has taken place will be the main burden of our account.

Neither Spengler nor Toynbee could even begin to grasp what was taking place already in their own time because they did not possess the kind of sociological, economic and scientific knowledge required to appreciate the magnitude of the changes that were taking place, due to the Forces of Modernity. Toynbee was fully aware of his own lack in this respect:

Looking, from this point of view, at my range of knowledge, I am ruefully aware that my classical education has left me almost entirely ignorant of modern Western discoveries, from the seventeenth century onwards, in the field of mathematics and physical science. This is indeed a blank

Toynbee, 1964, p. 591

However, he believed that his ignorance did not matter because Western civilization was in all crucial respects no different from any other. Hence, he goes on as follows:

It is true that this personal ignorance about some of the characteristic achievements of Western Civilization in its modern age is a serious handicap to an understanding of the Western society’s modern genius. But, after all, Western Civilization is only one of a number of specimens of the species of society that it represents; and its history is still unfinished. At a pinch, therefore, we could dispense with the Western specimen in making a comparative study of civilizations

Toynbee, 1964, p. 591

In other words, Toynbee maintains that Western Modernity has introduced nothing radically new into the history of civilizations, which unfolds as it has always done with or without the West. For Toynbee there is nothing special about the West; as he states: “I reject the pretensions of Western civilization to be a unique representative of the species: the only civilization worthy of the name” (Toynbee, 1964, p. 626). This is fair enough, for the West is certainly not the only civilization. However, it is the only one to embark on the unique development of a radical Modernity, and this Toynbee also denies: “If one rejects the Western Civilization’s general pretensions of uniqueness, one will be critical of any particular pretensions to uniqueness that one finds this civilization making a particular provinces of its domain or in particular fields of its activity” (Toynbee, 1964, p. 628). And this is clearly wrong in the light of the West’s achievements in science alone, of which Toynbee pleads ignorance, as well as in many other fields that we have called the Forces of Modernity.

What a fundamental difference this attitude to the West makes is clearly evident by comparison with Weber, who clearly sets out the rationalization and intellectualization processes that have led to the disenchantment of the world in the West, and there alone. But unfortunately, Toynbee had no knowledge of Weber and no interest in sociology. Toynbee felt that he already knew all he needed to know about the West and that sociology would add nothing worthwhile to this:

Then, as far as I do want to know about Western Civilization, I feel that I can imbibe this knowledge through my pores since, after all, this is the cultural atmosphere in which I live and move. My third reason for deliberately neglecting the West is that the historical and sociological information about the West is voluminous out of all proportion to its value for a comparative study of civilization

Toynbee, 1964, p. 595

According to Toynbee, sociology, like history, merely provides information; there is, apparently, no theoretical value in pursuing this science for the purpose of civilizational studies. It is this attitude that we aim to counteract.

Toynbee claims that he is not interested in the West because it “is an imperfect specimen of its species because its history is still unfinished” (Toynbee, 1964, p. 595). As for its future, his eye for homological patterns in the development of civilization leads him to wonder firstly, whether it will lead to a coming “Westernization of the world… a common civilization for the whole human race” (Toynbee, 1964, p. 529); and secondly, whether this ecumenical civilization will develop into a universal state. On the first point, he has no doubt that “this coming ecumenical civilization would necessarily start its career within a Western framework and on a Western basis by reason of its Western origins…” (Toynbee, 1964, p. 529). On the second point he is not so sure:

…we cannot foretell whether or not the Western Civilization is ever going to enter into a universal state, as both the Hellenic and Sinic did, still less can we foretell whether, if the future course of Western affairs were to follow the pattern that is a common Helleno-Sinic one up to that point the West’s universal state would be short-lived as the Hellenic Civilization’s was in the western provinces of the Roman Empire, or as long-lived as the Sinic universal state has been

Toynbee, 1964, p. 518

In setting himself these two problems Toynbee has been following precedents from the past and this is invariably a bad course to follow when considering the unprecedented nature of current developments. As we shall try to show, on both counts Toynbee has gone wrong. There is no question of any coming ecumenical civilization based on an extension of Western Civilization to the whole world since the very being and continuity of Western Civilization is now in question. What the West has passed on to the world is not its civilization as a coherent whole, but only that component of its Modernity that constitutes the Forces of Modernity, namely, modern capitalism, the modern State, science and technology. And since these aspects of the civilization of the West are now proliferating in the rest of the world, this is leading to conflicts that are potentially even more dangerous than those that prevailed in the twentieth century in Europe and elsewhere. Hence, at present there is no question of the world becoming unified in a universal state. Relying on homologies has clearly led Toynbee astray in considering the contemporary situation.

Another homology to which Toynbee turns is equally misleading, namely the one that is based on the Augustinian conception of the City of God. Toynbee interprets this historically as an example of his chrysalis thesis that universal religions are nursed in the bosom of decaying and disintegrating civilization, and that they rise phoenix-like from the ashes to form the foundations of new civilizations. This is obviously modelled on the rise and growth of Christianity within the collapsing Roman Empire and its persistence through the subsequent Dark Ages to provide the basis of civilization during its resurrection as medieval Europe. Hence, following his Augustinian vision, Toynbee maintains that no matter what might happen to Western Civilization, the Christian religion will always survive since mankind cannot do without religious faith, as he puts it:

This means that however grievously the trustees of the historic higher religions may have abused their religions’ mandate, the mandate itself has not been forfeited unless and until mankind is presented with some new way or ways of life that offer to human souls more effective spiritual help than the historic higher religions can give them (Toynbee, 1964, p. 534).

Thus, he is able to conclude on this confident note:

The Western Civilization may or may not be in decline in our time; contemporary Westerners are not in a position to diagnose their own civilization’s prospects. But whatever this particular civilization’s present prospects may be, a recovery of the essence of religion, if this has been lost, is needed at all times and in all social situations. It is needed because human beings cannot live without it

Toynbee, 1964, p. 534

It is all very well to say that Man cannot live by bread alone, but what if not only bread or its other material equivalents, but also circuses or other spectacles and shows that divert people, were readily provided for everyone? Would such people still long for the essence of religion? Toynbee was perhaps not fully aware in his time of all the other sights and satisfactions on offer in our time, both on and off screen. We can be far less sanguine now about the survival of a true faith that Toynbee on Augustinian premise takes for granted. In our time we see religions taking perverse forms of fundamentalism which are more like a resurgence of primitive cults than revivals of the higher religions from which they derive. The practice of religion of a more spiritual kind is made increasingly more difficult in a world of detached and atomized individuals – the world that is arising out of the destruction of community and family life, the pressures of mass entertainment and the media, ideological politics, and impersonal social relations. To assume that the higher religions must necessarily survive, as Toynbee does, seems more like an act of faith than realistic history or sociology.

Much the same conclusion holds for civilization in general. Both Toynbee and Spengler took it for granted that as one civilization falls, another will always rise to take its place, for civilization as such is imperishable, even though every single one is doomed to destruction. But that faith in civilization can also no longer be maintained. Civilization in the cultural sense could disappear even though “civilization” in the material sense might continue to flourish. For this to happen it is not necessary to imagine some catastrophe that would bring about a return to barbarism, such as people usually suppose is meant by the expression “the end of civilization”. An end of civilization could take place without the vast majority of people even noticing that it is taking place.

This is, in fact, what is happening at present as young people, the so-called new millennials, are behaving as if culture was a matter of consuming cultural commodities, as if communication is what happens by means of Facebook, and as if history is something to do with “dead white males”. The young, of course, are not to blame for this outcome, which has been brought about by decades of the cheapening and debasement of education, by the mass media and the stupefaction of minds that it has brought about, by the corruption of politics that has turned democracy into a popularity poll for celebrities, and by many more such culture-sapping developments. And the process continues as new technologies are invented that enable greater control of whole populations, or ones that intrude into individual lives and make privacy a thing of the past, and there are some in preparation that could turn human bodies into so-called “cyborgs” or mind and machine couplings. To remain human will become more of a challenge in coming times as human nature itself is being attacked. Civilization is but one aspect of an even greater threat to humanity itself.

Few are aware of the dangers ahead. At present it has become difficult even to warn about them without being condemned as some sort of inveterate pessimist. Who wants to listen to someone who argues that what we are now experiencing is an evacuation of the meaning of civilization? Historians still speak blithely of Western Civilization, Islamic Civilization, a “war of civilizations” as if nothing had fundamentally changed in the last century or so. Others who hold that crucial changes have occurred speak in turn of “global” civilization or “technological” civilization or in some other such generalizing locutions. Neither side realises that the term “civilization” is no longer applicable in anything like its old sense. A “war of civilizations” cannot occur because there are no civilizations left to engage in such a war; some other entities, whatever one might wish to call them, are now battling for supremacy. A “technological” civilization is also not possible because technology cannot give rise to civilization, since that is exclusively a cultural matter, not a technical one.

It is in this sense of culture that we speak of the twilight of a cultural Dark Age. We do not mean by that anything like the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Indeed, what is happening now is in material and organizational respects the opposite of what then took place. Then cities were depopulated, now they are larger than ever before; then the economy was devastated, now it is growing to unparalleled heights; then there was a failure of law and order, now it is more enforced than ever before; then science and scholarship lapsed, now they flourish more than ever; then the arts became depleted, now they are superabundant; and so on for all major aspects of social life. What this means is that life after civilization will be nothing like life prior to civilization, it will be the opposite of it. It will be like the life we are coming to experience now, only more so. What will be absent will be the cultural, spiritual, ethical, artistic, and intellectual standards associated with people leading a civilized way of life.

Is the passing of civilization in this sense to be regretted? Should we be doing anything to stop it from happening or at least to slow it up? Most people now obviously do not miss civilization and if questioned they no longer even know what this means, for they are quite content with what they now have and want nothing more. It is becoming increasingly difficult for those who no longer have any experience or memory of civilization to know what they are losing. Any attempt to convince them to retain what they still have left of civilization generally falls on deaf ears.

Hence, one can only appeal to those, necessarily a small minority, who still feel a need for something different, something better and finer than what can be procured on the commercial markets or the marketplace of ideas. These are people who feel a void in their lives that cannot be filled by media products, or the information afforded to everyone by the internet, or the education which a few can afford to buy if they are wealthy enough. These are the people we aim to address in the hope of making a small difference to their thinking which might translate to their living as well.

This is as much as can be said in a brief introduction, in order to avoid obvious misunderstandings. A better understanding will have to be acquired from the book itself. We begin that expository process by turning to history and outlining the stages through which humanity passed in order to arrive at its present predicament. Was all this historically inevitable or some sort of accident of history? This is a question we do not even dare to ask at this stage, but perhaps later we might derive some insight into it.


Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1972) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by J. Cumming. London: Allen Lane.

Cauvin, J. (2000) The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Translated by T. Watkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jaspers, K. (1953) The Origin and Goal of History. Translated by M. Bullock. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mann, C. (2011) ‘Birth of Religion’, National Geographic, June, p. p.57.

Redner, H. (2013) Beyond Civilization: Society, Culture and the Individual in the Age of Globalization. New Brunswick USA: Transaction Publishers.

Toynbee, A. (1964) A Study of History, Vol. 12: Reconsiderations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wittfogel, K. (1957) Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New York: Random House.

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