12 May 2010

The end of civilization(s)

Posted by jofr

Have you ever asked yourself why civilization and barbarism go often hand in hand? Walter Benjamin said in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Germany was the country of famous classical poets, playwrights, and theatre directors, such as Goethe, Schiller, Brecht and Tucholsky. Is is the land of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, who laid the foundation of classical music. It is the nation of famous scientists like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Max Planck and Albert Einstein. And yet we had WWII with the Holocaust organized by Nazi Germany in Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz and Treblinka. How does it fit together, the best (Goethe) and the worst (Buchenwald) of European culture? When they realized the full extend of the holocaust after the war, the Germans themselves were shocked how this could have happened.

Yet this combination of civilization and barbarism is not a new problem. Ancient China was far ahead of the time, because it was among the first cultures that used a hieroglyphic writing system. It is one of the oldest cultures in the world which was based on famous thinkers and philosophers like Confucius and Laozi. In the Qin Dynasty of ancient China, impressive projects were realized, including the first version of the Great Wall of China and the city-sized mausoleum of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang guarded by the Terracotta Army. But the first emperor also was a brutal tyrant who buried many people alive and sacrificed thousands of people. This combination of civilization and barbarism can be found in other ancient cultures as well. The Romans for example were very civilized, but also very brutal. It was not only Jesus who was crucified, crucifixion was a common death penalty in Ancient Rome. The Christian church teaches love and charity, and included famous saints like Francis of Assisi, but it also used and produced the inquisition in the Middle Ages and in Middle America. The Aztecs used hieroglyphic writings, but brought the practice of human sacrifices to an unprecedented level. We can find on the one hand highest culture in form of hieroglyphs and writing systems among nearly all Mesoamerican cultures, and yet on the other hand extreme violence and brutality.

So how do the best and the worst of a culture fit together? Let us make a list:

  • Goethe and Buchenwald in Germany
  • Cicero and Crucifixion in ancient Rome
  • Francis of Assisi and inquisition in the Christian church
  • Konfuzius and the live burial of scholars in ancient China
  • (unknown writer of) hieroglyphs and mass human sacrifice in Aztec Culture

Scholars have long puzzled over the Maya civilization’s rise to glory and fall to ruin. If you watch documentations like “Cracking the Maya Code”, you wonder how they might have lived, and what they may have thought. People back then were not that different from today, some just wanted to be peaceful scientists, artists, writers or farmers, while others were more interested in power and insisted on repulsive rituals, bloody sacrifices and endless wars. It is really puzzling why the extremes worked together so well among the Maya and the Aztecs: the smart artists, scribes and writers who wrote the hieroglyphs, and the stupid rulers who made one bloody sacrifice after another. The story behind the centuries-long decipherment of ancient Maya hieroglyphs is amazing, and so are the writers and artists who wrote them. The cruel kings and evil priests who did human sacrifices were just disgusting. How did they fit together?

Well, maybe they didn’t. And just stopped listening to each other. The first Chinese emperor no longer listened to his scholars and buried them alive, and the Aztec emperors did the same. In Nazi Germany, Hitler no longer listened to scientists and scholars as well. For members of the Nazi party a Reichsparteitag was the rise of German culture, for many intellectuals and civilized people it was the decline. In the beginning culture and power are a good combination, like marketing and technology. Language and culture enable the establishment of civilization in the first place. Rich families and powerful rulers often support art and culture by patronage. For example Leonardo da Vinci and Sando Boticelli were sponsored by the rich Medici, a banking family in the 15th century. Haydn and Mozart were sponsored by rich bishops and wealthy aristocratic families. In these patronage system, resources of the state, country or community are used to reward individuals for their outstanding achievements in art and culture, often to portrait and glorify the current rulers. The steles in many Maya cities, for instance Quiriguá, have no other purpose. Civilizations are made of powerful culture and civilized power. But culture without power is boring, power without culture is evil.

Let us make an updated version of the list where poets and saints and replaced by emperors. Now it makes more sense:

  • Goethe Hitler and Buchenwald in Germany
  • Cicero Caesar and Crucifixion in ancient Rome
  • Konfuzius Qin Shi Huang and the live burial of scholars in ancient China
  • Francis of Assisi Pope Gregory IX and inquisition in the Christian church
  • hieroglyphs Moctezuma and mass human sacrifice in Aztec Culture

A system becomes evil if its resources are used to support the regime in a doubtful way, for example by suppressing and persecuting members of the opposition. We wrote earlier about Terror as adaptation which can occur if people are threatened by an omnipresent system or superpower, which can result in the appearance of unpredictable, hidden and cruel terrorists. The opposite is a system which is threatened by the own members. If it faces legitimate charges and if it is not willing to change itself, then such an unjust system can turn into a cruel system which uses torture and tyranny. Terror can be shown from a system as well, especially if it tortures the own members to get access to secret information. Rigid, fragile and centralized systems fear the hidden terrorist, prophet or intellectual which has secret plans to topple the system. By proposing a new system to a wide audience, a single member can threatening the complete system. It is of crucial importance to the system to obtain this information, which can lead to all forms of inhuman punishment, coercive interrogation techniques, and physical torture. In this sense, torture is a responsive of an unjust, brittle and inflexible system to conspiracies and secret plans, it is an attempt to eliminate secret proposals for a new system. It is a reaction of a system which is unable to change and to adapt itself.

The reaction of a system which is unwilling to change is especially strong if it has evolved slowly into a different system in the course of time. Examples are crucifixion in Ancient Rome, inquisition in the Christian church, and human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire on a massive scale. The objective of crucifixion, inquisition, and human sacrifice was combating enemies of the system – i.e. combating heresy. The worst possible punishment reflects the worst possible threat for the system. Unjust members who use unfair means and question the system are fought by an unjust system through unfair means.

Ancient Culture Symbol Old System New System Reaction to heresy
Aztec Empire Templo Mayor religious system, religion of sacrifice military system, Aztec Empire Human Sacrifice
Christian Church St. Peter’s Basilica religious system, religion of love political system, absolute monarchy Inquisition
Roman Empire Colosseum political system, Roman Republic military system, autocratic empire Crucifixion
Ancient Chinese Empire Great Wall of China political system in form of legalism military system, autocratic empire Live Burial
Nazi Germany Hakenkreuzflagge political system in form of Weimar Republic military system, autocratic empire Concentration Camps

The original societies in Mesoamerica, for instance the Maya, were all small city states based on agriculture. Sacrifice was important for the ancient Maya, but originally the emphasis lied on the sacrifices which the rulers made themselves, for example by all kinds of blood letting rituals. When they became imperialistic systems which tried to expand their territory by military operations, human sacrifices became more frequent. The Aztec empire and many of the classical Maya city states under the influence of Teotihuacan turned into conquest states, and the temple pyramids turned from places where ancestors were worshiped and rulers made sacrifices into places of terror and human sacrifice. The Aztec ruler Ahuizotl ripped out the hearts from 20,000 captives to suppress vassal city rebellions.

The original Christian church was based on a religion of love. In the 15th and 16th century, the church had become rich and powerful, and it turned from a religious system into a political system, a kind of absolute monarchy. St. Peter’s Basilica reflects this change as it turned from a plain church into a magnificent palace, the new Basilica of the 15th century which replaced the old Constantinian basilica. The inquisition happened during this time, a time of rebellion and reformation, where many new forms of the Christian church emerged.

The original Ancient Roman was a culture based on agriculture, too. Mass crucifixions took place from 70 BC to 70 AD, when the Roman Republic turned into an autocratic Roman Empire and the Roman Senate was superseded in importance by the Colosseum. Crucifixion was used for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. Notorious mass crucifixions happened on a large scale during times of rebellion and insurgence: they followed the slave rebellion under Spartacus in 73-71 BC., other Roman civil wars in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To frighten other slaves from revolting, 6,000 of Spartacus’ men were crucified.

In ancient China during the Qin Dynasty we can find another form of inhuman torture, which was also used in Ancient Rome. People were buried alive on a massive scale. Books were burnt and scholars were buried in order to to unify all thoughts and political opinions and to suppress the intellectual discourse. This happened while the Qin Dynasty turned from a political system in form of legalism during the time of independent warring states into a imperialistic military system and an autocratic empire.

Now we can try to answer the question from the beginning why civilization and barbarism go sometimes hand in hand. It can happen at the beginning and the end of an empire or civilization, when culture and power collide, and power prevails. There are two conditions: (1) a system where this occurs must be in a transition, it may have made the transition from a civilized kingdom or monarchy into an increasingly autocratic empire, where an autocrat acts as a despot, tyrant and dictator. Roman civilization shifted from a monarchy to an oligarchic republic to an increasingly autocratic empire, the Christian church shifted from a religion of love to an oligarchic pope system with autocratic traits, the Mesoamerican civilizations shifted from Mayan city states into an increasingly autocratic Aztec empire, and the Chinese civilization shifted from a collection of kingdoms with a legal, political system into an increasingly autocratic Chinese empire. All these systems are marked by a lack of authority and mutual understanding between those at the top and those at the bottom of the system. A real autocrat is only interested in power and has lost contact to culture. And (2) the system must be questioned in a time of insurgence and rebellion.

Therefore inhuman torture and terror is not only a reaction of an evil and unjust system which is unable to change and to adapt itself. It seems to be a reaction of a system which fears the own ancestry. It has come to a branching point in evolution, where it has changed so much that it can not go back, and at the same time it can not completely loose one’s hold on the origin, either. It has changed so much that it starts to contradict itself, which opens a niche for its own ancestors. The most vulnerable points of such systems are perhaps the own roots: a system is threatened in its existence if it is challenged by its own ancestor, i.e. by a new system which is similar to the original system it has evolved from. To attack the roots means to tackle the fundamental principles of the system. If you criticize or touch the “holy” things of the system – which means the basic rules, customs, or symbols of the community – then you incur the wrath of it. The more unjust the system, the larger the wrath. The wrath of the system can reveal itself in the violation of the privacy and integrity of the individual. This works in the other direction as well: if an “evil” system touches the holy things of the individual (for instance privacy, freedom and physical integrity), then it may incur the wrath of the particular person, see Terror as adaptation.

In its extreme form, the rebellion threatens the existence of the whole system. Then the existence of the system is opposed to the existence of the individual, and vice versa. It seems as if a system becomes especially brutal if its very existence in threatened, and if it knows that its existence is questionable (the church by heretics in the Middle Ages which lead to inquisition, the Romans by insurgents which lead to crucifixion, the Nazis in WWII..) The concentration camps of the Nazis turned into real death factories when the existence of the Nazi regime was threatened towards the end of the war. Maybe this is the reason why the Aztecs – who were even worse than the Maya when it comes to human sacrifices – had a high culture and yet drowned in all the blood: because a small number of tyrannic rulers knew their existence was questionable and threatened. The Aztecs did not invent hieroglyphic writing systems and elaborate temples, they only imitated earlier cultures.

According to some sources, the Aztec emperors and the first Chinese emperor burnt like the Nazis many existing books claiming that they contained lies, and rewrote their own history. Burning books and burying scholars means to suppress all intellectual discourse. In a military system, it is good to suppress all intellectual discourse and to unify all thoughts and opinions. In a cultural system, it is bad and disastrous to suppress the intellectual discourse to unify all thoughts and political opinions. Book burning is a certain sign of culture in decline. It happens in a civilization where power prevails over culture. The first Chinese emperor and the Aztec emperors inherited a rich culture and made it wrong. Civilization(s) can come to an end when government goes awry. At the beginning and the end of an empire, civilization and barbarism go often hand in hand.

The civilized individual shares all the benefits of a large civilization, but it also shares the negative consequences, including toil, sweat and labor. The assets and drawbacks are not always fair or equally distributed, especially if the civilization is a transition point: in the beginning, at the end or in a crisis. Maybe this is what Walter Benjamin meant in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, where he argues that the history of civilization is a history of oppression.

For without exception the cultural treasures [..] have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

(The Photos are public domain photos from Wikipedia. They show the Reichsparteitag and the Aztec codex Magliabechiano)

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One Response to “The end of civilization(s)”

  1. […] want to be member of this system anymore and the system starts to dissolve. This can be the end of civilization. If people abandon their city in a city-state they leave their civilization behind, and the […]


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