Friday, September 26, 2008

The steady crawl towards civilisation

Gustave Le Bon, writing in 1895, noted:

The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisation, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause os generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples... The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes in human thought.

He considered the ‘present epoch’ was at one of those ‘critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation.’ I would argue that we are still, one hundred years plus, in that same stage of transformation. It is a common mistake to telescope history and to assume that current events are of greater import than they are. The fall of the Roman Empire took hundreds of years. The rise of the age of enlightenment, which we believe to have started in the eighteenth and effectively concluded in the nineteenth centuries, is still in process. We never attained enlightenment. Entrenched opinion dragged us back.

Le Bon continued:

Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilisation are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.

To take the second point first, modern scientific and industrial discoveries have transformed our existence for the good. Of course, one can argue for or against the benefits of, for example, fossil fuel-driven technology, but the general thrust of scientific and technological advance is entirely beneficial. Living standards are better now than ever before. Again, one can argue that this is not universal and there are pockets of humanity which live in the same states of deprivation they did two hundred years ago. And that is indeed so, but in how many instances is that the fault of the stagnant political structure which still obtains, as a relic from pre-enlightenment times? As I say, this is a long game. Expecting immediate, universal panaceas is for idealists. One step at a time.

It is on Le Bon’s first point that difficulties emerge, difficulties which explain why, after two hundred or so years, we still have not managed to take that vital step into a new epoch. Political and social beliefs are changing. Le Bon points to the entry of the popular classes into political life. He likens it to a harking back to the ‘primitive communism’ which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilisation.’ What this means, to my mind, is that they are becoming more humanist. Again, of course, this is a generalisation, and it is not my intention to ignore or belittle those for whom political and social emancipation are a dream. But, taken as a whole, humanity is in a better state than it once was.

So what is holding it back? It is the first of Le Bon’s beliefs that adheres. Religion remains the single greatest blight on humanity. It remains the barrier we must overcome (or overgo, in Nietzschean phrase) in order to emerge into a new and fair civilisation. Of course religion has fought back. It was mortally wounded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as rationalism took hold, but it never went away. It remained, sustained itself, prepared itself for its resurgence.

And now, in true millennialist fashion, it is re-emerging, in bastardised, exaggerated forms: the repulsive religious right in America (and elsewhere); the retrogressive fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the Middle East and beyond, even the mindless spiritualism and mumbo-jumbo that preys on the gullible – feng shui, crystals, dreamcatching et al.

These religious beliefs have a strong hold on the human psyche. No-one really knows why. They are relics of some prehistoric thought processes and beliefs, but they have no place in a world that is pushing at the door of a better, more human civilisation.

‘The masses,’ Le Bon wrote, ‘repudiate to-day the gods which their admonishers repudiated yesterday and helped to destroy.’ Hindsight suggests he was premature in this belief. The sky gods still hold sway. But his concluding point is a key one, and should offer some comfort in these religion-threatened days:

There is no power, Divine or human, that can oblige a stream to flow back to its source.

Le Bon’s view of the rightness of this is tempered by his view of ‘the crowd’. ‘When the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds know, justifiably enough, as barbarians.’ He ‘fears’ that such a fate might be in store for current civiliation.

I would not use such negative language. One hundred years on, I still ‘hope’ that the moral force of our religious institutions will be dissolved by that great, brutal crowd known as humanity, to be replaced by a morality which owes nothing to superstition and everything to freedom.

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