The Meaning of Civilizational Death

A Heretic’s Log: A series of philosophical essays written between September 20, 2002 and July 15, 2004. 

The rise and fall of civilizations, or to frame things in more dramatic terms, the birth and death of civilizations, is not, and has not never exactly been, a smooth and quiet affair. Indeed, there is much tumult involved in this, and the event is bound to have many repercussions for all concerned. Still, the implications for the people affected by this, and their neighbors, are not necessarily numerous as they are profound. Moreover, when the death under discussion is not that of a single civilization, such as the Islamic, Indian or Chinese Civilization, but that of an entire “civilizational complex,” namely the “East,” the implications are simply bound to be global and enduring (see in this regard the previous Log: The Imperium between East and West).

But what does this exactly mean? Indeed, what is the meaning of civilizational death in this day and age?

The death of the East comes as the culmination of a long process of internal stagnation, on the one hand, and superimposition and incorporation (by the West), on the other. This development denotes the end of a long process of interaction between the two parts of the world that has become increasingly critical in the shaping of human history over the last millennium, especially the last two centuries.

The rise of the West at the expense of the East began when the former ended up realizing, following centuries-long unequal contact with the East, that it simply cannot afford to remain closed to the intellectual and cultural heritage of the latter, and that only through an intellectual openness to the East, it can develop itself enough to rival and even surpass it. This realization (espoused to varying degrees by certain individuals, of course) and the ensuing period of renascence it helped inspire has long led to the introduction of another period where, intellectually at least, the West managed to stand on its own two feet, so to speak, as an independent self-relying entity that owes most of its own intellectual developments to its own internal socioeconomic, political and intellectual dynamics. That is, the West has long ceased to depend on Eastern precedents for its own intellectual development.

Yet, the death of the East as a civilizational complex does not simply denote the End of Geography or History, to refer to two popular terms these days, but to the end of the process of linearity in the analysis and interpretation of human history and development and the introduction of nonlinear multidimensional thought (not to mention Chaos Theory) into the various fields of the humanities and social sciences. That is, we can no longer examine human history using the traditional framework of historical genesis and causation. More holistic transdisciplinary analysis will be required from now on in order to make sense of the past and contemporary development of human history(ies) and society(ies).

On the other hand, the End under consideration here can also be interpreted – in fact it needs to be interpreted – in certain moral terms as well (though caution needs to be exercised here in order to avoid certain racist and religionist pitfalls).

For the End here does indeed signify the moral superiority of Modern Western values[1] over the traditional values of both East and West, the behavioral patterns of Western societies and states notwithstanding. This is so, because Modern Westerns values, in principle at least, justify themselves on the basis of an appeal to human reasoning, and not some sanctified scripture, revelation or tradition, and call for the respect of human rights, and not simply those of one’s co-religionists or co-nationals. This is a first in human history, and this is what gives a moral and ethical dimension to the whole phenomenon to which we usually refer as human progress.

The existence of rejectionists does not invalidate the argument here, as the alternatives offered by them hearken back on older sanctified times and outmoded and, more importantly, limited, moral codes of basic rights, which fail to appeal to most of those who are on the receiving end, that is, those whose basic rights will be compromised according to these older codes. Even militant Islamists tend to escape the repressive climate of their countries and seek freedom in the “degenerate” societies and polities of the West where their basic rights of speech and assembly are respected. This respect cannot be dismissed as taking place for tactical reasons, as some try to assert, as it is also applied to other radical groups indigenous to the West as well, and more importantly, because these rights have been elaborated over the preceding centuries by philosophers seeking to improve human lot and respect for human dignity. That is, they are not constructs of some regimes wishing to preserve their control, or trying to distract attention from it (although they could be exploited to this end).

Still, and as we noted earlier, we should be very careful here so as not to fall into old racist and religionist stereotyping. The West’s victory, which signals the beginning of its own demise as well (vide The Imperium between East and West), is not synonymous with that of Christianity or the white race, or any religion or race for that matter. For, and as we have noted earlier, it was only through openness towards “otherness,” and other values and value-systems, no matter how tentative it proved to be at the beginning, that the West managed to work out this victory. Moreover, the West’s openness itself seems to have been instigated by a lack of other options and alternatives rather than foresight, or some intrinsic value or predisposition. Caught for centuries between a victorious, threatening and interventionist East, on the one hand, and the Ocean, on the other, private individual and communal initiatives have finally managed to gather enough momentum to spark the beginning of the West’s intellectual openness, a development facilitated by existing economic and commercial ties.

The Shift of the civilizational impetus/imperative from the East to West, therefore, can be said to have been the result of three basic causes:

1)  The restraints imposed and opportunities afforded by the particular geo-environmental complexes involved (vide The Imperium between East and West), which plays a crucial role in dictating the nature, size and pace of development of civilizations (as Jared Diamond has so convincingly argued in his work Guns, Germs and Steel). Given time, and barring some natural disasters or catastrophic social developments (such as civil wars), people are always bound to exploit to the full the various advantages offered by their physical environment. This is also one area where peoples never failed to learn from each other, regardless of their particular relations or of their perception of “otherness.”

2)  The usual pattern of the rise and fall of civilizations noted by so many historians and intellectuals in the East and West, wherein the rise of a new civilization provides new opportunities for the creative impulse of the people involved and/or affected, while the vacuum created by the fall of an older one helps set the ground for the eventual rise of another, regardless of its comparative degree of development vis-à-vis its predecessor.

3)  The amalgamation and consolidation over time of a certain critical number of private individual and communal initiatives.

As such, the moral superiority of Modern Western values and their universal quality, as we have attested earlier, is clearly related to their appeal to human reason and experience as their foundational elements, and not to some sacral notion, a matter that keeps them open to empirical analysis. More importantly, they are only viable as long as they take the question of human rights within the framework of human responsibility towards the physical environment.

Coming up with new universal principles and values is one thing, of course, putting them to practice is quite another. But the continuing failure of Western societies to live up to their own avowed ideals should not blind us to the fact that the standards of respect for human rights there is much better than in the East, at this stage. Noting the eternal contradiction between principle and practice should not lure us into falling into the usual trap of engaging in anti-Western polemics. If the West is not a good teacher of the values that it has developed over the years, perhaps it is up to us then to become better students and surpass our teachers. Indeed, we are not blaming the victim when we admit that the greater burden in “our” human development, as peoples of the East, should be borne by “us.”

Notes

[1] Not to be confused with Modern Western culture or with the spirit of consumerism it currently advocates, despite the fact that these things tend to reflect and be influenced, in part at least, by these values.