Civilisation and Barbarism

Civilisation and Barbarism - by P.K.Odendaal - October 2014.

Note at the end added on 23 November 2013.
I have written a few futile attempts on civilisation, realising that it was very difficult to hunt it down, although not so difficult to kill. It is a very thin fabric and there is a growing concern in the world today that it might be very frail and that it might be under attack and that it might be very vulnerable. It was under serious attack more than a millenium ago and Europe escaped the total destruction of civilisation by the skin of its teeth.

Against civilisation, at the other extreme, I posit barbarism as its antidote, and though I respect both life forms, I only revere civilisation.

My inspiration for this comes from me watching a concert recently by the Semperopera of Dresden who performed the works of Lehar. Talk of an emblem or the outpouring of civilisation in one of its many forms - this is it.

Contemplating civilisation, I come to the realisation that civilisation is exposed by a nation in its music, dances, art, architecture, literature including poetry, its level of democracy, the narrative of its social, economic and political debate, its tolerance and consideration of the life, property and human rights of fellow citizens and the level of its technological development. It is also reflected in the level of education of its peoples.

Why did civilisation almost collapse a millenium ago. There were two main reasons - firstly the number of barbarians standing at its gates were multitudes greater than the civilised Romans and secondly the decadence and corruption of the civilised people and its institutions. It was local in its mechanics and demography and the overrun of civilisation by the barbarians was then only a matter of time.
We now face the same possible fate on a global scale. Global barbarianism is, so to speak, standing at the gates of the West which has once again become decadent and corrupt. It is not difficult to see these two signs. Firstly we have more than six billion people who can be regarded as barbarian in their level of civilisation and about one billion who have reached an advanced stage of civilisation. The reason for this is manyfold and it is not the purpose of this article to belabour it now. Secondly the West has acquired a valuable tool for becoming decadent and corrupt and that is called democracy. Instead of advancing the freedom and self realisation of a nation and its institutions, democracy, as practised by the West, has become a tool of enriching the rich, impoverishing the poor and corrupting its politicians and its administrators. Although it is too early to confirm this, I think it is not difficult to see that the nation that is supposedly the most civilised and democratic in the world, is on a path of self-destruction - a place where society and its protectors are failing to uphold basic democratic and human rights.
I think one of the detractors of civilisation - and possibly the main one - is capitalism. I have written an earlier article on capitalism and socialism and have pointed out that the horses in these two state forms are wrongly paired. Presently authoritarian states have a social economic form and democracies have a capitalistic economic form and that they should really be reversed, as democracy should really be paired with socialism and dictatorial states with capitalism. One good example of this is Canada where its mature democracy has incorporated large chunks of socialism into its capitalism with great success.
But that is not the whole story. Civilisation is much more than a state and economic form only, as enumerated above. It entails culture and learning even to a larger extent.
The reason why democracy and civilisation in the USA is taking a knock is because of its lack of a long term cultural history. No, five hundred years is no long term cultural history, as civilisation will only begin to manifest itself in a period longer than that. Just the recovery of Europe from its barbarous impact of the fourth century, was only restored in the renaissance of the fifteenth century - more than a millenium later, although the first mature civilisation - that of the Greeks - took only about five centuries to develop, and even after that period it became stale because of a lack of further development - it ran out of steam and it took Romans a further seven centuries to enhance and corrupt it.
I need to come back to the factors I enumerated above which constitutes and make up civilisation. Let us take literature for example. Writers do not just start to write good literature. Conditions of civilised culture and trust must be available in society to engender this. The same goes for art and architecture and those other nice things.
A case in point is architecture. Roman classical architecture could not be successfully revived in the New Classical style in France in the seventeenth century - it had become cold and inhuman by then. The eras of Art Nouveau and the Art and Crafts movement was superseded by a very cheap and basic Modern style. The latter may be development, but it is certainly not of a higher civilisation form - in fact a much lower one. It was championed by an architect named Mies van der Rohe, and his description of that style was 'skull and bones' architecture. It strikes me as very ironical that the most classic and beautiful architecture was that of Egypt who buried the skulls and bones of their kings in outstanding classical architectural buildings whilst the twentieth century architecture protected their kings of industry, so to speak, in skull and bones architectural buildings. Mankind just cannot get it right. It makes the same mistakes over and over again, and that is why we say history repeats itself. It is not history which repeats itself, it is mankind which repeats its mistakes.
As an example of the uneven balance between a small civilised group and a large barbarous group, I wish to look at technology. Technology has been so advanced by a very small group of technocrats for a multitude of idiocrats, that there exists a tension and uneasy symbiosis between the two. It is quite clear to me that the idiocrats of this world will in the long run overrun the technocrats of this world - not that it is such a bad idea for mankind. It is said that in olden days people were smart and phones were dumb, but today phones are smart and people are dumb. And that is exactly the problem with civilisation!

Note added on 23 November 2013.

On rereading this article I could not help but come to a very sober and interesting conclusion, and that is that the tension in this world is not about race, creed, colour or culture - it is about a class war between civilisation and barbarism.

If we look in general to the world of today and of ancient times, we see that it was really a class system which divided people and not race, colour or creed. What was the Roman Empire other than a very rigidly controlled class system? What is India and its castes today and of old other than a very rigidly controlled class system? What is South African reverse apartheid now and apartheid of old other than a very rigidly controlled class system? What is the USA and the tension between its rich and its middle class today, other than a loosely defined class system? What is the tension between Islam and Christianity today other than a loosely defined class system? What is a monarchy other than a very clearly defined class system? What is slavery in all its forms other than a class system?

Let me quote from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera called 'The Gondoliers':



There lived a King, as I've been told,
In the wonder-working days of old,
When hearts were twice as good as gold,
And twenty times as mellow.
Good-temper triumphed in his face,
And in his heart he found a place
For all the erring human race
And every wretched fellow.
When he had Rhenish wine to drink
It made him very sad to think
That some, at junket or at jink,
Must be content with toddy.

He wished all men as rich as he
(And he was rich as rich could be),
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody.

Now, that's the kind of King for me.
He wished all men as rich as he,
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody!

Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats—
In point of fact, too many.
Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May,
And Dukes were three a penny.
On every side Field-Marshals gleamed,
Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,
With Admirals the ocean teemed
All round his wide dominions.

And Party Leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

Now that's a sight you couldn't beat—
Two Party Leaders in each street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

That King, although no one denies
His heart was of abnormal size,
Yet he'd have acted otherwise
If he had been acuter.
The end is easily foretold,
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.

When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care—
Up goes the price of shoddy.

In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you'll agree,
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

Now that's as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree—

When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!