Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eight

“Western Civilisation,” pages 118-131

If we want to understand our civilisation, the tools that we have at hand are those of history, anthropology, and travel. All of them have a tendency to tell us more about the researcher than about the civilisation, however. Anthropologists who study savages can make them noble, or bloodthirsty, or what have you: “the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s theories [p. 118].” But we must work with the tools at our disposal.

Civilisation is marked by forethought. [Russell later devotes more time to forethought in Human Society in Ethics and Politics – RBR.] We can grasp the notion of forethought by considering activities that involve current pain but hold the prospect of future reward. The higher the pain, the lower the future pleasure, and the longer the interval between pain and pleasure, the greater the forethought that is required for such activities to go forward. Society might display a high level of forethought, even though individuals do not; for instance, it might be the case that the rulers reap the future pleasure, but require the minions to contribute the current pain. Collective forethought is significant in industrialized societies, which abound in projects such as railroads and harbors that take many years of nurturing to yield fruit. [A bit surprised that Russell doesn’t mention the opposite time profile, that associated with tempting or addictive goods, of current pleasure paired with some probability of future pain – RBR.]

Ancient Egyptians laboriously embalmed bodies with the view to a resurrection in 10,000 years, so in that sense their planning horizon more than equaled that of today’s industrial societies. Their efforts indicate that civilisation advances not just through forethought but through knowledge, so that those present pains really do stand a chance of paying off down the road. Nonetheless, even patience that is not well-informed can inculcate habits that can build civilisations, just as Puritan efforts to postpone pleasures [those addictive goods! – RBR] until the next life helped to spur economic investment. But a working definition of civilisation is: “A manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought [p. 119].”

Civilisation, then, begins with agriculture and animal domestication. Traditionally, there has been separation and even dissonance between agricultural and pastoral societies, and agricultural societies have tended to have more developed civilisations. (The biblical tale of Cain and Abel swims against the tide, intending to illustrate the superior virtue of shepherds.) Prior to industrialization, the agriculture-based civilisations around the world were more similar than they are now; “Science and industrialism are nowadays the distinctive marks of Western civilisation…[p. 120].”

Pre-industrial Western civilisation began to differentiate itself through the Greek inventions of geometry and deduction. The Greeks had many other successes (in art, for instance, and in empirical methods), but these were either lost or undeveloped, and hence these excellencies did not lend themselves to traditions which became a distinctive part of Western civilisation.

The contributions of Greek reasoning and mathematics might have been lost due to Greek political incompetence, if the politically astute Romans were not able to preserve them. Roman political institutions allowed emperors to come and go with little effect on the workings of the empire’s bureaucracy. The Roman innovation was loyalty to the state, not to the emperor, and its legacy still contributes to Western political stability.

As Roman power waned, Christian institutions picked up some of the building blocks of modern Western civilisation, including ethics, reasoning (for the purposes of theology), and a bureaucracy featuring centralized control, along with a legal code. During the Middle Ages, these building blocks were dormant, and Chinese and Islamic civilisations eclipsed the West. The rise of the West and science remain mysterious, incapable of being explained solely by economic factors. (The decline of Spain concerned intolerance, not economics.) Though there have been some isolated cultural blooms, including the recent one in Western Europe, “The general rule is that civilisations decay except when they come in contact with an alien civilisation superior to their own [p. 122].” The times of spontaneous growth are hard to differentiate from the more common periods of stasis, so we are left with the notion that a handful of exceptional people can be enough to advance a civilisation. Their contributions must find fertile ground, but the ground has been more available than the geniuses who thrive in it. Without Newton, Kepler, and Galileo, we currently would live in a world that would resemble the world of the 1500’s. Stasis remains possible, if the well of talented people runs dry.

Representative democracy on a large scale is a valuable legacy of the Middle Ages, one that promotes stability; nonetheless, representative government has not proven to be a viable export to non-English speaking countries (except for France).

Western civilisation is unique in its political “cohesion.” This cohesion is rooted in patriotism, which took on its modern form when England was threatened by the Spanish Armada, and found “its first literary expression in Shakespeare [p. 124].” Japan caught up to the West in the sense of political cohesion in the 1800s.

Technological improvements in warfare strengthened the hands of governments, who have been able to establish this cohesion. The large number of workers needed to produce advanced weaponry pressure governments to maintain the support of significant segments of the population. One manner of doing so is through effective propaganda, and we can expect the persuasive arts to be enhanced through extensive governmental efforts.

Europe is engaged in a centuries-long transition, with science and patriotism contributing the centripetal force formerly supplied by Christianity. European-style outcomes cannot be assured in other cultures when science gains a foothold, because of differing foundations. Christianity, for instance, provides a basis for respect for the individual – a respect that science itself does not require. Science does not come packaged with any set of moral values. [Sam Harris disagrees – RBR.] Most of our moral ideas are inherited from a pre-industrial age, but over time they will adjust to conform with the realities of modernity. The rapid change in living conditions has led morality to lag: “the world has changed more in the last one hundred and fifty years than in the previous four thousand [p. 125].” [Writing in the 1840s, Friedrich Engels made a similar point: “Sixty, eighty years ago, England was a country like every other, with small towns, few and simple industries, and a thin but proportionally large agricultural population. To-day it is a country like no other, with a capital of two and a half million inhabitants; with vast manufacturing cities; with an industry that supplies the world, and produces almost everything by means of the most complex machinery; with an industrious, intelligent, dense population, of which two-thirds are employed in trade and commerce, and composed of classes wholly different; forming, in fact, with other customs and other needs, a different nation from the England of those days.”] Many of our outdated codes view the relief of suffering – such as by condoning birth control – to be immoral. But in a science-based society, attempts to limit access to the tree of knowledge as a means to sustain outdated beliefs will not be effective. [The urge to censor knowledge to serve other goals comes up frequently in Russell’s writings.]  

Our moral traditions derive from the level of the individual and from small groups, whereas modernity requires the cooperation of countless numbers of people. Thus the largest coherent group, the nation, takes on a moral character, and patriotism becomes a sort of religion, one for which people willingly sacrifice their lives.

Industrialization and large-scale organization threaten the status that individual liberty achieved in recent centuries. Bridges and skyscrapers are the work of many, while a work of art might be one person’s achievement. Those living individuals who gain respect generally do so for trivial accomplishments in sport or cinema.

Perhaps the greatest creations require an individual creator. Or, maybe the art that will be produced by groups in the future will exceed the solo masterpieces of the past. Much science already is best thought of as being accomplished at the laboratory level, not as the work of an individual scientist. At any rate, the rise of collective endeavor will surely entail some cost in the form of reduced individuality and assertiveness.

The Christian notion that each human has a soul has been a boon to individualism. [Russell raised this point again in Unpopular Essays.] Family connections tended to mitigate the extreme individualism that Christianity promotes, but families have weakened, and now the state provides the communal connection. It might be better if people were drawn to a broader aggregate, humanity writ large, but absent a major change such as a grave external threat to the globe, the psychological sympathies of people are hard to expand beyond the nation state. [Adam Smith made a similar claim in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VI.II.27): “The state or sovereignty in which we have been born and educated, and under the protection of which we continue to live, is, in ordinary cases, the greatest society upon whose happiness or misery, our good or bad conduct can have much influence. It is accordingly, by nature, most strongly recommended to us.”]

The main elements in Western civilisation now are science and technology. Nonetheless, these building blocks will produce still larger effects in the future – note how long it took agriculture and the ideas associated with agriculture to spread across the globe. (Aristocratic classes are still stuck in the hunting stage of development.) It will be a long time before the ideas of industry fully replace those of agriculture. Nonetheless, the industrial mentality can spread rather quickly. In the US, agriculture itself is being industrialized. In countries like Russia and China, the backward peasantry is uneducated and illiterate – their children, therefore, can easily be captured by the industrial propaganda of the state, allowing for a rapid change in worldviews.

The rise of science and industry might be uncomfortable for some traditionalists, but their Western roots date at least to Rome, and can be seen in Plutarch’s account of Archimedes’s military inventions. “Energy, intolerance, and abstract intellect have distinguished the best ages in Europe from the best ages in the East [p. 129].” The persistence of Western intolerance sometimes is overlooked, despite the fate of Socrates and Plato’s rigid recommendations. [Plato’s intolerance is discussed by Russell elsewhere, too.] Many of the worst features of modern life existed in ancient Greece, including corruption, nationalism, and militarism. The Greeks were advantaged relative to us by not having an efficient police force, which meant that significant numbers of the best people were able to escape oppression.

The previous century and a half of emphasis on religious tolerance is an aberration in the West’s historical arc, and is giving way to a new round of racial and religious intolerance. Persecution in the West took off with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The Christians combined Jewish certitude of having the one true religion with Roman desires for world conquest and Greek capacities for finely grained thinking. The product was a degree of persecution that greatly surpassed that of the world’s other major religions, which often allowed non-coreligionist neighbors to live in peace.

So Fascism and Communism come by their intolerances honestly. Would someone opposed to government orthodoxy in modern Europe have fared any better in ancient Sparta, or in medieval Christendom? Europe has a brutal history: burning witches and killing those who refused to accept the existence of witches, destroying the Incas, following a 19th century pope who disclaimed any human duty to non-human animals. “I am afraid Europe, however intelligent, has always been rather horrid, except in the brief period between 1848 and 1914 [p. 131].”

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