A New, Old, View of Civilizations

Generations of history textbooks have assumed two things about the history of civilizations:

  • Human civilization is a relatively new phenomena, originating in the Fertile Crescent sometime around 3500 B.C.
  • Human civilization developed largely because of an increase in technical skill which allowed for plowing, increase of production, storage, etc.

I have never liked the second assumption.  It seems so easy for us to make it, for it reflects our bias perfectly.  Toynbee wrote of the predilections of western civilization,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

Though I find James Burke’s Connections series entertaining, he too makes the same assumptions about the development of civilization.  What brings people together for Burke is tools, food, and political organization.  Our “appetite for mechanics” has us assume that others had the same appetite.

Recent finds at the enigmatic site of Gobekli Tepe look to possibly overthrow both of the common assumptions.

Essentially, the site contains precision stone work thousands of years before the Egyptians supposedly invented working with stone.  Not only that, we have no evidence of any habitations near the site-it appears to be the only structure at all in the vicinity.  Add to this, the site appears to have no “practical” purpose to it.  Most think it served as a place of worship.  A recent article reads,

 . . . these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Any student of ancient history will almost immediately realize that the ancients did not share our passion for mechanics, and surmise that the origins of civilization lies elsewhere.  But common sense will suffice for anyone lacking such rudimentary knowledge.  Common love of something draws people together and creates relationships.  Common needs may bring people together temporarily.  Common loves will sustain and likely originate such relationships.  We all experience this. We are what we worship.*

Others suggest that the Gobeckli-Tepe site dates just after what appears to be a cataclysmic flood–perhaps caused by large meteors striking the polar ice-caps.  Those that built Gobeckli-Tepe may have been, in fact, transferring technology from a previous, post-flood civilization.  It is striking that the first thing they do, then, is to build a religious temple.

I should stress that these remain theories, but I find them an exciting indication of a reworking of our theories of the past.

Gobekli Tepe may rouse the historical/archaeological community to rethink their views of the past, and I welcome this.  But we should realize that such a shift would not lead to a discovery of something new about mankind, but something as old as the world itself.


*This helps explain why most moderns judge those like Charlemagne so harshly.  How can he insist on a common faith of those he governs?  Not only does it fly against our sense of individual rights, it seems so unnecessary.  Didn’t Charlemagne know that starting in the late 18th century we decided that a shared use of certain technological tools creates stable societies, and not religion?

We may scoff at those who fight over religious belief.  But western powers have fought over natural resources that will allow us to create more technological tools, or more powerful tools, and so on.  Maybe ‘technological advancement’ functions like a religion for much of the modern west.

Maybe all wars can be boiled down to religious belief.


8th Grade: Civilization is Dinner with Friends


This week we wrapped up our introductory unit on civilizations in general and moved into more specific civilizations, beginning with Egypt.

Earlier this week I wanted the students to consider exactly what purpose civilizations serve.

In 1 Corinthians Paul seeks to address the pride and competitiveness of the Corinthian congregation.  He uses the analogy of the “Body of Christ” to show that no one can be a one-man show.  Whether we be arms or eyes, we need each other to function.  “No man is an island,” as the saying goes.

This same analogy applies to civilizations in general.  We cannot do all that we need to do to survive, or at least, thrive.  Since we cannot do all ourselves, we need the gifts and talents of others to help make our lives consist of something beyond mere survival.  Civilizations therefore exist to make communal life, and communal creation, possible.  When we realize this, many other things come into proper focus.   As C.S. Lewis once remarked, civilization boils down to dinner with friends or a game of darts at a pub.  The power that civilizations can muster, the roads, the armies, the buildings, really serve this end. It’s easy for us to forget this, and it’s easy for civilizations themselves to do the same.

This means that civilizations, in my opinion, should ultimately be about the maintenance of small communities, and not the amorphous group.  But the awesome power generated by the social connectivity of civilizations opens them up to tremendous temptations. Civilizations can drift, and start to think that the social order itself as the “Ultimate.”  Civilizations can think that they exist to serve their own ends and perpetuate itself. With this attitude civilizations become our master and not our servant.  This leads into a subtle idolatry, man worship, not of the individual, but of the group.  When a civilization loses sight of things beyond themselves and the everyday, they lose vision, and hope for the future.  It is the first step toward decline.

This is not to say that civilizations are not good things.  The alternative is barbarism, a sub-human existence. But civilizations are tricky things.  One only has to think about our homes to realize this.  We make a great effort to sweep and clean, and the house looks great.  Then someone leaves a coat here, and shoes there.  The dishes pile up, and our wills and energy reserves slacken.  Given the human tendency towards decay, destruction, and death, the relative success of civilizations is a gift of God. It goes against our human tendencies.

As we moved into Sumeria, we looked at Sargon the Great, probably the first empire builder.  This brought up the issue of the benefits of size.  Empires/large countries often do have more power and resources and their disposal. Their size can also lead to diversity, which can cushion them from specific problems in certain areas.   For example, If Louisiana was a civilization unto itself, Hurricane Katrina would have destroyed it, or at least dramatically weakened it for decades. Because they are but a small part of whole, however, it can be rebuilt.

But smaller countries have less to manage, less to defend, and less to worry about in general.  I often wonder, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were Belgium?  What does Belgium have to worry about?”  Riches and power alone can never bring happiness.  Also, might there be a correlation between the size of the population and the liberty that population can enjoy?  Most classical theorists of government, like Aristotle for example, believed that democracy could only exist in small self contained communities.  When a babysitter watches just 1-2 children, those children have a large degree of freedom as to what they do.  When a sitter has to watch 15 children, all the children must stay together and do the same thing in the same place.  So too, a general truth of history is that large countries with large populations tend to offer less individual freedom than smaller ones (this rule has exceptions).  Which model is superior, and why have most civilizations chosen to pursue expansion and empire?  These are some of the questions I want the students to consider.

On Friday we had our first mini class discussion, where half the class tackled the topic of ancient cave paintings like these below . . .

These drawing predate what most historians and archaeologists would consider the dawn of “civilization” by thousands and thousands of years.  I wanted them to consider whether or not those that produced these works came from a society that could be called civilization.  Students presented good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I think that the drawings (especially, in my opinion, those from Chauvet cave, which includes the 2nd picture of the bears above) have remarkable communicative power.  This power can only come from great skill, and for them to develop this skill, civilization most likely existed.  Of course we can’t know for sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

If you have further interest in the cave paintings, Werner Herzog made an excellent film about them that is worth seeing called Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Have a great weekend,


12th Grade: The Peace Democracies Pursue

Greetings to all,

Welcome!  I hope the year will be a blessed one for you and your family.  Senior year can be at turns stressful and special all at once.  My prayer is that you will look back on the vista of your achievement have reason for thankful hearts come June.

As I mentioned in orientation, this class discusses the idea and practice of democracy.  This means we will look at different events and thinkers across time and space.  It means also that we need to hit the “reset” button and re-examine our beliefs with the aid of the great philosophers and events from the past.

We began the year rethinking our approach to civilizations in general, just as we did way back in 8th grade.  We discussed what a civilization is and is not, and how democracies fit within that framework. But I also wanted to consider whether or not we should view civilization as good thing in itself, or if civilization is in fact the core problem of our existence.  Here we have two basic approaches:

  • Civilization is good because it provides a framework for fruitful human interaction.  Civilization as we know it would have existed even without the Fall — note that there was “law” in the Garden.
  • Civilization may have some redeeming characteristics, but overall it is the symbol of the “City of Man” and serves to concentrate the human impulse to exploit one another.  Note how in Genesis 4 the arts of civilization get developed by Cain’s lineage.

You can read more about this theory in the post reviewing I Saw Satan Fall like Lightning.

We also discussed what the concept of democracies mean.  We might understand that democracies, like dogs, can take different forms.  But what is it about democracies that we would intrinsically recognize across different forms?  What is the central core of democracies?  How do we recognize that boxers, poodles, and labradors are all dogs?

We can start out our thinking on this question by considering what the “natural core community” is of a particular form of government.  In monarchies the family serves as this core.  The king comes from a “royal family.”  The successor to the king is the king’s oldest son, and so on.  In oligarchies one could argue that the clan, or an extended group of families, forms the central core.  When one builds from a proper foundation, good results can follow, but if not, we can expect significant problems.  For example, imagine a literature teacher who thought that “it’s all about the kids.”  With this approach, the teacher would not care whether or not they read Homer, Shakespeare, or the latest teen romance so long as “the kids were engaged.”  In fact, in literature class it should be “all about the literature,” and the students’ engagement with it.  Without this foundation, no “literature class” would exist.

What about democracies?

Truthfully, they have no central building block.  Democracies build on the foundation of “all men are created equal.”  Each individual is a core unto himself.  The giant mass of people (“We the people of the United States . . .”) also could be the core, for democracies at least in theory do not discriminate. Not only do democracies have no ethnic divisions or class divisions, they also have no geographical boundaries.  Democracies preach human rights, not English rights, or German rights.  The spirit of democracies roves to and fro, in contrast to the more tradition oriented forms of government.

This reality gives democracies enormous potential dynamism.  It is no coincidence that democratic peoples both now and in history have been the most powerful countries in existence when they thrive.  They build invincible citizen armies, and can even produce superior culture (think of Periclean Athens, or the law of Rome’s Republic, or Whitman and Twain, etc.)

But this floating and amorphous core gives rise to potentially massive and dangerous contradictions when individuals don’t receive equal treatment.  Our own civil war comes easily to mind, or the tumultuous 1960’s which had its roots in the unequal treatment of blacks.  Today we see the same logic used surrounding the marriage issue for homosexuals.  Christians have solid Scriptural and historical reasons for opposing it, but do democracies?  If the majority of people approve or disapprove of something, should that be enough to make it so?  As one student last year noted, democracies find their reference point in the here and now.

These potential stress points also inform a democracy’s foreign policy.  We see that in regards to Syria. When flagrant human rights abuses take place and the world knows about it, the boundary-less, human-conscious democracies must take notice (I realize that there is some dispute as to exactly what is happening in Syria).  Of course, we should realize that democracies will process information differently than other forms of government.  The internet age fits very well with the international field of vision democracies can’t help but fall into.

I assigned the students a small portion of Augustine’s magisterial The City of God which we will discuss on Wednesday.  Augustine discusses how each person ultimately seeks eternal peace with God.  On earth, we seek shadows of this peace in various ways.  He wisely points out that even we make war to bring about a peace more suitable to us.  By the nature of our creation in God’s world we naturally seek harmony with our surroundings, though often in false ways.  I want the students to consider what kinds of political and social equilibrium democracies pursue, and what the consequences for that will be.

Many thanks,