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Civilization and the Envious Outsider 


What is civilization at first sight? Think of a Gothic barbarian on the northeast frontier of the Roman empire c. 400 A.D. His own life is bound to endless travel in small family-based groups with herds of animals. His possessions consist of what he can carry with him. He is dirty and often hungry. Coming upon a Roman city, he is amazed by the lavish homes of the rich and the large public buildings, by the architecture and statuary, by the strange writing inscribed in stone, by the beautiful well-clothed women adorned in jewelry, by the fact that these people seem to be comfortable, clean, and well-fed. There is a richness about civilization which he finds attractive. The civilized people are both materially and culturally rich. It is another world to him, one more appealing than his own. And so the story of early civilization often involves barbarian nomads who cast a covetous eye on the settled communities and sometimes plunder them.

Now relate this situation to the fact that there have been five generations or types of civilizations in recorded history according to the theory advanced in Five Epochs of Civilization. Each civilization has its own cultural characteristics. In common, however, they contain the idea of the outsider looking in. Each civilization involves an attractive “other world” offset against the realities of daily life. What can these be?

 


In the case of the first civilization, the culture centers upon the institution of royal government. For the average person in the society, this is quite another world. The royal court is a place of splendor and power, with well-dressed courtiers and musicians and sages. There is a daily pageant of activities as various important persons approach the throne. One realizes that the monarch is a person of great power. He may bear a scepter and wear a jewel-laden crown. He receives diplomats from distant places who bring exotic gifts. In time of war, the monarch is one who holds the safety of the community in his own hands. One can only regard this person with awe and respect if a royal procession should happen to pass by. Basically, commoners have little contact with the monarch whose position is established by birth. The duty of a citizen is to pay taxes and obey the royal commands. It is also to participate in the war-making activities of the state.

In the case of the second civilization, the “other world” consists of a spiritual domain announced or described by the founder of a religion. Buddha found a way to achieve “Enlightenment” and escape the sufferings of this world. Jesus preached: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” What was this “Kingdom of God”? As described in Old Testament prophecy, it was initially a restored Jewish kingdom ruled by a descendant of David. Later it was seen as a purely supernatural kingdom which would come to earth in a scenario of events involving the Messiah. The followers of Jesus expected that human history would soon be replaced by existence in this kingdom. But there was also a provision for the dead to be resurrected and admitted to the kingdom. So, the “Kingdom of God” gave way to the idea of a “Heaven” which the souls of righteous persons inhabited after death. The Islam religion also includes the concept of “paradise” for departed ones steadfast in the faith. Significantly, all religions allow an average person to gain admission to the desired spiritual realm whether it be “nirvana”, the “Kingdom of God”, “Heaven”, or “paradise”. The key to salvation is found in the teachings of the religion, especially in the words of its founder.

In the case of the third civilization, I can think of two different ways that it contains the idea of an “other world”. This civilization began during the Renaissance. This was a time when humanist scholars came across the relics of classical antiquity and realized that they were catching glimpses of a superior culture. The “other world” was, initially, this superior culture which was the civilization of classical Rome and Greece. The architecture, statuary, and engineering works of classical antiquity was better than that in medieval Europe. So was the literature, including science and philosophy, which had survived in ancient texts. Humanist scholars studied these various works and tried to imitate them.

It was thought that study of the classics would improve the present culture. People could become more sophisticated, cultivated, and wise through exposure to them. This was the beginning of the modern academic tradition. Eventually, students became exposed to the classics of their own culture. We, for instance, read and revere the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. But the idea was the same: By studying superior cultural works - “the best that has been thought and said”, in Matthew Arnold’s words - young men and women would be morally and intellectually uplifted. They would acquire a sense of cultivation that upper-class people ought to have. The upliftment came from looking at a world superior to one’s own and accepting its culture and point of view.

From humanist scholarship came our system of schools and universities. At first, only wealthy, upper-class families sent their children to the better schools. The college curriculum focused upon the study of the Greek and Latin classics. The eastern “prep schools” and Ivy League Colleges serviced the social and economic aristocracy, feeding its graduates into elite occupations. This, then, was an attractive “other world” to persons down the socioeconomic ladder. By sending their children to an elite school, they, too, could join the aristocracy. The son of Joe Blow would hobnob at college with the sons of the Cabots and Rockefellers and learn to be equals. The elite colleges broadened the student base to include academically talented children of the middle and lower classes, arguing that they provided indispensable training for lucrative occupations. In other words, the ticket to a good job was a college degree. So now this “good job” was the attractive “other world” which envious outsiders saw when considering college. One could better oneself in this world by becoming educated at a prestigious school.

The fourth civilization brought still another attractive “world” into view. It, too, was filled with beguiling images. What is this world? It was the realm of popular entertainment. A dispirited person sitting in a cramped, dingy apartment can turn on the television set and, for free, be treated to a range of amazing spectacles. Each show on television is a well-crafted work featuring beautiful, witty people. This is a glimpse into the world of superior personalities blessed with dramatic talent, great singing ability, or an unusual gift for making conversation. Alternatively, one can see images of attractive persons on the screen in a movie theater. One can listen to the beautiful voices and instrumental accompaniment in sound recordings heard on the radio or purchased at a music store. Such gems of rhythmic sights and sounds are everywhere in our society. Their spectacle easily appears through the operation of an electronic machine.

Of course, this culture is a kind of mirage. Ordinary people can see the performers but not touch them personally. The fact that people today are so interested in the personal lives of celebrity performers and will pay much money for a ticket to a live performance by one of them testifies to the desire to touch this world personally. Like barbarians casting an envious eye on Rome, inhabitants of our own civilization want to establish a more personal, intimate connection to the glamorous world of big-time entertainment.

The computer was invented by academics in a wartime environment. For a time, it served mainly government and corporate bureaucracies. Large businesses invested in computers to increase production efficiency and reduce labor costs.

The fifth civilization is based on the Internet and whatever will come next. It, too, would seem to offer a separate “world” out there in cyberspace. The Internet is more related to a viewer’s personal interests than the institutions previously discussed. The Internet provides a range of websites tailored to various points of view. Likely there will be something which matches quite closely what the Internet surfer wants to find. And so, in the fifth civilization, this “other world” may be a mirror image of the surfer’s own mind, if only the right website could be found. Beyond that, I would not want to comment.

It should be understood, however, that the “other worlds” posed by these various civilizations do affect the reality of “this world”. Government, religion, commerce, education, popular culture, and computer-based communication have each had an impact on the successive societies in which they appeared. We are interested here in the history of the civilizations and, therefore, in how these various institutions have brought changes to their societies. The “other worlds” themselves pertain mainly to the motivation of individuals encountering these institutions in the larger society. Each is a kind of gateway to a better life.

 

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