What is civilisation?

Listening to Mozart’s lyrical and graceful Symphony No. 40, I find myself wondering what makes a particular culture produce music of such exceptional beauty and others merely noise. Surely, we all have felt this in different ways, for instance when we say that old songs are much more melodious than the current ones. It seems to me that high quality of art is one of the marks of a highly developed civilisation. Art is important for a civilisation because it expresses the emotional states that motivate the human beings that populate the civilisation to fashion the world around them, and reinforces those motivations.

It has been proposed, perhaps by Albert Schweitzer that civilisation has two aspects. The first is the technological, which has to do with material questions of life such as how people can travel from one place to another, what means of communication are available, how far can medicine cure the ills of the body, what kind of buildings are we to live, learn and work in, and so on. The other aspect of civilisation is what Schweitzer calls the ethical aspect. This is concerned with the worldview of the persons that inhabit the civilisation, and how that worldview answers the questions of what the common good is, what is the purpose of work, what are the ideal kinds of relationships, what are the emotional tones that dominate our offices and homes, etc.

While each civilisation begins with very primitive technology and worldviews, both of these evolve with time, a development of one aspect pushing towards a development of the other. For example, in the earliest texts of the Hindu tradition – the Vedas – the worldview is intimately linked with the material situation of the Vedic people, who were semi-nomadic and semi-agricultural. Therefore, the central idea of existence is the veneration of an order in nature. The sun must rise and set, and then rise again the next day; the rains must fall the to ensure a good harvest;  the earth must continue to yield food and a place to live. The hymns in the Vedas are largely dedicated to deities who are personified aspects of nature – agni (fire), prithvi (earth), savitar (sun), vayu (wind) and so on.

Now you and I may ask, what significance do all these nature deities have to my life? That is precisely the question some people started asking around 1000 years before Christ. As the Vedic people become more adept at agriculture, material goods grew and trade increased. A city culture developed where the merchant class became a powerful force in society due to its newfound wealth.  Commerce between humans, rather than agriculture which depends on nature, became the major source of sustenance. Now the old Vedic worldview did not appeal to people any longer and they could no longer relate to the idea of offering sacrifice to nature deities to deal with the issues of human existence. The problems of existence were new and so must be the solutions. In came the tradition of forest dwellers in search for the meaning of life. Truth lies not in the cosmos, but at the core of one’s own self, it was said. The source of all physical and psychological existence was considered to be Brahman, the absolute reality, and in the heart of human beings was seen a spark of Brahman, the Jivatman. Sacredness lay not in the wind and fire, but in discovering the truth behind one’s own feelings and thoughts. From veneration of sacred nature to inward reflection on the essence of life, from small village based communities to commercial cities, a civilisational journey had been undertaken in India.

It seems to me that sometimes it is the worldview that brings about a rise in the technological level of a civilisation. This perhaps happened when Islam made its presence in the very technologically primitive society of 7th century Arabia and within 50 years, the same primitive Arab nomads had established an empire that extended from Spain in the West to Iran and Afghanistan in the East. Over the next three centuries this civilisation saw great developments in philosophy, medicine, architecture, mathematics, etc.

So what do these examples tell us about our original question? Civilisation may perhaps be considered a set of complex technological and social systems that are permeated with a worldview which is reflected in each of their activities. It also seems that much of the world’s civilisations have been motivated by a transcendent or spiritual ideal, be it the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or Christian. The Greco-Roman civilisation may here be an exception, although that is open to debate. It is the ideal – which is often spiritual but perhaps not necessarily so – which provides the motivation for living in the world and working towards a certain goal. The human being’s purpose in all his actions is to do what he can do best in moving civilisation towards this goal, in his small way. In his work he must use his potentials to create a body of work that expresses this ideal and in his relationships he must cultivate what his civilisation considers the ideal bonds between friends, lovers, parent and child, etc. If one accepts the above, it is natural to say that the highest activity in a civilisation is one of reflection, introspection and communication of the insights that come from these activities, so that their propagation can make the civilisation rise to new heights and meet new challenges.

From this point of view, modern civilisation is one where the technological aspects have been given a much greater degree of importance than the ethical. Each person is left to develop his own ethical perspectives. There are not many overarching worldviews that most members of a society still believe in. This individualism is most visible in modern art which has forsaken all efforts at living upto an ideal and made expression of one’s current feelings its goal. It is also visible in urban Indian culture where people are more confused about what careers to take up than they have perhaps ever been before. And once they have found their careers, they find work to be a drag and thirst for the weekend to get away for some temporary pleasures. Despite this disorienation, modern people continue to consider themselves to be an advance over all previous eras.

~ by tdcatss on September 8, 2009.

One Response to “What is civilisation?”

  1. This article flows really well. I love the way you bring about evolution of civilizations over a period of time.

    Learned a lot from this one, I must say. Got much desired food for thought.

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