Monday, March 26, 2007

Civilization: Amid Old Triumphs, New Threats from Fascism

Bertrand Russell, in his Wisdom of the West, put forward a simple thesis. Western Civilization is essentially Greek civilization.
There is no civilization but the Greek in which a philosophic movement goes hand in hand with a scientific tradition. It is this that gives the Greek enterprise its peculiar scope; it is this dual tradition that has shaped the civilization of the west.

--Bertrand Russell, Wisdom of the West
In support of his thesis, Russell points to the authoritarian, theocratic natures of earlier civilizations --Egypt and Babylonia. Religion, Russell stated, seems inconsistent with the Greek spirit of free inquiry typified most famously by Socrates and the Platonic tradition that followed. It is because Greek civilization was primarily secular, Russell believed, that the spirit of "free inquiry" took root in the west. This spirit, he believed, was incompatible with both authoritarianism and religion itself.

A Renaissance of Western Civilization was associated with the pre-eminence of Lorenzo Di Medici in Florence and specifically his support of a new Plato Academy. Eminent scholars -Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano and Demetrios Chalkondyles depicted (above) in Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco, Zaccaria in the Temple -refocused European attention on the Greek classics and inspired a renewed interest in learning. The plights of Giordano Bruno and Galileo make clear the fact that despite the Greek revival an Eastern religion, Christianity, was, in fact, at odds with the secular nature of inquiry and learning.

But to point that out gets ahead of the story, a story told by Lord Kenneth Clark in his famous Civilization series for the BBC and, most recently, by Thomas Cahill who authored a short but influential book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Although we associate our Western civilization with "the new learning", it was Scholasticism, kept alive throughout the Dark Ages by clerics, that survived well into the Rennaisance. Russell points out that throughout the 7th through the 9th Centuries, Europe witnessed a Papacy walking the treacherous, narrow line between warring barbarians on the frontiers and Eastern Emperors who had inherited the trappings of the Roman Empire -bureaucracy, a rule of law, various standards of civilization. The barbarians, by contrast, ruled by force. Byzantium was at least civilized and would, in fact, survive the Middle Ages, described by William Manchester as A World Lit Only by Fire.

If civilization is best described as a thin veneer over the otherwise rude necessitudes of sheer survival, it fell to clerics to keep alive the more ephemeral ideals -literacy, the rule of law, the faith itself. That story, of course, began well before the 7th century, well before the fall of Rome itself.

It must surely be one of the great ironies of history that the task of saving civilization may have fallen to the monks of
Skellig Michael, a steep rocky crag of an island west of the coast of County Kerry, literally, the cold, dank remote reaches of Ireland.

Never immune from barbarian raids, Ireland's remoteness may have made it the standard bearer of civilization. In one of two surviving documents attributed to Patricius, otherwise known to history as St. Patrick, an interesting tale is told. A young Patricius, having been kidnapped by "wild Irish pirates" at the tender age of 15 years, escaped his captivity in County Mayo. In his "Confession", St. Patrick tells of sailing to Europe with a band of trader/pirates. On the continent, this unlikely band encountered scenes of desolation, abandoned villages, ruined farms, a worrisome lack of food.
And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days journeyed through uninhabited country, and the food ran out and hunger overtook them; and one day the steersman began saying: 'Why is it, Christian? You say your God is great and all-powerful; then why can you not pray for us? For we may perish of hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see another human being.' In fact, I said to them, confidently: 'Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that today he will send food for you on your road, until you be sated, because everywhere he abounds.' And with God's help this came to pass; and behold, a herd of swine appeared on the road before our eyes, and they slew many of them, and remained there for two nights, and the were full of their meat and well restored, for many of them had fainted and would otherwise have been left half-dead by the wayside.

-The "Confessio" of St. Patrick
If ever there was a time for prayer this was it. The faithful will believe that Patricius's prayer worked.

It is easy to conclude that Patricius and his erstwhile friends had encountered the very twilight of empire, the devastation left in the wake of retreating legions. This is arguably the most concrete picture we have of Europe at that time. It's a picture of European civilization surviving " the skin of our teeth", clinging desperately to life like the lichens on the barren rocks of Skellig Michael itself.

This is a notion not easily dismissed and too easily romanticized. After all, we are left the Book of Kells, produced by Celtic monks around AD 800. This work is a testament to the stubborn human impulse to rage at seemingly inexorable forces of chaos, decay, and oblivion. Even atheists must recognize the achievements of quiet, impoverished clerics and scholars over a period of several hundred years. But for their efforts, civilization might simply have faded into a highland mist like so many tales of Avalon.

Is it accurate to give so much credit to Ireland? In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill concedes that Greek literature and the Hebrew and Greek Bibles survived independently elsewhere. "Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish," he concludes. But, he speculates, "...the national literatures of Europe might not have emerged had the Irish not forged the first great vernacular literature of Europe."

By the time of the Renaissance, however, it fell to the secular minds of men like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo to advance the spirit of inquiry. A broader view is taken by Russell who saw a broad departure from ancient priesthoods originating in Greece and taking shape over centuries of European history. He also saw the persistent threat of anti-democratic authoritarianism which would be associated in his time with fascism and Nazism:
"There is over a large part of the earth's surface something not unlike a reversion to the ancient Egyptian system of divine kingship, controlled by a new priestly caste. Although this tendency has not gone so far in the West as it has in the east, it has, nevertheless, gone to lengths which would have astonished the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both in England and in America. Individual initiative is hemmed in either by the state or by powerful corporations, and there is a great danger lest this should produce, as in ancient Rome, a kind of listlessness and fatalism that is disastrous to vigorous life. I am constantly receiving letters saying: 'I see that the world is in a bad state, but what can one humble person do? Life and property are at the mercy of a few individuals who have the decision as to peace or war. Economic activities on any large scale are determined by those who govern either the state or the large corporations. Even where there is nominally democracy, the part which one citizen can obtain in controlling policy is usually infinitesimal. Is it not perhaps better in such circumstances to forget public affairs and get as much enjoyment by the way as the times permit?' I find such letters very difficult to answer, and I am sure that the state of mind which leads to their being written is very inimical to a healthy social life. As a result of mere size, government becomes increasingly remote from the governed and tends, even in a democracy, to have an independent life of its own. I do not profess to know how to cure this evil completely, but I think it is very important to recognize its existence and to search for ways of diminishing its magnitude."

-Bertrand Russell, Authority and the Individual, p. 18-19:

Have we come all this way only to lose civilization to a new and corporate dark age?

Free Inquiry

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