The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper

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Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “

Mr Dylan’s bad language

Mr Dylan’s bad language

I like to check out the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world of books in our highly literate world is so vast that any pointers to quality oeuvres that speak of different histories is welcome. It is how I discovered Symborska and Transtormer and a few others.

You can imagine my shock then, late last year, when the Nobel Committee declared the 2016 winner to be the over-celebrated bard of the 60’s, Bob Dylan. 

Shock grew to doubt about the Nobel’s claim to award distinctions, and then to searching questioning about what this meant about the culture. It was not the first unconventional choice by the committee. The year before a Russian journalist won the prize; but at least her deep testimonies of the experiences of post-communist Russia were unequivocally her own work, and she showed up to accept the prize.

Mr Dylan struck out on both counts. He did not go to his award ceremony. He had other commitments, a schedule full of the kind of unbreakable commitments made by aging rock celebrities. A rather sheepish American ambassador appeared in his stead, and duly read what she had to say was Mr Dylan’s speech.

But it gets worse. The Committee insisted that to claim the prize, and the substantial money attached, Mr Dylan must give an acceptance speech. So he did, a mere couple of days before the deadline, when he would have lost his cheque. But the aging rolling stone could not make it to Sweden; he posted his speech to YouTube, a 30 minute ramble about the great literary traditions from which he sprang, including Moby Dick.

Perhaps this is innovation? Perhaps it is a sly parody of formality from which he chooses to stand apart. Or perhaps it is lazy, arrogant and incompetent contempt.

On investigation it appears Mr Dylan was not capable of giving an authentic account of his literary craft, and too narcissistic to believe he would be found out for his failure. His speech contained dozens of sentences cribbed like a lackadaisical student directly from Spark Notes, that well known den of scholarly scoundrels. Andrea Pitzer at Slate makes the case, complete with laid out comparisons of Mr Dylan’s and Spark Notes texts on that US high school text, Moby Dick, and puts the compelling question: is the current Nobel Laureate a not very literary plagiarist?

So what does this mean for the culture? What does it tell us about the destructive flames of contemporary life that threaten to burn to the ground our precious archive of memory, history, tradition, literature and culture?

I fear it is another sign of the death of culture. I fear it is a sign of a new bourgeois stupidity that we not yet know how to fight, as Flaubert did in another age.

But perhaps I could speaking to the twisting nether, and ask this of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize: take the prize back from Mr Dylan’s slack and begging hands. It is time for Culture to mutiny against Mr Dylan’s bad language.

On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time?

Vaclav Havel

A premonition of blogging? No, but part of a profound essay on culture as the freedom of the human spirit.

Read more at http://wp.me/p6tMLx-Dx

(I am experimenting with curating my own material here. I hope readers don’t mind)

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.

 

The many cradles of civilizations (list)

Civilizations and natures

From time to time, I am tempted to be a prophet of a doom, and like Cassandra abandon myself to “the awful pains of prophecy… maddening as they fall” (Agamemnon); but something in my temperament, holds me back to a more tempered and sane view. History is neither progress nor complete decay. In some times, the archives do burn; but manuscripts are saved from the fire, and cultural life finds a way to go on. There are always losses, which I mourn, and there are so many splendours to celebrate and gardens to cultivate.

My favourite wise companion in maintaining a sane and generous view of our global history is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In people and in civilizations, he writes:

“vices and virtues mingle, in the greatest saints, and in the most politically-correct common rooms. For every good intention, there is a frail deed: each provides the standard by which the other is measured. Civilizations, compared with other types of society, certainly have no monopoly of virtue. But a true pluralist has to relish the diversity they add to life.” (Civilizations (2000), p 30)

His experiment in a new way of writing a universal history of civilizations is remarkable for its wit, the range of its allusiveness, and its compelling experiment: to write all history as historical ecology. Civilizations have no common characteristics, but share a process: the effort to transform the natural environment. Humans, unusually, if not uniquely, among animals, have populated all parts of the earth, all types of environment and climates. Our history is inseparable from these many natures – and here too Felipe Fernandez-Armesto insists food is central to the human story, as our most daily and intimate encounter with nature. And, “wherever humans can survive, civilization can happen.” (p 27)

The list: 17 cradles of civilizations

So, in CivilizationsFernandez-Armesto tells the story of how civilizations have adapted, transformed, and remade 17 natural environments. Only a few of these belong to the classic story of the cradles of civilization, and in many of these environments, he celebrates many little-known treasures worth preserving from destructive fire. Here they are complete with his evocative chapter titles, and some brief illustrations of how the world can be explored with this enigmatic balloonist.

The Waste Land (Desert, Tundra, Ice)

1. Ice Worlds and Tundra (The Helm of Ice). The Sami of Arctic Scandinavia created a civilization from the great herds of reindeer. The reindeer supplied most of the needs of life, and indeed their name, jil’ep, in the Nenet language means life. These ways of life were recorded in Olaus Magnus’ Description of the Northern People (1555), the “unacknowledged work of genius” of a Christian bishop who, in voluntary exile from protestant Sweden, travelled to the North to convert pagan souls but still stooped to understand the twenty forms of snow described by the sami.

2. Deserts of Sand (The death of Earth). There is the tantalising mystery of the Garamantes in ancient times in the Fezzan in the Libyan interior, and speculation that the modern day nomads of the Sahara, the Tuareg are their successors. The Tuareg use an alphabet which is very similar to an ancient Libyan writing system, and is used magically, transmitted by women, and to cast spells on household objects, but not to record the ballads and stories of war spoken by the men. Tuareg is an Arabic term meaning abandoned by God; they call themselves Imohag or free men. They continue to practise their martial code,  fighting for Qadaffi and in Mali.

Leaves of Grass (Grasslands)

3. Prairie and Savannah (The sweeping of the wind). Where we learn of old Mali, near the upper reaches of the Niger, and headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, a great trading state controlling the passage of gold, and access to the great market and scholarly city of Timbuktu. Here Ibn Battuta described the majesty of Mansa Musa’s court.

atlas catalan image with mansa musa

Image from The Catlan Atlas (1375) showing Mansa Musa holding a globe made of gold. Biblioteque National, Paris

4. Eurasian Steppe (The highway of civilizations). In 1034 the scholar-administrator and poet, Ou-Yang Hsiu, advocated standards of merit, and, in response received the reward that was at hand for the powerful who ran patronage networks in the bureaucracy. He was exiled to Yi-Ling at the mouth of the Yangtze gorges, where he observed the remoulding of Szechwan. He sought a conservative revolution by instilling the “perfection of ancient times” through reforms to the examination system, and he and his like advocated the true, humane diplomat’s policy – “If indeed Heaven… causes the rogues to accept our humaneness and they … extinguish the beacons on the frontiers, that will be a great fortune to our ancestral altars.” (p. 120)

Under the Rain (Tropical Lowlands and Post-Glacial Forests)

5. Post-Glacial and Temperate Woodlands (The Wild Woods). On the Northern shores of the Great Lakes, the Iroquois built distinctive social spaces, the longhouse. The Iroquois built these longhouses, Fernandez-Armesto notes in a small piece of efflorescence of the cultural drive, out of elm, not for practical but aesthetic reasons.

 

6. Tropical Lowlands (Hearts of Darkness). In the jungle or rainforest of the Peten region of Guatemala was the great Mayan city of Tikal, in which despite the profuse growth there was monumental building from about 400 BC, and inscribed names and memorials of kings from AD 292.

Image source: UNESCO

The Shining Fields of Mud (alluvial soils in drying climates)

7. The Near East [if you live in Europe] (the lone and level sands) Where Fernandez-Armesto takes us to the “the garden of the Lord” that used to exist at the ancient city of Jericho, back eleven millennia ago when it looked over an alluvial plain and not a salted sulphured desert.

8. China and India (Of Shoes and Rice) Where we meet the gentleman archaeologist, Charles Masson, stumbling on the ruins of the Harrapan civilization in 1826, and fooling himself he had rediscovered one of the lost cities of Alexander the Greek.

The Mirrors of Sky (Highlands)

9. Highlands of the New World (The Gardens of the Clouds). Before the Incas, at a vast height, fed by maize and potatoes, lay Tiahuanaco and Chavin de Huantar, a place of pilgrimage thousands of years old.

10. Highlands of the Old World (The Climb to Paradise). We encounter the isolation and the martial culture of the New Guinea Highlands, itself an independently evolved place of agriculture. Here in the 1980s a Kerowagi elder tells an anthropologist interviewer: “We thought no one existed apart from ourselves and our enemies.”

The Water Margins (Seas)

11. Small Islands (The allotments of the Gods) The wonder of Polynesian navigation is told, including the remarkable map produced by the navigator and holy man, Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook.

12. Seaboards (The View from the Shore) Here we learn of the mystery of the sea peoples who raided Ancient Egypt, the Vikings and Phoenicians, and navigators of the Atlantic Rim, including the old Celts who edged out to the outer British Isles.

13. Maritime Asia (Chasing the Monsoon) We rediscover Palembang on Srivijaya, which prospered on Chinese trade for sandalwood and frankincense. Surely proof that wealth has always been built on “experiences”, and the material economy has always been saturated with symbolic significance.

14. Greek and Roman Seaboards (The Tradition of Ulysses) “In spite of the unique contribution made by the ancient Greeks to the rest of the world, we should beware of idealizing them, as so many historians have done in the past. What was most enduring in their heritage was, in its day, the most eccentric: Socrates was condemned to suicide; Aristotle was driven from Athens and died in exile.” (p 425) So true; we create legends from shadows.

Breaking the Waves (Oceans)

15. Oceanic Civilizations (Almost the Last Environment). Fernandez-Armesto retells Ibn Battuta’s travels across the Muslim Lake of the Indian Ocean, and points to the regularity of the monsoonal wind-system as the basis, if such a metaphor is possible for a wind system, of the seafaring traditions of the Indian Ocean. His awareness of the direct effects of varied wind systems on the history of exploration and global exchange is also the basis of one of his many aphorisms: that in the history of the world there should be less hot air, and more wind.

16. Making of Atlantic Civilizations (Refloating Atlantis). Where with deep scholarship of exploration and navigation, he points to the many attempts to launch sea-borne empires in the fifteenth century. What distinguished the Western European seaboard’s creation of the Atlantic civilization was, despite all the founding myths of Western civilization, the accident of being in the right place, so having access to favourable winds and currents.

17. Atlantic Supremacy and Global Outlook (Atlantic and After) In this last chapter, he contemplates the limits and limitations of the Western Civilization floated on this Atlantic environment. So, he zeroes in on the “bewilderingly paradoxical” twentieth century, with superb flowering of culture, creativity and freedom, matched by the most terrifying destructiveness. “It promised so much and betrayed so many. The big mystery of the twentieth century is: why did civilization yield? Why, in other words, did progress fail?” (p 543)

It is an awkward question to end on, and the basis for what may be a true conservative argument, that our values can never be firmly based in progressive beliefs, since progress is an illusion. They all misrepresent a more chaotic experience of change, full of loss and gain. And this means that faced with the many difficulties that our societies and cultures encounter we need to avoid the willing delusion that we are moving with the spirit of the times, and turn to our homes and gardens, and flawed traditions and treasured archives, and take care of them.

So Fernandez-Armesto concludes Civilizations, in a paragraph that resonates with the themes of this blog:

“After all the disillusionments with which the history of civilizations is studded – the triumphs of savagery, the bloodlettings of barbarism, the reversals of progress, the reconquests by nature, our failure to improve – there is no remedy except to go on trying, and keeping civilized traditions alive. Even on the beach and in the shingle, il faut cultiver notre jardin.” ( p. 566)