Civilization’s Escape Attempt
Life depends on death. Receiving depends upon giving. Waking depends upon sleeping. Activity depends upon rest. An in-breath requires an out-breath. This constant dynamic cycling of duality expresses the fundamental law of reciprocity, the natural law that governs the balance of opposing forces. Reciprocity stirs the cauldron of generativity. It is inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on planet earth, it is the foundation upon which all living systems rest.
What lives without the death of another? Perhaps a few species of bacteria that metabolize sulfur via heat vents on the ocean floor and maybe some species of algae and phytoplankton that live off sunlight and dissolved minerals alone. It could even be argued that parasites, viruses and bacteria that require living hosts survive on the life of others, not the death. However, the bigger picture of plants and animals participating in the web of life on the thin surface of this blue planet is a bit more complex. The death of one organism predicates the life of others and the life of one organism depends upon the death of others, more or less in equal measure. This describes the original and most fundamental cycle of reciprocity. Living and dying are woven together in an elegant dance of give and take, governed by the most basic natural law of life as we experience it.
Modern culture strives to rise above nature’s dance of life and death rather than fully embrace and participate in it. Death is understandably scary to a self-aware being. Awareness of death challenges our most basic sense of identity and meaning. Much of the subject of the world’s “great” religions is devoted to deriving meaning from the improbable reality of self-conscious life in the face of certain corporeal death. This is not true, however, of the cosmological systems of cultures and language groups that have not created civilizations.
The animist, pantheist, ancestrally oriented spiritual practices of oral peoples of place address the inherent paradox of life, yet there is something fundamentally different about these oral cosmological systems. Indigenous ancestral cosmologies treat the self and the soul as part of a continuum of seen and unseen forces, extending back to the ancestors and forward to the coming generations, woven together by ropes of connection to all of creation. The development of the soul is seen as the strengthening of these sacred connections through practice and mastery of skills and awareness. The soul matures and advances in a more horizontal or downward direction through deeper and deeper levels of conscious participation in the beauty and balance of nature. The difference with the old spiritualities and the new is the focus of their attention. Animist cultures face the earth and celebrate sensual involvement with it.
Abrahamic religious orientation is upward, toward a distant deity, toward a perfect unity with creation after corporeal experience comes to an end, negating the present earthly experience of sin and suffering. Eastern religions are more complex. They share with western Abrahamic traditions written cosmological doctrine and priestly classes that possess resources and political influence, yet still retain strong elements of shamanic practice as well. The mystic traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam also employ meditation, isolation in nature, poetic and artistic expression, dance, rhythm and trance as authentic ways of connecting to God and creation. But in most cases, both the Eastern and Western great religions perceive life as an experience of suffering. Suffering therefore, can only be transcended through enlightenment or an after-death state of unity with God and creation. If a generalization can be made, it is that the focus of civilized religions is on the human experience and future transcendence of suffering. Indigenous spiritual practices, as I understand them, focus on full sensual immersion in nature and navigating embodied intensities, such as ecstatic joy, raging grief and everything in between. One might then say, the equivalent of the Bible or Koran would be a direct, sense-oriented, worldly experience. This could include interaction with forces and beings unseen in ordinary states of consciousness. Civilized religious practices focus on the suffering in life and the hope or promise of transcending that suffering through following a particular religious path or set of doctrines. This is not surprising if we examine more deeply the conditions of civilized life for the common person.
My definition of “civilization” is an expansion of mass culture characterized by class divisions and specialized labor. Civilizations are composed of societies who claim to be civil, from the Latin civitas meaning city. Therefore, civilizations are societies who orient their activities and values primarily around cities and other human creations, rather than around nature or creation itself. A fundamental narcissism and arrogance permeates all of civilization. More on that later.
The primary purpose of traditional, village-based cultures is to care for their “people” as well as the places that provide them with the resources for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. It is not uncommon among people following the Old Ways to refer to stones, plants, animals and even landmarks as their relatives. Thus, taking care of the “people” in this context extends well beyond the boundaries of the human species.
Expansive cultures that generate cities still have to attend to the people and land, at least minimally. But, in all but possibly a few extinct matriarchal civilizations, these modern cultures all expand their territories. Expansion claims resources to support greater concentrations of wealth and power in an elite class. The most important mission of culture in a civilization, therefore, is to care for the elite class of rulers and landowners. The mission of caring for the people and the land is attended to as a necessary condition for survival, and in better examples, given eloquent lip service.
In a kind civilization, the care of the common people and land is given dutiful attention second to the collection of resources required to maintain the elite class, i.e., the good king, the democratically elected president, the responsive and responsible CEO. In a despotic or greedy civilization, attention to the health of the land, civil liberties and welfare of the people are given minimum attention to maintain compliance. Decisions are solely in service of the short term goals of the elites. This creates mass suffering at a much different scale.
This new kind of class suffering could never exist in horizontally organized, village-based aboriginal societies. It is a product of the New Way. In the usual analysis of history, only the dynamics between kinder versus more cruel civilizations are examined. Cultures living in the Old Way are left out of the conversation as irrelevant. Ironically, the 600 year Federation of Indigenous Nations, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, existed on the North American continent long before it was named America.Though rarely mentioned, the Iroquois Confederacy had a profound effect upon the development of global democracy, a subject for a future blog. There is no example in the “civilized” world of a democratic government or federated cooperation between nations of differing cultures and languages lasting even three hundred years. This is one more example of the inherent myopia and deliberate self-centeredness of the New Way.
The acquisition and control of resources and territory requires protection, whether the government be kind or cruel, democratic or despotic. This necessitates not just a warrior class, but armies capable of standing against the armies of other expansive cultures. “Civilizations,” by definition, take on the mission of expanding and protecting their territory and influence. This demands the conversion or enslavement of others to the dominant set of cosmological beliefs, practices and language. “Civilization” has created a new kind of mass warfare as its primary method of expansion and protection. Civilization adopts class structures that keep the majority of people in second class status or even in institutionally organized slavery. This would be inconceivable to most oral, village based cultures of place.
The pre-agricultural peoples of old may not have been peaceful, but they engaged in warfare, slavery and raiding on a completely different scale. The scale of primitive warfare, even in raiding cultures never put demands upon the people or landscape beyond its means. The demands of the natural law of reciprocity always came before the advantages of warfare and expansion. Not so with civilizations.
The shift began with the advent of plow agriculture, the domestication of food plants and grazing animals. Food resources could now be traded and stockpiled. The scales of equilibrium that human cultures had lived within for countless generations of hunting, gathering and proto-agricultural activity began to tip. The central metaphor of human culture began to change. The horizontally-oriented ethic that “reciprocity makes right” became replaced by the vertical ethic of “might makes right.” The trajectory of human culture changed from care-taking to simply taking. The ability to take without giving back justified taking, elevating the practice of taking without giving to a symbol of social status. The more you could take, accumulate and control, the greater was your worth and the more you presumed to be favored by the gods or God. The sword and the plow together became the new paradigm of human society and culture. Get on board or get out of the way.
Here we have the taproot of modern history. Recorded history, by the very fact of being recorded in writing, contains both consciously and unconsciously the bias of expansion and conquest as well as the early marriage of agriculture and warfare. This is because writing itself, the “technologization of the word”*(Orality and Literacy) is a technology belonging originally only to civilized cultures, and originally only to the elite classes. This explains why “history,” in the classical sense, is the history of war and competing civilizations and religions and nations and language groups. History is civilization talking about itself.
Hidden within this natural bias, however, is a lie. It is a lie by omission, not by proclamation, though plenty of lies by proclamation exist in historical accounts as well. The truth or falsehood of historical accounts depends to a large degree upon whom one sympathizes with and upon whether the account was written by the “victor” or the “victim,” as perceived by the reader. “History is written by the victorious,” is a famous adage. And it is true. In the bigger picture, all of history is written by the spokespeople of literate civilizations to support the point of view of literate civilization.
Until very recently, the point of view of the true victims of history was never written, it was only told. From the point of view of oral cultures of place, all of “history” is about civilized cultures taking their land and resources and killing or enslaving or assimilating their people, effectively extinguishing their cultures, languages and belief systems or appropriating the parts of them that proved useful to the conquering civilization. From this point of view, “history” is a story of systematic robbery, enslavement and genocide that goes back to the earliest civilizations that emerged from stone age culture 5 to 10,000 years ago, a relatively short time in the scheme of human evolution on the planet, and only a little greater than the short span of written history itself.
The advent of civilization is the story of systematic assault against cultures living by the natural law of reciprocity carried out by elite cultures who seemed to be attempting to escape from natural law. No longer were people primarily interested sustaining the abundance of the land upon which they and their ancestors had lived for countless generations and upon which they had developed extremely sensitive and responsive ecological awareness, technology and practices. No longer did the vision of the leaders of the people extend forward in particular places to the generations to come hundreds of years hence. This was the “Old Way.” Now elite groups of people following the “New Way” were far more committed to acquiring territory and concentrating wealth and influence in the hands of a class of rulers.
Taking without giving back in roughly equal measure became a source of social status that elevated a wealthy and powerful minority class of persons above the majority classes. This resulted in vertically oriented social structures with owning and ruling classes at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the peasant and farming classes maintained many of the beliefs and nature connected practices of the Old Way. But this had to be done in ways that did not directly challenge the authority of the elites. Vertically oriented societies now stood in contrast and in conflict to the horizontally ordered societies of oral cultures of place. And, as history bears out, horizontal nature connected societies, even those with warriors, could not hold their ground against the war technologies and mass armies and cosmological aggressiveness of the New Way.
Ironically, the principle English words used to describe the older, oral, horizontal societies that skillfully practiced taking care of kin and nature as their central cultural values are “primitive” and “savage.” Were we naming our own shadows and behavior in a psychological “projection?”
History as we know it is the abandonment of the natural law of reciprocity as the central guiding understanding of human culture. Now look where that has gotten us! How smart are we modern people, really? We can build nuclear weapons and internal combustion engines and cell phones and satellites. We are clever, and in love with our awesome cleverness! But smart?
We cannot underestimate how deeply the abandonment of nature has lodged itself in the modern person’s consciousness. If we are to make our way forward from this point in history we must find a way to return modern cultures and social organization to reciprocity. This is the mission of this blog, to stimulate conversation about the paths we might take toward a “New Old Way” which does not reject the cleverness of human technology but somehow finds a way to place it within systems of governing wisdom that are primarily informed by the natural laws that govern life on earth, most especially that of reciprocity: the balanced relationship of life and death, of taking and giving.