Posted by: CS | May 18, 2012

Peak Civilization

Spreading civilization. (Image source)

With a title well chosen to appeal to Scotch nationalism in the run-up to a referendum on independence for Scotland, Arthur Herman’s book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, relates how the philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment discovered a progressive force at work in history that relentlessly drives human civilization onward and upward.

This force, so these philosophers realized, was economic development. In the beginning, in a state of nature, uncivilized man, the hunter and gatherer, laid up no treasures on earth, thought only for the day, and in Christlike fashion, achieved his best chance of survival by sharing all that he had with his fellows. In this lowly state, mankind required no government, no laws, no polished manners.

Then men learned to domesticate animals and began a nomadic life in pursuit of grazing for herds of sheep, goats or cattle. The accumulation of wealth on the hoof made life more secure, but when survival from day to day no longer depended on the ethic of universal sharing, conflict arose over the ownership of wealth. But men still lived in small groups and disputes were resolved arbitrarily by family elders and clan chiefs or by inter-tribal warfare, without complication of laws and law courts, judges and advocates.

In time, however, men found cultivation of the soil more profitable than the nomadic life. Farming supported a larger population and the adoption of a settled life allowed the accumulation of unmovable capital: buildings, roads, temples, irrigation systems. Conflicts over the control of wealth then became more numerous and more complex. To avoid chaos, a system of laws was proclaimed, courts were established to administer the law, and brilliant attorneys emerged who strove to insure that disputes were won by whoever could pay the largest fees.

The adoption of law as a basis for social regulation represented a momentous step up the ladder of civilization. But still men were crude and unpolished in manners and more inclined to settle disagreements by violence than civilized negotiation.

But with the settled life, came an increase in trade, in manufactures and in the division and specialization of labor. The rise of commerce brought men of different clans and creeds together in arrangements of mutual benefit, which encourage tolerance and politeness.

Thus, as the city of Glasgow grew through the profits of Britain’s gigantic slave-based trade in sugar, rum, tobacco, and cotton, so emerged liberalism, full-fledged, polished, tolerant and polite, in all its hypocritical glory: the highest stage of civilization yet achieved.

But today, the evolution of civilization has advanced by another stage. The liberal spirit of the eighteenth century led directly to mass democracy which led, naturally, to as many as 90% of the population voting themselves a share of the wealth of the rest. Thus, as the Scotch prepare to leave the United Kingdom, Government spending totals 50% of GDP, a proportion that the French government exceeds handily at 55%, while the newly elected President of France promises earlier payment of state pensions and higher minimum wages: this as European economies stagger under the weight of competition from 50-cent-an-hour Asian competition.

Thus has Western Civilization truly achieved its apogee. Or as David Brooks explains, why “neither the United States nor the European model [of civilization] will work again.”

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