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Are We Civilized?

May 15, 2011

I’ve spent the past few days watching a series of documentaries and mini-series, and it all has left me thinking about life’s big picture.  The first series I watched was Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: Is The West History?  Later I decided to watch Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and have just finished watching Michio Kaku’s BBC series Time.  Watching all of these things got me in the mood to read some history, so I’ve taken a break from my normal cognitive psychology/physics studies, and thought about some other things for a while.

When you stop and think about life on rather large scale, say the past few thousand years, and look at how people in our modern society act, it’s not only comical, but sad.  They’re spoiled rotten and their expectations about what life should be and what they’re entitled to is completely out of proportion.  Life for mankind for near all of human history has been, to use Thomas Hobbes words, “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Their lives were filled with war, famine, starvation, disease, and every misery you can imagine.  They lived in fear and complete ignorance as they roamed about through the forests and the fields, trying to scrape by a meal.  They had to hunt using primitive equipment made from sticks and chipped stones, and frequently were badly injured during the process by the wild animals.  When archeologists dig up their bones which are found in caves all around the world, you see how they were maimed and injured in every conceivable fashion – broken legs, missing fingers, disfigured rib cages, and so the list goes on.  I can imagine a young man of around twenty-one years of age, out with his tribe hunting wild antelope, and as they’re surrounding one, the herd turns around and stampedes.  He watches his best friend get trampled to death and he ends up being impaled through his arm by one of those long horns.  He runs off in terror and crawls into that cave where he bleeds to death, his wife and small children wailing in tears.  Their average life expectancy was under 30, if that says anything.

Last night, after I was feeling pretty tired from studying and reading, I decided to watch a program called How TV Ruined Your Life, as it seemed to be pretty interesting.  Though the presenter is far too pessimistic for my taste, I found it fascinating to watch him give a broad overview of the types of programs on TV today.  I haven’t watched television in probably 15 years, and what little shows I watch is from the internet.  I had no idea how bad normal cable television had become.  I sat back in amazement thinking, “No way.  There’s no way people watch this…”  But they do!  You can watch it yourself if you want.

I absolutely loved the introduction to that show, so much so that I want to quote it.

“We’re living in a world where everyone expects the best of everything, with the unhinged sense of entitlement that used to be the sole reserve of insane Roman emperors…”

– Charlie Brooker, How TV Ruined Your Life – Aspiration

The question of human civilization goes something like this, “Life used to be so miserable and toilsome, but now human beings dominate the Earth and live relatively comfortably.  How did this change take place?”   What struck me was that so many things the television promotes and injects into our mind runs counter to the trends which have made great civilizations.  I’ve known for a long time that television is pretty mindless, but I never considered it harmful and evil until I really started thinking about it.  Just as Charlie Brooker said, television ruins our lives in so many ways.

One episode of Brooker’s series focuses on fear, and how the television is always drumming up fear.  When I heard that I immediately thought of a comment made by Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation series.   He showed the prows of various Viking ships and how they were intended to instill terror and apprehension in all who saw them.  They were marauders who floated up and down the rivers and sailed the oceans plundering and looting societies around them.   He then compared that to the head of a famous Greek sculpture – Apollo of the Belvedere.

“The Viking prow is a powerful work of art, more moving than this Roman head and yet this is from the figure that was once the most admired piece of sculpture in the world – the Apollo of the Belvedere.  Well, whatever its merits as a work of art, the Apollo surely embodies a higher state of civilization than the Viking prow.  The northern imagination takes shape in an image of fear and darkness, the Hellenistic imagination in an image of harmonized proportion and human reason.”

– Kenneth Clark, Civilisation

Clark pointed out that a civilization requires hope and stability in order to progress to any great height.  People must have firm ground beneath their feet in order to pursue long term goals and do great things.  Anything which destroys that hope, stability and security is an evil against human progress.  He talked about the Roman empire and showed their great aqueducts, which are still around even to this day, thousands of years later.  Those things took forever to build but the people constructed them because they believed their society would be around for a long time.  They built those for us and our children.  To build things with future generations in mind, thousands of years from now, that’s just beautiful to me.   What was also fascinating to me was that the barbarians tried to destroy those aqueducts but were too primitive to even know how take down such a massive structure.

Niall Ferguson’s Civilization sets out to answer a question that he identifies as the “most interesting” facing historians of the modern era: “Why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world?”  He wants to explain the origins behind western power.  He identifies six core factors behind our civilization’s success:  1)  Competition, 2) Science, 3) Private Property & Democracy, 4) Medicine, 5) Consumerism, and 6) Work Ethic.

To summarize it as quickly as I can: 1) Competition: you have to have a constant flow of new ideas about every aspect of society, all competing with one another.  People must be free to think about every aspect of their lives and how they want to live.  Alternatives must be set in front of them and they must be free to choose how they wish to live.  2) Science: understanding the world is the main driver of progress because it allows human beings to flow with the world around them, mold it how they wish, and live in harmony with and dominate the forces around them.  3) A private property owning democracy:  everyone must have some stake in the action and a say in how things are being run.  Home ownership is the most important.  Ferguson directs us to John Locke’s vision for Carolina, where near every citizen was a significant property owner and everyone had a vote — the American Dream.  4) Medicine:  Diseases and plagues are always ravaging mankind so medicine must be a central focus, being continually improved and researched through science, and made readily available to all citizens so their lives aren’t wasted by an early death or some debilitating handicap.  5) Consumerism:  this basically amounts to the free market determining, at least to a large extent, what that society produces.  This allows people to enjoy the comforts and joys of their labor, and for factories to produce what people really want, not what a government bureaucrat thinks people want.  It’s a form of freedom just as important as the vote.  6) Work ethic:  the society must encourage and also reward people for their hard work.  A solid work ethic must be placed into the hearts and minds of the people, with an unwavering belief that they can and will build a better world not only for themselves but for their posterity as well.

When I watched Brooker’s program on television, I saw that the “idiot box” fills people’s minds with vacuous empty content, devoid of science and an understanding of the universe, and props up false expectations of what life should be.  It puts us in competition with one another, but not the right type of competition.  True economic competition is about trying to create new products and technologies, your best ideas against other people’s.  Competition is like AMD vs Intel to make the best computer processing technology.  Television promotes a sort of inane consumerism totally geared to emotion and ego.  It focuses on making you the most beautiful, desired and revered person in the room, instead of being a truly valuable and knowledgeable human being.  It’s empty.  Today’s reality shows promote success and fortunes without doing anything for society.  You’re famous for being famous.  And when you look at the newspaper, who is being promoted and featured?  Lindsay Lohan, big brother police state, mindless comical videos of cats, and other inane things, never promoting work ethic, science, freedom, history, economics, or any of the things which make a society successful.

When we read the newspaper, why aren’t we focusing around architecture?  Why don’t we feature scientific discoveries?  Why don’t we feature medical breakthroughs? We don’t because we’re not civilized.

Have you guys ever thought about the future of mankind, or even advanced alien species?  We picture these great beings with huge heads filled with vast knowledge of the universe.  We even speculate about such great beings in sci-fis like Star Trek, searching for great civilizations.  Can you imagine finding such a species on a distant planet, with super technology, with the ability to manipulate their own genetics to make themselves into whatever they want to be, transporters to take them anywhere in the cosmos they wish to visit, the ability to turn raw energy to any form of matter they wish — and they’re sitting at their kitchen table reading celebrity gossip, psychological studies about why they feel empty and depressed, looking at ads for beauty cream for their face, all while entertaining shallow propaganda for why they should invade poorer, less technologically advanced nations, killing hundreds of thousands of their citizens.  That is not civilization.

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