Section 4

Ancient Civilization

Chapter 1

Civilization and history

With civilization comes history, of course, because now there are records consciously kept, as Hegel says, and we know what happened because we are told what happened, and need not argue from nothing but the detritus of living.

Tracing what happens in history is very difficult, because it depends on what one wants to consider "progress toward a purpose," and that depends on the purpose. For Hegel, for instance, it was the self-discovery of Spirit in the world; for Marx, the march away from exploitation of the many by the few.

Still, I think it fair to say that we can look at certain civilizations as in equilibrium, lasting for century upon century with changes going on within them, but without any significant change in the civilization itself. It maintains its basic manner of interacting among the people, and its basic idea of what it is to be a person, as well as the basic way the person relates to the material world around him.

Those who are caught up in the mystique of "progress" are apt to regard such civilizations as having stagnated; but this is a value judgment that is not called for. From their point of view, those in "more progressive" societies are simply floundering in a morass of ignorance, not having yet discovered the true meaning of human existence, and not having found a manner of living which works. What from a more "progressive" point of view is looked at as a naive or primitive notion of human living is looked on from their point of view as more profound and less encrusted with sophisms.

For all the learning we have in the West so painfully come by, we have not increased our happiness significantly, it seems to me. We have more complex ways of being happy; but by the same token, we have more complex ways of being miserable. And this is significant, because happiness consists, as I said, in the recognition that one is what one has chosen to be. The price we in the West paid for the vast unfolding of opportunity is twofold: we are in anguish either because we can't decide which of the many possible roads to follow, or because we set our goals beyond our real possibilities and strive after the absurd. It is time to smash the idol of "progress," and put the pieces into the bin of those fetishes that promise but cannot satisfy.

I do not want by this to reverse the value judgment and say that stopping a process is better than continuing; it is just that, first of all, process as such is always headed somewhere, and process for its own sake is an absurd form of equilibrium, like walking on a treadmill.

Hence, if there is a civilization in process, and I think we can say that this is Western and non-Muslim civilization, it is useful to look at it and see if we can see what is developing, and how it is developing, and perhaps discover what the purpose is and whether and to what extent we want the goal that we have unthinkingly headed ourselves towards, and to what extent we should modify what we are doing to get somewhere we would like to be.