Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's Be Civilised

I am fascinated by ancient history. The older the better. I was intrigued by recent reports about the site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey - described as the most important archaeological site in the world. Here's why:
The first is its staggering age. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old.

That means it was built around 10,000BC. By comparison, Stonehenge was built in 3,000 BC and the pyramids of Giza in 2,500 BC.

Gobekli is thus the oldest such site in the world, by a mind-numbing margin. It is so old that it predates settled human life. It is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-everything. Gobekli hails from a part of human history that is unimaginably distant, right back in our hunter-gatherer past.

It seems the impulse towards civilisation has been around a great deal longer than previously thought. Fascinating - and kind of reassuring. Even as we deal with the consequences of irrational exuberance (and its sequel: irrational despondence), it helps to step back and appreciate how far we have come as a species. Perhaps the further back you look, the further ahead you can see.

There is no doubt, however, that the national and global stresses caused by this recession will test our civilisation. Oscar Wilde once quipped about America that it 'is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between'. A bit unkind - though I'm not sure he would have changed his opinion if he had lived through the past ten years or so. America has been the fulcrum of societal and economic change for all of us: so what goes on there tends to matter here also.

And what extraordinary changes we have seen: not just the obvious (technology, globalisation etc) but also the less obvious. Like the way in which food has become the new sex, as explained in this delightful and fascinating essay by the Hoover Institution's Mary Eberstadt. No earlier civilisation had quite the same obsessions as ours in relation to food - they couldn't afford to obviously - nor did their technologies enable them to treat sex as casually as food was previously. As she notes:

One more critical link between the appetites for sex and food is this: Both, if pursued without regard to consequence, can prove ruinous not only to oneself, but also to other people, and even to society itself. No doubt for that reason, both appetites have historically been subject in all civilizations to rules both formal and informal. Thus the potentially destructive forces of sex — disease, disorder, sexual aggression, sexual jealousy, and what used to be called “home-wrecking” — have been ameliorated in every recorded society by legal, social, and religious conventions, primarily stigma and punishment. Similarly, all societies have developed rules and rituals governing food in part to avoid the destructiveness of free-for-alls over scarce necessities. And while food rules may not always have been as stringent as sex rules, they have nevertheless been stringent as needed. Such is the meaning, for example, of being hanged for stealing a loaf of bread in the marketplace, or keel-hauled for plundering rations on a ship.

These disciplines imposed historically on access to food and sex now raise a question that has not come up before, probably because it was not even possible to imagine it until the lifetimes of the people reading this: What happens when, for the first time in history — at least in theory, and at least in the advanced nations — adult human beings are more or less free to have all the sex and food they want?

Worth reading the full article.

We also think of civilisation in terms of 'civil' and 'civilised' behaviour. Or 'manners' to use an old fashioned term. Especially manners in relation to eating. As Patrick Deneen explains (in praise of the humble fork):
Even as we employ our manners as we eat - for we MUST eat - manners demonstrate that we seek to constrain and moderate, if not fully to extinguish, our natures. Manners are conventions that shape and govern our nature: we don’t cease to be creatures that must eat, but manners are a largely unconscious demonstration our governance of our nature as eating creatures, even as we necessarily submit to and even engage in a more exhalted practice of our nature. Far from being a troublesome and meaningless set of conventions, table manners are the daily manifestation of our commitment to the aspiration of human flourishing, of a realized humanity that ascends from “mere” or given humanity. To be a human is to be conventional, and among those most important conventions that express our humanity is to mediate, moderate, and master our appetites through the conventions at dinner time.
I sense most people want a more 'moderate', more 'restrained' code of behaviour in post Celtic Tiger Ireland. Partly because they may have sensed the threat posed to the binds of civilised society by the loss of manners and the capacity to consider others. The result not just of the shock of rapid economic growth, but also of the corrupting effects of the niceness movement and its emphasis on self-esteem to the detriment of self-control.

I expect to see a great many things re-evaluated in the coming years in Irish society: in relation to food, sex and manners among other things. And if things get really bad, say like in the Great Depression, we might even start dressing better as well. Though perhaps not like they did 13,000 years ago: I'd like to think civilisation has progressed at least a little since then.

1 comment:

  1. "The corrupting effects of the niceness movement and its emphasis on self-esteem to the detriment of self-control."

    This is a deep point supported by 30 years of research in psychology and a national US self-esteem focused educational approach that has backfired spectacularly as exemplified in an '07 peer-reviewed intervention study with underperforming students: "In a field experiment, low–performing students in a psychology class were randomly assigned to receive, each week, review questions, review questions plus self–esteem bolstering, or review questions plus exhortations to assume responsibility and control. Contrary to predictions, the D and F students got worse as a result of self–esteem bolstering and students in the other conditions did not change. These findings raise ethical and practical questions about the widespread practice of bolstering self–esteem in the hope of improving academic performance."

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