Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Thoughts from the Springtime of Civilization

Like humans, civilizations are born, develop to maturity, grow old, and die. To use a different analogy, civilizations, following the seasons of the year, blossom in springtime, ripen in summer, slacken in autumn, and disintegrate in winter.

If we look at Christendom as a civilization, we may say that it first budded in AD 1 when Jesus Christ was born, started to ripen in 380 when it became the sole official religion of the Roman Empire, began to decay in 1216 with the death of Pope Innocent 3rd, then disintegrated into Europe in 1648.

We may apply this same analogy to Exuberant Olympianity (1648-2008) as a civilization. Let us say that it budded in 1648, ripened between 1815 (end of Napoleon) and 1914, decayed until 2008, then began its own terminal disintegration.

William Shakespeare opens his play, Richard the Third (ca 1593), with the words, “Now is the winter of our discontent…” American author John Steinbeck elaborated on this theme in his novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Charles Dickens, writing about the years preceding the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), even mixed his seasons, declaring, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

These references to winter, and an awareness of our own disintegrating civilization, shouldn’t blind us, however, to the fact that our modern Exuberant Olympianity did once experience a joyous springtime. This was especially true during that period in the 1700s known as the Enlightenment (1715-1789). Praising his epoch in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chapter 38, 1781), English historian Edward Gibbon wrote,

The abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame; republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times. In peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals; in war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and indecisive contests (151).

His celebratory words expressed a sense of deep satisfaction and a vision of even greater glory.

In his book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956), English historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that Westerners, during the spring and summer of Exuberant Olympianity, enjoyed the experience of “supreme self-assurance” (150). This was because “Late Modern Western Man” (150), as Toynbee put it, assumed that his civilization would remain

the last word in Civilization in two senses. He assumed that this was the mature and perfect form of Civilized Society: Civilization with a capital ‘C’ (for he now dismissed the other living civilizations as being ‘semi-civilized’, and the original unsecularized version of his own Western Civilization as being ‘medieval’). He also assumed that this latterday secularized Western Civilization was definitive in the sense of being, not merely perfect, but permanent” (151).

Perfect and permanent: how wonderful to live in a civilization that seemed so.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
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