The Ascent and Decline of civilisations

The Ascent and Decline of civilisations

If the world suffers from mental deterioration or from moral degrada­tion, then something goes wrong at the very root of civilisation or culture. Even though that civilisation may drag out for a considerable period it grows less and less vital and ultimately tumbles down

Jawaharlal Nehru

There are about six characteristics, which are universally regarded as essential for a civilisation to be described as enlightened. These are,

  1. A high level of literacy, and artistic and scientific achievement.

2. A respect for culture, which in turn creates a favourable climate for literature, art and music to flourish.

3. Attaching importance to education, the acquisition of knowledge and the desire to unravel the secrets of nature.

4. Rejection of commercial hegemony, cyber-globalism, McWorld-consumerism and taking measures to prevent/cure, television- addiction and Mall-fever.

5. Preservation of spiritual values in the absence of which no enlight­enment is possible.

6. A democratic economic policy closing the gap between the rich and the poor not in the Marxian sense but in the way wealth, opportunities and other similar entitles are equitably distributed.

The order in which these characteristics are listed does not indicate their relative im­portance.

Let us look at some of the great civilisations of the past—Mesopotamia Egypt, Babylon, Carthage, Greece and Rome (India and China come under a different category, for the reason explained later, and, therefore, not mentioned here).

All these Empires did have all the six characteristics mentioned above though in varying degrees. Hence these Empires acquired prosperity, fame, and power and flourished. But in the full meridian of their glory, they neglected the virtues and core values stated above and devoted their energies to gluttony, debauchery, orgies, gladiatorial contests, and other such pleasures. That resulted in their decline and fall.

Unlimited desire to acquire consumer goods notwithstanding the limitations of their functional utility be­comes an end in itself obliterating some of the characteristics listed above. Lack of interest in mathematics and science, indifference to the beauty of poetry and art, ignorance of history combined with easy access to packaged entertainment, which does not teach young minds anything worth­while, apart from providing them with cheap thrill and excitement, are the first symptoms that indicate the decline of a civilisation, necessitating urgent remedial action.   

It is relevant to quote, American historian and social activist Morris Berman, who  wrote in his famous book ‘The twilight of American culture’

The Ascent and Decline of civilisations 1
Morris Berman

“ Department stores, hotels, and amusement parks began to dot the landscape, and by World War I, buying was seen as the road to happiness. Money became the measure of everything, friendship and religion included and “For a zoned-out, stupefied populace, ‘ democracy’ will be nothing more than the right to shop, or to choose between Wendy’s and Burger King, or to stare at CNN and think that this managed infotainment is actually the news. Corporate hegemony, the triumph of global democracy/consumerism based on an American model, is the collapse of American civilisation. So a large-scale transformation is indeed going on, but it is one that makes triumph indistinguishable from disintegration” and again “We live in a collective adrenaline rush, a world of endless promotional/commercial bullshit, that masks a deep systemic emptiness, the spiritual equivalent of asthma”.

He further quotes American Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr as having said

“Who can doubt that there is an American empire?—an “informal” empire, not colonial in the polity, but still richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread around the luckless planet.”

French political scientist and historian Alexis Tocqueville, wrote in a letter, to  French film director Ernest de Chabrol, 

“ As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”.                             

Berman passed his verdict 

“ a world remade in the image of Walt Disney, and driven by an increasingly sophisticated communications technology, is the total breakdown of civilisation”

However, when Rome started decaying after having reached a pinnacle of glory, a group of monks, fortunately, rejected what the Romans had loved most (gladiatorial contests, gluttony, and sexual orgies) and decided to pre­serve only what was good in that civilisation such as literary excellence, works of art and architectural monuments. It is the foresight of these monks in choosing what is referred as these “ monastic option” by protecting and preserving some great virtues and values that centuries later paved the way for the flowering of European culture and the Renaissance. Other civilisations failed to do this and so withered away. In the case of India and China, this particular problem did not arise, thanks to their uninterrupted civilisations of a few thousand years. 

There are many political scientists and social historians who do not agree with the thesis of Morris Berman, and a few others(e.g Christopher Fletch, author of “ The culture of narcissism, and John Schlesinger Jr). 

According to them, Morris Berman and Cristopher Fletch have committed a serious blunder in singling out America, as all the ills they have pointed out in respect of America are present in all the other affluent countries in the West also and a few in the East as well. 

They feel Morris Berman and the other two have ignored the fact that America has about 5300 Universities and colleges, which have earned a huge number of Nobel Prizes. 

It is estimated that between 1901 when the Nobel Prizes were first awarded and 2020, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences and organisation were given to 962 people ( 603 times). If the people receiving the prizes more than once are counted this number is reduced to 930 individuals and 25 organizations. 

The American Universities which are cathedrals of education and learning have got the lion’s share in the 384 Nobel Laureates of America. So is the case with the 132 Nobel Laureates of Britain, the 70 Nobel Laureates of Germany and the 20 Nobel Laureates of France. In other words, these universities have already proved to be the so-called “monasteries” I referred to above. America, Britain, Germany and France alone have secured one and times the total number of Nobels awarded. According to historians and educationists, America’s focus on and investment in research in pure sciences, by providing,  facilities like advanced laboratories, and huge libraries and the Country’s patience to see concrete results, have resulted in such spectacular triumphs. This according to them is the situation in respect of literature, History and Economics as well. Huge libraries, carrying thousands of books are attached to all the libraries, enable students to have access to information on all subjects- now of course computers are gradually replacing books- an example of technology being put to good use…

The Ascent and Decline of civilisations 1
The Ascent and Decline of civilisations

What is the moral of the story? Countries like India, should not forget or ignore their past glory and rich heritage in literature mathematics, and science. They should while enjoying the fruits of technology, continue to provide assistance to Universities by building laboratories for carrying out research in pure science and simultaneously establish libraries(equipped with computers) containing great works of literature, and books on history for students to develop an interest. In India particularly we have to preserve our epics, Vedas and scriptures, and the works of our great philosophers and poets so that present and future generations of students do not become slaves of consumerism and infotainment. Let us realise that our gadget, the fruits of technology are of immense utility in every field of human endeavour but let us be aware of their limitations and the potential harm they can cause to the values perenni­al in a man if they are given the upper hand.


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