A New Look at Civilization

True to our colonial past we Indians will turn to our own roots only when someone from the West shows the way. And if it is an Englishman, nothing like it! 

A year before the foundation stone of the MCHV was laid in 1992, an Englishman, Michael Wood, conceived a television series, LEGACY, telecast by BBC in 1991, on the ways in which civilization originated and grew in different parts of the world, and the lessons to be drawn from them: Sumeria "Cradle of Civilization", India "Empire of the Spirit". China "The Mandate of Heaven", Egypt "The Habit of Civilization", Central America and, finally, the Barbaric West. I have tried to jot down passages that struck me as remarkable insights coming from a Westerner and I am sharing it with readers of Boloji.

Pascal had pointed out that the trouble with Western man is that he does not know how to be content in an empty room. At the heart of the Western Civilization, says Wood, lies a deep streak of violence which drives them to exploit nature and mankind. It is the philosophy of Francis Bacon that lies at the core of the West's approach to life: if what is most useful is also the most correct, the man becomes a law unto himself and depends no more on God. Truth itself can, then, be defined in terms of utility and usefulness, not in terms of religion. The West set out to exploit the world in the name of this concept.

"Usually it is said that the East is hopelessly backward and needs to catch up with the West. But, a consideration of the legacy of these great civilizations suggests, says wood, that the West has some catching up to do. It needs to learn from the East a way of cultivating its inner space, of accepting limits and desires in an increasingly finite world.

"In the past 200 years one form of civilization, that of the West, has changed the balance of nature for ever. And now it is civilization itself which has become a central problem of our world.

"The central questions which have concerned humanity for so long: what is society for, how should it be organized, what are human rights and freedoms; and how do they relate to nature and to the spiritual - these questions about the goals of life, it is said, have been settled in favor of the values of the West. But each of the first civilizations created a unique and distinctive vision of life, which forms a vital counterpoint to that of the West. Hence, let us follow the advice of the Chinese historian Chang Suye Chen who wrote in 1799 urging that we use the past in order to reform the present and to look into the future.

"Pluralism and tolerance are essential qualities of civilization which lies not in walls of bricks and stone but in the humane goals of life, in causing justice to prevail, that the strong may not oppress the weak.

"From Fridu, the first cit (in ancient Sumer), it is found that at the root of civilization is the temple of Apsu (sweet waters). Here kingship, that is political society, first came down to earth. Wood Provides a fascinating clue to the biblical paradise: the word "Eden" in the Bible comes from the Sumerian "Edeen", the wild grassland of the south before the arrival of the city. The beginning of man's ascent to civilization was also the fall, when he tasted the fateful fruit of the tree of knowledge, the means by which he would become master of the earth and yet eventually gain the power to destroy it and ourselves.

Sumerian myths tell how the arts of civilization would bring both joy and sorrow and this the gods passed to future ages through the first true city on earth, Uruk. The first city began as a religious center. There, as now, the question was: how to balance the fertility of the earth against the voracious demands of the city. Inability to do that led to the terrifying desolation that surrounds Uruk.

"For, says the Epic of Gilgamesh (the first epic in the world), when the gods created man, they let death be his lot. Eternal life they withheld. Therefore, let your every day be full of joy. Love the child that holds your hand, let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of humanity.

"The goddess Innana brought the arts of civilization from the god of wisdom, Enki of Eridum but it was like a Pandora's box. Ere were the delights of society, exquisite craftsmanship, beautiful clothes, the arts of sex and music. But civilization has a darker side, which has to be accepted along with the good. The art of being mighty, the art of being kind, the art of straightforwardness, the art of deceit; the art of kingship, justice and the enduring crown; the resounding note of a musical instrument, the rejoicing of the heart; the kindling of the strife, the plundering of cities, the setting up of lamentation, fear, pity, terror - all this is civilization and you must take it all, you cannot refuse any of it, And once taken, you cannot give it back.

"There is a growing and profound disquiet in the West, a feeling that the Western way of life itself is no longer supportable morally or practically because of pollution, environmental destruction and the continuing exploitation of the mass of humanity.

"The great question for the next generation is: are the values of the west alone enough to guarantee the continuing health of the planet? For, these are individualistic, competitive, acquisitive, always pushing outwards, never happy in an empty room. And yet, they hold in their hands the future of the planet? The West seems to have reached that point in its development when if a civilization is not to decline, it must transform itself by learning from others.

"An Arab historian Ibn Khaldun said, the goal of civilization is a settled life and the achievement of luxury. But there is a limit that cannot be overstepped. When prosperity and luxury come to a people, they are followed by excessive consumption and extravagance. With that the human soul itself is undermined, both in its worldly wealth and its spiritual life.

"Combine Arabic faith, Jewish intelligence, Iraqi education, Christian conduct, Greek knowledge, Indian mysticism and the Sufi way of life - this would be the perfection of humanity.

* Michael Wood, "LEGACY", Central Independent TV, 1991, an Island World Presentation.     


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

Top | Opinion

Views: 3329      Comments: 3

Comment Dear Rere,
Thanks so much for liking this.
From what I recall, the quote is possibly Ibn Khaldun's. Check by watching the video.

pradip bhattacharya
16-Jun-2012 02:23 AM

Comment Pradip, this is so beautifully put. Thank you so much for your insights. Now, to convince the rest of the world.... :) I would recommend Wood's series to everyone. The poetic presentation and respect for Eastern culture makes this series superb. By the way, do you know the author of the final quote in your article? "Combine Arabic faith, Jewish intelligence, Iraqi education, Christian conduct, Greek knowledge, Indian mysticism and the Sufi way of life - this would be the perfection of humanity." This quote is what led me to your article. I copied it down while watching Wood's documentary in hopes of finding the author. Thank you. Peace to you.

13-Jun-2012 02:23 AM

Comment I can't begin to write the words to describe the extrordinary documentary "Legacy:The Origins of Civilization". This is such a wonderful program to watch and absorb in daily modern times. Michael Wood did a excellent job in presenting this value-add information about the world as it was and as it ironically is today. Thank you Michael and and your team for it.

Ray Olszewski
02-Mar-2012 18:53 PM

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