the succession of western civilisations

When we talk about the problems facing the world today we find ourselves talking about the fate of western civilisation. I do it myself frequently. In actual fact there is no such thing as western civilisation. There have been a series of western civilisations, differing from each other very markedly indeed.

Even if we accept that there has ever been at any time a single European civilisation we still have to accept that the history of European civilisation is the history one civilisation succeeding another.

There was Bronze Age European civilisation (the Myceneans, the Minoans etc). They left some impressive ruins but we have little direct knowledge of them. The Minoans for example were literate but their written language has never been deciphered.

These civilisations were followed by the Classical Civilisation of the Greeks and Romans. In western Europe that collapsed entirely in the middle of the first millennium AD. 

Eventually a new civilisation took its place, the Medieval Civilisation. For at least two hundred years we have been taught to worship the Classical Civilisation and despise Medieval Civilisation. Quite wrongly. Medieval Civilisation was in many ways more advanced and more dynamic than Classical Civilisation.

Then came the catastrophe of the Reformation, followed by the even greater catastrophe of the Enlightenment. There was no sharp break, as there had been when the Western Roman Empire collapsed, but there is no question that the European civilisation of the ancien régime on the eve of the French Revolution was an entirely different civilisation compared to the Medieval Civilisation that had produced Dante and Chartres Cathedral. Despite cataclysms like the French Revolution that version of modern European Civilisation was still more or less intact in 1914. It has now gone forever. We now have what might be called postmodern European Civilisation.

Of course all civilisations change over time. The point I am making is that in the case of European civilisation the changes have been so profound and so far-reaching as to represent the replacement of one civilisation by another.

Whilst all civilisations do change most are based on the principle that while change can be beneficial stability is also very desirable. The Medieval Civilisation is the only European Civilisation that really valued stability. It was not in reality a stable civilisation but there was at least an appreciation of the notion that change was often a very bad thing indeed. The European Civilisations that followed the Medieval have not valued stability at all. In fact you could say of Postmodern European Civilisation (and of Modern European Civilisation as well) that it is a process rather than a thing. It is a process whereby everything that has been proven to work and to produce good results is trashed in favour of something new that may or may not work. European civilisation is a constant search for novelty. It’s the sort of civilisation that might be produced by a society of precocious infants, constantly hurling their old toys out of the pram whilst crying for new ones.

So the problem with wanting to save European Civilisation is that any European Civilisation worth saving no longer exists. A civilisation that bases itself upon crude materialism, even cruder hedonism, a celebration of sexual degeneracy, the joyful trampling into the dust of the family, naked greed and the embrace of a variety of scientific, pseudoscientific and totally non-scientific superstitions is not a civilisation that I would consider to be worth saving.

Which means that the kind of conservatism that is based on the belief that we need to apply the brakes is worse than useless. If we are to have a civilisation that is worth saving we will first have to create one. That might mean hoping that what currently goes by the name of European Civilisation does not survive.

2 comments on “the succession of western civilisations

  1. Have you read such books as Full Circle (2010) by Ferdinand Mount and Antiquity Matters (2017) by Frederick Raphael? You might find them extremely thought-provoking, I think.

  2. dfordoom says:

    No, but I'll keep a lookout for them. Thanks for the recommendations.

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