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Queenfish's question: what is Western Civ.


In a thread devoted to a poem of her's Queenfish has asked me a question: how would I define Western Civilization. Not wanting to clutter her thread I choose to answer her here, in a more appropriate place.

I'll start with what Western Civilization is not. T.S. Eliot called it a Christian Civ. Emphaticly he was wrong, wanting to bend the record to his own biases. The early 19th C. German philosopher, Hegel, defined Western Civ a "Christian Romantic Civilization." Aside from the fact his definition involves a logical contradiction, he too was wrong.

When I was a young man and still addicted to the bad habit of reading philosphers, I came upon a philosopher's work he called From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Walter Kaufmann's thesis was modest. He looked to demonstrate, by pulling up, drawing on the record, that woven through the history of Western Civ there has been a tradition thriving beneath the veneer of Christianity. For lack of a better term I'll call it a humanistic tradition. That is to say human-centric, this worldly, not other-worldly, focused on the here and now, expressed both in the immediacy of emotional attachments to the here and now and to an almost instinctive penchant for critical thinking, critical examination(s). His examemplars included the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud, and the many thinkers involved in 20th C Existentialism. Had I written the book I would have expanded the list exponentially. I would have gone back further in the record to the likes of Abelard, medieval Goliardic and Troubador poetry. I would have also included the likes of the early Renaissance Alchemists, Francis Bacon, Montaigne, Sir Walter Raleigh, and an extensive pantheon of thinkers, poets, writers, scientists, and maybe especially painters, all working in tandem, to one extent or another building upon the discoveries of each other, from the shores of Atlantic Ocean to what we think of now as Eastern Europe, from close to the Arctic circle to the Mediterranean Sea. What they all had in common can be negatively summed up in something a French madman said about the 11th C philosopher and poet, Abelard: "But Abelard swats away at heaven like a blue-tail fly." Positively what they all had in common was a supremely passionate interest, I think it was non-rational and so I think of it as instinctive, in the here and now, this world, the workings of nature, and the workings involved in what it means to be a human being. But I'm getting ahead of my thoughts.

To put to rest what Western Civ is not, at the same time I was reading philosophers I came upon the historical theorist, Oswald Spengler. I didn't manage through the whole of his huge The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, but I got his approach to history. His idea was simple. All civilizations are subject to the laws of morphological development. They never live forever, since, they are subject to the laws governing nature. They are born. They grow. They go through childhood, adolescence, maturation, decline, decadence, dotage, and they end up dying. In brief civilizations are subject to the same laws that govern all natural phenomena. This is not a notion we like to subscribe to. But taking in the course of the human story, I know of no exception to the rule. Before civilizations are conquered from without, they die of internal rot. Best example of this, most colorful and instructive, has to be the case of the Byzantine Empire. But back to my point.

Spengler called the (forced) Christianization of the subcontinent of Europe a psuedo-morph. In effect, a graft that never fully took. Christianity, a monotheistic religion that rose out of the Levant, he thought of as a foreign import, not a belief system or attitude that came naturally to Europeans who, before conversion, had been worshippers of nature, even animists, and whose spirit world, so to speak, was peopled with gods and goddesses. It is no historical accident that, in less than a generation after Nietzsche proclaimed God is dead, the whole of Europe had detoxified itself, gottten over its addiction to a deity that had originated in the desert, had originated in a region of the world, the Middle East, where monotheism has for long, and only there, flourished. Think on it. The only race in the world to which the notion of a single and transcendent diety comes naturally is Semitic. Arabs take to Allah naturally. Jews take to Yawheh naturally. No one else.

So that is my take on what Western Civilization is not. It is not a Christian Romantic Civilization. Now for the tricky business of labelling it for what it is. It's first expression(s) started up in the 12th Century. Two main rivers, so to speak, found a confluence and became a mightier course that turned into a watershed in its own right. Troubador poetry coming out of the south of Europe, Provence, and the Welsh material, the Matter of Arthur, imported into the continent soon after the conquest of Britain by a Norman. Read the Arthurian legends and read Troubador poetry and you start to get an idea of the formative shapes of Western Civilization. Out of the matter of Arthur comes the quest, the hero's quest whose search is for the holy grail, the chalice, bowl or cup in which is found regeneration. Out of Troubador pathos comes the idealization of Beauty involving the really big thing, the conception of Romantic love. Romantic love has become such a cliche, an idea taken for granted, that it is lost that, in fact, it started out as just an idea. Started with the Troubadors, was not a part of what it means to be human before them. That is a huge innovation in the development of what it means to be human and it came out of the West. Not out of China. Not out of the Levant. Not out of India. Not out of Africa. Not out of the Americas. But I need to take my definition of Western Civilization a step further.

In its roots Western Civ is pagan and insistently, instinctively, imperatively so. (From Shakespeare to Existentialism indeed.) It believes in the here and now, it insists on knowing the here and now, its trust is in the here and now. But more, it finds in the here and now what religionists call the numinous. Jung said there are two archetypes of the relious experience. One is transcendent, finds the numinous "out there", in the sky, in the desert, or just away from nature. The other is immanent, finds the numinous "in here", in a spirit world's inscape and instress, as Hopkins could have said. But there is something even more peculiar going on in Western culture. In the end, in its fullest expression and final flowering, Western Civilization's character is Faustian. It is a dynamic never satisfied, not with itself, not with its lover(s), and never with the Divine. It was Goethe, poet, lover, pagan, and scientist, who best spelled out the character of the Western soul, Western Civ's meme:

All transient things are but a parable; the inaccessible here becomes actuality; here the ineffable is achieved; the Eternal-Feminine draws us onward.

But Faust did die and his sons and daughters got totalitarized, got globalized, became consumers, quids of mass-society.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Jul/4/2013, 4:43 pm
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Re: Queenfish's question: what is Western Civ.


thanks tere!

i'm glad you took the trouble - this is most enlightening & has burst many myths esp about western civ. being only christian or being christian romantic - as we know it.

& that there has been a tradition thriving beneath the veneer of christianity which you call human-centric: 'this worldly, not other-worldly, focused on the here and now, expressed both in the immediacy of emotional attachments to the here and now and to an almost instinctive penchant for critical thinking, critical examination(s). His examemplars included the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud, and the many thinkers involved in 20th C Existentialism'

also this: 'I think it was non-rational and so I think of it as instinctive, in the here and now, this world, the workings of nature, and the workings involved in what it means to be a human being.'

& this: attitude that came naturally to Europeans who, before conversion, had been worshippers of nature, even animists, and whose spirit world, so to speak, was peopled with gods and goddesses.

that sounds very familiar as in india too nature was worshipped in all its forms & we have many gods & goddesses & the same can be said about ancient greece - another great civilization.

christianity has been so prevalent in our times - that's why we know more of it - also it was very prevalent in india - as the britishers ruled for 200 years. the christian fathers went all over the world to spread christianity & ironically called all other worship - pagan. the poor tribals who had their own civ. / culture etc. stood no chance! they were the real keepers of the enviorenment as they worshipped it!

so nature worship is nothing more than loving our enviorenment - where everything is worshipped - sun , moon, trees, stones etc. that's why so many gods & goddesses - again like the greeks. i think we would all do better by turning into pagans like the ancients!

 - the most ancient civilization is supposed to be: mesopotamia / eygypt / Indus valley civilization in india / china

it was from mesopotamia & then the mediterranean regions which developed sea travel - which greatly influenced the rest of the western civilization.

the ancient languages also came from these ancient civilizations - giving birth to literature & the arts. sanskrit texts are not only religious but there are excellent plays / epics / poetry - kalidasa in india is perhaps what shakespeare is to the british.

the arts & literature thrived in the middle east / greece / egypt / china long before the western world - so i don't agree when you say that the huge developement of what it means to be human came out of the west.

in fact that's the only point i don't agree on. i hope you will not misunderstand - the rest of your essay & i would really call it one - is very enlightening & scholarly & very well put together - & i thank you very much for taking the time & trouble & i hope you've enjoyed it as much as i have in reading it.


Jul/5/2013, 2:42 am Link to this post Send Email to queenfisher   Send PM to queenfisher Blog
 
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Re: Queenfish's question: what is Western Civ.


What a treat! Excellent! Thank you, Queen, for opening your thoughts up to the board.

Let me go after, hopefully dispense with, where you find disagreement with what I've put out.

If you read me to say 'that the huge developement of what it means to be human came out of the west', then I expressed myself badly. What I meant to convey is that the conception, and it really is only an idea, of Romantic love came out of the poetry of the Troubadors, and, further, that this amounted to a huge development, an extraordinary step taken, in how we all think of what it means to fully be a human being. This makes for tricky business, begs the question: what, then, are the features of Romantic love.

I cannot speak adequately to the case of Indian literature. Can speak a little further to the case of ancient Chinese lit, Japanese lit, and to the poetry of ancient Persia and ancient Hebrew. I can say confidantly that, before the Troubadors, in neither the Western ken, in the lit of Mediterranean Civ on which it draws in part, in ancient Persian poetry, or ancient Hebrew poetry can you find expressions of Romantic love. I haven't found it in the ancient Chinese or the Japanese either, but my reading there is not as extensive. Do you get what I'm after here? This particular, some might say peculiar, conception of love was a radical innovation in the south of France in the 12th Century.

Now I'm forced to define what I mean by Romantic love viewed as a conception or idea. Fair enough. Romantic love has three distinctive features. Idealization, Fullfillment, and something else: object-to-subject.

Idealization. I will idealize the woman I love (in my case it is always a woman). I find her perfect in every way. In her shape, in her form, in her thoughts, in her feelings, even in her habits. Of course, she cannot always seem so perfect. So, from time to time, I will go through a process one French writer called crystalization, by which means I can find again her perfection(s) again.

Fullfillment. In her I will find reason, purpose, meaning in everything I do. Everything I do I will do for her. I will protect her honor. I will fight for her. I will find in her a kind of religious awe that keeps me going, no matter what.

Object-to-subject. This feature is the huge one. This was the radical innovation Troubadors introduced, an innovation Dante developed, ran with, got down in his love poetry to his Beatrice. There he praised her beauty in superb fashion. One day her attending ladies took him to task. They asked Dante why did he show Beatrice so much cruelty? He was astounded, shocked, stupified. They told him that in his poetry he broadcast through out all of Florence Beatrice was set on display, she who was a private person. He got it. He got the big thing never before expressed in poetry, never before understood. He had treated Beatrice as an object of his love. Not as a human being, a subject in her own right, in her own life. He loved her sure. But not enough to understand she has her own life to live, independant of him. Until that moment he simply hadn't loved her enough. An object of love who becomes her own subject. Dante got the trick from the Troubadors. It amounted to a remarkable moment in the development of human psychology, in understanding what it means to being human.

That is all I meant. But I'm always up for being corrected. Thrive on it actually.

Tere
Jul/5/2013, 8:20 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: Queenfish's question: what is Western Civ.


dear tere

the disagreement is not to point out that what you say is untrue or a fallacy - no of course not - you're quite right in your case-study of romantic love & your definitation of it is very well thought out.

i do not know much or actually nothing of chinese / japenese lit. maybe more of greek & persian as there are excellent translations available.

in fact i do not know too much of my own literature - not as much as i should or would have liked to - we're so westernized in our thinking & upbringing - thanks to our parents & education! it's not as easy for me to read novels / poetry in hindi as it is to read in english.

but i do know that romantic poetry / plays / epics existed in india as far back as the 4th cen BC - the epics ramayana / mahabharta were written around that period - written in verse - the epics are sheer poetry & cover the whole human gamut from love to war. the women characters have their own rich identities in their own rights - they were both subjects & objects of love - in fact the two great wars in both epics were fought over women precisely for the same reason as you mention in fullfillment:

In her I will find reason, purpose, meaning in everything I do. Everything I do I will do for her. I will protect her honor. I will fight for her. I will find in her a kind of religious awe that keeps me going, no matter what.

& this because the men idealized the women they loved.

& respected them for being their own selves - having their own lives - not mere objects.

later Kalidas - i think around 4th cen A.D. wrote explicitly - very romantic poems.

romance was then explored further which ended with union with the supreme being or god. in fact romantic love in all its definitions is as ancient as the gods.

we have a very colorful history of romantic love in our literature from ancient india to modern times - in all its forms - from the erotic to the romantic & the religious.

in fact there is a story - i think it's Siddharta - in which a courtesan tells him that if a man fails to know & love a woman he'll never attain nirvana!

[sign in to see URL] is not an argument about the east & west or who came first! but about western civ.

it was just that remark that i disagreed with. the troubadors came much later i think as late as 12th or 13 Cen AD.

so whatever it takes to be human - whether romantic love or anything else under the sun - whether man / woman - certainly did not come out only from the west - you see i'm ready to concede that in whatever manifested form - it came from the west - but it existed in all it's glory in the east - probably earlier.

 

Last edited by queenfisher, Jul/8/2013, 5:48 am
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Re: Queenfish's question: what is Western Civ.


Queen, this is such a treat. Thank you for the info and for taking the time. To be clear I'm not into making categorical distinctions between east and west, whatever that means anyway. Nor am I particularly attached to notions if the evidence is not there to back them up. But I have a question I'm going to ask of you when I have the time and after I've checked a couple of resources. Please hang around.

Oh I do love this board and what it has to offer, which is conversation.

Tere
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