Saturday, October 10, 2009

Weekend Reading: The Catastrophe

Today's weekend history reading, from Brussels Journal: “The Catastrophe” - What the End of Bronze-Age Civilization Means for Modern Times, by Thomas Bertonneau.

... Civilized people go about their lives on the dual assumption of institutional permanency and a continuity of custom. The assumption that plans made today will see their fruition tomorrow belongs to the background of organized existence and contributes to motivating our purposive behavior. The same assumption can lapse into complacency, however, so that, even as signs of trouble emerge on the horizon, a certain denial disarms people from responding to looming disruption with sufficient swiftness and clarity. People take civilization for granted; they rarely contemplate that it might come tumbling down about their ears. Insofar as the historical record has something important to teach ordinary people who are not specialists in the subject, it might well be the lesson that all known societies before the modern society have come to an end. Some of them have come to an end abruptly and violently.

One such society, or civilization, was the Bronze Age civilization of the Twelfth Century B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean. The singular term “civilization,” rather than the plural, is appropriate even though the geographical-cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean contained many separate peoples distinguished by their distinctive languages, religious beliefs, and customs. These societies – Greek, Semitic, Western Anatolian, and Pelagic – were in commercial, diplomatic, and artistic communication with one another. They together constituted a pattern of civilized life, whose individual element-nations all had the same stake in maintaining the coherency of the whole. ...

... ~~~ ...

... If the affluent society should begin to federate members of the external proletariat for unskilled labor or military service, as the Bronze Age kingdoms seem to have done with the Shardana and the Shekelesh and as the Roman Empire did with the Gothic barbarians, then the internal and external proletariats can arrive at a sense of a common grudge and, however dimly perceived, of a common cause. The avarice of the proletariat can grow stronger than the commitment of the civic classes to their own preservation. As one fits aspects of Homeric and Hesiodic sociology into what is known historically and archeologically about the Catastrophe one sees that something like this process must have occurred in a great boiling-over three thousand years ago in the region comprising Greece, Anatolia, the islands, and the Levant. The Catastrophe, says Drews, was worse than the fall of the Western Empire.

So that there might be order in the polity, Plato constantly argued, there must first be order in the individual soul. Restraint and askesis play essential roles in the orderliness of the soul – hence also in civic arrangements. Restraint acknowledges the sacredness of persons and property and askesis honors the wisdom not to flaunt affluence – not because one is not entitled to it either as the fruits of personal productivity or as inheritance, but because it is anthropologically foolhardy to do so. Ours is an age of fantastically inflated, pathologically ostentatious economies; quite without cosmic calamities it is also an age rapidly losing its historical memory and even its literacy. There is a voluntary relinquishment of intellectual and moral rigors for the sake of paltry divertissement. Too many modern people see in their electronic conveniences, in their false freedom from anxiety and care, what the guardians of Mycenae must have seen in their Cyclopean walls and defensive ditches: untouchable superiority and immunity from annoyance. ...

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

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