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How Civilization subverts Personal Identity


By an authentic personal identity I mean an identity that flows from one’s nature. At its core, this is an identity formed in early childhood, projected and nurtured by parental influences, by siblings, and childhood friends. There is a connection with one’s genetic endowment. Beyond this are experiences in life related to a person’s situation in the world. Some are authentic, but others are aimed at changing or “improving” a person for sometimes exploitative ends.

The influences exerted by religion and education are of this sort. Identities flowing from such influences tend to be less authentic than the other kind. Individuals are encouraged, or forced, to accept them to serve the purposes of others in power. Indeed, civilization as a whole tends to subvert personal identity in its more authentic, resonant, and natural forms. Our discussion will look at this process from an historical perspective.

The history of civilization here follows the scheme of “Five Epochs of Civilization” whereby five successive civilizations have appeared on earth to characterize societies.

The first civilization, appearing first with the rise of Sumerian and Egyptian city-states five to six thousand years ago, was dominated by the institution of government. The various kingdoms fought each other to form territorially enlarged political empires.

The second civilization, arising from philosophical revolutions in the first millennium B.C., culminated in world religion. “Spiritual kingdoms” associated with Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam were dominant in human culture until the middle of the second millennium A.D.

Then, with the Renaissance changing European culture, a third civilization based upon the twin institutions of commerce and secular education arose. Its period of dominance was between the 14th and early 20th centuries, A.D.

The fourth civilization, originating in technological advances of the mid 19th century, came into its own after World War I. This was an age of mass entertainment delivered through phonographs, motion pictures, radio, and television.

Finally, in the late 20th century, computer-based culture has established its first institution in the Internet. Once it is more fully developed, this culture will become the fifth civilization.

Of interest here is the effect that each civilization has on personal identity. It is my contention that “civilization” implies a superior culture. It is culture as seen by outsiders. In the classic case, the uncultured barbarian on horseback encounters the rich cities of civilized societies. The barbarians are nomadic peoples who lack the art of writing and therefore the capacity to organize an urban society which can manage irrigation projects and develop an economic surplus. The rude, ignorant barbarians covet the wealth of civilized societies, desiring to plunder them and rape the finely adorned women.

So often this happened in the early histories of Asia and Europe. But each of the other “civilizations” show a similar pattern. In most cases, “civilization” appears in the form of a spectacle of a culturally superior society which the masses are encouraged to emulate and join. (See Civilization and the Envious Outsider.)

The “better culture” of the third civilization

Let’s start with the third civilization, which even today most people associate with civilization itself. This is a culture which reached its peak in Victorian England. While the British monarchy would seem emblematic of this society, its dominant institutions were those of commerce and education. Its “civilization” consisted of an industrialized but highly literate society and culture associated with such things as London banks, social clubs, universities and public schools, and newspaper reading. “Civilized” gentlemen and ladies were associated with such enterprises and pursuits; and the common people were encouraged to aspire to that way of life.

Going back in history, one sees that the dominant institutions were formed in northern Italy during the Renaissance. The Christian Crusades to recover the Holy Lands from Muslim rule succeeded not in altering the political boundaries of the Middle East but in stimulating European commerce and scholarship. City states such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Amalfi grew wealthy from trade with the Orient. Greek manuscripts brought by refugees from Turkey when the Byzantine empire fell in the mid 15th century stimulated a renew interest in classical literature and philosophy.

Even before that, humanist scholars had rediscovered the classical texts of Roman society. Rich merchants hired these scholars to teach their children. The business class became sponsors of music and art.

The humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (“Petrarch”), who lived in northern Italy during the 14th century A.D., is a pivotal figure in the formation of secular education. Fluent in Latin, Petrarch read the classical texts of Roman society with an appreciation of their superior intellectual and aesthetic qualities. To him, this ancient culture seemed preferable to the culture of his own times.

Petrarch lived and breathed the classical culture. In his own writings and dreams, he communicated with long-dead Roman authors as if they were his personal friends. It was he who pioneered techniques of textual criticism that became a staple of university courses in literature. His posture toward classical culture set a pattern for modern scholars studying excellent expressions in literature, music, and the arts.

The Renaissance stimulated study of the Greek and Roman classics. Secular education later turned to writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, who had perfected expression in contemporary languages. This, in turn, became the core of a good education in the liberal arts. The sons of upwardly mobile, middle-class families were encouraged to immerse themselves in good literature, art, science, and history to acquire the skills and sensibilities of the upper class as a preparation for joining that class.

Well-educated gentlemen versed in what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” in the society’s culture were its obvious leaders. And social advancement was the main occupation of that society - advancement through education followed by a successful career. From another perspective, though, this was a turn away from one’s native upbringing to a culture deemed superior. For many, it was an assault upon authentic personal identity.

How the first civilization established superior and inferior relationships between peoples

Briefly, let us see if the same principle applies to other civilizations. We start with humanity organized in wandering tribes or in small, loosely organized communities subsisting on agriculture. This was living close to a state of nature - the Garden of Eden, if you will. Some tribes formed primitive city-states. Those states with a more developed military capability were able to conquer neighboring kingdoms and incorporate those kingdoms in their own empires.

Here is where some people are subjected to the domination of alien cultures. Peoples defeated in battle are either killed or enslaved. The wealth of their cities is plundered. In Assyria, it was the policy to disperse conquered peoples to remote places in the empire. Even if they are lucky and survive, their communities live under the political and cultural yoke of the militarily stronger people.

The history of that epoch is characterized both by the struggle between civilized society and barbarian tribes and wars among kingdoms within civilized society. Eventually the settled people won. Large empires such as the Roman empire and the Chinese empire in the Han dynasty were formed. This was the culmination of the first civilization. Successful empires managed to integrate conquered peoples smoothly into the political order. Rome granted them a measure of political autonomy, including dual citizenship. More ruthless models of subjugation often failed.

Religion reflects political realities

Along with the political process came a realignment of religion. At the time of the first civilization, city states and other small kingdoms generally had their own god, who was a god of the community and of the people inhabiting the city. The goddess Palas Athena represented the city of Athens, for example. Statues of such gods or goddesses were placed in the center of temples as objects of worship.

When one people conquered another, not only the governments of the defeated peoples but also their gods were made subordinate to those of the conquering people. The Roman empire established a pantheon of gods in which the god of Rome was in the highest position and the others were placed in an inferior position. The non-Roman people had to accept an inferior identity in the imperial scheme. So with other empires of this era. The exercise of imperial power required both political and religious craftsmanship.

The special case of Jewish religion

The famous exception is that the people of Judaea would not accept foreign religious rule. Their ancestral spirit, Jehovah, was the only God whom they would acknowledge. The Greek Seleucid dynasty gained political control of this nation in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire. When emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV tried to erect a statue of Zeus Ouranios in place of the altar at the Jerusalem temple in 167 B.C., it offended the religious sensibility of pious Jews and sparked the Maccabean revolt. Jews regained political and religious control of their homeland for the following century.

Then, in 63 B.C., dynastic turmoil led to an invitation to the Roman general Pompey to intervene. Judaea effectively became a Roman possession. In 70 A.D., the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the remaining Jews were dispersed to other parts of the empire. Politically, the Jewish nation was destroyed - at least, for the better part of two millennia.

This might have been the end of the story had it not been for the remarkable religious culture developed during the time when Jews were subjected to foreign political rule. It started during the “Babylonian captivity” in the 6th century B.C. The conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar brought the defeat of Judaea and extinction of the Jewish dynasty going back to David and Solomon. Yet the religion of Moses promised the Jews everlasting prosperity and glory if they remained faithful to their God. What had happened?

The writing prophets, starting with Amos, explained that God was punishing the Jews for their faithlessness and sin. Yet, this punishment was only temporary. After a period of chastisement, God would restore the Jewish nation under the leadership of a descendent of David, the Messiah. In Isaiah, it is explained that the Jews’ exile to Babylon and their subsequent incorporation in the Persian empire was meant to exhibit God’s glory and power to Gentile peoples. When the Persian king Cyrus allowed Jewish leaders to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, this was thought to be confirmation of that power. The Jewish tribal god, Jehovah, was a god whom even Gentile kings had to obey.

The story became more complicated when the Persian empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great and less tolerant Greek rulers seized control of Palestine; and when the Romans later seized control. By this time, however, the prophetic literature of pious Jews had developed to the point that political realities could not interfere with the Jews’ hope of ultimate redemption when God’s kingdom would arrive.

Building upon the writings of earlier prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, others such as Daniel, Malachi, and Zechariah came along, placing attention less on the restoration of a Jewish kingdom under David’s descendant and more on a spiritual or supernatural “Kingdom of God.” The Messiah as “Son of Man” came to replace the Messianic “Son of David”.

The focus was now on the process by which God’s kingdom would come; certain conditions had to be met first. These had to do with the prior arrival of Elijah and a period of unprecedented tribulation rather than with the political situation. Everyone was looking for signs that the Messiah would come soon to deliver the Jewish people from their suffering under foreign rule.

Christianity brings this religion to all peoples

The stage was set for the preachings of John the Baptist and Jesus who said, “The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1: 15) In other words, after centuries of prophetic writing and countless changes in political conditions, the long-promised Kingdom of God was about to arrive.

The rest of Jesus’ preaching had to do with the nature of the Kingdom and how believers might prepare themselves for salvation. His life was about removing the remaining obstacles so that the Kingdom might soon arrive. Ultimately, Jesus was betrayed, arraigned before the High Priest, convicted of blasphemy, and crucified. He arose from the dead two days later.

The early Christians believed that Jesus’ resurrection showed both the favor and power of God and put Jesus in a supernatural state consistent with that of the Messiah. Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah who would come again in power and glory when God’s kingdom would replace earthly kingdoms and history would end.

History did not end, of course. The Christian community remained intact, and missionaries were sent out to preach the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection and the coming hope for the future.

So the Christian religion took hold in various parts of the Roman empire. After several centuries, this religion became the official religion of Rome. Then, when Rome fell, it became a surrogate for Roman culture. The Roman church became a center of power in the world, exercising spiritual authority in those lands, Europe among them, which had once belonged to Rome. The spread of European culture to the Americas and other parts of the world have brought Christianity to all peoples.

What did it mean for those peoples in terms of self-identity?

We today in the West live in lands that have been under the influence of the Christian religion for hundreds of years. Christianity is the heritage of our ancestors and people. It is inextricably linked to our history as far back as scholarship can reach. It is an important part of our culture. So does that make Christianity an authentic basis for our personal self-identity? Those who embrace this religion would consider it so. Otherwise, there is room for skepticism.

Many who embrace Christianity today do so out of hope that they will go to Heaven after death, and avoid Hell, if they remain faithful to Jesus and to the Christian religion. They believe this promise because millions of other people believe and have believed it and because the church encourages such belief.

But Jesus himself did promise life after death; he promised that the Kingdom of God would come soon. With the Kingdom of God, there was admittedly the expectation that the living would be transformed into supernatural beings who would live, if not eternally, for thousands of years. There was a promise that the righteous dead - who were dead when the Kingdom came - would be resurrected to life in the Kingdom when the Kingdom came. Jesus accepted that view. As for the many believers who have died since Jesus’ day and before the Kingdom of God arrived, there is little basis in the Gospels for believing that being a Christian with purity of heart guarantees life after death. It all depends on the Kingdom, and that Kingdom has not yet come.

Another school of Christian thought accepts this precondition - that the Kingdom must come - but insists that the fact it has not come yet does not mean it will never come. The urgent expectation of the Kingdom’s imminent arrival, so strong among Jesus and his followers, remains strong today in hopes for Christ’s “Second Coming” . Statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels hold out hope for this event despite its delay for nearly two thousand years.

If the early Christian community expected it to occur soon, maybe it was because human knowledge is imperfect. A day in God’s sight may be equivalent to a thousand years; or there may be some other reason why the Kingdom has not yet come. For the faithful, however, persistence in the faith despite immediate evidence to the contrary could be considered a virtue: The believer has strong faith, and that is what Jesus required. And so millions continue to believe, looking for the end of earthly times and the Rapture that will take them straight to Heaven.

Such considerations cannot enter into an analysis of Christianity as a cultural influence. Undeniably, a majority of our ancestors who were Christians lived under its strong influence, but they also lived in anticipation of an event which failed to happen during their lifetime; or they may have lived with an imperfect understanding of what Jesus actually promised. If one assumes - as this discussion does - that it is good to live a life in harmony with one’s nature and the actual circumstances, then the Christian religion has led them in the wrong direction. It led to expectations of an afterlife rather than to a life in this world fully lived.

An Instrument of Jewish Cultural Imperialism

The history of this religion shows that another people’s culture and world view have been put on believers. The religion may actually represent the cultural and spiritual domination of one people by another. Consider that in the 1st millennium B.C., when the ideological foundation of Christianity was laid, God was not commonly regarded as a universal spirit who created the world. God was a spirit representative of a people or nation. Jehovah was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and later of Moses; He was God of the Hebrew people alone.

But the Jewish prophets developed the idea that their God was more than this: He was a God who ruled the entire world. The monotheistic tendency in Jewish religion led to the belief that other people’s gods were false gods. Only Jehovah really existed, and so other peoples must worship him. it was an outrageous claim for a people to make who were subjected to foreign political domination. But the claim held.

Looking at Christianity with a cold eye, one can regard it as an instrument of the Jews’ cultural domination of other peoples. Jesus was a prophet in the Jewish tradition who instructed his disciples: “Do not take the road to gentile lands, and do not enter any Samaritan town; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 6) Luke 4: 16 makes clear that Jesus regularly worshipped at the synagogue on the Sabbath. In John 4: 22, he says: “You Samaritans worship without knowing what you worship, while we worship what we know. It is from the Jews that salvation comes.”

But there are other texts suggesting a broader view. Jesus’ sympathy for the Roman centurion who had faith, his condoning good works on the Sabbath contrary to the Mosaic Law, and his vitriolic condemnation of the Pharisees and other righteous Jews show a departure from the strict Jewish tradition. Above all, it was Jesus’ arraignment before the High Priest and the priestly retinue who were instrumental in his death, and the “anti-Semitic” reaction to this event, that divorced the Christian religion from the religion of the Jews. It was Peter’s vision of God giving permission to eat “profane or unclean” food as a sign to accept the Roman soldier Cornelius (Acts 10: 16) and the apostle Paul’s successful mission to Gentile nations that broke the link to this earlier religious tradition.

And so Christianity became a universal religion claiming to transfer the blessing which God had bestowed upon Jews to all people. This new religion maintained, however, the Jewish intolerance of other gods. Indeed, it maintained that only through Jesus could one find salvation and eternal life. At the same time, it transmitted God’s promise to Abraham: “Those that bless you (Abraham and his descendants), I will bless; those who curse you, I will execrate.” (Genesis 12: 3) Christians were thus advised to favor and help the Jews.

In the meanwhile, Christianity has spread the culture of ancient Israel to other peoples. Through the Gospel and other New Testament writings, as well as texts found in the Old Testament, people in subsequent generations have absorbed this religious culture. They have often been more attentive to its message and to the facts of its world than to circumstances in their own lives. Like a parent speaking from the distant past, it has insisted that the old ways must continue to be observed even if present conditions are different from those existing back then. This generation is prevented from exercising its own moral judgment. Its identity is controlled by past experience.

And so, the dominant institution of the second civilization - Christianity in the west and other such religions elsewhere - forces people to look elsewhere for a “better world” than the one in which they are living. Heaven, by definition, is a place of perfection. Man’s paramount hope should be to gain entrance to it. The bright prospect dangled by religious organizations argues against making much of what one might find in this world.

Back to the third civilization

This western civilization that derived from the Renaissance rejected the ideological framework of religion, preferring to look at the physical world. This did not, however, imply worldly contentment; for the culture promoted striving to improve one’s condition. Some searched for silver and gold in distant places such as Mexico or Peru. Others traded for spices from the orient. Later, of course, the slave trade brought African captives to the New World. It was all done in the spirit of getting rich. By establishing colonies around the world, the European powers could increase their wealth through captive trade.

Then came the Industrial Revolution which increased the amount of production that was possible from human labor. More exploitation took place. A working class was created as traditional craftsmen were displaced. The competition among colonial powers for resources and wealth escalated into a military competition leading to world war and the mass destruction of people through advanced technologies. All was done in the name of self-improvement, increasing comfort and wealth, at least for those at the top.

As for education, it took unfinished people from the hinterlands and taught them how to become aristocrats, fit for high positions in society. A culture better than what they received from their parents could be had in the space of four years. The educated ones would rise to the top of society leaving others in a less favorable position. In time, as education became universal, this advantage was removed but the obligation continued. Increased education became a prerequisite for obtaining any kind of decent job.

Instead of being liberated or improved, young people were squeezed harder to compete with their peers and at the end were left with student loans needing to be repaid. Here, too, the culture led to a treadmill that left little time to pursue dreams of an enhanced personal identity.

And then, the fourth civilization

It may seem odd to call the culture of “having fun” a civilization, but that’s what it is. After a certain level of material comfort is reached, our focus turns to such ends. The trick is to hook people’s attention and then sell them something. Frivolous though its offering may be, entertainment is now a serious business. Network television sells commercial products as well as political candidates. To a lesser extent, it spreads religion. The appealing spectacle draws people in for other purposes.

Why would people forfeit real experiences in life to spend hours staring at images on a silver screen? It’s because those images are so easy yet appealing. High-quality entertainment is delivered at a low cost through the television set. The same is true of recorded music. The most personally engaging voices can be heard in this medium. The electronic media that deliver such spectacles and sounds present an image of an aesthetically superior world.

Yes, the movie stars are quite glamorous and beautiful. The singers are so sexy. The athletes show great character when they win under pressure, with the whole world watching. Ambitious young people in today’s world want to be part of that action. To become a superstar in the world of mass entertainment has become a part of the American dream. Any good-looking woman or man, though presently a cocktail waitress or truck driver, can reasonably aspire to that dream.

The sad truth, of course, is that only a few succeed in becoming stars in this culture of mass entertainment. The majority of aspirants fail. Therefore, like gambling, the way of life is largely delusional. Moreover, the entertainment culture is destructive of a sound personal identity. Normal women see themselves as too fat; accountants and nerds, not sexy enough. Our own image falls short of the glamor found in that realm.

Mass entertainment delivered through the broadcast media is directed one way: from a single source to the mass of listeners or viewers. It’s a cookie-cutter culture with a one-size-fits-all message. Of necessity, the viewers’ individual wants and needs are largely disregarded. The expertly shaped images are unnatural though appealing.

Prospects for the Fifth Civilization

With computer-based communication, there are signs that civilized culture may come full circle. Unlike the broadcast media, computers permit communication both ways. The viewer can both receive and send messages to those on the other side of the screen. Individuals can search for messages that they want, located at particular websites. They can participate in communities of interest. All this promotes a better sense of self-definition and a more sharply focused personal identity. The ultimate is to match computer content with who we truly are.

In the future, it may not be possible to sustain economic activity at levels existing in the past because of resource shortages. Either the society tolerates vast and growing disparities of income or it will find a way to share income and work through shortened work hours. If the latter course is pursued, it will open up new opportunities for self-discovery in the hours of leisure time. Assuming that our basic material needs are met, the ability to live life in a mode reflecting our innate capacities and true interests will seem more valuable than having more consumer products with little time to use them. Flakes of gold may be found in ordinary life.

And so, with the democratization of mass communication, individuals can express themselves effectively, overcoming exploitation from the top. Individuals can then integrate themselves into society in more satisfying ways. They can let their own spirit follow new pathways to other people. The result may be something approaching a return to nature.

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