Civilizations emerged as a consequence of a chain of events from climate change to agriculture, to increasing population, to power and social inequality and finally the build-up of early kingdoms and empires. Once stabilized (reproducing over the generations) civilizations affirm foundational truths. Such foundational truths I call 'the axioms of civilization' which are like master worldviews whose intellectual narratives drive the formation of all future ideation within the societies that compose that civilization. From such axioms, or intellectual narratives, member societies then build up popular narratives or worldviews that are shared by all citizens whose daily ways of living form what is called culture. In that sense when we speak about a civilization it relates to the interactions, during the entirety of its history, between its axioms, its societal worldview, and its living culture. Such interactions along their history are the reason why civilizations can end up regrouping different societies with differentiating worldviews and cultures that move further apart.
The 'civilizational axioms' are buried deeply in the popular worldviews and from there they enter the subconscious of the citizens of the different societies within a civilization. These are a set of principles (as unproven logical concepts or ideas; as in mathematical axioms) that most people have no clue about but that are nevertheless shaping their reasoning and behaviors. One example of such a civilizational axiom is the dualism that mars the reasoning of all who live in the 'lebensraum' of the religions of the word. Dualism eased the emergence of power relations and of social inequality. Dualism also eased the adoption of worldviews that are totally detached from daily life considerations and confronted later with a particular set of historical circumstances dualism gave rise to the reason of capital that ultimately would give rise to philosophic rationalism and science as the 'right way of reasoning and behaving' while positing that all other approaches are 'wrong'.
To possibly attain the consciousness that something like 'civilizational axioms' exist at all perhaps, it is necessary to experience daily life and intellectual inquiry, over the long run, in countries participating in a different civilization. Leaving Europe in my thirties and landing in China where I lived for decades I personally experienced the shock provoked by such differences and it is world awakening indeed. In sum what I mean to say here is that we are conditioned by our 'civilizational axioms' to believe that the popular worldview we share with our fellow citizens reflects the truth about reality. We just can't avoid them shaping our thinking and behavior because they are the foundations of the worldviews and the cultures practiced where we were born and live. So when we plunge into societies that participate in another civilization our minds are blown away by incomprehension with the differences we observe in how people handle their day to day ways of doing and thinking and it takes a real effort to accept that such different ways are not necessarily worse than our own ways. Such an effort is absolutely indispensable to accept the other in his otherness and I think this is also the necessary pre-requisite of any inquiry into the why and how those differences came about.
So how did such axioms of civilization come about?
I'll try to answer that question in 3 different steps and I'll develop each step in a separate post:
1. About the formation of Early Kingdoms and Empires
2. Imperial stabilization in different environments or 'milieus'
3. Compared intellectual narratives: the Chinese and Western axioms of civilization
1. About Early Kingdoms and Empires.
A cascade of events unleashed a deep destabilization of the life conditions that had prevailed over the last tens of thousands of years in tribal societies. This destabilization set in motion a chain reaction that ultimately put humanity on the long and tortuous path of civilization building.
That chain of events appears to have been set in motion by an increase in the average temperatures of the earth by a whopping 5 degree C. Such a warming was then followed by an unusually long period of climate stability that permitted the slow process of human societal evolution to take root and move forward (see graph here under).
The Geological temperature record shows that the world's average temperatures increased by some 5 degrees C on average between 20,000 and 10,000 BC. Those temperatures then stabilized within a very narrow band of variation (+0.5 to -0.5 degree C) that was maintained till roughly 1800 when the industrial revolution started pumping ever larger volumes of CO2 in the atmosphere which caused the climate to start warming again. Our present anthropogenic climate change gives us a sense of the enormity of what happened during that last warming. In the last 200 years the world's average temperatures increased by nearly 1 degree C. and climatologists were urged to understand what is going on. They have unanimously concluded that climate change results from increases or decreases in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (those few scientists who disagree are generally not climatologists). An increase in CO2 provokes a glass house effect that sets in around 30 years after the CO2 has been emitted in the atmosphere. We know, for a fact, that the bulk of CO2 increases happened within the last 3 decades after globalization started in the seventies. Most climate studies indicate that when factoring these last 3 decades of CO2 emissions in the climate models it appears that the average temperature around the world will increase by at least 2 degree C. before 2050 which portends possible increases of 7 degrees C or more by the end of the century. In most climatologists' eyes this sets the earth on a path of life extinction that possibly wipes out humanity. I slightly digressed here from the causes of the emergence of civilization to our present condition simply because the same mechanisms were at work then that we observe now and those mechanisms indicate that the warming that started the movement toward civilization could now well be the root cause of its coming demise. The only difference being that the warming then was caused by a natural dynamic inherent to the earth itself while today's warming is a direct consequence of human activity which is why this last warming period is presented as the new geologic age of the 'anthropocene'.
Warming weather resulted in the melting of the ice caps that covered the biggest part of the Northern hemisphere. This pushed up sea levels and submerged large swathes of land while freeing other land from the ice at latitudes where our most fertile agricultural is practiced today. The wild animals followed the rivers that were swollen with the water from melting glaciers. Those rivers carried rich alluvium that deposited in their estuaries which in turn were graced with an abundance of vegetation. Humans opportunistically followed in the trace of the animals.
The vegetation was so lush on the deposited alluvium around the estuaries that women who were collecting grains soon understood how plants reproduce annually by seeding and it strikes the imagination that from then on they were on the path to 'manage' nature. Now, for sure, to reach agriculture from that initial understanding of seeding has, from a human perspective, been a very long process that spanned thousands of years of trials and errors.
By helping nature to spread the seeds of those plants they harvested over larger areas women fast increased the quantities of grains they could collect annually. This evidently directly resulted in feeding more mouths and the immemorial practice of balancing tribal population around the golden 'Dunbar' number was soon a memory of the past and in consequence societal instability set in that demanded answers.
In tribal societies the energy to power human activity had been exclusively the energy of free men. The ascent of agriculture was powered by 2 new sources of energy:
The destabilization of tribal societies under the impact of growing populations was corrected finally through power and rules. Power meant that a minority of men would monopolize the authority to draft rules, exercise the authority to implement those rules, while hoarding resources for the use of their families from the labor of society. Supplying the needs of the minority in power was made possible by slavery. Later a further surplus of energy would be made available through the domestication of cows and horses or other large animals. That addition of energy powered an increasing economic production that resulted in a population explosion and the emergence of villages and cities. In that sense the supplement of energy procured by slavery and animal domestication has to be understood as being the determinant factor that unleashed the whole cycle of population growth and the ensuing human settlements. The same can be said for the industrial revolution that was powered by cheap fossil fuels that are the direct cause of increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.
A growing population totally destabilized the functioning of tribal societies and this soon offered an opening for new opportunities in the human adventure of life. Grains suddenly became plentiful. Animals started to be domesticated. All this greatly reduced the traditional importance of hunting and this became one of the most potent factors in the whole process toward civilization that climate change had initiated. The traditional hunting function of men had suddenly been drastically reduced in its importance. Hundreds of thousands of years of hunting had trained and shaped men bodies resulting not only in a stronger physical build-up than women it had also de-multiplied their levels of aggression. In other words hunting practiced over such a long time-span had evolved men into very aggressive beings akin to killing machines. But this aggressive nature was now suddenly losing its principal release channel. What happened exactly at that juncture is not recorded in history but a little exercise of imagination should help us understand how things unfolded from there. A lot of their time spent hunting was being freed increasing by that much the time men spent at base camp where cereals were abundant. Soon they were restless so one has no difficulty imagining how men started to spend their energy building the first permanent dwellings thus starting a sedentary lifestyle. Residing now permanently in the camp the brute force of men displaced women 'non-action' in their traditional role at managing the affairs of the group and that consensual decision-making process of governance by women was soon replaced by highly hierarchical power relations imposed on all by the exercise of brute force.
Force imposed its power over demographically enlarged tribes and soon, in a snow-ball effect, that power would also be used to conquer neighboring tribes. This is how the process of building kingdoms started that evolved in two phases:
Many chiefs, kings and emperors arose but very few succeeded to stabilize their power and to extend it over time. Chiefs, kings, and emperors were indeed faced with the vexing reality that their power was always slipping through their fingers. People had lived free and as equals in tribes for tens of thousands of years. So it is no mystery that they would not have given up freedom and equality so easily. The power arrogated by brute force was bound to be resisted and so it was. The resistance was faced with the exercise of force. In other words the men of power hired or forced some to specialize in the use of weapons to suppress any uprising. This was the first specialized function imposed by power and thus arose the first armies. But moving on foot (human or horse) takes a lot of time to reach a destination. The larger the territory of the newly assembled domain the more time was needed for its armies to reach spots of instability to quell and so the risk of territorial separation and overthrow were very high indeed. Many early kingdoms emerged but very few lasted.
With the benefit of hindsight we learn that the successful holders of power were those who had devised strategies based on gluing the minds of their citizens in a shared worldview or understanding of reality that complemented the force of their armies by maintaining high levels of societal cohesion. But this mechanism of affirming their power only took root after millena of trials and errors and only after the discovery of how to insert the men of power into the narrative of the men of knowledge. While tribal female 'non-action' in governance was displaced by the action of brute force to impose the authority of the physically strongest over tribes and early kingdoms the function traditionally exercised by the tribal men of knowledge persisted. In other words the people, citizens of Early Kingdoms and empires, continued to solicit the men of knowledge for their advice and help. That also means that animism endured as a worldview and this explains the relentless resistance toward power that marked this phase of history from Early Kingdoms to Empires.
The presence of two roosters on the same mound was indeed a very fragile societal set-up. The men of power tolerated the men of knowledge as long as they did not interfere with the exercise of power but suspicion was always rife. In the meantime, instead of being the men of knowledge for one closed group as was the case in tribes, the men of knowledge were now exercising their charge over smaller units (villages, cities) within the kingdom or empire. Presiding over such an arrangement the men of power also recoursed to the service of those men of knowledge who established the best reputation amongst their local clientele and this further increased their fame. The ones who succeeded to gain the trust of the chief, king, or emperor got to stay at his service and we start thus to understand how those same men of knowledge eventually came to position the men of power they worked for inside the picture of their narratives. This is how the men of power were eventually presented as the earthly representatives of the spirits or the gods. That's when their power stabilized and its transmission to their descendants took root. We should always remember that this whole process spread over millena before to stabilize.
The substance, of their services supplying knowledge in villages and cities, was similar to what the men of knowledge were supplying to their fellow tribesmen. They also continued to transfer their knowledge down the generations through apprenticeship while through their practice in the arts they continued to transfer their knowledge into peoples minds through visual signs and trances while being accompanied by music. What must have been different this time around was the capacity to organize feasts by using older reserves. Power and slavery changed not only the relations between individuals they also imposed a strict control over the resources that now had to be contributed at least in part for the personal use of the authorities, their families, and their 'coterie'. That new socioeconomic model imposed working all day long instead of a few hours as had been the custom for free hunter-gatherers. There is no way that such radical changes, longer toiling with less personal return, could have taken place without resistance. So rule making and rule implementation have played an ever growing role and work schedules and quotas were imposed on the farmers by force. Any failure to satisfactorily implement those schedules and quotas were met with punishments. Force and punishments is why free men adopted agriculture. This was not a freely accepted move!
There is no historical record about how peoples' daily lives changed but substantial research has been undertaken on how agriculture changed the quality of peoples' lives. Numerous studies show that populations relying on agriculture saw their health deteriorate drastically and those populations only returned to pre-agricultural levels of health in late modem times. This is largely due to a decline in the quality of the food that was taken in. Agriculture provides an abundance of grains but from a very narrow range of plants, 4-5 species only (wheat , corn/maize, rice, barley,...) while the diet of tribal societies relied on nearly 100 different plants. This means that a tribal diet offered a largely more varied bio-chemical intake than an agriculture based diet. The result was fast apparent.
The life expectancy of people living from agriculture decreased by roughly 50% while their height shrunk by some 15-20 cm (6-7 inches). This could explain why people in many parts of the world remained hunter-gatherers until recently. They were aware of its existence and methods but they were not interested to convert to it. So why would some people have adopted a food production system that apparently had such a negative outcome for their heath while also imposing to work so much longer than tribal people and having furthermore to endure pains and sorrows at the hands of power implementers? Anthropologists have no good answers to that question. Is it because they are still under the spell of the axioms of their own civilization that they can't shake their blindness? I personally suspect that power must have been the reason. Brute force later seconded by an imposed worldview that makes the men of power the earthly representatives of spirits and gods, I believe, is the only sensical explanation for the adoption of agriculture with all its negatives. This also implies that 'power worldviews' have been competing with animism since the early stages of agriculture till empires stabilized.
But how about the role of the men of knowledge amidst those changes. If we refer to surviving local groups still adhering to a form or another of animism albeit far removed from the real thing as may be the case in remote areas of South America, Africa or Asia, we can observe that the men of knowledge are still very influential in their communities but the group is nowhere seen to take care any longer about the entirety of their personal material needs. The exchange for their services is now being contributed individually by the service demander in a form of barter or goods for the personal usage of the man of knowledge. But this kind of 'remuneration' is no longer sufficient to ensure the satisfaction of the men of knowledge material needs so they have now often to contribute themselves to the production of those goods (food, crafts,...).
From an artistic perspective what is important to note here is that the men of knowledge all along that phase of build-up of power societies have continued to fulfill their role as art creators. It is very unlikely that any specialization-professionalization of the function of image maker, musician or dancer took place in an early stage of power accumulation for the good reason that power remained very unstable changing hands very fast leaving thus no time for any form of institutionalization to take root.
The socioeconomic changes imposed by power societies eliminated the collective ownership over the accumulation of reserves and this must have signified the end of tribal feasts. In consequence the men of knowledge were now limited to share their visual signs, music and dance movements during public ceremonies made possible by small individual contributions. The abundance of food and drinks at tribal feasts must have starkly contrasted, in peoples' eyes, with what was available in ceremonies under power societies. Those ceremonies continued to inspire the citizens in the decoration of their dwelling, ceramic cooking pots and pans and woven textiles but there is no doubt that the quality of their arts must have followed the same down curve than the food and drinks supply. The local popular arts remained strong all along this early phase of power institutions but they lost the esthetic magic that earlier was being fashioned by tribal 'joie de vivre'.
After millena of trials and errors at conserving their power some early kingdoms succeeded to reproduce themselves over the span of generations and started to compete with other successful kingdoms thus furthering the game of expansion that ultimately led to empires. That game of power concentration was paralleled by vigorous philosophic debates among men of knowledge about the nature of reality and the working of society and the men of power themselves were on the look-out for seductive narratives that included them in the picture.
By the time a king became emperor the philosophic debates among men of knowledge had already frozen different packs of general ideas about the nature of reality and the working of society. So while unifying their empires leaders generally chose one set of such ideas, or were imposed such a set, and made it the obliged reference within the boundaries of their territory. Those ideas that succeeded to impose themselves as the narrative of the master worldview of the empire I call the 'axioms of civilizations'.
The axioms of civilization were transmitted from generation to generation as non negotiable foundations of their civilizational house and all present and future theories and philosophies were then laid like the bricks of the wall of worldviews on top of those axiomatic foundations. Once posited, that means certified by the men of power as the master worldview of their empire, such civilizational axioms are accepted by all without further discussion and, as with mathematical axioms, they form the unquestioned substrate from which are derived all further logical conclusions and popular worldviews.
Once established those axioms of civilization are soon forgotten by the conscious memory and then reside exclusively in the individual atoms' subconscious which is the reason why so few people are aware that they exist at all.