The axioms of civilization
3. The axioms of East and West
The individual urge for communion, if satisfied, results in a strengthening of the bonding between the individuals which acts like a strong glue that unifies the group and guarantees its reproduction. The satisfaction of that urge for the individuals is experienced as trust, confidence, well-being, pleasure (a shot of endorphins in the brain) while for the group it is an imperative for its possible reproduction over time (societal cohesion).
But how is this urge being satisfied? What is the glue that binds the individuals?
It has been observed since the down of time that the sharing of a common perception about what reality is all about, a worldview, constitutes such a glue. Left on their own some individuals will spontaneously start debating among themselves about the most performing understanding about reality in their time. But at crucial moments in the history of power societies decision makers decide and impose one of the available doctrines to all their citizens at the exclusion of all the others.
Something like this has been observed repeatedly along history. I will try now to sketch one such crucial moment that took place at the start of both the western and the Chinese civilization. Comparing the outcome is most instructive.
3.1. The adoption of Christianity as the religion of state under the Roman empire.
After many internecine conflicts and their resulting instability during the years of its expansion the empire had a stretch of stability for over 200 years starting with emperor Augustus in 30 bc but by the 3rd century the army's corruption had become a drag on its efficiency at defending the territory against barbarian invaders and this made and unmade numerous emperors. Wars crashed population levels and the empire appeared on the verge of collapsing. Trying to control the army the idea emerged of adopting a state religion. Rome was a primitive backwater when it conquered the East in the centuries before Christ. So it is no surprise that it adopted much of Greek art, literature and philosophy and that Eastern religions spread West. Every sect and prophet made it to Rome where they tried to influence the decision making. By the 3rd century AD Mithraism, a religion originating in Persia, was a strong competitor with Christianity. The choice of Christianity by Constantine seems to have been related to the following characteristics of that religion as they were perceived at the time :
The choice of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire resulted in the later transfer to Western Europe of the cultural heritage of the Fertile Crescent. The Christianity we know of was thus born. It developed as a purely Judaic religion while also incorporated much of the philosophic productions of Greece. This was done to anchor the belief system to a widely respected philosophy. So when Christianity reached Rome and other Western territories it transmitted its Judaic and Greek content to the West.
Meanwhile the centuries old domination by Rome of the East, the South and the North had accustomed the Romans to the idea that they represented a single unique worldwide civilization managed under a single government. So after it was made the state religion and the empire started to flounder that conception of centrality and uniqueness that had developed under the empire was absorbed by the church which made it its own. This explains how the church shaped itself institutionally on the model of the roman empire and behaviorally on the model of the conquering Roman armies. Therein lays the reason of the church's will to expand its influence over the whole world through its well known proselytizing. Nothing like that exists in China. On the contrary the Chinese view is that the only thing that counts is the prosperity and well-being of the citizens within the borders of their nation. The Analects, one of the 5 classic Confucian books, states that it is not wise to conquer foreign lands; it is better to be prosperous in one's own country. Foreigners will be attracted by that prosperity and will enter the country with their money and technology. This was written some 2,500 years ago and what amazes me most is that so few people seem to understand that this was the strategy successfully adopted by the government to modernize by attracting foreign capital and technology. Foreigners came indeed and offered their capital and technology... and China dragged itself to the top of the economy-world! This illustrates the power of the Chinese axioms of civilization.
3.2. China's uninterrupted animist foundation
China unified its early kingdoms along the Yellow River some 3000 years bc under emperor Huangdi or the Yellow emperor. Over the next centuries the empire was expanded to the territory of the present provinces of Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jianxi. This unification was realized as a kind of confederation of the early kingdoms that were imposed annual tribute to the emperor at the center.
The first hereditary transmission of power starts sometimes between the 22nd and 21st century BC with the Xia dynasty. It was followed by the Shang dynasty in the 15th century BC that was overthrown by the first emperor of the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century BC. The confederation's institutional model was rife with uprisings at the hands of ambitious kings and by the 8th century BC the Zhou dynasty, while remaining in place, had lost the command and control over its local kingdoms. The empire experienced then a few centuries of wars and conflicts between its local kingdoms until the Qin dynasty reunified it in 221 BC.
This period of local conflicts unleashed a vast intellectual debate about "what reality is all about" and also about the workings of society. During what is called the period of the "hundred flowers" many schools of thought affirmed their theories. Among the most important ones figure the Taoist, the Confucianist, the Mohist, the legalist and so on. Those schools start from a common intellectual level playing field constituted by China's animist foundation upon which early kingdoms and early empires had already attached their own add-ons. So their theories are derivations and expansions upon a common trunk which bring them to specialize in certain functional aspects without necessarily contradicting amongst themselves.
The common civilizational trunk of China's civilization is animism which resulted from the observation of the natural elements by generations of shaman along a span of tens of thousands of years. The Yellow emperor tasked shamen to deliver, on top of the traditional animist base, a supplemental body of pragmatic knowledge that relates more directly to the satisfaction of the daily needs of his citizens:
Knowledge in China starts with the study of the body of past accumulated observations to which sages add refinements based on their own observations. In such a method knowledge production is incremental. Knowledge about the general is induced from observation of the particular and added on top of the knowledge base transmitted from the generations that came before. So the Chinese civilization has no moment zero, no real starting point, from where civilizational axioms were derived and this distinguishes it from the Western civilization. The Western way at generating knowledge starts with the elaboration of general abstract models from which one deduces particular conclusions. This perhaps partly explains why the body of animist knowledge had simply to be destroyed by Christianity to be replaced by a story that is totally detached from any pragmatic concern for the daily well being of the individual.
3.3. Differentiation in the axioms of East and West
Western thinkers from all walks of life, from the left as well as from the right, take the substance of the ideas that are foundational to their discourse from the Greek philosophers. Those established as their ultimate truth that there is an absolute and general root cause to everything that happens, a root cause that influences even the conception of natural movements. In this vision everything has a starting point that is located in this general root cause and the build-up of this model then goes on to establish the idea that everything also has a final destination. In this causal model of reality humanity is considered to be on a straight line road that has a beginning and an end.
In this model, change appearing in our reality is the result of a cause derived from the conflict between opposite principles. Later in time, the same principle will be updated in the form of the 'dialectic'. From Hegel to Marx, reality at a given moment will be posited as a thesis (our understanding) that confronted to its opposite, its antithesis results in us adopting a synthesis of the discussion between thesis and antithesis. The synthesis transforms then into the thesis of the next given moment.
This movement of change takes place, in the West, within the realm of what is conceived of as an unquestionable truth that has a given origin and leads to an endgame. This is a given in Western civilization. No question is ever asked. But as will be shown further the outcome of history or of the endgame is given as an absolute good, for good white men it means! (the paradise for good white Christian believers and hell for unbelievers or sinners)
For both the ancient Chinese and the Greek philosophers, change is thought of as the result, or better, the derivation from the clash between opposites. But while in the Chinese tradition the opposite principles of Yin and Yang by themselves contain the full explanation of all changes, the Greeks need to add a third term to the opposites (antikeimena 1).
For the Chinese, reality is viewed as the flow from Yin to Yang and vice-versa. But Yin and Yang, are not really principles of any opposition, they are better understood as being the opposite poles of a same reality. Black and white being the poles of the line representing the entity of colors (black = no colors and white = all colors). Good and bad being the poles of the line representing the entity of judgment (good = all that is desired and bad = all that is rejected). In this understanding, opposite poles of a same entity are not exclusive of one another, they are thought of as specific temporal manifestations in the shaping of that given entity. Between those extreme poles lies thus the greater part of the substance of the entity (a lot more shades of gray than the white and black at the poles). So it would be better to speak about polarities than about opposites in the Chinese understanding of the dynamic of reality.
The Greeks did not understand that opposites are in fact polarities of a same reality in flux. They were led to think that opposites are absolutes that have as function to destroy each other. They could not accede to this idea that a situation starting as one opposite (polarity) could possibly be transforming into the other opposite (polarity). They were at a loss with the abstract principle of change and thus had to refer to something they knew and they came up with an explanation laying outside of the duality by invented the idea of a substantiation of the opposites into matter (hupomenei 2). Hupomenei could than be changed into a process (metabole 3). In other words Aristotle thought that inanimate matter could change into its opposite, an animated metabolism. But then what was in the last instance the force that unleashes the metabolism, the process of change, or the metabole?
For the Chinese, the flow from Yin to Yang is powered by the perpetual burst of energy that is unleashed by the differential of power residing in both of the polarities. This makes them conceive of change as spontaneous emergence within a reality that is seen as auto-regulated. Such a concept of change is absolutely indifferent to the idea of a good or bad direction. By the way try to splain that to GWB.
In “Beyond Being and Becoming” Ilya Prigogine comes to the same conclusion through his studies in chemistry for which he got a Nobel prize: “The equations of chemistry are non-linear. When we rapidly push a chemical system away from equilibrium toward 'disorder', or disequilibrium, the chemical reactions that occur present us with what I call 'bifurcation points' - points at which choices and new solutions appear. Generally, more than one solution appears, so that at the point of bifurcation, probability and self-organization come into play” (4). So 'chaos theory' opens the future to many possibilities but in the end only one will be selected; exactly as in the Chinese idea of transformation.
Let's now come back to the Greeks. Their concept of metabole reaches motion out of a state of inertia in matter, so to change a state of inertia and reach the state of metabole or motion, the Greek philosophers needed to invent an external acting motor and energy (kinoun 5). Change is then the result of an outside cause and causality is thus established as the philosophical model. But this idea of an outside cause putting change into motion led automatically to question what was the cause of that causality. In other words to set minds to rest, an absolute final cause needed to be found to stop the inescapable intellectual quest for always further causes.
In all change, Aristotle says that "neither the matter (to hulė) nor the form (to eidos) comes into existence". (Metaphysics 12.3; 1069b 35) (5). His point is that for something to change it must already be something, at least potentially, in which case the matter of the process of change somehow pre-exists its change. In other words, that which changes, the matter, must already exist for it to be capable of change. The form is that into which the matter changes; as such, it likewise must already exist for there to be change. That by which change occurs is the energy of an immediate mover. Because change presupposes matter and form and an immediate mover, the process of change will regress to infinity. Every change presupposes matter and form, which pre-exist the process of change, it follows that such a process of change reaches to infinity. But infinity is inaccessible to humanity so there must, by human finite necessity, be a terminal point in the process of change: "Therefore there must be a stop” (anankê dê stênai) (Metaphysics 12.3; 1070a 4) (5).
This stop is not a temporal terminal point, because change or motion is eternal; rather it is a logical one. Aristotle holds it as an axiom that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes and effects, movers and the moved. “That which is the logical starting point of infinite change must be an unchanging substance, causing change but not being subject to change.” (Metaphysics 12.7) (6) “The first mover is an eternal, fully-actual substance that moves the first heaven without itself being moved, either self-moved or moved by something else.” Being unmovable, it is fully actual, because, otherwise, it would have potentiality and therefore not be unmovable. Aristotle points out that the object of desire and of thought move in this way, for they cause motion in those who desire and think, but do not themselves move: "For the apparent good is the object of appetite, and the real good is the primary object of rational wish” (Metaphysics12.7) (6).
This leads him to conclude that the unmoved mover (the ultimate mover) moves as the final cause of the motion of change and this finality resides in love: "The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved" (kinei dê hôs erômenon, kinoumena de talla kinei) (Metaphysics 12.7) (6).
“The unmoved mover as final cause causes motion by loving and being loved, whereas all other (moved) movers cause motion by first being moved.“ The absolute final or ultimate cause that has been invoked has been called god (ens realissimus 6). Love or to be more accurate the thirst from god's believers for his love has then be presented as the energy emanating from god or the active principle that puts the human universe into motion. This thirst for god's love, and the desire that it induces in all humans, has been the concept that has allowed the Greeks to stop the search for an earlier more antecedent cause. The relegating process of causality had indeed been stopped, as if by an act of magic, internalized in men's desire for god's love.
I believe that everyone will agree that this Western religious model of thinking is dating but we have nevertheless to recognize that it has been very successful over the millena as a cement binding the individuals in their society. But times have changed and the Western religious model is neither operational nor adapted to our times any longer.
The advent of reality for the Chinese is basically a spontaneous process of emergence within an auto-regulated process of change. In this view, there is no need for a beginning nor for an end, no need for an endgame, so there can also be no absolute good and no absolute bad. Reality is only what is emerging in the eyes of the observer and good and bad are thus limited to the observer's subjectivity towards what results out of his observation. This process is best described in the 'Yi-Ching', the oldest known Chinese book, it is also called the 'book of changes' or 'The book of transformations'. Nobody knows for sure when and where this book originated. But recent archaeological discoveries show some petroglyphs realized sometimes around 6000 BC that contain the signs of the 'bagua' (7) whose study is the subject of the 'Book of Changes'. The bagua is a circular arrangement of trigrams, traditionally printed on a mirror, or disk.
Legend states that Fu Hsi found the bagua on the scales of a tortoise's back. Whenever its origin, this book contains the moral, philosophical and cosmological founding blocs of the Chinese civilization. Its central idea is that reality must be seen as a process at work, a process which is called Tao or the way or the road or life or evolution or whatever one wishes to call it. The process at work, which has no starting point and no end, is a process of change, a process of transformation of what is in the present moment into what it becomes into the next moment or what we commonly call future.
For the Chinese the process of transformation is the ultimate reality and what is or happens during a given moment is only the expression of a changing polarity-play at that particular moment. What is at a given moment (the entity in that moment) is thus considered as something as a snapshot of what is happening within the process of transformation along the line whose two ends constitute the poles of the particular entity at that given moment. As such, the Chinese do not emphasize the poles of the duality, they concentrate their attention on the line whose two extremities are occupied by these opposing poles and they concentrate on the transformations occurring within the unity of the line going from one pole to the other. Every entity has its own dose of yin (feminine or passive) and its own dose of yang (masculine or active) which are the extreme poles of the line. The process of transformation within the unity of the line goes something as follows: a young yin ages into an old yin which transforms into a young yang aging into an old yang which transforms into a young yin and so on for ever. These changes of character, or of energy, within the realm of an entity are considered the engine of change at large and constitute, it is thought, the ultimate reality. This model of change is similar to the contemporary model of the "'wave' theory" (8) or the energy/matter polarities of the string in "string theory".
Based on this idea of transformation, of change as a movement between the yin and yang polarities, the Chinese elaborated a complex abstract model of the ultimate reality or of the process of change at large. The Yi-Ching is a kind of 'modeling software' of the ultimate reality or of the process of change, it is given as a tool to gain a better understanding of one's own present and future conditions. But one should remember that a modeling software program is only a dumb tool. To make sense and become useful it has to be sustained with data concerning oneself and the situation one wishes to simulate and as such one has to master the knowledge that lies behind the program and also to master the knowledge about oneself. Vast program indeed!
In the West, reality has been seen as the consequence of god's universal love that projects upon all and everything which in return causes all and everything into desiring to attain god's so perceived perfection and love. In this process of perception lies also the 'recognition' and the justification for an authoritarian establishment that imposes itself as being the holder of the absolute truth and its counterpart the supreme good. Western Christianity after its centralization following the fall of Rome has been governed according to the “Two swords doctrine” enunciated by Pope Gelasius I. This doctrine gave an identical status to state and religion, it made the state being in charge of physical bodies and the church in charge of the souls and minds of the individuals. “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation.
In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will”. (9)
In 330, Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). This gave way to the Eastern Roman Empire which lasted until 1453 when it fell to Muslim Turkmen. Constantinople became the center of Eastern Christianity which developed autonomously from Western Christianity. Eastern Christianity was the religion of the emperors and had the status of official State religion, it developed into the present-day’s Orthodox Church.
Pope Gelasius' letter to Emperor Anastasius contains the substance of Europe's next 1000 years of history. Bad and evil have been defined as the opposition to the will of god and the religious establishment is considered to be representing god's perfection and love. As such bad and evil would become the enemy of religion along the entire history of Christianity. The European history from the fall of Rome to well after the emergence of modernity is made of this kind of dualist thinking that led to so many wars pitching church and kings against each other. By the way, "you are with us or you are against us" those words uttered by Georges Bush after 9/11 seem to be a perfect caricature of what I describe here.
From the perspective of whatever side of the cultural divide between east and west, the other's cultural build-up starting from such vastly different foundations is bound to be incomprehensible and thus the difficulty of the West and the East to understand each other.
Western modern science today is confirming the validity of the Chinese traditional worldview that is based on the idea of change and by the same token rejecting the Greek traditional approach.
From a scientific perspective, exploring the Chinese model makes thus ample sense and philosophically that model contains also a wisdom so deep that it gives us the hope that it could eventually help save humanity from the short-sightedness of the rationality of the reason of capital that powers modernity.
3.4. Open knowledge?
I voluntarily limited my observations to the 2 areas of the Fertile Crescent and China simply because these are the ones I know best. The Middle-East Fertile Crescent was a lush area that gave rise to the civilizations founded upon the religions of the words. More East in China the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins is where the Chinese civilization emerged roughly at the same time.
I recognize that there were other similarly well endowed geographic areas where civilization took root but being no historian of civilization, and furthermore being no historian at all, my capacities are limited so, if someone were interested in the subject, I would be grateful to add her or his eventual input in comments about the emergence of empires in - India - South American - or other locales.
In other words what I propose here is an open collaboration to expand the content of these posts. Eventual contributions will be added to this expose with the express agreement of their authors who will then also be credited for their input.
1. Antikeimena: In The "Logical System" of the Topics of Aristotle.
"... the Aristotelian explicit theory of opposite terms, as
developed in Categories and Metaphysics, is the appropriate ground for the
usage of the word antikeimena". See "Being opposite" by Pietro Giuffrida
2. Hupomenei: In “Scientific Method And The Human Soul" from Aristotle's De Anima” by Steven C. Snyder, Ph.D. Pontifical College Josephinum July 15, 1998.
“In Physics Book One, faced with predecessors' sophisms and errors denying the reality of orderly substantial change in the world, Aristotle maintained that substantial change, which is indubitably real, is only intelligible if changeable things have a material component which in itself is purely potential, real but in no way actual. Substantial change can only be explained if matter in itself is purely potential. Existing nowhere in reality on its own, matter becomes a real principle of a thing when it is actualized by form.”
Hupomenei as concept represents this enduring quality of matter to take form.
3. Metabole: Anaximandros (611-546 BC) one of the Precursors of Greek Philosophy, influenced by Babylonian astronomical research): posits a cosmological theory by which everything on earth is made from the four elements. The change (Metabole) of element to element is derived from a cosmic source which is the apeiron (infinite).
4. “Beyond Being and Becoming” an interview of Ilya Prigogine by "npg magazine".
5. Kinoun: “Aristotle. The Existence and Nature of God” by Professor Barry D. Smith. Atlantic Baptist University. Metaphysics 12.3
6. ens realissimus: in Aristotle, Metaphysics 12.7
The first mover is also a first principle (archê), for the first mover explains everything else because it causes all motion. Aristotle writes, "On such a principle depend accordingly depend heaven and nature" (ek toiautês ara archês êrtêtai ho ouranos kai hê phusis) (Metaphysics 12.7; 1072b 14).
God or "the primary essence" has no matter, which means that there can only be one God, since it is matter that differentiates one form or definition into many manifestations of that one form or definition. Since God has no matter, then God is one not only formally or in definition, but also numerically. In addition, there can be only one unmoved mover, because there is only one heaven: continuous motion is one motion, since such motion is a system of moving parts. Aristotle argues in such a way to lead one to believe that he thinks that there could only be one unmoved mover. He writes, "But the primary essence (to ti ên einai) has not matter; for it is complete reality (to prôton). So the unmovable first mover (to prôton kinoun akinêton ) is one both in definition and in number; so too, therefore, is that which is moved always and continuously; therefore there is one heaven alone" (Metaphysics 12.8; 1074a 36-39).
Archê (first principle) + to prôton (complete reality) = ens realissimus (most real Being) = god.
7. The bagua is a circular arrangement of the trigrams, traditionally printed on a mirror, or disk. Legend states that Fu Hsi found the bagua on the scales of a tortoise's back.
8. “wave” theory: "Grand Unified Theory: Wave Theory". Dr. Chaim H. Tejman
9. "Two swords doctrine” enunciated by Pope Gelasius I
From a letter of Pope Gelasius (494) to Emperor Anastasius. This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Source book is a collection of public domain and copy- permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
Another interesting place to dig for the history of the relation between State and Popes is "The Letters of the Popes as Sources of History" in "The Holy Sea and The Wandering of the Nations" by Thomas W. Allies.
Video of the week
One of the great videos I watched this last week
- an uninterrupted line symbolizes the yang principle
- an interrupted line symbolizes the yin principle
These 2 are then combined in a series of trigrams that are given as the bagua.
The trigrams are then further combined in 64 hexagrams (2 trigrams upon one another).
The Yi-Ching is the analysis of those 64 hexagrams which are considered to be answering all questions about the future. But bear with me here. Answers are being delivered only to questions that have been consciously submitted beforehand. That means that the answers have to be interpreted in term of the context of these initial questions. The language of the oracle is furthermore steeped in Traditional Chinese Thinking (TCT = animism plus further add-ons). Understanding the Yi-Ching's oracle depends thus on one's knowledge about TCT.