Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ancient Cultures

I have a particular interest in ancient civilisations. This interest exists for a number of reasons but one main reason is that I find these early civilisations (particularly the Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations) very honest. This might seem a strange way to describe a civilisation but the word is carefully chosen. These early civilisations were the first. The first to feature the division of labour as a structural element in society, the first to organise themselves to produce more than they needed, which enabled them to be the first to feature trade as an activity in its own right rather than trade just being something that every person did between themselves.

Despite the early dawnings of civilisation, however, these early societies were still dominated by physiological needs. Mortality rates were high, life expectancy low and despite generally being able to produce surpluses these early civilisations were often just one drought away from catastrophe. This meant that these early civilisations had to be efficient. The political, social and theological ideals had to be, ultimately, useful. Perhaps in this case necessity was the mother of both invention and honesty. Obviously all epochs have their criminals but most ancient people participated in the activities of society because to not participate was to die. The problem with societies based on technology is they cannot sustain themselves without that technology.

Eventually this dependence can be taken for granted, which is when a level of cognitive dissonance from the reality of ones existence, and the nature of it, can creep in. Impending doom keeps one focused on what is genuinely important. For this reason alone I think these ancient civilisations can tell us a lot that is still useful today.

Life in these ancient times was tough, and often brutal, and it is often thought that people cannot have been truly happy under these circumstances but I am not convinced. I think people have a remarkable ability to make the best out of a bad deal if they believe that there is genuinely nothing they can do about their lot. Under these circumstances things may be tough but they can still be happy. People also have a remarkable ability to work out how to control things, when they think they can, which is one of the physiological imperatives that drives people to develop technology. This though, is a source of unhappiness. When people believe that things cannot be better they can be happy; but when the believe that things can, and should, be better then they can be very unhappy.

It is, after all, likely that the basis for the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden after eating of the Apple of Knowledge came from the Sumerians (via Abraham). The Garden of Eden is given in the Bible as being at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers near the accepted first city state of Eridu. Here, during a glacial period where currently desert climates (as was the Sahara) were temperate paradises for hunter/gatherers, civilisation began and the Apple of Knowledge was tasted. The folk wisdom of the time, which Sumerians were famed for, soon realised that ignorance is bliss; but, just as with the Garden of Eden, once you have left ignorance you can never go back. Once you know you can make things better you can never again be happy until you do. What the exceptionally, and necessarily, pragmatic Sumerians always kept in mind was to be careful to only fret about the things you can control and accept the things you cannot. Even today this is sage advice.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

History - More relevant than you think?

It is a tempting conceit to believe that Man is somehow different and more special than we were 50,000 years ago. As if our technological prowess has seeped into our very bones and made us more than animal. Not a god but something in between. But, a conceit this is. A child born 50,000 years ago but brought forward to today and brought up as normal would have no problem with the modern world.

Our patronising attitude to our more ancient ancestors is part of this conceit. Where we can assign some level of 'humanity' to our more recent ancestors (since perhaps classical Greek times in the west) we can often think of previous social groupings as almost different.

Even where we can identify more strongly with the ancient peoples we still believe that we are superior in almost every way. This, though, is another conceit. Technologically we are very advanced compared to every period in our history but socially? In social terms we are still little different from even the earliest civilisations where they developed structural divisions of labour throughout society. And, perhaps, we aren't even so different from ancestors earlier than this. After all, we have the same physiological fears, desires and imperatives. Technology has lessened our need to be afraid, or hungry, or sexually active, but it has not eliminated them. And, despite our technology, we are often still afraid, hungry, desperate and libidinous. We are still doing the best we can with what we've got.

Perhaps more than ever we need to accept our animal physiology and even be more comfortable with it in the modern world. After all, if we can't be ourselves with the massive increase in personal comfort we have achieved - what was the point?