Progress and Civilization

Based on the readings: 

The True and Only Heaven by Christopher Lasch

Civilization and Its Contents by Bruce Mazlish

Introductory Remarks

Both Lasch and Mazlish make the point that, as we have discussed extensively in class, the commonly accepted definitions of civilization from the history of the “West” and in modern times are false, senseless, and Eurocentric. Lasch focuses a lot on the concept of progress and how it is overvalued and, in fact, also a misapprehension that should be removed from the context of civilization. Progress contributes to the Eurocentric view of civilization in saying that those who have technological advances are “more civilized” only to show that they are fueling a more primitive impulse to satisfy all desire. These arguments support Mazlish’s by pointing out the flaws in the idea of civilization and the supremacy of the “West.” Also, Mazlish’s views on historical consideration and its inability to aid in the search for a better definition of civilization is given merit by Lasch when he discusses the issues of nostalgia, memory, and their effect on historical studies.

Illusive Objectivism

“It is civilization that embodies the universal, rising above the quotidian details of the particular and other. All can aspire to it, and it can be the guiding light for all.” – Bruce Mazlish

“At least we’re better off than we were before.” This rather illusory phrase never ceases to find itself in the common discourse surrounding the history of human development. Millions of people may live in corporate induced poverty, our climate may be in the worst state it’s ever been in planetary history, and the geopolitical landscape may be heading towards the next global conflict, but at least we have iPhones now… In his book, The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch exposes the destructive implications stemming from the worship of progress. This all-consuming drive feeds on the power of consumption and, in a rather insidiously way, promises a “better” existence for those, who choose to worship it. There’s always perceived to be a way to bring humanity closer to the “ideal,” and it is the duty of the progressive agent to pursue that. However, a crucial point highlighted by Lasch is the idea of the “elasticity of demand,” the idea that there might be another (“better”) setting that satisfies a specific need (food, healthcare, etc.), but the progressive spirit is never satisfied. Rather, the demand, as Lasch points out, is elastic, always striving for more and more satisfaction with “no foreseeable end.” Therein lies a significant instance of progress’ illusiveness, the inability to truly what the “ideal” is. Instead, it is bound to the specifics of the present, defined as nothing else but “better than now.” In many ways, defining the idea is in no ways a universal process, but instead, is significantly grounded in the identity of the individual or group doing the defining. In fact, one significant instance of this manipulative rhetoric involves the appropriation of “civilization.” This word, not even used in the English language till the Enlightenment era, possess no concrete basis other than that of the “universal” Eurocentric ideal.

As featured above, Bruce Mazlish’s work, Civilization and its Contents, explores the historical situation of “civilization,” analyzing its evolution into a powerful force for change, striving to shape the world into what was perceived to be the universal ideal, European society. However, what is most significant about “civilization” is that its historical creation was just as much grounded in a process of identification as it was a process of external classification. In essence, European society needed civilization not only as a description of the ideal, but as a tool to come up with what it was that made them “European” in the first place. Despite the ostensibly objective nature of civilization rhetoric, modernity’s thinkers constructed the criteria of civilization in terms of European concepts and categories like science, religion, governmental institutions, and writing. However, unlike the baggage associated with “progress,” it is not just that the ideal civilization is unachievable, it simply does not exist. Despite modernity’s emphasis that the principles of modern existence can apply to all cultures, the reality of human complexity proves quite the opposite, but history remains quite ignorant of that idea as centuries of imperialism proves. Thus, it is essential that intellectuals break from both the addictive worship of progress as well as the manipulative logic of “civilization” for both serve only to perpetuate the destructive forces of modernity.  

“Other Civilizations”

The European concept of civilization contributes greatly to the the idea of progress. In modern society, we strive for constant advancement and seek improvement in countless areas. Europe defined civilization especially in regards to progress. Bruce Mazlish explains the process of changing from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. Advancements in art, weaponry, and population accompany this shift. Mazlish also mentions religion as a progressive and civilizing force, but progress also civilizes religion itself. Lasch proclaims man has a “childish need for religion.” Man sees religion as a stabilizing and moralizing force; it betters society and helps catalyze progress. Religion also gives man hope. Lasch differentiates between hope and optimism, explaining that hope is a blind trust that the past will repeat itself while optimism is the acknowledgement of human limits. Religion creates blind hope and gives man a field to place trust and attempt to defy fate. In religion no explanation is necessary for placing trust; rather, divine authority promises that every believer will achieve a favorable ending. Besides hope and optimism, man has a way of using nostalgia to make the past, and in turn, the present, seem better. We idealize the past, making it seem that life is always becoming better. These concepts of progress and civilization relate to what Mazlish refers to as “other civilizations.” Europe can classify ancient “civilizations,” such as Egypt, to be extremely similar to the more modern European civilizations. Just like Europeans, Egyptians placed blind hope into the belief that the afterlife will be better than the current life. They saw a need to improve their conditions using temples, trade, religion, and warfare. Just like Europe, they did not accept the inevitability of fate and limit on human progress. The Egyptian civilization saw progress as a never-ending pathway to a better state. These similarities allow European scholars to classify Egypt as a civilization. As Mazlish points out, archeologists quite literally dig this ancient civilization out of the ground, and we are quick to proclaim its similarities and “advanced” quality of life. For a society who made so many advancements, it seems ironic that the only remains are buried stone, compared to societies who did not “progress,” such as nomads. Will it be our civilization being dug from the ground in a few centuries?

Some Contrasting Points 

In Mazlish’s attempt to find an ideal definition of civilization, he explores the idea that civilization is present when a group of people is able to bring their instinctual and most primal desires under control.  Such a definition implies that civilized people have achieved mastery over the undesirable characteristics of human behavior.  Therefore, to become civilized, a group must put aside their instincts in favor of order, control, and finesse.  However, Lasch argues that progressives seek to satisfy every human desire.  Through an unending cycle of “progress,” in which human desires constantly expand to surpass ever growing technology, progressives believe that society becomes more civilized and life is improved for all.  In reality, this exponential expansion of desire can never truly be gratified.  The only effect of this “progress” is the continuous degradation of both the environment and human morality.  Thus the progressive mindset leads to the destruction of civilization in the name of its advancement.

 

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