The Decline of the West and Other Historical Phalluses (11.11.10)
It's difficult to reject an overall thesis that contains so much truth; then again, it's the same reason I reject natural selection as an all-encompassing paradigm -- plenty of truth there as well, just not The truth. I found myself highlighting half the book for its subtle insights into the spiritual world, and yet, I just can't go along with the idea that time is inevitably proceeding in the direction of degeneration and dissolution. Rather, I think this conclusion has always represented the "easy way out" for seriously spiritual-minded individuals who cannot help but notice the gulf that exists between the transcendent ideal and the actual, or Reality and maya. There has never been a time that people haven't been concerned about "the direction of history."
To cite one particularly glaring example, Jesus appeared at a time when it was felt by the masses that things could hardly get worse. Everyone was anticipating the messiah, convinced that historical degeneration was so complete that the end was near. According to Bolton's thesis -- and of the traditionalists in general -- ancient Rome would have been much closer to the "Golden Age" than our time, but this seems to me to be almost pure fantasy, divorced from historical realities.
As a matter of fact, this is what the traditionalists habitually do; they seem to feel that it is so obvious that history is going in a "negative" direction, that it requires no historical support at all. But if you examine the actual conditions of the average Job living in Ancient Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or the Middle Ages, it strikes me as a horror. But because the traditionalists are extremely aesthetically-minded, it's as if they make sweeping historical conclusions based upon the most beautiful objects of antiquity that have survived to our day.
Yes, the Egyptians left us some impressive artwork, no doubt. Then again, they had 5000 years to do it in, a figure so vast that it is inconceivable to us. Frankly, I don't think we can even grasp the fact that when Augustine -- who had the greatest influence on Western thought for 1000 years -- did his writing, it was already going on four centuries after the time Jesus lived. We don't even know all that much about Christianity during its first two-plus centuries, a period of time as long as the United States has existed.
But the further back in history we go, the more we "compress" the time, which not only obscures all of the detail, but ends up being no better than a psychological projection into the past. Thus, for example, if you are on the depressive, pessimistic, or alienated end of the psychological spectrum, it's easy to conclude that the present more or less blows, since we see all the horrifyng, disgusting detail of our own age up close and personal. One glance below through the looking glass-bottomed boat at the sewer of dailykos, and you would be forgiven for believing that mankind cannot sink any lower and that the end is at hand.
It's very similar to what psychotherapy patients do on an individual basis. People tend not to remember much before the age of five, and only scattered details between five and nine. But obviously, life was just as rich and detailed then as it is now -- in fact, more so, since every single day was an alternatively delightful or calamitous novelty, largely depending upon the quality of parenting. Life was overflowing with the fullness and the presence of being, but we just didn't have the language or the concepts to reflect upon it. My son is the happiest and most intense person I know, but he'll never remember it, except unconsciously.
Patients who come in for therapy often have what are called "screen memories" of their childhood. They will remember this or that event with great detail, but upon investigation, it will turn out that it is a sort of "composite portrait" of a whole period, rich with symbolic meaning that needs to be "unpacked" and articulated. It's never just a literal memory, but more of a holographic pneumagraph that can reveal layer upon layer of meaning by "turning" it ever so slightly, like a blinky toy.
Perhaps history is the same way. I know it is for me. It's like a huge black canvas upon which we project things from the present. Since the past is behind us, we imagine that we can take it into our view, but this is obviously impossible. There are huge lacunae that we just fill in with fantasy, much in the same way that we fill the hole in our field of vision, where the optic nerve meets the eye. In a very real sense, it's true: there's nothing new except the history you don't know.
I tried to present just a fraction of the historical evidence of how bad things were in the past in Chapter 3 of One Cosmos, but obviously, that chapter could have been expanded into a whole book. My purpose was simply to make the point and then move on. I'm obviously not a scholar, but a... a... what? I have no idea. You decide.
Anyway, to cite some statistical examples that are of obvious concern to us, no matter how violent things appear in the present, they simply cannot compare to how violent human beings were in the past. Michael Medved cites statistics indicating that "New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963.... But within the city’s official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million."
In contrast, according to Lawrence Keely's War Before Civilization, the homicide rate of some prehistoric villages "would have been 1,400 times that of modern Britain or about 70 times that of the United States in 1980." Likewse, the Middle Ages were (was?) almost inconceivably violent. We just have no idea how "tame" and domesticated mankind has become in the past several centuries.
Indeed, we have only to look at the contemporary Mohammedans to get a glimpse of the literally psychotic violence that prevailed in the past. I remember reading about the Crusades recently, during which battles took place where the combatants were knee-deep in blood. Yesterday I was reading about the sacking of Rome in 410, when the Gothic warriors mercilessly "raped, pillaged and murdered for nearly three straight days." As Dawson writes, the Goths did not regard themselves as barbaric, certainly no more so than the Romans, who were nobody's punk. Rather, "as they understood it, Alaric and his men were loyal Romans and only desired formal recognition as legitimate armed forces." Yeah, like the Palestinians. They just want to be recognized.
I remember reading about Ancient Egypt in a book entitled Slaughter of the Innocents: Child Abuse Through the Ages and Today, and it was a pretty strange place. Their politics were very different from ours, especially their erections. Different strokes, you might say. For example, Breiner writes that "The phallus was honored and vitally important in the religious and cultural life of Egypt. The gods are shown with an erect phallus, and a pharaoh was expected to demonstrate in public that he had one, too. At certain ceremonies, the pharaoh would stand before the people and show his erect phallus. Indirectly, this would be shown many times when his erection would lift his loincloth."
By this low-hanging standard, even Bill Clinton was a great defender of the principle of separation of crotch and state. Thank God we didn't have to hear details about the state of his union.