In the most-recent column, I opened questions of the history of the West, its historic global dominance, non-westerners reactions to that past, and the present geopolitical world of Western, First-World primacy.
I also delved into the meaning of our history in terms of human cognitive and cultural evolution. My expertise is history, not neuro-science, I readily admit, so when I discuss cognition, I offer less of my own conclusions.
Religious Texts: axial points in the formation of consciousness
So allow me to write about historical figures of giant stature in our cultural evolution. Confucius, Socrates, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed: any Western person of the slightest education will know the names of these giants of teaching in our past, minds which laid out ethical, moral, and religious precepts of global historical significance. They and their words and example changed cultures, and thereby created history.
Religious texts are key indicators of a general cultural consciousness of whole peoples; we can get also a sense of an ancient civilization from the record of their literature, art, architecture and politics. What kind of gods they had and how they worshipped, and their concepts of a spiritual life, allow us a point of comparison of our minds with others’ in cultures that have disappeared.
We can also compare our national, social, or cultural mental landscapes with those of contemporary people, not merely people of the past.
Cultural Evolution: movement “upward” or merely onward?
It is commonplace to say that in the evolution of ancient Hebrew religious thought, change is apparent in the way God is portrayed in the sacred texts. The Jewish Tanakh and Christian Bible are resources in the civilization and cultural formation of the West.
Historical events can be hypothesized to explain changes in thinking. The eradication of the ten “lost tribes” by Assyria, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Babylonia, the razing of the Second Temple by Romans, the medieval Christian Crusades and concurrent anti-Semitic massacres, are all significant: they are milestones in the evolution of the Israelites’ tribal deity into the universal monotheistic YHWH/God of Judaism and Christianity. The consciousness of Jews and Israelis — and of Christians too -- is shaped by this incredibly long religious history and its punctuation by outstanding crises.
The Holocaust or Shoah in WWII has had an effect too: the re-establishment of a modern state of Israel, with nuclear weapons, has major significance in global politics. Israel is a colonial state, but unique in its particular history of a people who have lived in a dispersion across the globe and can claim citizenship there.
Robert Bellah and Merlin Stone are academics writing about human history, culture, and cognitive capacity. Bellah died in 2016, and his last great work was Religion in Human Evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Merlin Donald is author of Origins of the Modern Mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition.
These are not easy reads with a wide popular audience, whereas Harari’s Sapiens or F. Fukuyama’s The End of History are written for a lay audience and are packed with well-turned phrases that readers remember and quote. For example, Harari has a nice turn of phrase about culture and human behaviour: “Biology enables, culture forbids.” (He wrote his text for young undergraduates in his history course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) It is not easy to find such memorable gems from Bellah or Donald.
Nevertheless, Bellah and Donald repay one’s concentrated attention, although their books are written for an academic audience. The very concept of “cultural evolution” demands an effort of trained intellectual faculties not widely distributed among the reading public, in my opinion.
What does “evolution” mean?
The popular meanings for evolution I outlined in a previous section are not the meaning of evolution Bellah wishes his reader to apply. He wants the word to be used much more precisely in the manner of biologists, most specifically in the way Charles Darwin meant “evolution” in his monumental book of 1859, The Evolution of Species by Natural Selection. Evolution, Bellah says, is biological history, the story of development in biological organisms over time.
“My particular interest in evolution is in the evolution of capacities, which has been a remarkable part of the story: the capacity … in the case of humans, in raising helpless infants and children unable to survive on their own; the capacity to make atomic bombs…
“… I also believe that there are types of religion and that these typescan be put in an evolutionary order, not in terms of better or worse, but in terms of the capacities upon which they draw.” (Bellah, pp. xvi to xviii)
Stories told in the West, about the West, and in lands beyond
Bellah does not believe in exalting any one religious tradition over another, and sees no march upward in the evolution of religious culture over historic time. His interest in is in the revelation of human cognitive capacity through religion and philosophy.
Ancient Israelite scriptures touched the mind of Mohammed, and Semitic history originated the bedrock of Islam. For Islam, the historic success of the Caliphs’ empire for centuries had enormous significance on Islam. Then followed the assimilation of Persian and Byzantine traditions, the slow decline of Arab power under Turkish, Crusader, and Mongol assaults, and the global reach of Islam from Morocco to Java to east Africa. These events generated patterns with effects on the development of Muslim culture, particularly law, gender-relations, and theology. The “Arab mind” and the “consciousness of Muslims” are products of a history chequered with alternating heights of leadership and nadirs of disintegration. Muslim misogyny has a history; to know that history is to understand the pathology of male chauvinism in Islam -- but understanding is not forgiveness. I abhor Saudi Arabian social order.
China too owns a history with magnificent highs, and tragic lows, and like Islam, patriarchy is still hugely influential in the cultural fabric. China was laid under Western, and Japanese, imperial control in the last century and a half until the 1950’s. China is not a thriving democracy today, with rule of law and a culture of female emancipation to compare to Canada’s.
Peoples of the British Isles have matrices in their history that make the national consciousness of those folk different from others’; the Dark Ages, Protestant Reformation, two Revolutions, Irish Famine, Highland Clearances, rise and decline of the British Empire, and two world wars, are events defining what Churchill called “the Island Race.” But Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English each have distinguishing national consciousness due to historical narrative.
The peoples of Europe have an interior life shaped by history, as all people do. Canadians with British roots share a cultural matrix to a degree, but not fully because our history diverged from theirs as soon as our ancestors crossed to the New World. We have a story of Canada we are still writing, re-writing, arguing over. Place and time of settlement alters people’s cultural mind.
Americans have a colonial myth, of their Christian foundations, their unique Revolution, the Civil War, and their super-power status since WWII, to give them a sense of “exceptionalism”, of being especially blessed, lacking all parallels in the history of the world. History cannot teach lessons to Americans precisely because nothing they do has ever been done before by people such as they conceive themselves to be. America is riddled with regional divisions of culture too.
The human world is not an object like a brick. The world is different viewed from an American perspective or a Chinese one, a European Christian or an Arab Muslim one. That is what consciousness does to us. Consciousness makes us different when its contents are different. Can we deal with these differences? Historical events have answers to that, and are not optimistic.
“Narratives” that make the human world
The globalization of what Charles Eisenstein calls the Story of Separation is a story transcending national borders and cultures, embracing the entire West.
The world has one global capitalist culture with a narrative appropriate to that system, Eisenstein has shown, and he believes we are on the threshold of transitioning to the next narrative, the Story of Interbeing. For him, “ur-stories” are the determining matrix of human beings in relation to their material habitat. Story is consciousness-forming, in his specific meaning of the word.
Canada as part of the Western, rich nations shares in a half-millennium of global dominance over other peoples and an ascent from medieval material privation to the postmodern condition of peace, plenty, and prosperity.
What we possess in our economy, our science, our medicine, our democracy, our liberty of choice and freedom for ego, has been the goal of humans for a long time. Westerners are not emigrating to the non-Western world; we know what wonderful advantages a Western social order offers to us.
Religion as map of consciousness change
I outlined in a previous section the hypothesis that our great spiritual, ethical and philosophical teachers throughout human history, and the texts they have left us, are markers of change in human consciousness. The key notion of philosopher Karl Jaspers writing a half-century ago, is that one relatively short era of history shows us an unusual acceleration of change in human ethics and spiritual teaching. He called this “The Axial Age” in a book published in 1949. The Age spans roughly five or six hundred years, from around 800 BCE to 200 BCE. Note that Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed the Prophet are historical figures from later times, not within the Axial period.
Something wonderful happened in history in the Axial Age, a breakthrough in human capacity to think, and in the teaching of moral and ethical philosophy by some very fine thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, a few classical Israelite prophets, Buddha, Confucius, and a handful of other minds who have left us texts that are evidence of originality.
Many fine scholars have been inspired by Jaspers’ original argument, and research into the precise nature of Axial Age teachings and texts has produced some marvelous new work by historians, sociologists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists.
The narrative of Western ascendancy
We have what, in the past, people could only dream about, and since the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, and our Scientific Revolution, plus two horrific world wars, we have made the dreams for a good life for many into material reality. The developing world in China and India are in a process of “catching up” with the West, materially.
Though China has been colonizing Tibet without shame, and Zionist Israelis are assertive about their right to land in Palestine, Canadians are feeling guilty about our own colonial past. It is hard to tell the truth of our colonial past and work toward reconciliation with the Native people whose lands we have invaded and appropriated. We have to live with ourselves. We have to assimilate truths about our past that do not reflect well on our past acts.
Some of us excuse past injustice with a rationalization: Europeans colonized this land for Progress. We need Truth and Reconciliation, yes, but we still do not accept that all colonialism is one long record of past crime without justice for natives. There are still historians and public intellectuals working to explain and justify the colonial history of the West.
It’s good to be here in the West
Does anyone dispute the daily evidence that life in the wealthy West has fine advantages? Set aside all quibbles about our defective societies: is there any other part of the human world you would choose to live in, rather than here? If you wanted to, and you earned skilled credentials demanded from you, many lands outside the West would welcome your work, skill, and talent, and many Westerners take advantage of that and pursue careers there. But the proof of Western privileges is, such careerists, enriched by work abroad, return here.
The peoples outside the First World are reasonably well-informed about the astounding privileges of citizens of that World. They want in. They manifest the desire to be First World by entering it in a multitude of ways, some legal, many more illegal. Some people put themselves in the hands of human smugglers just for a chance to get into a First World nation-state. A notorious example is the traffic in women from former Soviet areas who are brought to the West as “sex-trade workers” – a nauseating euphemism for a form of slavery. Chinese “snake-head” smugglers put many immigrants at risk of death trying to cross the Pacific ocean. Canada knows how desperate immigrants will put their life at risk to cross our southern border in cruel winter-weather hazards.
Such dismal stories of immigration are often analysed into types of motive: refugees from war or human-rights abuses, or “economic” migrants. All amount to a singular motivation. Life outside the West is not so good as inside. No argument.
We were not Just -- but we did some good
An excellent study of “how the West led the Rest” is by Niall Ferguson. His book Civilisation says the West deserves global pre-eminence, and his measure of that ascendancy is materialistic, almost Marxian. But he is not a Marxian scholar at all, rather he’s a defender of Imperialism as practiced by England, France, and the USA. The Marxian political Left is steadfastly anti-imperial.
When it comes to thinking about empire, Ferguson's preoccupation with material forces allows him to undertake what amounts to a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the good that imperial regimes have done against the bad without being unduly bothered by the kind of moral questions that traditionally concern the Left. (Does one country have a right to invade another? Does colonialism leave a psychological scar that makes it hard for previously occupied countries to progress?)
“... "Something that's seldom appreciated about me," (Ferguson) declares, "is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I'm on the side of the bourgeoisie." … [Ferguson] is able to remain relatively sanguine about the less than glorious aspects of, say, Britain's occupation of India, or French rule in west Africa, because he always seeks to ask what the alternatives might have been. (As a rule, he thinks they would have been far worse.) "The moral simplification urge is an extraordinarily powerful one, especially in this country, where imperial guilt can lead to self-flagellation," he explains. "And it leads to very simplistic judgments. The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all."
[interview with N. Ferguson, The Guardian, 2012]
Would Africa, the New World, or India, now be lands where modern economic systems, with justice, prosperity, and equal distribution of affluence for their peoples, have come into being – if only the West had allowed them to develop without interference from imperialism and colonization? No one can possibly answer that. It is a “might-have-been” of history. To venture an opinion about it will reveal one’s predisposition, one’s attitude toward empire and culture.
Niall Ferguson’s strongest moral argument for Western empires ruling foreign people: "It's all very well for us to sit here in the West with our high incomes and cushy lives, and say: ‘it's immoral to violate the sovereignty of another state.’ But if the effect of that [violation of sovereignty] is to bring people in that country economic and political freedom, to raise their standard of living, to increase their life expectancy - then don't rule it out."
[A genuine Marxian scholar, Chris Harman, concludes his history of the world with advice to the working class: that class must become conscious of itself as a class and find the right individuals to lead the fight against capitalism in the name of justice. I’ll leave that argument aside for another day, but now I want to focus upon the West’s progress.]
The West assumes dominion over the globe
I find myself wondering if the freedom and physical security and health and wealth that we wanted and so many in the Western middle class have achieved since around a century ago, is now the foundation for happiness. Material advance and improved lives for our bodies was not an end in itself, I believe. Humans wanted a platform upon which we could ascend to higher non-material, emotional, or spiritual planes, yes? And I look around for evidence that Western citizens are achieving those higher levels.
Did humanity rise? For argument’s sake, I will say yes, we are more conscious and more spiritually evolved now than in previous millennia. The evidence for this is by necessity very hard to quantify or measure with exactitude, whereas we can put numbers on Gross National Income. But there are academics trying hard to measure “happiness.” There are very large numbers of affluent and educated Westerners writing, speaking, recording, blogging and internet-working, on the subject of our consciousness and spiritual advancement. It is an industry, this phenomenon of teaching “higher-consciousness spirituality” for fees, worth billions in rich nations.
One might make the obvious point that if humanity has risen from the primordial state of nature as mere animals like others we evolved from -- from the horror of Assyrian and Roman cruelties such as mass exterminations of conquered people, slavery, crucifixion – that we would not have had recent wars in which tens of millions died. Famines, such as happened in Ireland and India and Africa in the imperial era, would not have been allowed by imperial governments of the West, nor present-day plagues and famines such as kill tens of thousands in Africa.
Where is the expected progress in consciousness and compassion?
End Part Two
In the final instalment of this topic in the next Arc, I will conclude my observations about the West, its cultural narratives, its technology, and its dominance of the world. I will attempt recommendations pertaining to what Justice would look like for the non-Western world if we tried to compensate those lands and peoples for our past unfair governance there.
Wish me luck!