The Apparent Paradox of Civilization
Modern man, by and large, takes civilization for granted.
If you ask a reasonably smart, contemporary high school student, “How did civilization begin?” you’d probably get some version of the popular narrative, to wit: the discovery of agriculture sometime in the late Neolithic period drove a transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one; towns formed around fertile land, then grew into cities; surplus food allowed specialization of human labor, leading to art, religion, and monumental architecture. This may or may not be the current academic consensus, but most modern people in the West, especially Progressives, see civilization as simply an extension of the same evolutionary processes that produced homo sapiens; like the human body, it can be tinkered with endlessly in an attempt to achieve utopia. That’s the popular narrative.
The popular narrative, however, is wrong. In truth, civilization is somewhat fragile. Even a cursory knowledge of history illustrates that no civilization lasts forever. The fall usually comes in stages, first in the form of creeping decadence, which opens the door to disorder. Reactionaries of all stripes see this; however, even within the “reactosphere” a nearly ubiquitous confusion surrounds the topic. Some mistake civilization for survival; others take it as an end in itself, perhaps chiefly valuable for its aesthetics. These approaches have problems in part because they only dimly acknowledge the apparent paradox of civilization.
The Apparent Paradox of Civilization
Here’s the contradiction: civilization requires a certain abundance of resources; this requires cheap labor and a relatively low degree of social friction; with abundance comes the potential for both decadence (which stymies further development), and real or perceived oppression, which tends to ignite social friction, sometimes explosively. Thus civilization inevitably creates the conditions for its own demise. Laziness and inertia easily come to dominate, higher aims are forgotten; civilization crumbles to entropy – the end of a cycle. But if surplus resources and the ease they allow lead directly to decadence and oppression, how can an advanced civilization arise in the first place? Why wouldn’t laziness and inertia set in the very moment the granaries are full, long before villages grow into metropolises? The transition to agriculture meant more work, less nutrition. There was no immediate survival value. So why did humans do it? What sustains the civilizational project during the long period of time it takes to produce, say, Classical Greece?
This riddle has a number of facile explanations, but allow me to introduce a more essential framework that may even suggest some ways to ameliorate our current civilizational crisis, provided we are willing to consider it impartially. We shall call this framework the Four Fold Social Order.
Please indulge me in a brief thought experiment, a gross compression and over-simplification of late prehistory.
Place: Central Asia, Time: Late-Neolithic
Imagine for a moment that you are a member of a Stone Age tribe, roughly twenty-thousand years ago. Your tribe has been nomadic since your earliest mythological origins, roaming where there is access to water, edible vegetation, and game. Your tribe has a relatively simple social organization: the men hunt and protect the tribe against other tribes; the women gather food and care for children. A chief and council of elders lead you, with advice from a medicine man or shaman.
Lately, your medicine man has had some strange ideas. He tells the elders that the gods have spoken to him in a vision, and revealed a higher purpose for your people. He insists that the hilltop where he had his vision is sacred ground. Your tribe must stop wandering, and live near this sacred ground. It seems ludicrous, but he has undeniable authority, and who can question the gods? So you begin to settle in place. You already have some scattered knowledge about how to plant seeds and grow desirable plants, but the medicine man reveals that part of his vision was information about how to do so better, and on a larger scale. No one can deny that he has a divine knowledge of the movement of the sun and the stars, and the changing of the seasons. He claims that such knowledge can be used to grow enough food right where you are, year after year.
It immediately becomes apparent to the chief and his council that the old social arrangement won’t suffice. It being summer, you dwell in a broad, green valley beside a river. It is known that another tribe, quite hostile to yours, dwells a week’s journey in the direction of the setting sun at this time of year and hunts game there. When their hunting season ends, they pass through the valley your people inhabit on their way to a place with winter fishing. In the past, your tribe has always left this valley before they passed through in order to avoid conflict. If you stay put there will be trouble. This problem furrows the chief’s brow; past run-ins with this enemy tribe have been devastating. But the medicine man points out that you have the better part of a season to prepare for their arrival. When they come, they will expect at most an encounter with another nomadic tribe like their own. The medicine man says that the gods have shown him how to move stones and earth to defend against spears and arrows, and how to make weapons that can cut a man in half with one blow.
Now, some men in the tribe are good at making things, and others are best at fighting and hunting. The chief sets the men who are makers to the task of moving stones and earth and shaping metal. He assigns the best warriors to training in the use these new weapons and techniques. Everyone else must forage, plant, and assist the others as needed.
What has happened here? Guided by Divine influence, your tribe has taken its first step toward civilization. Already you have organized into the four basic necessary orders. You have no names for them yet, so we’ll use the names assigned by another people, so far in the future that your grandchildren’s grandchildren will not yet be able to conceive of their grandeur. The medicine man and his apprentices we shall call the Brahmin order. The chief and his council, and his warriors, we shall call the Kshatriya order. The men who can make things we shall call the Vaisyas, and the rest, those who labor, we shall call the Sudras.
This is the basic framework of the Four Fold Social Order. It is not a theory about how a civilization should be organized: it is a description of the social ingredients that are absolutely necessary for civilization to emerge at all.
Now then, what can go wrong? Much. We live, after all, in a dramatic universe of replete with accidents and not immune to stupidity. Your medicine man made one point of crystalline contact with the Divine, which changed everything. But he is only one man, and there are other forces besides his authority.
I shall abandon the thought experiment for now, as continuing it would require a Tolkienesque effort of world-building. It was enough to introduce the idea of the Four Fold Social Order.
I fully realize that this imaginary version of the Neolithic Revolution isn’t exactly coterminous with the academic one. It should be noted, however, that evidence exists to support the idea that the sacred predates settlement. In 1994, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began excavation at a site in southeastern Turkey that had previously been ignored by scholars, who considered it to be the ruins of a medieval cemetery. Underneath the belly-shaped hill called Göbekli Tepe, Schmidt uncovered layer after layer of stone monoliths dating from the 10th to 8th millennia B.C., during the Stone Age, and as much as 6,000 years before Stonehenge. The scientists have found no signs of the structure being used residentially, and evidence from bone fragments indicate that the people who built it lived as hunter gatherers. From a Smithsonian article about the site:
“Gobekli Tepe’s builders were on the verge of a major change in how they lived, thanks to an environment that held the raw materials for farming. “They had wild sheep, wild grains that could be domesticated—and the people with the potential to do it,” Schmidt says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe’s construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world’s oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe’s construction.”
If Schmidt is correct, this “cathedral on a hill” is the world’s oldest known holy site, and it predates the development of agriculture and domesticated animals in the region. It appears that the immense organizational effort required to support the hundreds of people needed to quarry and carve stone on this scale produced socioeconomic changes that paved the way for the earliest civilizations.
Resolving the Paradox
How does this relate to the apparent paradox of civilization, to the fact that the very thing that makes civilization possible — excess resources and a degree of comfort — also leads to its disintegration? Obviously, no extant phenomenon can truly be a paradox, as that would violate the iron laws of logic. Our model must be missing something. Julius Evola came close to realizing the truth when he invoked the cycle of the Yugas from Vedic mythology to explore this idea. The Yugas, a fascinating mythological description of the cycle from rise to decay, posit that civilization forms under the direction of Divine personages, then degenerates under the influences of the World. During the first Yuga, we are told, humans are Divine, or nearly so, and live approximately 100,000 years. The last Yuga spans a period of time four times the length of the first. The description must be taken symbolically, not literally. In terms of calendar time, the reality is that civilizations spend a relatively short period of time in their most ideal state (if any time at all). The critical point here is just that the beginning of a new cycle, the return from the Kali Yuga to the Satya Yuga, is precipitated precisely by the influence of a higher sort of man acting in the World. The Yuga cycle is a description of a psychological reality, not a purely mechanical system. By no means is the return from the Kali Yuga to the Satya certain.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the four orders are necessary functions in any civilization, and that those functions will be filled in one way or another regardless. Whether they are filled by the right sort of man, who properly understands his role, is another matter. Take the contemporary United States of America as an example. Though it is founded on secular authority — that is to say, not really authority at all but rather consensus — the functions of the Four Fold Social Order are very much in evidence. The function of the Brahminical order, which is to establish the metaphysical foundation and values, and to legitimate rulers in light of that foundation, is served by the Supreme Court and lesser courts, and by academia, public education, and the media. Neoreaction coined the term “the Cathedral” for this complex, and the term is appropriate. The authority that was once held by the Church, representing God, is now held by “The Cathedral,” representing (ostensibly, at least) secular consensus, symbolized by the Constitution.
Think about the inauguration of a U.S. President. The Chief Justice, the highest representative of Constitutional authority, raises his right hand and transfers that authority to the newly elected President, also with upraised hand. The President swears to uphold the secular values of the state. This is a coronation in form, with most of the symbolism stripped away. It serves precisely the same function as a traditional coronation, to legitimize ruling power in a manner consistent with the founding ethos of the land. The Bible, on which the President places his left hand, remains as a faint echo of the origins of this ceremony. The Four Fold Social Order is right there before your eyes: the Brahmin order affirming the legitimacy of the transfer of power to an an approved member of the the Kshatriya order. Except in this case everything is inverted. The man serving the role of the Brahmin is not a holy man who contemplates the nature of reality and of Man, but rather a fully secular specialist who studies elaborate, intricate legal codes; he is essentially a displaced Vaisya of the intellectual variety. The Kshatriya is not a man trained in leadership and war, but a businessman or lawyer, another Vaisya. The inauguration ensures the mechanical functions of governance, but has lost the overarching telos that informs the purpose of civilized governance i.e. to nurture the unfolding of man’s higher potential in a select few who see the value of such an endeavor.
The Four Fold Social Order provides us with a description of necessary functions in any civilization, but it also provides us with an ideal. This dual nature is difficult to understand, but it may become clearer by employing an analogy. A civilized state is like a body; it has various parts which work together in concert to achieve a level of functioning that no part alone would be capable of. Ideally, these parts work together in perfect harmony. In a body, we call this health. In a state, we call it justice. No actual existing body is the perfect model of health, as the entropic universe provides many sources of resistance and decay which cannot be totally overcome. Some bodies approach ideal health more than others, but almost none are without some distortion or flaw. The same is true of civilizations. Where the analogy breaks down is the key difference between a body and a state, and that is that a body is formed organically by the workings of our genetic code along with some environmental influences. A civilization, however, never forms organically. It is the expression of conscious higher influences. Some level of understanding of the functioning of its parts are necessary in its formation. Without this understanding present in at least seed form, human beings organize into sub-civilized arrangements, usually tribal. A civilized state, to exist, must be organized consciously at least to some degree. When the quality of the human candidates available to fill the necessary functions is low, the functions end up being filled wrongly; think of a body in which some organs attempt to do the work of other organs, or are malformed, as they might be in the case of a genetic disorder. Even a civilization formed initially with very high consciousness of the proper fulfillment of functions will, over time, degrade as men of lesser understanding fill various roles and either invert or distort the structure; think of a disease like cancer, which results from a distortion of the genetic code of some cells in the body. A society so structured ends up having a compromised immune system, which leaves it open to outside organisms who seek to form a parasitic relationship; think here of diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.
It is necessary then, if one wishes to form or reform a civilization, to understand the arrangement that will produce the highest degree of harmony (justice). The Four Fold Social Order provides us with exactly that understanding, illuminated by the telos of civilization, which is to produce men of a higher type. That some higher men also contribute to the maintenance of civilization is a means to an end, but not an end in itself.
It may be useful here to examine some civilizations from the past that approached the ideal arrangement more closely than our own. This is not to say that these examples were ideal, or without problems. Nothing in this world escapes entropy. What the examples we are about to examine show is the relative stability and creative output of properly-arranged civilizations; we will see that these civilizations also produced fruit far beyond their material manifestations, fruit that continues to nourish mankind even to this very day.
Perhaps one of the closest approaches to the ideal Four Fold Social Order that we know about is Ancient Egypt. Not much is known about pre-dynastic Egypt, so the origins of this civilization are cloudy. What we do know is that metaphysical authority was absolute, personified in the pharaoh, a god-king. The pharaoh was the point of contact between the Brahminical and Kshatriya orders, and was considered to represent the sun itself. Some of the monumental architectural works of the Ancient Egyptians are well known, but less well known is the fact that they developed a precise science of man’s psychology and its relation to the cosmos that informed all Western metaphysical and philosophical thought and forms the esoteric core of Christianity. Augustine spoke of this as “Christianity before Christ.” Though there was internal dynastic strife, Ancient Egypt lasted several millennia with remarkable continuity of worldview.
Consider medieval Western Europe, a society with which most readers have at least some passing familiarity. The conventional descriptions present medieval Europe as a three-fold system consisting of clergy, nobles and peasants; however the peasant order actually had both skilled and unskilled laborers. Medieval Europe reached its apogee during the high Middle Ages which coincides with the ascendants of the papal monarchy. Already we see an inversion of the ideal for fold social order here, as the clergy order claimed and asserted temporal Authority, rather than merely legitimizing the ruling order. This version of the four fold social order nevertheless initiated Western Civilization’s pinnacle of cultural achievement while simultaneously planting the seeds for its decline. Christendom produced a relatively unified Western Europe, but also led to the corruption of the contemplative order as it increasingly became obsessed with material wealth and political power. By the early Renaissance the corruption of the contemplative class erupted into the Protestant Revolution, nominalism, vain Crusades, etc.
The paradox of civilization, like so many apparent paradoxes, turns out to be a misunderstanding. Superficially it seems a contradiction that material excess should both engender and penultimately threaten civilization. It turns out, however, that surplus resources are a necessary condition of civilization but not the driving force; the engine of civilization is actually men of a higher level of Being engaging in “conscious labors and intentional suffering”. They do so — and in the process maintain civilization — in order to give other men the opportunity to also raise their Being to a higher level. Remember that medicine man from our thought experiment? He saw that others of his tribe had spiritual potential that would never be realized as long as extinction lurked behind every tree. Civilization nurtures the endeavor to raise man’s consciousness by allowing a lower time preference in which survival is not a pressing question at every moment. Additionally, as self-sacrifice is a necessary ingredient in a holy life, it gives the higher type of man an opportunity to sacrifice on a larger scale, possibly for thousands or millions of people. It is no mistake that Christ appeared in the time and place of a far flung empire.
Remember that real or perceived oppression is merely the other hand of decadence. The integrity of the ruling order is key. A degree of decadence in the laboring classes can be admitted but decadence in the ruling order, and even more-so in the contemplative class, produces a fatal revolutionary impulse.
In a followup post, we shall address some of the most common objections to the Four Fold Social Order. I’ll end this post by briefly addressing the objection with the most emotional resonance: the understandable resentment that those in power live a life of riches and pleasure while the rest toil and sweat. While this is invariably true of a corrupt ruling order, the operative ethic of the properly ordered state toward which we should all rightly aspire is well expressed by this concluding quotation:
More on that later.