The Origins of Western Civilization

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Photographic Print

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Photographic Print
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24 in. x 8 in.

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The Development of western history occurred within a context shared by many other cultures: an economy and society based on agricultural production. Within this broad framework of agricultural society a host of differences might develop. In political organization, for example, it has been argued that where agriculture depends on irrigation, which in turn involves close coordination of human effort, authoritarian political systems are particularly likely--e.g., ancient Egypt or China.

Religions could vary widely. But there are certain broad similarities within all societies dependent on agriculture, and before turning to the western variants it is well to outline the basic context. Furthermore, since the first breakthrough in agricultural society occurred in the West with industrialization, an understanding of some of the normal limitations of agriculture gives us a realistic goal in an overview of the later evolution of western civilization. What particular set of quirks and values, for example, led the West into replacing agriculture and the countryside with industry and the city as the normal environment for human life?

The basic points about agricultural society may seem obvious, but we rarely examine their complex impact in forming an idea of what that society actually was. First, most people worked the land and did not live in cities. Civilizations around the Mediterranean, including ancient Greek and Roman but also recent Italian cultures, were more highly urbanized than most, for many farmers lived in towns and traveled out to their fields. They might thus maintain urban values. But as a general rule no more than twenty percent of a population in an agricultural society lived in cities, and the percentage was usually less than this.

Civilization, however, has an urban bias; the word derives from the ancient designation for the city. But here we face a dichotomy, which is our second main point about agricultural societies. The cities lived off the countryside economically, but the farmers were often remote from urban culture and might be regarded as positively uncivilized. This is not a fair judgment, though it is true that many key ideas began in cities and spread only slowly to the rural majority. A totally rural society had neither leisure nor enough diversity to produce the high culture we most readily identify with civilization--polished music, formal drama, and so on. So what we regard most readily as "civilized" typifies the minority. It may be more interesting and important to determine what the values of the rural majority were. Urban concepts rarely were adapted without some distinctively rural twists.

Agricultural society is also inherently poor by contemporary western standards which has tagged the phrase, "subsistence economy," to agricultural societies in premodern Europe as well as in modern Asia and Latin America. Agricultural societies that produced civilizations also produced a real margin above subsistence which was enjoyed primarily by the ruling minority. Governments depended on this margin as they taxed the farmers. Churches, which provided the bulk of intellectual life, depended on this margin, as they tithed farmers or persuaded the state to turn over some tax money directly. Other economic activity also resulted from this margin above subsistence, as we shall see. For every eight or nine people working directly in agriculture, a vibrant agricultural society could support one person living apart from the land--governing, teaching and writing, or specializing in making stylish shoes. But while a few state officials and churchmen might make huge fortunes and create an opulent, eye-catching lifestyle, it is vitally important to remember that most people in the cities and most in the countryside whose surplus was taken to support the cities, really did not live much above a subsistence level.

But the narrow material margins typical of agricultural life created for most people many crucial differences from our own style of life. There were more deaths, for example. In most agricultural societies over any extended period of time, about half of all babies born died before reaching the age of two. This cycle was broken in Europe only in the eighteenth century; in India only in the twentieth, and still there was much death that a modern westerner would regard as premature. In America the pattern was broken in the seventeenth century; by the eighteenth century, American rates were rising to near-traditional levels. There was no time, no extra food, and obviously no widespread medical knowledge to care for the weak, particularly the newborn. Rapid population growth did occur, as we shall see, though agricultural societies until recent centuries typically expanded rather slowly. But death was common. Though cultures might vary, they all had to deal with the omnipresence of death, which is why most tried to make death explainable and to reduce its terror through religious rituals and doctrines.

Agricultural society gains its basic coherence from its economic foundation and the limitations and problems this imposes; which most in common, for they were closest to the soil. But we can go a bit further with our definition of agricultural society, while noting that the privileged minority living on the margin produced by the peasants could afford much greater diversity. One way to understand what the key elements of an agricultural society had in common is to project the social structure valued in most such societies, the one that received normal official sanction.

Greece and Rome did not arise spontaneously. Rome, as we will see, was able to copy elements of politics and culture from Greece. More importantly, Greece was able to copy some elements from previous civilizations. The alphabet is a case in point. The Greeks did not have to invent the idea of alphabet; they had the example of an alphabet which they could adapt to form their own. The transcendent fact was that both Greece and Rome were agricultural societies, yet neither had to invent agriculture. On both the Greek and the Roman peninsulas people had been farming for centuries before the more formal civilizations we label Greek and Roman developed. So we need a word about precedents, starting with the rise of agriculture and turning to civilizations from which Greece and Rome could draw, notably the societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

We have already noted that the rise of agriculture was not specifically western. Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were not western either. We briefly survey them here to indicate what the Greeks and the Romans did not have to do, what already had been devised and needed only to be adapted to local conditions. Then we can confront the more important question of how and when specifically western elements developed from this common core, a core which by the time of the early Greeks was not merely agricultural, but had proved capable of creating civilizations with advanced art, science, and political structures.


Terence said...

Very interesting information.

Terence said...

Very interesting information.