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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 14, March 21, 2009

Meaning of Modern Civilisation

Saturday 21 March 2009, by Rammanohar Lohia


I once asked a philosopher from America, Scott Buchanan, what modern civilisation meant. At that time stood before me the tall and graceful buildings of Paris and there moved before me the pageant of Parisian men and women with their health and beauty of body and I felt sad because I thought of conditions obtaining in my own country and in Asia and Africa generally. The question was even more of a reverie. What is the secret of this modern civilisation? Wherein lies its mystery? What is it that has enabled Europe and its American descendant to build all this? We were at that time sitting in a café beyond which stood the Church of Magdalen. Who does not know Jesus and Magdalen, whom, before Jesus touched her, the world called a prostitute and has since worshipped as a saint. This was a church erected in honour and memory of Magdalen, whose beautiful and noble story asserts that every one is equal of another and that a saint and a prostitute are in essence the same. All Buchanan did in answer to my query was to point at the church, which tells the story of Magdalen who lived two thousand years ago but where eighteen hundred years later the most beautiful girl of Paris was crowned the Goddess of Reason. These French revolutionaries were atheists. They had dispensed with priests and churches and also with God. There were these two secrets of European civilisation, spiritual belief in human dignity and rational faith in science, both driven to a point when they cancel each other. The modern European spirit has tried to reveal the two secrets and, while it has been helped along hither by the reciprocal action of both, the inherent split was always there and now stares in the face. There may be a great deal in this thought of dualistic striving after dignity and science and the tensions and energies arising out of it. That these energies resulted in concrete achievements and did not dissipate themselves at the early start may be due to the submission of Europe to a comparatively monistic loyalty to science, not science generally but the special brand which evolved in the course of its history. Science, particularly in its applied forms, is inevitably related to unique historical situations and it is a sign of the vulgarity of our times that scientific temper and its concrete applications are often held synonymous. European civilisation is probably unable to pursue this dualistic monism any further.

Such interpretations of a civilisation may light it up with a sudden flash but darkness follows and they are therefore not wholly satisfying. The yearning for dignity and equality as much as material comforts of life is common to all civilisations, as is the quest for a meaning of life. The distinctive in any particular civilisation is revealed by humdrum study, although the contrast in stories such as those of the Church of Magdalen also describes the unique in a broad sweep. The distinctiveness in modern civilisation arises out of a unique rationality, a particular application of science to industry and agriculture. This civilisation has known a revolutionary technology in which tools change almost from day-to-day and there is continual increase in productivity, even to this day, in countries not yet relegated like the USA, and the USSR technology is still revolutionary. No other civilisation of mankind knew this. Tools were rarely changed. The plough of the Indian farmer has been the same for more than two thousand years but, in the past three hundred years, the West European has been continually changing his tools and multiplying them. The past two hundred years of human history have seen a continual increase and multiplication of tools, which were unendin-gly refined. This is a civilisation of revolutionary technology consequent upon a specific type of application of science to industry and agriculture. Such a science has led to mass production, ever-growing large-scale factories and increasing concentration of capital, where for every bit of labour employed the amount of capital used continually rises.

Driven by such a science, this civilisation aims collectively at a rising national output and individually at an increasing standard of living. All active and ruling peoples of this civilisation are infatuated with this idea of an increasing national output and a rising standard of living. In the innermost recesses of the heart, what drives a person belonging to this civilisation and gives meaning to life is the desire for a decent home and all that goes with it, wife or husband and children. The family may in a past civilisation have been a refuge for peace and social cohesiveness but it could not have played the dynamic role that it does today. It propels the modern man to economic exertion, to secure a nice home for wife and children, so that the collective aim of increasing national output and the individual aim of improving living standards is ultimately bound up with the desire for family. The emotional basis for a revolutionary technology derives in the ultimate instance from the desire for home. The American and the Russian are, without doubt, similarly motivated in their emotional attitudes. No matter that the systems of property rights in the two societies are so dissimilar, the inside of an American and a Russian is moved by the desire for a comfortable home and an increasing living standard upon which rests the entire social edifice of a rising national output. No previous human civilisation has known the equivalent of the modern man with his emotional complex and in this distinguishing trait of modern civilisation, the capitalist American and the Communist Russian are twins.

Allied with this basis of national economy and individual emotion is the vague yearning for world peace and equality which characterise the modern man. Such vague yearnings have indeed inspired man throughout history but they have for the first time acquired a pseudo-rational basis in modern civilisation. Capitalism as well as communism have thought and still think of the golden age when, with advancing industrialisation, improving living standards and rising national output, the whole world would tie up in forms of intimate friendship and wars would fade away. The concrete rise in living standards of the European peoples through the last two centuries convinced them that society was naturally developing into a state of social and economic equality nationally and would do so in course of time on the stage of the world. It had been assumed that modern civilisation in its onward march of a world market and expanding technologies would be able to remove remnants of a backward economy even in the colonial areas and spread its benefits all over the world. A permanently revolutionary application of science to industry and agriculture with increasing concentration of capital, a rising national output collectively and an increasing living standard individually and a pseudo-rational yearning for social equality and peace in all the world have been the distinguishing drives of modern civilisation.


But this civilisation has now reached its dead end. It has lost its capacity to spread over the world. It probably never possessed such a capacity anymore than the previous civilisation did and the hopes of a universal validity that it had earlier aroused are proved to be illusory. The industrial revolution in Europe and what followed it belonged to a unique historical situation, incapable of repetition in Asia and Africa. Too little land and too many men and too few tools are a mark of Asia, so that application of the technique of mass production is utterly impossible. India’s density of population is over three hundred persons per square mile. Abstract talk about the communist ability to solve the problem of bread as in Russia makes no sense in view of these concrete statistics of three hundred against twenty. Political and economic ideologies must be related to concrete historical situations and no greater tragedy can occur than to think of capitalism or communism and even socialism unrelated to history and geography. Existing technology made possible by the imperialist control which the European civilisation exercises over the rest of the world is no longer valid. The Bessemer process in Europe, for instance, which was a basis for developing its industry, fructified with the opening of the Suez Canal and the Suez Canal proved prosperous when a sector of Indian agriculture was commercialised. This historical process proceeded in such fashion that every industrial and technical advance of Western Europe, which led to greater concentration of capital, was paired corresponding by a dynamic of an empire-colony relationship. The technology of modern Europe is an imperialist technology in origin and in current substance is incapable of reproduction all over the world unless an abundance of colonies in other planets were discovered.

Modern civilisation has reached its end even in respect of its master lands. The European is unable any more to satisfy his hunger of increasing standards of living. For the last 40 years or more, France has been at a standstill. For the past 20 years or so, England has known no increase in its productivity in relation to living standards. West Europe, the prince and pride of this civilisation, has been left behind in the race and is today much in the position that Asia has been towards it in the past two centuries. What Asia used to be towards it in the past two centuries. What Asia used to be towards Europe is now being felt by Europe towards the USA. Modern civilisation, in the first and prime seat of its development, has come to a dead end insofar as technology refuses to be revolutionary any more, insofar as total consumable national output does not increase and, although there is the constant hankering for an increasing standard of living, the effort is reduced to maintaining existing levels through harder work and even austerity. Furthermore, social and economic equality have been attained by the White peoples of modern civilisation to a degree at which previous human civilisations must feel humble, but the original sap seems now to be drying up. What started as the glory of the individual is no more than a number and a badge. The individual is reduced to that status in Europe. He is a number not only when he is a prisoner, but also in practically all walks of life. Starting out with the glory of individualism, this civilisation seems to have gone full circle and come to a stage when the individual is nothing but a cog in the machinery of the collective. It may be that, in its quest for social and economic equality, modern civilisation forgot to take into account spiritual equality. It is now breaking under its own weight just as previous human civilisations that attained unrivalled heights of spiritual equality got their back broken because they degenerated into the worst excesses of social and economic inequality. If the previous civilisation broke down under the weight of disparity between social inequality and spiritual equality, modern civilisation is breaking down under the weight of disparity between social equality and spiritual inequality. For, modern man has through the enormous growth of revolutionary technology reached a state of mind when he can no longer feel a direct and intimate kinship with his fellowmen.

Modern civilisation, no matter what its initial urges may have been, has become a complex consisting of production of remote effect, tools of remote production, democracy of remote second grade application and even class struggle of remote justification. In modern civilisation, controls and checks are not immediate but are remote. Whether in relation to factory production or class struggle or democracy, this observation can stand a thorough test. Class struggle has been so foully distorted that error can be proved to lead to truth, murder to health, death of democracy to fullness of democracy and sacrifice of national freedom to world unity and so forth. In such an event, one casts aside the instrument of immediate tests and thinks alone of the golden age, which is to come. In service of that golden age, one is prepared to sacrifice to remote tests. A wild gamble with evil counters takes place in the honest but unrealisable hope of achieving the good. The new civilisation would put an end to the belief in remote tests and whatever is there would be permeated by the principle of immediacy.


The modern world, perhaps because of its overriding faith in remote tests, has given birth to dichotomies and antinomies of the most frightful type, spirit and matter, individual and social, bread and culture and the like. The opposition assumed within each of such pairs is an artificial and unreal opposition. As far as spirit and matter go, I do not find any opposition except that I generally feel distressed in materialist company when I want to become a spiritualist and feel equally distressed in spiritualist company when I think as a materialist. These dichotomies are a grave malady of the modern mind, which has created certain ghosts of ideas and is unable to slay them. These dichotomies have arisen, because immediacy is flouted, because history denies fable and fable denies history.

Who in India does not know the story of Rama and Siva in far richer detail than the story of Asoka and Buddha or whatever other historical personages that might have existed. Rama was perhaps a figment of the imagination and Siva was undoubtedly so and yet what enormous hold they exercise over the mind of the Indian people. Compared to their influence, historical personages are nothing. There are fables and myths in other countries. It is an Apollo and a Dionysius or a local Brunhilde to the Europeans. Even historical personages sometimes get transmuted through the fire of imagination into myth. Hussain of Arabia is one of them, a figure that can evoke far greater warmth and sacrifice from the Shias than God can. The Shia may listen to blasphemies of God but one should never make the mistake of blaspheming Hussain in his presence. There are fables and myths which the human mind has created all the world over.

I am personally fascinated by the fable of Siva perhaps because he is the only non-dimensional person known yet to the human mind or that every one of his acts carries its own justification or because of the countless shapes and hues of his relationship with Parvati. I have yet to come across a more vivid and engrossing story of love between man and woman, perhaps it was between God and Goddess, that does not matter. Woman and goddess are not far apart and, if anybody doubts, he may visit the Cairo Museum, the unrivalled storehouse of most ancient but somewhat unsettling objects and memories. A madness, whose tender warmth ever after lingers, will rage in his blood at the bewitching little figure of Goddess Isis, thoughtful in her bereavement but a curvaceous perfection with a leg slightly uplifted, on the tomb of Tutankhamen, who died 4000 years ago and more and whose body still lies in a coffin. No man but would feel what “men call gallantry and gods adultery”. What is so fascinating about these fables and myths which gives them a place in the mind greater than is given to history? They tell of something undying which may change its shape and form but, in substance, will eternally remain the same. They achieve love and compassion and sympathy and a unity in contemplation with all that there is.

Every moment is both a flux and an eternity. Men have so far made the mistake of confusing these two separate identities of the moment. All philosophers of history who have thought in terms of the golden age have looked upon the moment alone as flux and have forgotten its identity as eternity. All moralists who have tried to preach of individual character and improved ideals have only thought of the moment as eternity and have forgotten to take notice of it as a flux. But the moment is both flux and eternity. When it is flux it belongs to the realm of history, the realm where driving forces may be sought and helped or checked. When it is eternity, it belongs to the realm of table and myth, art and literature, religion and philosophy. Any interpretation of history that concerns itself exclusively with real events must be one-sided. If history is the grand prose of life, fables and myths are its poetry and fable is to myth what lyric is to epic. From the grand prose of life, there is much to learn and there may even be a sequence in the narration. But this sequence is of little value, unless it is refurbished with an element that lies outside the scope of history. The millennial outlook on history may yet be proved right, not alone by the prose of which it is constituted, but by the tragic composure which gave rise to the cyclical approach. The destiny of man must be read not alone in the annals of history but also in the indestructible eternity of each moment so grandly engraved in stories that never take place but are externally real. If man must learn to live in history, he has equal need to live outside it.


If it were possible for mankind to combine in its living these two facets of the moment and to achieve a new civilisation, it may indeed deserve a golden age but then this golden age would not be entirely of the future. This concept of a golden age of human development in the future is nothing but the image of a greedy man who denies himself in the present in order to be rich in some remote future. This idea altogether denies the moment as eternity, denies the importance of the individual when it has already been fixed in art and literature, fable and myth, religion and philosophy. For an individual, no matter to what clime or age he may belong, would want to express ideals and desires of beauty and faith and love and make approaches towards compassion and sympathy and oneness. These scales of human living are outside the scope of history and alone an idiot would try to torture them in.

We may in fact be heading for a golden age if we try to achieve that golden age in the immediate. Inasfar as we achieve it in the immediate and bring into play the principle of immediacy, the connecting link between the moment as flux and the moment as eternity may also be established. If they are held as two separate categories, one belonging to the realm of spirit and the other belonging to the realm of matter, great debacle and misfortune may descend on us. They must weave into one another and the connecting link between the two is the principle of immediacy, immediacy in class struggle, immediacy in production, immediacy in world parliament, immediacy in approximation. This principle of immediacy ordains that each single act contains its own justification and there is no need to call upon the succeeding act in order to justify what is done here and now. While each act must be justifiable by itself, there is equal need to comprehend the driving forces of history and to serve the destiny of man by promoting such of them as are benevolent. Compassion and revolution have to interweave and any preferential loyalty to one or the other would heap disaster on the spiritual as well as the material.

Those who believe in the golden age of a distant future are often victims of a strange illusion so that they carry out ignoble acts in furtherance of high ideals and think that these ignoble acts are justified by the outcome of a remote future. That golden age shall never come. But if we imbibe the principle of immediacy in our acts, whether with regard to production or class struggle, with regard to achievement of a classless and casteless society or a mankind in which regional shifts of power and prosperity do not occur, it may be possible to combine that moment as flux and as eternity. In trying to achieve the golden age here and now we may perhaps make it possible for the next generation to achieve a state from which war and poverty and fear will have been eliminated.

(From Wheel of History, first published in 1955)

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