A superior civilization



In this article, I look for an answer to whether a higher phase in human civilization is possible. I do this based on the following sub-questions:

What are the characteristics of a superior civilization?

How can that higher phase be achieved?

What are the conditions for achieving a superior civilization?

 Central to this research is the concept of 'responsibility', as developed by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

 1. The essence

The essence of this article can be summarized as follows: a higher level of civilization means that responsibility is the absolute norm that is transferred during education. That is maximally respected in our economic and political activities.

It is about responsibility towards the Other. The Other is always capitalized to indicate that he is higher than the I. The I is responsible for the Other.

The Other stands for the close people, our immediate neighbors, for the people far away, for example, in developing countries and future generations, who will have to live on the planet we leave them behind. The Other stands also for creation, which is the fauna and flora, the landscapes, the air we breathe.

The Other is above the I because I am not its cause and origin. The Other is given to me. We treat a gift with respect., which means respect for who gave it. The latter will be clarified later.

But there is more: the Other appeals to me. An appeal to behave responsibly towards him. Here lies the basis of ethics. A superior civilization is characterized by the ethical behavior of the people towards each other and towards the creation that is given to them.

That the Other puts an appeal on me means that he "appears" in my world. He comes from outside of me. The Other refers to itself. He cannot be traced back to what I think or know about him. He is not a thing. The Other "transcends" my knowledge about him.

The Other is not just an object of knowledge, contrary to our traditional way of thinking. Our knowledge is always a reduction of reality. Reducing the Other to the subjective image I have of him prevents from being open to the appeal that emanates from him. The same applies to a psychological diagnosis based on so-called objective criteria: this is an irresponsible reduction of the infinite possibilities that the Other possesses. Knowledge or Reason alone does not make ethics possible.  

I want to emphasize here that the basis of ethics is also undermined by moral relativism. The latter assumes that there is no external authority on which the individual can rely to judge his behavior. Without that authority, there is no conventional morality, and the sense of obligation to respect moral standards is lacking. It then seems as if ethical behavior is purely a matter of the personal choice and the will of the ego.

My point of view is that moral relativism makes civilization impossible. Hence this article will give a thorough reflection on what that external authority could be. In the next section, we will first discuss what civilization means. What is meant by the external authority will be gradually explained.

2. What is civilization?

When we talk about civilization, we think of how a society is developed in social, spiritual, and moral areas. Here we mainly discuss the ethical aspect of civilization. Our focus is on the norms and values that determine the interaction between people. That interaction can vary from violence, exploitation, exclusion to peace, charity, and sacrifice for others. It goes without saying that in a superior civilization, people assume their responsibility for one another, even at the expense of self-interest.

The paradigm that clarifies much is the birth of a child. The child is completely helpless and would not survive without the care of others. The others, the parents, do not choose to take care of the child voluntarily. The child takes them hostage, as it were, to take care of him. There is a compelling appeal from the child. It is important to note that it is not the parents who determine that appeal from outside them. This appeal is revealed to them through the child.

In principle, the adult also depends on the care of others. Here, too, the other appeals to the individual to take responsibility for him. That concern for the child and everyone else can be summed up in universal commandments such as killing or injuring nobody, not stealing, not lying or slandering, being faithful in relationships, helping those in a weak position, and so on.

Why should we obey that appeal to behave responsibly? From where does that command come? It will be apparent that the universal commandments, as far as Western civilization is concerned, were formulated as the Ten Commandments many thousands of years ago. This article is not about faith. In all cultures, religion has arisen, in which the commandments and prohibitions are considered to come from a Higher Power, from God or the gods. Apparently, man is always open to what transcends him. It is an ever-present primal desire. According to the three monotheisms, the commandments are not invented by the people themselves, but they are revealed to humankind by God on Mount Sinai. The point is not whether this biblical story actually happened or not. It is about the principle that a Higher Power calls us to act responsibly. Through the child and every Other, that Higher Power or God calls us to behave responsibly.

3. The characteristics of a superior civilization

As said above, a superior civilization is characterized by the ethics of responsibility. This characteristic is further elaborated in this section. The concept of responsibility is clarified by indicating the opposite of it, namely standing up for self-interest at the expense of others. The latter is an essential addition because we must first be strong enough to take responsibility for others. So we can stand up for our self-interest in the first phase so that we can take better care of others afterward.

Standing up for self-interest means that the Other is reduced to the person who satisfies my own needs. Levinas expresses this as 'reducing the Other to the Same'. The characteristics of the Other are not respected in this case. The Other is like an object that I can manipulate to satisfy my needs. Rape is an extreme form of this.

Ethics can be defined as ensuring that the Other's alterity is not compromised, suppressed, or reduced to the Same. On this basis, Levinas defines religion as 'a bond between the same and the Other without establishing a totality'. A totality is something finite, in which all elements are interrelated according to well-defined laws. However, a person cannot be completely determined. Man is free. He always remains the Other we never fully know. The Other opens up an infinite number of possibilities for us. Hence, respecting his alterity is at the heart of the ethical relationship between me and the Other. Here we are open to the 'infinity' of the Other, and therefore religion is respect for that infinity. In the religious attitude, we are always open to what the Other reveals to us. This openness is diametrically opposed to the position in which we reduce the Other according to our categories. Here the Other cannot be himself.  

Superior civilization is characterized by being open to the Infinite, to the appeal that comes to us through our neighbors, and commits us not to put self-interest first, but the interests of others. Others depend on the world they live; therefore, we must also be good stewards for the environment.

More concretely, these characteristics of the superior civilization mean that education is defined as inspiring the child to 'become a good person'; this is to behave responsibly. Of course, the child must be able to develop his talents optimally, but with the aim of using this for the good of others. In a superior civilization, the purpose of the economy is defined as producing and making a profit to end poverty and misery. Politics is not a struggle between opponents, but a joint project to enable peace, well-being, and prosperity for all peoples.

4. How can this higher phase be achieved?

Superior civilization cannot come about through laws and institutions. Responsibility cannot be enforced through laws or institutions. After all, there is no rational reason not to prioritize my self-interest. Rationally, I will, at most, relate to others in the form of a social contract for mutual benefit.

I take real responsibility for the Other because I feel called to do so. That calling does not come from the legislature, nor is it explained by Reason. It is an inner voice that comes from outside of me. I am not the origin of my responsibility, but I answer that voice.

Ethically, I am not the cause of my thoughts and actions: what I am supposed to do is revealed to me. This revelation is also the meaning of the Bible: the commandments were given to men by God. It concerns another person that I am confronted with an appeal to behave correctly towards him. I must give him his place on the earth. I have to accept that he is different from me. I can't objectify him. Racism reduces the Other to specific characteristics, without seeing him as a neighbor for whom I am responsible.

The meaning of my life is defined by that appeal that comes from the Other to behave responsibly. That may be at the expense of my happiness as if I am being held hostage by the Other. The Other is given priority. He becomes, as it were, the center of my ego. 

Giving priority to the Other is a radical break from what is familiar: it is not the subject who has the first place. The subject is not the measure of all things, but the Other. At the same time, the Other opens the world to me and shows, through his appeal to me, what role I can play in this. Thanks to the Other, my consciousness is unchained. He frees me from my egocentrism, as it were. Infinity comes into my life because the Infinite speaks to me through the Other. That which transcends the world comes into my life, into my being. It is a liberation from Being. The disgust described by Sartre is to be unable to free me from being. Thanks to ethics, my existence is no longer a disgust, but a desire for what transcends Being. Sartre said, 'Hell, is other people'. The vision described here is opposed to this: 'Heaven is opened to me by the Other' or 'Heaven, thanks to the others'.

So my real existence is outside of Being; this is beyond immanence. In a way, I am a stranger in this world. My real existence is outside the world. The essence of my being human is not lying in this world. I am there to do good in the world and thus to bring the transcendent into the immanent. The Good is not something of this world: I have to bring the Good in the world from outside the world. An animal cannot be good. A man by realizing Good is equal to God. That is what the highest civilization means.

It merely has to be said: that inner voice that comes to me through the Other is the voice of God. Without being open to what God reveals to humankind, there will never be a higher stage in our civilization. This openness does not imply a choice for a particular religion. It is only about humbly bowing to or surrendering to what is above us. We must abandon our pride or violence, oppression and exploitation will never end. The Creator never intended it that way.

According to Levinas, the righteous State is inspired by charity, also by the love of enemies, regardless of race or other characteristics. The State can be violent, for example, by forcing all to equality, making individuality disappear. This violence is at odds with the ethics in which the Other's alterity is recognized. We can judge a State or a political regime according to the degree of individual freedom. That is a necessary condition to move up. A totalitarian State is doomed to disappear, or it can carry all of humanity into ruin if it dominates the world.

Continuous vigilance concerning laws and institutions is required. There is always the danger that the appeal from individual citizens will not be heeded. 'The State does not see the tears of the citizen', said Levinas. Politics tends to become totalitarian so that the individual must be protected from the violence that the State can inflict on him. Within the State, the individual can be reduced to his function, to his place in the structure of society, or his membership in a culture or group. The State, in this case, becomes a totality within which the individual must conform according to what is expected of him. The ethics of individual responsibility counterbalances any totalitarianism and opens the way to a higher stage in civilization.

5. Conditions for reaching the higher phase

Emmanuel Levinas was far from making political statements. This paragraph is, therefore, entirely my viewpoint.  

I come to a delicate point when it comes to the conditions that must be met to reach a higher stage. Superior civilization requires a break from current politics. Politics is usually a policy of armed peace and competition between opponents. Mutual deterrence must prevent war. Compromises are made to appease the opponent. However, if stressors rise too high and the accumulation of stress factors occurs the polarization increases. The danger of escalation lurks around the corner in this case. In these circumstances, the multicultural society becomes unsustainable. The hope is that a statesman will stand up who dares to take the right measures to prevent the violence. In the four proposals below, I provide an impetus for this.

Which break with current politics is necessary? The Bible offers a lesson here, namely, in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people of Babel were prideful. All had to be united in one vast empire under one government. Their power had to reach to heaven. God then intervened. Speech confusion and chaos ensued. All the peoples returned to where they belonged.

With our arsenal of weapons that can destroy our entire planet, with our technological capabilities with which we try to control everything to the farthest corners of the world, through a global communication network and the vast production of consumer goods, we are wholly captivated of and enchanted by our power. In this world, there is no more room for the transcendent. We expect all salvation from Reason. God must intervene here to save man from his pride. "Being is war," Levinas wrote. If we want to prevent war, we must open the immanent to the transcendent. I want to defend here that we should not wait until God intervenes, but that we respond to the appeal of God that comes to us through our neighbors in our relationships with others, in the economy and politics.

Why and from what should a man be saved? Our power blinds us. We no longer hear the voice of the Other. We no longer know what real love is. It seems that man only exists to enjoy and consume so that there is no essential difference with the mammals. In a sense, in postmodern times, we have fallen back into a primitive stage. Should a man be recreated?

I limit myself here to a few concrete examples of the blindness we have fallen into, from which I deduce a condition for reaching a higher phase of civilization.

1. A high number of marriages end in divorce. It is a love relationship that is broken. However, love can only be unconditional and selfless. This unconditionality means that no reason can ever be found to drop the Other. In a higher civilization, faithfulness is the basis of a society of solidarity. In a stable marriage, one of the essential values of a superior civilization is passed on to the children: the unconditional and selfless love for the Other. Love can only be understood in this way if a man is open to the transcendent. That is why Catholics call marriage a sacrament. "Man cannot separate what God has connected" means: the man who truly loves the Other gives it an infinite, eternal, or transcendent meaning.

2. Too few children are born to sustain humanity. Many adults do not enter into a relationship, and they see the fulfillment of their lives as 'living well themselves' without taking responsibility. Traditional families with two to three children will maintain our civilization and inspire them to be responsible for each other and future generations.

3. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Although poverty in the world is decreasing, people are divided into who has power and who has no power, who has priority and who comes second, who is highly considered and who is being despised, who counts and who is deemed to be useless or is ignored. A higher level of civilization will only be achieved if every person can develop his talents, get his place in society, and is valued for it. In a superior civilization, every person has status. This attitude creates a connection between the citizens, and every citizen feels appreciated. That is, among other things, the best remedy for drastically reducing crime. In such civilization racism is unthinkable.

4. Many people feel compelled to emigrate. In their home countries, they risk starvation, unemployment for a lifetime, and little or no prospect of improvement. The most energetic and creative forces leave the country, and the poor are left to their own devices. A better future for the Third World will be made possible if all emigrants return to their countries of origin, invest in the local economy, bring education and the care sector up to standard, and count on the support of the wealthy nations.

The break with current politics is that it is not citizens' rights paramount, but their duties. The role of politicians and the government is to set an example to inspire the population. There are no longer any political parties, because why should we oppose one another. Anyone who does politics or works for the government acts as a servant and listens to what is essential to the citizens. The elected representatives are locally elected, promote solidarity, and meet regionally and nationally to help build networks of solidarity. Small, everyday examples of engagement with others can create a general spirit of solidarity. This spirit is at odds with a political landscape full of quarrels, suspicions, criticism, mistrust, and, at worst, complete corruption.

Religions hope for a Messiah who will bring people to insight, or there will be a Last Judgment separating the evil people from the right people and referring them to hell. It would be even better if every person is Messiah in his own way, who, by his example, inspires others for doing good and reminds people of their calling to answer the appeal of one's neighbor. Furthermore, it is not up to us to judge, although we must protect our neighbors from the violence that third parties inflict on them. In the latter lies the role of the judiciary, the army, and the police.

How can a new spirit of solidarity emerge, starting in the family, the wider family, the neighborhood, and the country until the people take responsibility for each other at a global level? God intervened in Babel. In our time, we can make space in the world for God. Ultimately, superior civilization will become possible if we put faith first in addition to Reason. This principle means that our individual actions, economic and political activities get inspired be a selfless and unconditional concern for the other, what qualities he may have.

 Juliaan van Acker ( ) June 2020


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   © Juliaan Van Acker 2024