A word we use very often is ‘civilisation’, where the term connotes various things to different people. We talk of western civilisation or Islamic civilisation, where we typecast society into following a certain headline ideology. In the earliest days, anyone who did not speak Greek was called a barbarian and, as time went by, every culture espoused its ‘superior’ civilisation and rebuked others. Hence, every country invariably lays down these contours, and deviations tend to get highlighted as being against these paradigms. Ramin Jahanbegloo starts out from this point of what is civilisation and then takes us through different philosophies of what it stands for, before bringing us to the contemporary era, which has deteriorated to the extent that we have ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and people like Donald Trump who dominate the global space.
Civilisation is essentially empathy for others and cuts across countries, religions, groups, etc. It’s a case of recognising that we are all human beings and that we should treat everyone the same way. Merely going in for modernism, which covers westernisation and capitalism, does not uplift civilisation. This is where the author brings in two persons who he considers the epitome of civilisation, and who are, coincidentally, Indians: Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Not only does he spend time detailing what they stood for, but also avers that we should all go back to their schools because it’s the right direction. Let us look at Gandhi, for example. The three words that explain what civilisation is are swaraj, satyagraha and sarvodaya. Intuitively, we can figure out what the author is hinting at. Freedom to do what one wants without impinging on others is a basic human dictum that sounds logical. Similarly, non-violence makes a lot of sense in a civilised world, where issues can be sorted out through dialogue rather than violence. While reading about acts of violence anywhere in the world, the reader would have certainly felt that there are better ways of sorting out differences. Feeling for others is another basic rule that looks rudimentary, but is rarely followed.
This is where the author leads us to where the problem lies. Capitalism, survival of the fittest, growth, greed, etc, are all reasons why we deviate from these basic principles, and which lead to the transformation of society. So ironically, de-civilisation is not the absence of civilisation, but the idea of ‘thoughtless civilisation’. The moment we lose empathy for other human beings, we can say de-civilisation has set in. This is why we have discrimination in different forms, which can lead to violent responses too. The usual pockets of this phenomenon are manifested in assault on minorities, women, children, marginalised societies, etc. Therefore, when emotion and empathy take a backseat, we can be sure that we are headed towards de-civilisation. The author takes us through the views of various philosophers on this issue, which have pervaded over centuries, such as Freud, Rousseau, Kant, etc. The view and direction are always the same on the issue, but it’s just that societies have deviated significantly from the ideal due to the so-called development processes, including ‘machinery and technology’, which have been pointed out by the author as being among the driving factors for the deviation because they are done unconsciously. Western capitalism, for example, espouses survival of the fittest, which, clearly, makes a distinction among people and severs any link with empathy and humaneness, which is what profit is all about.
Interestingly, he points out that once we say ‘might is right’ in the realm of politics—and one can draw parallels easily in today’s world—we cease to talk about a hopeful, interconnected and dialogical mode of living together, but veer towards de-civilisation and dehumanisation. The author recommends that we should actually go back to the principles of Tagore and Gandhi, whom he holds in high esteem, to regain civilisation in the right spirit. In fact, if we don’t redefine this connection, we will never be able to reconcile poverty, tyranny and fanaticism with civilised facades of religion, technology and capitalism. Tagore was opposed to modern civilisation that lacked wholeness due to the predilection for materialism, which impeded moral progress of humankind. The caption ‘unity in diversity’, which was from Tagore, encapsulates it all. When talking of de-civilisation, he talks a bit about the Islamic forces, which are a product of fanaticism. Here, he also highlights the destruction of culture, drawing parallels between the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, what Alexander the Great did when he burnt down the palace of Persepolis and Babur’s destruction of Jain temples. But Jahanbegloo is equally critical of Trump who, he feels, is against the existence of ‘others’. Both these examples intertwine the problem of civilisation with evil, as per the author.
The curious part of the global saga, which is disturbing, is that the ISIS has progressively more sympathisers and Trump more voters. There is, really speaking, not much thought on humanism or empathy these days except in the form of aid given by countries to poorer ones, which also is no longer on the radar of most developed countries, which have their own problems. This is quite a good book, which talks about the degeneration of civilisation. Whatever has been stated is right and can’t be contested. However, the author does not quite show how to reconcile the idea of civilisation with the truth of capitalism, which has come to stay and, hence, is very idealistic. Countries are on the road to progress, where movement is always uneven. At the economic level, there is no solution provided nor does the author offer a way to reconcile the rise of, say, fanaticism with reality. Propagating going back to simplicity is theoretically fine, but not practical. Hence, one should read this book more as a commentary on what the title calls the ‘decline’ of civilisation, and not really as a roadmap for the future. Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings