Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Bronze Age Collapse

     I've been reading rather a lot of history lately. The method has been that, since I have only occasional Internet access, before logging off I upload one or two articles to read later on; and lately, out of curiosity, and because technically I'm an American citizen, I've been reading up on early American history. Sometimes it's really interesting. For example, I learned that George Washington (the guy on the $1 bill), contrary to legend, probably didn't really own a set of wooden false teeth—however, he did have a set of dentures made from real teeth pulled out of the mouths of his black slaves. It is said that he did compensate them for their sacrifice, though—probably not by freeing them, but at least with payments of money. Also, I already knew that Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $10 bill) was shot and killed in a duel with a fellow named Aaron Burr; but I hadn't realized that Mr. Burr was vice president of the United States at the time! The vice president shoots and kills another politician in a duel and doesn't get into any significant trouble for it. Not even a fine, not even a slap on the wrist. Andrew Jackson (the guy on the $20 bill) also shot and killed at least one person while dueling, although it was before he became a famous politician. Times have really changed; nowadays a politician privately shoots somebody in a local forest, and his career is pretty much over. Anyway, enough of early American history. I'm tempted to share a few strange facts about the War of 1812…but I won't.
     One fascinating bit of history I came across a few months ago is that Western civilization essentially collapsed around 1200 BCE; it is known as the Bronze Age Collapse, or the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Some historians declare that it is the greatest calamity in all of ancient history, being much more calamitous than even the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE—and that was one hellaciously calamitous event. I had already heard about some bits of it; for example I had heard of the Dorian invasion of Greece and the so-called Greek Dark Ages, and had read about some Minoans of Crete being driven out by invading Mycenaean Greeks, attempting to conquer northern Egypt, failing, and then eventually settling down south of Israel to become known as the Philistines; but I hadn't realized that practically every urbanized civilization west of the Tigris River essentially crashed—Greece, the Egyptian empire, the Hittite empire, the Assyrian empire, the civilizations on Cyprus and in Canaan, some other little known ones like the kingdom of Ugarit, plus maybe some further west in Europe—all were either destroyed or reduced to a much smaller, more primitive form. And all of this happened around the same time, i.e. 1200 BCE. 

major urban centers destroyed during the Bronze Age Collapse (from Wikipedia)

     One aspect of the end of the Bronze Age that is rather counterintuitive is that it wasn't simply caused by the beginning of the Iron Age. In fact, the beginning of the Iron Age appears to have been a kind of incidental side effect. After civilization collapsed, so did international commerce, causing tin, a key ingredient in bronze, most of which had to be imported from elsewhere, to become very scarce. So people of necessity had to start making iron weapons to kill each other with, which in those days, before the invention of steel and other iron-hardening technologies, were actually inferior to good bronze. 
     But strangely, ironically, although this event is allegedly one of the most important convulsions in all of humankind's history, relatively little is known about it—which may be one reason why most modern people have probably never heard of it. Most of the information is hypothetical, with much of it coming from terse Egyptian inscriptions on monuments and temple walls. In fact, the reasons why civilizations collapse in general is not well understood at all. For example I have read that the number of published theories, and variations on theories, attempting to explain why classical Mayan civilization collapsed in around the 9th century CE is more than eighty. The Mayans stopped building cities, and moved out of the ones already built, and it appears that nobody knows exactly why. A "general systems collapse" may be very complex, with key aspects of it being very difficult to isolate and identify. 
     Even so, there are some fairly probable contributing factors to the Bronze Age Collapse. One factor was very probably a several years- or even decades-long drought which settled onto southern Europe and western Asia around that time, resulting in migrations of large groups of people, consequent invasions, and predation on neighboring societies for survival. It also very probably resulted in poor people becoming so desperate that they attacked the wealthy en masse, which probably was not good for political stability.
     Also, the Collapse was very probably influenced dramatically by the so-called "Sea Peoples," a loose assemblage of pirates and raiders who ran amuck across the eastern Mediterranean area. Virtually all of the cities, towns, and villages near a coastline were plundered and destroyed, and there was an exodus of people away from coastal areas. 
     Strangely and ironically again, the experts are not certain exactly who these Sea Peoples were. Probably some were from Anatolia, and may have included the Trojans and the proto-Etruscans before the latter migrated to Italy. Probably some were Greeks—in fact the story of Homer's Iliad describes events around the time of the Collapse, and mentions the Greeks sacking Anatolian coastal towns for supplies and booty. Probably some were Minoans, whose empire had already been wrecked by various causes, including marauding Greeks. Some scholars even hypothesize that one of the Sea Peoples was the Hebrew tribe of Dan.
     One theory attempting to account for the explosion of raiders and pirates in the eastern Mediterranean, which I happened to read long ago, and which seems to make good sense, but which seems not to be favored by the people who write Wikipedia articles, involves the Minoan civilization, i.e., the pre-Greek civilization of the Aegean Sea. According to the Greek historian Thucydides, King Minos of Crete, a Minoan (the Minoans were named after him), was the first national leader to establish a standing navy. King Minos himself, let alone the Minotaur, may be pure mythology, although Thucydides's story may be based on a prehistoric fact. If so, this first navy presumably not only defended the coasts of the Minoan territories, but policed the shipping lanes also, keeping the eastern Mediterranean relatively free of violent marauders. Sometime around the 15th century BCE, the Minoan civilization became much weakened from a number of causes, not the least of which being the volcanic explosion of the Island of Thera about 100 km from Crete. (This great civilization, a superpower in the region, collapsing after the dramatic explosion of a populated island may very well have been the origin of the legend of Atlantis…although that's a different story.) The newly-arrived Greeks took advantage of this weakened state of Crete and invaded, thereby putting an end to classical Minoan civilization—although basing their own classical civilization largely upon it. Anyway, after the Minoan civilization ceased to exist in any politically significant sense, the navy likewise ceased to police the eastern Mediterranean; and so it became very convenient for Greeks and others to get rich quick by raiding and plundering just about everyplace within reach. The long drought, failed crops, and general desperation, of course, would have added to the whole mess.
     There are other ideas about why civilizations crash which are philosophically more interesting, and which are also much more general, not relying upon pirates or volcanic explosions. For example, urban civilization, with its division and specialization of labor, requires much more energy to keep it going than a more primitive, generalized form of society. One city of 100,000 people requires much more energy to maintain it than, say, 100 villages of 1000 people each. Also, agriculture must become much more intensive to sustain cities. Obviously, when farmers constitute most of the population, they needn't work nearly so hard to feed everyone as when they constitute only five or ten per cent. The more urbanized and specialized, the more difficult to keep the system going; and all it takes is some lousy weather or for the advanced system to become too demanding of resources, and keeping the civilization going may fail, or may simply become obviously no longer worth the effort. 
     Also, as was mentioned earlier, a general systems collapse may be very subtle in its workings, although with very obvious, massive results. Consider the human body, which is also, of course, a very advanced, very complicated system. The chemical reactions in our bodies are regulated by many, many enzymes which are calibrated by Nature to operate at the optimum speed and in the proper way at the normal temperature of a healthy person's body, around 37°C. If a person dies of fever or of heat stroke, or so I was taught many years ago, what happens is that as the various enzymes leave the optimum range of temperatures, they begin altering in their functions in a non-uniform way—that is to say, they start operating at different speeds and with different efficiencies, and stop being intricately calibrated to function in unison. Thus the whole system is thrown out of kilter, and eventually breaks down totally. A highly developed urban civilization may undergo a similar process, under certain circumstances; but the process is not well understood by scientists nowadays. They don't have access to enough collapsing civilizations to conduct a good statistical analysis.
     All this discussion of the collapsing Bronze Age, etc., might barely warrant inclusion on an ostensibly Buddhist blog as a reflection on impermanence. It could be seen as a smaller-scale variation on the post "Events of Mass Extinction," except involving mere civilizations and not species, worlds, or galaxies. All civilizations of the past have eventually come to an end, and it is a safe bet that ours will too. In fact, NASA recently produced a notorious study which arrived at the conclusion, or so I've been informed, that our civilization has already very probably reached the stage of "irreversible collapse." But I don't want to talk about that.
     What really fascinates me is a theory contrived by Julian Jaynes and explored in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which incidentally I've never read. According to him, civilization collapsed around 1200 BCE because Western humankind was undergoing a convulsive change in consciousness, a radical shift in mentality. He says that before that time the people of the West had a more traditional, religious, instinctive mindset which, with the increased complexity, specialization, and artificiality of urban culture, had become very ill-suited to everyday life, resulting in a practically necessary change to a way of thinking that was more objective, rational, and flexible. The failure of the old way of thinking to keep pace with the evolution of society, plus the stumbling first steps of the new way, facilitated the Bronze Age Collapse.  
     Jaynes was apparently an optimist who believed in the superiority of the modern mind, as his theory of how people used to think before the collapse is rather peculiar. According to him, pre-Iron-Age people were almost schizophrenic, being almost totally dissociated from their own thought processes, and thus they considered their own thoughts to be implanted into their minds from the outside, by a god, personal daemon, or semi-divine ancestor. Thus people considered themselves to be essentially puppets of the gods or spirits. Some very ancient works of Western literature, like Homer's Iliad, could be presented as evidence in favor of this theory. Also it might help to explain why traditional polytheistic paganism had so little to offer to the later Greeks and Romans. Jaynes called this old, divided way of mentality "the bicameral mind."
     This theory would totally contradict the past-glorifying ideas of, for instance, René Guénon, and traditional Buddhism too, for that matter—Buddhist texts declaring that we humans are in the midst of a long, cyclical process of de-volution rather than e-volution, with the current dispensation of Buddha-Dharma presumably being a period of temporarily reversed degeneration. 
     On the other hand, the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist wrote a book entitled The Master and His Emissary, which also I haven't read, in which he hypothesizes that a major mental shift did occur, but that it was in essentially the opposite direction of the one proposed in Jaynes's theory. According to McGilchrist the radical, convulsive shift in consciousness was from a more unified, more mystical mind to a more divided one, with the more rational and language-oriented left hemisphere of the brain taking over and dominating the right, reducing it to a kind of more or less passive servant. Personally, I feel more inclined to favor McGilchrist's theory, not having nearly so high an opinion of the modern mentality as Jaynes evidently had. In any case, it is fascinating that a transitional upheaval in human consciousness may have resulted in events of very major historical importance, possibly even in a transformational, cathartic crash of Western civilization, followed by a centuries-long Dark Age.
     It may be that this sort of mass shift in consciousness, resulting in a societal collapse, a dark age, and an eventual different stage of civilization, has happened more than once. For instance, it may have been a major factor in the advent of Christianity as a world religion, and in the collapse of the Roman Empire, resulting in several centuries of barbarism and cultural "dark age." 
     Jesus of Nazareth evidently believed himself to be ushering in a radically spiritually-oriented New Age, the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom apparently didn't happen as he expected; yet it may be that the advent of Christianity in the West did initiate a new phase in Western consciousness. While reading literature about ancient times I have sometimes been struck by the cold ruthlessness of ancient people in general. Achilles of Trojan War fame, to give just one example, was considered a very great hero, a demigod even, but if a modern person reads the Iliad he or she sees clearly that the man was a colossal, towering ass, totally ruthless and selfish. If classical pagan philosophers advocated justice and mercy, they did so mainly out of a head-oriented sense of principle. I hypothesize that the conversion of the West to Christianity was the first major stirring of universal compassion in the consciousness of Western civilization, in Yogic terminology, the first activation of the heart chakra. It certainly may not seem like much now, and certainly hasn't come near to full flower even after 2000 years, but it may have been a major enough shift in consciousness to add to the disorientation and instability of the late Empire, and to have hastened its collapse. Edward Gibbon, an 18th century historian who semi-secretly despised Christianity, didn't hesitate to place part of the blame for the collapse of Rome on the heads of the Christians. A century later, blaming Christianity for the collapse of civilization had become politically incorrect and had fallen out of favor among English-speaking academics. I'm not sure how matters stand nowadays, but I wouldn't be surprised if scholarly intellectuals have started blaming early Christianity again, as being one of the contributing causes of the general systems collapse. 
     So, it could happen again. A convulsive shift of consciousness, a lurch into a higher stage of evolution, could come upon us at just about any time. After all—let's face it—we as a race are nowhere near to being fully civilized. We still kill fellow conscious beings, and eat their flesh, and wear their skins (especially on our feet). We still support wars, which are essentially mass murder. We are entertained by watching people kill each other in movies, often close up, in slow motion, with lots of splatter. We still consider our own uncovered bodies to be indecent, if not obscene. We, in America at least, tell our children not to lie, and then feed them a cock and bull story about a 4th century Christian saint from Asia Minor who somehow is still alive, who has moved to the north pole with some supernatural beings from Germanic folklore and some levitating caribou, and who flies around the earth one night per year, climbing down chimneys and depositing plastic toys. We think that we shouldn't share much with others until our greed for "enough" becomes satisfied, yet our greed is insatiable, and we never have enough. We know that our society's manner of existence is wrecking the world's biosphere, yet we refuse to do very much to rectify the situation, out of inertia and a stubborn unwillingness to be inconvenienced. And that's setting aside all the spiritual poverty, even among "religious" people. It may be that a collapse of civilization triggered more by other factors will in turn trigger the appropriate shift in consciousness, rather than the shift triggering the collapse.
     Yet many, especially people who are successful by modern standards, will oppose any major shift in consciousness, for the better or for not. When the Roman emperor Majorian, probably the last really worthy emperor of Rome, strove desperately to prevent the inevitable fall of the nation, his attempts at reform were bitterly hated and vehemently resisted by wealthy and powerful patricians, who resented any decrease in their wealth and privileges. Majorian's efforts were blocked again and again, and he was eventually assassinated. There are plenty of powerful patricians nowadays too, and their desire to maintain the status quo in their favor will probably just hasten and exacerbate the inevitable turmoil. 
     So some sort of major shift in consciousness will very likely happen again, and some major upheaval is pretty much inevitable, and it will probably be accompanied by desperate resistance from the patricians and other worldly-minded conservatives. Yet the calamitous nature of the shift, and even of the upheaval, is really not necessary. For example, the transition from medieval thinking to modern was more or less of a smooth one, admittedly with a calamitous pandemic of bubonic plague to help get it started, plus some persecutions involving the new Protestants, plus plenty of nasty wars. But there have always been plenty of nasty wars.
     Possibly, assuming that McGilchrist was right, and that Jaynes was right about the consciousness shift but wrong about its direction, the next stage in our civilization's spiritual evolution may involve a reunion of the "bicameral mind"—developed rationality and intuitive empathy combined, head and heart, hopefully with some inspired spirituality pervading it. That would be lovely, since the alienation, artificiality, and lukewarmness of modern life are leading us toward a precipice or a wall, which began around the time of the abort of the first attempt at the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe the next attempt will result in something more like what Jesus had in mind. Anyway, a shift is due. Whether it is gradual or sudden, whether it is part of a renaissance or a cataclysm, whether it is voluntary or painfully thrust upon us, is up to us.

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