A Thought Adventure

Monday, November 9, 2015

18. The Village as Blueprint of Civilization

Whereas agriculture makes a complete break with the hunting-gathering economy, the city’s economy is based on the same kind of agricultural output as the village; (city = the concentration of people within a small area that leads to occupational specialization, improved skills and tools and large-scale organization of work, e.g., for irrigation.) This speaks for a similarity in life-styles between city and village, and indicates that the gulf between the nomadic and the settled societies is due to their sharply diverging means of livelihood.

Mumford, who thinks the passage from village to urban culture took thousands of years, assumes that the preconditions for the city‘s complex social cooperation (surplus food and manpower, forethought and moral discipline) slowly unfold in the village. To him, civilization (from Latin civis, citizen)--a state of social culture generally defined by city living, a centralized government and written language--is as inconceivable without the thinking patterns of the village as it is without its economic accomplishment.

The question, then, is: what took place in the farming village, the social stage that lies between the nomadic stage and civilization? I postulate some kind of coercive social order already at that stage because when we first come across civilization, in the city states of Mesopotamia, or Sumer, such a rule is firmly in place: dictatorship, social stratification, including slavery, and continual strife and war between the states. According to Mumford, exerting power in every form was the essence of civilization: "the city found a score of ways of expressing struggle, aggression, domination, conquest--and servitude."  Our hunting and gathering forebears, by contrast, have relatively little social differentiation and specialization and no warfare.

Sumer has been extraordinarily influential in all Near Eastern cultures. When conquered by the Semitic Amorites-Babylonians (who in turn strongly influence their neighbors), its civilization is taken over lock, stock and barrel; religion, mythology, literature and educational system are almost identical. There are also striking parallels between Sumerian literature and that groundwork of Western civilization: the Bible.

In all the major early civilizations there exists a principle, absolute order, or law (everywhere represented as female). In Sumer it’s called me, in Egypt maat, in India dharma, in China tao and in Greece moira. Described as irreversible and based on an eternal truth, this law consists of a set of rules governing every detail of life. The citizens must do labor for the élite and their families, give a daily sacrifice of food and wine to the gods in the temple and attend monthly celebrations, most importantly, the New Year festival culminating in the sacred marriage ceremony.

The priesthood has a monopoly on knowledge and creative thinking; bureaucracy, court of law, observatory, school and library are all run by the priests. The view of man’s fate is tragic: he’s created only to follow the orders of his gods. It’s always he, not the gods, who is to blame, which makes submissiveness the greatest virtue. In  Hammurabi’s law code from c 1700 BCE Mumford finds a sadistic punishment similar to that of modern totalitarian states--an endless list of trivial offenses punishable by death (on the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth).

The patriarchal city-state worships a mother goddess said to have once been of higher rank than the other deities (each household also has its own domestic gods). An often encountered image on the cylinder seals of Mesopotamia (which contain many of the basic motifs of early mythology) is the ritual marriage between the god and the goddess who have become incarnate in the king and queen. (see the picture on post 12.) Writes sumerologist Samuel N. Kramer in The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character, “The origin and evolution of this remarkable fusion of myth and ritual, of cult and credo, are obscure.”

I propose that, in an embryonic form, the village already contains the oppressive institutions typical of civilization. The kingship starts out as queenship and the office of priest as that of priestess, the village queen represents a kind of universal law, just as later the Sumerian king represents me. And out of it develops the social organization of the village, i.e., its government, religion, administration, education.

The city-state’s autocratic government, then, backed up by a powerful priesthood and a confining religious dogma, is a logical, though slow and gradual, male extension of customs that arise in a community serving female interests. The mentality of the village is essentially the same as that of the city, and the differences between them quantitative, not qualitative, more a matter of degree than of kind.

Before going deeper into my reasons for seeing the original farming village as a catalyst for the male inferiority complex--and hence for misogyny--I will now discuss consciousness, the evolutionary phenomenon that makes possible the remarkable development of our species. See next post.

Mesopotamian city-state
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