Great Works of Western Tradition: The Treatment of Time and History Essay
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Not a few of the greatest works in the Western tradition tackle the evolution of humanity and of civilization throughout the ages. The question of the evolution of civilization is all the more difficult since it seems to be tortuous rather than linear and progressive. As it shall be seen, thinkers from very different times have pictured civilization in different ways, emphasizing either its wondrous development or its blatant imperfections. Thomas More, Voltaire and Sigmund Freud belong to very different ages of human civilization and have held very different opinions about history and the evolution or involution of man.
As it shall be seen however, the major theme in all of the works under discussion is the evolution of man and society throughout the course of time. Moreover, in Utopia, Candide and Civilization and its Discontents the development of civilization is questioned and the achievements of humanity doubted. Despite the fact that the come from different turning points in human history, which had seen a prodigious advance of culture and understanding of the world, the three authors argue that the human civilization is very far from its ideal state.
Thomas More’s Utopia is an imaginary project of the perfect human society which resembles Plato’s Republic. As a representative of Renaissance, More is a humanist and a socialist, who criticizes the state of thing in his native England. The work is therefore, in many ways an inverse mirror of his contemporary society. More openly addresses the precarious society and the politics in England and at the same time creates a reverse counterpart for these on the island of Utopia. The most salient target of the scholar’s criticism is the specific form of government characteristic for his society: feudalism.
In his imaginary world, everyone is equal and no one is poor or in need, since everything is distributed justly: “In Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties. ”(More 86) According to More, money and possessions in general are the key of civilization as he saw it.
As such, he attacks his contemporary society at its very roots, by advocating a society in which everyone would be equal and in which money would hold no importance. As he saw it, the human world was moved and impulse by inequalities and disproportion in possessions: “And who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are indeed rather punished than restrained by the severities of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world?
”(More 87) Another important aspect that More notes is that, all the crimes and misfortunes arising from the pecuniary problems are punished rather than restrained by law. This aspect of the human society has remained true even today, since money is still a key element in the world and since the law is only designed to help maintain a relative order. Thus, More sees the state of civilization during Renaissance as very precarious, since the character of people and their morality is continuously undermined by the inequality regarding the distribution of possessions.
Expressing truly revolutionary ideas for his age, More perceives that the nature of the government in his own time is nothing more than a “conspiracy of the rich” to monopolize the goods and to hold sway over the rest of the population, under the pretense of administering the public affairs: “Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out.
”(More 157) More’s intuition about the workings of politics and economics in his own society is therefore incredibly accurate. Utopia is moreover a complete society, having all the institution of the modern world, including politics, religion, science, culture and family. More fundamentally remodels the social order of his time, designing an ideal community marked by simplicity. For instance, the political system is democratic, in the sense that we understand it today, with all of the members of society participating in the elections:
“Once a year every group of thirty households elects an administrator, who used to be known as a syphogrant, but in modern times has been called a phylarch. There is another administrator in charge of every group of ten syphogrants with their households. He used to be called a tranibor, and is now called a senior phylarch. All the syphogrants–there are two hundred of them–elect the chief executive. ”( More 96) The family is an important cell of this society which hints at the principles of brotherhood that should dominate and regulate the world.
The society has very few laws, moreover, which emphasizes More’s views of the contemporary justice system. According to him therefore, the human society is inevitably based on complex and marginal laws, which strive to punish delinquency but which do not manage to restrain it. Furthermore, science and the arts are made accessible to the large public and not limited to a privileged category. More obviously points out to another essential feature of socialism which stipulates the intellectual equality of all people.
This also pinpoints the fact that, in More’s view, the financial inequality of people is the key factor causing inequality in all other respects. It should be noted that More constructed his utopian world primarily as a satire for his contemporary society. He did not believe himself in the ideal society he proposed, simply because the project came considerably before its time and before there would be the necessary conditions to establish it. His main contention therefore is that the human civilization of the Renaissance England was a corrupted and dysfunctional system that revolved around the possessions and interests.
All the institutions, the government, the law, the economy, politics and even the arts and sciences suffered from this corruption as they were based on inequality between people. More’s view is all the more revolutionary since the world of Renaissance believed in order and in the chain of things. This scale or hierarchy of things obviously applied to the human society as well, where the king was the highest link in the chain, being set there by divine will. In this context, More’s encouragement of equality is all the more mystifying.
As it shall be seen, almost three centuries later, Voltaire published a satire that attacks the myth of human civilization and points out its main weaknesses. As More belongs to the Renaissance, Voltaire belongs to another period of cultural revolution and advancement, the Enlightenment. More so than the Renaissance that had established the faith in man and in his powers, the Enlightenment brought incredible evidence of man’s reasoning capacities and his ability for controlling nature and the universe and making these work in his own favor.
As More before him, Voltaire satirically attacks the very roots of his contemporary society. His Candide can be easily considered one of the most potent philosophical satires of all times, as it is directed not to a particular aspect of the world but to the world as a whole and to the entire human race. What Voltaire mocks is not so much the state in which the world and humanity are in, but the inveterate optimism that characterized the Age of Reason.
The values and creeds of the Enlightenment philosophers are demolished one by one in Voltaire’s work: the famous statement maintained by Leibniz and Rousseau that our world is “the best of all possible worlds”, the belief that the universe is in a state of unshakable harmony that only gives the impression of chaos, the general optimism that regarded even the dreariest events in the world as good, the faith in the human reason and the free will of man and many other similar optimist opinions.
Voltaire makes the eponymous character of his work, Candide (who is, not by accident and as his name indicates, incredibly naive and simple) experience, through his journeys and adventures, the entire range of human sufferance: wars, natural disasters, maladies, slavery, religious persecution, rape and so on. In his way, Candide experiences all there is to experience and meets with all the evil in the world. His gullible nature disposes him to believe the more comfortable theory, which is that of his master Pangloss.
Pangloss is thus the prototype of the Enlightenment thinker, the professed optimist who believes in the absolute perfection of the world. Despite of the disasters he meets with and despite of the evil nature of the men he encounters, Pangloss remains a stubborn optimist, an advocator of the perfect harmony of the universe: “Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and my lady the best of all possible baronesses.
” (Voltaire 27) As More before him, Voltaire ironically notes here the way in which the belief in the perfection of the world is used by some to justify their own rights. The eulogy of the baron and baroness, who are obviously far from moral rectitude and nobleness, is a hint to the way in which people of rank had to be treated as great men despite the fact that in truth they were full of imperfections. Another bitter allusion is the image of war as one of the most absurd evils haunting the human society.
This is one of the most terrifying proof that man has not reached yet the state of absolute civilization, and that he is still a savage: “Never was anything so gallant, so well accoutred, so brilliant, and so finely disposed as the two armies. The trumpets, fifes, hautboys, drums, and cannon made such harmony as never was heard in hell itself. The entertainment began by a discharge of cannon, which, in the twinkling of an eye, laid flat about 6,000 men on each side.
The musket bullets swept away, out of the best of all possible worlds, nine or ten thousand scoundrels that infested its surface. “(Voltaire 9) In extremely light tones, Voltaire describes the carnage and absurdity specific to war, hinting that such a disaster would be sufficient to recognize the world and the state of civilization for what it is. Instead of the ordered, harmonious world that some of the greatest philosophers and scientists of the time discerned, Voltaire points to the actual state of humanity as he saw it.
Discoveries were indeed being made, but man was far from living in an ideal and balanced universe. There are some obvious similarities between More’s and Voltaire’s satires therefore. More imagined an ideal society which would be the reverse of his contemporary world and Voltaire imagined a story of a naive character who is confronted with all the ills and evils of humanity and civilization. Both of the authors therefore imply that the human evolution is not as significant as it is believed.
The beginning of the twentieth century, with the dawn of modernism saw equally great changes in all the aspects of human existence. Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents makes a potent critique of civilization as a web of negative impositions on the modern man. Freud puts forth that civilization can only become workable through an economical principle similar to that employed by the politics of a state: it restrains man’s instinctual force in order to concentrate his energy on the exploitation of its intellectual resources.
Thus, while the two other authors under investigation proposed that the world was largely primitive at its core, despite the advancement of civilization, Freud points out the opposite. He elaborates on the benefits and incredible progress made by human civilization, all the same criticizing its prospects which have restrained the instinctual nature of man: “This contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.
”(Freud 33) In Freud’s view, as revolutionary for his time as the other two authors’ perspective during their own, it is the basic requirement of civilization which has become pernicious for man. Thus, civilization demands a repression of instinct in man, in favor of intellectual achievement: “No feature […] seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities–his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements-and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life.
”(Freud 41) According to Freud, it is the very nature of civilization which causes man to become more and more frustrated out of his natural freedom and lack of restraint: “Civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means) of powerful instincts. ”(Freud 44) The efforts and results of science and technology as they are perceived in modern times are indubitable. Man has strived to protect himself from nature thus becoming more and more alienated from it.
Civilization is in many ways synonymous with comfort, but, in Freud’s view it is and will always be contrary to man’s happiness: “Is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed?
” (Freud 35) As Freud pertinently remarks, people usually think of the advanced state of civilization in terms of victories over nature, such as the invention of soap for instance: “Indeed, we are not surprised by the idea of setting up the use of soap as an actual yardstick of civilization. The same is true of order. It, like cleanliness, applies solely to the works of man. But whereas cleanliness is not to be expected in nature, order, on the contrary, has been imitated from her. ”(Freud 40) Also, people tend to think of the previous ages as uncivilized in terms of cleanliness, order and comfort mainly.
In Freud’s opinion however, these victories are as many frustration for the ego, who has definitively lost his liberty. He argues that civilization comes into harsh conflict with the human ego, since the ego’s instinctual nature cannot be ‘corrected’ by culture but only repressed or silenced. As many aspects of human behavior prove it, instincts only lie dormant inside the psyche and can be awaken at any time. Civilization comes with its impositions and claims, attempting to subdue the subconscious and promote only the sublimated characteristics of the mind.
Therefore, being denied the attainment of the pleasure principle, men have to content themselves with exchanging it for the milder ‘reality principle’ which will only safeguard them from extreme sufferance. While More and Voltaire have endeavored to show that civilization is far from reaching its perfection, Freud points out the essential conflict there will always be between civilization and man in his natural state. Basically however, all the authors observe the degradation of humanity, despite the efforts of civilization.
In modern times, as Freud notes, the primitive forms of violence have been subdued for the greatest part; however violence has only changed its form and not its nature. The same applies to the majority of the aspects of civilization today. Therefore, the fundamental ideas of the three authors selected have a common center. While the advancement of civilization seems to be undeniable at each of the turning points in history, Renaissance, Enlightenment and then Modernism, civilization seems to have evolved superficially without the possibility of reaching an ideal state.
Man builds up an artificial civilization which comes in conflict with the natural world and therefore it is far from being balanced. Thomas More, Voltaire and Sigmund Freud all note that, from various stances, we still do not have the right formula for civilization. ? Works Cited: Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961. More, Thomas. Utopia. Trans. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1999. Voltaire. Candide. New York: Modern Library, 1918.