Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Return of the Barbarian

Excerpt from the article by 'VENKAT' on Ribbonfarm:

The Barbarians and the Civilized

The most famous lower and higher barbarians in history are Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan respectively. They represent the classic historical pattern of interaction between pastoral nomads and civilized peoples.

The pattern is a simple one: a settled civilization grows old, stupid and tired, and a vigorous barbarian culture swoops in and takes over from the top, and gradually gets civilized and stupid in turn, until it too is ripe for destruction by pastoral nomads on its periphery.

Modern Europeans since the time of Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) have managed to rejoice in a rather contradictory view of themselves: they celebrate their dual origins in the vigorous barbarian cultures of the North and the exhausted cultures of antiquity. Over the protests of modern Italians and Greeks, Northern Europeans have successfully managed to appropriate for themselves the role of “true” stewards of the achievements of Greece and Rome, cultures that their barbarian forbears were instrumental in destroying (if you want to know which origin myth is closer to the hearts of Europeans, look no further than the tattoos of white gangs in prisons: they tend to be drawn from Scandinavian mythologies).

Here’s a rather suggestive piece of European history that illustrates the barbarian/civilized dynamic. In the traditional account of the “civilization of Europe,” wine played an interesting role. The Gauls (so the story goes, according to Gibbon) became Romanized first, as Roman wine-making techniques spread to what is today modern France. The Goths were interested in many of the luxuries of Rome, but the one that tempted them the most was wine, which they grew to prefer over the cruder spirits they themselves distilled.

I don’t want to hang my entire theory of civilization on this little item, but it is interesting that the barbarians were civilized, in part, through the temptations of an addiction: better booze, the refined product of an agrarian accumulation culture.

Enough examples, let’s note the two interesting questions that emerge, that deserve analysis:
First, how is it that apparently “inferior” cultures have repeatedly swooped in and destroyed and/or taken over “superior” cultures? Why was Genghis Khan able to take over China, and how did his grandson successfully create the Yuan dynasty? How did Arab armies conquer the vastly more civilized and sophisticated Persian society? How did Turks pretty much take over most of South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa? Going further back, how did the Proto Indo-European (or “Aryans”) take down the entire Bronze Age family of civilizations?

Second, given the astounding win record of the “barbarians” against the “civilized,” how come history isn’t written from the point of view of the pastoral nomads? Why aren’t the histories of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon, Persia, India and China sideshows, with pride of place being given to Mongols, Turks, Arabs and Northern Europeans (pre 1000 AD)? Isn’t history supposed to be written by the winners?

Refinement and Stupidity

Here’s the answer to the first question: “barbarians” are on average, individually smarter, but collectively stupider than a thriving settled civilization.

One-on-one, a lower barbarian can outthink, outfight, and out-innovate a civilized citizen any day.

But a settled civilization at its peak can blow a lower barbarian civilization away. Not least because at the very top, you still have Veblen’s “uncivilized” higher barbarians (or, to use the Ribbonfarm term, sociopaths). But once it begins its decline, the greater live intelligence of the barbarians begins to take effect.

The explanation for this contradiction is a very simple one: by definition, civilization is the process of taking intelligence out of human minds and putting it into institutions. And by “institution” I mean something completely general: any codified organizational form based on writing will do. Writing, as Plato noted in Phaedrus, is the main medium through which intelligence passes from humans to institutions.

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