Civilization: For better or worse

Since long before the period of recorded history, human beings have had to cope with the demands of civilization in its countless incarnations. Interpretations of the effect of civilization on the human condition have been wide and varied: some suppose that pre-civilized humans were subject to a perpetual state of warfare, in conflict with both nature and the members of their own species, and hold civilization up as humanity's liberator from this state of suffering; others suspect that before the emergence of civilization, humans enjoyed much greater leisure time and a more egalitarian social order, and that it was only by civilization's corrupting influence that we submitted to enduring the superfluous toil and oppression that characterize modern life. Though it might never be completely clear whether we lived a more joyous or precarious existence before its advent,  we can be sure that as long as humans continue to exist on this planet, civilization is here to stay. Its dawning brought forth many questions about topics such as the individual's obligation to the collective, the materialization of systemic socioeconomic hierarchies, the ecological impact of accelerating technological advancement, and the feasibility, or even the desirability, of domesticating humans; questions which are still being asked to this day and, just like those regarding the state of primitive man, may never be adequately answered. This exhibit makes no attempt at answering these questions, but instead places them into a chronological framework alongside just a tiny portion of the products of creative accomplishment -- humanity's art, music, and literature -- which comprise civilization's cultural legacy.

With the evolution of a higher intellect and a propensity for cooperation, as well as the development of agriculture, human civilization was born. From that time to the present day, humanity has had to grapple with the conflict between our desire for complete personal autonomy and the dictates of our social configurations, and the repression of instinct they demand from us.
“...it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct....” -Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents Freed from the constant struggle for sustenance, the demand for a migratory existence, and the deadly caprices of nature untamed, human beings finally found time to contemplate their nature and their relationship to the natural world. Sure, planting ourselves down and living off the soil had made life easier, but what were we forfeiting in the exchange? Furthermore, could the more bestial aspects of uncivilized man ever be truly repressed?
“The moral man does something, and when no one responds he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.” -Lao Tzu, Daodejing The rise of the state marked a new epoch for civilized man, and with it, new questions regarding the role of the individual in society. Thomas Hobbes placed the origin of the state in primitive man's desire to transcend the chaos of the “war of all against all;” Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought it to be the result of a need for a coercive force to maintain the unequal distribution of power and wealth that arose from the formation of the concept of property; still others had different theories. Regardless of its origin, the creation of the state surely complicated the relationship between the individual and the collective, and raised new concerns about the extent to which one's agency can or should be subordinate to the will of others.
“Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.” -Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents Though humans have produced creatively long before the dawn of civilization, we began to create art with much greater frequency after the foundations of the modern world were laid. Art gives us a means to develop our individual potential and affinities, to codify the conclusions we reach in our search for meaning, and to extol or critique the reality of our existence. When engaging with the latter course, some artists have worked within the genre of satire, in order to give life to their condemnations of ideas, states, or civilization itself, in ironic form.
“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” -Voltaire, Candide The period known as the Enlightenment placed the conflicts of interest generated by civilization and its manifest institutions on center stage. During this time, socioeconomic structures, the role of the individual vs. society, and the very foundations of civilization were being challenged with unprecedented impunity, leading to one of many periods of revolutionary fervor that would alter the course of history and redraw the lines of the map. One idea that grew out of this era was the theory of natural rights, which posits that some rights are universal and inalienable, and not contingent on the existence of states, autocrats, or even civilization itself.
“He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone.” -Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis The Industrial Revolution fortified the pertinence of the ideas born out of the Enlightenment by presenting new challenges to personal sovereignty and the collective welfare. The assault on human dignity in the factories of western Europe and elsewhere gave those who experienced it new fears regarding their place in the socioeconomic hierarchy and the imposition of the civilized world on their health and happiness. Was this the destination to which the march of civilization had been advancing: the greater portion of humanity, once free and untamed, reduced over successive ages of technological advancement to cogs in an industrial machine?
You were raised by creatures with tails, and by the animals of the wilderness, with all its breadth. The paths going up to and down from the forest of cedars all mourn you: the weeping does not end day or night. -The Epic of Gilgamesh Today, we are set to experience the backlash of humanity's subjugation of the natural world and its resources. While working conditions have more or less improved since the time of the Industrial Revolution (though they have deteriorated or remain unchanged in many cases), the ecological consequences of our careless exploitation and pollution, as well as our modern economic system's insistence on constant, unbridled growth, are beginning to be felt, and may lead to environmental calamities on a scale never before witnessed. It has yet to be seen whether we will respond to the state of our ailing planet, or if civilization will be revealed to have been a failed experiment.
It is tough to say whether civilization has been a blessing or a curse for humanity, and it is even tougher to guess what legacy civilization, from its genesis to the present day, will leave to future lifeforms on this planet. As human beings, we have a tendency for conceiving ourselves separate from the planet which bore us and as masters of our own destinies, but this pretense has gotten us in trouble in the past and seems to have been exacerbated in the modern era. It is clear that by renouncing our position in nature we have been able to accomplish feats that would be incomprehensible to our primitive selves, but at the cost of relinquishing forever much of what defines every other living organism on the planet. Only time will tell whether or not the trade-off was worth it.
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