The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

I did manage to get to the Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center and enjoyed it quite a lot. It was very well done as most of those exhibits are and I managed to learn a few new things which is always fun. I compare those experiences always to the museums of The British Museum of London and the Louvre in Paris as kind of e benchmark of excellence. While the Cincinnati Museum is not as large as those in other cities, the quality is every bit as good, if not much higher, especially after the 2 and a half years restoration project of Union Terminal that was just completed. Aside from the great museum in Cairo the British Museum and the Louvre have excellent sections on just Egypt so that is the standard I measure everything against. And with that in mind I spent a few hours going through it with my two daughters and we had a great time. I’d recommend it to anyone, even those casually interested.

I’m not particularly impressed with Egyptian culture, but we cannot ignore them, they had a culture that lasted over eight thousand years and three of those were in a high city-state existence with very complicated social structures, so they were obviously doing something correctly. But I can’t help but see the pattern in their society whether it be the Indus Valley, the various dynasties in China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Romans, the English, all societies go through their own version of the Vico Cycle and end up surprisingly thriving one moment in geological time, then abandoned and back to being hunters and gathers. It is certainly my proposal that is precisely what happened in North America once the Europeans started officially settling in the “New World.” By the time Christopher Columbus landed likely the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Celts, the Chinese and who knows whoever else had risen and fallen many times over and what was left were the basics of human experience in the form of hunters and gathers. The Indians as they were called were not a sophisticated human development, but a failed one that was clinging to their pasts through oral tradition, but in reality, they were back to the mud huts of their antiquity. We could look at the living conditions of the outskirts of modern-day Chicago and declare we are headed presently in the same direction.

And the cause of it all was quite clear painted on a wall at the Egypt exhibit for which I took the picture shown here, of the pyramid style cultural model that many of us so much understand subconsciously. The idea of a king/god at the top and a bunch of worker bees at the bottom which support all that is above them. I would contend that while it is true that such a structure allowed societies to maintain themselves for many years, from thousands of years such as the Egyptians experienced to just a few hundred as was the case of the English. The advantage of the west was that there was a structure which the Orientals often copied through trade that provided sustenance in organized city states, but at a cost to individual rights. While most societies knocked on the door to the concept of individual rights, they often missed the mark until the idea for a new model came about under the American invention where there wasn’t supposed to be a god like king or a society of servants who knew their place in the scheme of things and were happy to contend themselves to it.

Looking at that same pyramid model of society from the American point of view would result in totally different outcomes. In America an individual can marry or work at any level they desire. The printing press took away the power of the High Priests of previous cultures and put the power of knowledge in the hands of individuals and the ability to have gun ownership took away the need of the state to defend the individual. Those two inventions of thought destroyed the typical power structure of all previous societies and started something new. Unfortunately, it goes against thousands and thousands of years of human programing. We may have invented a new form of social structure, but our innate habits have not yet adapted them to reality. We still hear daily in politics that we are all supposed to be “middle class” citizens and that we need the guidance of the “upper class” to guide us through our lives from birth to death. That is after all the very structure accepted in modern-day Washington D.C. The great tragedy from those who support that structure is that Donald Trump is the evidence that anybody can rise to the top. The premise of the college scandals we are hearing about in the news presently is the fall from grace that the “uppers” can’t just buy their way into society, that merit is the way its supposed to be in America. There are many who are struggling with the very concept of individual growth as opposed to tiered structures such as the Egyptians had.

I would offer that the reason that the Egyptians did last so long, just as Europe has under Roman Catholicism was that they managed to hold their societies together through superstition and mere belief due to the fact that most of their lower class people were stupid—that they couldn’t read or obtain information for themselves, nor could they defend any property they acquired. They needed the power of the state to do that. And in the vacuum of those long periods of state development great attributes such as roads and plumbing became standard, as did the arts of thought, writing, performing, and oral traditions which preserved their emerging society in a way that could be studied later, and was beneficial. But also was the evolution to the individual, the divorce from group think into the realization of individualized power, for which America became. Often when societies have arrived at this juncture in the past, they fell apart, and did not keep it together long enough to last. Without other nations to conquer and the fear of the gods coming to destroy everyone if they didn’t sacrifice their family cat, advanced societies just didn’t know what the aim of life was but to defend it from the possibility of death, and that kept their societies at least focused on their own societal self-preservation.

But it’s always a short-lived gain. The real mark of a proper society is how well it taps into the individual characteristics of its people and although Europe for the most part was quite ominous in its king state behaviors, which were direct descendents of the Egyptians and many others who came before, the society of western civilization itself did give rise to the power of the individual, of the ability to marry whom one wanted and to pursue a career of their own making. This was a major transition of thought that many struggle with even today. But it is the superior guidepost of an advanced society. While the Egyptians had done many things correctly in their thousands of years of reign on planet earth, they missed the mark on the key to all human endeavor, the right of the individual to function from its own bliss. They were knocking on the door especially with their concepts of arriving into their own deaths, but the higher concept was that heaven was always here on earth and it only took their own minds to see it. We should admire what the Egyptians were able to achieve over an eight-thousand-year period, but more than that we should then conclude what America has achieved in just over 200 years. And it is that perspective which we should all carry into the future. Because that is the one that counts the most—achievement. Not where we reside on a ladder of perceptive power.

Rich Hoffman

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