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Whither civilisation? The threat to social order and what we can do (Book Review)

09 May 2017
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Business Standard

Title: The Decline of Civilisation; Author: Ramin Jahanbegloo; Publisher: Aleph Book Company; Pages: 176; Price: Rs 399

Is the rise of extremist and exclusivist ideologies, which assess the world by inflexible dogma, seem inclined to conflict over dialogue and monologue over conversation and loathe diversity and dissent, only a threat to the course of global civilisation or is already eroding its very concept? And is there a way to deal with it - at all?

This are questions whose significance is evident to anybody concerned with attempts by political leaders across the world to ascribe problems to 'outsiders', set up walls (actual and figurative) not only on borders but within their own societies and seek unflagging conformity.

It is this vital issue that philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo addresses in the book, endeavouring to ascertain when and why civilisation, an attribute of humanity for five thousand years now, went off course, what is at stake and most importantly, how it can be salvaged (a clue is provided in the sub-title).

But before that, he seeks to analyse, or rather disentangle and even refashion its very concept.

For as renowned scholar Romila Thapar notes in her foreword, where she also gives an overview of attempts to conceptualise and define civilisation (as well what it leaves out), dealing with the present condition of "violence, terror and antagonism" will "need a new understanding" of civilisation and its notions.

Jahanbegloo, presently Executive Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University, identifies his principal question as whether the uncertain, unstable and rather unpromising time is "really the end of what by understood by civilisation for more that fifty centuries and the advent of a decivilising process?"

Decivilising, he explains, doesn't imply that our time is barbaric or that we have entered a new Dark Age but that we have, though living in a civilised society, are not necessarily civilised. This is, he argues, since we have abandoned a basic tenet of civilisation - our inter-personal and inter-cultural relationships due to a rising trend of emotional alienation.

This is despite the presence of globalisation which is actually a "form of fake universalisation".

Jahanbegloo, who also cites current level of political consciousness as another feature, then goes on to define what is civilisation, beginning with an insight from the great Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, and butressing it with up several leading German philosophers starting from Kant and Hegel down to Walter Benjamin.

And there are many more - and varied - examiners of the human condition in the pages ahead, from Socrates to Freud, from Aristotle to Ashis Nandy, and from Rousseau to Camus, as he goes on to tackle the binary construct of civilised/barbarian, the civilising zeal, how we became 'decivilised' and what can be done.

The range of authorities that Jahanbegloo cites is a strength of this book - but also a weakness, insofar as their thoughts, quoted verbatim, may take the book beyond the capability of the contemporary lay reader. For it is this section of readership who could profit most from these pocket-size series dealing with burning topics of the moment, including nationalism, black money and the death penalty.

However, Jahanbegloo is spot on when he raises two personal features/reasons of this 'decivilising' trend, and the contest over the past that we will well recognise and some other vital points.

He also goes on to suggest a way out of this deepening malaise from the teachings of two of the foremost Indians of the 20th century - the Mahatma and the Gurudev.

It may be a moot point how far their prescriptions are valid, especially the Mahatma's emphasis on spiritual advancement, in this day and age, but it cannot be denied that both of them had recognised the problem well before it acquired its dire proportions and sought to suggest palliative measures.

But ultimately, as he shows us, it is on us - individually and personally - to lead each other out of this morass.