In this time of culture wars dividing societies around the planet, like those within Pakistan or within the USA, maybe it’s good to step back and glance over the state of civilization as we know it. It’s a generally divided, polarized state, with clashing sentiments that seem too deep for rational discussion. But those sentiments probably come from somewhere, as responses to actual experiences, and they probably serve certain interests. By taking a long view of our story, I suspect we can make out what experiences and interests those are. Here’s my rapid fire attempt to do so.
First, I should mention that I’m greatly impressed by whoever first tamed a water buffalo. Because buffaloes are big, dangerous animals, and in some parts of the world humans and buffaloes are still deadly enemies. But somehow certain villagers in ancient Asia managed to build trust and cooperation with wild buffaloes, so that the buffaloes would sleep in the village courtyards, let the kids ride them, help plow the fields, and let themselves be milked. When I showed pictures of such buffaloes to people in Kenya, they said it must be trick photography. And the real trick must have taken incredible open-mindedness toward the possibilities for better relations with other creatures.
Before civilization as we know it, it seems like nothing was set in stone. People learned by trial and error how to better nurture plants, animals, and children, and maybe they had fun doing it. The most important inventions of all time, from building houses to growing gardens or making written symbols, rose from a flow of banter among primitive tribals. In China, such foundational inventions were later credited to a series of primordial emperors. Supposedly, these great patriarchs came and told the ignorant villagers what to do. Of course most archaeologists now agree that the real inventors were large numbers of ordinary village men and women. Life in those days was probably hard, and people didn’t live long lives. But the ancient folk legends say that people were happy in the age before military empires.
Our Real Great Depression
Then came civilization as we know it, which many ancient villagers described as a serious downfall. Why? Maybe because there really was a time before warlords or man-made famines. And starting around 4000 BC, we have record of two serious problems that seemed to rise together. One was a downturn in the environment, with arid conditions and major loss of forests over much of the Old World. And then as conditions of life got harder, we also had a rise of warlord rulers, seeking to monopolize scarce resources. We started to see palaces and monumental tombs for big men, armies, slaves, and harems of women. As Riane Eisler would put it, the free partnership between primitive people increasingly gave way to relations of force-backed ranking, and top-down chains of command. It was largely stultifying to ordinary people’s creativity for thousands of years.
Concerning the downturn in the environment, the archaeological record, in places like northern Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, or northern China, shows there were large numbers of thriving villages down to the 2000s BC — in regions that since that time have been mainly wastelands of sand and dust. In Niger, we find large areas where the remains of ancient grinding stones, sickles, fishhooks and nets are exposed in the blowing sand. And we humans had a hand in making the countryside a desert. It happened partly by overgrazing, forest clearing, or burning off bush lands to encourage grass for pastures, in an age when the climate was growing dryer. The combined effect was that a largely denuded landscape spread through North Africa, over much of the Middle East, and across Inner Asia. Since then, the people of those regions have lived in basically a wasteland. The hardships of that environment affected almost everything about their lives.
Environmental decline almost always hits women and children the hardest. And in the regions that turned to wastelands in ancient times, the impact on women was massive.In the earliest villages the Middle East, women had been primary breadwinners.They gathered plants from the surrounding fields, worked their gardens, and raised animals in the yard. They did all this while mothering their infants at the same time. But where their sources of water gave out, their wild plants and gardens slowly withered, and their animals could no longer get fodder near the house, household production grew much harder. Basically, the women’s ways of production dried up. Animal keepers increasingly had to become pastoral nomads, wandering over vast areas to find enough grass. Trading also usually became a long-distance enterprise as people dispersed. The kinds of economic activity that were possible in a desert landscape generally required too much travel, hardship, and danger for babies and young children to come along.
Allthis forced a widening separation between the roles of caring for the home and kids, and going out to get the means of life. It got ever harder to do both. Increasingly, the mothers had to hold down the fort while the fathers went ever further afield, for pastures, trade, or in case things got desperate, for raiding. So in a degraded landscape, the separation of roles for fathers and mothers grew exaggerated.Increasingly, women were seen as the non-economic sex, the non-political sex, the non-military sex — they were just the reproductive sex.To a large extent, this became women’s place in the desert. At first it was environmentally imposed. Later it became culturally imposed by force of tradition.
As the countryside grew more barren, we see evidence of the first major wars. The areas where water and food could be had were shrinking, and people increasingly fought to control those areas. Especially in the driest lands from Mongolia to North Africa, we had a rise of warlord leaders who invaded villages of the greener lands for food, plunder, and women. Eventually, the raider tribes managed to conquer almost all the farming lands within reach of the wastelands they came from. Nomadic tribes from the arid regions repeatedly moved in as the conquering warlords of Europe, Egypt, India, or China. In Europe we had the Kurgan waves of around 4000 BC, the Indo-European invaders like the Dorians before 1000 BC, and the so-called barbarian invasions that overran most of the Roman Empire around 400 AD and established most of Europe’s ruling houses. Invasions from arid Central and West Asia formed the accumulating layers of higher caste rulers above the aboriginal villagers of India. The raiders-turned-conquerors established many of China’s dynasties down to 1911. And all of this imposed a certain contrast in the cultures of ruling and subject groups.
What were the differences in culture and values between conquered villagers and conquering warlords? One difference concerned the power to give life, as opposed to the power to take it. Because for warlords, the people who nurtured plants and animals were less important than the soldiers who plundered them. The capacity to nurture life seemed less important than the power to destroy or steal it. Another difference was that warlords were more concerned about how ordinary people related to their masters than how subject people related to each other.
This difference over what was important had implications for religion. Because warlord rulers tended to force a competition between two kinds of religious power, namely the power to inspire, or the power to intimidate.At first, most local spiritual leaders led by the power to inspire others. People like Socrates, Buddha, or the many village wise women could only attract followers, and couldn’t make anybody follow them. But warlord rulers needed to force obedience, and make their authority seem to be heaven’s will. So instead of just letting people choose whoever they wanted to learn from, they had ruler-backed priesthoods claiming control over which teachers the people must follow. In that case, religion became a matter of authority and obedience, rather than personal initiative. And I think a clash of cultures began, that we see continuing down to today. It’s a culture clash in which different people have different answers to life, and their answers are different partly because their questions are different.
In traditions descending from the old warlord tribes, the greatest question in life seemed to be Who is the greatest authority of all? It was both a religious and a political question rolled into one, because each lord in the ancient world tended to say “You shall put no other lords before me.” The warlords assumed that competition for supremacy was the law of life. Somebody had to come out on top. And from centuries of life under warlord rulers, it seemed to be a fact of life that everything depended on a ruling master’s will. From this way of viewing life, we get our images of omnipotent emperors in the sky, holy laws decreed from above, and morality as mainly a matter of submitting to higher authority, with rewards or punishments according to the degree of obedience. Riane Eisler calls this “dominator religion,” and many people seriously want it. Rulers have wanted it, and many ordinary people also want an infallible authority to tell them what to do.
But we’ve also had another kind of question about life, dating back to the first nurturers of plants, animals, and children. And this is a question about the quality of relationships. For people of this mentality, the main question in life is How good can our relations get? And this question, I think, has remained the main religious question for perhaps most women, and for men who value relationships. This concern has led to what Riane Eisler calls partnership versions of religion. We see it in popular Christianity, where devotion to Mother Mary has inspired great movements for compassion that have been a basis for social progress. We can see it in Islam, in the difference between authoritarian legalism, and the quest for harmony and peace in popular Sufism. And we see it in other societies, like in China, where huge popular countercultures, largely of women, have offered religions and values that were alternative to those of the rulers.
Eisler explains how the competition between these different kinds of morality has been a basis of our culture wars throughout history. On one side we have dominator values, where people are mainly concerned with which authorities and rules we must obey, and on the other we see partnership values, in which people are mostly concerned about what kinds of social relations would be better. We see arguments between these different kinds of morality all through the stories in the Bible, and in the history of cultures down to today. In the Bible we see long-running arguments between legalistic enforcers of traditional rules, and various prophets who argue that intelligent compassion is better than blind obedience to higher authority. And in our time, I think there’s a worldwide rise of partnership values, and a rise in women’s versions of popular religion. Maybe that will finally transcend the culture war as we know it.
Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.