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Interview: ‘We’re Living in a World Where Utility Has Replaced Emapthy’

08 May 2017
The Wire

This is what makes the new book The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, by the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, so timely. He talks of how the essence of “being civilised” is dependent on a public relationship that is inclusive and accepting of differences, and the breakdown of these qualities has led to a process of “decivilisation”.

He spoke to The Wire about some of the key issues discussed in his new book.

Is there really a universally-accepted meaning of the word “civilised”?

Not necessarily. There has always been a great deal of ambiguity in relation with the two words “to civilise” and “being civilised”. The French author [Michel de] Montaigne uses the word “civilise” in the 17th century as having a “manner”. As for the French philosopher [René] Descartes, a “civilised” man is someone who is not a “savage”. As such, the term “civilisation” [works] as a sense of distinction, but also as a term which enabled the Europeans to redefine and reformulate their own frameworks of socialisation and human development. As such, the West has always related the idea of civilisation to that of progress, advancement, comfort, increased material possessions and cultivation of the arts and sciences.

In other words, as Swiss literary critic Jean Starobinski says correctly, the crucial point is that the use of the term “civilisation” was used to describe both the fundamental process of history and the end result of that process established an antithesis between civilisation and a hypothetical primordial state that was called savagery or barbarism. So it depends on our reading of history as a process and its end results. The ancient Greeks considered the Persians as “barbarians” because they were incapable of speaking Greek and living in city states. As for the Persians, they thought of the Greeks as being not civilised enough to run an empire like the Achaemenid Empire.

What does “decivilisation” mean?

I did not invent the word decivilisation. It has been used previously. But I give it a new meaning. Contrary to the common perception, decivilisation is not the absence of civilisation; rather, it is a state of meaningless and thoughtless civilisation. More than physical pain, a meaningless and thoughtless existence degrades humanity by robbing it of its self-esteem. A society may be said to be in a state of decivilisation when its individuals are divested of their capacity for empathy as a tool for the recognition of the ‘Other’.

As Hegel shows in his monumental dialectic of the master-slave relationship, Phenomenology of Spirit, a strong and meaningful sense of recognition of oneself as the result of a struggle with the Other constitutes the indispensable foundation of freedom in human history. Therefore, full understanding of the process of freedom-making necessitates a civilisational acceptance of the Other as the Other. This is what is lost in today’s world, not only at the level of political leadership, but also at the level of citizens who lack more than ever an idea of “shared humanity”.

As Steven Pinker points out, statistically war and violence as an experience of humans has gone down tremendously in the last few centuries, people live longer, healthier lives, poverty is being dealt with, how is this evidence of decivilisation?

It would be wrong to analyse the problem of violence at the level of statistics. Violence is a mode of thinking and a mode of acting. We need to fight the capital punishment as a mode of thought rather than as a statistics. The same for rape of women in India. If rape exists it is because of what I would call “penis politics”, a bunch of male-chauvinist bureaucrats with ties teaching others how to run the society and the world, and trusting statics. We are dealing here with a hierarchical mode of thinking, which is thoughtless, because it looks at itself and others in bureaucratic terms. As a result, what we call “well being” is nothing but a mutilated life, because it has no true meaning to share with the other person or the other nation. The question of “utility” is the regulating idea which has replaced the idea of “empathy”. This is a decivilising process that I experiment on an everyday basis with my students who want to become corporate lawyers.

Can we really call the Greeks civilised given how deeply their politics was enmeshed with slavery? Is it possible to compare the term “civilisation” across centuries?

I think we should distinguish between the Athenians and the Spartans when we are talking about the Greeks. Also if we are referring to the art of politics and the art of education in ancient Greece, our references would be more correctly in the direction of Athens in 5 BC. For many, Athens in 5 BC is a model of civilisation and democratic life. However, Athens is also a male-oriented society which like many other societies in antiquity related slavery to war. Men were not sold as slaves in their own societies. Therefore, war was the chief source of the slave-trade.

However, modern slavery is more essentialist than war-oriented. In that sense, what should be said is that civilisation displays an extra-narrative ground to the plurality of historical discourses and cultures. The long interaction of historical civilisations with the complex issue of violence singles out the concept of empathy for particular attention. The violence embedded in the making of historical civilisations is epistemologically reframed and ontologically tamed by the empathic vision of civilisation. Violence on that level, therefore, calls for civilisational analysis. The historical incapacity of violence to generate mutual understanding and a possibility for a common horizon of shared values reaffirms the necessity of an alternative meaning of the word ‘civilisation’ that resists easy equivalence with notions of evil, horror and cruelty. Civilisations were less or more empathic through history. However, for the first time in human history, empathy is no more part of our civilisational upbringing. We live together without knowing why we live together.