Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/The Evolution of Civilization and the Arts

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 January 1893  (1893) 
The Evolution of Civilization and the Arts
By Gustave Le Bon

WE sought to show, in an address on the Influence of European Civilization on Colonies (1889), that civilized nations can not impose their civilization on the lower races, and to demonstrate the insufficiency of education, institutions, or creeds to change the social condition of inferior peoples. We maintained that all the elements of a civilization correspond with certain modes of feeling and thinking, or with a mental constitution representing the past of a whole race, the hereditary motives of conduct resulting from the experience and acts of a long series of ancestors. Only centuries, not conquerors, can essentially transform these. We held, further, that a people can rise in civilization only by a series of steps; and that, if we try by educating them to evade those steps, we only confuse their morals, and leave them at a lower level than the one they had themselves reached. And we assumed that the Arabs are the only modern people capable of civilizing inferior peoples, because they alone still have extremely simple institutions and creeds. I intend now to make the question general, and to show that the higher races have never been influenced by a foreign civilization more rapidly than the lower races; and that if they have sometimes adopted creeds, institutions, languages, and arts different from those of their ancestors, it was not till they had slowly and profoundly transformed them and brought them into relation with their mental constitution.

History appears to contradict this proposition on every page, and to show us peoples who have changed the elements of their civilization and adopted new religions, languages, and institutions; but a closer examination of these supposed changes shows us that, while the names of these things may have been changed with great ease, the realities concealed behind the names have continued to live, and have been transformed only with extreme slowness. The theory is likely to appear most paradoxical in the case of religious creeds; but, in fact, we find some of the most striking verifications of it in them. Everybody knows that all the great religions—Brahmanism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—have provoked conversions of entire races, which have come over to them all at once. But a close study will convince us that in these cases it has been the name of the religion and not the religion itself that has been changed; and that the newly adopted creeds have suffered modifications that would bring them into conformity with the old creeds they replaced, and of which they were simply the continuation, and this sometimes to such an extent that they no longer have any visible relationship with the creeds of which they keep the name. Thus, the Buddhism of China is so different from the Buddhisms of other countries that it is hardly recognizable as the same religion; and the Buddhism of India is different from that of Nepaul, and that is far removed from the Buddhism of Ceylon.

Brahmanism, too, exhibits various aspects among the different races of India, of which it is the nominal religion. All these peoples doubtless regard Vishnu and Siva as their chief divinities, and the Vedas as their sacred books; but the chief divinities have impressed only their names, and the sacred books only their texts, on the religion. By their sides are innumerable forms of worship in which we find, among the several races, the most various beliefs—monotheism, polytheism, fetichism, pantheism, ancestor-worship, devil-worship, animal-worship, etc. The titles of the sacred books are venerated by all Brahmans, but of the religion they teach there is none.

Islam has not escaped this law, even though its monotheism be so simple. It is a long distance from the Mohammedanism of Persia to that of Arabia and that of India. Polytheistic India has found a way to make the most monotheistic of creeds polytheistic. To the fifty million Mussulmans of India, Mohammed and the saints of Islam are only new gods added to thousands of other gods. Islam has not succeeded in establishing in India that equality of all men that has made its success everywhere else. The Mussulmans of India have their castes, like the Hindus. In Algeria, the Arabs and the Berbers are both Mussulman; but the Arabs are polygamous, while the Berbers are monogamous, and their religion is simply a fusion of Islam with their ancient paganism. The religions of Europe are not exempt from this law. As in India, the dogmas established by Scripture remain inviolate, but they are merely vain formulas which each race interprets in its own way. Under the general denomination of Christians we find real pagans, like the Bas Breton, praying to idols; fetich-worshipers, like the Spaniard, adoring amulets; and polytheists, like the Italian, worshiping the Madonnas of each village as different divinities. Pursuing the subject further, it would be easy to show that the great religious schism of the Reformation was the necessary consequence of different interpretations of the same religious book by quite different races—the peoples of the north of Europe desiring to discuss their creed and regulate their lives for themselves, and those of the south being more backward than they in independence and philosophical spirit.

The same rule as with religions prevails with institutions and languages. They can not be transmitted without becoming modified. Consider how often in modern times the same institutions, imposed by force or persuasion, have been transformed according to races while keeping identical names. The Spanish- American republics adopted the democratic Constitution of the United States; but with those races that form of organization, which had made the United States so great, was quickly transformed into a rule of bloody dictatorships and frightful anarchy. A people may, in an extreme case, forcibly impose its institutions on a different race, as England has done in Ireland, but decadence is the result to the subjected people.

So language, even though it be fixed by writing, is necessarily changed in passing from one people to another; and this is what renders absurd the idea of a universal language. It is true that the Gauls, notwithstanding the superiority of their numbers, adopted the Latin language within two centuries of the conquest; but they soon changed it to suit their wants and their special mental moods, and the French resulted at last—an idiom very different from the Spanish and Italian, though having a common origin with them. In India, with its numerous and various races, there are said to be two hundred and forty languages, some of them differing from others as much as French from Greek, and three hundred dialects. The most generally prevalent of them is modern, being only three hundred years old—Hindustani, formed by the combination of the Persian and Arabic of the Mussulman conquerors with the native Hindi. Conquerors and conquered quickly forgot their own language to take up a new one adapted to the conditions of a mixed people.

These brief illustrations, which could be extended indefinitely, show how deep are the transformations to which peoples subject the elements of a civilization which they borrow. The loan often seems considerable because the names change abruptly; but it is always, in its beginnings, really very small. In the course of centuries, by the slow labors of generations, the borrowed element, with the successive additions made to it, at last differs much from that for which it was substituted. History, which regards words most, takes hardly any account of these successive variations; and when it tells us, for instance, that a people adopted a new religion, we conceive at once, not the creed that was really adopted, but the religion as we know it now. A close study of these slow adaptations is necessary for the proper comprehension of their genesis and of the differences in the case between words and realities.

The history of civilization is thus composed of slow adaptations, of successive minute transformations. If they seem sudden and considerable to us, it is because, as in geology, we suppress the intermediate phases, and regard only the extremes.

However intelligent and well endowed we may suppose a people to be, its faculty for absorbing a new element of civilization is always very restricted. Even the Greeks, the most intelligent people of antiquity, in the evolution of their arts needed centuries to advance beyond gross copies of Assyrian and Egyptian models and arrive by successive stages at the achievement of the masterpieces that have immortalized their name.

Yet the peoples which have succeeded one another in history—excepting a few primitive nations like the Egyptians and the Chaldeans—have had little else to do than to assimilate, by transforming them according to their mental peculiarities, the elements of civilization that constituted the heritage of their past. The development of civilization would have been infinitely slower, and the history of nations would have been only an eternal new beginning, if they had not been able to profit by previously elaborated materials. The civilizations created by the inhabitants of Egypt and Chaldea seven or eight thousand years ago have constituted a source whence all peoples have drawn in their turn. Greek arts were derived from the arts created on the banks of the Tigris and the Nile; the Roman style from the Greek; and the Roman style, admixed with Oriental influences, gave birth in succession to the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles, according to the genius and the age of the peoples among whom they were developed. What we have said of the arts is applicable to all the elements of a civilization—institutions, languages, and creeds. The languages of Europe are derived from a mother-language formerly spoken on the central plateau of Asia; its laws from the Roman law, which was in its turn derived from anterior laws; its religion from the Jewish religion, associated with Aryan creeds; and its sciences would not be what they are but for the slow labor of ages. We can discern, despite the great gaps of which there are many in the history of civilization, a slow evolution of our knowledge that leads us across ages and empires to the dawn of those ancient civilizations which the modern science of the day is trying to connect with the primitive times when mankind had no history. But, while the source is common, the transformations—whether progressive or retrogressive—which each people, according to its mental constitution, has imposed on the borrowed elements, are very diverse; and the history of these transformations constitutes the history of civilization.

Before considering the transformations which arts, like other elements of a civilization, have suffered in passing from one people to another, let us ask to what extent they are the expression of a civilization. Writers on art are accustomed to say that they faithfully reflect the thought of the people, and are the best expression of their civilization. This is doubtless often the case, but the rule is far from being general, and the development of the arts does not always correspond with the mental and social development of nations. While there are peoples to which works of art are the most important manifestation of their genius, there are others high in the scale of civilization with which art has only played a secondary part. If we were obliged to write the history of the civilization of each people, and could take one element, that element would vary from one people to another. It would be arts for one, political or military institutions, or industries, by which others would be known best. This fact will account for the arts having suffered very unequal transformations in passing from some peoples to others.

The Egyptians and the Romans, among ancient nations, present characteristic examples of inequality in the development of the different elements of their civilization, and even of the different branches of which each of these elements is composed.

The Egyptians were weak in their literary efforts, and their paintings were mediocre, but in sculpture and architecture they produced masterpieces which the Greeks were able to excel during only a short period of their history.

The Romans were not in want of teachers or of models, for they had the Egyptians and the Greeks, but they never succeeded in creating an art characteristic of themselves; no people perhaps ever betrayed less originality in their productions in this field. But they raised the other elements of civilization to the highest point. Their military organization assured them the domination of the world; their political and judicial institutions are still patterns for us; and their literature inspired the centuries that followed them.

The Greeks, who manifested the highest superiority in the most diverse branches, may likewise be cited to prove the want of parallelism between the development of the various elements of civilization. Their literature was already brilliant in the Homeric epoch; but modern discoveries in archæology show that in the same period their sculptures were grossly barbaric, and were simply crude imitations of Egyptian and Assyrian work.

The Hindus most pointedly illustrate this inequality of develment. Few peoples have equaled them in architecture; in philosophy their speculations go to a depth to which European thought has only recently arrived; in literature they produced admirable works, even though they fell short of those of the Greeks and Latins. But they were mediocre and far below the Greeks in statuary, and were nullities in the domain of scientific and historical knowledge, while they betray an absence of precision which we meet in equal degree among no other people.

There are, further, races which, without ever having occupied a position in any way superior, have been able to create an individual art free from apparent relationship with anterior models. In less than a century after they conquered the Greco-Roman world, the Moslems had transformed the Byzantine architecture which they adopted, so greatly that it would be impossible to discover by what types they were inspired, if we had not the series of intermediate monuments under our eyes.

Even a people possessing no artistic or literary aptitude may create a high civilization. Such were the Phœnicians, who had no superior gift except their commercial skill. They promoted civilization by bringing different parts of the world into relations, while they produced nothing themselves, and the history of their civilization is nothing but the history of their trade.

There are, finally, people that stand low in all the elements of civilization except art, as the Moguls, whose monuments in India, with hardly anything of the Hindu about them, are so splendid that competent critics have declared them the finest works that have been raised by human hands; but nobody would class the Moguls among the higher races.

It is further to be remarked that, even with the most civilized peoples, the period when art attains its highest degree of development is not usually at the culminating epoch of their civilization. The most perfect works of the Hindus and Egyptians are generally the most ancient; and that remarkable Gothic art, the admirable works of which have never been paralleled, flourished in Europe in the semi-barbarous middle ages. It is, therefore, impossible to judge of the degree of a people's advancement solely by the development of its arts, which constitute only one of the elements of its culture, and that one which has not been shown, any more than has literature, to be the highest. It is, on the contrary, sometimes the case that peoples at the head of civilization—as the Romans in ancient times and the Americans in modern—are weakest in works of art, while other peoples have produced their highest literary and artistic masterpieces in their half-barbarous ages.

The period of individuality in the art of a people appears, therefore, to be a blossoming of its infancy or its youth, and not of its mature age. There are many other evidences that the progress of the arts is not parallel with the advance in the other elements of civilization, but that they have an independent and special evolution. It is a general law that when art has reached a certain level, marked by the creation of high masterpieces, a period of imitation sets in, followed by a period of decadence, both of which are independent of the course of the other elements of civilization. This lasts till some revolution or innovation, the adoption of a new creed, or some like factor intervenes to introduce new elements, as did the Crusades in the middle ages, the revival of Greek and Latin studies in the Renascence, and the Mussulman conquest in India.

It is also to be remarked that as art in a general way reflects certain wants and corresponds with certain sentiments, it is destined to share their fate, and therefore to vanish when they cease to be vital; but that condition is no sign of a decay of civilization. At no period has civilization been as high as now, and at none has art been more commonplace. From a spontaneous outgrowth of the devotion of the past it has become an accessory, a thing of luxury and convention, imitative rather than original. No people of the present has a national art, but all are contented with copies of the models of past ages.

If we study the shapes in which architecture, for instance, has been transmitted from one people to another since its historical beginning with the Egyptians, we shall find that in the hands of an inferior race—the Ethiopians, who, although they had centuries to work in, were deficient in cerebral capacity—it tended to inferior forms; while with the Greeks, a higher race, whose development also occupied several hundred years, it was improved upon and raised to a much higher level. The Persians, an inferior people to the Greeks, and whose independent career was much shorter, displayed considerable talent for adaptation, and were beginning to work a transformation in their art, when they were overthrown. A thousand years later they rose again, and devised an architecture having the stamp of originality, but combined with it marks of the influence of the ancient art and of the more recent Arabian art.

Another more modern school of architecture, of which specimens are yet standing, strikingly illustrates the extent to which a race modifies the arts which it adopts. The example is all the more typical because it is drawn from a group of peoples professing the same religion but having different origins. I mean the Mussulmans, whose structures in Spain, Africa, Syria, Persia, and India present so considerable differences that it is impossible to arrange them in one class as we do the different styles of the Gothic. The correctness of this illustration is enforced by a reference to India, where, although the same religions and the same rule prevail throughout the land, the temple in the north and the pagoda in the south, consecrated to the same divinity, are as different from each other as a Grecian temple and a Gothic cathedral. This great peninsula furnishes the most suggestive and the most philosophical of historical books. It is now, in fact, the single country in which we can, by simple changes of place, transfer ourselves at will into different periods of time and observe still in life the series of successive stages which mankind has had to pass through to reach the higher levels of civilization. All the forms of evolution can be found there, from those representative of the stone age to those of the age of steam and electricity.

In this essay I have endeavored to set forth the principles: that the various elements, the aggregation of which constitutes a civilization—especially institutions, creeds, and arts—are the expression of certain modes of thinking and feeling special to each race, and inevitably suffer transformation in passing from one race to another; that they rarely undergo a parallel development among different races. With some, institutions—with others, literature, industry, or art—prevail. One or several of these elements may remain at an inferior level in the midst of a brilliant civilization, or it may stand high in a low civilization. Of all the factors having an influence on the adoption and evolution of the fundamental elements of a civilization, the most important is race. It holds a position much above that of the influence of political institutions, conquest, or religious belief, which is powerful everywhere else. When a people of a much higher race is in contact with a people of a much lower race—as the whites with the negroes—the latter can not immediately acquire anything useful from it. Two superior races confronting one another exert no action upon each other when, in consequence of differences in mental structure, they have incompatible civilizations. This condition exists when a highly civilized people finds itself in contact with a people having a very ancient and very different civilization, as when modern Europeans are brought into contact with the Hindus or the Chinese. When civilizations possessing compatible elements, like those of the Mussulmans and the Hindus, meet, they first overlay one another and then fuse as to their compatible elements. The civilizing action which some peoples can exercise upon others has been more profound the further we go back in history, because the elements of civilization were less complicated in ancient times than now. This power of action has been reduced from age to age.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.


M. Perrotin, a French astronomer, records several observations of luminous protuberances escaping from the disk of Mars, near the fiftieth degree of southern latitude, resembling what would result from the escape of a flow of matter from the planet. The author held the publication of his discovery in reserve for some time, apprehending that there might be some mistake about the matter, but, convinced at last of the reality of the appearance, communicated the fact to the French Academy of Sciences on the 5th of September. No adequate explanation has been offered for the phenomenon, but the discoverer suggests that it may be connected with the luminous points that may be distinguished on the disk of the planet.