Dr. Boli really has no intention of burdening you with the whole book on this site, but another sample chapter here or there may be welcome on what the journalists call a slow-news day.
CHAPTER 2.—THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
CIVILIZATION IS A disease to which human beings, alone among the terrestrial animals, are chronically prone. Infestations of civilization have been recorded on every inhabited continent, and there are so many clear cases of independent development without contagion that we can only regard the disorder as genetic.
Before we go any further, it may be useful to say exactly what we mean by civilization. The mark of civilization is the city, just as the mark of savagery is the village and the mark of barbarism is the suburb. Life in cities gives civilized peoples the opportunity to specialize, which is to say to set aside a considerable portion of the population to be devoted to useless pursuits. In the village, it is necessary for nearly everyone to be employed in merely assuring the subsistence of the tribe; but in the city, a man who does nothing but design magazine advertisements all day can persuade himself that he is both useful and necessary.
Of all the specialized businesses that civilization fosters, there is none so typical of civilization as the business of government. Philosophers may argue about what the true purpose of government ought to be, but there can be no doubt that the actual purpose of every government known to history has been to foster those conditions under which government can grow and flourish and give birth to more government. It would be very strange if it were not so: a government that was less than enthusiastic about the idea of governing would soon be replaced. Fortunately for the rest of the population, the ambition of a government usually ends at keeping itself in power. The surest guarantee of personal liberty in any civilization is bureaucratic laziness and inefficiency. Our general happiness is in danger only when a government rubs its hands together and decides to get something done for a change. —This is of course a digression, but Dr. Boli has never been one of those who prefer to roar down the interstate from point A to point B without stopping to see any of the sights along the way.
The government of most early civilizations was invested in a divine king, though it seems clear that, from the very outset, these royal personages were more ornamental than useful. The real business of government was carried on by a succession of more or less competent administrators, while the kings married their own sisters and produced more and more degenerate offspring, until at last the royal family was so wispy and diseased that they were practically transparent. But this unhealthy state of the royalty was itself very good for government, since it necessitated a larger and larger class of official functionaries to surround the king and keep him from blowing away in the first stiff breeze.
But keeping the king from drooling on his royal robes, laborious as it may have been, was not in itself sufficient to justify a large and all-pervasive government. Other expedients were necessary to allow the government to grow to truly civilized dimensions.
The creation of public works on a massive scale was one of the expedients that occurred to early governments. Usually some problem could be found whose solution required organizing people into enormous groups of laborers, thus justifying the existence of the government that kept them organized. For example, there was the problem of disposing of dead kings. This problem alone could consume most of the resources of even a fairly advanced civilization. Since kings were divine, they could not simply be tossed in the garbage when they died; and since they were useless, they could not be recycled either. It was necessary to send the departed king off to his apotheosis with sufficient dignity that the other gods would not spend the rest of eternity mocking him. With any luck, the king might pass his entire reign supervising the construction of his own tomb, and then die just as it was completed, leaving his successor to begin an entirely new tomb, and keeping the government in business indefinitely.
If, however, the disposal of the royal carcass did not provide enough business to keep the government going, there was always the perennially reliable expedient of war. A war is a kind of team sport specifically designed to consume as many resources as possible, and thus to require organization on a scale surpassing even what is necessary for the construction of a royal tomb. There is, of course, some risk that the war will get out of hand and destroy the government instead of perpetuating it; but, in general, a well-managed war can go on for years with mutual benefit to the governments on both sides. It does require a certain expenditure of human lives, but civilized governments can easily obtain those by conscripting the men who sit around and write magazine advertisements all day. In general, the slight inconveniences of a war are negligible in comparison to the benefits to be gained by the governments involved, and a government that is not actively waging a war is usually preparing for the next war.
So far we have looked at civilization in terms of general principles. When we come to examine specific early civilizations, we shall find that they present an interesting study in contrasts. For example, the Egyptians had divine kings who married their sisters and built pyramids in Egypt, whereas the Maya had divine kings who married their sisters and built pyramids in Yucatan. Sumerian kings, on the other hand, built ziggurats. So we see that there is an almost infinite variety in these early civilizations.
Another improvement that civilization brought to humanity was writing. Every truly civilized society had writing of some sort. It was not necessary to have a system of writing that could express every spoken idea, as ours can, but it was absolutely essential to be able to tally up how many cities your king had destroyed and how many thousands of people he had slaughtered in the process. Thus, for example, the Aztecs developed a pictorial historiography that was admirably suited to documenting slaughter on an industrial scale; similarly, the Incas had their quipus, intricately knotted fringes with which it was possible to keep an accurate count of how many heads had rolled. On the other hand, the Egyptians developed a system of writing that was also capable of expressing more complex ideas, such as panegyrics on the king to whom a particularly successful mass murder was attributed. The Maya also had a complex hieroglyphic script that baffled every attempt to decipher it until quite recently. As long as the Maya writing remained undeciphered, anthropologists were free to fantasize that the Maya were a nation of peaceful astronomers; but, now that the key to Maya writing has been discovered, we know that they were simply celebrating their successful slaughters in the usual fashion.
The development of writing is of paramount significance to the present work, since it marks the beginning of history, which we may define as the written record of the slaughters inflicted on one civilized group by another.
At various times, important ancient civilizations have grown up in the Nile valley in Egypt, in the Indus valley in Pakistan and India, in the Yellow River valley in China, on the plains of Mesopotamia, in Nigeria, in Zimbabwe, in various parts of Mexico, and in Peru. Most of these civilizations have left us some form of written record, and the story is always the same: this king killed that king and slaughtered all his followers. The notable exception is the Indus Valley civilization: the writing left by these mysterious ancient Indians has not yet been deciphered, and anthropologists therefore believe that they were most probably a nation of peaceful astronomers.