Civilizations and their Central Projects

Nick Nielsen
May 23, 2016 · 9 min read
The pyramids of Egypt were the material manifestation of the central project of Egyptian civilization.

What is the central project of a civilization? In some recent posts, Scientific Civilization: The Economic Perspective and Scientific Civilization: The Central Project, I used the phrase “central project” without elaborating nuch on this idea. I initially found the term “central project” in Frank White’s The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (p. 5 in the first edition; p. 3 in the 3rd edition), where he referenced the book Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough Insights by Willis Harman. Dr. Harman is affiliated with the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an institution founded by Edgar Mitchell in 1973 as a consequence of his personal insights experienced as an astronaut. In his book Dr. Harman says of central projects:

“These projects, although involving visible material artifacts, were actually the vehicles for more abstract social and psychological aims. The great cathedrals, besides serving as highly visible central projects to attract the best and most adventurous minds of the age, also served to educate the consciousness of the larger population… Central projects, in this sense, are means of focusing the energies of a population during an evolutionary transition to a higher level of culture.” (pp. 174–175)

Harman here is not making central projects definitive of civilization, but suggesting that central projects emerge during evolutionary transitions of civilizations, almost as a kind of self-directed occupational therapy to engage the energies of a civilization as it focuses on attaining a higher level of culture. While I like the phrase “central projects” enough that I have started using it myself, I see it much more as descriptive of the nature of a certain kind of civilization.

Most settled agricultural civilizations have had some kind of great central project, usually religious in conception, that has involved monumental building projects, or great works of art, and it is the synthesis of aesthetic and intellectual conception with the concrete details of construction that knit together a society into an organic whole of the sort that we have come to think of as paradigmatic of civilization.

I have several times previously quoted a famous passage from J. M. Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, relevant to the above, as follows:

“Ancient Egypt was doubly fortunate, and doubtless owed to this its fabled wealth, in that it possessed two activities, namely, pyramid-building as well as the search for the precious metals, the fruits of which, since they could not serve the needs of man by being consumed, did not stale with abundance. The Middle Ages built cathedrals and sang dirges. Two pyramids, two masses for the dead, are twice as good as one; but not so two railways from London to York.”

The two examples that Keynes offers — pyramid building and masses for the dead — are nicely symbolic of the central projects of two civilizations, the civilization of ancient Egypt and the civilization of medieval Europe.

Harman notes that, “Perhaps the most recent central project was the Apollo project that culminated in Neil Armstrong’s famous footstep on the moon.” In a related vein, Frank White wrote, “I have come to see space exploration as part of a long tradition of central projects.” Note that Harman focuses on a great event (and a singular event) while White formulates the conception in terms of an ongoing tradition.

Thus one distinction we can make in the conception of central projects is between moments that mark a transition, and an ongoing effort that shapes the overall direction of resources in a civilization. Another distinction that can be made is between central projects as descriptive and central projects as prescriptive or aspirational. This latter distinction is at least partially a function of how a central project is formulated. It is descriptive that the central project of the European Middle Ages involved building cathedrals and singing masses for the dead; it is prescriptive or aspirational that the central project of the European Middle Ages was Christian salvation, i.e., the preparation of the soul in this vale of tears for its true life, the life eternal and everlasting.

These two distinctions can be applied to the idea of space exploration as a central project of industrialized civilization. Harman views space exploration as a central project that culminated in the Apollo moon landings — and presumably helped us to transition to a higher form of culture. I think that this view is not at all unusual, and indeed I think part of the post-Apollo malaise (only part, not all) was due to the fact that humanity had made this great accomplishment, but we were not changed by it, and no higher form of culture or consciousness emerged from this great effort. White sees space exploration as an ongoing effort, and from this point of view we could argue that the change in consciousness is only slowly dawning for our species as the overview effect sinks in gradually.

If we take the other distinction, we can understand space exploration as descriptive or prescriptive. I think that this means, in this context, that we can look as space exploration as the actual sequence of heroic events by which human beings have pushed knowledge and human presence beyond Earth, or of space exploration as part of a much longer and larger arc of the quest for scientific knowledge, which can ultimately only be justified as an end in itself. As Keynes would have said, since scientific knowledge cannot serve the needs of man by being consumed, it does not stale with abundance.

Another distinction that might be a fruitful lens with which to examine our civilization is that between a civilization with and a civilization without a central project. Central projects give meaning, value, and purpose both to the individual human life and to social wholes pursuing the goals of central projects. Civilizations without central projects are civilizations adrift, lacking in meaning, value, and purpose. Again, this is at least in part a matter of formulation. I am sure that you could find individuals today who felt fully invested in contemporary civilization and who take is purposes as their own, and you could find other individuals who feel adrift and who would argue that civilization also is adrift, without meaning or value.

More distinctions could be made in order to give a more fine-grained account of central projects, their definition, and their scope. How much of a society must be involved in an effort for it to be a central project of a civilization? Were there Egyptians who looked at the construction of the pyramids as folly, and the mere expression of Pharaonic hubris? Did Egyptian society include those who had no part in, or even who felt no part of, the central project?

When can a central project be said to be well and truly over? The La Sagrada Familia cathedral is still under construction today in Barcelona, but we assume that the central projects of the European Middle Ages, including the construction of great cathedrals, is over, and the civilization for which this was the central project now defunct. And yet cathedral building persists. Is this the relic of a defunct civilization? But the building of cathedrals today is not what it was when it was the material representation of the central project of medieval European civilization.

The social context in which Europe went about, “cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches” (in the now famous words of Rodulfus Glaber) is significant in this connection. The spasm of monumental construction that gave medieval Europe its distinctive appearance was not a top-down effort driven by elites in the social hierarchy, but represented a genuine groundswell of popular interest and enthusiasm. Medieval historian Norman F. Cantor has used the phrase “popular piety” to refer to spontaneous expressions of Christian piety among lay persons. Given that western Europe was a late-comer to Christianity, and many people converted only reluctantly and after resistance, that popular piety should emerge so rapidly in Europe is a demonstration of the social power of Christianity to transform societies.

In an article by Hewitt B. Vinnedge, “Popular Church Building in Medieval France” (The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Apr., 1930, pp. 44–50), there are some wonderful quotes from contemporaneous medieval sources about the popular nature of medieval construction projects. Here is a passage from Rudolf, Abbott of St. Trond, quoted by Vinnedge:

“It was marvelous to see, and it will seem too incredible to be worth telling, how so vast a number of people engaged in this labor and never paused by day or night. In their wagons or carts they would procure at their own expense, stones, mortar, sand, wood, and whatever else was necessary for the task at hand. Zealously and joyfully they worked. The very stones that one may find in the foundation, large and heavy as they are, hear witness to the zeal of the people; for when stones of the size desired could not be found in any part of Hesbaye, they were brought from foreign provinces. The columns, too, came from distant places. Some were brought down the Rhine from Worms to Cologne… and then were transported overland in carts. The people in their zeal would hitch themselves to these carts and haul them through the villages, never using oxen or other beasts of burden… As they went, they would be singing hymns.”

Vinnedge also quotes a page and a half from a famous letter of Haymon, Abbot of St. Pierre-sur-Dives, about the building of Chartres cathedral. This is so detailed and so remarkable the reader is urged to consult that paper and read the entire passage. The quote from Haymon includes this passage:

“For who has ever seen, or who has ever heard in all past generations, that rulers and mighty princes of the world, and persons puffed up with honor and wealth, men and women of noble birth, have suffered their proud and arrogant necks to be yoked to cart reins, and after the fashion of brute beasts have drawn the carts to the sanctuary of Christ, laden with wine, wheat, oil, lime, stones, logs, and other things essential to the needs of life or to the construction of a church?”

The participation of elites of the social hierarchy in the actual labor of construction may be symbolic, but we should not be surprised if it did in fact happen. We can recognize this sort of thing on a much more modest scale in our own time when, for example, the president of some contemporary nation-state spends an hour volunteering at a soup kitchen or something like this.

Whether symbolic or actual, central projects of a suitably monumental cast provide the opportunity for a unification of a society across craft specialization, among distinct sectors of the economy, and along the social hierarchy from top to bottom: all contribute in their own way to the central project, and each thus has a personal stake in the civilization that undertakes such a comprehensive central project. A society with a central project of this comprehensive scope never lacks for meaning, value, and purpose.

To return again to the example of building pyramids in ancient Egypt, Egyptian society from the Pharaoh on down to the lowliest stone cutter were unified into a single organic whole through the means of common contribution to the central project of that civilization. I doubt few would deny the importance of this fact, but I do not think that it receives the attention it ought. Recently in Social Stratification and the Dominance Hierarchy I discussed the claim often made that social differentiation and hierarchy can be employed as a distinctive signature of civilization. I believe this view to be wrong, because dominance hierarchies exist throughout nature, and, in the order of human development, human dominance hierarchies would have preceded the emergence of civilization, which would have been shaped in its development by the selection pressure of dominance hierarchies.

One of the most crucial features of civilization is not this dominance hierarchy transposed into human social categories, but rather the creative negation of the dominance hierarchy that allows individuals from diverse backgrounds and of different talents to all collectively contribute to the building of a civilization. The study of central projects of civilization can cast some light on the ways in which social divisions are suspended or bridged by popular movements to express the human spirit of the age in material terms.

What the pyramids were for ancient Egyptian civilization, the cathedrals were for medieval European civilization.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade