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Opinion

March 25, 2018

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Lessons from the past

There was a time when ancient civilisations either disappeared or were buried along with their grandeur and achievements. Credit ought to be given to archaeologists who excavated artefacts and sites that shed light on the forgotten culture of these civilisations.

When the script of these civilisations was deciphered, it opened the portals of past knowledge and enriched our modern civilisation. Following the discovery of the human habitats of these ancient civilisations in thick forests, mountains and deserts, anthropologists were inspired to visit these sites and document their customs, traditions, and rituals.

These anthropological insights provided the opportunity to compare past and present civilisations and determine their various stages of development. After a careful scrutiny, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists concluded that the present civilisation is far superior and advanced as compared to past civilisations.

When Hegel delivered his lectures on the philosophy of history in the 1820s, he argued that the process of history could only accomplish its agenda in the Western civilisation. Therefore, the Asian and African nations either came into fold of the Western civilisation and recognised its superiority or suffered in isolation without creating any culture of their own. Europeans were proud of their progress and undermined the Asian and African civilisations.

After critically analysing the notion of progress, Leopold Ranke, a German historian, states that Europeans looked down on the past as it had no substantial elements that could benefit them. They believed that the rise of Europe was a miracle. Many of them also believed that Europe managed to achieve supremacy and domination without borrowing any ideas from the outside world. This created the ideology of white racism and imperialism that sought to enslave non-European nations and exploit their natural resources.

There are many historians who have argued that no civilisation could achieve anything without learning from others. As a result, past civilisations – the Sumerians, the Egyptians. the Greeks, and the Romans – contributed to the advancement and progress of humans.

The philosophers and thinkers of the ancient civilisations had rich intellectual traditions that we have inherited. For instance, the legend of Gilgamesh, which is originated from the Sumerians, indicates the deep desire of human beings to evade death and live an eternal life. In his quest of immortality, Gilgamesh was eventually guided by sages about the inevitability of death and told that his name would only be remembered through his contributions for people’s welfare.

Similarly, the Indian philosophers of the Vedic age have produced a wealth of philosophical ideas and thoughts on the questions of life and death. Greek philosophers and dramatists have also expressed their views on life and death. Their major contribution is their emphasis on moral values that determine the intrinsic purpose of human existence. This rich material of the ancient civilisations has now been preserved through modern technology and research methodology. There is copious material from the philosophers of ancient civilisations and we can learn a great deal from their wisdom.

We tend to think about the Golden Age with relish. Historians have tried to trace the details of this period. According to Rousseau, a French philosopher, the period of hunting and gathering could be called the Golden Age of human history. During this period, there were neither any class divisions nor gender differences. The concept of private property also did not exist in this era. People had to toil and struggle for three hours every day to obtain food and spent the rest of the day singing, dancing and enjoying life. The duration of this period was approximately 10,000 years. It was, therefore, one of the longest period in human history during which people spent their time in peace, leisure and satisfaction.

However, the situation changed when human society shifted towards an agrarian system. According to Rousseau, the transformation was witnessed when somebody claimed for the very first time that a piece of land belonged to him. This marked the beginning of the institution of private property. Consequently, it paved the way for class divisions and patriarchy, which subordinated the status of women. These divisions mired humans in conflicts and wars.

Individuals and nations, intoxicated with unlimited power, wanted to rule, dominate and subordinate those who were weak and powerless. This tussle between powerful and weaker nations persists even today in spite of the fact that human rights have been widely propagated. Those nations that are technologically and scientifically powerful tend to disregard morality, human values and the rights of weaker nations and make countless attempts to dominate them through political and economic means.

The question is: how can we change the concept of power? Moral values have failed to control the dangers of unlimited power and reduce the barbarity that it can wreak. Throughout history, slaves, peasants and workers have revolted against the brazen misuse of power. But they have failed to change its structure. We are not even sure that the dreams and aspirations of those who have been deprived of equal opportunities can be accomplished if they live in an egalitarian society with justice and dignity.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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