Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Civilisations: collapse or renaissance

  1. Apr 17, 2007 #1
    Civilisations tend to emerge when the conditions are right for that, they tend to build some impressive structures like temples, pyramids, cathedrals, etc and usually dissapear again. The reasons of the collapse may be famines, climate change - drougths, wars, pandemics etc.

    So here are these Romanesque, Viking, Gothic etc cultures in Europe, at the end of the first century when the climate was friendly, the medieval warming period. And they started building their stone churches and cathedrals, comforming to the usual habits of develloping civilisation. The renaissance was about to begin.

    But then the usual circumstantial misery started, in the 13th century the medieval warm period had terminated and the Alpine glaciers started to grow rapidly at the onset of the little ice age, Next, there was the bubonic plague, decimating the European population, followed by large scale ergotism or st Anthony fire, less known but just as deadly and sure enough several strong storms still on record brought floodings with high losses. Regional conflicts were many, in short, all the elements were there for the usual collapse of the civilisation

    meanwhile, what did that civilisation do?

    It builded higher and more decorated cathedrals, fine art emerged, the great discoverers couldn't wait to discover the rest of the world.

    Why could the European civilisations thrive where it should have perished as other civilisations did?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 17, 2007 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    There may have been a better understanding of what makes a civilization by then. The scholars of the time had the remnants of the Alexandria Library and the ruins of past civilizations to study. They had their histories and they had the causes of their downfalls. Perhaps this prepared them for the eventual changes in politics and the weather and decided they would not be another "fair weather civilization":rolleyes:

    I've read that Krakatoa's first eruption in the 600s AD may have turned the tide for a few years or more leading up to the Black Plague and the "dark ages" by way of crop failure, poor living conditions and lack of sunlight (mass depression). Did this contribute to the little ice age?
  4. Apr 17, 2007 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    On this page called Global Temperatures (2500 B.C. to 2007 A.D.) there is a timeline that puts the "Krakatoa, Indonesia event taking place between 535 AD and 550 AD. They also say that there were at least 10 other eruptions taking place at the same time. If so, this would lay the ground for a nuclear winter of fair proportions.

    But the timeline continues and it shows what they have researched to be over 90 "Major" eruptions taking place around the "Little Ice Age" at around 1400 - 1500 AD.

    But, as you say, western civilization continued to expand west and north. Somehow it by-passed the effects of these cooling effects and bad crops. Perhaps the trade routes were strong enough to support the needs of the people in these trying times or, at least, the upper crust which is often associated with "civilization" was well supported.

    If we look at less sophisticated groups who probably didn't have as strong a trading agreement with far reaching and diverse neighbors you can see how the weather played an important role in the survival of their civilizations.

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  5. Apr 18, 2007 #4
    Well, if you consider that trading overseas was on a very limited scale and pertained spices and other secondary requirements. Food had be to produced locally. Moreover the little ice age was not limited to Europe or the North Atlantic.

    As a former survival instructor, I told classes that the singlemost important survival tool, is motivation, it outweights all other. Seeing the focus on construction building for the deities rather than for the peopl itself, it seems logical that motivation had to do something with difference in the fundamentals of the religion.

    Disclaimer: religion is now mentioned here for analysing purposes and most definitely not for influencings ones beliefs and lifestyle. It is not about religion good or bad but purely if the religion as motivator could have contributed to the survival of the European medieval culture.
  6. Apr 18, 2007 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I would imagine that with all the changes going on, the plague, the droughts and endlessly sunless days and so on people might begin to wonder what they had done to deserve the "wrath of god" during those dark ages. Perhaps this is where religion saw an opportunity to step in and offer hope and salvation, a dry place to sit, refuge and so on.

    With the new found purpose and interest in religion possibly came the ethics of their prophets and with those ethics possibly came a survivability of the spirit or attitude. And ethics would play a large role in stemming absolute massacres of neighbors and would stifle the barbaric tendancies of a few hundred years beforehand.

    So, hats off to this idea, it may be that religion did partially calm the beast that normally ran civilizations into the ground, especially during times of climatic hardship. Obviously the educating factor that came with the religion of the day (reading, writing, histories and even sciences) brought in the "age of reason" and this would have helped to steady the people during these times as well.
  7. Apr 19, 2007 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    There are other civilizations that have stood their ground during climatic, geological and other upheavals. And I believe the same is true for these civilizations where thier longevity and enduring qualities can be attributed to the code of ethics that were established by their religions and the founders of those religions

    India: It is becoming more and more apparent that t he history of India's civilization stretches as far back as 10,000 to 15,000 years. There have been a number of interpretations of India's beliefs and so we see Hinduism, Buddhism and Sihk sects as well as Muslim influences but it is widely believed that there was an ancient and actively ethical form of these beliefs from which they sprang long ago. All of these disciplines come with codes of ethics that teach cooperation with neighbors and with a respect for all life. This, as I pointed out earlier, eases hostile pressures and increases communications in trade, whether it is between merchants in the same town or from different parts of the continent.

    China: It has long been known that China's civilization has been active for easily 9000 years. It has not staggered in the face of natural disaster or that of invasion (until recently during the build up to WWII).

    China has a monumental ethical base that stems from her scholar's philosophical studies of the Tao. This practise easily adapted the more recent Buddhist way of ethical living and these two blueprints of social and personal conduct seem to have provided China with an amazing run of longevity.

    This is not to say that the quality of ethics is the only factor in the survival of a civilization. But I would dare to say that it represents over 75% of the reason any civilization lasts longer than 1000 years.

    Egypt is another example of a long lived civilization that adapted well to its environmental obstacles. But, its code of ethics is not something I am familiar with. It must have had some good points to have held the dynasties together through so many successions well beyond 2000 years of Egyptian civilization.
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2007
  8. May 2, 2007 #7


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I don’t think that the motivation for higher cathedrals, fine art and voyages of discovery, and all the other triumphs, was so much faith in the deities. I think the motivation was greater appreciation of objectivity and subjectivity resulting in some faith in human imagination.

    Unlike Cicero’s sketch of a theory of imagination as superior to objects of sense, or Plotinus’s view that the interior Idea was a ‘sublime and perfect prototype through which the artist enjoyed an intellectual vision of the fundamental principles of nature’ (Eco), Augustine held imagination as imitation. Generally, the mediaevals believed ‘the subject as well as the object to be submerged in a higher unity’-Panofsky. Both were typically deemed allegorical and symbolic of real truth, deciphered by didactic rules (even though free-will was defended).

    With the advent of a monetary based economy, and with, by the 13th Century, universities, professionalism, contact with and interest in and critique of Greek and Islamic thought, particularly Aristotle, writing in vernacular, Giotto’s developing renaissance art with attention to nature, came increasing appreciation of objectivity- reason, empiricism, individualism, Scotist nominalism and civic consciousness.

    Likewise, with subjectivity and the Franciscan emphasis on love and will, ‘there was a germ of aesthetics of feeling.’ ‘When Dante says that he is expressing what Love has commanded him from within, we are faced with something different (from didactic thought), even if Love is defined philosophically. We have quite a new conception of creativity, unambiguously tied to a world of passions and emotions.’ - Eco

    During 14th Century time of crisis- famine, Black Death, Papal schism, the Hundred Year War…, Petrarch, the father of humanism, and his student, Boccaccio, lived. It was this general progression of this thought which had begun in the late middle ages and continued on, that enabled the great creativity in the following Quattrocento (e.g. the theory of perspective and Brunelleschi’s Dome 1419-1436) and Cinquecento and further advances beyond.

    Although, objectivity in the shape of physics was not considered as important as subjectivity for Italian humanists, they did continue Aristotelian critique and found and translated such things as many of the works of Archimedes, ( in Greek in the early 15th Century, and translated toward the middle of that century), which decisively inspired Galileo.

    Subjectivity was highly important to the humanists. ‘Epicurus put the highest good in pleasure because he examined more deeply the force of nature and understood that we have been formed by nature in such a way that nothing is more akin to us than having all the members of the body whole and healthy and preserving this in them.’ -Raimondi.

    The humanists remained believers of free-will, but importantly, the growth in appreciation for subjectivity and objectivity, gave greater awareness of the capacity to use this. They believed in the ability of human imagination to transform the individual and the world, and did so with a great degree of success.
    Last edited: May 2, 2007
  9. May 2, 2007 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    What made religion then so much better than the Roman religion, or the ancient Greek religion?

    Better being used strictly in terms of describing its effect on preventing civilization collapse
  10. May 2, 2007 #9
    Well, again the disclaimer, let's keep the religion talk objective, not propagating anything. As we discussed, a successful religion appears to need the correct ethics and give the population motivation to survive. let's say that the critical period was the 13-15th century with the transition from the medieval warm period to the little ice age, the Bubonic Plague, Ergotism, numerous floods in the lowlands with thousands of victims, the severe winters etc. Yet, in that period the highest cathedrals and the biggest churches were develloped.

    The idea of religion is mostly centered around earning eternal life, reincarnation and avoid going to hell or some equivalent. Christians had to do good and help other people, pay off the church "indulgences" to compensate for their sins. (sort of CO2 emission permits) to earn after life. Other religions may have demanded suicide or sacrificing other people to gain mercy of the deity. That would not have favored the motivation to survive ordeals, I would think.
  11. May 2, 2007 #10


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The civilization of Rome at a relative level of complexity lasted approximately from 800 BC to 568 AD. That's approx. 1730 years.

    The civilization of Egypt (Dynastic period) at a relative level of complexity lasted approximately from 3100 BC to 20 AD. That's approx. 3120 years.

    The Mesopotamian civilization lasted at a relative level of complexity approximately from 5500 BC to 2000 BC. That's approx 3500 years.

    What I know of the Mesopotamian culture is that they revered the rulers who were able to make civil laws as well as engineer the locking systems and canals for irrigation of their agriculture. In fact the rulers of 5000, 4000 and 3000 BC were almost immediately turned into Gods because of their ability to solve civic problems and for the way they dispensed laws and cared for their population with dikes and canals.

    Egypt was similar in a way in that she had a similar canal system for agriculture as well as for preserving the residential areas. And the Pharaohs were considered Gods themselves for their power (of engineering and planning) over their people and the elements.

    Rome also made great strides in engineering and the Roman Emperors were considered Gods or close to the Gods probably because of the same abilities we see in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian rulers.

    For the time being, our civilization which is Roman/Greco based but, in the context of this thread seems to have only really started after the 12th century is far behind, in terms of longevity, my previously discussed civilizations. The western drive to explore, invent, build higher (which is dwarfed by the comparitive achievements of Egypt and partially Rome) has only been chugging along for approx. 600 years. It is also showing signs of anarchy, collapse and disintegration.

    Note: I failed to include mention of the Indian civilization which, at a relative level of complexity, lasted (officially) from the Indus Valley civilization 8000 -7000 BC to 1000 AD (the Chola Dynasty). That's a period of approx. 8000 to 9000 years.

    What was the civil discipline that kept this civilization running?
    Last edited: May 2, 2007
  12. May 3, 2007 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Ok, I thought my last post sounded a bit rubbish too :smile:, didn’t help that I’d looked no further than books on aesthetics, but where did I miss the point? A quick look at the web found a summary that contains and explains some of my position (with clarity). Rather than speculating too much on an alternative, I’ll try to stick to why I think Christianity was not at the very heart of the motivation for these accomplishments-

    ‘The humanists of the fifteenth century could have risen to the truly Christian motives for man's nobility. Instead, they bound themselves to paganism and Neo-Platonism, and plunged, unknowingly, into pantheism and immanentism.’

    Even though these accomplishments included Churches and Cathedrals they were indicative of a movement away from Church authority. The discovery and application of Vitruvius’ work, evidence of a weakened regard for Church authority, made Brunelleschi’s Dome possible. And in the north, Flamboyant Gothic was delayed by the Hundred Year War, but, as the name suggests, was the work of a people whose Church had a weaker hold of them. And the argument that faithful motivation existed because of this comparatively malleable state defeats its purpose.

    Even if an underlying faith in Christianity existed during the Renaissance I don’t see how this motivated the great accomplishments spoken of. Admittedly, just an underlying faith may have something to do with the survival, but not so much with the cause of the accomplishments beyond those that are the basic means of survival, which belong to European civilisation. Why would this cause the desire to paint ‘realistically’, and paint pagan myths, or suggest heliocentricity in the face of contemporary interpretations of the Bible, or find new trade routes?

    Lastly, that, as Baywax noted, this particular civilisation has survived unto this day, how is continued motivation explained?

    PS how did that lightbulb get there?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  13. May 4, 2007 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Firstly, the motivation for realism in art and monumental heights in architecture etc, seems to have occured during Egyptian times (as well).

    Egyptian Art
    Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer
    Bernard V. Bothmer
    Edited by Madeleine E. Cody

    http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ArtArchitecture/History/Ancient/~~/dmlldz11c2EmY2k9OTc4MDE5NTEzMDcxMw== [Broken]

    Without referenceing I hope that you will remember that realism in Frescos, Sculptures and Paintings was achieved to a great degree by the Greeks and Romans. The Helenistic Period is full of examples of this. And Greek Architecture went well beyond that of their contemporaries.

    Achievements like this are motivated by only a few things: money, demand and the discovery that is involved in these pursuits and the acclaim that the discovery bestows upon the artist and patron alike.

    The above mentioned cultures that produced realism and magnificent architecture - and the culture of the Italian Renaissance which was inspired by the art of their anscestors, were all disciplined by an ethical knowledge and science that came to them by way of religion, rulers and teachers of wisdom and cooperation. Each of the cultures is taught these ethics in a different manner, with different stories. But the overall picture is that ethics helps to create an environment stable enough for intrepid exploration of every kind. This includeds finding new trading partners, building costly and experimental stuctures and taking pleasure in the arts as opposed to slaughter, hunting and basic agriculture endevours.

    The result is what is known as a flourishing civilzation. Ethics help to keep this sort of civilization from getting infected with anarchy and self-servitude. Have we achieved this within our own Civilization?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  14. May 4, 2007 #13


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Thanks, I’m not able to access the link to Egyptian art, but in any case, I wasn’t saying that this didn’t occur in other cultures, only that 'realistic' art and art with pagan subject matter was the antithesis of being motivated by Christianity at that time.

    Andre had written-
    ‘Seeing the focus on construction building for the deities rather than for the peopl itself, it seems logical that motivation had to do something with difference in the fundamentals of the religion.’

    I still don’t see any good reason for this statement, and have offered reasons that refute it.

    Baywax wrote that ‘Achievements like this are motivated by only a few things: money, demand and the discovery that is involved in these pursuits and the acclaim that the discovery bestows upon the artist and patron alike.’

    I agree to a large extent, and again wonder for what reason it is claimed that it had to do with the difference in the fundamentals of the religion.

    That as Baywax concludes, 'the culture of the Italian Renaissance was inspired by the art of their ancestors, and disciplined by an ethical knowledge and science that came to them by way of religion, rulers and teachers of wisdom and cooperation', says little about the ‘difference in the fundamentals of the religion’ that Andre claimed was motivation, and more, I’m not quite sure what it is arguing. I wonder if it was close to my speculation. Specifically, what are these ethics that are particular to Christianity, and how are the contributions to today's civilisation of people of different creeds or religions accounted for?
  15. May 4, 2007 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Perhaps Christianity relied on the failures of other religions (pagan or otherwise) and cultures that came before it. It didn't dwell on the aspect of the other culture's longevity, only on the fact that incidents like the "Tower of Babel" demonstrated that discord between various nationals and cultures would end in disarray and the collapse of anything this sort of mix of people would attempt to build. (The actual story is that "god" didn't want humans building as high as heaven or something. But the effect of the story is to drive home the benefits of the spirit of cooperation between nations and how it allows, through ethical intercourse, for great achievements.) Today we are experiencing the global aspect of this sort of idealism. The goal is a lofty one and tends to cause what is termed today as "collateral damage". As with the Tower of Babel, the quality of international relations and the sovereign state of individuality and human rights may end up being the collateral damage of the "Tower of Globalization". Or, it could lead to another manifestation of renaissance thinking and creating.

    (edit)That's not to say that there have been no significant advances in science, exploration and trade lately. It seems, however, that the beneficial effects of this sort of endevour are limited to a relatively small portion of the 6 billion people in the global network at this time. The science of ethics is based on an overall benefit to each, equal partner of the ecosystem of the planet. In other words, every man, woman and child, animal, reptile, amphibian and plant. And this standard is based on the general balance and integrated symbiotics and synergy that we are able to observe in nature. I'm not sure if Christian ethics embraces this sort of wholistic approach or not.
    Last edited: May 4, 2007
  16. May 4, 2007 #15
    We have to look at all elements. The Northern / Central Europe culture was attacked by the bubonic plague, severe weather and ergotism in the cause of two centuries somewhere between 1250 and 1500. Yet the civilisation came out with flying colors. The hypothesis is that this was caused by mentality and motivation due to the strong function of religion. The evidence the strong devellopment in churches and cathedrals. Certainly they were build as of the eight century but it appears that the peak building activity was in that period of ordeal. After 1500 there are signs that the climate returned a bit to normal. 1540AD competing 2003 for the year with the warmest summer in Europe. Although, the winters remained cold, not only were there the Bruegel et al winter paintings but also the spanish conquestadores were flabbergasted when they saw the Dutch moving around on the ice at great speeds (on skates).

    Also the major pandemic problems were over. Survival became easy again and the role of the religion quickly lost ground to blooming wealth of the gold ages, humanism and.. science.

    The emphasis is on surviving the two ages of environmental ordeal.

    Not a lot of new cathedrals originate after 1500.

    Lightbulb? Lot's of them here.
    Last edited: May 4, 2007
  17. May 4, 2007 #16


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Andre, do you think there were as many environmental factors and biological obsticles presented to the (Eastern)Indians, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians? Sumer and Mesopotamia along with India were inundated with massive floods that came and went over a 7000 year period. They continued to build their amazing structures... look at the Taj Mahal!
    I know that, for one, the first eruption of Krakatoa at 565 AD coincides with the fall of Rome and some Central and South American civilizations. And stories suggest that plagues and severe weather contributed to Egypt's last century of rule.
  18. May 4, 2007 #17
  19. May 7, 2007 #18


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I’m fond of the op’s topic, so I’ll go further-
    Italy also suffered tremendously, too, throughout the 1300s from particularly violent battles and uncertain lifestyles. As well, the plague hit Italy before the north in 1348, and hard, e.g., the thriving maritime powers of Genoa and Amalfi collapsed due to the Black Death, Genoa recovering later with Columbus’ income. The Visconti Empire of Milan also lost much when Visconti died of the Black Death in 1403.

    The explosion of Church and Cathedral building activity occurred mainly during the 1100 and 1200s, as opposed the more sporadic building that occurred before-hand and that afterwards.

    Exemplifying this mentality is the beautiful Cathedral of Sienna, begun in 1215, finished in 1263, with some additions that began in 1339, but which were halted by the Black Death in 1348, with work never resuming.

    But also exemplified by the dates of some others fine ones of the period- the first two considered the finest, St Denis Basilica (1136-1286) Chartres(1145-1220), Rheims (1211-late 1200s, with addition in the 1300s), Amiens tallest for some time (1220-mainly completed 1288, additions finished in 1366 and 1406), Notre Dame (bulk 1163-1250, addition 1296-1330), Salisbury (1220-12280) with significant changes in 1790, Worms (1110-1181), Rouen (1202, the bulk of building 1200s, but with additions in the 1800s), and Saint Pierre de Beauvais, similarly, the bulk of the building 1200s but remaining incomplete. The conception and most of the work being carried out and evidence of strong religiosity here is prior to the time of the plague crisis, (and possibly the other problems? Or, at most, ceased to continue to the same extent throughout these). And further, the more recent of that activity reflected a different mentality to that at the beginning-

    ‘As Cathedrals reached their peak, ‘at the high point of its (medieval civilisation’s) evolution’ and while Church authority was ‘still preoccupied with essences, it appeared to the eyes of experience and of science that the essences had already changed. Systematic theory necessarily lagged behind the ferments and tensions of practical life. The Medievals perfected their image of political and theological order just when this order was being menaced on all sides- by the rise of nationalism, by vernacular languages, by a new kind of mysticism, by social pressures, by theoretical doubts. At a certain point Scholasticism- the ideology of a universal Catholic state of which the Summae were the constitution, the cathedrals the encyclopaedias, and the University of Paris the capital city – had to confront the poetry of secularism: with Petrarch expressing his contempt for the ‘barbarians’ of Paris; with the ferments of heresy; with the devotio moderna.’ – Eco (again), concluding ‘Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages’.

    Not included in the 11-1200 explosion is the late flowering of Gothic in Italy and Renaissance architecture, such as the Florentine Duomo, begun in 1296-because ‘prosperous Florence wanted to surpass in grandeur its Tuscan rivals’. So here is some activity in Cathedral building during the 1300s, carried out in a prosperous town, as the humanist Petrarch became the Poet Laureate in 1341, and his student Boccaccio wrote The Decameron concerning the Black Death in Florence, (in which the population declined by much more than half between 1348 and1351), and was crowned with a product of Renaissance triumph, Brunellecshi’s dome between 1420 and 1436. The Vatican’s current St Peter’s Basilica with a similar mood, began in 1506 and completed in 1626, with Michelangelo’s contributions.

    Interesting is why North Italy and the Northern (non-Italian) Renaissance seemed later than a merchant town in a hot valley in central Italy. There are some good answers about the North, like egg tempura for frescoes not drying in the cold, and the lack of marble quarries, requiring the Dukes of Burgundy to collect illuminations, wooden sculptures and tapestries until the development of oil paints that will eventually dry in the cold. It does seem that the land of the Dukes was prosperous as one report I’ve seen quotes Miskimin, that 450,000 furs were shipped from Riga to Bruges in 1405 alone, with Riga not being the only source of fur. And, granted, the North was less inclined to adopt the Italian Neo-Platonic pantheism and the lessening of the authority of the Church took other directions.
    I’d like to go on, but risk being even more dull!
    Last edited: May 7, 2007
  20. May 7, 2007 #19
    No it's facinating to find out if a thesis works or not.

    Let's see; Oude kerk (Old church)Delft, started: 1248,

    but the tower between 1325 and 1350.

    New church: 1383-1510

    http://www.monument.delft.nl/sobowon/dmd/data/nieuwe_kerk/toer.htm [Broken]

    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oude_Kerk_(Delfshaven [Broken]) 1417

    Just a first few hits.

    I think that a comprehensive overview of all construction activities may show that indeed the major and famous projects have been started around 1200 but that many of them continously became refined and enlarged in the critical period around 1300-1400 and secondly that many smaller and less famous churches emerged in that critical era as well

    Somebody has students looking for this thesis question?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  21. May 8, 2007 #20
    If we look at it logically, ethics is one of the most important factors for the continuation of a civilization, besides where outside influences factor in. Cruelty and totalitarianism leads to rebellion, and while this may not be enough to bring down a civilization (the rebels would just assume the government positions, if they succeeded), the internal strife makes a civilization ripe for the conquering. Look at the reforms of Akhenaton, who concentrated on reforming Egyptian religion and ethics. The upheaval left no time for concentration on issues that were more immediately critical to the greatness of Egypt, such as defending the borders. Akhenaton's reforms left Egypt on a long decline, leaving the rule to fall to the Greeks and Romans, who almost without conflict took up the reigns. A ruler does not nessecarily have to be moral, but must be able to unify his subjects under one government without cruel deeds.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook