February 19, 2019

Memory Of The Vanquished

Although I do not speak of this fabulous Disney cartoon, turns out Zootopia does, in a way, exemplify some of this post's themes. Also, have I mentioned how much I like this animated feature?

I've been reading a truly fascinating book on and off since the beginning of the year. It is Bernard Werber's Encyclop├ędie du Savoir Relatif et Absolu--basically, an encyclopedia of interesting facts and tidbits that cover everything from science to religion, philosophy to chocolate cake recipes. It is a cookbook for ideas and creativity, a generator of food for thoughts*.
Thomas More’s Utopia designed in 1516

One of these I shall translate for you here (from French), as it brings up an interesting philosophical point, and ensuing questions:

Of the past we only know the winners' version. Thus we only know of Troy what Greek historians told. We know of Gaul only through Julius Caesar's Memoirs. We only know of the Aztecs or the Incas through the tales of the conquistadors and missionaries who had gone there to convert their people by force.

And in each case, the few talents attributed to those defeated are there only to glorify the merits of those who managed to annihilate them.

Who will dare speak of the "memory of the vanquished"? History books condition us to the idea that, according to the Darwin principle, if civilizations have disappeared it is because they were ill-adapted. But when investigating the events, we finally understand that, more often than not, the more civilized populations were destroyed by the more brutal ones. Their only unsuitability consisted of believing in peace treatises, as with the Carthaginians, or presents, as was the case with the Trojans (ah, the apology of Ulysses's ruse which was but treachery that lead to a nocturnal massacre)...

The worst is perhaps that, not only do the winners destroy their victims' history books and memorabilia, but that they also insult them. 
Theseus against the Minotaur

The Greeks invented the legend of Theseus vanquishing a bull-headed monster who ate virgins to legitimize the invasion of Crete and the destruction of the superb Minoan civilization. The Romans pretended that the Carthaginians made sacrifices to their god Moloch, which, we now know, was entirely false.

Who will ever dare speak of the victims' splendor? The gods, perhaps, who know the beauty and subtlety of those civilizations that were destroyed by fire and sword...

My first and foremost question, then, is this:
How likely is it for a civilization to have truly been pacifist? War, after all, even if with "rudimentary" weapons, is a staple of humanity (how can it not, when our animal instincts are all about marking our territory--and the limited resources it contains--and the spreading of our own genes?).

I rather believe that, instead, most populations (from empires all the way down to the smallest tribe) who were pacifists, were mostly so either because they were completely isolated (no fear of the invaders), or had been repeatedly cowed by stronger enemies (read the excellent article on the subject by William Buckner, linked below)...or had developed a mutually-beneficent trading market instead.
Mohenjo-daro street and drains
(Mortimer Wheeler, 1959)
Mohenjo-daro was one of the Harappan
Society's largest cities.

But the latter, the basis behind the European vision (amongst other examples), cannot last unless it continues to be mutually advantageous to all involved parties (at least more so than a war between them), and said parties are strong enough to fend off outside warring parties (please read the interesting Q&A on the Harappan civilization linked below).

So, perhaps Darwin's idea of the survival of the fittest isn't that far off, as history invariably gives preference to the strongest and/or most conniving (of course, in this Werber is right, that history is written by the victors).

In the process, those who dream only of peace without having the means to properly defend themselves against invaders (or don't keep up with the required technology to do so), will be destroyed, and their knowledge either absorbed by the conquerors, or otherwise wiped out of history books.

At least for as long as we are human.

However, being human also means we all aspire, to some degree or another, to a nobler state. How can any of us live properly if we don't see ourselves as being good and/or right in some shape or form? And Werber hits the nail on the head when he mentions the tendencies of the victors to vilify their victims (oh my, what an alliteration!).

Because, as briefly explored  in another article on false accusations during WWI, such horrible lies are sometimes the only way to "allow" us, even condone us, to perform what is essentially fratricide (aren't we all brothers and sisters, after all?).

And that should give us hope.

Hope and Butterflies by Jean Plout

Additional Sources:
The sad and violent history of 'peaceful societies', by William Buckner
Mayan human sacrifices
Child sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures
Algonquins of Ontario history
How peaceful was Harappan Civilization

*Although many of the entries are still valid, some of the items are dated (it combines books the author's written since the nineties), but one can't fault Werber for that. The encyclopedia is a testament to the (mostly) western world's knowledge at the turn of the century, and is still a great source for further studies (at which point we can discover any appropriate update to the subject at heart).

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