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Collapsing the Maya

Let’s take Jared Diamond by the horns.

He would like us to believe that the decline and fall of the Maya was a tragic loss, and a sadly overgrown sculpture in the jungle ornaments the cover of his book Collapse.

But I don’t care if the Maya civilization did collapse. I don’t think we should shed a single retrospective tear. It might be interesting to know how or why it fell—whether from war or drought or disease or soil exhaustion—but I don’t much care about that either. Because quite frankly, as civilizations go, the Mayan civilization in Mexico didn’t amount to much.

Now I know this is a shocking thing to say. Gallery owners in New York and elsewhere will cry out indignantly about the glories of Maya art. They will show you terra cotta figurines and fine reliefs and paintings and tell splendid tales of “kings” and “nobles” and such. In deference to this view we shall gladly concede that Maya art is not uninteresting. But it is sheer romantic fantasy to mourn the passing, around 900 AD, of an aristocracy of hypersensitive native aesthetes—though anthropologists and art critics have written reams of such stuff.

Glamorous talk of “kings” and “lords” and “nobles” always sounds better than a realistic description of murderous and predatory chieftains with little but power, conquest, self-glorification, enslavement, and killing and torture on their minds. Yes: they wore spectacular feather head-dresses. Yes: they built sky-high piles of masonry. But their hands dripped blood—incessantly.

Even Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress (2004) seems to agree. His disdainful view of civilization is not one I share, and is designed to serve a familiar agenda. He tells us for example that between the 8th and the 10th century AD, as things went wrong in Mayaland, and then got a whole lot worse, that the Maya solution “was higher pyramids, more power to the kings, harder work for the masses, more foreign wars. In modern terms, the Maya elite became extremists, or ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drops of profit from nature and humanity.”

Alas for such speculations, this isn’t what happened at all. It is simply not the case that the Maya once lived in warm, loving, supportive communities, reciting nature poetry and drinking jasmine tea… and then somehow lost their way. Instead they were doing what bellicose tribal populations have always done—straining the carrying capacity of the land, warring with neighbours, and trying in grisly ways to appease their gods.

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Who has not felt the pathos of ruins? Even a humble pioneer homestead with rusty pots lying in the grass, and a charred chimney still standing against the sky, makes you pause and wonder about the people who lived there once. Is it surprising that when the American John Stephens stumbled upon the ruins of Maya temples in Yucatan he should have been carried away?

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished… Architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory had lived and passed away… We went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidence of their taste, their skill in arts… We called back into life the strange people who gazed in sadness from the wall; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feather…”

From one point of view this is a natural response. But it is also a wholly aesthetic response—the response of a mind entirely untroubled by questionable social, economic, or political institutions, let alone simple humanity. Gazing upon the ruins Stephens conjures up in his imagination a world of “orators, warriors, and statesmen.”

Yet if he’d rashly “called back into life” some of the people painted on the wall he could have got a surprise. He might have found they weren’t so much “gazing in sadness” as contorted with pain. On page 172 Diamond tells us that “archaeologists for a long time believed the ancient Maya to be gentle and peaceful people.” (Although why archaeologists should have held this belief, beyond their customary wishful thinking, he doesn’t explain.) “We now know that Maya warfare was intense, chronic, and unresolvable…” and that the sadness Stephens detected long ago was due to some very nasty customs indeed:

“Captives were tortured in unpleasant ways depicted clearly on the monuments and murals (such as yanking fingers out of sockets, pulling out teeth, cutting off the lower jaw, trimming of the lips and fingertips, pulling out the fingernails, and driving a pin through the lips), culminating, sometimes years later, in the sacrifice of the captive in other equally unpleasant ways such as tying the captive up into a ball by binding the arms and legs together, then rolling the balled-up captive down the steep stone staircase of a temple.”

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I suppose it all depends on what you expect a civilization to offer. The Maya, and the Aztecs too, offered barbarism plus pyramids. Personally I don’t think that’s enough. What we expect of any civilization worth the name is something that lifts us up, something elevating if not ennobling—something that looks beyond the endless cyclical violence of the barbaric past, however interesting its art may be.

Above all what we expect is a moral and philosophical perspective on human existence. The “examined life” as Socrates put it, with the fruit of this examination religiously incorporated and expressed. Egypt had this. India had this. China had this. But as far as we know the Maya did not.

Of course you need to also have a developed form of writing to record evidence that life has been examined, thought about, and critically assayed. It is true the Maya had a rudimentary script, and efforts have been made to prove they also had what might loosely be called a philosophical interest in time. Wright comments that “using their advanced arithmetic in a calendar known as the Long Count, the Maya charted the mystery of time, recording astronomical events and running mythological calculations far into the past and future—sometimes over millions of years.”

But my own impression is that however successful they were in “charting the mystery of time”, Maya calendrical calculations mainly reflected a mistaken devotion to astrology and numerology—and a more sterile dead-end it would be hard to find.

What I look for in a civilization is Mind at Work. That’s what we find in ancient Greece when Heraclitus maintained that everything changes, and Parmenides retorted that nothing changes. A serious religion with a seriously uplifting ethic is also welcome: failing that, as among the Greeks, let’s have a serious freethinker like Xenophanes, who wondered why the faithful always imagine that their gods look like themselves:

“If oxen or horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.”

As for maths, one Pythagoras is worth a million Mayan astrologers, while a single calculation by Eratosthenes is worth a wilderness of numerologists. What Pythagoras said about right-angled triangles led to the discovery of incommensurables. In Bertrand Russell’s words, his argument

proved that, whatever unit of length we may adopt, there are lengths which bear no exact numerical relation to the unit, in the sense that there are no two integers m, n, such that m times the length in question is n times the unit. This convinced the Greek mathematicians that geometry must be established independently of arithmetic.

In the third century BC Eratosthenes used simple instruments and elementary geometry to measure the earth’s diameter. He came up with a figure of 7,850 miles—about fifty miles short of the truth. In connection with Greek science we might also mention Democritus, who once cried: “I would rather find a single causal law than be king of Persia!”

Then there’s drama. A serious civilization has to get beyond ritual, beyond charades and dressing up and sacred mumbo jumbo and human sacrifice. You have to see Mind at Work. And that is what the Greeks gave us too in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. For sure, it all began with songs chanted in honor of Dionysus. But it didn’t get stuck there. See the first chapter of Allardyce Nicoll’s World Drama: from Aeschylus to Anouilh for details.

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But over and above philosophy, science, and the arts, there must be an attempt to move politics beyond the turmoil of barbarian chiefs everlastingly contesting blood-soaked patches of ground. The civilization of the Maya never got past that in Yucatan. But in Greece, one thousand years before the Maya (and aeons before the Maya in terms of cultural development), an alternative and enlightened tradition of political thought and action, long in gestation, had already received its quintessential expression under Pericles. His oft-quoted speech in defence of Athens can never be quoted enough:

Our political system does not compete with institutions which are elsewhere in force. We do not copy our neighbours, but try to be an example. Our administration favors the many instead of the few: that is why it is called democracy.

The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege but as a reward of merit; and poverty is no bar…

The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and do not nag our neighbour if he chooses to go his own way. But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right.

Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner. We are free to live exactly as we please, and yet we are always ready to face danger. We love beauty without indulging in fancies, and although we try to improve our intellect, this does not weaken our will.

To admit one’s poverty is no disgrace with us; but we consider it disgraceful not to make an effort to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect public affairs when attending to his private business… We consider a man who takes no interest in the state not as harmless, but as useless; and although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.

We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely. We believe that happiness is the fruit of freedom and freedom that of valor, and we do not shrink from the dangers of war.

To sum up, I claim that Athens is the School of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian grows up to develop a happy versatility, a readiness for emergencies, and self-reliance.

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The ripples of Greek civilization spread globally, and deserved to. There were no ripples from the Maya. No enlightenment. Nothing. Just art and masonry and the dried blood of long-dead sacrificial victims. That is not nearly enough.

Posted in Civilization.