Fears and Symbols: An Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization

By Elemér Hankiss | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THIRTEEN
SYMBOLS AND CIVILIZATION

“True, we need hope But we do not need more, and we
must not be given more. We do not need certainty.”

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

I HAVE argued that existential fear is one of the main generative forces of human civilization. It seems to play a much more important role in this process than is usually assumed by social scientists. To protect themselves against the threats of an ‘alien world’, and against their own fears and anxieties, human beings and communities surround themselves with systems of symbols. The constellation of these symbolic systems is one of the main components of human civilization.1

I hope that I have shown convincingly that studying human civilizations from the angle of this hypothesis sheds new light on its various aspects. The hypothesis explains the importance and the amazing survival of myths even in high-tech contemporary societies. It puts the major myths of various civilizations—the myth of centrality, the myth of the morality and rationality of the universe, and so on—in a new light. It reinterprets the cosmic drama of guilt and redemption; the role of the arts, play, and jokes; and even the paraphernalia of our contemporary consumer civilization. It helps us better understand how civilizations come about and how they function.

Before concluding this book, however, let me check our hypothesis once more. Can we prove that symbols and symbolic systems do ‘protect’ people against the dangers of the world and against their own anxieties and fears; and that this protection is the primary function of the symbolic structures of civilizations? The answer depends on how we define the concepts of ‘symbol’ and ‘protection’.

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