Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Can Civilization Save Us? A Study in Civilizational Analysis and Legal History

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Can Civilization Save Us? A Study in Civilizational Analysis and Legal History

Article excerpt

Let me say at the outset that I have no illusions that I can provide solutions to all the threats-climate change, ecological destruction, civil wars, terrorism, etc.-that we face today, because we civilizationalists operate at a high level of analysis.

On the other hand, I do believe that we can identify a number of civilizational complexes that emerged only in the West and that will be indispensable for guiding whatever efforts can be made to ameliorate the threats we face.

Civilizational Analysis

Just to be clear about the level of analysis with which I operate: I mean by the term civilizations social entities that tend to be multi-ethnic, often multi-lingual and even multinational but which share underlying religious, legal, and philosophical assumptions. Consequently such formations have very large-scale coherence. The fundamental symbolic and institutional structures of such entities produce transnational effects that give both coherence and developmental design to the whole configuration. From this point of view, "A civilization constitutes a kind of moral milieu encompassing a certain number of nations, each national culture being only a particular form of the whole."1 As Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss put it,

social phenomena that are not strictly attached to a determinate social organism do exist; they extend into areas that reach beyond the national territory or they develop over periods of time that exceed the history of a single society. They have a life which is in some ways supranational.2

I take Europe as the exemplar of that kind of civilizational formation. Other examples of this kind of formation would obviously include the Islamic world, China, Indian, and Russian Orthodox civilization. Of course there are many mixed cases but here I only want to set out the extraordinary consequences of the European civilizational development, set against the background of the divergent developments of Islam and China.

The Formative Period

During the High Middle Ages, especially the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Europe experienced a great transformation that put it on an entirely different footing than any other part of the world. This was above all a great legal revolution that laid the foundations for what are now seen as modern political institutions.3 These include the rise of parliamentary democracy, the foundations of what we know as due process of law, the very idea of elective representation in all forms of corporate bodies, and not least of all, the legal autonomy of cities and towns. All of these innovations contributed to the establishment of elements of constitutionalism that became the hallmark of modernity.4

Moreover, this broad legal transformation laid the foundations for the rise and autonomous development of universities that enabled the unfettered pursuit of modern science that has continued to the present. Furthermore, the structural stability of these new institutions gave a new measure of predictability, providing a new foundation for economic development that has been called the "commercial revolution" of the thirteenth century.5 This legal revolution is the too-little-discussed foundation for the rise of modern capitalism as well.

At the center of this development one finds the legal and political principle of treating collective actors as a whole body-a corporation, or corporate entity. This is the fundamental basis of all forms of legal autonomy-that is, the legal autonomy of cities and towns, and professional associations such as doctors and lawyers, but also charitable organizations and, of course, the foundation for the legal autonomy enjoyed by different kinds of business and commercial organizations. The now infamous recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is clearly based on this early modern legal notion of legally autonomous entities referred to as corporations.

But let me add just one more aspect of the legal revolution that has been completely lost from view by all of our fashionable digital presentism. …

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