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

By Elemér Hankiss | Go to book overview

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’.

-275-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements xv
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - Fear and the Social Sciences 5
  • Chapter Two - The World of Symbols 47
  • Chapter Three - An Alien World? 69
  • Chapter Four - The Garden of Eden 91
  • Chapter Five - The Image of the World 113
  • Chapter Six - The Moral Universe 137
  • Chapter Seven - The World of Guilt 157
  • Chapter Eight - The Rational World 181
  • Chapter Nine - The World of Beauty 205
  • Chapter Ten - The World of Play 219
  • Chapter Eleven - The World of Jokes 245
  • Chapter Twelve - The World of Trivialities 261
  • Chapter Thirteen - Symbols and Civilization 275
  • Bibliography 283
  • Index 299
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