December 30, 2009

Ecology, Civilization and Christmas

Ecology by Process of Elimination…and Christmas

By Christos Yannaras

The author Christos Yannaras with his familiar, meaningful expressiveness locates the root of humanity’s problems in the social, political, environmental and religious spheres.

The so-called “ecological” problem is but the organic offspring of a specific civilization, that is to say, of a generalized way of life - the consumer’s way of life. “Consumerism” does not merely imply a bulimic behavior; it represents a “stance” towards life. The person who has a consumer’s “stance” usually identifies life with the need and the demand for misappropriation, for possession, for domination. He does not know how to commune or to share; he is totally unsuspecting of the joy that can spring from self-transcendence, from self-offering, and from amorous selflessness.

Consumerism is the manifestation and the consequence of self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is a term with a broader inference; it implies that the individual is the center of life, and not the joy of community relations; it means to buttress one’s ego and to not risk any self-sacrifice. A product of self-centeredness – even before consumerism – is the absolute and self-evident priority of an individual’s rights.

Nowadays, we think, we speak, we comprehend (co-apprehend) amongst ourselves on the basis of individual rights; it seems unthinkable and unrealistic to regard relations as a primary need, and as a first priority the participation in a community, the constituting of a “polis”[1].

When speaking literally, we should never use the expression “a civilization of self-centeredness” – “civilization” and “self-centeredness” are two incompatible and contradictory meanings. “Civilization” (poli-tismos) is the offspring of a “city”[2], whereas self-centeredness is to be trapped in one’s innate instincts.

“Polis” (city) does not merely imply an expanded settlement of inhabitants; it is actually the by-product of a common feat, where each individual transcends his personal self-interest in lieu of the pleasure derived from community relations. An entrapment in one’s innate instincts denotes the direct opposite, i.e., the armoring of the ego by each individual, and the prioritizing of one’s self-preservation, one’s domination and one’s pleasure. Self-centeredness is a phase of primitivism; it is a perseverance to primitive irrationality, whereas “civilization” means to be liberated from one’s subjugation to his instincts and to prioritize logical relations.

When an achievement known as “polis” has been realized, and “politics” have produced civilization (politismos), people will no longer be content to merely share common needs; they will no longer co-exist to merely serve their personal interests through the apportioning of labor. They will proceed to place goals of truth – i.e., goals that pertain to existential veridicality – and they will also aspire to the evaluating of qualities; they will then commonly share a culture (education) as an uppermost necessity. They will therefore never deign (as there will be no need) to armor any individual rights. The honor of being a citizen (politis) - of participating in the “feat of upholding truth” which is politics - more than amply covers the security promised by collective “contracts” – by that primitivism called “individual rights”.

The ancestry of today’s ecological menace will surely be wanting, if we were to ignore the religious source of the consumerist self-centeredness that gave birth to the ecological nightmare. This religious ”womb” has specific historical coordinates: it is located in the utterly underdeveloped “barbaric” tribes who, from the end of the 4th up to and including the 6th century, overran the Western Roman Empire and disintegrated it, thereafter creating the meta-Roman Europe with its rearranged populations.

These tribes hastened to become “Christianized”, because at the time, to become Christian was tantamount to entering civilization. However, the invaders’ degree of illiteracy and underdevelopment was such that did not allow for a reliable assimilation of Christianity (much like our own time, with the “urbanization” of first or second-generation “nouveaux riches“, who abandoned their rural lives). The barbaric tribes altered the ecclesiastic event; they turned it into a natural religion that catered to the instinctive demands of the natural persona’s religiosity.

Self-centeredness is the typical characteristic of every natural religion; it was also the typical characteristic of the “Christianity” cultivated by the new denizens of Europe. Faith, from the feat of self-transcendence and loving self-surrender that it is, was re-shaped, into individual “convictions”, thus buttressing the ego by means of intellectual concessions and psychological certainties. Ascesis[3], from the feat of self-denial for the sake of participating in the ecclesiastic communion of life that it is, was changed into a moralistic, personal discipline towards laws and coded commandments, for the sake of armoring the individual with the certainty of “merits”.

Salvation lost its etymological meaning[4]; It came to be perceived as an eternal safeguarding of one’s ego. Personal faith, personal morality, personal salvation….the Church ceased to signify an event of any sort – a “eucharist”[5] congregation, a mode of existence, or a body whose members partake of life, in the likeness of the Triadic God Who is “love per se”.

The Church became a religion - an ideology, complete with institutions designed for effectiveness and enforcement, with dogmas and a legalistic monitoring of the fidelity of the individual’s adherence to the dogma and a faithful observance of its codified morality through the individual’s behaviour. Total oblivion is displayed to the fact that in the Church, the pioneers who show the way are those who have forsaken their ego: robbers, prodigals, tax-collectors, whores…. and that the Saints of the Church are an open embrace for everyone. They are never censuring prosecutors who inspire guiltiness.

The new world of the European West eventually spurned the distorted, tyrannical-to-man Christianity, after a painful historical series of revolts and protesting. Except that the revolts were against the superficial symptomatology of a tyrannical religiosity – they never actually sought (nor did they detect) its central axis, which is none other than the primitivism of “atomocracy”[6]

Thus, within the new (the innovative) “model” of a generalized way of life that the West gave birth to, amazing achievements of technology, of effectiveness in institutions, of progress in knowledge were established (or, more correctly, hovered) atop the precariousness of atomocracy’s primitivism.

A civilization (politismos) that is “pre-political” (ignorant or unsuspecting of the achievement of a “polis” and the “feat of truth” of politics) will subjugate every pursuit to impressiveness, to hedonism, to a deceptive languor in the individual. In place of individual faith is an idealogicalized, primitive atomocracy; in place of individual morality is a self-destructive utilitarianism; in place of individual salvation is a frosty “hope” for a nihilism of individuality.

This “politismos” (civilization) celebrates Christmas by reversing the terms and the reasons behind the Feast – in exactly the same way that it is striving to solve the ecological problem: without reversing the terms and the reasons that gave birth to the problem…


[1] Polis : the original, ancient Greek term denoting a polarization, a concentration of citizens (polites) in one place. Latin: civis, civitas - civilian.

[2] Civilization (=Greek, “politismos”), is a product of the term for civilian (=Greek , “politis”), which is derived from the term for city (=Greek, “polis”)

[3] Ascesis (= Greek, personal labors aspiring to spiritual profit)

[4] Salvation, in Greek “sotiria”, from the root verb “sozo” (to save-salvage) and “sozomai” (to be saved-salvaged), which means to become whole, integral; to attain the fullness of my existential possibilities.

[5] Eucharist, in Greek “efharistia” = thanks, offering of thanks

[6] Atomo-cracy (in Greek, “atomo”= the individual, “-cracy” = the rule of)

Source: Newspaper “KATHIMERINI - SUNDAY EDITION” 23-12-2007