The Paradox of Civilization and the Shadow Carried by All

A few days ago I followed the live stream of TEDx Amsterdam.

I really like the concept of TED and have watched many videos of their previous talks.

Those that have my special interest are the ones about the relation between the individual and society. That is why I was especially fascinated by the presentation of the speaker who more or less had to summarise the talks of the whole day, Louise Fresco.

There were a few things in her presentation that I found interesting. The first was her mention of the word ‘learning cycle’ instead of ‘learning curve’, a cycle instead of a straight line as a metaphor for how we learn.

That is very much how I see learning and development and certainly something I am going to explore in some future (hopefully sense making) blog posts.

What I also found very interesting was her mentioning of the third culture. About how we should bridge the gap between art and science. Also something I am really passionate about.

But in this post I want to focus on something else she said. Halfway her presentation she talks about the paradox of civilization.


First she talks about our human capacity to focus, to concentrate on something we personally find important, which requires passion and emotion.

But opposed to that, is another aspect of human nature, the need to control our impulses.

Civilization comes with greater control of impulses. We control violence, the state is there to control ourselves and control others. We also have something called self-control. Inner directed self-control, whereby we know there are certain things we don’t do anymore. You could argue that civilization is increasing control over human nature.

It is this control of our impulses that makes it possible for us to work together, to cooperate, to share ideas, to listen to one another, because if you continue shouting and I continue shouting, we can not listen.

So on the one hand we are, as a society, developing towards more and more civilization, what is characterized by more and more control. But as she points out, this control is getting out of hand.

But here is to the paradox of today, one that we haven’t touched but one that I feel very strongly about and would like to share with you. Yes, we have a learning curve in our societies of increased control. But we also see today in the last few years an increasing move towards uncontrollable things. Uncontrollable behavior, unselfcontroled behavior.

That actually goes against the grain of what has been the great movement of our society of control of human nature.

Many, many thoughts went through my mind when I heard that. Personally I think it all is part of the process, but I am by far not sure how to get that into words. Many of my previous posts were about that theme, but somehow I am not yet capable of bringing my points across in some understandable way.

The shadow carried by all

But this paradox of civilization also made me think again of an article Shadow carried by all, says Jung. It is an article from the archives of the New York Times, and it touched upon this paradox.

In the article, Jung says that morality is not something that can be forced upon someone. We all carry a shadow and it is very likely suppressed and isolated from our consciousness. But along with this shadow, or hidden within, or however that might work, we also have an inherent morality.

But if we force our understanding of morality on someone else it will not work, at least that is what I understand of the following quote.

To live with a saint might cause an inferiority complex or even wild outburst of immorality in individuals less morally gifted. You cannot pump morality into a system where it is not indigenous, though you may spoil it.

The only way things can change, is with a change in individuals.

Such problems can only be solved by a general change of attitude. It begins with a change in individuals. The accumulation of such individual changes only will produce a collective solution.

So we can not force morality upon others. The only way to become moral, is by working through the shadow.

The paradox of civilization

So I guess the paradox of civilization has to do with individual development. The individual needs space to go through this development. Society develops through a gradual increasing civilization, but at a certain point it needs to stop and give the individual the space to go through their own shadow.

And discover their own inherent moral nature.

The paradox of civilization and the shadow carried by all

Image: source


    1. My understanding of the shadow is that it is part of the unconsious mind which is suppressed. It contains our weakness, shortcomings and instincts. It is a link to our more primitive and animal instincts, which are suppresed. It is what we project on others, seeing our shortcomings in others.

      But it is also the place of creativity, if the shadow is recognised and understood.

  1. Hi,
    this is a very interesting area: I have been reading about this paradox via the phenomena of witchcraft trials (middle ages through to the Enlightenment) and in Hans Peter Duerr’s book (Dreamtime – concerning wilderness and civilization) he says that some historical societies in eastern Europe/ western Asia have had the ritual (rite of passage, initiation, acquiescence to the inevitable?) of allowing young men (it’s a sexist world) to go wild (Ulfar) , outside the law and outside civilization as a whole, for a period of time to explore the extremes of human nature away from being able to do harm to calmer folk. They did this, to paraphrase Duerr, to better understand the civilization they come from from having experienced wildness.
    It is also reminiscent of Australian and American aboriginal traditions (see David Abram – The Spell of the Sensuous; Chatwin, The Songlines; and John (Fire) Lame Deer’s recollections).

    1. Very interesting! I searched for some of what you wrote and find it fascinating. And I think Duerr really has a point about the problem with ‘trying to understand archaic society through a western rationalist framework’, as the Wiki article says. Somehow I think that is the essence of most of our problems, as this archaic part is still a part of our society.

      1. The suppression and non-acknowledgement of some of our archaic adaptations and ways (there may be better terms than these) leads, I believe to a lot of our Western problems in education, family breakdown, and mental health issues. There seems to me to be more allowance, even an intuited necessity, for differences between people, e.g. the Lakota Indian’s category of men who act and live as women. They even have special powers and to be given a secret name by one such is very powerful.
        On a different note: see also, if you can get it, Evan Eisenberg’s Ecology of Eden. Another large and considered account of the relationship of Mankind to the rest of nature and the role of the Abrahamic religions and Ancient Greek culture in that.

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