Civilization at Risk

Ortega y Gasset thought that civilization is above all else the “will to live in common.” I referred to this claim by Ortega in a previous blog and want to return to this notion in a second. But I also want to evoke the authority of Clarence King who was a close friend of both Henry Adams and John Leslie Powell and who insisted that there is a natural “pilgrimage” in the development of human societies — from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization, and finally vulgarization.

The notion that humans evolved from savages (a word that is no longer politically correct, even if it connotes a stage in human development) to civilized humans with religion, art, literature, written history, language, and science is most provocative. All of this, of course, takes place in the name of “progress.” But the claim to the superiority of the “civilized” has come under fire of late as we learn that savage and barbarian people have a culture that in many respects is superior to that of “civilized” people. Indeed, we are now being sold the fiction of the “noble savage,” a notion that has long been around but which has become ever more prominent as colonization has come under fire. I find the notion of the “noble savage” borderline absurd. But the notion that we should impose our way of life on others rests on the assumption that our way of life is paradigmatic, which it most assuredly is not. In saying this, however, I seriously doubt whether even the most zealous among us would want to trade our “civilized” way of life for a more primitive one. The notion that we have progressed does seem to hold water, though I sometimes wonder if the “pilgrimage” that King talks about isn’t circular: we end up pretty much where we started from.

There is something to say for civilization, for art, music, science, and above all else language. But it does seem that in our urge to “tame” the wilderness, bring railroads, highways, airports, towns, and commerce, we have also brought the vulgar, and the next step may indeed be a return to the level of the savage. King doesn’t deny the possibility: the steps we take may not be linear, they may be circular. We do appear to be regressing, not progressing. What we are doing to the wilderness is inexcusable. But what we are doing to ourselves is even more distressing. Without language, sophisticated language, not just grunts and gestures, we cannot think. And thought at this time is absolutely necessary for our survival as a species. The “will to live in common,” that Ortega speaks of is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as we lose self-restraint and the good manners that take others into account.  Our sense of trust in one another, not to mention our basic awareness of others, is in retreat. The cause of this regression, in my view, is the weakening of the pillars of a civilized society: the family, religion, civil law, and the schools. These four institutions are essential for civilization to stand firm against the tide of self-interest and greed which foster the regression that is apparent. And while we remain, for the most part, a law-abiding country, the other three pillars are weak at the foundation.

I don’t say that we should bottle Western civilization and sell it to other “savage” or “barbarous” peoples. On the contrary.  But we should not allow it to vanish altogether. We should be aware that we are on the verge of becoming if not savage then barbarous ourselves — if we haven’t become so already. Jacques Barzun thought it was happening in the 1960s and warned us to lock up our treasures. The Romans were invaded by barbarians who brought about the fall of their empire. We are breeding our own with the failure of three of the pillars that support this civilization. I can’t believe this is a good thing.

4 thoughts on “Civilization at Risk

  1. You can almost argue that some of the Eastern civilizations, especially the Chinese, have done better at preserving their even longer, richer heritage of the hallmarks of civilization — art, philosophy, literature that, for centuries, surpassed or was “rediscovered” by the west. It is going to be interesting to see how the continued westernization/modernization of some of the Eastern cultures affects that.

    I am also reminded of that novel by Ann Patchett, “State of Wonder,” that we both read last year about the medical researchers from the states who developed close ties to the Amazonian tribe they worked with — the book left it interestingly vague over which culture was better. The tribe lacked a lot of things, but also had discovered this incredible natural fertility treatment. And while they were threatened by cannibals, the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice lives of its researchers in the name of profit.

    • It will be interesting to see how the East manages to handle the onslaught of capitalism. It does seem that Japan is already looking an awful lot like us.

  2. One of my favorite passages from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy seems relevant. “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

    “And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

    “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”

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