I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:
“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”
This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.
Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?
On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?
It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?
I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.
Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.
But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.
Hi Hugh, I have read and reread this. I’ll get back to you on this.
Always good to hear from you.
Such questions cannot be properly dealt with in a mere comment, but let me share some of my “insight” as a non-academically credentialed observing and thinking person. Civilization is a big and usually misunderstood word; a nebulous concept. We call the state we are in ‘civilization’ but what do we mean by that? Is it global? Does it have strict boundaries, and if so, how do we determine those? We of the ‘west’ tend to call our side of it ‘western civilization’ without, it seems, realizing how much of it has infected and changed the rest of the world through European imperialism, forced evangelism, resource exploitation (commercialism and banking) and militarism. The entire world is now one civilization and I think it an error to continue to talk about a western civilization. The western aspect is much more an empire than a civilization.
That being said, looking at the whole world as one civilization, what should a thinking being make of it? Is it healthy? Good for all? Absolutely necessary? Are the sacrifices forced upon the exploited, the weak, the poor, worth the price of maintaining this ‘monstrosity’ that has, over millennia, grown at the behest of endless imperial conquests, oppression and mass murder?
The critical question I consider is, can something so religiously, politically and economically one-sided and corrupt be ‘uncorrupted’ and re-programmed to SERVE the planet and the crying needs of the poor and oppressed who currently are but fodder to feed our monstrosity we call ‘civilization?’
Is there a mechanism or wonder-cure whereby we may render our civilization good and just? Can we replace the oppressive mechanism of injustice currently upheld by aggressive trade deals, banking and militarism with something inherently just. Is there any example in history we can go back to, to use as a yardstick for change, or must it all end in chaos and ensuing bloodshed and massive death?
There is that old story of the rotten apple in the box. If there are 50 apples in the box and one of them is rotten, the other 49 cannot heal the rotten one; it will infect and ‘kill’ all the healthy apples unless it is completely removed and anything that touched the rotten apple must also be removed, or infected parts cut off. Drastic measures are required if the box of apples is partially saved.
We are facing a much greater problem with civilization. It isn’t just one rotten apple to be pulled out – it is the very modus operandi of it that has to be changed. Problem with that, if we could even do it, is that civilization would collapse anyway, because what I call the evil trinity of powers, organized religion, the state and finance, or money, are the heart of civilization and they are the source of the corruption.
There is no win here, Hugh. Civilization as we know and experience it today has almost reached its entropic limits. It is doomed, whether we pour our energies into maintaining it or whether we simply let go. My ‘vision’ is that regardless of what is done to keep it alive it is well past its due date and expending efforts to keep it going only means that when it finally implodes the results will be worse for the world and its people.
The question we need to address is simple: what do we have that we can use to replace ‘civilization’ with? Do we possess any kind of ‘power’ to replace the evil trinity? I know we do, but can the rank and file be taught to see it, and is there a will, a sort of leadership willing to demonstrate and teach this ‘power’ to the masses? It won’t come from religion, the state, the bank, academia or the scientific community, so, what’s left? The answer must be: nothing. Nothing at all. Just people being people.
Extremely well done! You ask the key question at the end: what do we have to replace “civilization” with? But you fail to answer it, I fear. And I fear that we are replacing it with a new Barbarism which may, or may not, be a good thing. It won’t replace the dreaded trinity you speak off, but it will replace those features of civilization you fail to mention, namely, art, literature, science, and philosophy: — the products of sublimation that require restraint, a restraint that we no longer think worthwhile. Many thanks for the good comment!
Hi Hugh, you say, quote:
“You ask the key question at the end: what do we have to replace “civilization” with? But you fail to answer it, I fear.”
Actually, I deliberately refrained from answering because I’d hoped that the answer would be grasped. It looks like it wasn’t, not because it is difficult to comprehend but because there is a ‘programming’ that runs within the Earthian person that continually seeks to destroy the highest human aspirations of individuals.
I will give you the answer and it will likely seem hopeless, weak, pie-in-the sky stuff, yet it is a ‘power’ that will, once grasped and implemented, make mincemeat of religion, government and money. I call it compassion; nothing added, nothing taken away, just pure compassion. That is your answer, and there is none other available to mankind “by which s/he/it may be ‘saved.'”
The individual who breaks out of the programming becomes instantly aware of this simple fact. The individual who does not, or who believes there is no programming, can never see how compassion actually functions. Wonder no longer why we, as a species, continue to repeat our gravest mistakes, indulging our greatest sins.
I suspected that this was the implication of your earlier remarks. But, I also fear, the New Barbarians are not long on compassion. They are far too preoccupied with themselves and are hardly aware that there are others around — except insofar as others are a help or a hindrance to them! This does not bode well.
No, it does not bode well but those who would choose not to be counted in among the new barbarians have to learn to stop feeding them.
Hugh, I understand the point that “civilizations demand restraint.” I think it is more than that. If I simplify civilization to a “relationship with others,” it gets me to the mission that “relationships are hard work.” This is why so many relationships fail. It is why communities fail unless nourished.
To me, a good example is what happens to extended families once the last patriarch and/ or sibling passes away. It is up to the cousins to nurture that “community,” otherwise it will die slowly.
If we expand this to larger communitues, then cities,..,then countries and their relationships, unless we nurture them and respect them, they will not flourish. That is why bullying our allies is far worse than the ill-advised tariffs. But, that is consistent with our front man, who values transactional gain over relationship. It is a sales mindset, not a relationship mindset. Keith
Interesting take on this. many thanks. Indeed, the man has a “sales mindset.” That’s all he knows!
Hugh, I was thinking locally while acting globally. I was moved by David Brooks’ speech last month where he talked about reinvesting in communities as part of a solution to our fractured country. I am also eager to read Jon Meecham’s “Soul of America” where he discusses how we dealt with times like today in the past. Keith
I am, admittedly, way out of my element on this one, my friend. I can only say that if it should be decided that the price of civilization is too high and we should all “turn loose the demons that reside within each of us”, then I do not believe I would wish to live in such a world, for I have seen some demons people release and they are not pretty.
I tend to agree with you and am working a post that develops precisely this line of thought!
Jill, the ‘decision’ to give up on civilization will not be a choice people will make. The process is already beyond recall. Recent historical perspective: the German people knew by 1943 they had lost the war but they could neither give up nor surrender because people are never in control of the greater or significant events. Two reasons: they are not self empowered and they have no idea what to do about any possible future. Therefore, collective denial. Think profit: plunging the entire civilization into chaos is fulfilling the wildest dreams of the greediest psychopaths on earth at the moment and the moment is all they have or can see. We can sense a future, they can only buy it. They are Zombies and can never be reasoned with. Theirs is the very worst of programming and addiction.
Events are in the saddle and ride humankind! Indeed. Some would say the key element in this drama is capitalism which has brought untold riches to many and so much suffering to so many more — and to the earth. “Greedy psychopaths” indeed, who can not see beyond the bottom line.
Just a footnote, Sha’Tara. Within the academy for many years now there has been a concerted effort on the part of growing numbers of faculty to throw off the shackles of Western Civilization, which is seen as the source of humanity’s problems. As they see it, it is a conscious decision.
Briefly, and what solid concept does academia propose to replace civilization with or do they just sit back and watch it disintegrate, becoming victims of changes along with everyone else?
Indeed! That is the million dollar question. In my view, the alternative is a new barbarism.
The new barbarism: that is, indeed, what I have been shown is our planetary future, plunging us into the darkest of times ever during the next 500 years. We cannot, I cannot, begin to imagine the horrors and losses we are going to experience but I sense enough of it already to desperately want to warn people and give them something by which they may yet prevent the worst of it. Our global civilization is a complex system. When something that encompassing begins to fail and components fall apart, either we must have spare parts ready to replace what fails, or we must – MUST – present something else to smoothly transfer from the failing system to the new one. We cannot just stand there and decry, “Oh, woe is me and my world, it’s all going to hell!” We have to take responsibility for the current crisis. If we can’t fix the machine, we must build another that can sustain us without the loss of billions of lives through natural or man-made violence. We could do it if we expressed the will but we cannot do it using the old methods. Particularly we cannot do it using our current financial/economic model. That is the recipe for even greater disaster.
Phew. I would love to have all of you, Jill, Keith, Sha’Tara and you of course Hugh, in a room with a bottle of wine (or several) and some nourishing snacks to debate all this.
Hugh, I am too distracted to give a sensible reaction (though that’s not stopping me!) but it was with goosebumps I saw this and read it. I have just spent a weekend in a city where I used to live, one which is not too far from London and home to the BBC’s Natural History Unit. It is a city full of right-on liberal, middle class people, who are working hard to protect our environment, who value culture, who order organic food boxes with cardboard containers that are delivered to their houses, instead of buying stuff in plastic packaging from supermarkets. Several of them cycle. They are impeccably model citizens of the 21st century. House prices are astronomical. I am not exaggerating much- there is a poor side to the city – several in fact – but they are not easily visible to the outsider – I know them because when I worked there, they were home to our customers (of a utility business).
As the weekend went on, I felt increasingly out of place. Where I live now is much more varied and ‘culture’ is very different. Yes, there is an orchestra and there are museums and galleries, there are artists and writers and musicians, but that cream on the surface is not the image of the whole bottle of milk as it is there. I found myself, on the way home (standing for two hours on a crammed train after mine was cancelled – our railways are in chaos), wondering if our ‘civilisation’ was in fact a sham. Whether arts are unimportant, standards of dress and language unimportant but compassion (to use Sha’Tara’s choice – the vital part of our society. I also realised that I was looking forward to being with trees and birds and wildflowers and the incoming and outgoing tides, so, was embracing nature in fact the key to a more ‘civilised’ world? A mind like a kaleidoscope, that’s me!
But what you have written here has almost crystallised what I didn’t know I was thinking. What is important? Is oil painting on canvas really important? Worthwhile? I felt shocked and horrified when an iconic building burnt down (for the second time) this weekend. But then I realised, I didn’t, really, care that much. It isn’t important in the grand scheme (or lack of one) of things.
Sha’Tara is – radically – possibly on the right track. We have gone too far. What perhaps was once workable, manageable, hold-together-able, has cracked and splintered. With AI, robots, online violent porn raking in billions, the rise of dictatorships, intolerance and the unstoppable march of the exploitative oligarchs… where does humanity go? If the prof was home I would ask him about anthropological ideas on the limited size of workable human groups – I can’t remember what it is – but he’s not, sorry. But it’s relevant.
Anyway. My feeling is that if a nuclear war broke out – or a plague of viruses arrived on a meteorite – or a flu pandemic – or ebola spread through the world, nature would regroup and the humans that are left would make a different life. But would it all happen all over again? I suspect Mother Nature would have other plans and give another species a chance to be top otter. Or dolphin, Or crow. Yes, crow, perhaps.
Well Hugh, after this meandering and embarrassing blather I had better shut up and go and think a bit more clearly. But thank you for this. I think. Look forward to the next one.