This post is a continuation of a discussion about the demise of Western Civilization started in the last post.

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset, is above all else the “will to live in common.” It centers around the city, including the society of others, civil laws, and morés. It also involves, in most cases, what we loosely call “culture,” which ranges from low to high. “High culture,” which many identify with civilization itself, involves the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of the fine arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Low culture, we might say, centers around the entertainment industry and social media. (Sorry.)

As I have noted in a number of previous blog posts, civilization has come under fire by poets, novelists, and philosophers since the latter part of the nineteenth century and, especially, the early twentieth century. The latest form of the attack comes with what is referred to as “postmodernism,” a movement largely within the academy involving ongoing intellectual protests following the student protests in the 1960s that openly and avowedly seek to eradicate all vestiges of Western Civilization (at the very least). All in the name of “freedom.” The idea is that the restraint that is necessary for human beings to create civilization has resulted in a bourgeois society wallowing in materialism, the suppression of the disadvantaged, and false pleasures. Worse yet civilization has become stifling, suffocating. It is time to throw off the shackles and become free, free of all stuffy customs, false values, and civil constraints which have brought misery to so many, in spite of its so-called benefits.

I summarize, of course, but I do so in order to raise anew the question of whether, in fact, civilization is worth saving, whether or not it has, on balance, brought more misery and suffering than it has beauty and benefits. I confess that I cannot answer that question to my own complete satisfaction, but I suspect the balance is in favor of saving the best of civilization while recognizing that much of what we call the “civilized world” is indeed worthy of rejection. I would suggest, however, that the freedom so many cry out for, the throwing off of the shackles of social norms and restraints, is a snare and a delusion. This is because those who seek to eradicate civilization in the name of greater human freedom seldom, if ever, pause to ask what it is they seek to establish in the place of what they have grown to detest and are keen to destroy. Nor do they think deeply about what freedom is.

Freedom, properly understood, requires restraint. The total absence of restraint is nothing more and nothing less than pure chaos; it is not freedom. Thus, the ideal of the modern and post-modern theorists who would jettison civilization in the name of greater freedom are, in fact, espousing what must be called a “new barbarism,” a world without rules and without concern for others. The ideal figures in this new paradigm would be the thoroughly miserable Underground Man of Dostoevsky. Or it would be, as I suggested in a previous post, Conrad’s thoroughly debased Kurtz. Or it would come in the form of the latest maniac who walks into a school with a loaded automatic weapon and starts shooting at random. These folks embody pure freedom, the absence of restraints, the absence, indeed, of morality which has been thrust aside as nothing more than personal opinion. True freedom, comes at the cost of acknowledging something outside the self that requires the sublimation (to use Freud’s word) of those instincts that we wish to turn loose and instead channel them into creative outcomes. It comes in the form of knowledge of what is and what is not truly valuable. The truly free man or woman acts from the knowledge that what he or she does will make the world around them a better place. Knowledge is the key here. Freedom is not 68 varieties of bread to choose from. It arises from the knowledge of which bread is healthiest.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a world that has as heroes, men (or women) who act without restraint in the name of human freedom, living life to the full — as they see it. I prefer to “live in common,” to help build communities held together by mutual respect and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification and unfettered impulse for the sake of something greater than the self. I suppose this is why I have spent so much of my time — and so many words — hoping to preserve some semblance of what is best in Western Civilization, that high culture that sets us apart from those that would simply throw off the chains (as they see it) and turn the demons loose.

There is simply no way to distinguish this alternative world from the world of Kurtz. And we must recall his final words: “The horror! The horror!”


18 thoughts on “Self-Restraint

  1. Another one for the round table, and several bottles of wine… a good read.

    I would take issue with Ortega y Gasset in his definition of civilization. From my observation it’s not the will to live in common that rules but the forced necessity to do so; the greater difficulty to live independently in a shrinking world increasingly belonging to a militarized elite. This forced co-dependency is another very big nail in civilization’s coffin. Crime, terrorism, human trafficking, exploitation all increase in “the City”.

    Now then, after the first round is mostly drained and while our brain is still reasonably clear, assuming we, as a species, cannot, or refuse to, evolve into a new spirituality and mentality, then your point is well taken: fix it, don’t throw it out. Especially since those who propose throwing it out really have nothing to replace it with except global anarchy. Your approach is pure common sense.

    However… there is always an ‘however’ in these sort of discussions…

    Briefly, re: the hippies: they talked about overthrowing the establishment and without doing anything much about that, proceeded to the “free love”, drug and rock-n-roll induced torpor. Then when that got old, they slunk back into the old ways and “western” civilization spread out through various stages of capitalistic corruption, establishing a lot of fake democracies and here we be. (OK, so here I am beating up on the hippies again – well, guilty as charged!)

    So we have a meeting around a very large table and we decide to fix the big, clunky, polluting, killing machine. Who are the “we” at the meeting and what do this “we” decide to fix? Then how is the fixing implemented and who pays for it? Presumably this is still taking place under capitalism and there must be those who profit and those who must pay.

    If capitalism is one of the things that must go, what do we replace that with?

    I’m just getting wound up so I’ll stop here.

    Thanks for the challenge.

    • I think we replace capitalism with democratic socialism. This gives the state more power and you won’t like that, but I would rather have it handing out free medical treatments and free education for all than letting the power devolve into the hands of the greedy capitalists who simply exploit others and grow fat. As far as the other problems go, it must begin with building bridges, looking up from our electronic toys at one another and opening avenues of civil discourse (like this!). And we need to be more compassionate, though I don’t know how we make that happen. But we need to be more aware of one another and care more about how others in our world are faring. That would be a start, anyway.

      • Government, by definition, must have power. Democratic socialism would be fine by me, providing that those “in power” are truly accountable to the rank and file and not to lobbyists from special interest groups, or religions. So the emphasis would be on creating a truly democratic democracy! We’ve never managed to make one of those yet, always some group ends up left out or relegated to a lower status and exploited or oppressed.

        One way to determine how serious elected representatives were in a truly democratic socialist system would be that any elected member must, while engaging in public trust position, have no access to any personal fortune or savings or even family. S/he must live a totally detached life that can only focus on the work at hand. The other absolute necessary part of holding office in such a system would be that the representative must, of necessity, live on no more income or personal comfort than the lowliest “poor” person in the realm. Any cheating would result in a jail sentence.

        Anyone “running for office” but unwilling to live by the requirements above has already admitted their reason is personal gain, not the true welfare of the state.

        Now then, do we mean business… or do we mean “business as usual” when we speak of a new system?

      • Well said. I am working on a post that has several more suggestions about how we might fix the mess we have created for ourselves! I might add that you have prompted the post!

  2. I have always believed that my freedoms end where they infringe on the freedoms of another. If humans could always be counted upon to follow their conscience, to do what is best for the whole, and not the individual, then we could have what some would call ‘true freedom’, for there would be no need for law and rules. But early on mankind proved himself to operate from greed, and thus laws became necessary to enable people to live within a community, to live with other humans. Like you, my friend, I have no desire to live in a world where people are allowed to act without restraint. I don’t think I would survive long in such a world.

    • No indeed. I would not fare well in such a world. But that does seem to be where we are headed unless we somehow get shaken to the roots — perhaps as a result of a climactic crisis of immense proportions, or a disease that we cannot control. We need to learn, as a species, that we are not all-powerful and that there are things we cannot control. Humility would be good start. We tend to suffer from hubris to an alarming degree. As far as freedom is concerned, it starts and ends with education (and I don’t mean “book learning”). But that ship seems to be slipping beneath the sea.

      • Many moons ago, I worked as a research assistant for Professor Joe Scolnick, a professor of Political Science. Joe was writing a paper on conflict resolution. One of the themes was that when a government cannot bring a divided society together, it can manipulate outside forces to create an external threat, which leads to internal cohesion because people will put aside their differences for the common good. Much of the concept I found frightening, but not without precedent. We saw this briefly in New York in the 2-3 weeks following 9/11, before politics and greed got in the way. When I read your comment about a ‘climactic crisis’, I felt that same chill. I don’t disagree … au contraire … I find it altogether too realistic and possible … probable?

        I agree that the only answer is education, and not the sort that teaches us to fit in, to be good little bricklayers, to sit down and shut up, but rather the kind that teaches us to analyze, to think, to seek understanding. But we are going backward, as we both know, and I see nothing on the horizon that makes me expect change in the foreseeable future.

  3. I hesitate to launch out again with my impulsive comment on the previous post raising my blushes, so I won’t say much this time. I agree, restraint is a necessity for living as a social beings. Whether it is forced on us, as per Sha’Tara, or willingly adopted as a part of humans needing a common support mechanism in society. I also agree with Jill that my freedom usually ends where it adversely affects another’s, but there have to be limits to that too, hence laws and rules and customs. I wish I knew where we were going. Larry brought home a recent issue of Journal of Foreign Affairs which explores this in several papers. I may be wiser when I have read them and may even be able to respond again with something sensible!

    • This is well worth pondering and discussing seriously. As I noted in my comment with Sha’Tara, it all starts with an awareness of others and a willingness to hear what they have to say! I look forward to your further thoughts.

  4. Your topics are timely for my own personal challenges, and today I loosened the reins of my own self restraint — after having several weeks to ponder the dilemma. I rent a house that is in a protected forest, yet few people respect the rules.. Apathy is the attitude; people shrug, though they know the law… when it’s literally in my own back yard, my tolerance grows weak.. but is tolerance what’s needed, or does one step forward and say, ‘this is wrong.’ it’s not only cutting the trees – it’s also heavy pesticide use – and no one is required to have a permit to buy or apply, so sometimes the rates are horrid, and six weeks later the aroma lingers… paraquat and 2,4-D and it’s a recipe for Agent Orange, which drains into the reservoir that provides water for many cities downriver.

    today i stepped forward, starting with the mayor to find out the laws, the borders, and after a really nice visit, he sent me one floor down to the registry office. another group of very nice people, though the results were shocking. just past the house i own, there are no titles to land.. it’s all under ‘the dpt of forests’ — so i’m supposing the various ‘land owners’ are all ‘squatters.’

    anyway, my frustrations have been expressed, and they will present it to the dpt of ambiente…

    is civilization worth saving? my immediate reply is,’ of course’ yet then i ponder the more-primitive races who live in harmony with nature… hmmmmm. movies sometimes portray them as ‘savages’ (joe kane story is a good one) take the best of all, and yes, reject what’s not kind or healthy, and remove all egos from the room!

    ego has a lot to do with many conflicts – why can’t man learn to live in harmony with others?

    ha, i’m trying, but this has been a personal test!


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