In Search of Civilization

In search of...

American society, like other Western societies, is clearly in trouble. We see not only a decline in our physical and cultural environment, but, increasingly, the emergence of actual barbarism and savagery within our borders, as events like the gang rape that took place outside a California high school show us on almost a daily basis. But what can we do? Liberals pin their hopes on progressive social reform, carried out by the government and other institutions. Libertarians, a minority, see protecting individual freedom as key. Conservatives call for a return to traditional values and social norms. I hold that the conservative position (perhaps with certain elements of the other two) offers the only hope for saving these United States. But “traditional values” are not simply principles to be followed, voluntarily, by individuals. They must be embodied in the framework of a larger society. For Westerners, at least, that larger society is the nation, and the culture and society of that nation is its civilization.

That last sentence might sound like the sort of dull truism that schoolchildren used to be taught to write in composition class, but the shocking fact is that the idea of civilization, once taken for granted, has entirely dropped out from our discourse. This is a natural consequence of the domination of the values of equality and nondiscrimination. For the idea of civilization necessarily implies the existence of its opposite, non-civilization, the primitive, savage, or barbaric. Western men today are carefully trained to avoid judging any group or society in such terms, because this implies that some groups or societies are superior to others, and that the white Westerner making such judgments might see his own group as superior. Today, to see Western culture as superior is seen not only as morally contemptible but as nearly self-evidently false as the statement “two plus two equals five.”

Thus the idea of American civilization, which once was an academic subject in itself and which formed the framework for any discussion of the history, literature, and culture of the United States, has vanished from our natural life. The defenders of that civilization withered under the sneering voices of people like Gandhi, who is supposed to have said, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

I think that American civilization would be a very good idea and I would like us to reclaim the concept. Of course, our kindred Western nations need to do the same. We might start by fleshing out the concept of civilization a little.

My 1985 American Heritage Dictionary defines civilization as follows: “1. An advanced stage of development in the arts and sciences accompanied by corresponding social, political, and cultural complexity. 2. The type of culture and society developed by a particular nation or region or in a particular epoch: the civilization of ancient Rome.” I suppose that the word is still used occasionally in the second sense, but probably not in the first, unless with a meaning so broad that it applies to all human societies that exist today. Somalis have SUVs, therefore they are civilized.

A complete set of the Encyclopedia Americana, 1951 edition, is one of the under-appreciated treasures of my parents’ home that I intend to claim for myself someday. It is, come to think of it, a product of American civilization. Interestingly, its article on “Civilization” is fully titled “CIVILIZATION, History of. Pre-Christian,” with no corresponding article on Christian civilization, which I suppose is covered under another heading. The article gives an impressively expansive enumeration of the components of civilization, focusing on Europe and the Near East. It includes things like: food-getting; agriculture; fire; mining; textile-making; architecture; art; music; clothing; cooking; government; commerce; transportation; science (beginning with astronomy); medicine; and literacy. Always amazing is how much people in very ancient times were able to accomplish in these areas.

What is common to these definitions of civilization is the linkage between material developments and spiritual elevation. This comes out in a careful reading of the Americana article. For example, the bow and arrow gave man “an entirely new dominance over his world and lifted his food-getting enterprises and himself above the level of the brute as no other invention had done up to that time.” With the invention of agriculture, man “had to stay in a place long enough to plant and to reap and this acquired a sense of ownership.” Also, “Without the use of fire, man could not have risen above the lowest depths of savagery and barbarism.” For “When he took the fire and put it on a crude stone hearth just within the hut, it meant a better home and the gathering about the hearth marks the beginning of the family circle with all that that has meant.” Textiles, building, music, and other arts are linked with spiritual elevation; for instance, “The wonderful sculpture which filled the Grecian world before and after B.C. 500 must have done much to awaken in the people a love of the beautiful and a distaste for whatever was ugly.”

Almost poignant, in an era when over half of marriages end in divorce, is the discussion of the family, which should give us pause to think:

No single fact has been more influential in the process of civilization than the rise of the family. Respect, consideration for one another, chastity, obedience, honor, sacrificing love, virtues altogether fundamental to civilization, are its direct product.

On government, the writer notes of the laws of Hammurabi and others:

These laws are attempts to compel a certain orderliness, and decency and honor in human activities and relationships. This growing custom of making a man face the wrong of his acts and inflicting a penalty therefore, compelled him to see the need of taking some thought as to the character and consequences of his deeds.

Of religion, the writer says that it “has played its part in helping and hindering and shaping civilization,” and interestingly gives as the first example an example of a Neanderthal youth buried with a food offering. I read a similar story as a boy. The writer sees a positive progression from primitive religions in which man “worships gods which are usually fearful and many, and believes that these gods cause all things to happen,” to Judaism and Christianity.

The civilizing value of the idea of a God as a God of Righteousness proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets has even yet not been fully realized, and when under Josiah social justice was made virtually a religion, religion was destined to play a greater part in lifting civilization to higher levels.

One does sense in the use of words like “social justice” an assumption that the goal of civilization is equality. One also senses a materialistic bias, with material developments seeming to lead to spiritual ones instead of vice-versa. Both tendencies are problematic. One lesson people living in the 21st century ought to have learned by now is that material and spiritual progress are not inevitably correlated, though it may have been possible to believe in 1951 that they were. Our material progress continues, at least in some areas, but our spiritual and social decline is striking. And, as with the recording of rapes on cell phones, technology can be used in service of outright savagery.

Still, the view of civilization presented in the Americana is helpful in reminding us of what we are trying to preserve – civilization as a “total package,” a society of people with a history and way of life that took eons to develop and needs to be maintained and protected. The value of civilization, indeed, the inseparability of our civilization from everything we love and are, was self-evident to all Westerners until recent times. Recapturing the idea can help us focus our efforts to save the thing.


2 Responses to In Search of Civilization

  1. Liam says:


    I am awed by your eloquence.

    To expand upon your ironic contention that “Somalis have SUVs, therefore they are civilised”, perhaps we should consider whether the death of the undoubtedly “civilised” young man linked below has helped confer that blessed state on the Afghans.

    In pessimistic moments, I am increasingly inclined to think that the tossing away of valuable lives like Staff Sergeant Schmid’s has done nothing but ease the passage of Afghan bearers of an alternative “civilisation” to our doorsteps.

    Apologies if I am rambling somewhat. A spate of deaths of priceless young men from my neck of the woods in that barbarous land has affected me of late.

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you, Liam. I share your grief and anger at the unconscionable sacrifice of our men in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was originally an Iraq war supporter, back when I believed our government actually intended to defeat radical Islam (and that there was such a thing as non-radical Islam). Here in Michigan one frequently sees flags at half-staff for what I presume are deaths of soldiers from the state. Rather than evoking the honor of the dead they have a vaguely demoralizing effect, since there is no end in sight and no public discussion of what they mean.

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