On civilization:

With "In Search of Civilization," John Armstrong, the resident philosopher at the Melbourne Business School in Australia, sets out to restore the reputation of a word that, to him, represents something infinitely precious and life-sustaining, a source of strength and inspiration. . . .

He identifies two basic attitudes toward civilization. One is that of the pessimist, exemplified here by the medieval abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. To Bernard, civilization was a rare and delicate plant, one that could survive only when sheltered behind the thick walls of a monastery. Outside were brutal barons, vulgar merchants and hoggish peasants. Such benighted folk he considered beyond reach. . . .

The second, more generous attitude is represented by Suger, the 12th-century abbot of St. Denis who served as regent for Louis VI while the king was away on a crusade. To inspire his parishioners, Suger built a magnificent church in the emerging Gothic style. He had a levelheaded understanding of the frailties of his fellow men, Mr. Armstrong notes, yet he did not despise them. Instead, combining realism and idealism, he sought to raise them, to help them ascend from the material to the spiritual.

I’ve always thought that the "pessimist" viewed civilization as an unstable equilibrium while the "optimist" viewed civilization as a stable equilibrium (see the picture). I view it as an unstable condition. We’re always a few mis-steps away from barbarism.


5 Responses to Civilization

  1. Handle says:

    I think of it more like a well-managed farm, something that is very rewarding to man if done well, but requires constant maintenance and intelligent effort. And wisdom – that is – a depth of understanding of how it all works and what would happen were things not preserved in the right way.

    Over time, technological innovations can make it ever more productive if used with wisdom and with an eye towards the future and sustainability, else one is just making the soil sterile faster.

    There’s also a question of how fragile-and-unstable or resilient-and-robust the system is to unexpected downside shocks. Traditional self-reliant farming methods could survive several bad years in a row. Modern intensive mechanized agriculture (like Japanese just-in-time global supply chains) are frighteningly close to catastrophe should any crucial and indispensable element with no locally-produced alternative substitute not arrive “just in time”.

    That wisdom can be forgotten, the efforts and technology abandoned, and in a season people are digging for potatoes by hand, and in another season weeds take over, and soon enough the place goes feral and so much back to nature that one wouldn’t be able to tell there was even once something man-made and wonderful that existed on the piece of desolation.

    I think “unstable equilibrium” is inapt because it doesn’t get at the fight-against-entropy, conservation vs. decay aspect that is part of the work of maintaining a civilization, and transmitting one’s cultural successes as an inheritance for the next generation. What we lack today is the universal confidence and wisdom of the value of traditional Western Civilization, and the justified paranoia of what will dark age will replace it when it is diminished to the adherence of only a tiny remnant of the faithful.

  2. dearieme says:

    Perhaps civilisation is like neither stable nor unstable equilibrium – perhaps it’s like a Limit Cycle.

  3. Jeff Singer says:

    This post makes me think of a recent post over at one the finest group blogs on the internet, “What’s Wrong with the World”. In the recent post, the post author Lydia McGrew, focuses on the book A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is a book with strong Christian themes, which properly includes the theme of hope (which is why Bernard of Clairvaux is so wrong about the purpose of why he preserves civilization — if not for those outside the walls, then for whom?)

    Anyway, Lydia has a great quote from the book that I think speak to the idea Handle is getting at. Here is Lydia setting up the quote, and then the quote itself:

    At the same time, Canticle is an intensely Christian book and never succumbs to despair. A powerful exchange between a priest and an arrogant da Vinci character in the second novella shows Christianity to be the truest humanism. Thon Taddeo, the great scientist, points out the window at a peasant who has just passed by:

    “Look. Can you bring yourself to believe that that brute is the lineal descendant of men who supposedly invented machines that flew, who traveled to the moon…? Can you believe there were such men?…Look at him!” the scholar persisted. “No, but it’s too dark now. You can’t see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Peresis. But he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous….Look at him, and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?”

    “The image of Christ,” grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. “What did you expect me to see?

  4. dearieme says:

    “resident philosopher at the Melbourne Business School in Australia”: one should abjure blatant attempts to solicit links to the Monty Python sketch on the Australian Department of Philosophy.

  5. sardonic_sob says:

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as ‘bad luck.'”

    -Robert A. Heinlein

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