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Posts Tagged ‘civilisation’

Where do we go from here?

How odd it is that the paradoxical creature called Man ever acts to destroy himself at the very point when one would expect him to burst into a bloom of a sublime civilisation.  Wherever we look, advanced civilisations bring themselves down.  China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium, Rome.  It is as if we can take only so much civilised life ; then, if we take just one more step, we are overwhelmed by the desire to destroy ourselves – as if the goodness is just too good to be true ; too good to be allowed to live.

Of course, the details of the fall of each of those great civilisations differ ; but that leads us to conclude that there must be some general principle at work.  Perhaps a close inspection of each of them is needed ; and also a close inspection of our own rise and fall.  And we would be wise to assume that we shall indeed fall.

Are there signs that our civilisation is falling?  Do we see writings and deeds that indicate it?  Do our own thoughts show it?

The rise of Christendom, especially in Northern Europe was spectacular.  Just eighteen-hundred years ago we were brutal.  Within four-hundred years we were on the path to civilisation.  We may see that by examining the writings and the arts of those times.  The rise continued, with many fits, starts and relapses, right up until the early nineteenth century.  Then we peaked.  The best – in science, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and singing – was all but over.  We had ceased to produce inspired architecture.  The aristocracy had ceased to be of the best.  The age of the industrialist had arrived, and these men copied the achievements of their predecessors and cheapened them, making unimagineable fortunes in the process. 

By the late twentieth century, almost all art was banal (at very best) and otherwise utterly vulgar.  Science consisted of footnotes to the great, and was, itself, subordinated to manufacturing.  All was done in the name of money and profit.  Today, you cannot see a reference to a work of art without its price being highlighted.  Even our great historic buildings have their value reckoned only in terms of cash and, perhaps, utility.

Possibly the last straw for our civilisation was burned in this late period.  For now, such is our love of cash, that we have exported the most profitable of our business – because foreign labour is cheaper.  And we are left with the sterile occupation of simply managing other people’s money as our most edifying industry – but without the energy and art of Florence.  It is a travesty of all that our ancestors struggled to achieve.

Is our civilisation in decline?  I doubt if this generation knows how to answer such a question.

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Surely, Man is the most paradoxical of creatures, given both to sublime love and kindness but also to the basest hatred and cruelty.  And devious, too, so that even his religion may be pressed into service to justify his sins.  But his conscience ever troubles him ; and, for that, we must thank God.

It may take centuries to tame his nature even a little ; but the taming is real, even if fragile.  Fragile especially in the presence of fear.  

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It goes without saying that war is never pleasant, and yet history from the earliest times and in all places is very largely the story of wars.  Such is the testimony to the nature of Man.  It is a wonder that the more-or-less peaceful civilisations ever got off the ground.

And yet they did get going and they even flourished to produce wonderful works in all the arts – building, literature and music – to name only three.  But it seems to me that all civilisations have been martial, even when refined ; and their soldiers were looking two ways : outwardly to deter foreign aggression : inwardly to deter dissent.  Just as amidst life there is death, so amidst peace there is armed force.  Much can be written about why this was so ; and much also about the periods of exception.

Given the polarity that exists in Man’s nature – the willingness to fight and the desire for peace, it is perhaps not surprising that poets and playwrights have tried to capture the dilemma.  And not only capture it, but to tame it, not least in the imagination.  Thus it is that we have some wonderful literature to meditate upon.  And it seems to me that the best came out of those violent times of wild kings and ambitious princes – the Middle Ages.

Here’s a piece by Chaucer in which he maintains the tradition of encouraging people to think always of talking themselves up towards becoming more peaceful, honourable and honest with themselves.  Literature like this must have acted as a continual persuasion which, over many centuries, did lead to the general improvement in us.  This kind of writing is far from unique in those days.

As Saint Augustine said, “To become the person you want to be, you must first pretend to be that person.”

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse.
At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce ;
In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.

Geoffrey Chaucer

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We all of us have our heroes.   But, more than that, each of us has certain personal favourites ; men and women who really live in our memories, and not as abstractions under a category somewhere.  From my own disordered childhood I can name several.  I have already written a bit about Mr & Mrs Adams and Uncle Jack ; both towering figures whose heads stand above the mists of time.  I have many heroes I knew personally, some old, some young ; and heroes I knew only from the pages of books but who are lively nevertheless.

If education is to be seen properly, it must be understood as the passing-on of the culture from which the child derives its intellectual life.  And this means, to cut a long story short, the passing-on of the lives of heroes ; for culture is not a thing that ‘happens’ ; rather it is a thing that has sprung from the minds of men and women down the ages.  And, out of the multitude of ideas that spring from human minds, what make culture is the enduring ideas ; the ideas of value.  Ideas that can be put to practical use so as to make the world a better place.

Thus it is that our list of heroes contains not just Perseus and Theseus, not just Moses and David, not just Alexander and Caesar, not just Alfred and Victoria.  Our list must also include Socrates and Aquinas, Pythagoras and Newton, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Bach and Beethoven.

Heroes make manifest the seeds of greatness.  Whether it was only Time and Chance which made the manifestation possible, or whether it was a rare genius, is not a matter which need concern us here.  What matters is that those seeds of greatness are within each of us.  Or so Thomas Gray thought.  And I think he was right :

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear :
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Now I know that modern educationalists, teachers and politicians find the idea of heroism abhorrent (unless such heroism is of a purely utilitarian value or unless it serves a particular political purpose) ; but, if we value our freedoms, we must resist the blandishments of the ‘social engineers’ who desire the destruction of our culture.  If we value our freedoms we must pass on to our children the culture of real heroism and heroes – and not omitting Gray’s ploughmen.

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We in the west are riding on the back of more than fifteen-hundred years of hard-learned civilised practices.  We forget how barbarous our ancestors were ; we forget how our civilised behaviour is but a veneer to cloak and contain our human nature ; we forget how cheap is the price of a life.  We forget how the more learned of our ancestors applied harsh disciplines and punishments in order to achieve their vision of Christendom.  We forget, or choose not to remember, the sufferings of many, both the good and the bad, that went to make our country what it is today.

We visit our castles and wonder at the romance of them ; we imagine them when new ; all bright, white, sharp stone.  We often forget their purposes, which were military, judicial, governmental and commercial.  Brooding darkly over our towns and countryside, they kept an entire population in order ; the spears and swords of the soldiers were real and sharp ; their armour bright and hard.  The dungeons were real and much feared.  The use of torture was standard practice.  And then there are those city walls, which are so pretty today.

Such is human nature that even a little laxity opens the way to despicable practices which must be first contained and then eliminated if the people are to live in peace.  And, even with all those medieval devices, centuries elapsed before the country could be pronounced with confidence a safe place to live.

I try to bear these things in mind when I read about the affairs of foreign countries.  For example, it is easy enough to deplore the actions of middle-eastern countries.  It is easy enough to cry, “Let them be democratic!”

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