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civilizationIs civilization worth defending? Should we aim to conform to it so that we can be considered civilized? Should we aim to bring our children up according to its norms so that they can also be considered civilized? Should we try to make our country and our world as civilized as possible? The chances are that most people will answer in the affirmative to all of these questions. Most people, even in the dark ages in which we live, consider being civilized a good thing. The problem is that most people have no clear understanding of what civilization is or, perhaps as important, what it is not. It might be a good exercise, therefore, to begin to seek a clear definition of the thing to which most of us are happy to subscribe.

What is civilization?

Perhaps the best place to start would be to consult the oracle of oracles, the palantir of all palantiri, by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia. According to this seemingly omniscient cyber-seer, civilization is defined most broadly as “any complex state society characterized by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.” Along with this broad definition, Wikipedia adds other key characteristics of civilization as being “urbanization (or the development of cities), centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon agriculture and expansionism.”

At this point, some of us might be questioning whether we still see civilization as something that is good and worth defending. How many of us would fight for civilization if we thought that we were fighting for the increasing complexity of the state and its social hierarchy? How many of the agrarians amongst us would fight for a civilization that defined itself as being separate from the natural environment and as seeking to dominate it? How many of us would fight for incessant urbanization, centralization, and the passive domestication of ourselves alongside the domestication of other organisms? How many of us had realized that being civilized was the willingness to make ourselves cattle in the service of increasingly complex social hierarchies? How many of us thought that civilization was marked by the sort of “specialization of labour” that had reduced human labour to that of a disposable cog in an increasingly large and complex wheel? How many of us guessed that civilization was defined by culturally ingrained progressivism and other supremacist ideologies? How many of us perceived that taxation was civilized and that increasing taxation was therefore and presumably a mark of increasing civilization?

If this is civilization we would be justified in hoping that civilization would go to hell and that, indeed, we would be equally justified in believing that it was all too evidently going there.

We would, however, be wrong to abandon civilization because of such woefully awry definitions of it. A closer look at Wikipedia’s entry on “civilization” will show that the devil is indeed in the detail. We discover, if we scroll down, that “civilization” is described as a concept that has its origins in the Enlightenment. According to Wikipedia, “civilization” is merely an ideological construct of the eighteenth century! It is not a reality in itself but an idea by which an irreligious and irrational “rationalism” can explain and explain away, to its own prejudiced satisfaction, the history of human culture. Amongst those cited by Wikipedia as crucial to the definition of “civilization” are the social Darwinists, on the one side, and the followers of Rousseau, on the other. Civilization is, therefore, defined either by those who advocate a secularist understanding of “progress” or those who call for its rejection through the secularist idealization of so-called noble savagery. Other thinkers are cited to buttress this materialistic understanding of “civilization,” from Spengler to Toynbee, but one will search in vain for the traditional Christian understanding of civilization.

Having seen how civilization is defined on the internet (the one Thing to rule them all and in the darkness bind them), let us distinguish between such a definition and the Christian understanding of what it is to be civilized.

True civilization is a culture animated by the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The authentic presence of goodness is love and its manifestation in virtue; the authentic presence of truth is to be seen in the culture’s conformity to reason, properly understood as an engagement with the objective reality beyond the confines of egocentric subjectivism; the authentic presence of the beautiful is a reverence for the beauty of Creation and creativity, properly perceived in the outpouring of gratitude which is the fruit of humility. A society informed and animated by such a culture is truly civilized.

A civilized man is not animated by a desire to shape himself into an image of his “self,” which is itself unknowable, but is willing to allow himself to be shaped into an image of the perfect Person beyond himself. Responding to Christ’s Trinitarian description of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, a civilized man surrenders himself to the Way of Virtue (Love), the Truth of Reason, and the Life of Grace (Beauty). In short and in sum, civilization manifests itself in the conforming of the will of Man to the will of the Giver of all goodness, truth and beauty.

What is civilization? It is the conforming of the heart of humanity to the Heart of Christ. All other definitions of civilization are not only wrong but are ultimately uncivilized!

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7 replies to this post
  1. “What is civilization? It is the conforming of the heart of humanity to the Heart of Christ. All other definitions of civilization are not only wrong but are ultimately uncivilized!”

    Civilization is also high speed trains, hot-water showers and modern sewage systems. It is that which makes life stable and advanced in the material realm as well. Being conservative and Christian should not “always“ imply suspicion of technology.

    It may not have been the intention of the writer to, in fact, imply such, but there is pervasive in much Christian-conservative writing that kind of stance. However, I for one can be a devout Christian and still appreciate-enjoy material life as well. PS Have no iPad, no iPod and haven’t owned a television in ten years but I still defend desire for and enjoyment of materialism.

    • bah! I also appreciate hot water and such but surely you don’t mean to say that the family who lives in 3rd world anywhere is not civilized. I pray that I would continue to strive to conform the heart of my family to the heart of Christ even without indoor plumbing…my inlaws were able to do so…

      • When did I bring up the “Third World”, as you call it (which many may construe as a rather uncivilized label, beyond “political correctness”)

        The fact remains that human socieites civilize themselves not only through faith, compassion and charity, but through technological advances. Your in-laws may not have had indoor plumbing—but most certanly you do–why? Because you wish to live with the rewards of technological advancement. The kind that make debates on a computer possible.

        I reject thoroughly the righteousness of those Christians who maintain that materialism and technology –the externalities of civilization–are not critically important.

  2. If technological advancement were a necessary path to civilization, then that would mean that the more technologically advanced societies would attain to higher states of civilization. I disagree with your analysis that technological advancement is necessary for a civilized people but can be (and often is) a result of civilization. For example, the two World Wars were a race for technological advancement and none can say that the nations involved acted civil toward one another. Furthermore, the technocratic society of Huxley’s “Brave New World” can hardly be said to be the epitome of civilization. Furthermore, the technologically advanced west cannot have been considered “civilized” to the less technologically advanced peoples here in the New World (not that some of them could be considered civilized either). From what I read into the author of this work, the desire for truth (which leads to the technological advancement you seek) must be united with virtue and beauty just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united in the Trinity.

    Also, though Christianity is against materialism, that does not mean Christians are against the material world. Christian doctrine in fact brings up the material world through the Incarnation and Ascension of Christ. According to the Orthodox Tradition (which is the faith of Christendom I belong to), although the material world is good, man disgraced it during through the Fall. The whole of Salvation is to bring man back into the state he was before the Fall (and even higher) which means man must also reorient himself in his relation to the material world. We don’t say that the material world is unimportant, but it must be used in a proper way that leads us to salvation. This is why we fast during certain times of the year. Food is obviously essential, but it cannot become our obsession that we fail to realize that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” The same goes with technology. We must beware that in our technologically advanced society that we own our possessions but we don’t let our possessions own us. This is the purpose behind a healthy detachment to the material world. Materialism, as it is defined by its proponents such as Hobbes and Ayn Rand, is the belief that all their is for man is the material world which goes against traditional Christian thought.

    As for the author of this wonderful piece, my question is what role does subjectivism play in civilization? I understand and agree with you about subjectivism needs to be tempered, but when it comes to beauty and economics in general, subjective opinion plays a large and central role.

    Also, I disagree with you on the division of labor as something base as simply a cog in a wheel. I think is a means of attaining civilization (although not its defining attribute) much for the same reason we need the various organs of a body to keep it alive. To simply state that it places a person as a simple cog in the wheel, is a defamation to cogs everywhere. Without the cog, that wheel isn’t going anywhere. We need a division of labor for the sake of art and education just as much as we need it for food and other essentials and luxuries. The reason I do agree with you that it is not a defining characteristic of civilization is because it does not speak to the heart of the people in the civilization. The division of labor can be the result of slavery (Egypt) as much as it can be the result of freedom (America). This may be just my opinion, but I feel that the division of labor is a result (at least in part and parcel) of a civilization because any people that completely lack your trinity of civilization cannot possible even begin to engage in the process of the division of labor. I don’t say downgrade it to something base, but rather show that it is the benefit of your trinity.

    This also brings up another question. If your concept of civilization is defined by your trinity, would you say then that it is a process of people and persons to attain civilization where people attain higher and higher states as the begin seeking after the Union of Truth, Beauty, and Virtue and conversely begin to become more uncivilized if they focus on one or two too heavily or ignoring them as a whole?

    Sorry for the length of the post.

  3. Not having read all the posts I will only add that a civilized society must have roots in its past, is aware and respectful of that past, honors it. The rest, the role and nature of the Arts, the refinements therein, music, painting, literature, should fold into a continuum striving for beauty, a beauty that refines the soul, that mocks the vulgar by it’s presence, that is wary of egotistical innovation. Beauty transcends time.

  4. “The result of mental cultivation, or the state of being much like this; refinement or enlightement; learning and taste; in a broad sense, civilization, as, a man of culture.”
    — Russell Kirk

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