Civilisation has been defined as “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced,” or “the process by which a society or place reaches an advanced stage of social development and organization.”
In that sense civilisation is a good thing, and for a long period of time to speak about Western civilisation was to speak about Christian civilisation. It was the Judeo-Christian worldview which in such large measure was responsible for all the goods and greatness of Western civilisation.
But all this is unravelling right before our very eyes. We are now witnessing the death of our culture, and we don’t even seemed fazed by this. We not only do not care about our own civilizational suicide, but many are actively siding with those intent on tearing it down. This is no small matter.
Back in 2001 English doctor and writer Theodore Dalrymple penned an important essay entitled “What We Have to Lose”. It was later reprinted in his 2005 collection of essays, Our Culture: What’s Left of It. I gave that book a brief review here: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/08/18/a-review-of-our-culture-what%E2%80%99s-left-of-it-by-theodore-dalrymple-ivan-r-dee-2005/
Here I want to explore more carefully that essay of 15 years ago. If it was true back then, how much more true is it today? The very first line of his book is this: “The fragility of civilization is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century.”
And his essay details with why this is and why it is so important. As a widely travelled doctor, Dalrymple has witnessed barbarism first hand. Being exposed to anti-civilisational forces makes one much more likely to appreciate civilisation. He offers this story by way of introduction:
I recall as well a story told by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, an Austrian refugee who made his home in Britain. Four cultivated men in Berlin, as they awaited their expected arrest by the Gestapo, spent their last night together—possibly their last night on earth—playing a Beethoven quartet. In the event, they were not arrested; but they too had expressed by their action their faith that civilization transcends barbarism, that notwithstanding the apparent inability of civilization at the time to resist the onslaught of the barbarians, civilization was still worth defending. Indeed, it is the only thing worth defending, because it is what gives, or should give, meaning to our lives.
Of course, civilization is not only an attachment to the highest peaks of human achievement. It relies for its maintenance upon an infinitely complex and delicate tissue of relations and activities, some humble and others grand. The man who sweeps the streets plays his part as surely as the great artist or thinker. Civilization is the sum total of all those activities that allow men to transcend mere biological existence and reach for a richer mental, aesthetic, material, and spiritual life….
The first requirement of civilization is that men should be willing to repress their basest instincts and appetites: failure to do which makes them, on account of their intelligence, far worse than mere beasts.
But he bewails the fact that it is the barbarians within our civilisation that are doing the demolition job, as much as any outside enemies might be doing. He offers a number of examples of Western intellectuals and elites trashing their own culture, and then says this:
This way of thinking about culture and civilization—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies. The word civilization itself now rarely appears in academic texts or in journalism without the use of ironical quotation marks, as if civilization were a mythical creature, like the Loch Ness monster or the Abominable Snowman, and to believe in it were a sign of philosophical naïveté. Brutal episodes, such as are all too frequent in history, are treated as demonstrations that civilization and culture are a sham, a mere mask for crassly material interests—as if there were any protection from man’s permanent temptation to brutality except his striving after civilization and culture. At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as always having been there, as if man’s natural state were knowledge rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good comes about as a free gift of Nature.
To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for barbarism to triumph is for civilized men to do nothing: but in fact for the past few decades, civilized men have done worse than nothing—they have actively thrown in their lot with the barbarians. They have denied the distinction between higher and lower, to the invariable advantage of the latter. They have denied the superiority of man’s greatest cultural achievements over the most ephemeral and vulgar of entertainments; they have denied that the scientific labors of brilliant men have resulted in an objective understanding of Nature, and, like Pilate, they have treated the question of truth as a jest; above all, they have denied that it matters how people conduct themselves in their personal lives, provided only that they consent to their own depravity. The ultimate object of the deconstructionism that has swept the academy like an epidemic has been civilization itself, as the narcissists within the academy try to find a theoretical justification for their own revolt against civilized restraint. And thus the obvious truth—that it is necessary to repress, either by law or by custom, the permanent possibility in human nature of brutality and barbarism—never finds its way into the press or other media of mass communication.
He closes by referring to the 9/11 attacks which had just then occurred:
If any good comes of the terrible events in New York, let it be this: that our intellectuals should realize that civilization is worth defending, and that the adversarial stance to tradition is not the beginning and end of wisdom and virtue. We have more to lose than they know.
Yes, one would have thought that the horror of 9/11 would have aroused a sleeping West into a bit of critical reflection and a change of direction. But instead of forcing people to abandon their trivial pursuits and insistence on a life of ease and entertainment, we quickly went back to sleep.
And that is how civilisations are destroyed: not by the angry hordes without, but by the slumbering and intoxicated masses within.