Western civilization

An interesting article appeared in the Melbourne Age recently: a review of Civilization--The West and the Rest (now a major TV series) by Niall Ferguson, best-selling author of The Ascent of Money. The review was by John Keane, director of the Sydney Democracy Initiative and professor of politics at the University of Sydney.

The Ascent of Money is excellent and informative. It doesn't teach you how to make money, but it explains how many ways there are to cheat with it once you have it, or are able to pretend to have it, and how history repeats itself constantly. So one looks forward to The West and the Rest.

Although feeling a bit sheepish about it, one identifies emotionally with the reviewer’s opening paragraph: "Civilisation, a big and pompous word, always reminds me of the band of zealous women combing the English countryside recruiting soldiers after the outbreak of World War 1. Bearing down on Oxford, brandishing the Union Jack, they encounter a don dressed in his Oxonian master’s gown, reading Thucydides in the original Greek. 'And what are you doing to save Western civilisation, young man?' demanded one of the women. Gathering himself to his full height, the sage looked down his long nose, and replied, 'Madam, I am Western civilisation!'"

To one preoccupied with later counterparts of Thucydides in the form of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, this anecdote strikes a chord. One has often wondered about the place in civilization, on a scale from one to ten, of these gentlemen. Like the Oxford professor, the natural inclination is to give then an 11--to believe that they are not "a part" of civilization, but that they ARE civilization. How can you have civilization without them?

This point of view is tricky to justify in view of the fact that less than 1% of the population has any interest in these gentlemen or their works, while a far larger percentage takes an interest in American Idol or Oprah Winfrey. Yet we do live in a civilized society, a fact which is made clear every night when we turn on the television and see the Rest of the World.

Kenneth Clarke inevitably comes up. Kenneth Clarke did a Niall Ferguson in 1969. His TV series Civilisation (plus accompanying book) was a huge hit throughout the 1970s. As both Clarke and Ferguson were and are primarily aiming at a mass TV audience, their approach was and is necessarily populist, and both are very attractive and entertaining.

Nevertheless, Sir Kenneth’s perspective was that Western civilization WAS its art. Sir Kenneth was a great art historian, so it was implicit in his undertaking that this would be a survey of the art works of Western civilization. But to the average viewer or reader the implication was--as with Thucydides and Beethoven--that this was the essence of civilization. According to the title, these products of civilization were the definition of it.

Sir Kenneth’s view was not very surprising, in view of the fact that the English upper classes have traditionally valued the visual arts highly but displayed little interest in music--unlike their counterparts in central Europe, where the situation was reversed.

For a musician, on the other hand, the visual arts may seem a pleasant accompaniment to civilized life, but they are clearly not in the same league as music, which provides a window on the universe and is by its nature semi-divine. And despite their wonderful architecture and sculptures, the Greeks agreed with this view, believing music to be divine, supernatural--of "the spheres"--and the first musician, the mythical Orpheus, the son of Apollo, having the power to journey to the underworld and back.

But apart from Sir Kenneth’s insult to Mozart and Beethoven, there was nonetheless a niggling feeling that there had to be more to it than art, literature, or music, which, as is clear from the above, carry a large element of taste alongside their intrinsic value.

Mr. Ferguson’s book takes a political view--that Western civilization is superior to the Rest because it has handled its politics better. He apparently boils this view down to five main features: political competition (but did this not also exist in the ancient world, as well as everywhere else?); scientific progress (the Arab world came up with lots of that in their early centuries, and the Chinese were no slouches); private property rights guaranteed by law (now that’s getting closer to something different from the Rest); progress in medicine (again, the Arabs had some very good physicians); "Protestant work ethic" (new immigrants in most Western countries today often work harder than the Protestants); and consumer culture (that’s going global these days, as Mr. Keane points out).

So we’ve had the Literary view, the Art view, the Musical view, and now we have the Consumerist view. This is somewhat reminiscent of the two blind Indians who came across an elephant: one felt a leg and surmised that this must surely be a tree, while the other felt the trunk, and came to a completely different conclusion, that it must be some sort of big hose.

No, something is missing--something vital, something at the center of the whole question, a philosopher’s stone.

Mr. Keane observes that Mr. Ferguson says virtually nothing about the actual term "civilization," which he defines as including such concepts as "civility"--"the non-violent respect for others that children are taught from an early age," and "civil society"--which he describes as "the peculiarly modern antidote to violent state power."

The term civilization is of course derived, together with civil and civility, from the Greek "civitas," meaning city--hence people living together in a city. And if people are going to live together in city-size numbers, they have to be able to listen to each other and give others the opportunity to voice their opinions, hence that other Greek invention: democracy. (Plato was in favor of big cities, but not bigger than where everyone could know each other personally--somewhere in the region of a couple of thousand.)

Civilizations are like people: they are born, grow, develop, have ideas, energy and vitality when young, they work hard, acquire responsibilities, then get older, grow fat, middle aged, complacent, flabby and eventually die, or fade away. It is impossible not to find a civilization that has not followed this trajectory. Like people, civilizations are full of vitality when young. However, when they are young, just like young people (for civilizations, read "tribal") they are selfish and only see themselves and their own wants and needs. When they get a little older they notice things around them and try to convert others to their way of doing things--benevolently, but also with an eye to swelling their own ranks.

Like Rome before us, we are now in fat, complacent middle age, having gone through a very turbulent mid-life crisis in the twentieth century in the course of which we almost destroyed ourselves completely, but somehow--to our own amazement--have thus far managed to survive. However, dotage is ahead of us. Its signs are everywhere--in the fascination with gossip, trivia and dumbing-down of values into sound-bite-sized lozenges that can be digested in mass-marketed doses (i.e., little doses)--not to mention the elephant-in-the-room fact that we produce very little and rely on the kindness of strange countries to produce everything for us.

The books with the evidence of our youthful vitality are still on our shelves, however, and we kind of know what’s in them. We are hoping that the rest of the world--the ones who are trying so hard to catch up with our consumerism, for which privilege they are having to make concessions they don’t really care about (such as democracy, which is all about a healthy exchange of ideas and opinions) in order to get at it--will carry the ball for us, as we are now too fat to get up off the couch with any ease.

Mr. Keane refers to the popular contemporary conversation about a "clash of civilisations-- East and West," which implies a fair contest between the two (when, that is, according to Mr. Ferguson, the East "suitably adapts Western features such as cricket and secularism"). He rightly refers to the current "global civilization" (more accurately, Western civilization transported everywhere else), which links peoples and eco-systems and "renders redundant the whole idea of civilization," and concludes by saying that "the call to defend Western civilization, in the planetary age of Fukushima, cross-border bailouts and uncivil wars, no longer makes sense, and is immaterial."

Nowhere however, is the C word mentioned. In a post-Christian world it may indeed seem quaint to bring it up, but there is nothing "religious" about Jesus' tenet that if you don’t do anything else at all, just remember one thing and you can’t go wrong: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you get that right, you get everything right.

It seems that is the one thing that distinguishes Western civilization from all others. There’s beautiful art in the East--the Moslem temples of Samarkand, Persia, and Spain make the gothic cathedrals of Europe look drab by comparison. It is hard to see an equivalent to Shakespeare or Beethoven anywhere outside Europe, but literature and music have been practiced with sophistication and refinement in many cultures besides the West. Politics are the same everywhere, in all eras and across all cultures--whoever has the ability to do so seizes power and does his damndest to keep it.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" seems to be the one and only principle that underpins all the diverse criteria of Western civilization (even though plenty of examples can be found of transgressions of it: we’re all human, after all). It underpins everything from Magna Carta to the American Declaration of Independence to the modern parliamentary system (parle = talk to each other). It is the one thing that makes "Western civilization" distinct from all other civilizations, and it's something worth standing up for-- that is, if we can get up off the couch.

1 Response

  1. Ian Watt

    One small quibble with your reference to Kenneth Clark regarding music as secondary due to his English (actually, he was a Scot, or at least his family was Scottish) upper-class background. Clark makes clear in ‘Civilisation’ that in his view music was the art form which expressed the most profound human thought and feeling in the 18th century, and he said that Bach was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of Man. Aside from the series ‘Civilisation’, Clark set up the war-time concert series at the National Gallery with Myra Hess. Although Clark’s expertise was most certainly in the visual arts, I wouldn’t be too sure that he didn’t value music just as highly.

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