Monday 23 February 2009

Civilisation by the skin of out teeth

Text and pictures

this almost incredible episode tells one something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? First of all fear — fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, all the things that make it simply not worthwhile building for the future, or even planning next year’s crops.

And also fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren’t question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then again boredom, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of material prosperity.

Civilisation does require a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But it requires confidence far more. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These may be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.

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