by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Is the question of “What is civilization” even worth asking? Let me suggest that this question, as abstract as it is, really lies behind almost everything we do, with and without our children. Of course, life, to many people in this world, is essentially meaningless and expecting it to be otherwise is, they say, an exercise in futility. Life is what we make it and there’s no use fumbling about with the matter any further.
But if we look at life as a kind of dance, as the most civilized people espousing spiritual values over the millennia have done, as a great ritualized dance, what are the dance steps? It doesn’t matter that as fallen creatures we will always be stepping on one another’s toes. Nonetheless, what’s the choreography? There’s no foot chart, but there are a few things we can gainfully observe.
I’ll say nothing here about civis, civil, or civic. Let’s plow beyond etymology and ask: What do we mean, as individuals, when we say that someone, not a certain society, is “civilized”? Can that assertion point to anything solid beyond vague approval?
This idea has proven notoriously resistant to capture. Nearly 90 years ago, Clive Bell, one of the London Bloomsbury aesthetes, wrote a small book in which he tried to define civilization. He said a few worthy things, but as with almost any such effort to pin down quicksilver, his effort was frustrated.
One also gets the impression that a perquisite to being civilized to him would be to read all the right books, drink all the right brandies, and approve all the right paintings. Not a bad start, perhaps, particularly if ideas and beauty hold any lasting value, but a far from adequate terminus.