Today’s Thought on Civilization

13 November 2008


It has been my observation that the more intelligent people are, the more flexible and adaptable they are, and the dimmer the bulb, the greater the difficulty in adapting to change, the unexpected, and so forth. Unintelligent people tend to be rigid and wedded to routine, thus their intellectual needs are readily satisfied by dogma, while it requires something more piquant (in an intellectual sense) to satisfy sharper minds. This should not be surprising: adaptability has a high survival value, and the most adaptable persons will be the most successful, although “success” must be defined differently in different contexts.
Civilization! Let's have more of it. Please.

Civilization! Let's have more of it. Please.

Since we now live in a civilized environment in which mind is more important to daily life than it was for our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, the importance of flexibility of mind is more important than ever, and the mentally adaptable will ultimately have a significant survival advantage in the context of civilization (except where the forces of civilization have a retarding influence, as happens in many places in the world). Perhaps it would be a better formulation to say, rather than that civilization gives an advantage to flexibility, that the world gives an advantage to flexibility, and that civilization sometimes transmits that advantage, but not always.
My own experience with the ruins of a vanished civilization, along the Turkish coast in 1993

My own experience with the ruins of a vanished civilization, along the Turkish coast in 1993

Thinking of it in this way, realizing that systems of social organization can either reward or penalize flexibility, I arrived, in my meditations on this topic, at this general law: a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes. That is to say, there are inevitable forces of change that create forces for change in society. If a civilization fails to change in response to these forces, it eventually fails. Since civilizations are a structure with a bias for continuity and stability, we thus experience the rise and fall of civilizations as old, unchanging ones fail and new ones adapted to new conditions take their place.
Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History

Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History

Recently, thinking about civilization, I found myself becoming curious about the unabridged ten volume version of Toynbee’s A Study of History, so this past weekend I found a library in Portland that had the whole thing and checked out just the first volume, so as to get a feel for the unexpurgated Toynbee. Certainly Toynbee has his faults, and many of them. His work has been subjected to a historian’s critique by Hugh Trevor-Roper and a philosopher’s critique by Walter Kaufmann, both of whose works I have read and both of whom I admire. Still, there is something fascinating in the sheer size of Toynbee’s endeavor.
Civilization in decadence, in the 19th century imagination

Civilization in decadence, in the 19th century imagination

I‘m pleased that I took the trouble to look up the first volume of A Study of History, as I found an interesting passage that does not occur in the two-volume abridgment that I have in my own library. Just above I spoke of the rise and fall of civilizations as new civilizations replace older ones, and on this note I found the following passage: “…in surveying the relations of civilizations in Time, the highest number of successive generations that we have met with in any case is three… it takes many more generations than three for specific characteristics to change so far as to produce any specific difference… The fact that, in our survey of civilizations, we have found in no case a higher number of successive generations than three… means that the species is very young in terms of its own time-scale.” (I, C, iii, c, “The Philosophical contemporaneity of all Representatives of the Species” pp. 172-173) In this, Toynbee is exactly right: the evolution of civilization has scarcely begun.
Toynbee on the cover of Time magazine, March 1947

Philosophy of history meets pop culture: Toynbee on the cover of Time magazine, March 1947

Even the section title from which this observation is drawn is telling: Toynbee takes civilizations, and not periods or nation-states, as the proper object of historical study. This being the case, all civilizations enjoy a certain “contemporaneity” and may be profitably compared to each other. For Toynbee, all civilizations are created equal, and by this we mean a moral equality, as the constitution meant that all men enjoy moral equality despite the obvious differences in individual endowment.
signing the Declaration of Independence

Making moral equality the law of the land: signing the Declaration of Independence

Besides my general law about civilizations formulated above, I take two lessons away from the foregoing: 1) never read abridgments, and 2) one learns far more by reading an author sympathetically than by nit-picking and fault-finding. I have been of this mind for many years, but my recent experience with Toynbee confirms me in these prejudices.

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