Two Conceptions of Civilization

1 July 2009


Is civilization to be measured by the number of dynamos operating?

Is civilization to be measured by the number of dynamos operating?

Ideally one introduces a distinction with a compelling pair of contrasting names that capture in a nutshell the essential principle or principles underlying the distinction, but one’s language is not always immediately adequate to the task and one must settle for an imperfect formulation or postpone any exposition of the distinction. I have been on both sides of the fence of this dilemma, but today I will err on the side of imperfect exposition rather than hopeful silence awaiting an adequate formulation. So, for today, I will draw a contrast between what I will call the quantitative conception of civilization and the qualitative conception of civilization.

Or is civilization to be judged on the quality of the poetry produced?

Or is civilization to be judged on the quality of the poetry produced?

While the contrast of the quantitative and the qualitative will be immediately familiar, it will also for the same reason be deceptive and potentially misleading. These are not the best label for what I have in mind, but they will do for the time being.

Last April in The Economic Interpretation of History I mentioned how Joseph Campbell has employed the latter phrase in his lectures with a dismissive tone of voice suggesting that an economic interpretation of history was prima facie inadequate to the task of understanding man’s place in the world. This may well be true; in any case, we will not consider that particular question at present. What is of interest to us here is the kind of conception of civilization that is implicit in historical materialism, which must be understood as the ultimate target of Campbell’s disdain.

Joseph Campbell was disdainful of what he called the economic interpretation of history.

Joseph Campbell was disdainful of what he called the economic interpretation of history.

Recently in once again watching Kenneth Clark’s BBC series Civilisation, I noticed that Clark used the phrase, “mechanical explanations of history.” Clark isn’t quite so dismissive as Campbell, but he is quite definitely off-handed about it, and elsewhere in the same series he openly admits that he has little to say about economics as he doesn’t understand it. Clark reveals himself as a humanist in the aesthetic vein, which is to say a humanist with no discernible ideological content to his views but with a passionate commitment to the history of human achievement. He quotes Ruskin that, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts — the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.” Clark focuses on the last, and like Ruskin has a special interest in architecture as embodying the values of civilization.

It seems to me that there is an affinity between what Campbell called the economic interpretation of history and what Clark called mechanical explanations of history, and that both fall under what we may broadly term the quantitative conception of civilization. A perfect example of a quantitative conception of civilization given explicit formulation is the Kardashev scale that measures civilizations on their ability to utilize energy resources. Given a quantitative conception civilization, we can measure not only the extent but also the achievement of civilizations by quantifiable measures such as complexity of technology, miles of roads constructed, numbers of people fed and gainfully employed. These are not trivial things, and are not to be dismissed out of hand.

Such quantifiable measures, however, while not be be dismissed, are not the whole of a civilization. There are unquantifiable aspects widely recognized and attributed to civilizations that have to do with excellence in the production of art and architecture. One can imagine an idealistically inclined individual making a claim that a single masterpiece is worth more than any number of technical or engineering achievements, with the same sort of hyperbole that inspires people to say things like, “justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

Masterpieces, works of unquestioned genius, and inspired undertakings, just like quantitative measures of civilization, are not to be dismissed out of hand, as some men of prideful pragmatism are like to do. It is easy to dismiss masterpieces of art as irrelevant when people are hungry or homeless, and there are many well-known proverbs to this effect, such as, “fine words butter no parsnips.” Yet without the inspiration that all may draw from great works of art that embody the spirit of a people and render their experience of life in a concentrated form, technical and industrial progress may ring hollow and seem as though all is for naught.

Both points of view — the idealistic and the pragmatic — are well represented in the world today, and we can suppose that they were equally well represented in the past. Moreover, thoughtlessly unconditional formulations of both are well familiar though they are the least helpful while the most dramatically represented in purple prose.

What represents a “higher” level of civilization: Periclean Athens, renaissance Florence, counter-Reformation Spain, or contemporary technological civilization? Is the Parthenon, Michelangelo’s David, el Escorial, or the Empire State Building the greater monument to civilization? The idealist tells us that it is the qualitative character of a civilization that ultimately matters, while the pragmatist will tell us that it is the quantifiable measures that ultimately matter. It is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Two distinct conceptions of civilization are involved here, and we will never make sense of comparisons like this unless we explicitly understand that more than one standard can be invoked to make a judgment upon the value and achievement of a civilization.


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