The Civilization of the Mind
17 August 2009
It has been said, and rightly so, that the greatest poets are not necessarily the greatest builders, and vice versa. We will never know how much poetry, music, and performance art has been utterly lost to us because no record of it remains. For a civilization to leave a record of its itself, it must attain a minimum level of technology that would allow it to leave a durable record of its accomplishments. Since it is relatively easy to imagine a culture that attains a high level of development without ever even developing a written language, we must allow that much has probably been lost.
In fact, the most durable of all cultural monuments tend to be the oldest, and many if not most of the petroglyphs, megaliths, and geoglyphs pre-date civilization itself. These traces of our ancestors are more suggestive than informative. Even the details of paleolithic cave painting petroglyphs, some of them apparently as clear and vivid as the day they were completed, resist any definitive interpretation. There is no consensus that they even constitute an attempt at representation after the manner of naive realism. Thus, while such archaeological remains are evidence of past intellectual activity, it has become impossible for us to say anything definite about their intellectual content. For us, they remain mute stones.
We come to firmer interpretive ground when we arrive at the production of written manuscripts. Indeed, at this point we reach, by definition, the historical era and take leave of the prehistorical era in which there are no written records to guide us. But what Adam Smith said of the simple woolen coat of a day-laborer holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the materials that civilization makes available to a writer. Consider Smith’s account:
The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter I
Smith goes on for a longish paragraph covering the provenance of the day-laborer’s woolen quote, in a kind of litany that one would expect in Jorge Luis Borges and not in the classic text of western political economy. But the point here is that the paper upon which a poet writes his poem is also the result of the joint labor of a great multitude of workmen, and as we follow the interconnected chain of production and consumption it eventually comes to comprehend an entire economic system, hence an entire social system.
Homer, of course, is believed to have come from a long tradition of oral poetry, finally recorded at the end of the age of heroic oral poetry and at the beginning of the age of written records. That is to say, Homer, and the poems associated with his name, date from the cusp of history, and this makes them unique, a faint reflection in written language of the oral culture than preceded all written cultures.
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.
At that time I settled for making the distinction in terms of the quantitative and the qualitative. Now it occurs to me that what I previously called the qualitative conception of civilization might be better called the civilization of the mind. And, by analogy with his formulation, we could well call the quantitative conception of civilization the civilization of the hand.
The great monuments of the civilization of the mind are not those familiar monuments of civilization like the Taj Mahal or the Minaret of Djam, the latter now as isolated as the tumbled remains of Ozymandias’ statue as recounted by Shelley. In so far as we all focus upon such monuments when we think of civilization, we are all historical materialists, and in so far as we can achieve a conception of the civilization of the mind independent of such material traces of civilization, to that degree we have transcended historical materialism.
Great works of art and architecture are artifacts of the mind, and have a place in the civilization of the mind, but the central monuments of the civilization of the mind are the ideas that emerge from the life of a people, the language in which these ideas are expressed, and the great works of literature in these languages that express these ideas in their most authentic form.
But while the civilization of the mind can be abstractly considered in isolation from the conception of civilization implicit in historical materialism, this abstraction must almost be understood as an abstraction, and that the two — that is to say, the civilization of the mind and the civilization of the hand, as it were — cannot be separated in fact.
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