Tag Archives: liberal arts

Civilizing Civilization

booksThis last week I packaged my latest version of The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, and put it in the mail to one of several publishers. It felt like sending a child out into the great wide world. 

Much of my work has revolved around the idea of truth, how we find it, how we recognize it, how we know it’s opposite, falsity. And so the search for what is real and true is a theme of The Fire Trail. It is a search that many have made before me, explorations recorded in the literature of mankind, going back to the first scrolls. 

The mind of man has long journeyed into and through the great questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is love? What is goodness and beauty? How do we live together peaceably, respecting one another’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We call the result, our effort at creating a civilized culture, a civilization. We have come to realize that man is not born civil or civilized, but must be taught and trained and encouraged in the art of selfless love for his neighbor. He must proffer this hope to his world, offer a way forward. 

With the ebbing of religious faith and thus the ebbing of hope in a future, a tsunami of despair has flooded our culture. We are doomed, many say. So it was with great satisfaction that I noticed this last week several optimists, those hope-sayers, who countered the pessimists, those doomsayers. 

Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Foundation, writes encouragingly in his recent review in the Wall Street Journal of Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He describes Mr. Bailey’s list of current scares: overpopulation, the end of natural resources, global warming, genetic modification. Mr. Bailey challenges such scares by pointing out that global living standards are higher than ever and population trends will actually be reversing; genetically modified grain (a GMO), produced by a better breeding technique, feeds the hungry worldwide; fossil fuels are far better for the poor than wood fires, and the contribution to climate change minimal. These visions of hope have triumphed, he notes, because of free market capitalism. 

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, weighs in with “The Green Scare Problem” (Wall Street Journal): “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living… they exaggerate… Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic…, acid rain was not devastating German forests…, the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind.” Remedies for scares can be costly and lethal, particularly in regards to GMOs, climate change, and nuclear power, the current fears. 

The truth is that mankind throughout the Western tradition has been inspired and driven to solve problems as they arise. We have used our minds to help one another live better lives, to survive poverty and cure disease. The fears of doomsayers Paul Ehrlich (over-population) and Al Gore (global warming) are without substance and even harmful with their necessary policies, especially hurting the world’s poor. We have every reason to believe that we may be hopeful about the future, not only of the planet, but of human survival. 

That is, if we continue to be inspired and driven to solve problems, if we continue to search for truth and recognize it when we see and hear it, if we continue to teach the rich tapestry of the history of the Western world to the next generation, that tradition of civilizing inquiry. But with the loss of this “civil” education in high schools and colleges, we may have every reason for unease. With the loss of religious faith – and mystery and wonder – we may have reason to lose faith in mankind. We must equip the next generation with what works and what doesn’t (history) and with inspiration to create (the arts). 

John Agresto writes in the Journal about “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts.” While he recognizes the value of an education that will train the student for the workplace, he believes the student must also be trained to think, to ponder the meaning of life, the pursuit of truth, the definitions of beauty and goodness. The classic liberal arts curricula aimed to do this, to inspire us and “teach us how to marvel.” And when we marvel, we admit we are less than marvel-ous, we are not gods, that we have something to reach for outside ourselves. We become creative. We use our minds to help others. Mr. Agresto writes: 

“Some (literature) holds up mirrors labeled ‘courage’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘smallness of soul’ to see if we can see ourselves there… books… can show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death… (we) ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.”

And so as I handed my weighty manuscript, sleeping in its slick Priority envelope, to the postal clerk, I said goodbye and wished it well. I prayed it would find a home, that it would be midwifed into the world of readers, birthed onto white pages or tablet screens. I prayed that my little novel, a (suspenseful) love story set in Berkeley in September 2014, would be my small offering to our culture of despair, a way forward on a path to a more civilized society, one of truth, beauty, and goodness, and one of safety and sanity.

I prayed that we keep well tended that fire trail protecting civilization from the wilderness.

The Question of Civilization

703683What is civilization? And more particularly, what is Western Civilization?

I have been pondering this question, particularly in light of the demise of Western Civilization course requirements on university campuses across the nation. We are told that these classes are elitist, that they promote only the West and shun the rest, and we need to be more inclusive, study all civilizations equally. (Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem if all were actually studied; but in many schools, the student chooses, and often neglects Western histories when left on his own.)

In my reading and unraveling, there appears to be an odd word game at play here. To be sure there are many civilizations throughout the world and in time, and this meaning of the word “civilization,” that is, any society of people and their culture, recognizes this. All are worthy of study.

What is more to the point, however, is how to conserve those aspects of a civilization we find valuable and necessary, i.e. those ideals of the Western world, going back to Athens, that we find crucial to free peoples today. Many of these aspects, these roots and ideals, are found in other cultures in varying degrees, planted by the West through colonialism. This is not being elitist or exclusionary. It is simply true.

Clearly there are aspects of civilizations that we might not want to encourage on our shores. The tyrannies of the Islamic State and of the Communist State come to mind; repressive and corrupt governments come to mind. We are not keen on beheadings and lawlessness and military dictators. We like free elections and freedom to travel and own property. Western democracies are (or should be) favored because liberty, limited and representative government, free speech, the freedom to worship and assemble, the rule of law, are lauded as ideals.

What happens when we fail to teach our children the history of these ideals found in the development of the Western world? What happens to our electorate when we say North Korea and Iran have equally good forms of government and pose no threat?

In my ponderings, I’ve come up with a working definition of civilization, which one of my characters poses in my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, a story about the borders of civilization and the wilderness:

A civilized society is a culture in which the common good is desired and advanced, but individual life and liberty protected, in which the natural world is controlled but cultivated and cared for, in which respectful debate is fostered and slander discouraged, in which social charity is promoted, yet private property protected, in which the rule of law and representative government work to provide peace at  home and to defend our borders.

A cousin to the question of civilization is the question of the Christian influence in Western Civilization’s development. They are interwoven, for Christianity’s inherent belief in progress, of bettering oneself and one’s community, as well as the value of the individual, spurred Western Civilization forward. The work ethic was largely a Christian ethos that has become secular through time. Eastern civilizations did not develop in this way, for life was circular and determined by fate; one worshiped one’s ancestors and was not so concerned with one’s descendants; happiness was to deny the real world and retreat into a mystical present.

Christianity, in its theology of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, recognized that at that moment man turned away from God, to make himself godlike. Instead of godlike, however, he became primitive, savage. By recognizing this original sin, Christianity claimed that God saved man from himself, and death, through God’s Incarnation; man was shown sacrificial love. The Judeo-Christian tradition, i.e. the Western tradition, embraced the ideals of honor, sacrifice, communal charity, protection of life, liberty, and yes, claimed a path to happiness, not just its pursuit. The idea of the noble savage, a romantic primitivism embraced since the eighteenth century (from Rousseau, Mead, Marx, and Engels to Karen Armstrong), does not hold up to reality. The natural world is a wild world, one that humans must tame, just as we must tame the wildness within our own hearts.

Aristotle is quoted as saying, “the purpose of politics is not to make living together possible, but to make living well possible.” It is most certainly both. And these are also purposes of Western Civilization, to create a culture that cultivates freedom of expression through word and image, one that encourages our nobler side, our more sacrificial and heroic side, one that teaches us to love. It does this by ensuring peace and prosperity, and by passing on these ideals to the next generation.