Maria’s Note: Maria Bonaventura here, managing editor of the Diary. Bill is unable to pen his daily essay. So today, we share an excerpt from his latest book, A Modest Theory of Civilization: Win-Win or Lose.
Below, Bill explores a brief history of civilization. And he shows the one thing that can make or break a civilized society…
Human experience is marked by two contradictory ways of doing things. By now, readers will be quick to raise their hands and squirm in their seats when we ask, “What are they?” Of course, they are the familiar win-win or win-lose.
But here, we look at them through a wider lens. We see that they are not merely ways of gaining wealth or doing business deals. Instead, they are two opposing impulses – both of them etched deeply onto human glass. One suited mankind and his predecessors for millions of years. The other is perhaps better adapted to modern civilization.
There is always some gray area between violence and persuasion. But that is for others to figure out. For our purposes, it hardly matters. We are just looking at the black and white parts and telling you what we see. Finer intellects with better eyesight can draw the boundaries.
So, let us now lay a bit more of the groundwork. The subject is civilization. Is it a delicate flower? Or a robust weed? Is it something that needs to be cultivated by gardeners on the public payroll, like lemon trees north of the frost line? Or something that develops on its own, no matter what we do or what we think?
Today, we’re spraying a little Roundup around the plant so we can have a better look at it. Racing ahead, we will see that civilization – like language – is what happens when you don’t prevent it from happening. Like manners, it makes relations between humans more agreeable. Like money, it facilitates commerce and makes people materially better off. And like the common law, it establishes helpful rules… sets standards and expectations… and resolves inevitable conflicts without resorting to violence.
Clive Bell, an English art critic and member of the Bloomsbury group, offered a different perspective. For him, civilization is what you get when you think and feel deeply about truth, beauty, life, justice, and other heavy themes. That is what the ancient Greeks did, he says, especially during a glorious 60-year period in the fifth century B.C. And that is why they are usually held up as paragons of civilization itself.
Bell begins on solid ground. “Civilization is artificial,” he writes. He might have also written that it is “natural.” As we will see, it is both. You must do some natural things. And not do other natural things. We focus on the omission side – the important things you must not do if you want to be civilized.
The art critic, Bell, wrote in the inter-war period of the early 20th century. He saw the destruction wrought by World War I. He anticipated, correctly, more to come. But he did not draw any broad conclusions from the extreme violence of the era or about how it might connect to the idea of civilization. Instead, rather than worry about how war fits into civilized life, the art critic chose to look at the civilized life he knew and describe it to us.
What he discovered is that civilized communities have the time to “think and feel” rather than just work. They concern themselves with art, wit, charm, style, poetry, theatre, music, philosophy, and learning – and not just with getting and spending money.
In fact, Bell thought getting and spending – which is what most people do with their daylight hours – got in the way of a civilized life. This led him to conclude that if a society wants to attain a higher level of civilization, it must excuse some people – the elite – from the need to support themselves. Athens, he notes approvingly, was supported by a slave population. This allowed the best of the free men to apply themselves to higher pursuits.
We have no doubt that this model found widespread support among the non-slave population of ancient Greece, just as it does among the non-slave population of modern America and the upper classes of Britain, too.
Today, we have no people we call “slaves” or “serfs” bound to the land. We have only “taxpayers.” But in this context, the idea is similar. The ones support the others. We also have “wage slaves,” but this term seems almost oxymoronic. If you work for wages – rather than for someone with a whip in his hand – you are always free to work for someone else… or not work at all. Real galley slaves cannot pick their masters or decide to take a holiday.
You may say, “Yeah… But we have to eat, so we have to work. We have no choice. We’re effectively slaves.” But if this were so, we are all slaves – to the need for food… and for shelter. And the only way we can be liberated is by enslaving someone else – forcing them to work to provide us with the things we need.
And yet, that is just what is now widely proposed – a new form of slavery, in which some are forced to support others. Today, it is called a “guaranteed universal income.” The idea was championed, for a while, by Milton Friedman and other “conservative” economists, who thought it would be more efficient and less destructive than current welfare programs. Lately, it has been given energy by social engineers who think robots will displace millions of workers, who will then need some form of maintenance. Even high-profile entrepreneur Richard Branson has spoken out in favor of it.
But that Valhalla is still in the future.
What is unique-ish to Bell is that he believed that civilization depended on those who did not work. Instead, they undertake arts and activities that market economies might never support; they add – like Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Socrates, Praxiteles, Aesop, Hesiod, Euripides, Sophocles, etc. – to the cultural richness of the world.
“We were very lucky,” we recall our old partner, Lord Rees-Mogg, explaining a few years before his death. “In Britain [in the early 20th century], there was a whole group of people who had inherited wealth and status. They went to Oxford and Cambridge. They were well educated. They had nothing to prove. They already had money and status. They were already in the aristocracy or semi-nobility, with fortunes that often rested on the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. They felt like an elite, and indeed they were.
“And with this feeling came a sense of public responsibility. They did not need to work, but it would have been very bad form to waste your life in idleness. So most of them set out to learn… to study… to build something… to travel… to invent… or otherwise to do something useful, or interesting, even if it had no immediate or obvious market value. And many of them succeeded quite well.”
Mr. Bell, perhaps overly enthralled by the socialist tendencies of his time, reached back to the Classical period. He called upon the government to use its slave (taxpayer) labor to support an idle class. Mr. Bell would get his wish. But had he lived longer, we doubt he would have been happy with the results.
Since the 1920s, governments have supported millions of people in idleness. In the U.S. today, there are 250 million adults. But there are only about 140 million with jobs. In the past, many of the jobless people would have been housewives, busy taking care of the domestic front while the male breadwinner was at the coalface. But with today’s modern conveniences, small family sizes, and the shift towards women in the workplace, there must be some 100 million people who are neither breadwinners nor homemakers.
They live on welfare, food stamps, savings, pensions, and with the support of relatives. They are more or less idle. And as far as we know, not one of them has carved anything like the Danaïde, written anything approaching Lysistrata, or made a contribution to math and science that comes close to those of Euclid and Archimedes 2,200 years ago.
What fun it would be to have Clive Bell come to visit us in Baltimore. He could see for himself the results of keeping three generations in idleness. Of course, Mr. Bell is not really proposing idleness. But idleness is what shows up at the back door when the need to work goes out the front.
So idleness does not appear to lead to higher levels of civilized life. But what does? Art? Culture? Politics? Rushing to judgment, we maintain that it is one thing and one thing only: a relative absence of violence.
Many people believe that it was Caesar’s conquest of Rome that made possible the great flourishing of civilization under Augustus. And it wasn’t until Japan whupped Russia in 1905 that Japan was considered civilized by westerners. But it clearly takes more than a military victory to bring about civilized development.
In the Second World War, “protecting civilization” was again a popular justification. And it had less of a hollow, tinny ring to it than it did in World War I. But not because Germans had suddenly begun beating their wives, or forgotten how to write long, almost impossible-to-follow sentences making some obscure philosophical point… or because they were unable to string their violins.
Au contraire, it was because they – or more precisely, their rulers – had lost the one thing that civilization requires: the willingness to leave your neighbors in peace. The Germans had gone over to the dark side – the side of violence.
Maria’s Note: Bill sent his new book off to the printer. As a Diary reader, you’ll be one of the first to find out when it’s available. In the meantime, you can get a full digital copy with a subscription to The Bonner-Denning Letter. Find out how to become a paid-up subscriber right here.