What Civilization is Not

By Bill Bonner on October 11, 2017

What a rollicking good time we have had the last few days reading Clive Bell’s masterpiece, Civilization. The essay was originally published back in 1928… and has been ignored ever since. But as we have developed our own theory of civilization – what it is, where it came from, etc. – we thought we’d better take a peek at Bell’s book to see if we missed anything.

The Greeks gave barbarians a bad name. They considered the tribal people who lived north of Macedonia to be roughly as low and brutish as professional wraslin’ fans today. They gave them their name… based on the way their languages sounded to them – “bar… bar… bar…”

But at least a thousand years earlier, the ancient Sumerians were already talking smack about them. In “The Curse of Akkad,” around 2,000 B.C., the semi-civilized Sumerians described the barbarians invading their territory:

“… they don’t have grains, they don’t have houses nor cities… they are not farmers, they eat raw meat, have never lived in a house in their entire lives… the Martu [what they called these Amorite invaders] are a raider people with the instincts of wild beasts.”

But is there really any important difference between the barbarians and the people who called themselves “civilized?”

Paragons of Civilization?

It is common to define “civilized” people in terms of their cultural and political achievements. The old historians focused on four paragons of civilization to make their point: Athens, from the Battle of Marathon to the death of Alexander; Rome, from the crossing of the Rubicon to the reign of Trajan; the Italian city states of the 15th and 16th centuries; and finally, France, from the 18th century onward.

But it is one thing to talk about civilization abstractly and quite another to put the label “civilized” on any specific place at any specific time. More broadly, it is a challenge and a trap to base a definition of civilization purely on aesthetic or cultural markers.

In the Great War, when asked what the fighting was all about, the English, French, and American authorities would often resort to a slogan. “It’s about protecting civilization.” But you could hardly be said to be upholding cultural civilization by going to war with the country that produced Kant, Einstein, Nietzsche, Schweitzer, Goethe, and Beethoven. The most culturally civilized people on earth in the early 20th century were German.

Au contraire, it was because they – or more precisely, their rulers – had stopped doing the one thing that civilization requires: leaving your neighbor in peace. The trouble with basing a theory of civilization on cultural achievements is that you are wrestling with foam. You can’t grab anything. You can’t get a grip on anything. You can’t pin it down.

As soon as you say that post-Marathon Athens was a paragon of civilization, someone will point out that the Athenians were already champions of the Arts long before the Persian invasion. Then you might be tempted to narrow your focus to the Golden Age of Pericles… until you realize that Pericles was an idiot who got Athens smashed by the Spartans.

Speaking of the Spartans, let’s remember that both Athens and Sparta – particularly Sparta – ran on slave labor. Today, with the Baltimore city government yanking out statues of confederate heroes in the dead of night, you will have a hard time arguing that any place that relied on whips and chains for its daily bread deserves to be called civilized at all, let alone one of the best of the breed.

And yet, wasn’t Athens circa 400 B.C., even with all its slave labor, still more civilized than say, Baltimore circa 2017 A.D.? Imagine the students gathered at Aristotle’s feet. Weren’t they more civilized than the average student body of any public high school in modern Baltimore? But wait. Our old friend Richard Russell used to say that you could judge a civilization by how it treated its women. But where does that take you? Are women in Iran or Saudi Arabia treated worse than those in Baltimore? Who knows? The foam gets in our eyes; we can’t see a thing.

According to Professor Edward Westermarck, from whom Bell draws inspiration as well as information, some “civilized” communities treated their women like livestock. Some savages, on the other hand, treated them pretty well. The Andaman Islanders might have boiled up missionaries for dinner, but they were monogamous. And the Car Nicobar people were far more chaste than U.S. presidents. Plato, meanwhile, advocated wife-sharing. Who’s to say which is the more civilized?

But it is in matters of politics and patriotism that the students of civilization tend to flunk out. The general tendency is to connect civilized periods in history with strong, resolute government.

Love of country is not necessarily good or bad. Bell remarks that Fiji islanders were so attached to their homeland that they died from homesickness when they were removed from it. Other groups – especially successful merchants and traders from India, China, and Lebanon, diaspora Jews and Armenians, and people named Patel – seem to land on their feet wherever they tumble. They don’t seem to care which passport they carry, as long as it allows them to travel, learn, and do business.

Military success is often confused with – or suspected of enabling – civilization. Many people believe that it was Caesar’s conquest of Rome that made possible the great flourishing of civilization there. And it wasn’t until Japan whupped Russia in 1905 that Japan was considered civilized by westerners. In the Second World War, “protecting civilization” had less of a hollow, tinny ring to it. But not because Germans had suddenly begun beating their wives and forgotten how to write long, almost incomprehensible sentences making some obscure philosophical point… or because they were unable to string their violins.

Uncivilized tribes could attack whomever they wanted… and pray to their gods to help them kill their enemies. “Us vs. Them” was the name of the game. It was, at some mythical level, a struggle between the gods themselves. “We will win,” said one group of savages, “because our gods are stronger.” But modern, civilized gods – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Confucian – won’t help you in your efforts to murder people. They’ve gone soft. They are “pacifist” and “universalist” gods, meaning that they tell us to treat all our neighbors well, no matter who they are. And yet, people praying to these modern gods have committed the most extravagant acts of mass murder in history. Go figure.

Civilization Is Win-Win

We don’t know where Bell is going (we are reading the book slowly, like eating a good dessert, giving us a chance to digest each chapter before going on to the next… most of this commentary comes just from reading chapter 2), but we know where we are going. Civilization is win-win. If it isn’t win-win – that is, if it isn’t a voluntary transaction – it isn’t civilized. Civilized people don’t kill. They don’t steal. They may seduce, but they don’t rape.

Win-lose – forcing others to do things they don’t want to do – is for barbarians. And Congress.


Bill Bonner
Gualfin, Argentina
October 11, 2017