Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Is Civilization, Anyway?

Sculpture signifying grammar on the wall of the Chartres Cathedral.

The quote on the right-hand sidebar of Under the Gables reads: "Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of civilization depended upon their quality."

I firmly believe this, but it does beg the question: What is civilization?

In Chapter 4 of the 2009 book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong, there is one answer that sounds promising:

Civilization is the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas, and objects: it feeds and sustains love ('love' is the one-word version of the phrase 'high quality of relationship'). In genuine love we do not only have an appetite for and devotion to something or someone, but we also perceive what is good and loveable and recognize our own need to meet and engage with that.

The life-support system for love has two aspects. First, civilization seeks to find and protect the good things with which--potentially--we can form high-quality relationships. And second, civilization fosters and protects the qualities in us that allow us to love such things for the right reasons. The qualities that inspire love are: goodness, beauty, and truth. And when we love these qualities we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness, and taste....

Love is the antidote to fashion and gossip; for love spurns rapid change; it repudiates the language (and the inner attitude that fuels the words) of what is 'hot' or what is 'in.' Love spurns trivia--or, better, longs for what is real and substantial.

Mr. Armstrong's book explores the Athens branch that feeds into Western civilization, without exploring the contributions of the Jerusalem branch. Nevertheless, by placing love at the center of his definition, the door is open to a fuller definition that encompasses both, I hope.

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