A Meandering on Civilisation

I was encouraged to do a little preparation exercise by Siobhan Campbell who facilitated the ‘life writing’ workshops at the Bray Literary Festival last weekend. I had to choose a subject/word and see what other words/thoughts it prompted. The word I chose was politics and I ended up writing about the meaning of ‘civilisation’.

For me, ’civilisation’ conjures up an image of Egyptian pyramids stuffed with jewels and mummies, the Incas’ khipu (their system of communication and keeping records), Socrates, Kant, Derek Jacobi who played Claudius in the Beeb’s drama,  and stone tablets. That’s very old fashioned, I think to myself. Try again. I do. An image of a world of happy clappy people travellating to work in a Fritz Lang Metropolis full of repressed violence comes to mind.

I was reared on the importance of civilisation. I was taught that civilisation provides for progress; that from civilised actions emerged law and legal conventions that developed and protected human rights. Civilisation, rode hand in hand with ‘education’ across deserts, mountains, jungles and oceans, spreading progress (it now sounds a lot like colonialism). However, politics and culture were also a part of my understanding of civilisation. In my Western world, democracy was a key element of civilisation, (particularly the British variety along with the Spinning Jenny, Brunel, Cricket, Westminster, Shakespeare, not to mention the good old British sense of ‘fair play’). Then, as I grew older, I understood that every country and people had its own form of civilisation, based on its own progressive society, origins, lands, history, and culture.

My next conscious brush with civilisation came with my studying of early American writers, Fenimore Cooper (The Pioneer and The Last of the Mohicans) and Emerson (On Walden Pond) and ‘the advancement’ of the American frontier. There was the discussion about the establishment of laws and structures that people needed to live together but also looked at how those laws and structures undermined the natural law of the wilderness and land, and Indian civilisations. I began to understand that the growth of ‘society’ comes at the expense of nature and that progress also introduces power, elites, and injustice. This is where politics became important. I thought we could create a civilised society that worked in favour of the many, and this could be done through politics. For me, politics provided hope. ‘Corruption’, ‘ego’, ‘mistrust’ were not words I associated with politics. The words were ‘rights’, ‘education’, ‘equality’, ‘self-determination’.

All the above words seem to have faded from civilised conversation today. Now we discuss capital, enterprise, industry, finance, and of course, technological development. Having got this far in my musings, I decided to look up the definition of civilisation. The Wikipedia definition of civilisation is ‘the stage of human social development, which is considered most advanced.’ Or according to the on-line Merriam Webster, civilisation is the ‘high level of cultural and technical development’. For me, that puts the cart before the horse as I think the State or political system influences the art and creativity produced.

In fact, the more I consider the subject of civilisation, the more convinced I become that political systems and culture drive civilisation.  Would we have the pyramids without the Pharos? So, today, if politics and culture are incubated by a civilised society more interested in consumerism and self (because of technological advancement), does this have a negative impact on civilisation. Is civilisation cannibalising itself?

(Am I beginning to lose my bearings and meander off course? Do I detect the edge of a grumpy rant? In recent times, this happens to me frequently).

So,  I better summarise, and try to clarify or walk in a straight line.  I was thinking that civilisation was a good thing. I was thinking that culture and politics were integral to civilisation; that art and literature feed science and technology. I was thinking that the current political landscape and current advancement of human social development is not beneficial to civilisation as economic and technological advancement is focussed on the few. The many do not benefit unless it is to serve the few.  Eventually, the few will not be able to sustain the system and it will implode, as maybe civilisation already is.

Maybe the Leatherstocking Tales by Fenimore Cooper were right and progress will ultimately destroy. What is odd is that the radio programme I am half listening to as I write is about how the IT wizards are working on longevity and the disruption of death. Indeed, this maybe advanced technological thinking, but, to my ear, it seems a far cry from civilised.

But, maybe I am wrong and I have got my understanding of civilisation wrong. Maybe, it is not glorious. I am sure the down trodden people of past civilisations: the Indians in America, the slaves of Mesopotamia, or Rome, did not feel empowered by civilisation. It is probably my age (a bad thought) that makes me realise that civilisation does not have the romance, the glory, the hope that I once trusted in as a young woman, but to prove that I am still young at heart, (a good thought) I know that even if my death doesn’t get ‘disrupted’, there will be another civilisation out there somewhere, beyond me, just not mine (thank God).


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