Civilization and Savagery

Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason.— Johnson (quoted in Boswell’s Life)

There is much talk about the “clash of civilizations” in the conflict between America and militant Islam. Against such a background it is worth discussing what civilization is and why, for all its flaws, it is worth defending.

A thinker like Johnson was generally willing to see all sides of the question. When he took a stand, it was with deliberation and a minimum of emoting. He was by no means blind to the shortcomings of the refined Europeans of his day, but neither could he abide that constant carping of contemporary intellectuals—those who most benefited from the advancements of Western civilization—about their own culture contrasted with the imagined simplicity and dignity of the “noble savage.” According to one exchange in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

BOSWELL: I described to him an impudent fellow from Scotland, who affected to be a savage, and railed at all established systems. JOHNSON: “There is nothing surprizing in this, Sir. He wants to make himself conspicuous. He would tumble in a hogstye, as long as you looked at him and called to him to come out. But let him alone, never mind him, and he’ll soon give it over.” BOSWELL: I added that the same person maintained that there was no distinction between virtue and vice. JOHNSON: “Why, Sir, if the fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying; and I see not what honour he can propose to himself from having the character of a liar. But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”

Multiculturalism is an updated version of this nonsense. Too many Westerners defend irrational savagery abroad while selectively exaggerating the vices of their own culture, apparently heedless of the fact that they would be the first to fall victim to the zealots of unpitying creeds if our civilization were to collapse. Such posturing may be a symptom of boredom, or of pretended superiority over the ordinary people who quietly, and humbly, hold our society together. Johnson reminds us that

Mankind are universally corrupt, but corrupt in different degrees; as they are universally ignorant, yet with greater or lesser irradiations of knowledge. How has knowledge or virtue been increased and preserved in one place beyond another, but by diligent inculcation and rational inforcement? (Adventurer, No. 137)

At the very least, higher cultures are capable of this “rational inforcement,” while barbarian cultures are stuck in a persistent level of brutality. If there are crimes in a higher culture, there are also remedies and efforts to combat them. No one has ever heard of barbarians “reforming” themselves. Only the civilized man can condemn savagery.

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