Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What is Civilization? Part 2

Civilization Defined (Cont’d.)

As Russ has pointed out, Wal-Mart functions analogously to a city in our civilization, exercising an influence comparable in magnitude to a city such as New York, which contains several times more people (presently about 19 million). And, we are agreed that Wal-Mart is not a civilization for the same reason: Wal-Mart’s scope of activity is limited mainly to the economic sphere. Generally, corporations exist for one reason only: to provide economic profits for their shareholders. Economics may encompass a significant portion of what comprises civilization, but the concerns of civilization are broader.

Russ has emphasized the disparate interests that characterize many civilizations, but I’m arguing here that disparate interests are accidental properties, not essential to what civilization is. His definition has emphasized the differences and left out the commonality that unites people together in the first place. This is the social nature of man and the ultimate end of Society in general. In short, Russ’ definition—inadvertently perhaps—excludes the fact that civilization is essentially a developed form of Society.

Society and Civilization

What is Society then? As a Christian, I offer the following theological definition: Society is the fellowship of men with God. Society in its truest and broadest sense is the union and communion of men with God—and the two Great Commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) are its supreme laws. The eschatological goal of Society as created and superintended by God is the complete interpenetration of Earth by Heaven.

It is the case that many human beings have attempted to build their own societies apart from relationship with God. Yet, because God is inescapable, these attempts can never be wholly successful. The degree of success man has in forming a society excluding God is the degree of success he has in creating hell on earth.

Original Society, as God’s creation, has an intrinsic created purpose. Its completion is a glorified world—Heaven. Its dissolution--Hell. These are two very real "social" realities. At the end of this world’s historical process, all of humanity will be separated into two groups. The children of God will inhabit the one true Society. The children of the Devil will inhabit the Anti-Society, the chaotic darkness of absolute alienation from God as well as from men.

Which brings us back to the common bond necessary for binding individuals into collective unity. Civilization is Society advanced beyond primitive organization. It represents a step toward the perfection of Society despite historically accidental evils and imperfections that may exist. A civilization is a true society not because of, but despite, these flaws. It may be that civilization’s evils and imperfections may come to dominate its historical development. When this is the case, it can truly be said that civilization is tending away from its intrinsic (i.e., essential to created nature) purpose.

To conclude, the health or sickness of Society is relative to its proper end. This must be true of Civilization as well, since civilization is nothing else than a maturation of original Society. Civilization proper aspires to universal and eternal ends, seeking to perpetually (at least, as long as possible!) provide the greatest social good (happiness and security) for the greatest number of people. Therefore, Civilization on this view is not merely a descriptive category but a moral ideal.

The conceptualization of Civilization I’m advancing here obviously originates in the realist metaphysic I generally espouse. The following examples illustrate how this realistic metaphysic works. Communication is more than symbolic expression; symbols must actually signify truth in order to qualify as communication. Similarly, Art is more than a technique of communication; it must actually embody some principle of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Genuine government embodies dominion, authority, and power. Genuine Society (i.e., that is true to its nature) tends toward the observance and advance of God's reign on earth.

Civilization is not a nominal descriptive category that describes particular features of society, but represents a developed stage toward perfection along the continuum that exists between Heaven and Hell. Civilization, when used properly as an ideal term, is not an arbitrary notion based on some imperfect society that existed once upon a time in history. Civilization, properly conceived, is oriented to the eternal state—the concrete ideal at the end of time that the nations seek and that Christians call New Jerusalem.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Sorry for the delay in responding to this.

First a couple of points of clarification: I don't think I "emphasized the disparate interests that characterize many civilizations". I mentioned the disparate interests in order to arrive at a working definition of what distinguishes a city from other types of social orders. I did not however leave out "the commonality that unites people together in the first place" since that is precisely the function that the city itself serves and I said so, though in different words. I don't think I am particularly dwelling on the differences, but without the differences you don't have a city.

Also, you seem to be assuming that I am talking mainly about differences in worldview or ethnicity. While that usually is part of the makeup of a city, even culturally homogenous cities will comprise different interest groups simply by virtue of economic factors. One component of most definitions of a city is that it has an economic structure that allows for trade or commerce. These terms can themselves be difficult to define but the key point is that people within a city are much more specialized in their labors and therefore have both the opportunity and the necessity to trade with others for their livelihood. This also tends to produce artisans and a leisure class that do not produce merely goods but also intangible things. But these various sorts of professions necessarily have different priorities and these differences require a different structure of government and different types of manners than would exist in a more familial setting such as tends to exist in tribal orders. Not that tribes do not encounter similar issues, but they tend to deal with them in ways that are appropriate to their structure and that is distinct from the structure of cities. This latter structure is what we call "civilization" which is all I was trying to get at when I brought up the point about the differences and disparities.

Secondly, I deny that "civilization is essentially a developed form of Society". This implies that other structures are chronologically and developmentally prior to civilization and that they are somehow more rudimentary. I think this view owes much to the evolutionary strain of Enlightenment thinking and is responsible for much mischief in our current notions of Anthropology -- both the doctrine and the scientific discipline. There is little evidence that cities are more advanced stages of any other type of society and at least some biblical data that they were very early on the scene. Gen 4:17 notes that Cain founded the first city and this is recorded prior to the record of the birth of Seth which occurred when Adam was 130. Now, this doesn't exactly imply that the city was founded before the year 130 after the Creation and we have no data on how long Cain lived, but we can at least conclude that civilization was founded very early on in human history. To be sure civilization has itself developed and changed over the centuries and is now a dominant form of social order, but that does not imply that other orders were more primitive or that the one developed from the other. Indeed, I would not even agree that civilization is necessarily more complex or more comprehensive than other orders. I certainly see no evidence that it exemplifies Society more truly than other structures.

This brings me to the issue of Platonism or the Realism/Nominalism debate. I have no real interest in entering that discussion and am somewhat agnostic on the subject. This is mainly due to the inability of either side to convince me that their position can be tested or the source of their knowledge verified. Both sides seem to merely assert that theirs is the more logical view but as far as I can tell they are passing mental tokens around that they don't have the required exhaustive knowledge to properly make use of. But, as I say, that is a discussion I don't really have the energy for.

In any case, it is irrelevant to our current discussion because my position is not the Nominalist one. I am concerned with definitions of terms, not because I think that is all that exists, but because, whether or not some eternal essence exists apart from words, the words themselves are useful tools in clarifying our thoughts and we ought not to misappropriate their meanings when other perfectly serviceable terms are available. It seems to me that both Abelard and Occam could agree to this so I don't see why we need to involve the metaphysical question at all.

I will say, however, that I don't think you have established your claim that Civilization is a step on the progression toward Society, as you define it. It is true that we are offered the promise of a Heavenly Jerusalem, but that does not imply that the city was from the beginning a pattern for human interaction that God intended us to realize. You mentioned Jacques Ellul previously and I agree that he goes a bit too far in his negative assessment of the city, but the data that he adduces must still be taken into account. It cannot be denied that the first cities were founded outside of the covenant line (first by Cain as mentioned above later by Nimrod the descendant of Ham in post-diluvian times). The incident of Babel seems to strongly suggest that the impetus for cities were not a pattern revealed by God but an alternative to and rejection of God's Society created by rebellious man. The People of God can certainly not be considered a civilization until the time of David (or perhaps the time of Joshua). But note that both of those figures are messianic and the theme is conquest and subsequent redemption not natural development and growth. I grant that I cannot disprove the platonic model but it seems that a better account is given by the principle that what man intended for evil, God has intended for good.

Now, returning to the original question, Gilder does not seem to be using the term Civilization in a platonic sense, but even if he were that is not my main objection. The trouble is that he is importing a moral criterion for which he has given no basis. Platonism might save his argument, though I would still find it unconvincing, but as far as I can tell he does not even provide that mediocre basis for his claims.

To reiterate, I think his actual assertions are accurate and Civilization is indeed a good thing. But only because it a creature of sinful man which is capable of being redeemed by Christ's atonement and reformed by God's law. This is the same law which commands monogamy so he is justified in seeing a correlation between Monogamy and Civilization. But he has misdiagnosed the relationship of cause and effect.