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Is Western Civilization in Decline?

Does Civilization Equal Modernity & What is Modernity?

To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation.

Bertrand Russell

[The unattributed quotes below are from Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, 1969.]

I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. On one side of the Seine is the harmonious, reasonable facade of the Institute of France, built as a college in about 1670. On the other bank is the Louvre, built continuously from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: classical architecture at its most splendid and assured. Just visible upstream is the Cathedral of Notre Dame—not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigourously intellectual facade in the whole of Gothic art. The houses that line the banks of the river are also a human and reasonable solution of what town architecture should be, and in front of them, under the trees, are the open bookstalls where generations of students have found intellectual nourishment and generations of amateurs have indulged in the civilised pastime of book collecting. Across this bridge, for the last one hundred and fifty years, students from the art schools of Paris have hurried to the Louvre to study the works of art that it contains, and then back to their studios to talk and dream of doing something worthy of the great tradition.

What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now. Ruskin said: ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.’ On the whole I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.

Architecture is a very good test of the true strength of a society, for the most valuable things in a human state are the irrevocable things—marriage, for instance. And architecture approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable, because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall; it would be a nuisance to turn that Roman cathedral with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you tear a town-hall to pieces.

G. K. Chesterton

The translations of the Bible, by Calvin into French, by Tyndale and Coverdale into English, were crucial in the development of the western mind; and if I hesitate to say to the development of civilisation, it is because they were also a stage in the growth of nationalism, and as I have said, and shall go on saying, nearly all the steps upward in civilisation have been made in periods of internationalism.

Every great movement in the history of Western civilization from the Carolingian age to the nineteenth century has been an international movement which owed its existence and its development to the cooperation of many different peoples.

Christopher Dawson

I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth-century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly. But if the first requisites of civilisation are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.

It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.

For almost a thousand years the chief creative force in western civilisation was Christianity. Then, in about the year 1725, it suddenly declined and in intellectual society practically disappeared. Of course it left a vacuum. People couldn’t get on without a belief in something outside themselves, and during the next hundred years they concocted a new belief which, however irrational if may seem to us, has added a good deal to our civilisation: a belief in the divinity of nature. . . The first stage in this new direction of the human mind was very largely achieved in England—and perhaps it was no accident that England was the first country in which the Christian faith had collapsed. In about 1730 the French philosopher Montesquieu noted: ‘There is no religion in England. If anyone mentions religion people begin to laugh.’

In the last resort every civilization depends not on its material resources, but on the spiritual vision of its greatest minds and on the way in which this experience is transmitted to the community by faith and tradition and education. Where unifying spiritual vision is lost the civilization decays.

Christopher Dawson

Rousseau sent a copy [of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality] to Voltaire, who replied in a letter which is a famous example of Voltairean wit: ‘No one has ever used so much intelligence to persuade us to be stupid. After reading your book one feels that one ought to walk on all fours. Unfortunately during the last sixty years I have lost the habit.’ It was a dialectical triumph, but no more, because belief in the superiority of natural man became one of the motive powers of the next half-century; and less than twenty years after Rousseau had propounded his theory, it seemed to have been confirmed by fact. In 1767 the French explorer Bougainville arrived in Tahiti, and in 1769 Captain Cook stayed there for four months in order to observe the transit of Venus. Bougainville was a student of Rousseau. It isn’t surprising that he should have found in the Tahitians all the qualities of the noble savage. But Captain Cook was a hard-headed Yorkshireman, and even he couldn’t help comparing the happy and harmonious life that he had discovered in Tahiti with the squalor and brutality of Europe. Soon the brightest wits of Paris and London were beginning to ask whether the word civilisation was not more appropriate to the uncorrupted islanders of the South Seas than to the exceptionally corrupt society of eighteenth-century Europe.

Like most of his contemporaries [John] Wesley was a whole-hearted believer in the myth of the noble savage. The idealization of the primitive, which finds its most complete expression in the works of Rousseau, was, of course, the normal reaction against the more artificial features of the age. In religion, this tendency was responsible for an artless confidence in the inspiration of the illiterate. The Anabaptists of Zwickau conscientiously refused to open the commentaries of learned divines on the Bible, and applied to ignorant peasants to explain to them the hidden meanings which lurked behind the gospel text. Wesley entertained a similar hope. The Red Indian, he trusted, would prove to be the ideal exegete.

“They have no comments to construe away the text (of the gospel),” he wrote, “no vain philosophy to corrupt it; no luxurious sensual, covetous, ambitious expounders to soften its unpleasing truths. They have no party, no interest to serve, and are therefore fit to receive the Gospel in its simplicity. They are as little children, humble, willing to learn, and eager to do, the Will of God.” Two years later, he penned a more accurate description of these same Indians whom he summed up as “gluttons, thieves, dissemblers, liars, murderers of fathers, murderers of mothers, murderers of their own children.”

Arnold Lunn (from John Wesley, 1929)

I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

If, as I suppose, sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men and tolerance of human diversity be an attribute of civilised life, then Rembrandt was one of the great prophets of civilisation.

Our generation has been forced to realize how fragile and unsubstantial are the barriers that separate civilization from the forces of destruction. Barbarism is not a picturesque myth or a half-forgotten memory of a long-passed stage of history, but an ugly underlying reality which may erupt with shattering force whenever the moral authority of a civilization loses its control.

Christopher Dawson

It is arguable that the non-existence of a clear, concrete German prose has been one of the chief disasters to European civilisation.

The West has become increasingly detached from its spiritual roots in Christian culture, but has at the same time advanced in material and scientific power, so that it has extended its influence over the rest of the world until it has created a cosmopolitan technological world order. But this world order possesses no spiritual foundation and appears to the ancient civilizations of the East and the new peoples of the developing world [and now Russia and Islam] as a vast organization of material power which has been created to serve the selfish greed for power of Western man.

Christopher Dawson (from The Crisis of Western Education, 1961)

Let us begin by looking at some of the characteristics that we generally associate with the word ‘modern,’ especially in the arts. ‘Modern,’ in itself, means simply recent; in Shakespeare’s day it meant mediocre, and it still sometimes carries that meaning as an emotional overtone. In its ordinary colloquial sense it implies an advanced state of technology and the social attitudes of a highly urbanized life. But ‘modern’ has also become a historical term like ‘Romantic,’ ‘Baroque,’ or ‘Renaissance.’ It would be convenient if, like ‘Romantic,’ the colloquial uses of the word were spelled in lower case and the cultural term with a capital, but this is not established. Like ‘Romantic’ again, ‘modern’ as a cultural term refers partly to a historical period, roughly the last century, but it is also partly a descriptive term, not a purely historical term like ‘medieval’. . . So we feel that ‘modern’ is in part a style or attitude in recent culture.

Northrop Frye (from The Modern Century, 1967)

A margin of wealth is helpful to civilisation, but for some mysterious reason great wealth is destructive. I suppose that, in the end, splendour is dehumanising, and a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste.

Increased means and increased leisure are the two great civilizers of man.

Benjamin Disraeli

Civilization in the best sense merely means the full authority of the human spirit over all externals. Barbarism means the worship of those externals in their crude and unconquered state.

G. K. Chesterton

All science, all art, even human reason itself must serve the will of nature. And nature is fundamentally aristocratic.

Adolf Hitler

Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life blood of real civilization.

G. M. Trevelyan

No man who is in a hurry is quite civilised.

Will Durant

The civilization we live in is a gigantic technological structure. It looks impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity.

Northrop Frye

Civilization is, at least in part, about pretending that things are better than they are.

Jean Vanier

The civilized are those who get more out of life than the uncivilized, and for this the uncivilized have not forgiven them.

Cyril Connolly

In the race between civilization and barbarism, the outcome will always be too close for complacency.


Very few civilizations fell beneath the blows of an invading conqueror; by far the majority acted as their own executioners, gradually rotting from inside and finally collapsing.

Fr. Michel Quoist

People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater.

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