Saturday, July 12, 2008

Duck and Civilisation

Duck asks such an interesting question on my previous post that it deserves a post of it own. 'Is the idea of civilisation utopian?' There's an easy answer to this - no. Utopia implies perfection whereas civilisation is just a case of making the best of a bad job. Civilisation redeems us from the wild condition but does not necessarily offer perfection, only an improvement. (You may argue about whether it is an improvement, but that's another matter.) Remove the idea of perfection, however, and the answer becomes more interesting. This blurs the meaning of utopian, but never mind. Reframing Duck's question we get: does civilisation entail the hope for/idea of a better world? I think it does. But, to traditional conservatives of the right and left, this must be a very modest aspiration. All civilisations end and what is right for one is not likely to be right for another. Utopians tend to ignore one or both of these truths. The hope for a better world embodied in civilisation is simply a case of patching up a leaky vessel on a stormy sea. Nothing wrong with that as long as we don't delude ourselves we will ever reach the promised land.


  1. There aren't many genuine utopians, people who would argue for the possibility of attaining a perfect society, in Western politics these days. It seems instead that those of a so-called progressive tendency, are often labelled as utopians by those of a conservative tendency. Having mis-represented the beliefs of the progressives as utopian, the conservatives ridicule the possibility of such utopia as an attempt at ridiculing progressive beliefs.

  2. Bryan

    That's a reasonable sounding defense of civilization, but ultimately unconvincing. If you trace the roots of that thing we call civilization today, you'll find several strains of utopian ideas in the cultural DNA. Most recently is the event called the Enlightenment. The American Revolution was as well, which may explain our differing perspectives.

    Also, I think you mistake for utopian efforts that are aimed at defending a minimal standard of order that is necessary for civilization. Certainly you can't seriously think that John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart's characters in Liberty Valance are utopians. They were just defending the idea that society requires the rule of law, and cannot survive when the mechanism for enforcing the law is broken.

    I'd argue the same for the neocons. If Saddam Hussein was Liberty Valance, then the UN, that utopian enterprise in which you progressives ardently place your hopes for a world without war, is the hapless sheriff. The UN, under the guise of a humanitarian mission, engaged in a corrupt racket with Saddam's regime via the Oil for Food program, which only helped Saddam cement his grip on power while doing nothing for his hapless suffering subjects. The only thing keeping Saddam from completing the rout of his internal enemies were the American imposed no fly zones over the Shia and Kurd regions. If the UN represents international law, then the law was broken.

    But even given your "stumble along" vision of civilization, you don't seem to realize that war is sometimes the best means to stumble along. In fact I find it odd that your realistic view of matters allows you the luxury of outrage over war. I'd say such outrage is more a symptom of utopian thinking. War has been a constant feature of human life on this planet, and contrary to the complaint that war never solves anything, it most certainly does. War solves many things for the victors. If you turn to war for a solution, you just have to be determined to emerge victorious.

  3. Does anyone read Arnold Toynbee or Christopher Dawson anymore?

  4. How do we know that civilisation rather than redeeming isn't the wild condition in itself.

  5. I think it was Rand who said the purpose of civilization is to free us from the tribe.

    We to some extent are all Utopians, our brains are looking for and longing for, the perfect pattern (our brains are wired for Inductive thinking, its the default position)

    But when you think about it "deductively" your realise that perfection itself is what is imperfect, the universe and nature are not perfect systems, if they where they would be static systems.

  6. Gordon:

    But can you be 'progressive' without being utopian? What are you progressing towards?