Civilisation: A Phrase.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


  “A strange lot this, to be dropped down in a world of barbarians—
  Men who see dearly enough tire barbarity of all ages except their own

  It is generally assumed that we are living in a very late age, and in a state of advanced civilisation. For instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation has organised talks on “Science and Civilisation,” as if the two were almost necessarily contemporaneous; and our civilisation, or what goes under the name, has even been regarded by a certain school of thought as excessive, as when Edward Carpenter gave to a book of his the title, not wholly humorous, of Civilisation, its Cause and Cure.

  Quite recently there appeared in the Press a report that four young men had become so “tired of the cares of civilisation” that they were leaving England for a while to go shark-hunting in the Caribbean Sea; and it must be agreed that in such a recreation as the butchery and dismemberment of sharks the cares of civilisation are not likely to be very burdensome.

  But the question still presents itself—are we living in a very late and civilised age? The answer must, of course, depend on certain definitions, certain comparisons. The world, as scientists tell us, has already lasted for many ages; and if we choose to describe the present age as among the later and civilised ones, and to define civilisation as the mere living in houses and cities rather than in the wilds, we are quite free to do so. It is a manner of speaking. We are informed, for instance, in a popular Encyclopædia, that civilisation is “a general term to designate the condition of the more advanced nations, as contrasted with those that are looked upon as barbarians or savages”; and that is a definition which is likely to give full satisfaction—to the more advanced nations.

  But, to thinkers who look further ahead, and who include ethics in their survey, a doubt must present itself, whether the term “civilisation” is not too flattering to be applied to the present gross conditions under which men live, and whether ages have not still to pass before a real civilisation can be attained. If we are told by the scientists that this earth has existed for vast periods, do they not also tell us that it may continue for as many more? And is it not reasonable to suppose that there may yet be future changes as remarkable as the past ones, and that to later generations our ethics may appear quite as barbarous as those of our ancestors do to us?

  This, to me, seems the more rational view, and it certainly is the more encouraging one; for if present conditions—those we have seen and shuddered at—were inseparable from civilisation, we might well incline to despair; but if we are found to be living (as I think) in a still primitive period of savagery and barbarism, hope in the far future need not wholly be abandoned.

  It looks, indeed, as if the ingenuity of mechanical invention were at present somewhat outstripping man’s ethical and intellectual wisdom. To race at frantic speed by road or air, or to hear words uttered in remote parts of the world, are powers of themselves of small value to humankind. One need not doubt that a time will come when the motor car and the aeroplane will prove a real blessing; as yet, their chief result seems to be that they enable vast numbers of idle persons to disport themselves dangerously; and even the telephone, as now used, often reminds one of Thoreau’s remark on the invention of the telegraph, that probably the first news to come across would be that some princess had the whooping-cough. The worth of words is not enhanced by their having been transmitted from afar.

  There are so many forms of” Discovery,” so many lines along which “progress” must be made, if the world is ever to be the happier and wiser for them; and when we read the daily tale of collisions on the high-roads, or how yet another aeronaut is planning to By to the Cape in shorter time than his predecessors, it is difficult not to fear that precious labour is being wasted. Is this “civilisation”? We hear of a search by scientists for the remains of “primitive man.” A few more centuries, and antiquarians may be quarrying in wonder for us!

  Can an age which tolerates wars be held to be other than barbarous? And with a civilisation yet to come, may we not confidently trust that war will then be ruled impossible? Nor wars only; for equally intolerable would be the unjust social conditions which permit one class to exploit and dominate another, and the morality which connives at the cruel ill-usage of the non-human tribes. Blood sports and vivisection are practices utterly incompatible with a civilised age; nor, when the subject is fully considered, is flesh-eating any less so, for it is in fact a form of cannibalism-nothing else. As Herman Melville wrote long ago in his Moby Dick:

  “Go to the meat market of a Saturday night, and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine—it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilised and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté de fois gras.”

  Can that land be deemed a civilised one, in which thousands of persons will watch the roasting of an ox, in the main street of a town, and compete for “the first slice”? Of course not; and indeed Christmas itself, a festival supposed to be sacred, is yearly disgraced by scenes that savour rather of savagery and heathenism.

  For all which reasons I cannot but smile at the idea of those four young men—themselves strapping young barbarians no doubt—who were tired of the cares of civilisation some centuries, at the least, before such cares could truly have been known. The problem that seems rather to present itself is whether they, and their like, will ever tire of the amusements of barbarism, and not of shark-hunting only, but of the numberless kindred practices on which so many respectable persons spend their energies and their time. I must not venture to hope that a single generation, still less a single lifetime, will suffice to make any visible diminution in a number of our doings which cannot be classed as civilised; but I do console myself in the belief that in a long succession of ages there will be a change for the better, and that eventually something resembling a civilisation will arrive. At any rate there is comfort in the thought that this, our present condition, is very far from being a civilised one.

  It was truth that Ernest Crosby spoke when he wrote the words that are prefixed to this chapter, and added:

  “And who, strangest of all, are absolutely ignorant of the fact that future generations will consider them just as barbarous as their predecessors.

  It is a curious destiny indeed to be planted in the midst of such a people.”

Curious, beyond doubt. Yet it is in the midst of such a people, reader, that you and I are now planted.

  We arrive, then, at exactly the same conclusion as that of Howard Moore in his The Whole World Kin, that, since Darwin established the unity of life, the attitude of a civilised people must be that of “universal gentleness and humanity.”

  Another word that is much in vogue, and received with superstitious respect, is “scientific”; there is hardly any abuse that cannot be covered by it. Name a man “scientist,” and he is credited with every distinction, even if, as sometimes is the case; he is both stupid and cruel. What could be more foolish than a remark made in a presidential address at one of the British Association’s sections (1934), that in five hundred years’ time all study of the Classics will probably have ceased, but Science will never decline from its high position? Yet this nonsense was quite solemnly reported in the newspapers. Homer, Virgil, and Lucretius, it seems, are to disappear in order to make room for the professors!

  Perhaps the word “gentleman” is as instructive as any to those who ponder certain odd features of our “civilisation.” In itself it is so entirely beautiful; but to us, nowadays, it means in many cases an idler who lives on the labour of others—one who dresses, and hunts, and shoots—and with it I would link another term, “gentry,” which has been greatly debased in modern life. There used to be a story at Eton, of how, when the bell rang in one of the big houses for the evening devotions which all the inmates had to attend, a servant was heard exclaiming with a weary sigh, “Oh, why do Gentry have Prayers?” The assumed connection between gentility and piety is worth noting!

  For “pious,” like “gentle,” is in itself a very beautiful word, and in its old classical sense, which meant a fulfilment of all natural duties to one’s kith and kin, one’s fellow-beings here on earth, as different as possible from what it has been transformed into by our gospellers. A man who, in these days, spoke of deriving pleasure from the thought of his own piety would necessarily be deemed a dissembler: yet in the mouth of the Latin poet, Catullus, such a claim sounds quite natural and unaffected: it is a joy to him to remember how, in his past life, he has been “pious.”1 In like manner, according to Leigh Hunt, the leading feature of Shelley’s character was a natural piety:” he was pious towards nature, towards his friends, towards the whole human race, towards the meanest insect of the forest.” Contrast that sort of piety with what our civilisation presents to us!

  It may be asked, perhaps, whether any importance attaches to mere names. Yes; names are most important: and one which inspires a sense of self-content, as “civilisation” does—a wrongful assurance that we have escaped from the rudeness and barbarity of previous generations—is a very serious obstacle to progress. The belief that we are now a civilised race is used to great purpose by the supporters of the various savage practices to which I have alluded, and will continue to be so used until reformers themselves express their feelings in clearer terms. For that reason I have given this chapter the title it bears, “Civilisation: a Phrase,” because it seems to me that “phrase” is exactly the right word. Not fraud, but phrase. To talk of our life as “civilised” may perhaps be allowable when we are directly contrasting it with the manners and morals of prehistoric man; but it really is not so if a humane and decent mode of living comes within the range of our thought.

1 Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas
Est homini, cum se cogitat esse pium.

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