The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er, And neither have I wings to fly, But give me a boat that will carry two, And both shall row....
The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er,
And neither have I wings to fly,
But give me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row....
When your method of survival is hunter-gatherer, you spend your entire time in that job. Everyone does it all day, every day, and there is little time for anything else. You must move from place to place as the grain and roots are gone and the game travels further from you. Then imagine that you come to a place where food is so plentiful that you can stay and learn to renew it each year. It is so easy and so abundant, that it is no longer necessary for everyone to work at the production of food. You even have enough to feed domesticated animals rather than having to hunt them. There can be a division of labor where some will build permanent homes, some will learn to travel on the water in boats, learning the trader’s art with other tribes and sharing knowledge. There will even be leisure to decorate what is built and to think of other things than just survival. As the complexity of life grows, it will be necessary to find some way to save information to pass it along to coming generations, as all parents wish to do to make the lives of their children easier than theirs had been, and in the pride of accomplishment and the desire for it to last, and so they will invent writing and history, since oral tradition, though it can be very accurate over many generations, can only do so much to save the history and culture of a people. It takes permanent records and the ability to share knowledge with someone you will never see to build on that knowledge and make it grow. With leisure and the ability to store knowledge, and contact, through the ease of transportation that the river offers, with many others, knowledge expands, speculative thought grows, the arts become more complex and more important to the people. With larger groups and different spheres of action within a single community, systems of morals and ethics must also be put in place, and more complex religions and philosophies are required to establish meaning. A different kind of living is necessary, where people must specialize and become more dependent on one another and on the community. Each has his or her own different contribution to make, which is supported by the contributions of others. Both shall row.... Working together we can cross the water where one alone would fail. All shall row in a civilized society, but in different ways, in different tasks. The human race has risen to civilization. In the great river valleys that cradled it all these things arose independently and differently. Writing, religion, mathematics, art, poetry, music and architecture, and the beginnings of science were alive, different but vital, everywhere that people had the time to create civilization.
Then because they had time and the beginnings of technology and of the fruits of specialized knowledge that works together to create more complexity and more adventures, their cultures began to spread — down the rivers and even across seas, to influence and civilize others at greater and greater distances. The riches of civilization became clear and were either adopted or stolen by whatever other humans they touched. It was a practical way of living that became something more: a way of life that was able to nurture the life of the spirit.
It has become somewhat unfashionable these days to say nice things about civilization. Not only are we to honor the natural world on which we live and which is necessary for that life, we seem to think that civilization is merely a spoiler of that natural world. Cities mar the landscape, and human beings, we seem to think, would probably be naturally good if we were not warped by living in such a way that we are out of touch with the rhythms of the earth. And we do do terrible things to it and to its other denizens through pollution and the consumption of resources. We do consume and we do pollute, and it will be necessary to do what we can to improve that situation simply for the sake of our own continued survival, but we dishonor ourselves when we forget that it is the civilized rather than the natural human being who provides most of the gifts of the spirit. It was not untouched nature but civilization that produced the philosophy of Plato, the ethical theories of Confucius, the symphonies of Beethoven, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the marvels of ancient and modern architecture, and of the computer and the airplane. .
However, much of what we read and hear these days celebrates the uncivilized and dishonors the graces of civility, of the intellectual life, of cooperation and of trust among human beings — all of which are required if civilization is to continue, all of which can be gone if we continue to devalue it. I have heard some people say that a new dark age is coming. If so, it will be a strange one. In the last dark ages in the west much of our culture was only preserved in monasteries, and, oddly enough, by the Arabs who were influenced by the
Who will save our ancient wisdom this time, if the doomsayers are right and the barbarian is even now within the gates? Sometimes I think they may be right when I look at our increasing illiteracy, the breakdown of institutions, which keep stability in society, and the rising use of violence rather than the various tools of civilized negotiations to settle disputes. If it is true, I suspect that it is people like us, the most highly civilized of citizens, who have assisted in opening the gate and welcoming them in.
If we have, it has been completely unintentional and for the most idealistic reasons, but will have been done by our ceasing to honor civilization enough, seeking out its flaws, and in our attempts to address them, doing damage to its virtues. We have rejected much of our heritage, the basis for any continuing civilization, naming it racist and sexist. Much of it is, and yet we lose too much understanding of who we are when we will not learn what we have been, and when we reject all of an individual’s thinking because one concept or one attitude is offensive, we lose far more than we gain. We have, in the name of compassion and freedom, encouraged women and girls to bear children alone without the means or ability to rear them properly, endangering the stability of society. In the name of a distorted notion of equality and equal access we have degraded our educational systems; in the name of ecology we have sometimes almost given up the effort to keep our cities habitable for the poor; and in the name of honoring different value systems, we have thrown away the standards which keep us from the violence and ignorance of the barbarian. The unintended consequences of applying our highest values without wisdom can sometimes be problematic, even devastating.
An incident that seemed to me to show how we, ourselves, might bear some responsibility for the dishonoring of civilization happened few years ago when a visiting Unitarian Universalist told me that although his children no longer attend church they are living out their Unitarian Universalist principles by going into a place where nature is unspoiled and living in harmony with the earth by doing organic gardening and respecting all living things — except, from what I could gather, people. I realize that people will say and think almost anything to rationalize their disappointment with their children’s lifestyle choices, but what he said seemed to me to be somewhat relevant to the recent focuses of the wider movement’s religious education. If that is living out their Unitarian Universalist principles, our church schools have omitted something. We’re doing well by nature, which is, I agree, a good thing, but we seem to have left out honoring our heritage of civilization. If this is true in the wider society, and the values that are taught are actually those opposed to civilization, then those who predict a coming dark age may be right.