Civilization, by Dr. James Patrick

Civilization: a Text and Talk

By way of prologue it is important to understand the relation and the difference Civilization and culture, for both are used to describe the complex of ideas and actions that define the life of a particular people in a particular place at a certain time.    Civilization comes from civitas, meaning citizenship, so that civilization is the political formality of a society or commonwealth.   Culture means on one hand reverential worship of God but more commonly connotes a living growing concatenation of ideas and behaviors, culture refers to something deep on the soil, as in agriculture.   Ideally civilization is the political form of a particular culture.   Perhaps the relation between folk culture and the high culture of civilization proper is an imperfect analogy to the relation between culture and civilization.

To turn to the meaning of civilization in the West is to conjure the Athenians  in the age of Pericles, mid-fifth century BC, who believed that they represented the civilized world as against the Persians and the Spartans.   Of this Pericles' speech at the end of the second year of the war with Sparta was the great monument.  The Persians they held in contempt because they fought under the lash and their speech sounded like bar-bar-bar, hence the title barbarian.   Although Athenians were not above soliciting aid from Sparta as at Thermopylae, they disliked the Spartans because Sparta was a successful, threatening military dictatorship, with boys effectively in the Army from age seven,  lacking anything like the culture that build the Parthenon and fostered Sophocles and Plato

The situation in which we find Athens when Pericles spoke in 450 is dire.  Athens has been at war for half a century, beginning with defeat by the Persians in 489.  After losing disastrously at Thermopylae,  enduring the destruction of Athens by Xerxes army in 479, there  followed the almost miraculous recovery represented  by the victories of Marathon, Platea, and Salamis.  Athens had grown secure, the acropolis had been restored with the great Parthenon with its terrifying statue of Athena, and Athenians had begun to fall prey to the hybris that accompanies success.    They had become intrigued in the politics of distant Corcyra, forbidden other cities to build wooden walls (the ultimate defense in the fifth century BC), and had moved the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens for safe keeping.    In short Athens had become insufferable and the Spartans were determined to take Athens down a peg or two.   Probably the Athenians thought victory over the Peloponnesian League would be easy, but there stood Pericles pulling out all the stops to maintain  control over a decaying military situation.    

So Pericles begins by telling a story or history to those assembled to mourn the fallen. a story,  beginning with the ancestors to whom, he says, Athens owes its freedom.   These ancestors were not immigrants, but had been Athenians generation after generations.   Joined with them as objects of present  gratitude were those he calls the fathers, those who had given Athens an empire.    One point Pericles presses:  freedom depends on valor or courage, that is to say on the army.   And what the army is protecting is a civilization and a culture whose administration “favors the many rather than the few; this is why it is called  a democracy.” [The degree to which Athens was a democracy in the modern sense is controversial.     Laws were proposed by the randomly selected Boule or senate of 500 and then ratified by the assembly or ecclesia in which every male Athenians was allowed to participate.    Usually about 600 politically interested citizens of the 30,000 estimated to have been eligible did.]   Participation in political life is a part of citizenship.   “Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, although occupied with the pursuit of industry, are fair judges of public matters, for, unlike another nations, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but a s useless, we Athenians are able to judge all events . . . and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”     

Pericles insist that poverty does not disbar from service to the state and that class considerations never obscure merit.   Athens leaves its citizens alone.  We do not feel called on to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes.  One of Pericles great points is “far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes.”  This liberality is protected by laws.  “The ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens.   Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.”  This is an acknowledgement of what would later be called natural law.   

Athens was an open society; foreigners were free to come and see; her extensive trade brought luxury to Athenians.  Athenians enjoyed the good things of life.  “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy, wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”   

Over and over again Pericles emphasizes the valor of the ancestors.  “To a man of Spirit the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death that strikes him in the midst of his health.   Pericles’ speech, like Magna Carta and the Constitution of the United States, is one of the monuments to the courage that defends freedom, rather unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1790.    

Pericles’ Athens did not last.  The city became a university town, to which Romans sent their sons rather like Americans send theirs back to Virginia and Massachusetts.    True, there was philosophical greatness in the fourth century, Plato and Aristotle, but by BC150 Athens, all of Greece, was part of the Roman imperium.

One thing can be learned from the Athenian experience:  civilizations bloom and then they fade away, leaving the story of their greatness as a legacy for the generations.        

Why did what Pericles called the School of Hellas fail?  Immediately, one might cite the arrogance that led to the war with Sparta, from which (it may be argued) Athens never recovered.  But there were deeper causes.  In a TLS review of Churchills’ history of England, the reviewer wrote, “The whole action of history seems to prove that it is more dangerous to be intelligent than to be warlike.  Culture is not only futile, but when combined  with kindness almost always actively fatal.”    Civilizations that encourage intellect become self reflective and the national myth becomes complicated and untellable.


The Fleming Foundation

2 Responses

  1. Joshua Smith says:

    Great to see Dr Patrick’s work on the site. Thank you.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Why did what Pericles called the School of Hellas fail? Immediately, one might cite …. arrogance …., from which (it may be argued) Athens never recovered. But there were deeper causes. “ Civilizations that encourage intellect become self reflective and the national myth becomes complicated and untellable”
    Only a man like Dr Patrick who spent a earnest lifetime trying to tell the “untellable “ could see the wisdom in asking the question. Another man who tried too once said that “sometimes , most of the time, the wise man is a sad man, who can only say things went this way or that.” A historian like Herodotus instead of a Thucydides say, or an early novelist like Cervantes instead of later ones like Truman Capote or Norman Mailer.
    If beginnings are more than half the whole, events like floods, or realities like spirits, or aimless atoms falling through the void, our story undoubtedly began with inspirations of the flesh and the incarnation of a spirit. I have always enjoyed both aspects of these realities in Dr. Patrick and his tireless efforts to sustain our “complicated and untellable” story.
    It’s good to read him again.