NL XXXVI: The Essence of Civilization

Index to this series

After thirty-five earlier chapters, we reach the point of the New Leviathan. The essence of civilization is being civil to one another (36. 5).

Henri Rousseau (French, 1844 – 1910), The Equatorial Jungle, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art

That may sound trivial or tautologous. It’s not. We are talking about being civil, in the ancient sense discussed in the previous chapter:

35. 41. Behaving ‘civilly’ to a man means respecting his feelings: abstaining from shocking him, annoying him, frightening him, or (briefly) arousing in him any passion or desire which might diminish his self-respect (13. 31); that is, threaten his consciousness of freedom by making him feel that his power of choice is in danger of breaking down and the passion or desire likely to take charge (13. 67).

Is it for trying to be civil that Democrats in the US have lost ground to the ruthless Republicans? Recall Collingwood’s ridicule of the pacifist at the end of Chapter XXIX:

29. 97. Not realizing that modern war is a neurotic thing, an effect of terror where there is nothing to fear and of hunger where the stomach is already full, he proposes to deal with it by throwing away his arms so that the war-makers shall not be afraid of him, and giving up what they would snatch (from him or others) so that their hunger shall be appeased.

Being civil is not the same as giving in.

In the previous chapter, we considered the civilization of a community with respect to (1) its own members, (2) foreigners, and (3) nature. It is desirable to reduce this multiplicity to a unity, as traditional logic would demand, by finding a single essence of civilization (36. 19). This is what we claim to have done.

By the principle of the limited objective introduced in Chapter XXXI, we have renounced the goal of finding the essence of what we study (36. 21). Still there may be a “relative essence” (36. 22), an essence of what we identify as being of interest to us, when we use the term civilization (36. 23). There is no essence of humanity, in the sense of being a member of the species called Homo sapiens; there may be an essence of humanity, in the sense of being humane.

Civilization is, in part, the successful exploitation of nature. This involves natural science (36. 3), albeit “a natural science more akin to folklore than to mathematics, riddled with superstition, and from the point of view of a twentieth-century ‘scientist’ lamentably unscientific” (36. 31). For this science, conservation of knowledge is more important than improving on it (36. 33).

As a sailor, Collingwood gives the example of knots (36. 35). We have all the knots we need, even more than enough, forty or fifty (36. 36). Now what we need is to continue to know how to tie them (36. 39). This requires the sort of thing, namely partnership, which constitutes the formation of a society.

36. 46. The mainspring of the whole process is the spirit of agreement. So vast a body of knowledge (I call it knowledge, but it is not the kind of thing logicians call knowledge; it is all practical knowledge, knowing how to tie a bowline, knowing how to swim, knowing how to help a lambing ewe, how to tickle a trout, where to pitch a tent, when to plough and when to sow and when to harvest your crop) can only be brought together in a community (for it is too vast for the mind of one man) whose custom is that everybody who has anything to teach to anyone else who wants to know it shall teach it; and that everybody who does not know a thing that may be useful for the betterment of living shall go frankly to one who knows it, and listen while he explains it or watch while he shows it, confident by custom of a civil answer to a civil question.

Thus, again, the essence of civilization lies in the civil exchange of questions and answers: dialectic, we might say. As an Oxford man, Collingwood offers another Oxford man, from six hundred years earlier, as an archetype of civility. This is Chaucer’s Clerk, who gladly would both learn and teach (36. 55):

A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe and therto sobrely.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk, and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

The characters of Plato’s dialogues ask one another to be generous with their knowledge (36. 53):

  • “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught, or is acquired by practice, not teaching?” asks Meno.
  • Socrates tells Euthyphro, “So, if you please, do not hide it from me, but begin over again and tell me what holiness is, no matter whether it is loved by the gods or anything else happens it; for we shall not quarrel about that.”

As Aristotle wrote at the head of the Metaphysics, we all by nature desire to know (36. 63). We all desire to teach what we know—says Collingwood (36. 64), who worked himself into the grave, imparting his knowledge in the New Leviathan, his last book. However,

36. 65. That there is also a desire, at war with this, to gain power over men by monopolizing knowledge I do not deny.

I have heard of university teachers who do not want their students to have any other teachers. For a course that I was about to teach, one teacher let me have a look at his own lecture notes; but then he took them away, lest I make a copy of them, though I had already agreed not to. I think these are examples of fear of being found ignorant. Teachers must overcome this fear, and none of us ought to be shy of having our lessons criticized from a position of knowledge.

“Although there is certainly an eristic of knowledge … there is also a dialectic of knowledge” (36. 66). “This is the origin and essence of civilization” (36. 7).

“Naturally,” we are all both friends (36. 72) and foes (36. 71). The New York Times corroborated this recently in Carl Zimmer, “Seeking Human Generosity’s Origins in an Ape’s Gift to Another Ape” (September 11, 2018):

While it’s easy to dwell on our capacity for war and violence, scientists see our generosity as a remarkable feature of our species. “One of the things that stands out about humans is how helpful we are,” said Christopher Krupenye, a primate behavior researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

This generosity may have been crucial to the survival of our early ancestors who lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers.

“When our own attempts to find food are unsuccessful, we rely on others to share food with us — otherwise we starve,” said Jan Engelmann, a researcher at Göttingen University.

At this point I recall the three kinds of practical reason, introduced in “Reason,” and applied to communities in “The Forms of Political Action.” We may explain a choice as expedient, right, or dutiful; at least, this is what we always have done, and the last kind of explanation is the most complete. It is no explanation to say, “My evolutionary ancestors made similar choices.” The question remains: why did you do the same thing?

A souvenir of Oléron, June 2011

Zimmer begins his Times article by saying,

How generous is an ape? It’s a hard question for scientists to tackle, but the answer could tell us a lot about ourselves.

To attribute generosity to another primate may be an example of the anthropomorphism discussed in “Theoretical Reason.” But let bonobos or chimpanzees indeed be generous. What this tells us about ourselves is that we too can be generous. Whether we are going to be generous is up to us.

36. 75. There is no aspect or cross-section of human life in which we do not find, inextricably confused, the need of man for man and the hostility of man for man.

What then shall we be, on any particular occasion? Collingwood reviews our personal development, through feeling, appetite, and desire. Once we can make choices, we decide whether to make friends with the others in our community; “this awakening to free will is an awakening to a process of civilization” (36. 87).

36. 88. The essence of this process is the control of each man’s emotions by his intellect: that is, the self-assertion of the man as will.

“The will to civilization is just will”: when the members of a non-social community decide to take charge of their situation, they have begun civilizing themselves (36. 93). There is also a will to barbarism (36. 9), but it is a will compounded with denial: a will to give oneself over to rule by one’s emotions (36. 94).

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