A couple of weeks ago my brother-in-law, who lives in Washington, DC, told me he was reading the multi-volume world history by Will & Ariel Durrant called “The Story of Civilization.” I was impressed. I have always wanted to read this series but haven’t yet done it. So I ordered a used set on Amazon and they arrived earlier this week. I started reading volume 1 last night.
The first chapter in volume 1 is titled, “The Conditions of Civilization.” Durrant defines civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.” He lists factors that impact whether civilization exists, such as geologic conditions (“civilization is an interlude between ice ages”); geographical conditions, such as mineral wealth, fertile soil, and natural harbors; economic conditions (the sine qua non of culture is “a continuity of food”); and political conditions including “political order.”
There must be “some unity of language to serve as a medium of mental exchange.” There must be “a unifying moral code, some rules of the game of life” acknowledged by all. There may also be “some unity of basic faith” that “lifts morality from calculation to devotion, and gives life nobility and significance despite our mortal brevity.” And finally, he writes, “there must be education–some technique…for the transmission of culture. Whether through imitation, initiation or instruction, whether through father or mother, teacher or priest, the lore and heritage of the tribe–it’s language and knowledge, it’s morals and manners, its technology and arts–must be handed down to the young, as the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.”
How Civilizations Can Be Destroyed
Most interesting to me is Durant’s survey of how civilizations can come to an end; how even the disappearance of a single prerequisite may “destroy a civilization.” Here are some of the causes he lists which have led to the destruction of previously great civilizations:
- “A geological cataclysm or a profound climatic change” (he published this first volume in 1935)
- “an uncontrolled epidemic like that which wiped out half the population of the Roman Empire under the Antonines, or the Black Death that helped to end the Feudal Age” (he was 33 years old when the influenza of 1918 killed nearly 50 million people worldwide)
- “the exhaustion of the land, or the ruin of agriculture through the exploitation of the country by the town, resulting in a precarious dependence upon foreign food supplies” (the US became a “net importer” of food in 2005 for the first time in 50 years)
- “the failure of natural resources, either of fuels or of raw materials”
- “a change in trade routes, leaving a nation off the main line of the world’s commerce”
- “mental or moral decay from the strains, stimuli and contacts of urban life, from the breakdown of traditional sources of social discipline and the inability to replace them”
- “the weakening of the stock by a disorderly sexual life, or by an epicurean, pessimist, or quietest philosophy”
- “the decay of leadership through the infertility of the able, and the relative smallness of the families that might bequeath most fully the cultural inheritance of the race” (the total fertility rate in all European countries is below the population replenishment rate–NY Times article, 2002)
- “a pathological concentration of wealth, leading to class wars, disruptive revolutions, and financial exhaustion” (here’s a blog post about the concentration of wealth in the US)
Durant concludes that “civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.”
I am an optimist, not a pessimist
I realize that by even quoting Durant, and by adding comments or links in quotes, my position on world conditions may be completely misunderstood by my readers. I am not a pessimist. I do not believe the end of civilization is imminent. I do believe, however, that the dominant leadership role of the United States in world affairs may be coming to an end. It appears likely that in the 21st century the economies of China and India will pass that of the United States. It seems certain that the mounting US debt combined with the larger role of the federal government in the economy will stifle US economic growth in the next decade or two. However I do believe that is not pre-destined. I think it is a matter of choice and will. But the lessons of history seem to be largely unknown and/or unheeded.
If the spirit of technological innovation and entrepreneurship which made the United States the most productive economy in the past century can continue to thrive, we may indeed remain a leading world power indefinitely. Attending conferences with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with their world-changing ideas gives one plenty to be optimistic about. The move towards transparent government, promoted by so many on the left and the right, and enabled by new technology, is a huge reason to be hopeful. The scanning of all the world’s books by Google makes the transmission of culture from past civilizations possible in ways that Durant could never have dreamed of.
And the power of social networks to bring people together as friends, families, and communities, may shape our relationships in the future more than industrialization, modern transportation, and even the telephone. The future of self-government may be connected to social networks and mobile networks in ways we can’t yet imagine.
In 1935 a religious leader I revere described his vision for a future civilization of peace and prosperity by referring to the power of mobile communication. “We must…improve the means of communication until with radio in our pockets we may communicate with friends and loved ones from any point at any given moment.”
Mark Pincus from Zynga described in a speech at Stanford how 100 years from now our generation may be described by people then as the generation that brought forth treasures to the world such as Amazon.com and Facebook. He feels his career has been or should be part of a great effort to create immortal internet treasures that will benefit the world for generations.
Having been involved in the founding of Ancestry.com, the leading site for discovering one’s heritage, and more recently, FamilyLink.com, the leading social site for families, Durant’s final words struck me:
As family-rearing, and then writing, bound the generations together, handing down the lore of the dying to the young, so print and commerce and a thousand ways of communication may bind the civilizations together, and preserve for future cultures all that is of value for them in our own. Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children.“
FamilyLink.com is now the top Facebook Connect site. We are helping millions of families connect with one another. We have more 16.7 million users that are connected to more than 10 relatives. We hope these families will transmit stories and memories and family values and heritage from one generation to another. Our demographic profile shows equal numbers of users from 18-30, 31-45, and 46-60, and half as many under 18 and over 60. There is clearly interest by family members of all ages to connect with other family members.
I am not suggesting that FamilyLink might become one of the “immortal internet treasures” that Pincus described, or that we are going to play a key role in preserving culture and civilization. In fact, we are a product of the civilized world’s focus on the family, not the cause of it. If we didn’t play the role we play, to paraphrase Durant, “given like…conditions…another [company] would beget like results.”
But I am suggesting that on this holiday weekend, you might want to get your own copy of “The Story of Civilization” and join with me and my brother-in-law in a conversation about what lessons can be learned from history and philosophy that might help all of us “preserve for future cultures all that is of value for them in our own.”