What Civilizes Us?

The word “civilization” means, roughly, the capacity to live in the city while freely and intelligently participating in its order. The city is the “this-worldly” locus wherein all the potentialities of mortal man, both those for good and for evil, can and usually do come forth. Civilizing distinguishes, in this living order, what is good from what is evil. Civilizing defines and accounts for what is noble through laws, customs, artifacts, and our self-articulation.

Yet something strange is always found in civilizations. At their best, all have some relation to an order that is more than civic. This social order, by being what it is, likewise points to what transcends man. Indeed, for man to be himself, he needs to transcend himself. If nothing is found beyond him, he ends up less than human.

In a recent address in Melbourne (Spectator, UK, April 3), George Cardinal Pell addressed the “Key to Our Civilisation.” Pell began his lecture by citing 2002 studies from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences. In analyzing the superiority of their own culture, the Chinese have long been puzzled by the speed and causes of Western power. Why did this development of civilization happen there first?

By a process of elimination, the Chinese scholars recognized that this superiority was not due to guns, or political systems, or economies. The key was religion, specifically, Christianity. These conclusions, Pell recalls, are roughly parallel to the studies of Christopher Dawson on the nature and cohesion of culture. (Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, Ignatius, 2008). Yet the Chinese realized that not all religions are the same, not all produce the same results.

The economist Zhao Xiao, as Pell cites him, observed that “market economies promote efficiency, discourage laziness, force competition. They work and produce wealth. But . . . a market cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm and indeed may encourage people to harm others and pursue wealth by any means.” The Chinese concluded that we must combine an objective moral code with the spirit of enterprise, both of which require a proper and unified understanding of man and his destiny.

But in the context of China, this conclusion has a drawback. The Chinese “these days do not believe in anything,” no God, no judgment, no after-life. Pell reminds us that such skepticism and unbelief are quite prevalent in the West, though here, even among the atheists, a residue of Christian moral categories remains.

This “residue” is also what continues to link Europe to its own historic and intellectual past. Was Christianity a mere sidelight or was it Europe’s heart? Were the Chinese scholars more perceptive than the European politicians? Is Europe dying for the same reason the Chinese populace has no belief in anything?

Pell recalls the 1983 remark of Solzhenitsyn that “Men have forgotten God.” This forgetfulness is not neutral. It has practical consequences on whether life is worth living. If the individual has no meaning other than what he gives himself – the current doctrine – what is he? Who cares? A world filled with poor, numerous, meaningless people cannot really find motivation to reestablish the moral dignity that makes a civilization humane and honorable.

At least some in China realize that the heart of civilization cannot be empty. They may not believe in Christianity, though it tempts some of them. But their studies tell them that it makes a difference what one thinks about the worth of human beings and the moral code, not just for those who possess such norms but for everyone else. The heart of Christianity is not just that we live for others, but that we first need to be related to a higher order.

In a passage mindful of Benedict’s profound Spe Salvi, Pell cites Czeslaw Milosz: “The true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.” Of course, at the end of the Republic, Plato said that, for these same things, we are going to be judged. This belief in judgment upholds the central belief that the world is not made in injustice. But if nothing matters, as the Chinese see, unbelief leads to nothing but the rule of the powerful , something that Plato, not to mention Machiavelli, also saw.

Pell’s conclusion, not unusual for him, is “countercultural.” We cannot understand ourselves “without Christianity.” Nor can we survive without what even the Chinese have discovered is the basis of our strength. Yet this “strength” depends on our recognition of what is higher than ourselves, of what it is that we are finally revealed to be. Civilization points not to itself but to what is beyond itself. When it does not, as the Chinese worry, we lose even ourselves.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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