Civilization matters

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote “I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization.” At the heart of this statement lies Freud’s philosophy of culture. For him, the transition from culture to civilization is not a favorable one. Indeed, he said that “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.” In other words, civilization places too many restrictions on man’s need for instinctive satisfactions and too many obstacles in his path toward happiness. For Freud, civilization is man’s enemy. For this reason, Philip Reiff, editor of the ten-volume Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, refers to him as “the champion of the second best.”

The Catholic view, on the other hand, sees civilization is the crown of culture—it is the condition to which society aspires. Just as the individual person aspires to better things, so too, does culture (a society of persons) aspire to higher modes of civilization. Indeed, the scholars of antiquity contend that if all the great and broad contributions of the ancient Greeks could be distilled into a single word, it would be civilization.

All human beings experience dissatisfaction and discontent with their lot. They naturally desire a better state. Therefore, they have a natural desire to advance from culture to civilization. Religion makes this advance possible; truth makes it practicable. Human beings can suppress their aspirations and settle for “second best,” but Catholicism most assuredly does not champion the second best. It urges human beings to endure great difficulties and continuing struggles to realize more fully their humanity and their reflections as creatures made in the image of God.

The Catholic view urges people to live in loving relationship with their neighbors and to work together for a better tomorrow. For the Greeks, “aspiration” is a description of the soul; for Catholics, it also includes the supernaturally infused virtue of hope. Christ provides the objective correlative for our aspirations. Catholics have little excuse for avoiding their role in helping to shape culture into a civilization.

But how is it to be done? What marks the difference between mere culture and genuine civilization? Religion is one necessary part. In Truth and Tolerance, Pope Benedict XVI comments:

In all known historical cultures, religion is an essential element of culture, is indeed its determinative center; it is religion that determines the scale of values and, thereby, the inner cohesion and hierarchy of all these cultures.