What Should Determine A Proper Civilisation?


Dear Reader,

There is definitely a significant call for a change in the way we do things. Even TIME magazine says so in their recent article. But is all this just talk - where is the serious thinking about what kind of life - what kind of civilisation - do we want, or what do we consider we should evolve towards? Do we have a concrete - real - idea of what the word 'civilisation' should mean? Can peace be achieved?


Using the computer game 'Civilisation' to model our needs is not likely to help!


As far back as Plato and from Thomas More and Francis Bacon to H.G. Wells, there have been many who have put forward their ideas of what an ideal world would mean. Karl Marx constructed an 'ism', and we have suffered many other forms of 'ism's since, most notably the relatively recent 'Thatcherism'. Revolutions, as exemplified in France and Russia, did not produce satisfactory results.


None of these ideas and events seems to have properly considered the underlying issue at hand - that people are not robots to be moved around as on a chessboard, but instead can only be inclined towards worthwhile change according to need by being inspired to do so. In my view, people need to feel that the situation is such that some great adjustment has to be made according to what they value the most. For me, the keyword is 'value'.

Adam Smith - the remarkable Scottish moral philosopher who wrote 'Wealth of Nations' - had a central thread running through his work which was an unusually strong commitment to the soundness of the ordinary human being’s judgments, and a concern to fend off attempts, by philosophers and policy-makers, to replace those judgments with the supposedly better “systems” invented by intellectuals. Smith gives every indication that he was a supporter of human values.

It is remarkable how we are led to believe that civilisations are found when some artefact is discovered. But the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead had a different form of measure. To her, civilisation begins with the application of care. Early in his career, Dr. Paul Brand, who became an eminent surgeon, attended a lecture given by Mead, which he later documented in his book 'The Gift of Pain'.

"What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” she asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”
High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.
“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”
With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.
Though I like this example provided by Brand, I do not feel that it gets quite to the heart of the matter as to what is a solid foundation for civilisation, though the notion of care should be a fundamental part of it. Mahatma Gandhi certainly had a more all-embracing notion. The following is taken from this article.
In contrast to modern civilisation, which Gandhi characterises ... as being chiefly preoccupied with “bodily welfare” — for example, the attainment of more comfortable homes, faster machines and speedy air and rail travel – true civilisation pointed at right morality. [He produced a] famous definition: “Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty.” 
Unlike the familiar discussions of “civilisation”, which classify the world into different civilisations and catalogues the differences in terms of cultural artefacts, Gandhi distinguishes “modern” and “true” civilisations on the basis of morality alone. ... The observance of morality in true civilisation, Gandhi elaborates, is essentially about the exercise of self-restraint, about abstaining from self-indulgence, about mastering “our mind” and “our passions.”
Gandhi was by no means the only 20th-century spokesperson and exemplar of such values. The remarkable Frenchwoman and philosopher Simone Weil, having formerly been a staunch communist, suddenly went through a transformation, as happened to me - in the very same place almost exactly sixty years later. Weil, while in Assisi in the spring of 1937, entered the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi. She then observed - within the precincts of the basilica - the original chapel in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed. The spiritual impact was such that she was led to pray for the first time in her life. The sight of that chapel had the very same effect on myself.

Weil was always consumed by concern for the underdog throughout her life, and went to remarkable lengths in providing as much personal support to others as she was able, even to the extent (while exiled in wartime England in 1942) of restricting herself to meagre rations to the level that she thought her own people in occupied France had been reduced. Having never been a very well person, the effect of this dietary regime caused her premature death, aged 34. Shortly before, she had been preparing to go on a secret mission into France. 

Since 1937, and Weil's special spiritual experience, her philosophical work had begun to dwell on the nature of an ideal civilisation through new inner vision. Weil, though never deviating from her newly-found personal Christianity - became keenly interested in other religious traditions - especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita); and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation, She wrote that:
Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science...these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ's hands as his captive. I think I might even say more.
Weil even learnt Sanskrit and read extensively in Greek, Hindu, and other texts and thought and wrote a great deal. Despite such all-embracing interests, she believed she found a truly Christian civilisation, a model of the type of the hierarchical but non-oppressive society she was beginning to formulate as an ideal. She found this ideal in the 11th-and 12th-century cities of the Languedoc (south-western France), where for more than 100 years Catholicism existed side by side with a form of Gnosticism known as Catharism, until a terrible crusade was launched against them by the Pope. Weil found many elements of the Catharist faith attractive.


So, in Gandhi and Weil, we find two similar 20th-century expressions of thought about a true civilisation. In both cases, these authors gave their lives to their cause. Some may say that their example is going too far, but is it not the very standard that Jesus set, and others have followed, out of love?

In how to start going about creating a true civilisation, education of a certain kind is needed. Perhaps the current virus pandemic is helping us in that cause. I will leave the last words to the great guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba:


If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Thank you for reading this.

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