"I pose you your question:
shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among stones"
--Charles Olson, The Kingfishers
It is always good to take a step back from the on rushing churn of our days and try to find some touchstones to steady us in the current.
In 1977 Paul Johnson published Enemies of Society which is now out of print. The central argument of that prescient book concerned the nature of civilization and the absolute necessity for its preservation and advancement. Like any other loaded term in our confused era, “civlization” is often put into play as a dubious concept, one we can jettison in our quest for whatever new personal freedoms we have come to regard as indispensible to our nature.
But as wise men always remind us, there is no freedom without civilization, only the rule of force and the tyranny of the one or the faction over the many. Because of this it is refreshing and reinvigorating to come back to Johnson’s credo. Below is a “condensed” version of these truths. The essay from which they are derived, "A New Deuteronomy," is found in the extended entry.
Civilization will always be at risk, and every age is prudent to regard the threats to it with unique seriousness. All good societies breed enemies whose combined hostility can prove fatal. There is no easy defensive formula, and the most effective strategy is to identify the malign forces quickly, as and when they appear.The entire essay can be found at..
At the same time, there are certain salient principles, valid always but of special relevance today, which we should take particular care to uphold. They are the Ten Pillars of our Civilization:
1. The first, and perhaps the most important, is to reassert our belief in moral absolutes. It is not true that all codes of human conduct are relative, and reflect cultural assumptions and economic arrangements which do not necessarily possess any authority. It is not true that there is no such thing as absolute right, and absolute wrong.
2. Certain acts are intrinsically, always and everywhere wrong.
3. Democracy is the least evil, and on the whole the most effective, form of government.
4. Free institutions will only survive where there is the rule of law.
5. Always, and in all situations, to stress the importance of the individual.
6. There is nothing morally unhealthy about the existence of a middle class in society.
7. When the claims of freedom conflict with the pursuit of other desirable objects of public policy, freedom should normally prevail.
8. The correct and honourable use of words is the first and natural credential of civilized status.
9. Trust science. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity.
10. No consideration should ever deflect us from the pursuit and recognition of truth, for that essentially is what constitutes civilization itself.
"A NEW DEUTERONOMY" Ten Pillars of our Civilization
by Paul Johnson
from Enemies of Society
On the last day of 1911, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the poet and propagandist for the subject peoples - the first of the modern anti-colonialists - made a despondent entry in his diary:
Today a sad year ends, the worst politically I can remember since the 1880s, bloodshed, massacre and destruction everywhere, and all accepted in England with a cynical approval, our Foreign Office being accomplice with the evil-doers, and Grey [Foreign Secretary] their apologist. It has been a losing battle in which I have fought long and hard, but with no result of good. I am old, and weary, and discouraged, and would if I could slink out of the fight. I am useless in the face of an entirely hostile world.
At the end of the 1970s, virtually everything that Blunt campaigned for, in what he then thought a hopeless struggle, has been triumphantly accomplished. The British empire he hated, which he regarded as an evil conspiracy against the weak and innocent coloured peoples of the world, is now 'at one with Nineveh and Tyre'. Africa has been unscrambled, Asia 'liberated', sovereignty awarded to more than a hundred nations which, in Blunt's day, were administered by European officials. The world he knew and deplored had been erased from the map, in the greatest transfer of power in human history; and almost all the dominant values and assumptions of 1911 have been cast aside or inverted. The 'hostile world' has dissolved as if it had never been, and Blunt's views have become the prevailing wisdom of our planet.
Yet it is difficult to argue that civilization is any richer, or more secure, than it was then. 'Bloodshed, massacre, and destruction everywhere': the phrase applies as well, or better, to our times, as to his. New tyrannies have replaced old ones, and fresh injustices have been generously heaped on the heads of countless innocents in every quarter of the earth. Few sensitive souls can look around the world today with feelings of satisfaction, or optimism. This is not to say that the revolution through which we have passed could and should have been prevented; on the contrary, it was both just and inevitable. But the events of this century should remind us that the hopes of mankind almost always prove illusory, and that we have only a limited ability to devise permanent and equitable solutions to problems which spring from human nature. Violence, shortage amid plenty, tyranny and the cruelty it breeds, the gross stupidities of the powerful, the indifference of the well-to-do, the divisions of the intelligent and well-meaning, the apathy of the wretched multitude - these things will be with us to the end of the race.
Hence civilization will always be at risk, and every age is prudent to regard the threats to it with unique seriousness. All good societies breed enemies whose combined hostility can prove fatal. There is no easy defensive formula, and the most effective strategy is to identify the malign forces quickly, as and when they appear. That has been the chief purpose of this book. At the same time, there are certain salient principles, valid always but of special relevance today, which we should take particular care to uphold. They are the Ten Pillars of our Civilization; or, to put in another way, a new and secular Ten Commandments, designed not, indeed, to replace the old, but rather to update and reinforce their social message.
The first, and perhaps the most important, is to reassert our belief in moral absolutes. It is not true that all codes of human conduct are relative, and reflect cultural assumptions and economic arrangements which do not necessarily possess any authority. It is not true that there is no such thing as absolute right, and absolute wrong. It is not true that our behavior is wholly determined by environment. Nor is it true that to seek to impose moral norms is an arrogant and unwarrantable assumption of infallibility; on the contrary, in the long run it is a necessary condition of human happiness, and even of human survival. What is true is that every rational human being is in a moral sense free, capable of reacting to moral absolutes, and of opting for good or evil.
It follows from this that certain acts are intrinsically, always and everywhere wrong. Murder is always wrong. Thus anyone who tries to justify political violence, the greatest single evil of our age, must automatically be suspect as an enemy of our society. In fact the theories which attempt to legitimize killing in the pursuit of political objectives are, without exception, founded on false premises, illogical or rest on deliberate linguistic conjuring. Hence there is a natural presumption that anyone seeking to circumvent the common opinion that violence is wicked is an intellectual crook; as John Ralwe put it in A Theory of Justice: 'On a subject as ancient and much discussed... we may probably assume that a novel, and hence interesting, view of violence is likely to be false.' Moreover, a propagandist or pedagogue who is wrong about violence is almost certainly wrong about all his other claims to truth. The virtue we should cherish most is the courage to resist violence, especially if this involves flying in the face of public opinion which, in its fear, and in its anxiety for peace, is willing to appease the violators. Above all, violence should never be allowed to pay, or be seen to pay.
The third moral axiom is that democracy is the least evil, and on the whole the most effective, from of government. Democracy is an important factor in the material success of a society, and especially in its living-standards. But of course the essence of democracy is not one-man-one-vote, which does not necessarily have anything to do with individual freedom, or democratic control. The exaltation of 'majority rule' on the basis of universal suffrage is the most strident political fallacy of the twentieth century. True democracy means the ability to remove a government without violence without violence, to punish political failure or misjudgment by votes alone. A democracy is a utilitarian instrument of social control; it is valuable in so far as it works. Its object is to promote human content; but perhaps this is more likely to be secured if the aim is rephrased. As Karl Popper says, the art of politics is the minimization of unhappiness, or avoidable suffering. The identification of the cause and scale of suffering draws attention to, and defines, problems in society; and, since man is a problem-solving creature, eventually gets something done about them. The process of avoiding suffering is greatly assisted by the existence of free institutions. The greater their number, variety and intrinsic strength, and the greater their independence, the more effective the democracy which harbours them will be. All such institutions should be treated like fortresses: that is, soundly constructed and continually manned.
Free institutions will only survive where there is the rule of law. This is an absolute on which there can be no compromise: the subjection of everyone and everything to the final arbitration of the law is more fundamental to human freedom and happiness than democracy itself. Most of the post-war democratic institutions have foundered because the rule of law was broken and governments placed themselves about the courts. Once the law is humbled, all else that is valuable to a civilized society will vanish, usually with terrifying speed. On the other hand, provided the rule of law is maintained intact, the evil forces in society, however powerful, will be brought to book in the end - as witness the downfall of the Nixon administration. The United Nations has proved not merely a failure, but a positive obstacle to peace and justice, because it has put the principle of one-nation-one-vote above the rule of law, including its own. But the rule of law is essential, not merely to preserve liberty, but to increase wealth. A law which is supreme, impartial and accessible to all is the only guarantee that property, corporate or personal, will be safe; and therefore a necessary incentive to saving and investment.
The fifth salient rule is always, and in all situations, to stress the importance of the individual. Where individual and corporate rights conflict, the political balance should usually be weighted in favor of the individual; for civilizations are created, and maintained, not by corporations, however benign, but my multitudes and multitudes of individuals, operating independently. We have seen how, under the Roman empire, political and economic freedom declined, pari passu, with the growth of the corporations, and their organization by the state. The Roman concept of the collegia survived; it was built into the Christian church, and so was carried over into the Dark Age towns and into the guilds of medieval and early modern society. Guild-forms were eventually transmuted into trade unions. The liberal epoch, which occurred after the powers of the guilds has been effectively curbed, and before the powers of the unions had been established, was thus a blessed and fruitful interval between the two tyrannies - fruitful, indeed, because it produced the Industrial Revolution, the first economic take-off, and thus taught the world how to achieve self-sustaining economic growth. The trade union is now increasing its economic power and its political influence faster than any other institutions in western society. It is not wholly malevolent, but is has certain increasingly reprehensible characteristics. One is that it claims, and gets, legal privilege; it thus breaks our forth commandment, the rule of law. Another is that it curbs the elitist urge in man, the very essence of civilization, and quite deliberately and exultantly reinforces the average. As Ortega Y Gasset puts it, in The Revolt of the Masses, 'The chief characteristic of our time is that the mediocre mind, aware of its own mediocrity, has the boldness to assert the rights of mediocrity and to impose them everywhere." Such an actual or potential menace to our culture can be contained, provided we keep this commandment strictly, and protect the individual against corporatism.
The sixth of our rules is that there is nothing morally unhealthy about the existence of a middle class in society. No one need feel ashamed of being bourgeois, of pursuing a bourgeois way of life, or of adhering to bourgeois cultural and moral standards. That it should be necessary to assert such a proposition is a curious commentary on our age, and in particular its mania for the lowest common denominator of social uniformity. Throughout history all intelligent observers of society have welcomed the emergence of a flourishing middle-class, which they have rightly associated with economic prosperity, political stability, the growth of individual freedom and the raising of moral and cultural standards. The middle class, stretching from the self-employed skilled craftsman to the leaders of the learned professions, has produced the overwhelming majority of the painters, architects, writers, and musicians, as well as the administrators, technologists and scientists, on which the quality and strength of a culture principally rest. The health of the middle class is probably the best index of the health of a society as a whole; and any political system which persecutes its middle class systematically is unlikely to remain either free or prosperous for long.
We have seen that there is a close connection between the rise of the middle class, and the growth of political and economic freedom. But it is not true, as Lenin contemptuously asserted, that 'freedom is a bourgeois prejudice'. Freedom is a good which any rational man knows how to value, whatever his social origins, occupation or economic prospects. Throughout history, the attachment of even the humblest people to their freedom, above all their freedom to earn their livings how and where they please, has come as an unpleasant shock to condescending ideologues. We need not suppose that the exercise of freedom is bought at the expense of any deserving class or interest - only of those with the itch to tyrannize. So the seventh commandment is that, when the claims of freedom conflict with the pursuit of other desirable objects of public policy, freedom should normally prevail; society should have a rational and an emotional disposition in its favour. In our times, liberty's chief conflict has been with equality. But absolute equality is not a good at all; it is a chimera, and if it existed would prove as fearful and destructive a monster as that grotesque creature Bellerophon killed. And the regarding and indiscriminate pursuit of relative equality, itself desirable, has led to many unwarranted restrictions on human freedom without attaining its object. In short, for many years the bias has been in the wrong direction, and it is now necessary to strike a new balance of moral good by redressing it. Where there is genuine doubt between the legitimate claims of liberty and equality, the decision taken should be the one most easily reversed if it proves mistaken.
When we are dealing with concepts like freedom and equality, it is essential to use words accurately and in good faith. So the eighth commandment is: beware of those who seek to win an argument at the expense of the language. For the fact that they do is proof positive that their argument is false, and proof presumptive that they know it is. A man who deliberately inflicts violence on the language will almost certainly inflict violence on human beings if he acquires the power. Those who treasure the meaning of words will treasure truth, and those who bend words to their purposes are very likely in pursuit of anti-social ones. The correct and honourable use of words is the first and natural credential of civilized status.
Of course using words in their true sense is one element in precision of thought. And trained skill in thinking precisely to advance knowledge is what we mean by science. So the ninth commandment is: trust science. By this we mean a true science, based on objectively established criteria and agreed foundations, with a rational methodology and mature criteria of proof - not the multitude of pseudo-sciences which, as we have seen, have marked characteristics which can easily be detected and exposed. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity. Given the right safeguards and standards, the progress of science constitutes our best hope for the future, and anyone who denies this proposition is an enemy of science.
The last of our laws follows from the ninth, and in a sense embraces them all. It is this: no consideration should ever deflect us from the pursuit and recognition of truth, for that essentially is what constitutes civilization itself. There are many around today who concede, in theory, that truth is indivisible; but then insist, in practice, that some truths are more divisible than others. If we want to identify a social enemy we need go no further than examine his attitude to truth: it will always give him away; for, as Pascal says, 'The worst thing of all is when man begins to fear the truth, lest it denounce him.' But truth is much more than a means to expose the malevolent. It is the great creative force of civilization. For truth is knowledge; and a civilized man is one who, in Hobbes' words, has a 'perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge.' Hobbes also writes: 'Joy, arising from imagination of a man's own power and ability, is that exaltation of mind called glorying.' And so it is; for the pursuit of truth is our civilization's glory, and the joy we obtain from it is the nearest we shall approach to happiness, at least on this side of the grave. If we are steadfast in this aim, we need not fear the enemies of society.Posted by Vanderleun at November 18, 2003 12:46 PM | TrackBack