A Dialogue On Civilization

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A Dialogue On Civilization

Written by -C.E.M. Joad

MYSELF: I am trying to write a book on civilization and I want to find out what being civilized is. What do you think?
LUCY     : Oh, I suppose, wearing proper clothes, riding about in bushes and cars, having money to buy things and shops to buy them in.
MYSELF: Yes, but babies wear proper clothes, and Mrs. X, the lady you don't like, rides in buses and buys things inshops. Would you say that babies and Mrs. X
                were civilized?
LUCY     : Oh no! I don't think they are a bit, But, you see, they could be if they liked. There are so many things about now that anybody can be
                civilized if he tries.
MYSELF: What sort of things do you mean?
LUCY     : Machines, and trains and wireless and telephones and cinemas.
MYSELF: Well, I dare say they have something to do now with civilization but I don't think that just having them and using them makes you civilized. After all being
                civilized you ought to be some credit to you, something you can be proud of, and there is nothing to be proud of about getting into a train. Let us try and
                think of some civilized people, and see if that helps us. Tell me anybody you can think of.
LUCY     : Shakespeare.
LUCY     : Because he was a great man and wrote plays that people are proud of.
MYSELF: Now, I think we may be getting warmer, But tell me, do you like Shakespeare's Plays?
LUCY     : Not much.
MYSELF: Then why do you say they are great?
LUCY     : Because, I suppose, I shall like them some day. Anyway, grown-up people make a great fuss about them.
MYSELF: Yes, and there are other things such as pictures and music that you don't like much yet, but grown-ups make a fuss about. If Shakespeare's plays are a
                sign of civilization, so are Raphael's pictures and Beethoven's music.
LUCY     : I suppose so, although I don't know much about them.
MYSELF: Then, if to produce beautiful things such as plays, pictures and music is being civilized, people like Shakespeare and Raphael and Beethoven are the
                sort of people who count.
LUCY     : But all sorts of people I have read about, like the Caliphs and Princes in the Arabian Nights, had splendid things, palaces and silks and satins, and
                jewels, scents and gorgeous clothes, and wonderful carpets, and lovely things to eat and drink, and slaves to wait on them. Weren't they civilized?
MYSELF: I am not sure. You see, they just had what they liked and did what they wanted to.
Lucy     : Well, why shouldn't they?
MYSELF: Think of something nice, anything you like.
LUCY     : Treacle toffees.
MYSELF: Well, suppose you were very rich, had as much money as you could possibly want, and bought thousands and thousands of treacle toffees. Wouldn't
                you get sick of them?
LUCY     : I suppose so.
MYSELF: And similarly with catapults.

LUCY     : What do you mean?
MYSELF: Well, John likes catapults more than anything else. But suppose he was very rich indeed, and because he liked catapults best, spent his money on
                buying catapults, so that he had hundreds of them. He wouldn't be much better off than he was with one or two, would he?
LUCY     : You mean he could not let off more than one or two at once.
MYSELF: Yes. And he would very soon get tired of catapults altogether.
LUCY     : I expect he would; but what has that got to do with it?
MYSELF: Why, this : that the things you read about in the Arabian Nights, the splendid palaces and gorgeous clothes and hundreds of slaves, and all that sort of
                thing, seem to me to be just grown-up substitutes for treacle toffees and catapults. People get born the sons of kings, and they grow up to inherit power
                and riches and then say to themselves, 'Now, what do I like best?' And having found out what it was, they have spent their money in getting as much
                or as many of what they liked best as they could.
LUCY     : And then they got tired of it?
MYSELF: Yes. Because when you have a certain amount of doing just what you want and enjoying the sort of things you like, you don't want any more.
LUCY     : Like getting tired of the treacle toffees. But you can always stop and begin again.
MYSELF: That is what the Romans did. They used to eat enormous meals, and when they couldn't eat any more, they took something to make them sick. Then,
                when they were empty, they began to eat again. But I don't call that being civilized. Do you?
LUCY     : No, I don't.
MYSELF: After all, pigs do that, although they haven't the sense to be sick afterwards.
LUCY     : And pigs are not at all civilized.
MYSELF: Well, then, let us say that using money and power just to get what you want and do what you like, although it may be very nice for a time, isn't being
                 civilized. In other words, civilization is not just being splendid and grand and living in luxury. And since most of the world who have been rich and
                 powerful have used their money and power in this way, they weren't civilized.
LUCY     : And isn't it being civilized to own gorgeous things like the Caliphs in the Arabian Nights?
MYSELF: No! There must also be beautiful things like the plays and pictures we were talking about.
LUCY     : How do you know which are the beautiful things?
MYSELF: By seeing which are the ones you don't get tired of. Beautiful things live. That is to say people go on liking them in all ages. But things which are the
                grown-up substitutes for treacle toffees last only a short time, because people get tired of them. But let us go back a bit. Those shops and machines
                and cars we were taling about, they are not at all beautiful, yet we thought they might have something to do with being civilized.
LUCY     : Yes, and I know what it is. They have all been invented, and making inventions is the sort of thing people do when they are civilized. It is because James
                Watt watched the kettle, and Newton saw the apple drop, and things like that, that there are inventions now.
MYSELF: Well, lots of people had seen kettles boil and apples fall down before Watt and Newton, yet they did not invent anything. Why not?
LUCY     : They didn't notice anything special about them. I suppose.
MYSELF: Quite. But Newton and Watt did; that was the point. Falling apples and boiling kettles caused them to think new thoughts, and because they thought new
                thoughts, men came to understand more about the world and to invent things. Now, although I am not sure about the things we actually invent, I do think
                that this business of thinking new thoughts, whether they lead to inventions or not, is a sign of being civilized.
LUCY     : Why?
MYSELF: Because, so long as people go on just thinking the same as one another, nothing ever changes.
LUCY     : You mean that if everybody had always thought the same as their parents we should still be savages?
MYSELF: That's it! It's because people think new things that civilization happens. And to think what is new they must also think freely.
LUCY     : Why, shouldn't they?
MYSELF: Well, they haven't, you know. Most people who have thought for themselves have been told that it was wicked to think differently from other people.
                Usually there have been priests who have told them that if they thought this or that the gods would punish them. And people believed the priests and
                were afraid of the gods, and thought what they were told to think. And even if there hadn't been priests, people always get disliked who think or act
                differently from their neighbours. Look, how beastly you are to new girls at school who are a bit different from the others And grown-ups are just the
                same. Now, to think freely is very often to think differently, and these things make it very difficult for people to think freely. Yet, as we have seen, without
                free thinking there can be not civilization.
LUCY     : But I still don't see why more people don't think freely, if it is as important as you say.
MYSELF: There are a lot of things which are necessary before a person gets the chance. For instance, he must have security; nobody can think about things if he
                is afraid of being robbed of murdered at any moment. Also he must have leisure to think in, and he won't have that if he has to give all his attention to
                getting food to eat and clothes to wear, if, that is to say, he spends all his time earning his living. And he must have other people to talk to. So that you
                may say that security, leisure and society, which are all necessary to free thinking, are necessary also to civilization.
LUCY     : Is that all about civilization?
MYSELF: I think there may be one other thing.
LUCY     : What is that?
MYSELF: All this business about being good.
LUCY     : But what has being good to do with it? Nobody wants to be good really; they are only good because they get into rows if they are not.
MYSELF: Probably. And again it is just the same with grown-ups. If I want to kidnap somebody else's children of cut his throat, or steal his car, or play with his
                tennis racquet, I don't do it, partly because I should get into such a row if I were found out.
LUCY     : But what has that got to do with civilization?
MYSELF: Just this. That if we all took what we wanted to and ran off with one another's children and stole one another's racquets, things just couldn't go on. We
                should all be quarrelling and fighting,for one thing, and for another, nobody would be able to invent anything or make beautiful things; life would be too
                dangerous. So there would be no civilization anyway.
LUCY     : Is that why grown-up people keep the rules and are good?
MYSELF: Perhaps it is not the only reason. I am not sure. But is certainly one of the main ones. So, you see, this business of being good has something to do with

                civilization, and being good means acting justly towards your neighbor, and respecting his property and obeying the laws, and perhaps other things as
LUCY     : What things? I should like to know what being good is.
MYSELF: So should I, so would lots of people. Anyway we have discovered some of the things that count as being civilized, making beautiful things, thinking freely
                and thinking new things, and keeping the rules, without which people couldn't get on together. Grown-ups call the first of these things art, the second
                science and philosophy, and the third political justice and ethics. Now these things may not be all civilization is, but anyway they will do to go on with.