Civilisation and Culture – Incompatible Bedfellows?

This is a talk I gave at the World Philosophical Forum in Athens on 1 October, 2014


The road to world civilisation and global citizenship seems to get bumpier with every passing year. The appetite of the human race for atrocity, cruelty, violence, exploitation, shows no sign of abating, despite the vastly improved access to education, information, and culture. Because the atrocities of the Second World War were so thoroughly illuminated, analysed, and condemned, we thought we would never see anything like that happen again. Then came Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and 9/11. We have been left scratching our heads in disbelief, in a state of total incomprehension. And since then the human race has lurched from crisis to crisis, from atrocity to atrocity.

We have always addressed this conundrum by focusing on war and what happens in war. Perhaps there might be a greater dividend from focusing on peace and what should happen in peace. What is peace anyway? The absence of violence? An intermission between wars? Maybe that is where the problem starts. We view peace in negative terms. – In situations where democracy does not operate, the recommended strategy is even called ‘non-violent’ protest.

We obviously need to re-define peace and re-adjust our thinking from a negative conceptualisation to a positive one. Would it help if we wrote it with an upper case P, made it a proper noun, Peace? Then our children could ask, ‘What did you do in the Peace, Daddy?’ And war could be re-defined as a disruption, as a break-down, of the Peace.

But to achieve that we would have to develop an ideology for Peace, a creed to which people could dedicate themselves and their lives with the kind of fervour that has been witnessed heretofore only when nations have gone to war. And at this we can only smile ruefully, because creeds and ideologies have been central to the problem of war. So we have to think more radically than before, beat our heads on some of the old stone walls of the mind that have never been challenged.

It might be self-defeating to frame our blueprint for a better world around the concept of Peace since the concept will inevitably be defined in relation to its opposite and will be limited as a result. So let us try the very positive concept of Civilisation instead. And we need to start by clarifying the relationship between Culture and Civilisation. There is an assumption that Culture, achievement and participation in the arts, etc, holds the key to a more peaceful and civilised future. Indeed the two concepts civilised and cultured are almost identical in the public consciousness. If, for example, we take up a book called ‘Greek Civilisation’, inevitably we will be treated to a presentation of the outstanding artistic and intellectual achievements of that country at a particular period in its history. But should the book not then be titled instead, ‘Greek Culture’? If Civilisation is to be defined in relation to how society is structured and organised, and if it is judged on how well or ill that structure benefits the least privileged members of that society, then periods of great Cultural achievement can rate very poorly in terms of Civilisation. For example, Greek cultural achievement was enabled by slavery and exploitation; during their Golden Age women were treated little better than their animals; so full marks to Greece for Cultural achievement, but for Civilisation we must reflect before delivering even relative accolades.

The same assessment would be true of other Golden Ages. Who would choose to go back and live as one of the poorest citizens during the Renaissance? Or to haul the stones to build the Pyramids? Ireland’s Golden Age was the period from the 6th to the 11th Centuries when its monasteries preserved and developed classical and biblical learning, patronised and nurtured the arts in metal and stone, in calligraphy and the illumination of manuscripts. During these so-called Dark Ages in Northern Europe, Ireland preserved the light of learning – it was almost a national endeavour – and, when the region settled down after the Barbarian Invasions, Irish monks carried and promoted that learning from Iceland through Europe down to the very gates of Rome. It was dubbed the Island of Saints and Scholars. Our Cultural achievement was extraordinary, but if our Civilisation were subjected to a stress test by modern standards, it would not have rated so highly. For example, women and slaves were part of the currency with which chieftains paid their dues to their superior lords, and raiding cattle from their neighbours seems to have been the favourite pastime of the less-culturally-engaged men.

This reflection shows that there has been very little correlation between Culture and Civilisation in the past, and that often Culture has flourished at the expense of Civilisation. Often too Culture has been developed for the aggrandisement of despots, and has been used as a screen to mask their atrocities. What are the implications of this? Does it put paid to our hopes that Culture will lead the way to a better world? Let us reflect on this next. Is it the case that atrocities have been committed typically by people who have never been exposed to the arts, whose spirits have not been refined by an appreciation of music, painting, poetry? Again recent past experience has shown the opposite – that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity have proved often to be lovers of classical music, painting, have even professed to be poets.

Clearly the thrust of my argument is that a flowering of Culture does not necessarily result in a flowering of Civilisation. But I go further than that: I suggest that by its very nature Culture is the antithesis of Civilisation, and that an understanding of this is an essential quantum leap required for the creation of a better world.

Culture and every cultural act is a private, personal, individual pursuit; Civilisation must be the opposite, a universal pursuit. There is nothing more individualistic than the creation and promotion of a work of art. The artist weaves from the sensibilities of his own individual soul, from his personal life-experience, and, in relation to his creation, he has all the protective instincts of a mother of a new-born child. And like a jealous mother, he sees only the good in his own creation, and only the bad in rival creations. Whether it is brilliant or mediocre by objective standards is immaterial – to him his work of art is the expression of something unique, something which he sees as important. And no matter how rational a person he may be otherwise, in relation to his own art he will be irrationally protective – and irrationally offended or hurt by criticism or ridicule. This is true of individual artistic creation, but it is true also of any more extensive cultural artifice created by a society, a tribe, or a whole nation. As an artist I want to assert that there is nothing askew in such a phenomenon, that it is normal, and exactly as it should be.

Religions, national mythologies, folk traditions, etc, by their nature all belong to the Culture category. They are collective creations but that does not make them universal. Like folk music or traditional dance they evolve over generations as an expression of the character, emotions, sentiments, aspirations of a particular group whether tribal, geographical, or simply like-minded. And their followers can derive enormous satisfaction and security from the sense of identity that is so provided. The problems emerge from the incompatibility and typical rivalry of competing cultural ideologies. The Cultural manifestation which we call religion is the single most formidable obstacle to the creation of a peaceful world. Religion has caused more bloodshed, more wars and hostility than any other factor of human experience. The cause lies in its militant individualism: ‘my religion is true, therefore all other religions are false and must be suppressed’.

What we have to pose as the antithesis to Culture is Civilisation. It is a positive concept, and connotes aspiration. What is required for the creation and nurture of Civilisation is the very opposite of what is required for the nurturing of Culture: from the start the thrust of the project must be universal rather than individual. Participation in the project should offer anonymity rather than fame. And the end product will be free of ‘character’ – it will not be tainted by local colour, the evidence of any creator’s hand, or the limitations of individual creeds or philosophies. How else can it be universally acceptable! How different from a work of art!

If the initial objectives of a global Civilisation were kept at a basic level, almost at the self-evident, they could provide enough of common interest to be beyond dispute. Who would contest that freedom from hunger is a universal goal to which everyone should aspire? Or the provision of a safe and happy environment for all children? The abolition of war as an option for sorting out political problems? In defining the aims of Civilisation the most basic requirements may be self-evident but some fundamental principles of Civilisation will inevitably create Cultural opposition. For example, if we say that a basic tenet of Civilisation is that all people are equal, and must be treated so, irrespective of gender, race, colour, religion, etc, we can see an immediate clash with the main religions that have traditionally insisted on a subordinate role for women. In such a case which should prevail, Culture or Civilisation? It is my absolute contention that Civilisation must take precedence.

What I want to emphasise is that Civilisation must be constructed from first principles, and then Culture must fall into line. At the moment Culture is accorded pre-eminence and Civilisation is perceived as what can be negotiated through compromise and the finding of common denominators between cultures. Multi-cultural societies are envisaged as the blueprint for future peace and harmony. It sounds better than it is in reality. In Britain, one of the most tolerant of countries, they are looking to ‘Faith Schools’, for example, as a foundation block of a multi-cultural society. But ‘faith schools’ are exactly what caused the polarisation of communities in Northern Ireland. Churches were given control of schools so children grew up as Catholics or Protestants, never encountering someone from the opposite ghetto. And everyone knows the consequences of that. Even though a ‘Peace Process’ has been in development for twenty years now, there are still obstacles to be overcome, and these are almost exclusively due to cultural animosity.

If we accord Civilisation precedence over Culture, will it lead to a philistine or characterless global society? My contention is that it can and should do the opposite. Just as Civilisation needs to discard the shackles of Culture in order to flourish, so Culture, freed from the inappropriate responsibility of creating world peace and harmony, should acquire wings and soar to new heights. Once the ground-rules of Civilisation are established, accepted, and implemented, then every society can and should nurture its own individual culture, can promote its arts and artists, can develop and practise its own spiritual beliefs. Culture can become the leavening agent it should be in every society instead of the poison it has become.

If we can keep Culture and Civilisation separate and distinct, then the objectives of both can be achieved to the betterment of the human race and of our planet. But we must keep them distinct. Over the entry gate to all the assemblies where Civilisation is being forged by citizens of the world there should be a notice: Please leave your Culture at the door, and collect it on your way home.