Friday, June 02, 2017


Elements of Civilization

Robert Byron (1905-1941), The Byzantine Achievement (1929; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell Inc, 1964), pp. 24-26:
From sifting the numerous implications of meaning attaching to the word "civilisation," there emerges a definition, which presumes it to consist in the vitality of three elements in man's corporate mode of living. These are: the Stable; the Transcendental; and the Cultural. Vitality in each simultaneously is seldom found, save in large cities whence they radiate their combined influence throughout their city's dominion. And the rarity of even this coincidence constitutes the rarity of civilisations. Failure in the vitality of any one of them denotes a lapse from true civilisation to conditions of life comparable with those of fifteenth century Italy or the present Middle West of the United States.

First essential to the definition of civilisation is the stable element, the universal confidence in the social organism to maintain itself and its government, and to modify itself to external and internal necessity. This confidence, when it exists, pervades people unconsciously. Security of property, the standards of living, the countless services of local government—all go for granted without thought or investigation, like the sun and the stars, symbolised in those outward features, dinner-jackets, bathrooms and asphalt roads, which evoke the awe and envy of less advanced peoples.

Second is that composite element in human activity, the quest of transcendental values and their collateral ethics. To every race, in infancy and succeeding childhoods, is vouchsafed the concept of a God. This, ultimately, may lose identity in that of a gentleman. But underneath social demeanour, there remains to man his soul proper, his own greatness, his unquiet spirit seeking cosmic direction, ever striving to soar above the mental gravities of earth. It is contended that civilisations such as that upon which we are entering, retard the divine quest in humanity by the very security with which they encushion it against the fundamental workings between man and earth, man and man, man and God. But it remains to be seen whether those relationships do not, as the scientific revolution approaches its climax, attain a depth and precision of definition hitherto undreamed. And the soul, mathematically propelled, may redouble the exploration of its Affinity in space, dictating, with historical experience as its partner, successive codes and morals for the earth.

Third and final element in civilisation is the cultural, product of the scientific and artistic impulse generated by a corporate intellectual activity. It is in this province that the inspired individual souls of an age become accessible to the majority, whose diversity of intelligence and occupation will not permit their investigation of the mysteries with which they are communicant, but not, beyond the one-sided peep-hole of religion, conversant.

The stable, the transcendental, the cultural: genii of civilisation. Each has existed without the others. Hellas had Culture, Judah a Soul, Renascence Europe both. The United States of America now enjoy the blessings of stability. But it is the fusion of the three that constitutes a civilisation, the vitality of which will vary inversely with the deficiency in any one of them.

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