Will Durant – “The Conditions of Civilization”

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.

Some seven years ago I began to see something I’d missed before, a connection in all things. The romantic era poets led me to this place, where all teachers before them had failed. The public school curricula had always encouraged teachers to connect one field of study to another, but the connections were forced and artificial and painfully uninteresting. But we live in an era of separation and speciality, in which even to know everything about a single subject is impossible without drilling down to some minute portion of disconnect, only to be rendered obsolete every eighteen months.

In 1800 this was not so. In 1800 one could expect to become an expert in all things before the age of 20, and realize this expertise by 25. The world was much smaller, and it was this world that had the breadth of knowledge to look beyond whatever finite scope in which we now classify this or that one’s finite existence.

And so, I found myself seeking out a copy of Spengler, deep in the bowels of the library, silent, the particular row I found myself in almost entirely dark, and something drew me toward this ten-or-so volume set on the history of the world. I miss libraries. I pulled the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, from the shelf, and the first lines drew me in immediately, unlike anything else. And I knew that from that point forward, I would be something I’d never before been, or, rather, something I’d steadfastly avoided being: a student of history.

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.

I made it through the first 900 or so pages of volume 1. And then I lost the book. I began volume 2 and made it through about 200 pages. And then I lost that one and found the first one again. This is over a period of seven years. I still haven’t finished the first one.

Well, now that I’m determined to become intelligent again, at least to become as intelligent as I was at age 18, I’ve pulled out my bookmark and have started with page 1. Will Durant is one of my favorite authors ever. He has astounding foresight and a brilliant wisdom that lets him show, every page or so, when he (correctly) believes the reader to think, “those stupid savages” about his subject, that the reader is guilty of the same stupidity, or rather, that the savages are the more intelligent of the two.

What I loved bout that first lines was that they contained the meaning of life. Essentially, the “meaning of life” is to create. And that’s what so excited me to see, that when the moment we stop worrying about survival, we begin finding ourselves with excess time, and in that time we can either seek amusement, as our instincts prefer, much as a dog sleeps or barks all day, so we watch television and gossip, or we can hoard shit, or we can improve ourselves, improve others, improve everything. Creation takes a million forms, and mostly we don’t do it.

So, to begin again, the same page 1 that I first read in the library, the same lines that realigned my trajectory closer to the complete picture of life, the same lines that lit a passion in me that nearly two decades of formal schooling failed to produce:

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity ends. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.

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