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.


Note: I don’t know anything about Communism, Socialism, China, or Russia. Seriously.

Certainly I fell in love at once with the poetry of Li Po and of Tu Fu, but aside from that very little has struck me in Chinese history as memorable, just the endless succession of names and dynasties, it struck me quite the same ten years ago as it does now. Durant expresses precisely this, at an ideal moment commenting that ‘it is part of the bathos of distance that our long removal from alien scenes obscures variety in places and men, and submerges the most diverse personalities in a dull uniformity of appearance and character’ (Our Oriental Heritage, 724).

I was once told that Russia fell into the hands of Communism so easily not because it was weak, but because it had been communist all along, that historically Russia was a communist land. I don’t know if this is true. So I’ve had my eye out for indications that something in the Chinese character is similar, that there’s some governing philosophy that’s held sway the Chinese mind for thousands of years. Confucianism seems to be the philosophy they continually fall into. And I don’t feel like looking into the parallels, if there are any, right now, because that’s not why I began writing this.

“Above all, Chinese architecture suffered from the absence of three institutions present in almost every other great nation of antiquity: an hereditary aristocracy, a powerful priesthood, and a strong and wealthy central government. These are the forces that in the past have paid for the larger works of art–for the temples and palaces, the masses and operas, the great frescoes and sculptured tombs. And China was fortunate and unique: she had none of these institutions” (741).

“The general impression left by Chinese architecture upon the foreign and untechnical observer is one of charming frailty. Color dominates form, and beauty here has to do without the aid of sublimity. The Chinese temple or palace seeks not to dominate nature, but to cooperate with it in that perfect harmony of the whole which depends upon the modesty of the parts. Those qualities that give a structure strength, security and permanence are absent here, as if the builders feared that earthquakes would stultify their pains. Those buildings hardly belong to the same art as that which raised its monuments at Karnak and Persepolis, and on the Acropolis; they are not architecture as we of the Occident have known it, but rather the carving of wood, the glazing of pottery and the sculpture of stone; they harmonize better with porcelain and jade than with the ponderous edifices that a mixture of engineering and architecture gave to India, Mesopotamia or Rome. If we do not ask of them the grandeur and the solidity which their makers may never have cared to give them, if we accept them willingly as architectural cameos expressing the most delicate of tastes in the most fragile of structural forms, then they take their place as a natural and appropriate variety of Chinese art, and among the most gracious shapes ever fashioned by men” (744).

This, of course, leads me to think of Spengler’s chapter on mathematics in early civilizations, of Kenneth Clark’s discussion of viking shipbuilding, and Will Durant’s own on prehistoric Greek dwellings–because I think a Western notion of confidence as an overarching thesis may fail here–however, Durant was writing before those banners of Chairman Mao were hung, before the tanks in my memory, of the stadiums and the smog and the mass-production (the slavery that shocks us now has yet always been a component of Chinese civilization), nothing about modern China, not the convents and epidemics of The Painted Veil, and not the drug dens and orgies of The Good Earth, is what I am trying to think of now…I won’t pretend to understand the Chinese character–as much time as I’ve spent trying to understand the British or the French, I still haven’t come to terms with either, they make absolutely no sense to me, I feel as if I’m rolling dice; so much more so, the Chinese.

Concerning its poetry: “we may tire, at times, of a certain sentimentality in [Chinese poetry], a vainly wistful mood of regret that time will not stop in its flight and let men and states be young forever” (713). And concerning its architecture: “drawings . . . show that  through its long history of over twenty-three centuries Chinese architecture has been content with the same designs, and the same modest proportions” (741). And, on poetry, again,

“what we do see is, above all, brevity. . . . But the Chinese believe that all poetry must be brief; that a long poem is a contradiction in terms–since poetry, to them, is a moment’s ecstasy, and dies when dragged out in epic reams. Its mission is to see and paint a picture with a stroke, and write a philosophy in a dozen lines; its ideal is infinite meaning in a little rhythm. Since pictures are of the essence of poetry, and the essence of Chinese writing is pictography, the written language of China is spontaneously poetic; it lends itself to writing in pictures, and shuns abstractions that cannot be phrased as things seen. Since abstractions multiply with civilization, the Chinese language, in its written form, has become a secret code of subtle suggestions; and in like manner, and perhaps for a like reason, Chinese poetry combines suggestion with concentration, and aims to reveal, through the picture it draws, some deeper thing invisible. It does not discuss, it intimates; it leaves out more than it says; and only an Oriental can fill it in. . . . Like Chinese manners and art, Chinese poetry is a matter of infinite grace concealed in a placid simplicity. It foregoes metaphor, comparison and allusion, but relies on showing the thing itself, with a hint of its implications. It avoids exaggeration and passion [I immediately recall that hotel orgy that lasted for days and involved hundreds upon hundreds of people in a major Chinese city a few years ago…], but appeals to the mature mind by understatement and restraint; it is seldom romantically excited in form, but knows how to express intense feeling in its own quietly classic way” (712).

Compare, then, to the poetry of Tagore, whose every word I think is so laden with poetic ambiguity that at times I think his work suffers–in the same way that Vedic architecture so discomforts and sometimes horrifies me.

Not that I live a simple life, not for one heartbeat. But, the whole point is that there is a thread I see running through Chinese history, through its art and philosophy, which is one of simplicity, but when attached to my opinions on Confidence, I think it does have a role, which is that until recently, confidence in China was related to restraint, restraint and nuance performed the role of grandeur and obtuseness we’ve so come to adore. And where is the necessity of living forever? Perhaps as in Judaism, placing the emphasis on living during life rather than on fame and posterity and eternity etc. is what has produced so little in terms of Western greatness. Hm, yes, I do believe in subtlety above all. So I live a life of subtlety when I can, this is true.

film: Nichols: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

I read this in one sitting. Back when I had concentration. It was brutal, I didn’t like it one bit, and I followed it up with a good dinner, having spent the afternoon sitting in a cafeteria corner flipping pages. The film–even more brutal, like a series of terrible volleys, leaving me unable to breathe, and then there’s the space to pull yourself together, and then they jump in again, it’s horrifying, and required me to watch it over a period of three days–I just couldn’t bear the way it transported me. What’s fascinating is that it paints a picture similar to the state of America today–aren’t we fortunate that history repeats itself? A professor told me that if paid close attention I’d pick up on a reference to Spengler–I didn’t catch it–I know whereabouts it came, and I suspected it might be, but I wasn’t sure. There are some similarities to Taming of the Shrew however–who’s being tamed?