“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms–yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it…”
– Kenneth Clark, Civilisation
2,170 years ago, in the reign of the emperor Wen of the Han dynasty, northern barbarians, possibly ancestors of the Huns who assaulted Europe six centuries later, broke through the Great Wall and raided the frontier provinces of China. They burned cities and massacred or enslaved their inhabitants. One Chinese survivor, asked to describe the savage horde, reported that: “They have no faces… only eyes.”
These horrors followed several decades of attempts on the part of the Chinese emperors to appease these barbarians, sending them extravagant gifts, including even an imperial princess. Emperor Wen–”Wen the Filial,” the chronicler calls him (he reigned from 179 to 157 B.C.)–seems to have lived in hope that he could subdue the Huns by giving them an example of wise and virtuous rule, and thereby attain peace and stand down his armies. Twelve years previously he had agonized that: “I have been unable to extend the practice of virtue to different regions, and I brood with anxiety upon the misconduct of foreign peoples. Therefore I am not yet able to dispense with defense measures…”
They have no faces. That phrase came to mind when I saw the photographs of those masked terrorists about to kill Nick Berg. So did the misfortunes of the Emperor Wen. (Which were reversed by his successor’s successor, the martial Emperor Wu, who sent great armies out into the steppe to punish the Huns. The Emperor led one of these armies in person. The Huns were, says the chronicler, “breathless with fear.”)
In our war against Islamic terrorists we are replaying this ancient drama, so familiar to all the great civilizations of antiquity. It was not only the ancient Chinese who faced this menace–the menace of barbarism–but the Romans, too, and the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks of the Hellenic Age, and of course medieval Christendom.
What happened on September 11, 2001, was a kind of barbarian raid. It is true that it was not driven by the desire for plunder but by the desire for destruction and glory–yet it was a barbarian raid for all that. In style and perhaps also in its deep motivation, it was the old spectacle of the wild herders from steppe and desert irrupting into the settled, orderly, civilized places that they simultaneously hated and envied. It was a raid across the Great Wall.
In our own age there is of course no Great Wall to mark the line between civilization and barbarism. In this world of easy travel and globalized commerce, it is not easy even to tell where the one thing ends and the other starts. “Civilization” is in fact a very slippery concept. As Kenneth Clark said, it is one of those things, like romantic love, that you are confident you can recognize when it shows up, but find difficult to pin down with words.
It is not even clear to what kind of nouns the adjective “civilized” can properly be applied. If, for example, you say in print that such-and-such is a barbarous society, you will be sure to get an email from some person born and raised in that society, now a middle-class American with a Ph.D. in microbiology and four published novels to his credit, taking great umbrage and asking indignantly: “Who are you calling a barbarian?”
I would like to lay down the rule that “civilized” and “barbarous” can only be used in reference to entire nations or societies, and are not meaningful when applied to individuals. “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din… but the form of society to which you give your allegiance is a barbarous shambles.”
I can’t quite make this work, however. Noting the recent death of the Duke of Devonshire in the May 8 Spectator, Peter Oborne describes the late Duke as: “this modest, wise, tolerant and civilised man.” Of course we know what he means. I spent the other evening at the Park Avenue apartment of a well-off American couple. The husband’s father was there: a man I would judge to be in his late seventies, with a distinguished record of legal service both with the U.S. government and in private practice. He had the exquisite manners that Americans of that age and background always have–another civilized man, though this one with the American spelling. (A lady I know had a husband of that same generation, who died a few years ago. Towards the end of his life his mind became feeble and he rambled in speech: But, says the lady with great pride, “He kept his manners to the very end!”)
As well as being of uncertain denotation, “civilization” is also, historically speaking, a moving target. Nobody is going to argue much if you say that the city-states of Golden Age Greece were civilized-and yet they exposed unwanted infants, kept women out of public life, and practiced chattel slavery. Was Tudor Britain civilized? It followed a sophisticated religion, about which learned people–including two of the monarchs–wrote profound books. It had a high level (for the time) of personal liberty and judicial fairness. It gave us Shakespeare and Spenser, Compton Wynyates and Hampton Court, Holbein and Hilliard. Yet it also practiced public torture, spectacles of gross cruelty to which the populace thronged for entertainment. There were political prisoners, aggressive wars, the glorifiaction of piracy, and a brutal colonial policy in Ireland. Civilized? Well…
I think most people would agree that no society practicing slavery in this modern world could be called civilized; but what about 150 years ago? Was the Old South civilized? Hmm… And what about democracy? I have presented ancient China as standing for civilization against the barbarians of the steppe. Yet ancient China had no conception of human liberty or consensual government. It was a despotism, with savage punishments for those who dissented from state dogmas or offended the sovereign. Why, then, do I think it was a civilization, a great civilization (which I certainly do)? And since standards are clearly higher nowadays, with consensual, constitutional government a precondition for a society to be called civilized, is modern China civilized? Er…
Not even manners are an infallible guide. Barbarians can be very well-mannered, in their own style. “An armed society is a polite society,” after all, and in a barbarian society everyone is armed to the teeth, because violence settles everything. Proper manners can be a matter of life and death among barbarians, as you may recall if you saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Not even the inhabitants of Park Avenue take manners that seriously.
The transformation from one state of society to the other can also be surprisingly swift. There is nothing intrinsic or genetic about being a barbarian. The savage Magyar horde–barbarians if ever there were such–became the Christian Kingdom of Hungary in almost a single generation. Contrariwise, the Germany of Wilhelm II had a fair claim to being the most civilized nation of Europe in 1900; 40 years later, it was the most barbarous.
Other conundrums show up, too, once you start contemplating these terms “civilization” and “barbarism.” For example, every time you think you have identified a society that embodies the one, if you look closely, you see pockets of the other imbedded in it. I would say that Tudor Britain was civilized; yet the Anglo-Scottish border of that time can fairly be said to have been in a condition of gross barbarism, with its Scottish reivers, the “steel bonnets” of George MacDonald Fraser’s book. (The “Scotch-Irish” of the American back country are descended from border people. As historian David Hackett Fischer points out, the trailer parks of “Scotch-Irish” America today embody the folk memory of the Borders, where there was little point in going to the trouble of erecting a well-built, permanent house, as it would only be burned down in the next raid.)
Early-medieval Ireland exhibits the contrary thing: pockets of civilization–the monasteries, where ancient learning was kept alive through the Dark Ages–imbedded in a civil society that was lawless and barbarous, with illiterate Gaelic warlords roaming the country looking for plunder, sacks full of human heads hanging from their saddles.
Even the Great Wall was not always such a clear marker as I have implied. The gradient from civilization to barbarism as you crossed the Wall was not always very steep. The Manchus of the 17th century who came through the Wall and seized the Empire had been aping Chinese manners and social institutions for decades–they were already half-sinified, in fact. After taking the Empire, they quickly produced a succession of clever, literate, and successful rulers. Barbarians? Um… Likewise, though the 5th-century Huns were undoubtedly barbarous, while the later Roman Empire was surely still civilized, there was considerable mingling, and some odd preferences on the part of Romans for the former over the latter.
One response to the difficulty of pinning down where civilization ends and barbarism begins has simply been to deny the difference altogether, or even to elevate the barbarian (spontaneous! spiritual! in touch with nature!) over the civilized person (repressed! materialistic! heartless!). This has been a typically modern project, launched by the odious Jean-Jacques Rousseau 250 years ago. Rousseau’s “noble savage” concept is now an ineradicable part of our culture, and forms one of the underpinnings of the modern cult of political correctness.
(Similar modern projects have attempted to deny the existence of other key polarities in human nature and society. The difference between the sane and the mad, for example, was flatly denied by Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing, who argued that it was in fact schizophrenics who had the more correct view of the world, while the rest of us are demented. Relativistic morality and “root-causes” sociology have tried the same trick with the difference between the criminal and the law-abiding. The Unholy Trinity of enemies of normal human life–barbarism, madness, and crime–have thus been “normalized,” at any rate to the satisfaction of key cliques of influential thinkers.)
There is, in fact, a sort of sneaking admiration for the barbarian life among some civilized folk. Vice versa, too, of course. Seeing Osama bin Laden, with his expensive digital watch, talking into a video camcorder, you could not help reflecting that the barbarous order of society this man represents could never produce such artifacts, much less the mathematics and science that inspired their invention and manufacture.
For all the conundrums and contradictions, though, the opposition between civilization and barbarism remains perfectly clear to anyone with moral good sense. A few weeks ago I published a piece in which I described Israel as being on the front lines of civilization. This roused the legions of Israel-haters and paleocons, who took a break from cataloguing their collections of Third Reich memorabilia and sticking pins in their Abraham Lincoln dolls to e-mail in and tell me of all the horrid things the Mossad and the IDF are guilty of.
Well, yes, to be sure, civilization has its dirty work to do. “He [Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them”-G. Orwell. (He knew what he was talking about, having once worked as a policeman.) Still, it is an extreme kind of moral obtuseness that refuses to notice the difference between a people who strive to minimize noncombatant casualties and a people who do their best to maximize them. I note also that when Arabs are injured in an Arab terrorist attack against Jews, they are cared for in Israeli hospitals, to which they have been transported by Israeli ambulances. Imagine the converse, if it were possible: Jewish inhabitants of an Arab country, injured in a Jewish-terrorist attack on Arabs. They would be torn to pieces by ululating mobs of Arabs, and the pieces would be paraded triumphantly through streets crowded with laughing revelers, the whole thing broadcast on Al-Jazeera to general rejoicing around the Arab world.
There you have the difference between civilization and barbarism. If you can’t see it, I can’t help you: You are morally blind. The wars we are fighting now–the war against Islamic terrorism, and also the war against the desperate, degraded, dangerous state of Middle Eastern political culture at large–are wars of civilization against barbarism. There is no guarantee of victory, and it is possible that our people’s will might waver and fail; but these are not contrived or unnecessary wars against equal cultures–this is no “clash of civilizations.” The enemy we face today is the same that Emperor Wen faced, and Aetius, and the monks of Lindisfarne, and Otto the First. We are not fighting against Islam, or against Arabs, or against Iraqis. We are fighting barbarism, the ancient enemy, the most ancient enemy of all.