Culture is a contest, civilisation is monumental.

We talk a lot these days about “culture.” About how “culture” is soooo important in communities, workplaces, and cities… how it’s changing soooo quickly with every new generation… how it’s fueled by online memes… how it’s oh-so-“revolutionary.”

But what about civilisation? What about that which builds aqueducts,i cathedrals, mounds, and monumentsii that last for hundreds or even thousands of years?

Our current civilisational heights all seem unable to last but a few years without continual maintenance, nevermind centuries or millennia like the Pyramids.iii Our current heights include the likes of TSMC semiconductor fabs and SpaceX rocket bases, it’s true, but what of this fragile echafaudage will be visible to future generations, even without another flood? Or in our Hesiodic Iron Age are such feats of “Long Now” accomplishments already relegated to the dustbin of history, replaced by “clean hands” and “vibes“?

Perhaps we’ve already forgotten what civilisation properly speaking means, and we’ve replaced such quantitative accomplishments with qualitative zero-sumness. But should that be enough for us? Is that what “success” really looks like?

Huh, Punk?

  1. Kenneth Clark will *fuck you up* with this BBC documentary FROM 1969!!!!1

    Particularly this bit (emphasis added):

    This aqueduct not far from Nîmes was materially beyond the destructive powers of the barbarians. What happened? Well it took Gibbon nine volumes to describe The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire and I shall not embark on that, but thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilization. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it’s actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.

    What are its enemies? First of all fear; fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague, fears that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things or planting trees or even planting next crops, and fear of the supernatural, which means that you don’t question anything or change anything. Late Antique World was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions that destroyed self-confidence. And then boredom: the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity. There’s a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy, a poem in which he imagines the people of some Late Antique city waiting every day of the barbarians to come and sack it and then finally the barbarians move up somewhere else and the city is saved but the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing.

    Of course civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity, enough to provide a little leisure but far more it requires confidence. Confidence in a society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one’s own mental powers. The way the stones of that bridge are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill but it shows a vigorous belief in discipline and law, energy, vitality. All the great civilizations or civilizing epochs have had a weight of energy behind them.

    People sometimes think of civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that, well these can be among the agreeable results of civilization but they are not what makes a civilization and the society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed the real answer is that it was exhausted. As the barbarians who’d been hammering at the borders of the Roman Empire throughout his whole history finally crossed the Danube and the Rhine. At first they were half-Romanized and helped to carry on the administration of the Empire but gradually the great system broke down and into Italy there pulled successive waves of invaders who were destructively hostile to what they couldn’t understand.

    I don’t suppose they bothered to destroy the great buildings that were scattered all over the Roman world but the idea of keeping them up never entered their heads. They preferred to live in prefabs and to let the old places fall down of course here in the life must have gone on in an apparently normal way for very much longer than one would expect. It always does. Civilization might have drifted downstream for a long time but in the middle of the 7th century there appeared from the south a new agent of destruction, Islam: there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet. The simplest doctrine that has ever gained acceptance and he gave to the prophet’s followers the invincible solidarity that had once directed the legions of Rome.

    In a miraculously short time – about 50 years – the classical world was overrun. Only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky. The old source of civilization was sealed off and if a new civilization was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic. People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I high doubt if they’ve given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria they are bored by civilization, but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater.


  2. The monument to end all monument is really none other than the Pyramids at Giza, for they are our pre-diluvian civilisational high water mark.

  3. For what it’s worth I’m increasingly coming around to Manly P. Hall‘s proposed dating for the Giza pyramids of 68`000 years. Yes, it really has been that long since humanity could achieve such heights!

One thought on “Culture is a contest, civilisation is monumental.

  1. […] Civilisation is not automatic – but perhaps nor is its decline? […]

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