The New Criterion, which I have touted before on this site, is an excellent, conservative publication dedicated to the arts and culture in all their forms. I picked up a subscription (since lapsed, sadly) a couple of years ago at a deep discount, and enjoyed its strong, engaging writing immensely. I don’t know anything about—nor have I ever seen—an opera, but the critics at New Criterion make me want to attend one.
One great resource at New Criterion is their “Media” page, which includes all of their audio articles. These are articles read aloud by professional readers, and they make for wonderful listening while you’re going about your day, from painting walls to picking through the soggy remnants of your life.
Monday evening, New Criterion posted an audio article written by the publication’s editors. It’s title: “Is Civilization Overrated“? Their conclusion, by way of reductio ad absurdum, is that, no, it isn’t, but I highly recommend you give it a listen; there’s a lot of John-Jacques Rousseau bashing, as the piece explores the destructive philosopher’s impish assertion that we were all better off foraging for berries and getting killed by saber-toothed tigers.
That question, though—is civiliation “overrated” or “worth it”—is an interesting one nonetheless. I suspect that most everyone would say, “Well, sure,” and not give it much more thought. But the contra argument is, at least fleetingly, interesting. It’s also highly instructive of the thought-process of the modern Left.
I occasionally adjunct teach at a local technical college, and some years ago I had the opportunity to teach the first portion of Western Civilization survey course. That course, naturally, started with a quick overview of prehistoric times and people in the Near East, and what pre-agricultural societies were probably like. We then looked at the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of settled or semi-nomadic agriculture.
It was at this point that I caught a subtle but distinctive bit of the “civilization-isn’t-worth-it” mindset. The textbook—which, sadly, I cannot quote from directly because flooding displaced me from my humble, scholarly bungalow—featured a section that went something like this: with the advent of agriculture and settled societies came social hierarchies (true); that increase inequality (true enough, but the book makes it seem like an inherently negative development), including inequality between genders (that probably existed before agriculture); and settled agriculture began environmental degradation (again, probably true, but it also meant more human lives entering the world).
The whole passage—which I will have to quote at length when I have the book back in my possession—heavily insinuates that civilization was a raw deal; that the whole thing was a sham to bamboozle the weak into following the strong; and that men and women somehow existed in a mythical state of equality that would make the most strident radical feminist cry tears of pure Subaru Outback engine oil.
This mindset, I suspect, pervades a chunk of the modern Left, who un-ironically decry global warming (or is it cooling, or climate change?) while jetting around in gas-guzzling private jets to climate conferences. There’s a certain naturalistic fallacy at play that is highly seductive, but ultimately facile.
I remember a conversation with my father when I was maybe seventeen, an age full of angsty brooding and doughy fatness. I basically said, “Dad, I feel like I shouldn’t have to worry about trigonometric functions, and instead should let those motivated to solve them do it while I live in a state of naturalistic ecstasy” (okay, that wasn’t verbatim what I said, but you get the gist of it). At seventeen, such an idea is seductive, and largely reality—someone else is bringing in the money while you play Civilization II instead of doing your math homework—but you grow out of it.
Except, apparently, for academics, the only folks educated enough to believe in fifty-three different genders and that “democratic” socialism works. I (thankfully) grew out of my whining, which was really just an elaborate scheme to avoid doing any actual work myself—which might be the motivating factor behind Leftism after all.
Regardless, civilization seems imminently worth it. Just ask anyone who has ever had a loved one saved through the miraculous technology of modern medicine. Consider, too, that you’re probably reading this piece while streaming music from your phone, checking the weather, and eating a breakfast you didn’t have to kill with your bare hands after running it down for eight hours.
Are you wearing glasses right now? At one point, you probably would have been left in the cold to die—your weakness was too costly for the rest of the tribe. Do you have weird, probably made-up gluten allergies? Well… maybe you would have been okay in a pre-agricultural age, but they still should have shunned you.
Ultimately, I’d much rather live in a world that produced J.S. Bach than a Stone Age pit full of atonal grunting. It says something about the state of our civilization that the atonal grunts are back in vogue.
Hyper-dependence on technology is not without its pitfalls, and we should work to improve civilization to work more efficiently and to put humanity first (only after God), but a base reversion to an anarchic, Rousseauian “state of nature” is a fool’s dream. It would only result in more death and heartache.
So get out there and compose some sonatas. Civilization is worth it!