Story type: Essay
We talk of civilization as though it necessarily implied improvement.
Civilization means the school and the library, but it also means the prison and the poorhouse.
Two short stories illustrate different views of what we call civilization:
Aristippus was a young Greek gentleman of large means, genuine intellectual power, a sense of humor and a reputation as a philosopher.
He was on his way to Corinth with a young lady named Lais, or possibly he was coming from Corinth with her. Anyhow, he was wrecked on the voyage. If you know anything about the reputation of Lais, you know that the philosopher was badly employed, and that the Greek gods doubtless wrecked his vessel to impress upon his mind the importance of morality.
Thrown ashore on a barren stretch of sand, the philosopher was very sad at first. He observed on the sand the remains of certain geometrical drawings, and instantly exclaimed: “There is help near. Here I see signs of thinking men, of civilization.” —-
Voltaire tells of wrecked individuals thrown on a lonely coast, and also much distressed and frightened.
They saw no geometrical tracings in the sand. But on a bleak moor in the twilight they saw the black beams of a gibbet, and below the cross-piece, swinging in the wind, they saw a human skeleton with bony wrists and ankles chained together.
Prayerfully the wanderers dropped on their knees and exclaimed with upturned eyes:
“Thank God, we have got back to civilization.” —-
Thus, you see, there are varying signs of civilization. There is a great gulf between the signs perceived by Aristippus–signs of the mental activity which engages in geometrical demonstrations–and Voltaire’s sign of civilization–the brutal execution of a brutal criminal. —-
Those accustomed to waste time in speculations that cannot bring a financial return may be interested in the following application of the sign of civilization which Aristippus immediately recognized back in the days of two thousand years ago.
We know that some day the inhabitants on Mars or some other planet will want to talk to us. They have doubtless been studying us and consider us still too barbarous and primitive to be worth talking to.
But when we become semi-civilized, in the cosmic sense of the word, the older and wiser planets will get ready to open communication with us.
How will they go about it? They are perhaps absolutely different from us, in shape, in manner of thought, in every conceivable way, including language, customs, and so on.
BUT GEOMETRICAL, MATHEMATICAL FACTS ARE THE SAME THROUGHOUT THE UNIVERSE.
Will not the wise Martian who wants to speak to us and decides to flash some message down here on our clouds, or on the surface of the water, utilize the universality of geometrical truths in order to make us understand that thinking beings are trying to talk to us?
The sum of the angles of any triangle is equal to two right angles.
That is true of every triangle, no matter what its shape, no matter whether it be drawn on this earth or on the most distant sun.
Therefore, when the Martian gentleman gets ready to talk to us he need only repeatedly place before us two right angles followed by a triangle, or a triangle followed by two right angles. Instantly, like Aristippus, we can say there is civilization in Mars, or wherever that sign comes from, or at least there is organized thought. The mind that is flashing that sign knows something about geometry.
Of course, we should also recognize “signs of civilization” if the Martians should project upon our atmosphere a skeleton hanging in chains. But it is to be hoped that the Martians have got beyond that particular evidence of civilization.
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