Story type: Essay
Have we yet hit upon the right idea of civilization? The process which has been going on ever since the world began seems to have a defect in it; strength, vital power, somehow escapes. When you’ve got a man thoroughly civilized you cannot do anything more with him. And it is worth reflection what we should do, what could we spend our energies on, and what would evoke them, we who are both civilized and enlightened, if all nations were civilized and the earth were entirely subdued. That is to say, are not barbarism and vast regions of uncultivated land a necessity of healthful life on this globe? We do not like to admit that this process has its cycles, that nations and men, like trees and fruit, grow, ripen, and then decay. The world has always had a conceit that the globe could be made entirely habitable, and all over the home of a society constantly growing better. In order to accomplish this we have striven to eliminate barbarism in man and in nature:
Is there anything more unsatisfactory than a perfect house, perfect grounds, perfect gardens, art and nature brought into the most absolute harmony of taste and culture? What more can a man do with it? What satisfaction has a man in it if he really gets to the end of his power to improve it? There have been such nearly ideal places, and how strong nature, always working against man and in the interest of untamed wildness, likes to riot in them and reduce them to picturesque destruction! And what sweet sadness, pathos, romantic suggestion, the human mind finds in such a ruin! And a society that has attained its end in all possible culture, entire refinement in manners, in tastes, in the art of elegant intellectual and luxurious living–is there nothing pathetic in that? Where is the primeval, heroic force that made the joy of living in the rough old uncivilized days? Even throw in goodness, a certain amount of altruism, gentleness, warm interest in unfortunate humanity–is the situation much improved? London is probably the most civilized centre the world has ever seen; there are gathered more of the elements of that which we reckon the best. Where in history, unless some one puts in a claim for the Frenchman, shall we find a Man so nearly approaching the standard we have set up of civilization as the Englishman, refined by inheritance and tradition, educated almost beyond the disturbance of enthusiasm, and cultivated beyond the chance of surprise? We are speaking of the highest type in manner, information, training, in the acquisition of what the world has to give. Could these men have conquered the world? Is it possible that our highest civilization has lost something of the rough and admirable element that we admire in the heroes of Homer and of Elizabeth? What is this London, the most civilized city ever known? Why, a considerable part of its population is more barbarous, more hopelessly barbarous, than any wild race we know, because they are the barbarians of civilization, the refuse and slag of it, if we dare say that of any humanity. More hopeless, because the virility of savagery has measurably gone out of it. We can do something with a degraded race of savages, if it has any stamina in it. What can be done with those who are described as “East-Londoners”?
Every great city has enough of the same element. Is this an accident, or is it a necessity of the refinement that we insist on calling civilization? We are always sending out missionaries to savage or perverted nations, we are always sending out emigrants to occupy and reduce to order neglected territory. This is our main business. How would it be if this business were really accomplished, and there were no more peoples to teach our way of life to, and no more territory to bring under productive cultivation? Without the necessity of putting forth this energy, a survival of the original force in man, how long would our civilization last? In a word, if the world were actually all civilized, wouldn’t it be too weak even to ripen? And now, in the great centres, where is accumulated most of that we value as the product of man’s best efforts, is there strength enough to elevate the degraded humanity that attends our highest cultivation? We have a gay confidence that we can do something for Africa. Can we reform London and Paris and New York, which our own hands have made?
If we cannot, where is the difficulty? Is this a hopeless world? Must it always go on by spurts and relapses, alternate civilization and barbarism, and the barbarism being necessary to keep us employed and growing? Or is there some mistake about our ideal of civilization? Does our process too much eliminate the rough vigor, courage, stamina of the race? After a time do we just live, or try to live, on literature warmed over, on pretty coloring and drawing instead of painting that stirs the soul to the heroic facts and tragedies of life? Where did this virile, blood-full, throbbing Russian literature come from; this Russian painting of Verestchagin, that smites us like a sword with the consciousness of the tremendous meaning of existence? Is there a barbaric force left in the world that we have been daintily trying to cover and apologize for and refine into gentle agreeableness?
These questions are too deep for these pages. Let us make the world pleasant, and throw a cover over the refuse. We are doing very well, on the whole, considering what we are and the materials we have to work on. And we must not leave the world so perfectly civilized that the inhabitants, two or three centuries ahead, will have nothing to do.