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Civilization: An exercise in 4:00 a.m. thinking

One recent Saturday I slumped under a cloud of doom. “You have nothing left to say. You’re a failure. You might as well close up shop and slink away.” I felt capable only of staring at the walls or losing myself in a Downton Abbey marathon. Even lying down to take a nap seemed like too much effort.

Nearly all writers know this mood. It’s often the precursor to a burst of productivity; but when we’re in it, we never see that. When we’re in it, it’s always The End.

Sure enough, the next morning I snapped awake at 4:21 a.m. with a brain in full creative ferment. A thousand related concepts chased themselves around my head — philosophical, educational, practical, deep, fascinating, fun, provocative. I thought I might write an essay, a series, a book, a something. I even had a title that would embrace all thousand thoughts: Saving Civilization: A Modest Proposal.

Until approximately 4:47 a.m., it seemed an eminently doable project. No problem at all. Then I got up, made a pot of tea, and delivered myself a dose of reality along with the caffeine.

Who am I to write about saving civilization? I wondered.

And what is civilization? Is it the high fallutin’ stuff in those Great Books that people used to keep on their shelves but rarely read? Or is it the grubby reality of daily life? The aspirations and ideals or the stumbles and hypocrisies that come from trying to be better than we are? Is it great art and architecture or the lesser efforts of the mythical common man? Is it rarefied literature or everyday literacy? Is it the sacred concepts of freedom of speech, belief, and justice — or the eternal violations of those rights in the name of order or power?

The philosophy or the practice? All of the above? None? Something else altogether?

Can civilization be saved? Is it worth saving? Is it actually even threatened, or is that just the classic fear that passing generations always feel toward change brought in by the new?

Does “civilization” mean Western Civilization? And if so, what makes the western kind superior to the others? Because it’s produced unprecedented freedom, knowledge, and prosperity? But every benefit can also be a drawback, and so many benefits carry within them the seeds of their own destruction. Prosperity, for instance, breeds contempt for prosperity and forgetfulness about how horrible the alternative could be. Education begins in aspiration and ends in propaganda. Freedom without principle becomes mere license and licentiousness.

Can civilization be sustainable?

Is something like the Industrial Revolution a natural and beneficial part of civilization or is it an aberration and a force of destruction? (The Luddites certainly thought so, and if you read about the havoc they faced, you see that they had far more of a point than we now give them credit for.)

Is religion a builder of civilization or a destroyer of it? (Or both?)

Is civilization what kings, priests, masters, professors, and philosophers say it is? Or is it what ordinary people perceive and endure?

And — returning to the original caffeinated question — being firmly in the peasant class, who am I to try to answer any of these questions? For that matter, who is anyone to dare to define “civilization” for anyone else, let alone make recommendations on how to preserve it?

The implications of hierarchy and order in the very act of imposing a definition feel themselves like part of some Ancien Regime that I for one, as a lifelong freedomista, was happy to see fall. My idea of civilization was not my father’s idea of it. Nor is it Michael Bloomberg’s, Michelle Obama’s, Pope Francis’s, Paul Krugman’s, Plato’s, Jeremy Bentham’s, Karl Marx’s, Billy Graham’s, William Kristol’s, or Michelle Malkin’s.

Um … nope. This was not going to be the little project that my pre-caffeinated brain so happily imagined.

And even with all the other questions the ultimate question for Living Freedom is What are we going to do about it?


As usual with dead-end days that give way to creative blasts, my mind had actually been processing inspirations all along without me knowing what it was up to.

The inspirations in this case were four:

  • I had noodled an idea a week or so earlier. I thought I might write a self-help listicle along the lines of “10 choices that will make you more free.” As I made my list I discovered that everything on it fell into the mind-bending category of “radical moderation” — which took more explaining that I was ready to do at the time.
  • I had read a fascinating and heartening article on Christianity Today about how some Christian schools are now returning to classical education (those Great Books again, along with other long-neglected disciplines like rhetoric) in hopes of preserving or re-building the civilization now being torn down. The article also mentioned the gob-smackingly thoughtful book: How the Irish Saved Civilization (a fun read as well as a provocative one). It didn’t mention Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, but it easily could have. The latter, though solely for Christians, raises the idea that people of principle should live apart and preserve (their version of) civilization intact, much as those civilization-saving Irish monks did centuries ago.
  • The subject of Plato kept arising everywhere I turned — and oddly enough a friend later wrote to say it has been popping up for him, as well. Like every half-educated person here in Western Civilization, I have a general idea of Plato’s Big Concepts without ever having read him directly. (And like every freedomista who cut her teeth on the works of Ayn Rand, I also know her typically simplistic “Plato bad; Aristotle good” viewpoint without having read Aristotle, either. “A is A” — but sometimes A is A and is also On Beyond Zebra — a notion Rand wouldn’t approve of at all.)
  • I had watched Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog was allowed to take a small filmmaking crew into the Chauvet Cave, which contain some of the oldest art ever discovered. He and the caretakers of the otherwise-closed site ask questions like, “Is this where the mind of man first developed? Is this where civilization began?”

All this was working deep in the back of my mind while I was capable only of reading murder mysteries and stuffing my face with popcorn.

On that Sunday, it all came together to wake me at 4:21 a.m. with an idea that’s way too big for any mere blogger.

At least I’ve made some notes, which I’ll probably continue to use as blog fodder. And I really do need to return to that idea of “radical moderation.” If I were ever (however unlikely) to invent a central philosophy to become known by (as Bentham had Utilitarianism or Sartre had existentialism), I think it would be that: Radical Moderation, the path to maximum freedom.

Oh, and the impossible-to-write blog/series/book on civilization would be re-titled Saving Civilization: A Do-It-Yourself Guide. Because of course if a task needs doing for freedom or civilization, we individuals are always the ones who are going to have to do it.


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  1. deLaune
    deLaune September 10, 2019 4:22 am

    A society/civilization is founded on a narrative, a story that tells us how to act. Fundamental to this narrative is a set of postulates.

    Off the top of my head, I think the postulates of Western (specifically English) civilization were:
    There is a metaphysical force superior to man.
    People, though imperfect and imperfectable, may strive toward the metaphysical ideal.
    “Thou shalt not steal.” (the individual must be inviolate).
    As much governmental power as practical must remain within the family.

    Most current U.S. residents would shrug in apathy or argue strenuously against these ideas. We have no coherent narrative.

  2. Pat
    Pat September 10, 2019 5:17 am

    “And what is civilization?”

    What compelled the Irish to save the known cultures of their time, the Greeks to rise above their mythology, the Romans to build their roads and water systems, the Founding Fathers to understand that liberty is indigenous to men everywhere?

    Civilization is the “instinct” that stimulates men to move forward for the common good (not to be confused with socialism). It is an instinct that brings out the best in men, to show what can be done, and in so doing, to rise above the “baser” human attributes that tear us apart. It is an instinct — both practical and philosophical — that resides in Everyman who desires to know more than he does, or to be more than he is.

    The apple that Eve gave to Adam came from the Tree of Knowledge; those who believe that tree is evil (and those who believe that sharing the apple is a sin) are the ignorant and the tyrants who would keep us bound to traditions of the past, and to believing the worst in men. (Ironic — or significant? — that while the ordinary man tries to move forward, his Illustrious Leaders attempt to hold him back.)

    An excellent piece, Claire!

  3. free.and.true
    free.and.true September 10, 2019 6:52 am

    What Pat said.

    I loves me a good Claire blogosaurus. ;~)

  4. Michael Stone
    Michael Stone September 10, 2019 7:21 am

    For me, civilization is “not behaving like an animal”. So, I suppose it involves passing on baser urges and aspiring for higher ones.

    Which are “base” and which “higher”?

    Hmm. I’d say it comes down to time preference. “Do this thing right now because it feels good/gets me what I want with no thought of consequences” vs. “If I do/don’t do this now, I’ll have more/better later”.

    But, that’s just at the individual level. I guess a “civilization” is a place/time where more people do the latter than the former.

    Hmm, again. This is much bigger than the simple words would imply.

    Thought provoking, Claire.

    Thank you.

  5. larryarnold
    larryarnold September 10, 2019 8:25 am

    I always think of civilization as talking about your differences instead of killing over them.

    But then there’s always, “Civilization is the way you remember things were just before you went through puberty.”

  6. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 10, 2019 8:29 am

    “As surgeons keep their instruments and knives always at hand for cases requiring immediate treatment, so should thou have thy thoughts ready to understand things divine and human, remembering in thy every act, even the smallest, how close is the bond that unites the two.” Meditations

  7. Tahn
    Tahn September 10, 2019 8:31 am

    George Potter and I had a long discussion one night, involving many dictionaries and even more beer but we finally reached agreement on what a “civilization” was. It didn’t matter about technology or any other superfluous or changing concern. Civilization is a place or culture where people are “civil” to one another.

    Jeff Deist, President of Mises Institute later confirmed our observations with this quote.

    “Civility cannot be sheared from the broader concept of civilization itself. Both words share the same Latin root “civilis”, which means relating to citizenship or public life. But it also means relating to others with courtesy, manners, and affability. If civilization is the sum total of a society and its culture, civility — or the lack thereof — is its building block, the positive or negative social traits exhibited by people in that society.”

    It works for me. Love your thoughts Claire (Always have). Thanks for sharing.

  8. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA September 10, 2019 9:58 am

    Those are good questions, Claire.

    Your assignment is to have them answered by next blog.

  9. David Gross
    David Gross September 10, 2019 11:57 am

    You might try Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” on for size. His “golden mean” theory might be akin to, or at any rate harmonious with, your “radical moderation.” (And I think Rand was right about this one: I much prefer Aristotle to Plato.) Here’s a free, quality eBook version:

    I did a chapter-by-chapter close reading of the Ethics on my blog starting (can it be?) ten years ago this month:
    Here are some of the on-line resources I used:

  10. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge September 10, 2019 1:52 pm

    I’ve only had time to skim the article and replies, but hope to come back to read both more thoroughly. Nice work, Claire. We should all think of such things more often than we do.

  11. John Wilder
    John Wilder September 10, 2019 4:19 pm

    I thought it was just me that got into funks like that with the resultant burst. Good to know I’m not alone. Great project, great concept, and one we need now.

  12. ellendra
    ellendra September 11, 2019 8:58 am

    “I felt capable only of staring at the walls or losing myself in a Downton Abbey marathon.”

    I watched that series for a while, but there was one episode that I had such a hard time with, that I haven’t been able to watch the rest. But maybe you could answer a question for me, without giving away too many spoilers:

    Does the rapist die?

  13. Claire
    Claire September 11, 2019 10:26 am

    “Does the rapist die?”

    Yes. His death doesn’t end Anna and Bates’ troubles, but the rapist gets what’s coming to him.

    I hope you can bring yourself to watch the rest of the series. Every character gets a satisfying story arc.

  14. Claire
    Claire September 11, 2019 10:52 am

    His “golden mean” theory might be akin to, or at any rate harmonious with, your “radical moderation.”

    Apparently I steal only from the best — and without even knowing it! 😉

    Seriously, thank you David Gross. I will definitely follow and read all your links.

  15. Claire
    Claire September 11, 2019 10:53 am

    “Your assignment is to have them answered by next blog.”

    No problem, Steve! (Yeah, suuuuuurrrrre …. )

  16. Claire
    Claire September 11, 2019 10:55 am

    Excellent answers. I’m fond myself of the “being civil” and “not killing each other” viewpoints. I wonder, though, if those define civilization or are more like a result of or inspiration for civilization.

    Good thinking, though.

  17. Pat
    Pat September 11, 2019 12:21 pm

    “I’m fond myself of the “being civil” and “not killing each other” viewpoints. I wonder, though, if those define civilization or are more like a result of or inspiration for civilization.”

    A nice distinction.

    I tend to think we define civilization after the fact; i.e. once a society becomes “civil” we call it civil. Western Civilization was only defined in that manner by the western world after we defined civility and “civilized” it. Our books, and art, and culture fed into our definition.

  18. ILTim
    ILTim September 13, 2019 10:36 am

    “Who am I to write about saving civilization? I wondered.”

    You’ve done a jaw-dropping job of saving your house against the prevailing attitude of ‘throw it out and start over’. Write about that, with a little between the lines side-story of politics and civilization. Write about the preservation of little historical towns contrasted against strip malls and box stores.

    You may not know railroads, but you know small-scale home renovation like few others do. Make it episodic like Hardyville, see if it goes anywhere.

  19. Noah Body
    Noah Body September 13, 2019 11:58 am

    Way off-topic, but I thought I would warn everybody: postage stamps carry bar codes and serial numbers and can be traced. Which is how this person got caught. Yes, he seems dangerous, but I can see this tracking applied to political protest:

    This seems like the end of anonymous communications. USPS is out, email can be traced, even the supposedly anonymous services. Free speech, at least of the controversial type, is over.

  20. Saturday Links | 357 Magnum
    Saturday Links | 357 Magnum September 14, 2019 7:14 am

    […] Claire Wolfe at Living Freedom – Civilization: An exercise in 4:00 a.m. thinking […]

  21. larryarnold
    larryarnold September 14, 2019 8:58 am

    With the help of U.S. postal inspectors, Busch was able to track the three stamps back to a kiosk in a post office in Grand Junction. The kiosk also captured surveillance footage of the buyer as well as his credit-card info.

    I think it would make a difference if you buy your stamps while taking a trip somewhere (even to the nearby big city), and not at a kiosk that takes your photo, and certainly not with your credit card.

    That guy is not the sharpest tool in the box, but I’m glad he’s off the street. Or at least he will be if they take him seriously this time.

    OTOH the site at the link popped up a “we want to know your location to better serve you” notice. 😉

  22. Claire
    Claire September 14, 2019 3:51 pm

    ILTim — Now that is a damned brilliant idea. Thank you. Whether I’ll ever continue with this idea of saving civilization, I don’t know. But the concept of “repairing the house” as a metaphor is tremendous. And you’re right — it’s just up my ally.

    I bow to your creativity.

  23. Roy J. Tellason
    Roy J. Tellason September 17, 2019 7:50 am

    The one word that jumps out at me in there is hierarchy. In thinking about these things I far prefer the word network, instead. See Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral And The Bazaar” for details about that distinction. It’s interesting that in computerspace those machines that are central to connecting a bunch of other ones are “servers”, not something up a hierarchy.

    There’s some SF book I recall (Poul Anderson maybe?) where a guy was in an administrative position of sorts, but everything in that particular society was run by consensus. He was in that position not because he lusted after the power it gave him, but because he was particularly good at facilitating things between and among people. One of these days I’m going to have to look for that book in my library, but at the moment my to-read stacks keep threatening to fall on me, so I’ll defer it for now.

    The comment about civility was interesting, as I recall driving past a local (Hershey) high school one day and noticing on their sign the words “Choose Civility”. Interesting…

  24. John Wilder
    John Wilder September 18, 2019 1:07 am

    Claire, what platform would you like to see in a political candidate?

  25. Historian
    Historian September 19, 2019 4:32 pm

    a few thoughts on civilization:

    Heinlein, in his book “Friday’ had an excellent review of the subject between his characters Kettle Belly Baldwin and Friday Jones, AKA ‘Marjorie Baldwin.’

    It is often instructive not only to consider what civilization is, but also what civilization isn’t.
    One can generalize the principles from enough specifics.

    Another approach is to look at what precursors are needed for civilization to flourish, and what degrades civilization. Here in these presently united States, we have LOTS of examples of the last item, some of which follow:

    -Lack of politeness, both in everyday interactions person to person, and especially on the road is a sure sign of a decline of civil behaviour; (RAH)

    -Particularism- identification not as a member of the greater body politic, but as a member of a special group; (again, RAH)

    -Unwillingness to support oneself (AKA the rise of entitlement culture;)

    -Failure to propagate the memes of the founding culture;

    -Increasing preoccupation with amusements and trivia to the exclusion of participation in and oversight of the political and economic processes active in the culture; (RAH and many others)

    -Engagement in sexuality to the exclusion of raising a family, sometimes to the point of killing inconvenient children either before or after birth;

    -Ridicule of the military and those who maintain civil order by the ruling classes, while at the same time engaging in wars of conquest and domination, not actual defence of the civilization;

    -Importation of unassimilable proletarian working class foreigners to perform work the indigenes no longer wish to do;

    -Debasement of the money supply to fund many of the above activities;

    -Loss of martial ability and willingness to fight by the common people; (RAH and others- ‘During the early days of the Republic, a mother would gift her adult son with a Roman shield and tell him to return with his shield, or on it. Later this custom declined. So did Rome. LL aka RAH in “Time Enough for Love;” ‘

    -corruption of the political process;

    -taxation above about 1/3 of a person’s production;

    The list goes on, but that is a start.

    What will be needed to survive the coming dark age are self-supporting islands of civilization, similar to the medieval monasteries, located far enough away from the centers of population to avoid being consumed in the crash.

    With regard to all who seek the light,


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