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.
Since Amazon abruptly closed my Associates account, I’m hoping to put a new, broad base of support under the blog.
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