Civilized Savages

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).


An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.


13 thoughts on “Civilized Savages

  1. Considering all the conflicts of the world (and here), this is the perfect post for the times.
    Civilization is depends on view point and perspective?
    The Sowell quote is hilarious – and worth pondering.
    We have some old books from grand parents and great grandparents. One encyclopedia of the world is 3 volumes. Interesting to read who things were viewed not so long ago…Many things now are different, but better? Questionable. You’d think we’d learn something along the way.
    Nicely done

  2. I would consider the role of religion key to “civilizing” us except that the barbaric horrors of false religions are an ever-present reality. Historically, the first centralized structure of the first cities were always a central gathering place of worship, ziggurats and temples. And herein were committed atrocities (human sacrifices) that continue even today (temple prostitution/ suttee/ jihad). All this to say that religion seems perversely to appeals to the savage in us when it is a mere apotheosis of of human nature rather than mere Christianity.

    1. That’s a great insight. Fallen humanity almost seems to feed of its own worst traits when we gather together (a negative synergy). That said, even in isolation, the corrupt mind and soul conceive great darkness. So, I suppose that it may only be the size of the city’s population that made Babel’s Tower the monument that it was…

  3. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

    Being a mother and a grandmother, I can attest to this! I’m just afraid that in the past couple generations, it hasn’t been accomplished well enough here in America.

    1. There certainly are a lot of young barbarians aging in this world. Legalized drugs (like we have here in Washington State) are sure to sideline many for the rest of their lives. Drops the IQ, erodes motivation… growing up handicapped by poor parenting, many will make poor choices and never experience a fraction of the joy that their lives may have known.

  4. “In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.”

    Great insight. Fallen humans just don’t seem to do well with leisure, plenty, comfort, mastery of our environment, security. It would be a shame to think that we only thought we needed God for protection, but when we don’t think we need God for anything at all, the first impulse is to be rid of Him:

    ” Here at least we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
    Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
    to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
    Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
    (Milton, PL, Bk I, 258-263)

    The Psalmist certainly recognized this in us.

  5. beateteale

    Speaking of civilisation always reminds me of “Lord of the Flies”. I read it as a young teen and was horrified at their barbarism -how quickly these well educated lads turned from civil to barbaric – within their own generation. Thanks rob, i enjoyed thinking through your piece.

  6. Pingback: Beware of British Cows « Mere Inkling

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