The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

Of Civilization


    THERE is some confusion, is there not, in our minds when we think of our civilization, and balance its benefits against its perplexities, as we do? Our often complaints against it may be justly made only against our own misconception.

    In moments of irritation we are in the habit of finding fault with modern civilization, as we call it; and in a pique we turn our backs on town and society and betake ourselves to more or less sequestered resorts where we promise ourselves the enjoyment of nature and a return to simplicity. But in reality what we are fleeing from is not civilization but our own vulgar and rather stupid multiplication [Page 231] of effects, our overelaborate accumulation of mere machinery.

    Of true civilization one need never tire. Indeed, it is impossible to tire of it, since civilization is a state of growth, — is the constant actualization of our best ideals, — is nothing more than the realization of our best selves.

    Civilization, I suppose, is the best we can attain in our progress toward perfection. That road is long and difficult, and there are many illusions in the way to delay the traveller and turn him aside. Not the least of these illusion are things, gross material possession, which we deem at times quite necessary to our comfort and which we come to count as an essential factor in civilized life. But material possessions are only means to an end; and it depends entirely on our use of them whether or not they aid us in the task of civilizing our life. A Bushman is not civilized merely by being placed in a palace or in a luxurious New York hotel; though decent [Page 232] and comfortable surroundings are an almost essential help in humanizing the spirit. Nor could a civilized man like Lincoln or Marcus Aurelius or John Wesley be made barbarous by being housed in a cave or a tepee. In fact, in the first case, the palace or the hotel might be eminently glaring and hideous and debasing to the spirit, in spite of all its luxury, while in the second case our civilized tenant of the cave could more readily give his own complexion to his surroundings for the time being.

    The case is simply this; In our task of civilizing ourselves there are certain necessities of the animal man that must be met, that remain constant, whatever his state. He must be housed and clothed and fed. His children must be reared and trained, and provision must be made against sickness and incapacity. Now, the means which man takes to do these things are infinitely various. He may do them very simply, as the Indians used to do them, and as the African [Page 233] and the Eskimo still does them; or he may do them with enormous elaboration and multiplicity of detail, as the Londoner and the New Yorker does them to-day. But it is to be noted that the manner of doing these things is not in any way an essential part of civilization. A man may have at his command all the luxuries of the twentieth century, and still lack all the rudiments of civilization. Almost any thoughtful person will acknowledge this strange confusion of ideas of ours, and yet it is because we continually confuse material prosperity with spiritual and intellectual progress that we are so retarded in the path to perfection.

    Evidently it is only common sense that we should get our necessary man’s work done as quickly and easily as possible. To be fed and clothed and housed is the prime consideration. Very well, then, let us have this done with utmost expedition. Let us invent all manner of contrivances of wood and iron and steam and electricity to save ourselves labour [Page 234] in providing these common requirements. Surely we have worked marvels of ingenuity in that direction! But what then? How shall we employ ourselves? What shall we do when these first human wants are satisfied? Shall we go on elaborating the means of living, or shall we devote some time to life itself, to civilizing ourselves?

    After a certain point is reached, the increase of material possessions is a palpable burden, a mere incumbrance to us in our attempt to civilize and humanize existence. To command happiness in my life, I must be master of conditions, so far as I can. I must have within my power the means of satisfying my needs. I must have, if you will, the luxuries of the day. But if I simply keep on multiplying my physical needs, so that it absorbs all my energy to satisfy them, I am no longer a master of conditions, but their slave. I do not command my wants; my wants command me. The essential man in me is arrested and absorbed in mere means of [Page 235] living, and has no energy nor intelligence left for living itself.

    But all the while it is folly to turn our back on civilization. For in all this great mass of material prosperity is hidden the leisure which can make a higher civilization possible. And if I find a city life a burden because of its endless demands and material engrossments, I am not, therefore, to become an embittered faultfinder with my age. It were more sensible to take moderately from the abundant store which modern ingenuity has provided, and, having simplified my needs, devote myself to beautifying my inner life, and to making life about me more interesting and happy. For so I shall be forwarding civilization — civilizing myself and those with whom I must come in contact, not by overloading myself with endless elaborations.

    Possessions are good and delightful and necessary. But they are only good and delightful and necessary in so far as they minister to happiness. They cannot of themselves [Page 236] give us happiness; they can only give the possibility of happiness and immunity from want. It is we ourselves who must distil from this immunity and possibility the honey of joy which we all desire.

    Civilization does not reside in all those things which we give our lives so breathlessly to obtain; it is to be found in the hearts of our friends, in the thought and science and art of the day. And if the civilization of my time seem to me hard and mean and materialistic, the fault is probably in my own mind as much as in my neighbour’s millions. [Page 237]