Sir Lewis Namier was a great historian. In one of his books, he said that ‘England knows not democracy as a doctrine, but has always practised it as a fine art.’ Later, he said ‘Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time…’
Now, those observations are rather large, but as I look about me here in Australia, what I miss is ‘plain human kindness’ and ‘restraint’. These of course can’t be measured, much less prescribed. Nor would they appear in many definitions of ‘civilisation’. But might we not hope that civilisation is favourable to kindness and restraint?
Earlier I said why I think that neither ancient nor medieval Europe was civilised. Rather, I see the germ of Western civilisation in the respect for the dignity of life in both parts of the bible and then in the fumbling efforts of medieval lawyers in England to grope toward the notion of the rule of law. That may be the bias of a lawyer; Kenneth Clark had a natural bias as an art critic. Then I see the loosening of the shackles of the priesthood across Europe; the English parliament’s victory over its kings; the espousal of human dignity by Kant and others in the Enlightenment; the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France (at a frightful cost to it and Europe); and finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the abolition of slavery in England, and the victory of the North in the American Civil War. If I had to nominate landmarks in the arts, and I’m not sure why I should, I would start with Cervantes, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But if you take the view that a nation cannot be said to be civilised if it tolerates the ultimate Caste of slavery, then civilisation has only become possible in the last two hundred years.
In my view, in order to qualify as civilised, a people or nation should satisfy the following criteria.
- It has a moral code that respects the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group.
- It has a mature and stable form of government that is able to enforce those rights, and to preserve its own structure.
- It observes the rule of law – the government is under the law and all people are equal before it.
- Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption.
- It seeks to provide for the subsistence of its members and allow them to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others.
Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that people are ‘civil’ to each other. Some would want to say something about people who have got on giving back to the community that nourished them, and looking after the aged, the sick, and the unemployed, and refugees, but I fear that these aspirations are too plastic here.
It is hard to see many nations outside Western Europe and the U K and its former colonies qualifying as ‘civilised’. Japan for example has big trouble with corruption, and Indonesia has nothing like an independent judiciary; each is at best marginal on the status of women. Depending on your views on the death penalty, the U S may be disqualified. China fails on the rule of law and India fails on caste. Russia in my view has never come even close to being civilised – even if it has produced some of the finest artists in the world. Public opinion in the West has moved on since Auschwitz and Hiroshima. We now attach more weight to the protection of human rights and dignity, and from our own annihilation, than some impossibly enlightened and refined works of art whose real secrets are not revealed to the unwashed.
And the fact that you have reached civilisation does not preclude your falling out of it. France and Germany were and are among the most civilised nations on earth, but each has descended into the bowels of humanity, the first after 1789, and the second after 1933 – with frightful results for their neighbours in each case. All these thoughts put big holes in any idea that mankind is always on the assent – especially as we see democracy, capitalism and Christianity appearing to collapse under their own weight. And no one has got close to finding an alternative for any of them. As for art, we look in vain for the staying power of Dante, El Greco or Beethoven.
This brings me back to ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness.’ Yes, we probably can’t use these as criteria for ‘civilisation’, but we may surely notice that their absence suggests a problem with the one that we claim. Just look at us here and our rejection of refugees.
The one thing I’m clear on is that I don’t see either restraint or kindness in the David of Michelangelo. What I see there is Adolf Hitler in drag. And it’s not just in the eyes.