Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 18: Civilization More than Telephones and Electric Lights

01/03/2017 12:15 am ET

The Greek Way, Chapter 6, Question 3: What is meant by civilization is more than "telephones and electric lights"?

Civilization means more than comfort, convenience, and material goods. These have to do with the physical. A soulless culture can also have these things. A civilization is much more than that. It has to do with the imponderables of life: meaning, purpose, and the things of the spirit; the sacredness of the human person as an end in itself, not as a beast of burden to be used, exploited, and then cast aside; human rights, care for the poor; ideals and values that make life worth living - for everyone.

Food, clothing, shelter, and health care are also essential -- for everyone, and until this happens there is no civilization, despite sumptuous dining, costly apparel and palatial mansions -- for the few. What makes a civilization are old-fashioned ideals and virtues like compassion and kindness, concern for others, decency and humanity, honesty and integrity, fairness and justice. For when there is justice, there is no need for charity.

These virtues do not come easily. They require effort, and, at times, they may seem beyond our reach. However, man does not live by bread alone but by self-overcoming and the need to be better. We are human and sometimes we fall, but nevertheless, we continue to struggle. Self-dissatisfaction is an overlooked blessing that keeps us humble and urges us on.

I'm sure that G. E. Lessing wouldn't mind if I altered his famous quotation to read: "Our true worth isn't determined by possessing a virtue, but by sincerely struggling toward attaining it. Possessing a virtue doesn't make us better, but passive, lazy, and proud." It's struggle that's important, for struggling reminds us we're human, a reminder that's good for the soul. And when we fall, we forgive ourselves, and try once again.

These ideals are also imponderables that cannot be measured, because they're the measure of everything else. They're much more important than the measurable because they go to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes life worth living, and worth living for -- the values that sustain us as civilized beings and give our lives meaning.

Once a civilization loses its reverence for the human person, every person, no matter what creed, color, or country of origin, that civilization loses its soul, forsakes its humanity, and is already dead -- however impressive its GNP.

A civilization is the conviction that every person is of infinite value, of far greater value than profits, and when it loses this conviction, something is terribly wrong with that culture.

There is only one true measure of a nation's health - its care for its sick, its poor, its weak, and its helpless. There is another measure of a nation's decay - when its leaders allow these persons to perish lest the rich pay more taxes. At that moment, those leaders are no longer civilized, despite whatever excuses they make. They have lost the moral right to govern for all they're doing is protecting the rich.

There are those who dismiss this view as delusion. They say:, "The world is a slaughterhouse in which the poor and the sick, the weak and the helpless should go to the wall. They are expendable and a burden on the wealthy, who alone own the earth and every government in it. This is the inexorable law of Nature, where there is neither morality nor pity, but only power and riches. There is no eternal moral order, but the eternal silence of an indifferent universe. " Thus speak Thrasymachus and his heirs down through the centuries in Plato's Republic, Books One and Two.

"Who, then, decides what is moral?

The rich!

And what do they say is moral?

Whatever will make them richer!

And what is their justification for saying this?

Since there is no objective moral law in the universe, only the rich can decide, for they alone can enforce their view, which will naturally be in their own best interests. Riches and power rule the world!"

This, in essence, is the case that Thrasymachus makes to Socrates in the Republic, which has been read for 24 centuries. It stakes out the arguments, which Socrates refutes well enough, but that's not really the issue here. It goes without saying that the "Might Makes Right" argument devours itself, but the critical problem is how to keep Thrasymachus and his proxy, the Tyrant, from coming to power. For once they do, they will destroy a nation. It is a political problem that has never been solved.

Thrasymachus and his avatars are the wolves that prey on the weak and strive to make their plight even worse. They prefer a "civilization" of luxury for the few and poverty for the many, happiness for the elite and misery for everyone else. Theirs is a "civilization" that enshrines in its courts the law of the jungle for all but themselves and discriminates against whoever is different.

Books Eight and Nine of the Republic deal with the Tyrant. He begins as a demagogue by exploiting the frustration of the people who are fed up with democracy because they are oppressed by the rich. He tells them that he is their hope and their champion, and that he alone can lead them to the Promised Land.

However, once in power, he turns on them and becomes a tyrant. Too late, they discover that he has betrayed them is beyond all logic, law, and morality. Drunk with power, he makes his own laws. Disordered by his own inner demons, he is a troubled, tormented, and tortured creature, who will stop at nothing to get his way.

We have seen this before in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The press is muzzled, critics vanish, no one trusts anyone, and people feel helpless and frightened. They lose their freedom, their possessions, and finally their hope. It's all spelled out in this cautionary tale that is terrifying in its implications, an early warning system for the tell-tale signs of a coming tyranny.

You cannot understand civilization as the embodiment of moral ideals unless you first understand someone like Thrasymachus and of what he is capable when coming to power. Would he be appalled at all the suffering he unleashes on a nation, or would it mean nothing to him, a cheap price to pay as a means for more riches?

It's the old, old story that people want to be lied to and there are always those who are only too willing to accommodate them by abusing their trust to promote their own ends. The tyrant's followers cannot fathom his heartlessness. After all his promises and all the rallies!

"Gebt mir zehn Jahre Zeit und ihr werdet Deutschland nicht wiedererkennen."

"Give me ten years and you won't recognize Germany," boasted Hitler to the German people. They gave him twelve -- and it was leveled to the ground.