What is the essence of civilization? This question lurks beneath every report of wartime atrocities, terrorist attacks, and heinous crimes. A conception of civilization is the unspoken presupposition undergirding every instance of moral outrage, virtue signaling and social prejudice. Civilization, more than race, class or ideology, is the unmentionable topic in a liberal multicultural society. After all, behavior differences between the races or psychological differences between the sexes are thrown in such sharp relief precisely because everyone holds in their mind an implicit image of the ideal social organization. Honor, politeness and racism lose all meaning if no one cares how anyone acts.

The image of civilization is for most an unexamined, shadowy conception imbued with whatever moral attributes are necessary for responding to momentary stimuli, no matter how self-contradictory the end result. Is ISIS cutting off the heads of their military and political enemies? How uncivilized! Is a protestor objecting to U.S. drone strikes that kill American citizens, civilians, women and children? They must not understand what it takes to defend civilization. Politicians and commentators who attempt to clarify the difference between the two cases cited above generally end up talking in circles due to the incoherence of their presuppositions. In the spirit of Aristotle, let us first define the term civilization and then put the bickering politicians out of their misery. With our definition as a clear guide we can apply our knowledge to speculation about the policy and fate of nations.

Like so many things, the concept of civilization was not so angst laden in the days of Europe’s vitality as it has become in our decadent era. Among the twelve definitions of civil, Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 includes, “relating to the community; political; relating to the city or government. Relating to any man as a member of a community. Not in anarchy, not foreign, not ecclesiastical, not natural, not military, not criminal, not barbarous.” Johnson uses the word civility in the double sense of being polite and being civilized while giving just a technical definition for civilisation as a procedure in a court of law. The omission of civilization was notable enough for Johnson’s biographer James Boswell to mention the case. Johnson was content with the double meaning of civility while the younger Boswell thought the two meanings merited distinct vocabulary. The concept of civilization continued to individuate, losing its last links to politeness amid the world-shaking upheavals of the twentieth century. There is war weariness and something of a hard edge in the prose of Christopher Dawson’s definition, written in 1942. The passage is called, appropriately enough, The Failure of Liberalism:

“Human life has always been bound by the ultimate necessities of labour and conflict and death, so that many men in every age have been forced to surrender all the other liberties they prize for the bare right to live at all. The essence of civilization consists in the limitation of this empire of necessity and the widening of the sphere of freedom.”

A few caveats before we continue. First, Dawson wrote as a Catholic traditionalist, so freedom does not mean license to do anything, but rather the opportunity to live the good life in an Aristotelian and Christian sense. Second, civilization is not synonymous with complex social organization. Bees and ants live in ordered groups, but their existence is entirely concerned with labor, conflict and death. They lack both the necessary condition, limitation of the empire of necessity, and the telos, the good life, that comprise civilization. Conversely, we could imagine a few astronauts in a huge space station, cut off from the rest of humanity, living a very civilized life while machines and computers perform all of the drudgery necessary to sustain existence. Third, note that ‘widening the sphere of freedom’ will mean different things at different times and places. As Dawson explains, one of the chief limits on civilization up to the 19th century was mankind’s lack of control over the physical world. A genius peasant in the 14th century was more closely constrained by the empire of necessity than a 20th century welfare queen not through any personal failing, but because he was often in danger of starvation and plague. In the modern West limits on freedom are often psychological and spiritual, rarely material.

Johnson and Dawson’s somewhat negative definitions can be restated as a positive, general form. Civilization is the ordering of external circumstances, especially, but not exclusively, social conditions, to give full scope for the use of a rational soul. This definition allows us to do justice to the variety of cultures in the world while still judging the relative merits of each nation. Consider for instance Alan Moorehead’s description of John Speke’s 1862 journey into Buganda in central Africa:

“Mutesa’s court was a compound of especially spacious huts in the centre of the town, and here he held his daily levees, sitting upon a platform of grass covered with a red blanket, and surrounded by his nobles, his pages, and his wives, who numbered a couple of hundred or so… Hardly a day went by without some victim being executed at his command, and this was done wilfully, casually, almost as a kind of game. A girl would commit some breach of etiquette by talking too loudly, a page would neglect to close or open a door, and at once, at a sign from Mutesa, they would be taken away, screaming, to have their head lopped off… Torture by burning alive, the mutilation of victims by cutting off their hands, ears and feet, the burial of living wives with their dead husbands– all these things were taken as a matter of course… Mutesa crushed out life in the same way as a child will step on an insect, never for an instant thinking of the consequences, or experiencing a moment’s pity for the pain he was inflicting…the king…now loaded one of the carbines I had given him with his own hands, and giving it full-cock to a page, told him to go out and shoot a man in the outer court: which was no sooner accomplished than the little urchin returned to announece his success, with a look of glee such as one would see in the face of a boy who had robbed a bird’s-nest, caught a trout, or done any other boyish trick.” The White Nile Ch 3

King Mutesa

The foregoing example shows that 19th century Uganda had just enough civilization for exactly one individual to live outside of the sphere of necessity. It took the efforts of the entire society to maintain just the king in this precarious situation. The state of affairs at Mutesa’s court was barbaric compared to Europe because there was neither freedom nor civility, but the land was not given over to anarchy. A proper appreciation of Dawson’s definition would lead humanitarians to understand that a capricious, brutal dictator is the highest level of civilization that can be maintained in many parts of the world.

Judging civilizations by the extent of human flourishing they allow also eliminates many of the frivolous anti-Western assertions so often tossed off without context as indictments of European civilization. Trivia like, “the Chinese actually invented magnetic compasses, paper money and gunpowder before Europeans” or “Native Americans settled in the Americas long before the English” or “the Persian Empire was bigger than the Roman Empire” are inconsequential precisely because they ignore the essential feature of civilization; all those non-Westerners had ample opportunity to limit the empire of necessity and they could not. Europe outstrips the rest of the world combined in widening the sphere of freedom.

Thus armed with our new definition, let us now return to the liberals and conservatives of America. The major social demarcator in the modern age is the Left-Right political divide, which has usurped the place of religion in public life. This was not always the case. Prior ages divided along the theological fault lines of Catholic-Protestant and, earlier still, Christian-Muslim. Catholics, Protestants and Muslims often agreed on the basic tenets of civilization while disputing who had the greatest share of it. All three of these traditions had more social norms in common with each other than any of them have in common with modern Western culture. The secular ersatz religion of our era presents two incompatible views of civilization, but having no legitimate theological arena in which to contend, the conflict between them occurs in the res publica and is in this way responsible for the acrimony of our political process. This state of affairs is perfectly captured in the United State’s motto e pluribus unum. It is a dangerous phrase; under the wrong conditions seeking unity from diversity is more of a battlecry than a motto. We have no real theological disputes to absorb our penchant for difference and have consequently lost the reassuring sameness of stable social institutions in endless political disputation. The dichotomy of sameness and difference, unity and diversity, is exactly what distinguishes the liberal and conservative politicized formulations of civilization.

The current liberal dogma about civilization rests on a generic form of cultural unitarian universalism that denies difference altogether. Difference incites conflict, so the Left is desperate to believe in the essential sameness of every group; incessantly denying that a ‘clash of civilizations’ could ever take place. This monotonous worldview is a backhanded way to assert Western chauvinism: every tribe and nation secretly has the same goals and desires, though some may need a bit of help before they can become just like us.

McDonald's McDonald's Vienna


Excessively obvious instances of difference compel liberals to forcibly create sameness through war, market capitalism and homogenized popular culture. Walmart, Halliburton, the Iraq War and Nascar are the apotheosis, not the antithesis, of liberalism. The Left is also happy to allow superficial difference to exist if it masks the fundamental sameness below the surface. There are free market Republicans, for instance, who think they are striking a blow against the statists by shopping at Walmart instead of Whole Foods, when in fact their nominal opposition helps create the conditions desired by the Left.

The most radical (or honest) Leftists recognize the contradictions inherent in liberal thought and develop increasingly elaborate ways to compensate. Ordinary liberals assert that every value system is equally valid; the radical Left denigrates Western culture and compares the heritage of Europe unfavorably with every other nation. Ordinary liberals assert that every nation can attain European standards of living and democratic government; the radical Left labels any positive estimation of Western culture white privilege. Thus we have the absurd but logical spectacle of liberals excusing the homophobia and misogyny of Muslims because the intolerance is not practiced by white Christian Europeans. The only sight more appalling is conservatives tripping over themselves to prove that they are more progressive than the Left on feminism and gay rights. (I’m looking at you, Sean Hannity. The Saudis don’t want women driving cars. It’s not the end of the world.)

The conservative conception of civilization is defined by opposition to the Left and emphasizes the diversity between and also within cultures. Conservatives love to assert that cultures are inherently different from each other so they can argue that our wars, market capitalism and homogenized popular culture are superior to everyone else’s. Conservatives also maintain that anyone who really and truly wants to can assimilate into European civilization, which forces them to focus on the merely superficial differences between cultures. The conservative position is barely distinguishable from the backhanded Eurocentrism of moderate liberals. Do your Somali neighbors wear baseball caps and grill on the 4th of July? Sounds like they are as American as George Washington. Laughably, the American pluralism promoted by Republicans proudly insists on superficial assimilation while leaving essentials untouched. A sizable subset of Republicans would be more suspicious of a white, Christian, European immigrant who watches soccer instead of football than of a Somali Muslim who can talk sports and carries a copy of the Constitution in his back pocket. All of these contradictory elements from the Left and Right are illustrated in the perennial political fetish of American Exceptionalism.

Given enough time, American Exceptionalism may come to be viewed in the same way P.J. O’Rourke characterized flag burning controversies of the 1990’s, “I don’t remember what my opinion was on flag burning, but I remember that I felt very strongly about it.” For now, every unexceptional person in public life must have a strong opinion about American Exceptionalism. Barack Obama thinks it means that Americans like their country more than they like other countries, which sort of undermines the exceptionalism, since the people of every other country do the exact same thing. Nationalists believe that the particular type of people in America make it exceptional despite the presence of the same types of people all over Europe. Civic nationalists think American Exceptionalism means that the ideas of the American founding are superior to other political ideas. But the principles of the Founding Fathers have also been expressed in the Constitutions of such places as Liberia and Iraq. Have you ever heard anyone singing the praises of Liberian exceptionalism? Me neither.

What sensible conclusion can we draw from this mess? In one sense, America is not exceptional at all. The same laws of history and human nature govern the New World and the Old. But there is a kind of exceptionalism in the American experience, and we find a clue to its nature in the qualifier with which Dawson prefaced his definition of civilization:

“The idea of freedom is practically universal, and there is no people, however lacking in political capacity or experience, that is entirely insensitive to its appeal. Where they differ is in the quality of the freedom that they prize most highly and in their power of achieving it against the hostile forces of nature and circumstance.” The Failure of Liberalism

The American achievement was to develop a very high level of civilization enjoyed by a large proportion of its population. This happened because the laws and populace of the United States were perfectly matched to each other, and they came together under ideal, even exceptional, historical circumstances. The Spirit of ’76 grew out of an unrepeatable confluence of history, religion, philosophy, science, and demographics. Failure to recognize this leads to the folly of nation-building, in which we believe a twofold lie. First, the lie that nature and circumstances can be bent to our will through military might, and second, the lie that American laws and social structures are a good fit no matter what people they are imposed upon. Almost every American is rankled by the thought that our ways are not for everybody. But one need only study the efforts of Christian missionaries in Africa to recognize the uncomfortable truth of our inherent difference. Alan Moorehead devotes considerable attention to this topic in his two histories of African exploration, The Blue Nile and The White Nile. Reflecting on the relative appeal of Islam and Christianity Moorehead writes:

“It was not only paganism [the missionaries] were attempting to displace, but the Moslem faith as well, and Islam was entrenched in Central Africa by this time. It had strong attractions for the primitive tribesmen, since it could be understood and practised by the simplest mind. There was no complicated initiation, no elaborate ritual, not even priest or a church were required… Already the Africans comprehended in a vague way the concept of God, and Islam merely demanded of them that they should acknowledge the authority of his prophet Mohammed.

Islam in Africa

It was enough to declare ‘There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet’, and the pagan illiterate was accepted into a faith that offered him all kinds of advantages…The status accorded to women by Islam also suited the Africans very well, since they were accustomed to polygamy; Mohammed allowed a man four wives who were all inferior to him, and divorce was easy. Best of all, perhaps, was Mohammed’s paradise, for it contained just those sensual delights that preoccupied the Africans here upon earth: a cool water-garden inhabited by beautiful women, the gratification of every physical want, and, by night, four houris to attend him in his square tent… As for the slavery itself (which the Africans had always practiced), it was condoned by Islam… Compared to these easy-going doctrines, Christianity presented a hard, uncompromising front. Its emphasis upon original sin and its dogma were difficult for a sluggish mind to master, and its prohibition of slavery and polygamy seemed to the tribesmen to be flying in the face of nature. The ethereal Christian heaven had very little appeal when contrasted with the sensuous Moslem paradise, and even the outward forms of Christianity were somewhat incongruous in this hot climate: the mosque had its graceful minarets, its great cool space beneath the rounded dome, its pleasant carpets to kneel on, and it harmonized with the landscape. But the severe lines of Christian architecture were alien to Africa.” The White Nile Ch 16 African Church

The entire history of colonialism is a long series of object lessons that bespeak the dangers of mismatching a civilization and a people. The contrast is very stark when comparing Europe and Africa, but the pattern is universal. European and Chinese civilizations clashed in the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the nineteenth century, an episode grippingly recounted in Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman and Peter Fleming’s The Siege at Peking. Reality contradicts liberals and conservatives. Non-western civilizations are not our equals or superiors, but likewise they cannot be transmuted into copies of our culture nor even assimilated into the West. The inability to make man in their own image has haunted meddlesome politicians and activists literally since the dawn of human history, “et dixerunt venite faciamus nobis civitatem et turrem cuius culmen pertingat ad caelum” Genesis 11.4.

Tower of Babel

In the bright noonday of American hegemony the affairs of minor nations half a world away occupied our time and attention almost by default. What else does the empire have to do but police its vassals? But in the twilight years of our dominion the pressing concerns implicit in Dawson’s definition crop up at home. The prospect that should worry citizens more than individual government policy decisions is the impermanence of the entire American project. Civilization exists where laws, people and circumstances are fitted to one another. Drastically change, for instance, the demographics of the United States and the Constitution will not fit any more. Tax the middle class out of existence and the circumstances that allowed America to function might disappear forever. Such impending disasters have barely registered with the majority of citizens except through vague feelings of angst and discontent, but the nation’s elites are already enacting a plan. The empire of servile peasants they are building is intended to produce enough surplus to sustain the opulence of the five percent ruling class without the irritating political aspirations characteristic of a white European middle class. Ossified conservatives, those that are not complicit in the destruction of the West, still think they are playing a game in which each political team cares about the interests of a segment of the citizenry. They are reluctant to recognize that the earth has shifted under their feet, that the time for going back to old ways has passed; this reluctance impedes their resistance to the Left.

Conservatives talk about the need for a new American Revolution or Constitutional Convention, but the Left is enacting one. Prescribing another dose of Constitutional originalism for the problems of a new era is a classic case of confusing means and ends. The desired end is maximizing the level of civilization in our society. The Constitution was an effective means of achieving that goal two hundred years ago, but thinking that the Constitution will never be out of date is the hight of hubris. Societies do not revolve but rather evolve. In that sense every revolution in history has failed, because each one moves forward rather than back, producing new social conditions. A far more realistic method is outlined by Christopher Dawson at the end of his study of the failure of liberalism. That this prescription was written decades ago by a man steeped in the European tradition should be a comfort to all those who have already implicitly embraced its truth as the only way to simultaneously oppose the pernicious Left and the ineffectual conservatives.

“The task is to bring Western civilization back to the right road. But this cannot be accomplished by the old programmes or political coalitions. It can only be done by the free co-operation of all those who recognize their inherence in the common spiritual tradition of Western civilization and the necessity of creating an organic communion between the scattered and disorganized elements of freedom which still exist though they are politically divided and almost powerless. Such an ideal may seem vague and utopian, but history shows that though permanent elements in a culture like the liberal tradition in Europe may be temporarily submerged or forcibly suppressed they inevitably reassert themselves sooner or later often in a new and unexpected way. The essential thing is to adjust our thought to the new conditions; to see what is living and what is dead in the Western tradition; and to realize that the immense new powers that man has acquired during the last half century can be used in the service of freedom just as easily as they have been used to destroy it.” The Failure of Liberalism