BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

by contemplativeinquiry

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

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