(Vanguard)Mr Bell's book is one of extraordinary interest --- in fact, I have found it downright fascinating. The author is, by trade, an art critic, and his chief interest lies in the moderns who have followed Cézanne. In consequence most of his writings are full of the vague and indignant rhetoric that the contemplation of green complexions and hexagonal heads seems to draw from even the best critical minds. But in Civilization he so far forgets his customary muttons that he writes smoothly, clearly, and oftentimes brilliantly. He studies civilization by the case method: his exhibits are the civilizations that flourished in the Athens of Pericles, in the Florence of the Renaissance, and in the Paris of the Eighteenth Century, before the French Revolution.What had they in common? In particular, what had they in common that was indubitably civilized, and hence completely unimaginable under lower forms of culture? What did they show that we should strive for today, if, as is usually assumed, modern man really wants to be civilized?Mr. Bell's answer is too long and complicated to be summarized in a paragraph, but parts of it may be given. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of a true civilization, he says, that it provides means for the ready exchange of ideas, and encourages the process. There must be sufficient people with time to hear them, and the equipment to comprehend them, and they must be extremely tolerant of novelty.
The concept of heresy, says Mr. Bell, is incompatible with civilization, and so is the concept of impropriety. But the civilized man yet had his pruderies. He cannot be impolite. He cannot be gross. He cannot be cheap and vulgar. He cannot be cocksure. Facing what he regards as error, he assaults it with all arms, but he never mistakes error for crime. He is free from deadly solemnity, and cultivates his senses as well as his mind.
A society made up wholly of philosophers would not be civilized, nor one made up only of artists; there must also be charming women and good cooks. Creation is necessary; there must be an urge to progress; but appreciation is quite as needful. Perhaps the finest flower of civilization is not the creator at all, but the connoisseur. His existence presupposes economic security. It is as essential to civilization as enlightenment. A poor society cannot be wholly civilized.
Mr. Bell makes much of the difference between the civilized individual and a civilized society. The former may exist anywhere, and at any time. There may be men and women hidden in Oklahoma who would be worthy, if he were alive, to consort with Beethoven. It is not only possible; it is probable. But Oklahoma is still quite uncivilized, for such persons are extremely rare there, and give no color to the communal life. The typical Oklahoman is as barbarous as an Albanian or a man of Inner Mongolia. He is almost unaware of the ideas that engage the modern world; in so far as he has heard of them he is hostile to them. He lives and dies on a low plane, pursuing sordid and ridiculous objectives and taking his reward in hoggish ways. His political behavior is that of a barbarian and his religious notions are almost savage. Of urbanity he has no more than a traffic cop. His virtues are primitive and his vices are disgusting.
It is not, of course, by examining the populace that civilizations are judged. The mob is always inferior, and even under high cultures it may be ignorant and degraded. But there can be no civilization so long as its ideas are accepted and have the force of custom. A minority must stand above it, sufficient in strength to resist its corruption. There must be freedom for the superior man --- economic freedom primarily, but also personal freedom. He must be be free to think what he pleases and to do what he pleases, and what he thinks and does must be the standard of the whole community, the accepted norm.
The trouble in Oklahoma, as in the United States as a whole, is that the civilized minority is still at the mercy of the mob. It is not only despised as immoral. One of the central aims of the laws is to curb it. It is to be lifted up to the moral level of the mob. Thus civilization has hard sledding among us. The free functioning of those capable of it is deliberately impeded. But it resists that hampering, and in the fact lies hope for the future. The big cities, at least, begin to move toward genuine civilization. They will attain to it if, when and as they throw off the yoke of the rustic Bible-searchers. Their own mobs are become disciplined and quiescent, but they still face danger from the dunghill Goths and Huns. The history of the United States during the next century will probably be a history of a successful revolt of the Cities. They alone are capable of civilization. There has never been a civilized yokel.
Dr. Nearing dissents from this view. The future he envisions in Where is Civilization Going? is marked by a general leveling. There will be no more unproductive leisure, and no more class distinctions. The common people, having more votes than their betters, will run everything. There will be no more injustice, no more poverty, no more exploitation, no more wars.
It is a pretty picture, but I find myself unconvinced by it. Slaves are probably quite as necessary to civilization as men of genius. The human race seems incapable of becoming civilized en masse. Some one must milk the cows and milking cows and being civilized appear to be as incompatible as drinking high-balls and standing on one's head. But Dr. Nearing is not to be dismissed as a mere vapid dreamer; he is actually a highly intelligent man, and under any genuine civilization he would be better appreciated than he is in the United States.
When one hears of him it is commonly to the effect that some ass of a college president has forbidden him the campus, or some gorilla of a policeman has jailed him for sedition. What our third-rate civilization fails to estimate at its real worth is the resolute courage and indomitable devotion of such man. His virtues are completely civilized ones; he is brave, independent, unselfish, urbane and enlightened.
If I had a son growing up I'd want him to meet Nearing, though the whole body of doctrine that Nearing preaches seems to me to be false. There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character. Nearing has it.
--- H. L. Mencken
The American Mercury