A Civilizing Mission?

By Tolson, Jay | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

A Civilizing Mission?


Tolson, Jay, The Wilson Quarterly


It's at least something to think about, now that the 20th century is behind us, a century that, by historian John Lukacs's reckoning, began in 1914 and ended in 1989. That most vertiginous of centuries began with a resounding bang, one that dealt a near-mortal blow to all the big ideals and to all the gods. In fact, the only god that came through the horrors of Verdun and the Somme unscathed was irony. Not merely unscathed, it rose within the pantheon. After World War I, as Paul Fussell relates, irony became the only attitude that a thinking person could assume. But it was even more than an attitude. It was a deeply rooted orientation toward the world, marked by doubt, skepticism, and uncertainty. And on no ideal did it focus with more exquisite ferocity than on the ideal of civilization, by which was meant, of course, Western civilization. That ideal was a blend, perhaps unholy, of legacies as diverse as the Jewish and Christian religions, Roman and Germanic law, Hellenic rationalism, Renaissance individualism, Enlightenment progressivism, assorted democratic and parliamentary traditions, and, not least, scientific, technological, and industrial know-how. Whatever can be said for or against this amalgam, it proved so dynamic a force that it compelled Europeans to venture beyond the boundaries of their continent to the four corners of the earth, giving rise to vast colonial and imperial projects.

Irony of ironies, though, these projects, which were carried out by the more powerful European nations under the name of what the French called la mission civilisatrice, may well have planted the seeds of future doubts about the meaning, direction, and value of civilization. For one, they exposed Europeans to other civilizations, and though the usual response was to view the other forms as deficient, primitive, and therefore deserving of condescension or eradication, some Europeans recognized the value--and often the superiority--of what they encountered. Colonialism had another equally doubt-inducing effect. Because it encouraged brutal forms of exploitation, including slavery, it was not long before the civilizing mission seemed to have no greater effect than that of barbarizing the civilizers.

The quest for empire was not the only thing to bring out the contradictions of Western civilization. The West has had no shortage of in-house critics to point out its failings. Karl Marx was only the most influential of the modern age. And what he and others said about the pathologies of our civilization seemed to many to be borne out by the Great War--a war that not only confirmed people's worst suspicions, but helped bring into being a would-be utopian alternative, the Soviet Union.

During the "century" that saw the birth, life, and death of the Soviet Union, a complicated argument over the question of civilization took place. One could say that this argument was the subtext of that century's history. The question itself consisted of many subquestions: Was there really something called civilization worth preserving, or was it just one of the "big words" in the great game, another weapon of "power politics" (that wonderful 20th-century redundancy)? Was it a mixed legacy, whose bad could be separated from its good, or was the whole package rotten, an "old bitch gone in the teeth," as Ezra Pound put it? Was it fatally Eurocentric, or did it contain universal, even eternal, truths? Indeed, could civilization be defined as an ever more capacious ideal, one that slowly, progressively comprehends the best that is thought and felt in all the world's cultures? And, not least, was civilization, however defined, worth fighting and dying for? At times, many people among them the most intelligent and well-meaning of people--thought not. When we look back upon the abysmal record of the 20th century, what emerges as perhaps its most remarkable aspect is that, somehow, the defenders of an ideal of civilization not only managed to keep the faith but also to prevail. …

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