The Civilization That Wasn’t

July 2017

People who look on the calendar as he unfailing gauge and register of human progress might as well take note of the fact that we are only a few solar pulsebeats away from a change in centuries.

The twentieth century is coming near to a close, and in a comparatively short time we shall be living in the twentyfirst, !!logically but inevitably, there is going to be a great time of stocktaking, of pointing to the mistakes of the past and outlining the perils of the future, of wrestling with that insoluble problem of the present day: how do people whose intellectual leaders no longer believe in anything find the courage to go ahead into the unknown?

One is tempted to suggest that they might well begin by discarding their intellectual leaders en bloc and finding some new ones, but it is easier to say that than it is to do it, and anyway it will take time. Probably we ought to define our terms a little more sharply. We can see that we are about to go from one era into another, even if nothing but the milestones have changed, and inasmuch as the most gifted prophet cannot say what life is going to be like after A.D. 2000, we devote ourselves to study of the era that is ending. For good reason, it scares us. If we judge the future by the past, we are in for some extremely rocky times, and we find ourselves driven to say that twentiethcentury civilization has collapsed and we wonder why it happened. What, in other words, went wrong with twentieth-century civilization?

Well, there never was any such thing. The twentieth century did not bring forth a “civilization” of its own, a coherent system of ordering human affairs that would enable human society to make sense. Throughout, it was a time of transition; transition from the nineteenth-century society, which looks so far away now, to that of the twenty-first century, which looks so indecipherable. The century that is about to end was a time when incalculable forces burst up from no one knew quite where, treating established institutions the way a tornado treats a prairie town, scouring the tablets clean so that a new story can be written. It was a time when the old was destroyed so that the new could commence. All the guidelines have been erased. We have tried valiantly to adj ust ourselves to the new order of things, but that has been very hard because there isn’t any new order.

Beset by pressures it was never built to withstand, nineteenth-century civilization exploded in 1914, and when survivors made their way across the wreckage, they were mortally handicapped by the fact that they tried to use nineteenth-century ideas to control twentieth-century developments. (One of the most disastrous instances was the attempt, still in vogue, to handle the age of plenty with rules devised for the age of scarcity; another is the notion that men may still make war when the destructive power of the weapons they hit one another with has scaled upward to infinity; still another, the idea that man has somehow “mastered” science and that the results will be excellent if he just agrees to let the scientists do his thinking for him.)

There is nothing magical about turning a page on the calendar, of course, and the passage from this century to the next means nothing—except that it sets us musing and speculating and staring at the impenetrable horizon. The best preparative may well be to begin by recognizing that the world we have known all our lives, which has looked so solid, so permanent, was simply a time of change, painful and bewildering and unutterably costly but leading inevitably to a more settled, orderly way of living together, man with man and nation with nation. The civilization we have been wanting so much lies, not behind us but on ahead … somewhere over the horizon line of the twenty-first century.