“When one looks back over human existence… it is very evident that all culture has developed through an initial resistance against adaptation to the reality in which man finds himself.” – Beatrice Hinkle.


In the quest to identify  purpose for ourselves as individuals at the level of cultural reality I chose to begin with an examination of the more primary question, what is the purpose of civilization itself? It seems that a person’s purpose within a community and as a member of humanity depends at least in part on the answer to this higher-level query. It takes effort as beings already in the world to see that civilization is not a mere fact of the world like the cycle of day and night. Once we recognize this, we realize that civilizations  emerged purposefully to provide structure and benefits for its members. Societies, we conclude, appear as if designed by a subconscious group decision to mirror at the level of the group the key internal purposes individuals presumably identify for themselves: self-preservation, the making of a good life, and possibly self-perfection. We might also add to these the pursuit of collective happiness and meaning as the ultimate aims.

From the historian’s vantage point, the origin of early human associations must always be a matter of speculation, but it’s a good guess that civilizations first served as the means to secure more reliably food, shelter, safety, and offspring. Aristotle projects an additional layer of purpose on societies as the vehicle for people to attain a ‘good life,’ meaning something more than bare subsistence. According to Aristotle this becomes possible when individuals share their goods and talents in a show of virtue and wisdom, and when they lead an active life including, for some at least, actionable reflection and contemplation. It also depends on education for utility, appreciation of leisure time and activities, and the valuing of virtue and peace, and on the perfection of justice that instantiates these values.

Confucius seems to agree; society’s purposes are the maintenance of order, the provision of essentials, the establishment of education, and the opportunity for leisure activities, all in turn founded on good governance and communal propriety. For both ancient philosophers,  purpose is a reciprocal relation between the group and the individual where the individual’s role is to live in harmony with others, to behave according to accepted standards, and to perform a service which contributes to the good life of all.

Enlightenment thinkers add mortar to the stone structure of the ancients emphasizing the functions of the state in preserving life and the natural rights of citizens, while maximizing happiness or pleasure for the greatest number. As a result they impose strict obligations on citizens to defer to the authority of the state and to limit one’s freedom and pursuit of happiness to that which does not directly interfere with the freedom and happiness of others.

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Having reviewed the definition and origin of the word utopia and some mythical and hypothetical concepts throughout history, we arrive at an inflection point that occurred in the early twentieth century. Until 1914, the promise of the Enlightenment, advances in technology due to modern science, and the slow growth and spread of representative government and individual rights augured an optimistic future for humanity. With the carnage of World War I, the misery of the Great Depression, and the holocaust of World War II terminating in the unimaginable horror of the atomic bomb followed by the exposure of the terror of Marxist-Leninist communism, and the danger of human extinction threatened by the Cold War, the idea of utopia seemed obsolete and gave way to a prevailing pessimistic view of the inevitability of a future dystopia.

Two famous mid twentieth century book, 1984 and Brave New World, presented unforgettable dystopian worlds. George Orwell’s 1984 (published 1946) described a world composed of three police states in a perpetual state of war. In the portagonist’s country, personal beliefs and truth are manipulated by the Party, privacy has been eliminated by omnipresent ‘telescreens,’ suffering is institutional, and resistance is hopeless.7 This grim future is fundamentally political in origin. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published 1932) imagines a future technocratic nightmare where science and technology are out of control: humans are created in test tubes with predetermined levels of intelligence, society is regimented, diversity and creativity are eliminated; and individuals experience a  completely artificial existence, completely separated from nature. Huxley’s dystopia is fundamentally technological in origin versus that of Orwell’s.

Later science fiction writers present numerous forms of dystopic futures. In Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, human equality is maintained by handicapping every individual advantage (e.g. beauty is covered with a mask, intelligence is suppressed with constant loud music in the ear, and so forth.). Or take J.G. Ballard’s Billenium which pictures an overpopulated planet where each individual is limited to 30 square feet of living space. Popular movies such as the The Terminator and The Matrix show pessimistic futures based on  the struggle of humanity against intelligent and super-powerful man-made machines. There are of course many other stories which this essay has insufficient space to consider.

At the end of the day, utopia is best seen not as a target we seek, but as the philosophical equivalent of a thought experiment, from which much can be learned. Conversely fictional dystopias warn us of the perils of civilization’s fixation on progress. I suspect Captain Kirk is correct when he tells us in one episode of the original Star Trek series, “Perhaps man wasn’t meant for paradise. Maybe he was meant to claw, to scratch all the way.” In short one purpose of civilization may be its own perfecting, but the final aim is not the recreation of Eden, but the establishment of a world where each of us can strive for a greater purpose with some hope of success.


7See Current Reading – 1984 posted  5/21/21 and 5/24/21 on this site.


Thomas More was a Renaissance student of Plato and unabashedly borrows many of Plato’s ideas in his masterpiece, Utopia. This imaginary island is carefully organized and run by wise magistrates. Citizens perform cooperative scientific agriculture, physical work, or urban occupations only six hours per day and spend their leisure time reading, attending public lectures, and engaging in academic discussions. Immoral recreations, such as gambling, are non-existent, gold has no value, dress is simple, religious variety is tolerated, and marriages and families are highly regulated. Personal property is unknown and pleasure on the whole derives from a virtuous life.4 In brief, More conceives of the ideal world as one of puritanical, humanistic socialism.

In the following centuries various writers offer additional theories on a future ideal world. An important example is Francis Bacon, an early philosopher of science, who in Novum Organum (1620) argued that to acquire knowledge about the world requires interpretation of the particulars given in sense experience. In his view, the understanding of properties of substances by controlled observation and experimentation offer the possibility of inductive generalizations that become the foundation of knowledge which underlies the promise of technology.5 In his posthumously published and unfinished work, New Atlantis (1626), he presents a utopian society based on the unlimited potential of the developing methods of science. In retrospect, Bacon’s predictions about the vital role of science on the improvement in the human condition are absolutely uncanny, though the hope for this type of utopia is unfulfilled.

Two hundred years later, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels use their analysis of economic history to propose a utopia surprisingly similar but more extensive than that of Thomas More. They argue the fundamental imperfection of societies has been and continues to be class relations; specifically the exploitation of the working class (proletariat) by the middle and upper classes (bourgeoisie) due to the coveting of capital. An ideal world, in their view, would be classless, with the means of economic production owned by all and the work of the individual shared by all. Their utopia will arrive after a class war where the bourgeoisie is vanquished, a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat  is created, and a natural withering of the state and of international boundaries follows – in effect leading to global, classless, stateless socialism. This paradise on earth is described in the Communist Manifesto (1848): “In the place of the old society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”6

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4Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 348-353.

5Ibid., pagec373-379.

6 Zaehner, R.C., Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions. Barnes &Noble Books, New York, 1997. ISBN0-76070-712-X, page 399 .


 “Progress is the realization of utopia.” – Oscar Wilde

We have seen how some purposes of culture mimic individual human purposes, for example self-preservation and the making of a good life for oneself. Today we examine one last purpose we have as individuals that is mirrored in society – self-perfection. In the case of civilization, it can be argued that the highest purpose is striving for an ideal society. A perfect human world has come to be known as utopia after a book of that title (1516) by Thomas More. The word, utopia, is derived from the Greek words ou (not) and tópos (place), thus “no place” or “nowhere”; or perhaps eu (good) and tópos (place), hence “good place” (leading to an interesting paradox).1

Literary utopias are seen as better than reality by virtue of greater rationality, harmony, order, utility, morality, freedom, or human fulfillment; and preferably as a result of all these characteristics. The chronology of thinking about utopia falls into three rough phases: mythical, hypothetical, and dystopic. The earliest utopias are wistful reminiscences of a golden age such as the time of the Titans described by Hesiod (ca. 750 BCE), the  biblical Garden of Eden , and the Three Dynasties (tat’ ung) of Confucius.2 Somewhat more tangible are idealized notions of prehistoric or even existing primitive human communities such as the indigenous Americans or the Tahitians referenced by the romantic thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or as painted by Paul Gauguin. While it certainly seems reasonable to seek out the best features of any human community including those purportedly ‘less advanced’, it is unlikely any cultured society will choose to return to an archaic world without modern comforts, electricity, technology, and diverse entertainments. Nonetheless, such reflection uncovers the value of simplicity, naturalism, innocence, cooperative spirit, and native ethics.

The second historical phase of utopia presents hypothetical societies with an ideal structure. The first of these appears to be by Plato in The Republic (360-370 BCE). Plato promotes a highly structured society with just three classes: guardians (rulers), auxiliaries (soldiers), and workers. Each class attends to its proper function without interfering with the others. The classes are carefully built by controlled breeding, education, and selection. The rulers are educated as philosophers and society is communized in order to eliminate frictions due to private property. Control is to be achieved by institution of a “noble lie” where citizens are told they were created by the gods to fit their roles. Wealth, population, and size are to be limited or optimized. The ideal state develops in three “waves,” (1) the choice of rulers among men and women of proper aptitude, (2) the sharing of communal life by all including the rulers, and (3) the process whereby “philosophers are made kings or kings, philosophers.”3

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1Barnhart, Robert K. (editor), The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.  HarperCollins Publisher, New York, NY, 1995. ISBN 0-06-270084-7, page 840.

2Emerson, Roger L., Utopia, in Wiener, Philip P. (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume IV, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973. ISBN 684-16423-6, page 458-465.

3Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 99-95


“…mankind’s common instinct for reality…has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism” – William James1

In on our ongoing journey to understand the purpose of civilization, we have looked briefly at the thoughts of some of the ancients, a few Enlightenment thinkers, and last time from George Santayana. Society it seems can be seen as functioning to maintain order and human decorum, to provide basic necessities, to maintain natural rights, and to increase or maximize access to a good life, happiness, and a variety of experience. Today we delve deep into the human psyche to locate perhaps the most subtle of the purposes civilized society serves for the individual. Our guide is Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote three amazing books revealing profound psychological and philosophical insights into the human condition: The Denial of Death, The Birth and Death of Meaning, and Escape from Evil.

Becker argues that a defining feature of Homo sapiens is the knowledge and fear of death. Self-preservation  is transformed in our species into the desire to “avoid extinction with insignificance.”2 This requires that one’s life counts for something in the “larger scheme of things.”3 Thus the survival instinct manifests in humans as the denial of death,  and the quest for  significance and self-esteem.  In the words of  Alfred Adler, “The supreme law [of life] is this: the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to be diminished.”4 Becker thinks this self-value for humans is derived from symbols and internalized social rules of behavior – in effect, artificial, linguistic contrivances which are the foundation of  culture.

However self-transcendence through culture is not a simple solution; each of us requires sufficient prestige and power to believe we can achieve real significance, in other words a conception of ourselves as heroic.  Culture is the arena where this symbolic heroism takes place. People in every epoch want a way to transcend their physical fate; culture provides them with the immortality symbols or ideologies they seek – literally the structure of immortalization. Culture, it turns out, is a “hero system,” a sacred entity which promises victory over evil and death. In his words, “culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness.” 5

It is worth noting that Becker appears agnostic or doubtful on the ability of civilization to fulfill this emergent function for us, rather he is making a scientific observation about the our use of social structures and symbols in remaining sane in face of our seemingly pointless finitude. He offers philosophical remedies to our dilemma, but those must wait to a later section.


1Quoted by Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning, The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 75.

2Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975. Page 4.

3 Ibid.

4Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971, page 65.

5Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6, page 159.


“The effort to build a House of Life where man will be able to attain the highest development that his animal nature will permit, taking him even further ways from the jungle and the cave, and bringing him nearer and nearer to that humanistic society which under the name of Paradise, Elysium, Heaven, City of God, Millennium, has been the craving of all good men these last four thousand years and more.” – Bernard Berenson, Aesthetics and Culture, his definition of culture.

So far we have seen two viewpoints on the purpose of civilization; those of Aristotle and Confucius who stress its role in the establishment of order, propriety, and the mechanism for a good life; and those of the Enlightenment thinkers – Bentham, Locke, Rousseau, and Mill – which emphasize the functions of the state in preserving life and the natural rights of citizens, while maximizing happiness or pleasure for the greatest number. The reciprocal purpose of the individual for the ancient thinkers then is to live in harmony with others, to behave according to accepted standards, and to perform a service which contributes to the good life of all. For the later thinkers the purpose of citizens is to defer to the authority of the state and to limit one’s freedom and pursuit of happiness to that which does not directly interfere with the freedom and happiness of others.

These principles endure into modernity to varying extents, but some nuances and alternative notions appear, of which I would like to consider two. The first is George Santayana who, in The Life of Reason, distills the purpose of civilization into three chief aims – greater wealth, greater safety, and greater variety of experience. In his view, natural existence with its quick succession of generations is hostile to deep reflection or rationality. Civilization makes rationality possible, but at the expense of the surrender of some freedoms. The state does not exist per se to permit the rational so much as to justify limitations on personal freedom that permit a life of reason. Those justifications are the added wealth, safety, and variety of experience.

Santayana defines wealth as the gathering of goods for future use which in turn depends on human reason in planning, working, and innovating to increase those goods available. Safety is necessary when there is something to preserve and when the prolongation of life serves to increase its excellence; in contrast to  the case of  animals which are “degraded and rendered passive and melancholy” by extension of their lifespan through domestication. The excellence of longer human life is the variety of experience available in civilized society, not just increased instincts and functions that might lead to discombobulation, but desirable variety within “the circle of perfection.” That is, not all variety is good, for example double vision, nor all consistency bad – we do not tire of possessing two legs. “Accordingly, an increase in variety of function is a good only if a unity can still be secured embracing that variety…”1


1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 115-116.


John Locke (1632-1704) was, like Hobbes, a British empiricist, but published his treatises titled, On Civil Government, four decades after Hobbes. His worldview is more optimistic; societies exist, not to avoid a violent death, but in order to remedy the inconveniences of the natural state. One advantage of that state is that each person is the final judge of his own acts. According to Locke, societies exist by virtue of a contract where individuals trade self-judgement and their selfish means of survival for a civil society empowered to judge individuals and obligated to defend natural rights. Thus government exists for the regulation and preservation of property including body, life, and the estate one gains from one’s work. An additional purpose of the community is its own perpetuation. When a government violates this contract, the people then have the right to dissolve that government.2 It is clear the American colonists needed to take only a small step from Locke’s conclusions when they declared independence from Britain under the pretext that its government violated the colonists’ natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Seventy years later, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published The Social Contract where he agrees with Hobbes and Locke on the contractual nature of the state with its role to safeguard the welfare of each member and of the collective. But Rousseau is more careful; power remains in the hands of the contractors via a democratic assembly. The state becomes a social creature with a social conscience – a collective person with a general will and a single goal. Its governing body cannot pursue evil ends as long as it looks after the interests of all the citizens. Humans, in his opinion, have a basic need to be social and are transformed by society from instinct-driven to rational and from self-centered to concerned about the interest of others. Rousseau tells us a person is not a true citizen as long as he or she accepts society from prudence alone, but only after developing a genuine concern for the welfare of all.3

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) followed Rousseau by three decades and developed the principle of utility which states that every person is morally obliged to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Happiness for Bentham translates into maximum pleasure and minimal pain. Intent is not defining; only the outcome of greater pleasure and less pain determine the ethics of action. Society and governments exist to achieve this form of outcome (i.e. maximal pleasure and minimal pain of the citizenry).4

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) accepts Bentham’s ethics and definition of happiness. He defends various criticisms and asserts, “Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally.”5 This in turn depends on proper education and social arrangements. Justice is the process by which the general (utilitarian) good is realized, that is, justice and the binding rules of obligation result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.6


2Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 436-441.

3Ibid., pages 512-518.

4Ibid., pages 551-556.

5Ibid., pages 657.

6Ibid., pages 654-659.


 “A man becomes truly Man only when in quest of what is most exalted in him. True arts and cultures relate Man to duration, something other than the most favored denizen of a universe founded on absurdity.” – Andre Malraux, Voices of Silence.

In our consideration of the interrelationship of the purpose of society and of its members, we have seen how Aristotle places emphasis on the polis in promoting a good life for its citizens who reciprocate by pursuing learning and virtue, while Confucius stresses the ordering of society by government for sustenance, education, and leisure through a program of mutual propriety. Today we look at the Enlightenment thinkers starting with the pessimistic worldview of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of Leviathan.

Born in the year of the Spanish Armada’s attack on his homeland, Britain, Hobbes begins with a staggering proposition: civilization is humankind’s attempt to avoid death, particularly a violent death. In the quest to prevent this outcome, humans exchange their natural freedom to do whatever they want for the sovereignty of a commonwealth. Metaphorically the state is an artificial man; sovereignty is the soul, rewards and punishments the nerves, wealth its strength, peace its health, equity and law its reason and will, and most importantly, safety its main business.1

In the natural state, humans are approximately equal and compete for their desires necessary to happiness which in effect leads to a state of war between all people. The state prevents this continual conflict by assuming the power of the citizenry and arbitrating differences between them. Political association then establishes the civil society and permits an escape from universal strife. There are two key rules in this game: first, the abdication of individual power is balanced by consistent treatment of everyone through ‘contracts’; and second, the full power to enforce these contracts is held by the sovereign power of the state led by one person – in effect, a ‘mortal god.’ It is the duty of everyone else to obey the sovereign as long as he or she protects the individual’s rights.

In short, for Hobbes, the main purpose of any civilization is to ensure this covenant of citizens and the state wherein the individual surrenders power to the state in return for the expectation of equitable treatment and safety from violent death. The fundamental purpose of each citizen then l is to obey the sovereign and fulfill one’s contractual obligations.

(continued next post)


1Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 392-398


“No civilization- the man-made artifact to house successive generations- would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change.” – Hannah Arendt

Last time we examined the purpose of civilization as assessed by Western antiquity in the voice of Aristotle. Today we will look at a comparable position taken by Eastern antiquity in the thoughts of Confucius. In the Analects, Confucius seemed ambivalent about metaphysics and the divine, focusing all of his attention on the use of society and the cultivation of the superior person. Regarding society’s purpose, his overarching principle is that order and peace offer the harmonious development of the individual.

In turn an ordered and harmonious society depends on three reciprocal virtues of individuals: Jen, benevolence to others, Hsiao, filial piety which includes not respect for one’s parents and teachers and the law and order of society, and especially Li, rules of propriety. He also teaches that the superior man places virtue above venal self-interest. Success is contingent on regulation of family life and improvement of the self through education.  We looked at this in more detail in the section on virtue in the meaningful life.

His concept of the purpose of the state is to provide food (necessities), a sufficient army (safety/security) and a ruler in whom the people have confidence (the most important of the three). He also implies the state should offer the opportunity of education which for Confucius includes a balance of philosophy, history, poetry, music, and dance (the last two symbolic of harmony).1 It also includes recreational sports such as archery, carriage driving, and the hunt.2  He tells us “the cultural work of Li is imperceptible. It prevents the rise of indulgent conduct beforehand and leads people gradually towards virtue and away from vice without their knowing it.”3

Confucius, like Aristotle, understands the importance of governance, “The highest principle of human civilization is government…the art of government simply consists in making things right, putting things in their right places.”4 And again we hear “Li is the foundation of government.”6

In conclusion, for Confucius, society’s purposes include the maintenance of order, the provision of essentials,  the establishment of education, and the opportunity for leisure activities. This is in turn founded on good governance and societal and individual propriety. Purpose is in the end a reciprocal relation between the group and the individual.


1Yutang, Lin (editor), The Wisdom of Confucius. The Modern Library, New York, 1938. Page 200.

2Ibid., page 209.

3Ibid., page 215.

4Ibid., page 218.

5Ibid., page 220.


“Civilization is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony.” – Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas.

Last time I noted that human societies are not accidental or random, but purposeful. While we can never be sure how civilization came to be, it seems likely it was a gradual process of tribal or family groups coming together under the umbrella of technological advances. Early societies almost certainly developed to meet the needs of these groups and their members and thus the purpose of these associations is defined functionally by those needs. Will and Ariel Durant tell us biology informs three lessons of history: (1) Life is competition; (2) Life is selection, and (3) Life must breed.1 Early human associations must have been first and foremost intended as a response to these three realities, that is, as the means to secure food, and shelter, safety from outsiders, and to facilitate reproductive success. These ordinary purposes inform civilization to this day.

The richest explication of the purpose of human societies from antiquity is provided by Aristotle in his Politics, from which I would like to quote extensively. He starts on an incredibly optimistic note, “Every community is established with a view to some good.”2 Community is “a union of those who cannot exist without each other,”3 but not merely for the provision on daily needs which he thinks is the purpose of family – ‘the companions of the cupboard.’ The aggregation of several villages into a single community becomes perfect when large enough to be self-sufficient whereupon the state (polis) comes into being. In other words, the state originates in the “bare needs of life” but continues “for the sake of a good life.”4 Man is ‘a political animal’ by which he means a social creature, which is to say humans need the company of other humans.

For Aristotle, the best form of state offers the most desirable life and happiness of its members which is contingent on sharing of external goods, the goods of the body, and the goods of the soul which in turn derive from virtue and wisdom, not chance. “The best life, both for individuals and states, is the life of virtue, with external goods enough for the performance of good actions.”5 He also tells us, “the active life will be best both for the city collectively and for the individual,”6 but activity here includes thought and contemplation, as manifest in the roles of the philosopher and the statesman. Nonetheless if the goal is a good life, “education and virtue have superior claims.”7 These include education for utility and for the enjoyment of leisure, and valuing the virtues of leisure and peace. The state further embodies the perfection of justice that instantiate these values.


1Durant, Will and Ariel, The Lessons of History. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968. Pages18-24.

2Aristotle, Politics in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 247.

3Ibid., page 248.

4Ibid., page 249.

5Ibid., page 386.

6Ibid., page 389

7Ibid., page 305.