CIVILIZATION AND PURPOSE – PART I

“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.

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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.

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