“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.

(continued next post)

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