George Santayana recasts some of these earlier concepts on the purpose of civilization into four chief aims – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience, and creation of the conditions for a life or reason. Civilization makes rationality possible, but at the expense of the surrender of some freedom. The state serves to define limitations on personal freedom in return for the hope of these benefits for each individual. Ernest Becker adds one last critical psychological value of civilization; as the theatre for heroism, by which he means imagined or (preferably) authentic personal esteem and cosmic significance.
Clearly our thinkers ask much of civilization, but the utopians go one step further- the goal of societal perfection. Historical or mythical utopias function as a target for human societies – typically a return to the values of simplicity, natural ethics, cooperation, innocence, and attachments to nature. Hypothetical utopias focus on greater rationality, harmony, order, utility, morality, freedom, or human fulfillment than is seen in existing societies. Progress in science and technology and alternative forms of political association, particularly communist or socialist in structure, seem to be favored. But dystopians caution against too rapid and inadequately tested changes in civilization. Instead, the net conclusion of utopian conjectures are their role as thought experiments rather than practical schemes. As with the individual, societal self-perfection is a difficult slog over an extended time frame.1
To sum up, the purpose of civilization can be enumerated as below:
- Provision of basic necessities including safety and security.
- Maintenance of order and harmony.
- Preservation of natural rights including life itself.
- Opportunity for reproductive success,
- The making of the best life possible for all.
- Greater wealth.
- Increased variety of experience.
- The environment for a life of reason.
- Maintenance of individual self-esteem and the hope for personal significance.
- Gradual perfection of society and avoidance of a dystopian future.
Reciprocal purpose for the individual then is to integrate at least some of these societal functions into one’s own portfolio of purposes. For example the occupations of farmer, grocer, and soldier support the first point, while the poet, professional athlete, and performer support the seventh. Some vocations such as teacher or physician are roles overtly consistent with societal purpose while others such as clergyman, bill-collector, or journalist require some amplification.
The last and perhaps most difficult question on the purpose of human civilization is one analogous to highest individual purpose – what is the collective ‘we’ uniquely positioned to do for Earth and for the cosmos? The response to this ultimate riddle will inform final purpose of each of us as individuals and takes us full circle back to the issue of human destiny2 and cosmic virtue.3 This is best reserved for a later section. First we need to return to the nature of purpose at the level of cultural reality, types of roles we can fill, and factors for consideration in the choice of direction. We will pick up there next time.
1Consider Plato’s attempt on three occasions to execute the utopia of The Republic in Syracuse by attempting to convert the sensualist-tyrant, Dion, into a philosopher-king. Each effort ended in complete failure with the king selling Plato into slavery on one of those visits.
2See the section on Human Destiny on this website – posts August 30 to October 18, 2019.
3See the section on Cosmic Virtue on this website – posts January 2 – May 14, 2021 and May 26 – June 4, 2021.