wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Arthur Herman

The Idea of Decline in Western History

Civilization made its forward march from primitive solitude and barbarism to modern or 'civil society' in four stages. In his presocial solitary state of nature, man roams helpless and alone; then he forms primitive pastoral and nomadic communities, such as the Hottentot bushmen and Plains Indians of America; the third stage is the agrarian stage, in which men make their living from fixed possession of the land; which leads finally to the civil or commercial stage, in which men shift their social and economic lives from the village and farm to the city and its urban attributes.

This progress is first of all an economic advance, as men and women earn their living in increasingly productive ways, from foraging to herding to agriculture to trade and industry. But it also involves a steady cultural advance. Man finds himself connected to more and more people in more complex and mutually beneficial ways; other human beings are no longer just competitors for a bone to gnaw on or the meager fare from the day's hunt. They are family and friends, customers and colleagues, fellow citizens in a common enterprise in whom we recognize the best part of ourselves. The rational part of man's personality increasingly discovers new and exciting outlets. This results in the development of the arts and sciences, literature and poetry: 'The more these refined arts advance,' wrote philosopher David Hume, 'the more sociable men become.'

Civil society, or modern civilization, encompassed a human transformation that Enlightenment thinkers summarized in the four catchphrases of civil society theory. The first was the refinement of manners. Manners formed a society's collective character or virtue. 'Manners,' Edmund Burke exclaimed, 'are of more importance than laws' in the secure foundation of human society. 'They aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.' Voltaire made them the principal subject of history itself. As men become more rational, and as their society's horizons become less narrow, their manners lose their earlier parochialism. Society's tastes in literature and the arts become, in a word, civilized (in fact, the French simply translated the English word 'refinement' as civilization). Refinement of manners brings a tolerance for those of different political and religious views: no more Inquisitions or religious wars. Men look for a rational rather than mythic understanding of the workings of nature, which we call science. Refinement also encourages a more sympathetic appreciation of the intrinsic worth of other human beings, including (or especially) women, who were, the Englightenment agreed, an important influence on raising the standard of society's manners and morals.

Refined manners were closely connected with the second important virtue of civilization, the rise of politeness, a word with the same root as 'polished' and 'finished.' The third Earl of Shaftesbury, English moralist and philosopher, used the term to describe people as well as objects, and saw it as the happy result of modern urban life: 'We polish one another, and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.' These multiple contacts teach us that we must treat others with respect, or civility, and that we owe a due regard for their interests as well as our own. Politeness was more than just a question of good manners (as we would say today). It opens up our true nature as rational, social, and moral beings.

Yet the cultural and social transformations of refinement and politeness were only symptoms of a third phenomenon that served as the central mechanism of human improvement: the growth of commerce. Modern civil society was above all a commercial society. The systematic exchange of goods and services with others opened up a dimension of the rational mind that remained closed under more primitive economic conditions. 'Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinction and animosity between nations,' historian William Robertson wrote in 1769. 'It softens and polishes the manners of men. It unites them, by one of the strongest of all ties, the desire of supplying their mutual wants.'

It became a commonplace to say, as we do today, that a market economy depends on people pursuing their own self-interest. But self-interest to a student of civil society such as Adam Smith did not mean avarice or greed. Those were the typical antisocial attitudes of a more primitive state of economy and society, in which the fear of material scarcity is genuine and real. Instead, self-interest in a civilized or 'polite' society involves the rational desire to provide goods and services at a profit to an equally self-interested consumer. For the eighteenth century, commerce not only produced the 'wealth of nations,' it was also the primary mechanism of achieving human progress and turning men from beasts into civilized beings.

In 1803, the liberal political economist Francis Jeffrey identified the middle class or 'middling ranks' as the social stratum in which this progress took place. The reasonable, sober, polite, and industrious manners of the middle classes (in French, la bourgeoisie), Jeffrey argued, form the cutting edge of civilization's moral, economic, and social improvement, which trickles down to the other ranks of society.

Civilized commercial society brings one final crucial advance. This is the capacity for self-government or liberty. Each previous stage of the civilizing process had likewise created its appropriate form of governance, from no government at all in the state of nature, to the patriarchal chieftain and clan leader, to the feudal lord and king of Europe's Middle Ages. As commercial society encourages men to be autonomous and responsible in the economic and cultural sphere, so it encourages the same capacity in the political sphere, as men learn to throw off 'servile dependency upon their superiors.' Dependency, especially on political and religious authority, is the distinguishing mark of a barbarous and primitive society, while autonomy—liberty—is the mark of a modern and civilized one. Adam Smith and his contemporaries saw the British constitution and its American offshoot as products of 'modern liberty' and the ongoing political advance of civil society. For the French liberal historian Francois Guizot, the same advance reached the European continent via the French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie was finally able to assume a political role to match its importance in Europe's economic progress. Among those who agreed with that judgment (although little else) would be Karl Marx.

From the point of view of civil society theory, then, history consisted of a general movement toward modern commercial 'opulence,' as Adam Smith termed it, conjoined with mankind's ascent from the ignorant savage to the modern Londoner or Parisian. As Guizot put it, the idea of progress was inseparable from the idea of civilization. Progress gave the modern European urban-dweller his taste for fine art and music, his scientific rational understanding of the world, and his instinctive distaste for violence, cruelty, superstition, and political despotism. It was this 'onward march,' as another British philosopher, Arthur Balfour, explained more than a century later, 'which for more than one thousand years had been characteristic of Western civilization.'

The first thinker to suggest that this civilizing process had reached its height in modern Europe was the French philosopher A.R.J. Turgot. More than any other society or civilization in history, Turgot argued, Europe had managed to overcome the barbaric and savage part of its collective personality. Its ongoing rational and scientific character was the emblem of its success. At the same time, that in no way implied that progress was exclusively a European possession. Turgot and his disciple Condorcet looked forward to a day when, thanks to 'the successive changes in human society,' the sun will shine 'on an earth of none but free men, with no master save reason; for tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools, will have disappeared.' After all, Turgot's friend the baron d'Holbach argued, 'the savage man and the civilised; the white man, the red man, and the black man; Indian and European, Chinaman and Frenchman, Negro and Laplander have the same nature. The differences between them are only modifications of that common nature produced by climate, government, education, opinions, and the various causes which operate on them.' The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte pointed out that 'the most civilized nations of modern times are the descendants of savages,' and so present-day primitive peoples will in future become civilized in their turn. 'It is the vocation of our race to unite itself into one single body,' he wrote in 1800, 'all possessed of a similar culture,' which will be the highest and most perfect (that is, the most civilized) in history.