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The Pivot of Civilization


There have been many definitions of civilization. Civilization is a
complexity of count less aspects, and may be validly defined in a
great number of relationships. A reader of James Harvey Robinson’s
MIND IN THE MAKING will find it very reasonable to define a
civilization as a system of society-making ideas at issue with
reality. Just so far as the system of ideas meets the needs and
conditions of survival or is able to adapt itself to the needs and
conditions of survival of the society it dominates, so far will that
society continue and prosper. We are beginning to realize that in the
past and under dierent conditions from our own, societies have
existed with systems of ideas and with met hods of thought very widely
contrasting with what we should consider right and sane to-day. The
extraordinary neolithic civilizations of the American continent that
flourished before the coming of the Europeans, seem to have got along
with concepts that involved pedantries and cruelties and a kind of
systematic unreason, which find their closest parallels to-day in the
art and writings of certain types of lunatic. There are collections
of drawings from English and American asylums extraordinarily parallel
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in their spirit and quality with the Maya inscriptions of Central
America. Yet these neolithic American societies got along for
hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. they respected seed-time and
harvest, they bred and they maintained a grotesque and terrible order.
And they produc ed quite beautiful works of art. Yet their surplus of
population was disposed of by an organization of sacrificial slaughter
unparalleled in the records of mankind. Many of the institutions that
seemed most normal and respectable to them, filled the invading
Europeans with perplexity and horror.
When we realize clearly this possibility of civilizations being b ased
on very dierent sets of moral ideas and upon dierent intellectual
methods, we are better able to appreciate the profound significance of
the schism in our modern community, which gives us side by side,
honest and intelligent people who regard Birth Control as something
essentially sweet, sane, clean, desirable and necessary, and others
equally honest and with as good a claim to intelligence who regard it
as not merely unreasonable and unwholesome, but as intolerable and
abominable. We are living not in a simple and complete civilization,
but in a conflict of at least two civilizations, based on entirely
dierent fundamental ideas, pursuing dierent methods and with
dierent aims and ends.
I will call one of these civilizations our Traditional or
Authoritative Civilization. It rests upon the thing that is, and upon
the thing that has been. It insists upon respect for custom and
usage; it discourages criticism and enquiry. It is very ancient and
conservative, or, going beyond conservation, it is reactionary. The
vehement hostility of many Catholic priests and prelates towards new
views of human origins, and new views of moral questions, has led many
careless thinkers to identify this old traditional civilization with
Christianity, but that identification ignores the strongly
revolutionary and initiat ory spirit that has always animated
Christianity, and is untrue even to the realities of orthodox Catholic
teaching. The vituperation of individual Cat holics must not be
confused wit h the deliberate doctrines of the Church which have, on
the whole, been conspic uously cautious and balanced and sane in these
matters. The ideas and practices of the Old Civilization are older
and more widespread than and not identifiable with either Christian or
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