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Somebody Will Pay

June 17, 2020
The price we pay for civilization is that we must understand and govern our own humanity. But the price of no civilization is far higher, and everyone will have to pay.

What we think and what we say are frequently different – and may be contradictory. The contrast between our thoughts and our words or actions may be subtle or stark. The difference may be tragic, or comic, or dangerous, or comforting, or any of the varieties of feeling that make human life different than any other sort of life. There is real tension between what we wish and what we have.

Were we plant life we’d simply adapt to the environmental conditions that surround us. Adapt, or die. Were we like most animal life, we’d respond to the conditions around us by evading or engaging them – fight or flight.

Of course, we adapt to changes and fight to avoid threats, but what is different about humanity is that we may consider our response to the world we face. We can think about the effects we may have, and we can imagine ourselves in alternative outcomes. We can make plans. We can keep our feelings in check for further consideration – or we can share them with others.

Happily, millions of years ago humans began to work toward the further possibilities they considered. They recognized their similarities with other humans, and the value of sharing various aspects of their existence. They devised means to improve their circumstances, and they shared these insights with each other. They managed to feel and think, and act, not only as individuals but as teams and groups, and to project their responses beyond the limits of their individual lives. They were able to overcome much of the danger and misery of life alone in a world with no order or discipline.

The price of this was self-denial, or at least self-control. But the reward has been longer lives, better health, greater knowledge, science, art, industry, comfort, and joy.

Those feelings and thoughts are still in our heads, where they’re secure. What we know about ourselves distinguishes us from each other, and gives us a sense of identity without forcing us to sacrifice our individuality. Human life became civilized by applying reason to distinguish impulses from behavior. We still may act on our feelings, but we’re very seldom compelled to act in order to survive. Civilization — through tradition, morality, ethics, law-and-order — keeps individuals from having to adapt or die, fight or fly.

But civilization is not permanent, as history shows. The standards we agree to respect are always being challenged. When civilization breaks down, for example in the Fall of Rome or the French Revolution, it is not simply traditions or laws that are at risk. The physical evidence of civilization is under attack: property is destroyed, individuals are violated.

Most troubling is that the reasons holding civilization together are under assault. Threats and assertions that challenge our principles are offered as truth. Individuals without reason become a mob, prone to behavior which can only be called “inhumane.”

The disorder that prevails has no logic or justification other than its own being. It draws power from feelings no longer held in check: pride, anger, lust, greed, and vengeance are unleashed in the mob, while fear, shame, and despair beset those on the run from it.

Mobs break individuals from the structure of civilization, denying them the rationality that might have them reconsider the effects of their actions. And without that consideration there is nothing on which to build. There is no regret about the past and no hope for the future. There are no expectations of one’s self and no consideration others. Alone again, we have nothing to share, no one to care for or to forgive, and nowhere to go. 

The price we pay for civilization is that we must understand and govern our own humanity. But the price of no civilization is far higher, and everyone will have to pay.