“Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts.” Will Durant in Part II of The Story of Civilization
I’m indebted to Fern Medlin for bringing this quote – the first sentence in the book — to my attention. Albion, Boone County, even Nebraska exist only as the result of concerted efforts to transform the American wilderness into something great. Civilization had, of course, been here for a long time. But it was not civilization to our ancestor’s eyes. It was the mysterious workings of “red Indian” society, and was in many ways incomprehensible to the European mind.
One by one Native Americans societies were swept away by waves of White pioneers. These pioneers saw the American frontiers as a blank canvas for creating a new and better social order – better than the Indians’ and better than what they’d known in Europe.
As Professor Durant understood, part and parcel of this process was the need to survive economically. While initially pioneering was a struggle to feed one’s self and one’s family, it was driven by the dream that one day, if people worked and sacrificed, they could thrive.
Central also to the development of our nation has been the second element in Professor Durant’s definition – political structure. America’s embrace of the ideals of democracy – though long denied to blacks and women – made possible the self-determination that pioneers sought. Here they were no longer peasants subject to the caprice of an out-of-touch aristocracy. Here, people could rise or fall on their own merit and were empowered politically to act on their own behalf.
Though comprised of people from many European nations, the pioneers did share a common Christian moral tradition. America was not built as a Christian nation, but the prevalence of Christian moral traditions was an important factor in allowing many nationalities to forge common cultural ground, thus meeting the third requirement of a successful culture.
Yet as important to American culture as our capitalist economic system, our political democracy and our largely-Christian moral underpinnings are, they were not in themselves enough to create a new civilization in the North American wilderness. We had still to form a new and unique American identity, one that, though greatly influenced by European traditions, included Native, African and even Chinese elements.
This is where the last of Professor Durant’s criteria comes into play – to succeed in creating a new culture in a new land, our pioneer ancestors had to embrace the humanities and the arts and develop both in uniquely American ways. A people without a way to express their individual and collective soul – a people without the arts – are not a “people” at all. And without a shared cannon of knowledge about everything from history and literature to law and social science, a society again lacks a shared identity that joins people together into a culture.
The work of civilizing America didn’t stop with the end of the Homestead Act (which continued in Alaska until 1986) — it is an ongoing process that requires we maintain an economy that supports all Americans, a political structure that gives voice to all, a moral compass that makes it possible to live together in peace, and a commitment to nurturing knowledge and the arts. And nowhere is this more vital than in rural areas where our little towns too-often seem poised to return to the soil from which they so recently arose…