The word ‘civilization’ draws predictable associations in most minds—Mayan, Greek, Egyptian—typically ancient—typically in less prestigious circumstances today than they once were. How does a people elevate their society to the level of civilization,
and how do those gains slip away?
Once a people reliably secures life’s sustenance and are sufficiently united to maintain relative peace within and repel threat from without, a tipping point is reached. There is an opportunity to move beyond survival and produce something more—more education, science, art, and philanthropy—or more consumption, fostering endless appetite. We have a measure of both tendencies and the determining factor for what shows up at any given time is culture.
All groups generate culture. Families, organizations, corporations, nations—all reflect the values, beliefs, and behaviors of their people. The more commonly and strongly these are held, the stronger the group entity becomes. The more these are intentionally drawn for their benefit instead of left to the vicissitudes of human nature, the more stable the group. Advance culture and you advance people toward their potential. Are enough Americans advancing?
We can be more intentional in our practice of a worthy culture—demonstrating that the way we do matters as much as what we do. Or we can settle for society.
“The quantity of civilization is measured by the quality of imagination.”
— Victor Hugo, Les Misérable