Mahatma Ghandi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, was reported to have replied, "I think it would be a good idea." Those critical of Western civilization find this humorous and poignant. Yet I see very few people forsaking it to live somewhere else. In the wake of September 11, 2001, there has been much spoken and written about "civilization", and how the WTC/Pentagon massacres were an attack on it. Due to where our culture is currently headed, it is no longer obvious to many what "civilization" truly means.

The dictionary defines "civilized" as, "a condition of society, involving a high degree of advancement in the areas of science, culture, industry, etc." The West has an indisputable lock on scientific advancement which needs no further comment. Progress in industry is tied to general prosperity, by which measure the West is also doing quite well [1]. Culturally, things could be going better, but we do not have outright slavery, complete totalitarianism or a caste system, as other parts of the world do. (The arts are another matter entirely [2].)

But there are more fundamental measures of civilization than a mere dictionary definition would indicate. At the core, civilization is about how we treat each other, individually and corporately. This has several indicators:

Liberty. Not freedom, but liberty. The hermit, the nomad and the anarchist are "free". Liberty is a much larger concept than mere freedom or hedonistic license. It requires agreement upon a set of morals, and self-control on the part of individuals to keep themselves inside those boundaries. It requires the rule of law. This is the most noble way found so far for a diverse people to get along. It is under assault from many directions in the West, but entirely absent from much of the other hemisphere, notably from many Islamic nations.

The use of science to help rather than exclusively to destroy. It is a sad fact that the highest forms of technology in the Middle East are technologies capable of only causing death. In the West, the chief focus of technology is to better people's lives, and to protect those same lives.

Channeling of competition. In our fallen world, nature appears to operate on principles of competition. In the animal kingdom, there is brutal competition for food and mating privileges. Rape takes place among a few species. The civilized have a goal of providing food for as many as possible. We encourage competition in the intellectual realm, celebrate it in sports and reward the sweat of those who labor, but stop at the shedding of blood. (There is always crime, but we do not sanction it. Furthermore, violent crime has fallen in the U.S. in recent years.) In short, true civilization seeks (among other things) to distance itself from the brutal aspects of the rest of nature.

Western civilization is going through its own difficulties, and is not perfect by any means. However, it is the superior way, and deserves to be called "civilized" in contrast with other parts of the world. It is telling that even its detractors here are not leaving it. Let us continue to improve upon it, not forsake it nor allow others to destroy it.


[1] For the environmentalist reading this, the amount of pollution produced is not a factor in deciding whether a nation qualifies as "civilized". Even if it were, the U.S. is not the world's leading polluter. It takes technology to create things cleanly. The former Soviet bloc nations and China create far more pollution per capita than the U.S. Their people have never had the luxury of caring about pollution, nor could any U.S.-style environmentalists have ever infiltrated their political systems.

[2] The arts seem to have peaked around 100-200 years ago, and are now on a downward slide into nihilism. Our current level of prosperity gives artists the luxury of pursuing "art" that is meaningless and/or merely provocative, rather than expressing the best and most noble things about us. No longer do economic forces compel artists to produce only that which is aesthetically pleasing. Particularly in the last 50 years, art has looked downward at what is, not upward at the ideal, or at what might be.