• Sergio Focardi

In Praise of Civilization

I entitled this post In Praise of Civilization paraphrasing the provocative titles of two famous books, Erasmus of Rotterdam's The Praise of Folly (1511) and Bertrand Russell's Praise of Idleness (1935), because today the concept of civilization seems forgotten and praising it may seem provocative.

We live in a world where a country like Russia invades Ukraine, tries to justify the invasion as morally rightful, and when things are not going well militarily threatens to provide nuclear weapons to Belarus. On the other hand in America we have a continuous regression of civil liberties with the recent Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion and threatening other restrictions, an incredible character like Donald Trump who continues to occupy the political scene with chances of success while millions of children lack health care.

I think that above various ethical and social positions we must reinforce the notion of a fundamental concept of civilization. In the following paragraphs I will therefore try to critically analyze the dimensions of the concept of civilization. What does it mean to be civilized? Can we boil it down to the warning of Ulysses: "You were not made to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge"?

The civilized idea of society

Can we hypothesize that there is a civilized idea of societies that overcomes cultural and value divisions? If we look for a rigorous and logically impeccable answer, the answer is probably no. We probably have to be content with a vision of a deep sense of civilization that is shareable but we must realize that our sense of civilization can be very different for that of other populations with histories different from ours. Let us try to understand what the basic elements of a modern vision of the meaning of civilization can be.

War, violence and oppression

The first point is violence and war. If a civilized society wants to survive, it must absolutely understand that there is no civilization in war and violence. No deification of violence and oppression is compatible with civilization.

In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, which stands on Piazza del Campo and is flanked by the Torre del Mangia, there is a cycle of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti on the theme of Good Government and Bad Government. With good governance the city and the countryside are rich and industrious while with bad government the soldiers march on the ruined fields.

Robert Schuman, considered together with Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer one of the founders of the European Union, looked to a European continent pacified after the Second World War where cooperation, industry and trade would make war impossible.

Today Schuman's Prophetic Dream has been shattered against the invasion of Ukraine. There are talk of areas of influence, domination and war. And it goes so far as to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, an action that would mark the end of European civilization if not of the whole of humanity. There is no civilization where there is war and every war has its invader.

Let's face it: in today's world an invader is not civilized. War and the violence of domination are the antithesis of civilization.

Art has glorified war actions but we must understand and accept that war is the fundamental destroyer. Reading a history book is a bit like reading a horror book. History is primarily a history of wars and domination. If we want to survive as a species we must understand that violence and war are not civilized actions on which something good can be built.

Escape from poverty

The second point is the satisfaction of essential material needs. There is no civilization where people live in misery, deprived of everything. Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015, has written a beautiful book entitled The Great Escape. The title of the book is borrowed from a famous 1963 film, The Great Escape, which describes the escape of a large number of prisoners from a German concentration camp. Only two will truly achieve freedom.

Deaton's book describes humanity's great escape from poverty. A large part of the escape from poverty is based on simple elements: fire and heating, drinking water, hygienic practices, simple medicines. Large masses of the population have passed the stage of extreme poverty but huge inequalities between nations still exist. I believe that the first point is the consideration that physical elements such as a heated house, drinking water, hygiene, simple medicines are non-negotiable elements of a modern conception of civilized life.

The absence of war, violence, oppression together with the satisfaction of essential needs such as water, food, medicines are fundamental factors that characterize civilization. We are used to accepting that in the past great civilizations were also violent conquerors. This conception of civilization cannot continue. Humanity has developed destructive capabilities that are too great both in military capabilities and in the destruction of the environment.

Today a new concept of civilization based on peace and cooperation must emerge. If men cannot quickly accept that they must live in peace, they will most likely face rapid destruction. You can negotiate with men but you can't negotiate with either physics or biology.

Let us now see what the shared values of a civil society can be. I believe that today we can summarize the values of a civil society in four fundamental categories: Aesthetics, Knowledge, Faiths, ideologies and moral values, Joy of living. Let's start with Aesthetics.


The beautiful book Civilization by Kenneth Clark (1969), followed by a successful television miniseries presented by the same author, looks at civilization from an aesthetic point of view. Aesthetics is a fundamental element of civilization. Obviously there are many different conceptions of aesthetics but at least it can be argued that a strong notion of aesthetics exists in all civilizations.

Aesthetics is not just about art. Aesthetics should permeate all civilized life from the design of cities to the relationship with nature. Aristotle argued that military architecture must also be beautiful. The progress of civilization is not only the production of art but is the immersion of all aspects of social life in a concept of beauty. We should understand that the beauty of our environment is one of the elements that make life worth living.

Beauty is also the basis of our physical theories, of our conception of the world. We want our theories to respect aesthetic canons. Often new theories are chosen on the basis of criteria of beauty, of intellectual parsimony. A scientist will never be satisfied with an ugly theory but will look for a new, more elegant formulation that is more parsimonious.

In the novel The Idiot of the "cruel genius" Dostoevsky, Prince Mishkin states "beauty will save the world". This quote, repeated so many times in so many different contexts, contains a profound truth. There can be no future in an ugly world either physically or intellectually.


The other fundamental dimension of civilization is knowledge. But here we immediately encounter difficulties. What is knowledge? Scientific knowledge is certainly the most advanced, most honest, and most successful attempt to build knowledge. Physics has reached levels of depth of knowledge that leave even scientists themselves amazed. In 1960 the physicist Eugene Wigner, Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, wrote an article entitled The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences in which he expressed the belief that the success of mathematics in physics was in itself an object of investigation.

But scientific knowledge, as we know it, is essentially knowledge of structure and behavior. We have achieved a high level of knowledge of the laws that govern experiences and observations. We can predict many observations with incredible accuracy. And we have translated this knowledge into a technology that allows us to fly, to communicate at a distance, to build huge artifacts.

But we are completely unaware of the nature of what we study. And experiences are also problematic because, ultimately, every experience is a perception. The bridge between perception and scientific observation is still quite primitive. Perceptions, at least for now, are not part of scientific laws. We use instead of perceptions the instinctive and prescientific construction of a three-dimensional world of objects.

In particular, we do not know how mental contents are related to what we consider the material world. Self-consciousness gives us a direct, unmediated knowledge of our sensations. We know from first-hand experience what toothache is, what colors are, and so on for all our other experiences. Sometimes we experience new experiences, new sensations that we had never experienced before. The experience we have of these sensations is our knowledge of them. But we don't know how self-consciousness emerges from matter, particularly from the brain.

We don't even know what self-consciousness is. We can say that we know the red, at least the red that we see, but we do not know what the experience of red is. Self-consciousness escapes our comprehension. What does it mean to have a certain experience at a certain time? Does it mean that there is an ego that has this experience? Or do we have to rationalize it differently? We rationalize our experiences as if they were objects but we do not know how to reason about the existence of an ego to which all these experiences happen. A deep reflection on self-consciousness can be found in the article What does it feel like to be a bat? by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

Science has no idea how self-consciousness emerges in certain physical systems, particularly in the human brain but probably also in animals. What does it mean that a new individual is created? We do not know. We do not even know how to formulate the problem. We know how to describe the biophysics of the brain, we know how to associate certain functions, such as language, with certain areas of the brain and we know, albeit grossly, what chemical-physical changes occur in the brain and in the human body in general according to certain categories of emotions. But we have no idea how emotions and perceptions are generated in the brain.

Philosophical thought

At the philosophical level there are various currents of thought. Some believe there really is a spirit-matter dualism. Within this dual conception there are those who think that complexity in itself generates self-consciousness. Blake Lemoine is a Google engineer who claims to be working on a Google artificial intelligence project that has reached the level of self-consciousness. The debate originating from Blake Lemoine's statement is, ultimately, centered on the question of whether complexity creates self-consciousness.

But there is a fundamental difficulty: a physical object can be replicated while self-consciousness has an inexplicable uniqueness. But perhaps quantum mechanics helps us because it places limits on replicability.

Other philosophies, called monistic, hold that the material of which the world is made is neither spiritual nor material but is neutral. According to monistic ideas it is the organization of these neutral elements that produces the spirit-matter division. But even in this case how do we explain self-consciousness? Each of us is something absolutely unique and exceptional as we easily understand when we experience intense physical pain. But we can't explain it.

Finally, there are doctrines that think that everything is spiritual and that the material world is an illusion of the spiritual world.

Faiths and ideologies

Knowledge is fundamental to civilization. There is no civilization without knowledge. There are no substitutes for scientific knowledge. But together with the shared scientific knowledge patiently built with a research effort, men develop ideologies and faiths in which they believe without any empirical justification. Since prehistoric times man has shown the ability to believe in statements that in reality had no justification. In a way this is inevitable. A primitive man who is a skeptical philosopher would not survive.

The scientific method is relatively recent: Galileo Galilei's Il Saggiatore was published in 1623 while Newton's Principia were published in 1687. However, the scientific method answers only a few types of questions concerning the structure of reality while man has always been interested in the nature of reality. Since at the present stage of technology and science the nature of things is not investigable, man has built various ideologies and faiths.

It is practically impossible to believe that faiths and ideologies will disappear in the near future, indeed there are reasons to believe that they will be strengthened. Faiths and ideologies, however, do not have a shared method of validation.

If humanity wants to survive and progress, it is vital to bring together faiths and ideologies with each other and with science. The progress of civilization will require an enormous effort of humility on the part of the bearers of faiths and ideologies. Science is an ever-changing process characterized by the constant exercise of doubt and hypothesis. Scientific knowledge is by its nature hypothetical, subject to revision with the accumulation of new facts.

Faiths and ideologies are not as ready to change as they are a view of the believer that does not depend on the accumulation of facts and observations. The progress of civilization requires that those who have a faith realize that their faith has no objective basis. Everyone must be free to believe what he wants, what he feels within himself, but he must accept that others have different faiths or no faith at all. No one should impose his faith on others. And social rules cannot be tied to a specific faith. The coexistence of different faiths and ideologies is one of the most critical elements of the progress of civilization. Accepting doubt, accepting with humility that there are phenomena that we do not know and that we do not even know how to describe is a fundamental step towards modern civilization.


Science is often accused of being very biased because it cannot say anything about values. This statement is as obvious as it is useless. Moral values are not objective, they are not empirical realities that one can observe. Some philosophers have thought and continue to think that moral values are metaphysical realities. There are those who believe that Good and Evil exist as metaphysical objects but metaphysical objects are not observable.

There is no possibility of deciding whether a metaphysical object exists or not. Often, a metaphysical object translates a feeling. In the face of certain crimes such as the Nazi concentration camps, it is natural to think: This is the absolute Evil. But these are not factual statements and they are the expression of a feeling of indignation too strong to remain confined to the human sphere. Unfortunately it is not so, Evil is not an object.

It is futile to seek in science guidance for moral values. Science gives elements on which to base a moral judgment which remains extrascientific. For example, science can say that a blood transfusion will save a child's life. Deciding whether or not to have a transfusion is not a scientific problem.

So how is it possible to build the values of a society? Unfortunately, I fear that there are no rigorous methods of defining the minimum values of a civil society. Equal rights before the law is a goal that was ultimately achieved at least in theory though not in practice. But surely there is no agreement on the creation of an equalitarian society in which the differences in income, wealth and welfare state are not extreme.

Yet in the absence of an agreement on values we can only expect wars and destruction between nations, enormous inequalities, and submission of weak individuals to stronger individuals.

The values of a human society are not only moral but also express the positive aspect of human life. For example, the relationship with nature is a positive human value. Generosity, the will to be at peace with others are positive values that are not necessarily moral. There can be no moral prescription to love nature but a population that loves nature lives better than a population that destroys it.

The joy of living

I personally believe that a civil society must recover the joy of living. Today our cultures are too tied to the notion of possession and competition to possess more and more. In the current situation this is a recipe for environmental disaster and armed conflict.

Man should be able to recover the love for life in the sense of love for the pleasures of life. A civil society can exist only if people are happy to exist, if they feel joy and pleasure from existence.

Ultimately, I believe this will be the fundamental challenge for the continuation of the human race. If the human race remains highly competitive and takes pleasure only in destroying each other then the prediction of survival of humans is quite negative. Human destructive capacities are too great. It is necessary for man to make the transition to a different way of life in which pleasure is the fundamental value.

This statement is completely at odds with the ethics of the past based on work and sacrifice. But today, technology has reached a level of productivity that threatens to destroy the world. Man must learn to be content to live and not to sacrifice himself to build. This is the real challenge of civilized society.

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