The train is crowded, it being rush hour, and fairly quiet and orderly. Almost everyone looks like a working professional. Almost everyone is certainly that. But there is more going on here. Behind this orderly and civilized appearance there is an underlying irrationality. This anyone can infer simply by analyzing his own thoughts and thought processes, undoubtedly irrational as they often are, with certain impulses appearing from we don’t know where, or why. Of course, much of what we do and value seems rational, and so these things are. Still, our attachment to our desires, beliefs and endeavors tends to be irrational in character. These matter to us in a way that reason hardly controls or fully comprehends.
We can see this most of all in our desire to preserve ourselves at any cost. Certainly our irrational part is our oldest one. The illusion of civilization stems from overlooking it while overestimating our rationality. Easy enough to do, given how complexly organized is the materiel character of our lives.
There must be at least 70 people in this section of the train. Each of them can be understood as a particular history of symbolic meaning, or of language. So that, in a sense, the world in which we live together means something different for all of us. Yet the notion of civilization seems to imply that there is some universal order or other, some order of symbolic meaning which holds for everyone. There is no such thing. And the illusion of civilization stems as well from the near universal tendency to equate one’s own life and particular point of view with reality itself. Now of course, there is, for human beings, no other world. But every particular point of view comprehends a good deal of mostly unperceived irrationality, and it is this that belies what is called civilization, essentially a rationalist misconstruction.
Look at this man to my right. Who knows what weird things—what wicked things, even—he may do. Look at this man to my left. Who knows what trauma he may have endured, and what harmful inclinations he may have in consequence. Though both men look “normal” and “civilized,” our nature is bottomless, and so unpredictable and complex that no mere appearance does justice to anything.
Therefore it is not unreasonable to speculate about anything a person might do or have done, even though his appearance makes him seem the most ordinary Joe, indeed Mr. Civilization. And in general, though most of us look normal and rational, throughout life we are influenced by the irrational in all sorts of ways we tend not to perceive or consider, from sexual urges to anxieties and fears and resentments. We know this from the common experience of “losing our cool.” But common though this is, we still think of ourselves as fundamentally rational creatures. And yet, every day the news informs us of incidents of violence all over the world, precisely what it is that gives history such a dark and terrible cast. If we actually applied this knowledge to our notion of the human condition, we should find it difficult to believe in the illusion of civilization.
A very intelligent psychiatrist once remarked to me, “the normal family convention has no attendants.” Likewise, there is, properly speaking, no one who is normal, no one who has not had countless irrational thoughts, anxieties and fantasies. As many psychiatrists readily concede, there is no real science behind the DSM’s classification of “mental disorders.” In practice, the term normal does little more than denote people whom we have no reason to fear, who are no threat to our own well-being. But of course, conflict is a natural feature of life, in both the individual psyche and in our relations with others. Still, because our perceptions are generally superficial, it is easy, especially for those of us who live in the relatively peaceful and prosperous First World, to believe in the illusion of civilization, a notion that contains and indeed requires a massive minimization of human conflict.
That we should believe in civilization isn’t surprising
Again, we tend to be unaware of the power of the irrational, intellectuals as much as the rest of humans. Most of us, moreover, are unaware of the extent to which even our shared experience always contains a certain element of solipsism, not accessible by other people. For again, each person can be understood as a kind of particular symbolic history, one which no one else can understand nearly as well as we can (provided we our thoughtful people who do try to understand ourselves). This is not to say that there is no objective reality, only that we are all particular beings that know it only as particular beings, just as we can only know so much about other people, including how they perceive reality, and what it means to them.
It is very easy for a person whose own life is relatively rational, safe and orderly to make the mistake of thinking his life is the human norm, or representative of the whole. But go into the worst part of town, then speculate as to whether its inhabitants would be likely to share your point of view. If you take Lancaster Avenue across City Line Avenue, going from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania into West Philadelphia, you enter a place where the word civilization means something very different from what it means in the place you came from. In Lower Merion, most homes have a security system. In most of West Philly, there is little security, and violence is a way of life.
If we were not prone by nature to delusive hope, we would better see that irrational conflict is universal, undermining what we simplistically call civilization. Yet hope comforts the emotions as it clouds the eyes. It fends off the greatest of psychological evils, fear. Modern science, too, obscures the tragic truth of life, allowing us to believe precisely what we most want to: that we are less limited than we actually are, and that there are no problems that modern progress and technology cannot solve. Meanwhile, humankind is really like a child who, never learning from his self-induced suffering, is condemned to repeat the same old predictable folly.
That civilization is an illusion explains how readily and spontaneously huge masses of people can erupt into wars, riots, fights, and other irrational frenzies. Now, again, with our limited minds we unconsciously tend to equate our own phenomenological experience with reality itself. Yet if we could access the minds of our fellow humans, we would be faced with such a stupefying overall bewilderment—such an unending variety of impulse, thought, belief, fantasy, illusion, delusion, hallucination, and so on—that we could not possibly believe in civilization. We would rather have a terrifying sense of the underlying chaos of things. No wonder the other animals, with their superior senses, fear and avoid us as well as each other.
But though civilization is an illusion, it is like religion in being one that it is good to keep up. It is good for people—so egotistic and intractable—to fear something, whether it is God, the law, or whatever. Indeed, the freedom of secular, democratic societies seems to culminate in chaos, so that humankind eventually requires the order provided by traditional authoritarian lawgivers.
In fact, it may reasonably be thought that these persons reflect the permanent disposition of our nature, for if we look closely, we will find that even in secular, democratic societies people are given to all manner of slavish though sometimes subtle hero worship, proof of which is provided by US, People and the like unreadable magazines. This is a kind of herd idolatry related to the love for demagogues. Nor is there ever a time when the mass of people do not have some politician or other before whom to prostate themselves. And the disposition to this behavior seems to differ in degree, not in kind, from the masses’ general attitude toward authority and persons of superior ability and achievement. Not to speak of the odious fascination with the most inane “celebrities.”
Read More: Is Civilization Worth Saving?