Author´s Preface to the First Edition
“The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization” is the first part of a complete philosophy of civilization with which I have been occupied since the year 1900.
The second part, entitled “Civilization and Ethics” will appear immediately. The third is called “The World-View of Reverence for Life”. The fourth has to do with the civilized state.
That over which I have toiled since 1900 has been fully ripened in the stillness of the primeval forest of Equatorial Africa. There, during the years 1914-17, the clear and definite lines of this philosophy of civilization have been developed.
The first part, “The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization”, is a kind of introduction to the philosophy of civilization. It states the problem of civilization, I come to the pronouncement that this is ultimately ethical. I know that in thus stating the problem as a moral one I shall surprise and even disgust the spirit of our times, which is accustomed to move amidst aesthetic, historical and material considerations. I imagine, however, that I am myself enough of an artist and also of an historian to be able to comprehend the aesthetic and historical elements in civilization, and that, as a modern physician and surgeon, I am sufficiently modern to appreciate the glamour of the technical and material attainments of our age.
Notwithstanding this, I have come to the conviction that the aesthetic and the historical elements and the magnificent extension of our material knowledge and power, do not themselves form the essence of civilization, but that this depends on the mental disposition of the individuals and nations who exist in the world. All other things are merely accompanying circumstances of civilization, which have nothing to do with its real essence.
Creative artistic, intellectual, and material attainments can only show their full and true effects when the continued existence and development of civilization itself on a mental disposition which is truly ethical. It is only in his struggle to become ethical that man comes to possess real value as a personality; it is only under the influence of ethical convictions that the various relations of human society are formed in such a way that individuals and peoples can develop in an ideal manner. If the ethical foundation is lacking, then civilization collapses, even when in other directions creative and intellectual forces of the strongest nature are at work.
This moral conception of civilization, which makes me almost a stranger amidst the intellectual life of my time, I express clearly and unhesitatingly, in order to arouse amongst my contemporaries reflection as to what civilization really is. We shall not succeed in re-establishing our civilization on an enduring basis until we rid ourselves completely of the superficial concept of civilization which now holds us in thrall, and give ourselves up again to the ethical view which obtained in the eighteenth century.
The second point which I desire should obtain currency is that of connection between civilization and our theory of the universe. At the present time no regard is paid to this connection. In fact, the period in which we are living altogether misses the significance of having a theory of the universe. It is the common conviction nowadays, of educated and uneducated alike, that humanity will progress quite satisfactorily without any theory of the universe at all.
The real fact is that all human progress depends on progress in its theory of the universe, whilst, conversely, decadence is conditioned by a similar decadence in this theory. Our loss of real civilization is due to our lack of a theory of the universe.
Only as we again succeed in attaining a strong and worthy theory of the universe, and find in it strong and worthy convictions, shall we again become capable of producing a new civilization. It is the apparently abstract and paradoxical truth of which I proclaim myself to be the champion.
Civilization, put quite simply, consists in our giving ourselves, as human beings, to the effort to attain the perfecting of the human race and the actualization of progress of every sort in the circumstances of humanity and the objective of the world. This mental attitude, however, involves a double predisposition: firstly, we must be prepared to act affirmatively toward the world and life; secondly, we must become ethical.
Only when we are able to attribute a real meaning to the world and to life shall we be able also to give ourselves to such action as will produce results of real value. As long as we look on our existence in the world as meaningless, there is no point whatever in desiring to effect anything in the world. We become workers for that universal spiritual and material progress which we call civilization only in so far as we affirm that the world and life possess some sort of meaning, or, which is the same thing only in so far as we think optimistically.
Civilization originates when men become inspired by a strong and clear determination to attain progress and consecrate themselves, as a result of this determination, to the service of life and of the world. It is only in ethics that we can find the driving force for such action, transcending, as it does, the limits of our own existence.
Nothing of real value in the world is ever accomplished without enthusiasm and self-sacrifice.
But it is impossible to convince men of the truth of world- and life affirmation and of the real value of ethics by mere declamation. The affirmative and ethical mentality which characterizes these beliefs must originate in man himself as the result of an inner spiritual relation to the world. Only then will they accompany him as strong, clear, and constant convictions, and condition his every thought and action.
To put it in another way: world- and life-affirmation must be the products of thought about the world and life. Only as they majority of individuals attain to this result of thought and continue under its influence will a true and enduring civilization make progress in the world. Should the mental disposition towards world- and life-affirmation and towards ethics begin to wane, or become dim and obscured, we shall be incapable of working for true civilization, nay, more, we shall be unable even to form a correct concept of what such civilization ought to be.
And this is the fate which has befallen us. We are bereft of any theory of the universe. Therefore, instead of being inspired by a profound and powerful spirit of affirmation of the world and of life, we allow ourselves, both as individuals and as nations, to be driven hither and thither by a type of such affirmation which is both confused and superficial. Instead of adopting a determined ethical attitude, we exist in an atmosphere of mere ethical phrases or declare ourselves ethical skeptics.
How is it that we have got into this state of lacking a theory of the universe? It is because hitherto the world- and life-affirming and ethical theory of the universe had no convincing and permanent foundation in thought. We thought again and again that we had found such a basis for it; but it lost power again and again without our being aware that it was doing so, until, finally, we have been obliged for more than a generation past, to resign ourselves more and more to a complete lack of any world-theory at all.
Thus, in this introductory part of my work, I proclaim two truths and conclude with a great note of interrogation. The truths are the following: The basic ethical character of civilization, and the connection between civilization and our theories of the universe. The question I conclude with is this: Is it at all possible to find a real and permanent foundation in thought for a theory of the universe which shall be both ethical and affirmative of the world and of life?
The future of civilization depends on our overcoming the meaninglessness and hopelessness which characterize the thoughts and convictions of men to-day, and reaching a state of fresh hope and fresh determination. We shall be capable of this, however, only when the majority of individuals discover for themselves both an ethic and a profound and steadfast attitude of world- and life- affirmation, in a theory of the universe at once convincing and based on reflection.
Without such a general spiritual experience there is no possibility of holding our world back from the ruin and disintegration towards which it is being hastened. It is our duty then to rouse ourselves to fresh reflection about the world and life.
In “Civilization and Ethics”, the second part of this philosophy of civilization, I describe the road along which thought has led me to world- and life-affirmation and to ethics. The root-idea of my theory of the universe is that my relation to my own being and to the objective world is determined by reverence for life. This reverence for life is given as an element of my will-to-live, and become clearly conscious of itself as I reflect about my life and about the world. In the mental attitude of reverence for life which should characterize my contact with all forms of life, both ethics and world- and life-affirmation are involved. It is not any kind of insight in the essential nature of the world which determines my relation to my own existence and to the existence which I encounter in the world, but rather only and solely my own will-to-live which has developed the power of reflection about itself and the world.
The theory of the universe characterized by reverence for life is a type of mysticism arrived at by self-consistent thought when persisted in to its ultimate conclusion. Surrendering himself to the guidance of this mysticism, man finds a meaning for his life in that he strives to accomplish his own spiritual and ethical self-fulfillment, and, simultaneously and in the same act, helps forward all the processes of spiritual and material progress which have to be actualized in the world.
I do not know how many, or how few, will allow themselves to be persuaded to travel with me on the road indicated above. What I desire above all things—and this is the crux of the whole affair—is that we should recognize fully that our present entire lack of any theory of the universe is the ultimate source of all the catastrophes and misery of our times, and that we should work together for a theory of the universe and of life, in order that thus we may arrive at a mental disposition which shall make us really and truly civilized men.
It was a great joy to me to be afforded the opportunity of putting forward in the Dale Lectures, delivered in Oxford, the views on which this philosophy of civilization is based.
I would tender my deepest thanks to my friends, Mr. C.T. Camion, M.A., now of Grahamstown, South Africa, and Dr. J.P. Naish, of Oxford. Mr. Campion is the translator of this first part of the “Philosophy of Civilization”. Dr. Naish has seen the book through the press and translated this preface.