In Dedication

This entry is dedicated to Mrs. Robbie Reil, my 5th grade teacher, from McGrath Elementary in Brentwood, Missouri (’94-’95). She was one of my greatest teachers and I remember this particular lesson vividly as if she taught it yesterday. She was leading the class in a discussion about the invention of civilization and culture. She was forcing us to think critically in coming up with reasons but became disturbed when we just weren’t quite as engaged as she would have preferred. I cannot remember a time when she was ever angrier at me or at the class at large. Her anger bothered me because I felt as if I had disappointed her. Maybe she realized we were 5th graders; I’ll never know. She ultimately explained the following — what is civilization and culture, and I use this very definition to this day — as I did in my Western Civilization course.

The following was my response to several questions posed.

What is civilization?

The task to define civilization seems daunting and yet many have certainly tried. I have taken on a view very similar to Childe’s (referenced in “What is civilization?”) but mine is far more specific.This definition of civilization is also one of two reasons which separate us, as humans, from animals — animals that even function in a civilized sort of way (think ants; animals can’t ask or comprehend the question “Why?”, but I digress).

A civilization is created when people can expend resources (time, energy, and materials) for activities other than surviving. That’s it, that’s all. Numbers sometimes find their way into a definition of civilization (must have 5,000 but not 4,999?) yet that’s just an underlying externality. Certainly more people would make the work of gathering food or securing a place to live easier, to free up resources, but is a man who lives solely on his own out in the northern wilderness any less civilized than an urbanite? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Civilization requires attention to activities that do nothing for the immediate short-term survival of our population. Childe says that advanced farming tools are proof of civilization, and I agree, but not in the same way he does. I think that people have had a surplus amount of time to sit around and wonder “How can we make this better/easier” and consequently we developed the plow, then the motor, then the tractor, then the autonomous tractor. Again, and again we see the same basic process repeated, but at it’s core, nothing is taken away from providing the necessities to live. When designing tools, there was still food on the table and a shelter.

Humans alive in pre-History discovered civilization. At sometime they were, for simplicity, cavemen. They absolutely had to work, in whatever cavemen fashion that had to be, to live — every waking moment of their life. Just like an animal. They had to hunt, to fight each other or the elements, and procreate all to survive. Of course something happened, an enlightenment, and they were able to finally cross that threshold: food and protection was secure, so humans could start to create very basic tools and relationships with each other to forge better weapons, social interactions on larger scale, and even trade. This leads very well into the next question…

What is culture?

Very simply, culture is the product of resources utilized for anything other than immediate survival. As such, culture is directly dependent on any given civilization’s advancement. The more time a people have to play, the more ‘fun’ stuff they will come up with: art, architecture, law, music, advanced sciences (which can absolutely be a part of one’s culture). Looking at the cultural universals, you can see that none of these could exist if people’s survival remained in question. To touch a bit on the last question posed on the page: Is culture limited to people? To that, I absolutely say it is. Surely, animals aren’t fighting to live every waking moment — you could look at your dog or cat and see that, but animals do nothing in their ‘down time’ other than wait to start eating again. Not exactly a cultural experience.

Curse or Blessing?

Some additional thoughts about this: pragmatically speaking it’s neither unless blessing means continued human existence and curse means people are dying at rates which we’ve never seen (human population has achieved global equilibrium with environment; we cannot produce more food or people) at which point it’s hard not to think we wouldn’t revert back, even just a little, to a dog-eat-dog sense of morality. All of the things that have happened due to becoming a civilized species wouldn’t have happened any either way. As a result of one person somehow having more than the other, that person became the ruling class. It’s not terribly hard to find examples in the natural world; animals solely rely on this concept to reproduce. To talk about it as a curse or blessing can broaden the perspective, but it isn’t going very deep.

I’ve expanded a bit on each, but I owe everything and so much more to her. Thank you.

Great Action

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Throught the Looking-Glass, Lewis Caroll

Indeed, the time has come for many things — great action. Ladies and gentleman, I have yet again set forth down the arduous trail of academia determined now, more than ever, to finish a longstanding goal that almost vanished some eleven or twelve years ago. I am the agent of change that conquered the impossible task to seize the day — to finally stand where I have fallen so many times before. I sat in a classroom today, as a student, for the first time in over a decade ready and willing to explore tomorrow’s challenges with a fervor to solve them today. College — this higher learning at a reputable brick and mortar institution where hungry eyes feed off savory minds — is not my end game, but it is the immediate. Study has become my heart, nay my soul, for a man who reveres no other god.

Speak plainly, make your meaning clear, my son. A jumbled confession can only receive a jumbled absolution.

– Act II. Scene III. Rome and Juliet, Shakespeare

My name is Matthew, 30, and I’m enrolled as a double major in economics and mathematics. I recently concluded an 11 year career in the U.S. Marine Corps and will aspire to a graduate program in economics or venture forth onto a juris doctorate. Opportunity costs have bankrupted me before, but I will repay them in kind with interest.

The time has come, the Walrus said.