Our Universal Civilization

The following address was given at the Manhattan Institute in New York.

I’ve given this talk the title of Our Universal Civilization. It is a rather big title, and I am a little embarrassed by it. I feel I should explain how it came about. I have no unifying theory of things. To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems. That is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard.

That was why I thought, when this invitation to talk came, that it would be better for me to find out what kind of issues members of the Institute were interested in. Myron Magnet, a senior fellow of the Institute, was in England at the time. We talked on the telephone; and then, some days later, he sent me a handwritten list of questions. They were very serious questions, very important. Are we—are communities—as strong only as our beliefs? Is it enough for beliefs or an ethical view to be passionately held? Does the passion give validity to the ethics? Are beliefs or ethical views arbitrary, or do they represent something essential in the cultures where they flourish?

It was easy to read through to some of the anxieties that lay behind the questions. There was a clear worry about certain fanaticisms “out there.” At the same time there was a certain philosophical diffidence about how that anxiety could be expressed, since no one wants to use words or concepts that might boomerang on himself. You know how words can be used: I am civilized and steadfast; you are barbarian and fanatical; he is primitive and blind. Of course, I was on the side of the questioner, and understood his drift. But I got to feel, over the next few days, and perhaps from my somewhat removed position, that I couldn’t share the pessimism implied by the questions. I felt that the very pessimism of the questions, and their philosophical diffidence, defined the strength of the civilization out of which it issued. And so the theme of my talk, Our Universal Civilization, was given me.

I am not going to attempt to define this civilization. I will only speak of it in a personal way. It is the civilization, first of all, which gave me the idea of the writing vocation. It is the civilization in which I have been able to practice my vocation as a writer. To be a writer, you need—to start with—a certain kind of sensibility. The sensibility itself is created, or given direction, by an intellectual atmosphere.

Sometimes an atmosphere can be too refined, a civilization too achieved, too ritualized. Eleven years ago, when I was traveling in Java, I met a young man who wanted above…

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