Civilization May Be Its Own Reward

“Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favour of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science.   But I think that is not the greatest thing.  Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all.  When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place.  Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life.   They mean more life.  Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.
I will add but a word.  We are all very near despair.  The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers.”  — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 

The above quote appears, without further comment or explanation, as the preface to Jane Jacobs book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.   I am struck by Holmes’ central assertion that the cooperative complexity and effort required to maintain the life of a complex civilization provides both the quality and the quantity of opportunity, challenge, experience, and satisfaction which are necessary for a full, rich and meaningful life.


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