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THE question “Does civilization civilize?” is a fine example of petitio principii. and decides itself in the affirmative; for civilization must needs do that from the doing of which it has its name. But it is not necessary to suppose that he who propounds is either unconscious of his lapse in logic or desirous of digging a pitfall for the feet of those who discuss; I take it he simply wishes to put the matter in an impressive way, and relies upon a certain degree of intelligence in the interpretation.

Concerning uncivilized peoples we know but little except what we are told by travelers–who, speaking generally, can know very little but the fact of uncivilization as shown in externals and irrelevances, and are moreover, greatly given to lying. From the savages we hear very little. Judging them in all things by our own standards, in default of a knowledge of theirs, we necessarily condemn, disparage and belittle. One thing that civilization certainly has not done is to make us intelligent enough to understand that the opposite of a virtue is not necessarily a vice. Because we do not like the taste of one another it does not follow that the cannibal is a person of depraved appetite. Because, as a rule, we have but one wife and several mistresses each it is not certain that polygamy is everywhere–nor, for that matter, anywhere–either wrong or inexpedient. Our habit of wearing clothes does not prove that conscience of the body, the sense of shame, is charged with a divine mandate; for like the conscience of the spirit it is the creature of what it seems to create: it comes to the habit of wearing clothes. And for those who hold that the purpose of civilization is morality it may be said that peoples which are the most nearly naked are, in our sense, the most nearly moral. Because the brutality of the civilized slave owners and dealers created a conquering sentiment against slavery it is not intelligent to assume that slavery is a maleficent thing amongst Oriental peoples (for example) where the slave is not oppressed.

Some of these same Orientals whom we are pleased to term half-civilized have no regard for truth. “Takest thou me for a Christian dog,” said one of them, “that I should be the slave of my word?” So far as I can perceive the “Christian dog” is no more the slave of his word than the True Believer, and I think the savage–allowing for the fact that his inveracity has dominion over fewer things–as great a liar as either of them. For my part, I do not know what, in all circumstances, is right or wrong; but I know, if right, it is at least stupid to judge an uncivilized people by the standards of morality and intelligence set up by civilized ones. An infinitesimal proportion of civilized men do not, and there is much to be said for civilization if they are the product of it.

Life in civilized countries is so complex that men there have more ways to be good than savages have, and more to be bad; more to be happy, and more to be miserable. And in each way to be good or bad, their generally superior knowledge–their knowledge of more things–enables them to commit greater excesses than the savage could widi the same opportunity. The civilized philanthropist wreaks upon his fellow creatures a ranker philanthropy, the civilized scoundrel a sturdier rascality. And–splendid triumph of enlightenment!–the two characters are, in civilisation, commonly combined in one person.

I know of no savage custom or habit of thought which has not its mate in civilized countries. For every mischievous or absurd practice of the natural man I can name you a dozen of the unnatural which are essentially the same. And nearly every custom of our barbarian ancestors in historic times survives in some form today. We make ourselves look formidable in battle–for that matter, we fight. Our women paint their faces. We feel it obligatory to dress more or less alike, inventing the most ingenious reasons for it and actually despising and persecuting those who do not care to conform. Within the memory of living persons bearded men were stoned in the streets; and a clergyman in New York who wore his beard as Christ wore his, was put into jail and variously persecuted till he died. We bury our dead instead of burning them, yet every cemetery is set thick with urns. As there are no ashes for the urns we do not trouble ourselves to make them hollow, and we say their use is “emblematic.” When, following the bent of our ancestral instincts, we go on, age after age, in the performance of some senseless act which once had a use and meaning we excuse ourselves by calling it symbolism. Our “symbols” are merely survivals. We have theology and patriotism. We have all the savage’s superstition. We propitiate and ingratiate by means of gifts. We shake hands. All these and hundreds of others of our practices are distinctly, in their nature and by their origin, savage.