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Ancient Civilisation
by [?]

We are all tempted, and the easier and more prosperous we are, the more we are tempted, to fall into that sordid and shallow frame of mind. Sordid even when its projects are most daring, its outward luxuries most refined; and shallow, even when most acute, when priding itself most on its knowledge of human nature, and of the secret springs which, so it dreams, move the actions and make the history of nations and of men. All are tempted that way, even the noblest-hearted. Adhaesit pavimento venter, says the old psalmist. I am growing like the snake, crawling in the dust, and eating the dust in which I crawl. I try to lift up my eyes to the heavens, to the true, the beautiful, the good, the eternal nobleness which was before all time, and shall be still when time has passed away. But to lift up myself is what I cannot do. Who will help me? Who will quicken me? as our old English tongue has it. Who will give me life? The true, pure, lofty human life which I did not inherit from the primaeval ape, which the ape-nature in me is for ever trying to stifle, and make me that which I know too well I could so easily become–a cunninger and more dainty-featured brute? Death itself, which seems at times so fair, is fair because even it may raise me up and deliver me from the burden of this animal and mortal body:

‘Tis life, not death for which I pant;
‘Tis life, whereof my nerves are scant;
More life, and fuller, that I want.

Man? I am a man not by reason of my bones and muscles, nerves and brain, which I have in common with apes and dogs and horses. I am a man–thou art a man or woman–not because we have a flesh–God forbid! but because there is a spirit in us, a divine spark and ray, which nature did not give, and which nature cannot take away. And therefore, while I live on earth, I will live to the spirit, not to the flesh, that I may be, indeed, a man; and this same gross flesh, this animal ape-nature in me, shall be the very element in me which I will renounce, defy, despise; at least, if I am minded to be, not a merely higher savage, but a truly higher civilised man. Civilisation with me shall mean, not more wealth, more finery, more self-indulgence–even more aesthetic and artistic luxury; but more virtue, more knowledge, more self-control, even though I earn scanty bread by heavy toil; and when I compare the Caesar of Rome or the great king, whether of Egypt, Babylon, or Persia, with the hermit of the Thebaid, starving in his frock of camel’s hair, with his soul fixed on the ineffable glories of the unseen, and striving, however wildly and fantastically, to become an angel and not an ape, I will say the hermit, and not the Caesar, is the civilised man.

There are plenty of histories of civilisation and theories of civilisation abroad in the world just now, and which profess to show you how the primeval savage has, or at least may have, become the civilised man. For my part, with all due and careful consideration, I confess I attach very little value to any of them: and for this simple reason that we have no facts. The facts are lost.

Of course, if you assume a proposition as certainly true, it is easy enough to prove that proposition to be true, at least to your own satisfaction. If you assert with the old proverb, that you may make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you will be stupider than I dare suppose anyone here to be, if you cannot invent for yourselves all the intermediate stages of the transformation, however startling. And, indeed, if modern philosophers had stuck more closely to this old proverb, and its defining verb “make,” and tried to show how some person or persons–let them be who they may–men, angels, or gods–made the sow’s ear into the silk purse, and the savage into the sage–they might have pleaded that they were still trying to keep their feet upon the firm ground of actual experience. But while their theory is, that the sow’s ear grew into a silk purse of itself, and yet unconsciously and without any intention of so bettering itself in life, why, I think that those who have studied the history which lies behind them, and the poor human nature which is struggling, and sinning, and sorrowing, and failing around them, and which seems on the greater part of this planet going downwards and not upwards, and by no means bettering itself, save in the increase of opera-houses, liquor-bars, and gambling-tables, and that which pertaineth thereto; then we, I think, may be excused if we say with the old Stoics–[Greek text]–I withhold my judgment. I know nothing about the matter yet; and you, oh my imaginative though learned friends, know I suspect very little either.