Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

Regarding peace as exceptional, and war as fundamental, seems to me to overlook a basic truth. The real heartbreak of war is that it can destroy so many, and so much, so quickly. On the other hand, every beneficent element of human civilization – the creation of works of art (and of a cultural context in which such creation is possible, or supported), the development of human institutions, the advancement of science, even the construction of substantial buildings, bridges and roads – by comparison with destruction takes a hell of a long time. I’m not sure what planted this thought in my mind, but at some point in my young adulthood I began to ask, If war is so standard, how have we made civilizing progress at all?

This doesn’t minimize the horrors of war, but rather highlights them. The amount of European (or Japanese, or Chinese…) cultural heritage, the product of centuries of more or less peaceful development, that was lost in the few years of the second World War is incalculable, tragic. This is to say nothing of the millions of lost lives, and the lost potential for constructive development that all those minds and hearts might have achieved. It’s disgusting, really. But we need to remember the prolonged periods of relative stability that allowed such cultural treasures and resources to develop in the first place. Civilization implies peace.

With all this preamble in mind, today’s wise words are Marilynne Robinson’s. I’m grateful to this marvellous writer, thinker, and atypical Christian for many things. Gilead. Home. Lila. Her non-fiction essays are also brilliant, compelling expressions of humane, spirited, informed and graceful thought. The Death of Adam. When I Was A Child I Read Books. The Givenness of Things. On March 15, she was interviewed on “The Current”, an in-depth public affairs program on the radio airwaves of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (The CBC does it again! And still.) The thought process I outlined above was precisely, succinctly and graciously amplified by this Robinson gem:

“Civilizations are noble products of

massive goodwill, and that should never

be forgotten.”

And here’s Robinson, from an essay called “Imagination and Community” in her collection When I Was A Child I Read Books

“Community, at least community larger

than the immediate family, consists very

largely of imaginative love for people we

do not know or whom we know very

slightly….[T]he great truth that is too

often forgotten is that it is in the nature

of people to do good to one another.”

There is a lot more to human civilization than its destruction. Cohesion, community-building, cooperation, – all signs of that “massive goodwill” – have been far more the norm in human development than we sometimes think. And that should make us all the more vigilant to root out distrust, prejudice, oppression, injustice, all the tears in the gorgeous fabric woven by that huge benevolence.

Marilynne Robinson (1943- ) is an American novelist, essayist and teacher of writing. She has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a National Book Award for non-fiction, and the National Humanities Medal. She is a genius, and a living human treasure.

Comments (3)

  1. Edda Erroll

    Thank you for this!

  2. Paul Desailly

    HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. Jean-Paul Sartre in NO EXIT

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