We had the good fortune to be invited to a brunch for five couples, last weekend, at which our host and his wife initiated a philosophical discussion over which I'm still brooding.
He is an educator (a Professor of Political Thought and Humanities) who has recently written a book about globalisation, civilisation and the human condition, and Chris, of course, asked questions. If I understood him aright, Dr. R. sees civilisation (civilization, if you prefer that spelling) as the enlightenment of decently governed citizens. Contrary to the conventional notion that civilisation began in ancient Athens, he feels that the ancient Athenians did not get it quite right, because their decencies only involved the elite. Europeans were never truly civilised either, so long as they sought power over others within their various empires. The Chinese, despite their impressive governments and achievements, have not yet allowed their citizens sufficient freedom of thought. Our host made the provocative comment that human beings never became truly civilised until the 20th century, when at last --- in North America! --- the whole of society was engaged in civic responsibility, with shared standards of decency, not just the elite.
Well, that is debatable.
Around the brunch table, none of us being native-born Canadians (we were an Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Dutch, Latvian, German and British mix), we also began to talk about Plato's (i.e. Socrates') concept of Ideal Forms and later, related philosophies, but, as conversations do, the theme wandered, and at one point we were thinking about the "thin red line" that divides a civilised, moral way of life from its opposite. I am not very good on such occasions, full of l'esprit de l'escalier, always imagining after the event what I ought to have contributed to the conversation. Thinking about those borderlines, as I shall do for days, if not weeks, I keep recalling the novel Mr. Sammler's Planet by the Nobel Prize winning writer Saul Bellow (set in 1960s New York), which I am now rereading. Mr. Sammler, who has suffered a great deal from the perversity and brutality of other people, comes to the conclusion that there is after all, within every human being, an instinctive awareness of the border between moral and immoral behaviour, and at the end he exclaims in a prayer for a friend who has died: "For that is the truth of it--that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."
Saul Bellow himself said: "You read the New Testament and the assumption Jesus makes continually is that people know the difference immediately between good and evil... And that is in part what faith means. It doesn't even require discussion. It means that there is an implicit knowledge -- very ancient if not eternal -- which human beings really share and that if they based their relationships on that knowledge existence could be transformed." (My emphasis.)