There is a remarkable moment in an interview with the writer George Steiner. That familiar question about the Nazis comes up, of how someone who listened to Bach and Beethoven by day could put people in gas chambers by night:

Steiner: “[there are those who are] certain that the cultivation of the sensibility of beauty, of humanity, of seriousness in art, in literature, in music and painting, would be some kind of help, some kind of barrier, against inhumanity. But it’s all over our world: inhumanity can be combined with high aesthetic experience.”

Interviewer: “So the humanities don’t necessarily humanize, civilization doesn’t necessarily civilize—”

Steiner: “It may indeed barbarize.”

Similarly, a century before Nazi Germany, the Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer said that, “The path of modern culture leads from humanity, through nationalism, to bestiality.”

Steiner, a lover and champion of culture and art if there ever was one, says he has no answer as to why this might be. But let me suggest one: nearly forty years on this earth has taught me one thing about “knowledge,” and that is the arrogance and tribalism wielded by those who think they have it, and the confidence it gives them to condemn other people, other ideas, and other ways of life. Sounds like barbarism to me.

When this happens, suddenly art and culture aren’t about the experience of Bach or Beethoven, and instead become a matter of criticism, classification, and comparison. These things are fine enough on their own, but in this situation they are inevitably put to the use of value judgments which culture—at its explosive and most meaningful core—largely has nothing to do with: notions of superiority (predictably balanced by what is lesser, even debased), competing schools, and opposing interpretations.

There is very little difference between this mindset and similar ones which pervade various forms of nationalism, or pride in one’s religion, one’s city or neighborhood or just the long past of one’s family. Human beings remain, as ever, completely unable to cultivate powerfully meaningful and life-sustaining experiences without condemning the divergent experiences of others. We are still that weak; and so many of us still cling to ideas of superiority of all kinds, whether of race, culture, gender, nation, religion, or otherwise.

Ecclesiastes 1:18 says that, “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.” As the says goes, the more we know, the more we realize we know very little at all. The security and certainty and even pride we take in “knowledge” simply doesn’t exist, and to pretend that study and experience ends at a point of stability rather than one of continuation and flux, can’t help but increase heartache.

And if we pretend this isn’t the case, if we pretend that culture and art are the hammers they were never meant to be, very soon we will arrive at a point which says other ideas and the people who hold them are wrong, then inferior, then dangerous, and finally as subhuman or not fit to live—or at least unfit to live around us, some illusory sense of social or culture “purity” now the goal.

Much like religion, art and culture are tremendous vehicles for empathy and altruism, and the best expressions of them portray humanity and the transcendent in such a way that we can’t help but be opened up. But, much like religion and art, many of us still use these highest expressions as an excuse to close up.


Since we’ve been taught from the beginning that our various identities are actually just excuses to isolate ourselves from others, are we supposed to do away with identity completely? Is any sense of belonging a kind of poison? Even as they inspire me to new work, is it a bit of make-believe to really imagine that I have anything in common with the people of prehistoric Europe, or any poet at all older than a century?

Here’s a paragraph from a novel, where a young Austrian is coming of age during the outbreak of World War One. He sneers at the rabid patriotism of the time, and the ransacking of the past for historical parallels to justify the coming war. But is this just adolescent cynicism?

…belonging was a poison. It was a lie to feel less alone in the company of someone who merely spoke the same language as you, and it was a lie to feel alien in the presence merely of those whose language you would never know. It was a lie to feel more or less alone simply because of one’s place on this or that side of an arbitrary border. It was a lie to feel kinship of any kind with the ancient Greeks or even medieval Germans, for whom Leo’s actual world would be appear to them as inexplicable and even offensive as daily life among their time would feel to him. This didn’t mean that an inkling of commonality, and bond, couldn’t be gleaned from a line of Homer or Euripides or Plato, or from Wolfram or the poets of the Nibelungenlied or the Eddas, but that inkling was always deeply personal, quite ineffable, and could not be made to justify the actions or thoughts of anything beyond one man only….

And so, it isn’t that we cannot look back with personal pride wherever our family tree or our study leads us. Rather, we simply can’t use that attachment for a function it cannot fulfill; that sense of belonging is deeply personal, not public, and proof not of superiority but of that more intangible but also more important thing, continuity.

Because it’s an instinctual sense of continuity, not any literal or complete knowledge of the past; and it’s the individual, vague, and living human element—not some political or social commentary—which makes writers like Shakespeare as new now as they ever were. This continuity won’t result in a neat slogan, but it will support your life.

The deepest experiences of art—and, I would say, of identity, too—are so profound that we cannot live in its cloud all the time. And so, outside of that experience, we create things like criticism, categories, “civilization”; but what we really yearn for is a way of looking at our lives that’s similar to poetry: that which fills us not with any sense of judgmental or self-conscious pride, and more with awe. And we can no less judge another person’s awe, another person’s experience of the sublime, than we can their opinions about art or music or poetry. It isn’t what art is for and, no matter what the headlines say, it isn’t what life is really about, either.



21 thoughts on “Civilization Does Not Civilize

  1. Interesting. Is it not ignorance that’s the enemy to civilisation? When I say: “you’re ignorance of the pain your dysfunctional relationship is causing our children” for example, does this then mean that I’m being judgemental and superior? It’s certainly very clear in my mind that I could easily imagine myself slowly murdering an abuser, whilst listening to Bach or Beethoven, and that enjoying this experience, would enable others to label me barbaric. We all have this within us, and it’s only the opposite to ignorance: Education, that helps us smooth over the barbarism within us all. The more I learn of human activity, the more I’m able to relate to Hannibal Lecter, a very cultured fellow indeed. Very enjoyable read, Thank You.

  2. ‘If we pretend that culture and art are the hammers they were never meant to be, very soon we will arrive at a point which says other ideas and the people who hold them are wrong, then inferior, then dangerous, and finally as subhuman or not fit to live—or at least unfit to live around us, some illusory sense of social or culture “purity” now the goal.’

    Where I’d disagree with your premise is here: in a sort of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ sense, we’re always trying to rid ourselves of the tribe the next hill over. Baboons and chimpanzees don’t need art to break open the bones of rivals and suck out marrow in victory.

    The Assyrians weren’t the exceptionally literary; their histories don’t seem to have much imagination. And yet they were masters of siege warfare, terrorism, genocide. Their desire to force whole groups of people to submit to them or be eradicated does not seem correlated to their level of aesthetic development. The Achaemenid Persians coming relatively soon after manage to be more artistic and less violent.

    Actually as a direct response to your quote is one from Anhony Burgess, partially explaining his inspiration for his protagonist Alex from ‘A Clockwork Orange’:

    ‘I’ve always been worried about the tendency of people writing in English to confuse the two kinds of good. George Steiner, the biggest bloody fool who ever lived, a man in a responsible situation, a man miraculously equipped with languages and learning, who is so foolish as to wonder why Nazis, why a concentration camp officer could listen to Schubert and at the same time send Jews to the gas. …There are two different kinds of good. This is a horrible thing. A bad man listening to Beethoven. The man is going to kill his dog in a few minutes. It’s impossible, but this is the romantic heresy, the assumption that a work of art has some sort of moral content.’

    Is it difficult to imagine a racist slaver in the antebellum South who might feel no guilt at beating an enslaved person to death but be quite upset watching someone else beat a dog or horse unnecessarily? For that person to be a kind spouse or parent?

    Empathy extends to those you consider people. Anything beyond that you’re more than capable of subjecting to atrocities because we’ve bred ourselves for that for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer.

  3. There’s a strange juxtaposition between this post and the article I read immediately before it. Both came to me via e-mail notifications. The first was an academic paper attempting to explain why the predictions of economists are so often wide of the mark. The author’s conclusion: too often economists rely on a scientific analysis based on assumptions that lack a moral basis.
    And I suppose it could be argued that Hitler made a series of rational decisions based on assumptions – particularly that there existed a superior race of which he was a member – that lacked a moral basis.
    He believed that a world devoid of ‘aliens’ and ‘defective’ human beings would be a better one. That kind of thinking is still around today. Thanks for another interesting and insightful post, Tim.

  4. The nazis were also heavily involved with methamphetamine—I’m not going to call it the sole catalyst between the disconnection of art and humanity but I think it’s safe to say it was a contributing factor. That and you get so many people hyped on nationalism they blindly follow sociopathic tweakers without even questioning it because it all seems so normal.

    It’s like civilization corrupts itself because it’s obsolete and wants to be destroyed into a new creation.

  5. what all this boils down to, it seems to me, is first of all how experience (during formative years) gets crunched into action (in later years). many experiences that conflict accumulate while we are young—we may be cultivated with the arts & music, but those that cultivate may have been violent, or we may have got involved in a bad crowd (i’ve seen this persist into adulthood myself) & so we commit an act in later life & people can’t understand it: they were so quiet, so kind, he was creative etc, we’ve all heard these biography spun in defense of someone who did something terrible. i want the sense of beauty to reinforce us with decency, but mankind is way too complex for that.
    after a conversation with my (extremely liberal left spiritual) friend recently, who was talking to me about George Monbiot, & who was expressing his desire for a united humanity, with a common vision of goodness, i couldn’t help but feel it such a futile Romantic vision, why? because humanity, nor any species for that matter is capable of this in practice, in theory yes, anything that can be thought can be said to be possible (i mean some people actually believe in multiple dimension, which means infinite possibilities, so anything can take place, except God that is guff, but anything else, OK!) if humanity had this then the sheer mundanity of passivity would break out into some sort of rebellion at some level, whether that be wanting to indulge in something that someone decided wasn’t conducive to the status quo but before was not too big a deal— someone would want to do anything against the status quo & that would have to be curbed, if it wasn’t it would just infect the passivity of that society to become the new norm. it seems even when peace was the dominant position there would be an opposite, we cannot, no matter what the spirtuallists or New Age people say in their soft voices, this cannot be overcome. & i don’t know if i want this anymore, which will make me unpopular, i don’t want hate & crime, but i just don’t know if there is anyway around it so long as we have free will. please don’t hate me, i am a decent person, really i am. i used to be a Buddhist. i still am in essence, against my will.

  6. “Is any sense of belonging a kind of poison?”
    I find this question the core of your discussion. And yes, it is tied into the concept of identity and the importance of knowing who we are. Because I’m a literal hybrid of two cultures and two languages (Danish and American) I find that I belong in at least two places. But because I lived in Geneva as a child and spoke French I experience a third belonging. The belonging being a knowledge of said culture and language.
    I have lived in many places and ‘belong’ to the moving about. I care deeply about my heritage and also love to live in California. I know what I like. In regards to faith and the arts and my identity is heavily tied into that. However, I know this is personal, although I do share of myself publicly on social media. And that way I will be categorized.
    “What we really yearn for is a way of looking at our lives that’s similar to poetry.”
    And be filled with awe, just like children when they experience something for the first time. The fact is we experience the same things over and over and basically live our lives according to pattern. For me it’s imperative to stay open to experiences, to relationships, to cultures, etc. but like you say, Tim, it is the hardest thing to do consistently.
    Thank you for sharing of your wisdom.

  7. Lol Daniel, I for one will vouch for your essentially good & decent character. As I’ll reply to another comment to this post, the one thing I forgot to mention & will definitely edit is that I don’t understand why “people who listen to Bach also kill people” is such a stunning realization for Steiner. & that this tendency isn’t fixable in part because art isn’t for that. The best art is like the best religious scripture, open to any & every interpretation; “Macbeth” can either be a lesson or an inspiration. Something other than New Agey “let’s fix everything” is the right response here.

  8. That’s a good way of putting it, it’s obsolete but we really want to hold onto it; we want that certainty & something tangible to hold onto; but like religion, art only lives by perpetually becoming, always changing & searching out new space.

  9. Thank you, Frank. Everyone who has commented has found another way of illustrating the same point, & what you say about Hitler does this as well. When we try to force anything that isn’t logical or rational into those molds, we open the door to tragedy. & only someone who thinks our problems can be solved primarily by reason & rationality can possibly think that all problems can be solved by “eliminating” whatever group of people from our midst. Thanks again, Frank.

  10. Thanks for this Andrew. You’re right. The one line I of course left out of the post was that “civilization does not civilize, but civilization does not barbarize, either–we civilize or barbarize ourselves, depending on what we do with our knowledge.” Pretending that we can use knowledge & “civilization” to solve all of our problems, or to use culture & art as if they were either/or laws carved in stone–no better example of ignorance than that.

  11. Thanks so much for this, especially the Burgess quote, which I’ve never seen. What I forgot to put in the post is that I, too, don’t much understand Steiner’s surprise at this thought, but that the way he articulated it was a marvelous statement of ignorance in the face of evidence.

    I definitely can’t claim to have suggested anything so solid as a correlation between artistic ability & violence. Of course the “uncultured” can go to war like everybody else. But the arrogance of those who believe they have wielded culture & politics & bureaucracy to organize a society does seem to instill in them a confidence that might well help them judge people from other societies or cultures as being “less” than them.

    To take the brutality of the Assyrians: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of their architecture or reliefs up close; even if imagination is lacking, power & the sublime are still there. & it’s hard not to believe that the inheritors of Sumer and Akkad might not have felt pretty good about themselves with what art & organization that they had, to the point where they believed that what they thought politically and culturally should be the only way to go, even if that meant committing great atrocity.

    Thanks for the comment.

  12. Thanks as always Elizabeth. Your comment of course reminds me of T. S. Eliot:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    All of the comments to this post are reminding me of what I left out of it. From yours I realize that I should have stressed more that I do like belonging, & yearn for it: religious belonging, belonging in some kind of writerly community, etc. I can say belonging is a poison all I’d like, but there is a way to wield it responsibly, & you articulate that as good as anyone: just remain open, don’t let it become dogma, & wear as many hats as you can. Indeed if you belong in as many places as you mention, you can’t really get too big a head about any of them. But they all pollinate, they all work.

  13. Very nice post. I am still of the opinion though that ignorance causes fear. It is fear that makes us do terrible things. Knowledge is everything. Transcending beyond the ‘doer’ or the ‘knower’ will rid oneself of the ego to do those very terrible things.
    The sense of belonging cannot be wiped out as long as life exists. It helps us grow as a community, helps progress and in the Darwinian world, only the strongest community survives and goes on.

    Thanks for the wonderful read

  14. Thanks Lalitha. I would only say that “knowledge” doesn’t seem to have a value judgment attached to it; the same knowledge can inspire decency or depravity. It’s true it isn’t knowledge so much that’s the danger, as what, having it, we believe it allows us to do to others.

  15. Nice, kinda similar to the state of postcoloniality in countries that experienced colonialism. Its about that need to associate modernity with positives and the past with backwardness, as if time can be sliced in half. This causes people to sometimes repeat negatives in the past when they become unfamiliar with and/or ignorant of it. Which is why learning and taking from the past is important for the future.

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