Civilization is the head and culture is the heart or the soul of a society, and the soul of a society is framed by how its culture prioritizes what is worth caring about. And so if the culture defines what's most important to care about, the society's head develops a civilization to provide for the culture what it wants by developing the tools, laws, economic practices, and any else it does to organizes itself to get more of what the culture defines as desirable.
And so using this measuring stick, we can talk about primitive or highly developed civilizations, usually based on the level and sophistication of the technologies it has developed to provide for the needs of its citizens. And we tend to associate the idea of "progress" with the increasing sophistication of these technologies. But it should also be clear that progress in this sense has little if anything to do with moral development or the development of virtue. Some primitive civilizations have far more highly developed moral cultures. And the reason for this is that much of the impetus driving higher levels of civilization in this sense has been rooted in the morally corrupting will to power.
As I've been pointing out, Liberalism in its pure form makes no judgments about what is or is not worth caring about. It simply creates an empty framework which allows people to decide for themselves. And what American culture has decided it wants more than anything else is freedom, and freedom in American culture means having choices. Anything that promotes choice is good; anything that restricts choice is bad. And so if Liberals ever go on a "moral" crusade, it's about promoting the freedom to choose.
And so American civilization has developed in such a way as to accommodate this pluralistic understanding that everyone should be free to choose on an individual basis what is important for him, and it's nobody else's business how he prioritizes or determines what is important or unimportant, valuable or not valuable. And it could be argued, as I have myself done in the past, that the great thing about American society is that while it is true that its citizens are free to be as morally depraved as they wish to be (so long as they don't infringe on the rights of others), they are also free to be as good and virtuous as they want to be. But I have since come to think that this is a psychological and spiritually naive position. It should be abundantly clear that it is very, very difficult for a choice-driven culture to develop within it prodigies of virtue. Our lack of them is proof. We produce at best mediocrities of virtue, and here's my take on why:
In order for anybody to grow to some level of greatness in any field, he has to build on what has been achieved before him in that field and learn from those who have achieved the most in it. If you want to be an excellent violinist, your talent will not develop very far if you have to figure it out on your own. You have to be introduced to a tradition and to the body of achievement of those who have gone before you. You need to find a teacher who is himself someone who has mastered the instrument and the violin repertoire and who can mentor your development until you yourself become a master. In other words, in order to become a fully realized talent, you need a trellis on which that talent can grow, and you need help from someone, a gardener so to speak, who can nourish you by his own example and weed out any bad habits you might develop. And when you become a master, you are free in a deeper sense to use your skill in freedom.
In other words there is no true freedom without true mastery. And mastery comes first by submitting to learn from the great ones who have preceded us. I play the violin badly. I can pick it up and doodle around with it as the whim takes me, but that's not real freedom. I don't have the capability to play what really good players can play, and so I am not free to play in the way that masters are free to play. I can choose to play "twinkle" or "row, row your boat", but I am not free to play any piece that requires real mastery. Freedom is in that sense only a potentiality that is in each of us to be actualized--we have to earn it.
And the same is true in the realm of morality and virtue. Our moral freedom is a function of our moral mastery, and that mastery is only achieved by submitting to the discipline that the moral tradition prescribes. Each soul shouldn't have to figure things out on his own from scratch; he needs mentors, and these mentors have value only insofar as they themselves have become morally mature, because they have learned to become that from those who mentored them. But there are hardly any, and the church is the last place I'd look for one these days. I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of good, decent people who struggle as best they can to lead lives of integrity. But they are rather like a person with musical talent who finds an instrument and starts doodling with it. It would be very difficult for such a person to go far in the development of his talent.
Maybe some would disagree with me on this, but I think it's pretty obvious that American society does not produce prodigies of virtue--or as they used to be called, saints. I'm not saying there are no good people; I am saying there are very few people who are great in their goodness. There are few heroes of goodness. And I would argue that the reason for it is that a prosperous, choice-driven culture makes it as difficult to achieve greatness in this realm as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
When you live in a society that is organized around consumption, it's like trying to run a race on a track that has four feet of chocolate mousse piled on it. Why fight through it; it's so much easier to just sit down and eat it. It's hard enough to run this race even under the best of conditions, but we live in a society that makes it about as tough as it could possibly be. Our prosperity works against us. If we are prodigies of anything, we are prodigies of complacency.
For me these days it always comes back to the way I think about what my teenage son has to go through for the next ten years. He's a great kid, and I want him to become the best man it is in him to become. But to whom do I point as a model? Who is there who might inspire him to be more than the complacent consumer the world around him repeatedly tells him he needs to become? It's so, so seductive. And it isn't enough that I should train him to say No to all of that. At some point, if not already, he's just going to decide I'm an old crank. I want there to be something for him to which he can say an enthusiastic Yes. It's just not there right now in the culture. All we have is a civilization that is primarily designed to satisfy our most primitive needs.
[Ed. note: This is a repost of an essay I wrote in April 2005 before I moved over to typepad. I'll be doing this from time to time as I attempt to retrieve what I've been thinking about over the last ten years.]