Let's Play Civilization


Let's Play Civilization

     In light of our politicians’ penchant for playing games and printing Monopoly money, I’d like to propose a practical pastime that would profit them, our country, and ourselves. It’s called a Civilized Conversation, and it helps answer the question on which every policy maker, and voter, should be conversant: “What are the factors that cause the rise and/or fall of a civilization?” You can number them on one hand.

All educated humans, and even overdressed barbarians, errr..candidates, should be able to wax or waffle eloquently on the factors. Yet it seems that most are clueless about how this thing we enjoy, called civilization, arose, or is maintained. Thus we blithely and blindly vote on issues that move us back to barbarism, rather than build a future that would be far more fun. Even if you've never had a Western Civ class, you have the answers lurking in your cranium. A little provocation and pondering and you just might pull out a plum of perspicacity. Maybe even five of them.

           Try this at home. It even works with teenagers around a dinner table. Pretend you’re escaping from some disaster: a tsunami, an invading barbarian horde, misguided governmental policies, etc. As you run, you notice others running with you. They’re not hostile, so you eventually pause together for breath at an isolated bend in the river. The water is clean, flashing with fish. Shady fruit trees stand guard on the hill. Gentle breezes beckon you to sleep under the stars. You decide to settle down for the night, month and century. Let the game begin!

Take no more than five minutes to brainstorm what you, as a group, would need to get through the month at Big Bend. Write out the most important things in priority order. Then draw up a list of what you would need to build a civilization on that spot. Just extend the items necessary for monthly survival to century survival. Now pull out your Swiss Army knife and whittle down the century list to the top five items. [Hint: if you think your civilization would collapse without the item, it probably belongs on your list.] Bonus plums if you can put things in a logical order. Remember, you can sleep under the stars; architecture is a reflection of a civilization; it doesn't create a civilization. Don’t continue reading until you've written out your lists. No peeking (unless you’re playing this with your kids and need to uphold the generational standard).

Okay, you've got your lists? Let’s start with Survivor: the Month, and then extend each of those items to Civilization: the Means. The first factor on your list might be food (especially if you have any teenage boys sitting around the table). You've got water, fish and fruit trees, but a group of hungry joggers is going to need some additional means of keeping body and soul together. Hunting and gathering will eventually develop into agriculture. If you want to build a large civilization, you’re going to need a lot of food. A surplus of food would be even better. Then you can trade it and do other things with your time. A civilization tends to collapse when it doesn't have enough food. [Historical note: when the French peasantry ran out of bread, (and were reduced to cake and croissants), the aristocracy had to run out of town.] So for a civilization to become great, one of the first things worth having around is a big pile of food, which we’ll call: Economic Surplus. The pile gets bigger if you can trade it freely, but that’s another game.

Now that you've got your big pile of food, or Economic Surplus, you need some means of protecting it. What’s going to keep the bad guys from stealing your food? You could take turns guarding it, or since some might not be that handy with weapons, you could use some of the surplus to feed the seven guys most handy with swords, and have them guard the food. They could make sure bandits don’t swoop down and steal your stuff, and locals don’t violate individual property rights. This protection extends to the second factor necessary for a great civilization: Military, but not just any samurai, we want a Principled Military. People who are controlled by principle rather than passion. [Historical note: Rome rose and fell by the character of her armies.]

Now you’re sated and secure. Your civilization has an Economic Surplus to use or trade, and a Principled Military to protect you. All looks good. But how do you protect yourselves from the protectors? What’s going to keep them principled? Maybe a few rules would be nice: “Don’t take the other guy’s stuff.” “Don’t kill your neighbor.” Nothing too onerous. Folks could agree on how things should be done, and what should happen if people break the rules. It would be good if everyone has a say in making the rules, so they’ll be more likely to keep them. If people don’t like the rules, you can figure out a compromise, or they can just jog on to another bend in the river. Perhaps you could trade with them? Agreement on rules extends to the third factor: Constitutional Government. [Historical note: Greece grew with citizens of city-states {polis} agreeing to live under a constitution. Alexander’s empire fell apart because folks weren't following a constitution which spelled out a succession plan.]

           How do you get people to follow the rules without a samurai, soldier or policeman standing on every corner? How do you develop a climate where you can trust the other guy enough to trade with him? Or trust the military to be principled and not shrink before the enemy nor stage a coup every other year? Or trust the government to not take all your stuff? If you don’t know the answer to this one, stop and scratch your head for a few seconds. This fourth factor is fabulous. Alexis de Tocqueville, of “Democracy in America” fame, repeatedly concluded that without this factor, the best laws won’t work, and with it, even the worst laws can be turned to the advantage of building a civilization. It undergirds the other factors, including the final one. It provides the basis for literacy, science, and technology. It even explains why tribal groups don’t have iPhones, but that’s another story.

           The fourth factor, necessary for civilized society by the bend in the river, or sustenance of a global civilization, is…an internalized moral code, or ethics. Whether it’s the Homeric ideal (Spartan mom: “Come home with your shield raised in victory, or on it.”) or the Judeo-Christian ethic (the basis of not getting your sense of worth and value at the expense of the other guy) a group or civilization can’t survive without a moral code. To think otherwise is not to think. Humanity’s highest aspirations are usually expressed in some form of religious ideals, which also provide the basis of a civilization’s unity, as well as accountability for leadership (our next factor). It’s really helpful if the moral code is derived from sources outside group consensus. [Historical note: The splendor that was Rome, and glory that was Greece crumbled from within before succumbing to the barbarians outside their gates. When Greeks believed participation in the polis was a religious duty, they prospered. When everyone believed Epicurus and did their desires, they were doomed.] The moral of the story is: you need a Moral Code - don’t leave home without it.

           Our fifth and final factor is Leadership. Our band by the river will need some vision, oversight, organization (division of labor), motivation (selling on change), and occasionally someone to advocate and do the unpopular things which happen to be in the group’s best interest. Not everyone has the aptitude to see beyond their bellybutton. Every group has leaders, but great civilizations need great leaders. What’s a great leader? Someone who does all of the above, and serves the people (rather than himself or herself). Starting as a teenager, Caesar Augustus almost single-handedly saved Rome after the assassination of Julius by working to restore morals, (eventually banishing his own daughter for adultery), in addition to pensioning soldiers and supporting the state treasury from his own spoils. At the ripe old age of 25, Queen Elizabeth served a poor, backwater island, torn by internal strife and tottering from external threats, until it entered the splendiferous Elizabethan Age. Her secret? According to her farewell speech to Parliament, good Queen Bess, in the fear of God, set the last judgment day before her eyes every day, so that she would always rule for her people’s good. May her tribe increase.

What about individual freedom? Set against the stark backdrop of fatalism, determinism, statism, collectivism and other unpleasant “isms”, the Western ideal of individualism is the succulent fruit of the “Five Factors.” One can’t be free if enslaved to debt. One isn't free to take a soothing stroll in a park populated with snipers and sinister criminals. If people can’t rule over themselves, their passions and appetites, then someone must rule over them. Without a moral code, one isn't free to leave one’s door unlocked or possessions unprotected. However, without freedom, an individual, society, civilization or tomato plant doesn't grow to its full potential. Nor does that growth happen without some sort of structure. Hence, the need for the “Five Factors.”

Game over! Back to the real world. You should now be able to articulate the “Five Factors,” which if present, cause the rise of a great civilization, and if absent, cause its fall. The factors are pretty intuitive. You probably had most of them, (minus the historical asides), submerged in your sub-conscious. Group goals of: food, protection, rules, ethics, and good leaders become civilization sustainers of: Economic Surplus, Principled Military, Constitutional Government, Moral Code, and Leaders who serve the people. Now the challenge is to get these factors out of our thinking and back into society. If we don’t succeed, maybe it’s time to start jogging. Look for me by the bend in the river, up by the fruit trees, watching out for barbarians.