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Quotations about Civilization

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Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don't. ~Lord Raglan

We are born princes and the civilizing process makes us frogs. ~Syrus

We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public. ~Bryan White

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long... ~Ogden Nash, "Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours," New Yorker, 1959 April 4 (Thanks, Garson O'Toole of!)

The fact is that the ability to read, write, talk and understand has in our time become a survival tool, just as the flint ax was a survival tool for our ancestors. That ability is not only a sign of intelligence. It also develops the intelligence. Without it we're only second-class citizens, half slaves, surely not free men and women. We don't have to become highbrows or intellectuals to remain free. But we do have to be able to communicate with each other, learn from each other, judge our leaders and our laws. Democracy and literacy go together. ~Clifton Fadiman, Preface to How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, edited by Billings S. Fuess, Jr., 1985

Civilization is hideously fragile... there's not much between us and the Horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish. ~C.P. Snow

There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism. ~Walter Benjamin

Barbarism is needed every four or five hundred years in order to bring the world back to life. Otherwise it would die of civilization. ~Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal des Goncourt, 1855 September 3rd, translated from French

The two latest acquisitions of civilization have been habits of industry and the infectious diseases. And one is tempted sometimes to wonder which is the more deadly. ~Woods Hutchinson, A.M., M.D. (1862–1930), Civilization and Health, "Chapter XIV: The Vacation Habit," 1914

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. ~Confucius

Human vanity can best be served by a reminder that, whatever his accomplishments, his sophistication, his artistic pretension, man owes his very existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil — and the fact that it rains. ~Anonymous, in The Cockle Bur, sometime between 1930 and 1968

I've made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I'm convinced of the opposite. ~Bertrand Russell

We should distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within. ~Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

And the wind shall say "Here were decent godless people;
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls."
~T.S. Eliot

When you can't do something truly useful, you tend to vent the pent up energy in something useless but available, like snappy dressing. ~Lois McMaster Bujold

K is for "Kenghis Khan." He was a very nice person. History has no record of him. There is a moral in that, somewhere. ~Harlan Ellison, From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
~T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

Is man's civilization only a wrappage, through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever? ~Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, vol III, book V, chapter 7

Leash: n, a means by which animals, formerly running wild, are prevented from running tame, also. ~Robert Brault,

Wildness dances
Inhibition stumbles
~Terri Guillemets

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on. ~Richard P. Feynman

Every civilization is, among other things, an arrangement for domesticating the passions and setting them to do useful work. ~Aldous Huxley

Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills. ~Voltaire, letter to Count Schomberg, 31 August 1769

Codi: Gives you the willies, doesn't it? The thought of raising kids in a place where the front yard ends in a two-hundred-foot drop? [referring to cliff dwellings]
Loyd: No worse than raising up kids where the front yard ends in a freeway.
~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

People don't like the true and simple; they like fairy tales and humbug. ~Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal, 2 March 1861

[M]odern man is just ancient man…with way better electronics. ~Author unknown, "A Short History of Breakfast," from a Jack in the Box tray liner, 2006

Civilization begins with soap. ~Author unknown, from Dallas-Galveston News, c. late-1800s

Since the Middle Ages progress in hygiene has been characterized by the conquest of stink. ~Martin H. Fischer (1879–1962)

What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance. ~Henry Havelock Ellis

A living civilization creates; a dying, builds museums. ~Martin H. Fischer (1879–1962)

One... gets an impression that civilization is something which was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means to power and coercion. It is, of course, natural to assume that these difficulties are not inherent in the nature of civilization itself but are determined by the imperfections of the cultural forms which have so far been developed. ~Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he less savage than the other savages. ~Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Society is a made-up formula of what we are supposed to be, kept alive by those who believe in it.... I laugh in the ugly face of society, with all its fabricated dimensions. ~Author Unknown

She will escape from the rut of small domestic household cares, which I have heard you so often say eat the soul out of a woman.... She will be out in the open and free from the crushing yoke of conventionalities which hem the most of us in like prison walls. ~Robert Grant, "The Fall of the House of Padelford," 1892

But, as an English writer has wittily remarked, the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization. ~Sigmund Freud, c.1893, translated from German by James Strachey  [Thanks, Garson O'Toole! —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]

No healthy civilization can ever be reared on a foundation of devitalized work. ~William Ralph Inge

I don't agree with you in saying that in all human minds there is poetry. Man as he came from the hand of his Maker was poetic in both mind and body, but the gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual. ~John Muir, letter to John B. McChesney, 1871 September 19th, from Yosemite (University of the Pacific Library Holt-Atherton Special Collections, © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust)

Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless. ~B.F. Skinner

[T]he progress of civilization corresponds with the spread of general nausea. ~Edgar Saltus, The Philosophy of Disenchantment

One is tempted to advance the notion that civilization came out of human terror at having to face dread as a daily condition.... Small wonder if man did everything he could to remove himself from such intimacy with nature. He even escalated the costs of tribal war in order to found large nations—anything to avoid a daily existence filled with dread. Carnage ensued and philosophy developed. ~Norman Mailer, "Primitive Man, Art and Science, Evil and Judgment," The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, 2003

When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization. ~Daniel Webster, Remarks on Agriculture

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. ~H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so... heroic. ~George Carlin

They civilize what's pretty
By puttin' up a city
Where nothin' that's
Pretty can grow....
They civilize left
They civilize right
Till nothing is left
Till nothing is right
~Alan Jay Lerner, "The First Thing You Know," Paint Your Wagon, 1969

The reputations of the nineteenth century will one day be quoted to prove its barbarism. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Uses of Great Men" (lecture)

Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessaries. ~Mark Twain, quoted in More Maxims of Mark compiled by Merle Johnson, 1927

Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs but how to remain human in the skyscrapers. ~Abraham Joshua Heschel

We are creatures trapped in culture. ~Terri Guillemets

It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct. ~Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Take off all your clothes and walk down the street waving a machete and firing an Uzi, and terrified citizens will phone the police and report, "There's a naked person outside!" ~Mike Nichols

The bony elbows
Of power-walking purists
Punch the air like little pistons,
A well greased paradise-pursuing machine...
Nowadays the prophet of real estate has spoken.
As our tree population reaches rock bottom
Wooden roofing joists shine
Like gold bars in the sun.
Razor-wired peace-walls rise daily,
Funny way to put it
But we love each other really.
Black as Edgar Poe's ink-stained soul...
~John Stevenson

It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages. ~Alfred North Whitehead

Civilization is what makes you sick. ~Paul Gauguin

The dying process begins the minute we are born, but it accelerates during dinner parties. ~Carol Matthau

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Civilization... wrecks the planet from seafloor to stratosphere. ~Richard Bach

Where there are humans
you'll find flies,
and Buddhas.

Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor. ~Arnold Toynbee

We are so clothed in rationalization and dissemblance that we can recognize but dimly the deep primal impulses that motivate us. ~James Ramsey Ullman

Flowers don't open to the clock
but to the sunshine spontaneous;
for modern humans that manner
of instinct is now extraneous.
~Terri Guillemets, "If I Cry Will I Rust"

Good manners: The noise you don't make when you're eating soup. ~Bennett Cerf

Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity. ~Thor Heyerdahl, Fatu-Hiva

If the Aborigine drafted an I.Q. test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it. ~Stanley Garn

God is muttering something about love, peace, and happiness, but we can't hear him over society's deafening uproar. ~Terri Guillemets

I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing:
And I said, "O years, that meet in tears,
Have ye aught that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the knowing?"
~Alfred Tennyson

Civilization: a thin veneer over barbarianism. ~John M. Shanahan, The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time (In Two Lines or Less)

Civilization is the distance man has placed between himself and his excreta. ~Brian Aldiss

Evolution made civilization steward of this planet. A hundred thousand years later, the steward stood before evolution not helper but destroyer, not healer but parasite. So evolution withdrew its gift, passed civilization by, rescued the planet from intelligence and handed it to love. ~Richard Bach

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