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Quotations about Civilization


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Everything has been growing faster and bigger, but most of all the chasm between what we can build and what we can destroy... It is this that gives many the sense that civilization is a death dance. ~Max Lerner, It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy, 1938


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


We go on fooling ourselves... Especially if we live in a nice pretty cushioned world. Civilisation is hideously fragile... There's not much between us and the horrors underneath. Just about a coat of varnish, wouldn't you say?... And the same applies to you and me. And the rest of us. There's not much between us and our beastly selves. ~C. P. Snow, A Coat of Varnish, 1979


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


God... fixed up the planet
As best as He could
Then in come the people
And gum it up good...
~Alan Jay Lerner, "The First Thing You Know," Paint Your Wagon, 1969 ♫


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


What all of us know put together don't mean anything. Nothing don't mean anything. We are here for a spell and pass on. Anyone who thinks that civilization has advanced is an egotist. ~Will Rogers (1879–1935)


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


Wildness dances
Inhibition stumbles
~Terri Guillemets


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


"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?"
"No worse than raising up kids where the front yard ends in a freeway."
~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 1990  [cliff dwellings —tg]


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


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


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


The sanitary and mechanical age we are now entering makes up for the mercy it grants to our sense of smell by the ferocity with which it assails our sense of hearing. As usual, what we call "Progress" is the exchange of one Nuisance for another Nuisance. ~Havelock Ellis, 1912


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


One thus 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, 1927


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, 1897


If aliens from outer space ever come and we show them our civilization and they make fun of it, we should say we were just kidding, that this isn't really our civilization, but a gag we hoped they would like. Then we tell them to come back in twenty years to see our real civilization. After that, we start a crash program of coming up with an impressive new civilization. Either that, or just shoot down the aliens as they're waving good-bye. ~Jack Handey, Deeper Thoughts, 1993, deepthoughtsbyjackhandey.com


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! quoteinvestigator.com/2015/08/05/spear —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


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)


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


Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. ~H. G. Wells, et al., "The Possible Unification of the World into One Community of Knowledge and Will," Book IX: The Next Stage in History, The Outline of History, 1920


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


I think a civilization is created out of some kind of sublimation of violence. When the violence gets too sublimated, you get a sick civilization. ~Norman Mailer, 1967


The reputations of the nineteenth century will one day be quoted to prove its barbarism. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Not savages? and what else are we, I ask you? We are worse savages than the Australian bushmen, since possessing the knowledge of our savagery, we persist in it. ~Octave Mirbeau, "The Mission," The Torture Garden, 1899, translated from the French by Alvah C. Bessie, 1931


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


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, 1930


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


Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long... ~Ogden Nash, "Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours," in The New Yorker, 1959   [quoteinvestigator.com/2011/04/02/progress-too-long —tg]


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"


We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created. ~David Fincher, director of Fight Club, interview with Gavin Smith, "Inside Out," Film Comment, Sep/Oct 1999  [Thank you, sexbratsrocknroll. —tg]


In almost every act, and even thought, of our lives we are so clothed in rationalization and dissemblance that we can recognize but dimly the deep primal impulses that motivate us. ~James Ramsey Ullman, River of the Sun, 1951


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



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