From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
April 16, 1921

The Salvaging of Civilization

By H. G. Wells


The Bible of Civilization: I

The Bible Has Held Together the Fabric of Western Civilization

The man who propounded this idea was a certain great Bohemian, Komensky, who is perhaps better known in our Western world by his Latinized name, Comenius. He professed himself the pupil of Bacon. He was the friend of Milton. He traveled from one European country to another with his political and educational ideas. For a time he thought of coming to America. It is a great pity that he never came. And his idea—the particular idea of his we are going to discuss—was the idea of a common book—a book of history, science and wisdom—which should form the basis and framework for the thoughts and imaginations of every citizen in the world.

In many ways the thinkers and writers of the early seventeenth century are, I think, more akin to us and more sympathetic with the world of to-day than any intervening group of literary figures. They strike us as having a longer vision than the men of the eighteenth century and as being bolder and—how shall I put it?—more desperate in their thinking than the nineteenth-century minds. And this closer affinity to our own time arises, I should think, directly and naturally out of the closer resemblance of their circumstances. Between 1640 and 1650, just as in our present age, the world was tremendously unsettled and distressed. A century and'more of expansion and prosperity had given place to a phase of conflict, exhaustion and entire political unsettlement. Britain was involved in the bitter political conflict that culminated in the execution of King Charles I. Ireland was a land of massacre and countermassacre. The Thirty Years' War in Central Europe was in its closing, most dreadful stages of famine and plunder. In France the crown and the nobles were struggling desperately for ascendancy in the War of the Fronde. The Turk threatened Vienna. Nowhere in Western Europe did there remain any secure and settled political arrangements. Everywhere there was disorder, everywhere it seemed that anything might happen; and it is just those disordered and indeterminate times that are most fruitful of bold religious and social and political and educational speculations and initiatives.

Is the Old Idea Practicable?

THIS was the period that produced the Quakers and a number of the most vigorous developments of Puritanism, in which the foundations of modern republicanism were laid, and in which the project of a world League of Nations—or rather of a world state—received wide attention. And the student of Comenius will find in him an active and sensitive mind responding with a most interesting similarity to our own responses to the similar conditions of his time. He had been distressed and dismayed—as most of us have been distressed and dismayed—by a rapid development of violence, by a great release of cruelty and suffering in human affairs. He felt none of the security that was felt in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the certainty of progress. He realized, as we do, that the outlook for humanity is a very dark and uncertain one unless human effort is stimulated and organized. He traced the evils of his time to human discords and divisions, to our political divisions and the mutual misconceptions due to our diversity of languages and leading ideas.

In all that, he might be writing and thinking in 1920. And his proposed remedies find an echo in a number of our contemporary movements. He wanted to bring all nations to form one single state. He wanted to have a universal language as the common medium of instruction and discussion, and he wanted to create a common book of necessary knowledge, a sort of common basis of wisdom, for all educated men in the world.

Now this last is the idea I would like to develop here. I would like to discuss whether our education—which nowadays in our modern states reaches everyone—whether our education can include and ought to include such a book of necessary knowledge and wisdom; and—having attempted to answer that inquiry in the affirmative—shall then attempt a sketch of such a book.

But to begin with, perhaps I may meet an objection that is likely to arise. I have called this hypothetical book of ours the Bible of Civilization, and it may be that someone will say, "Yes, but you have a sufficient book of that sort already; you have the Bible itself, and that is all you need." Well, I am taking the Bible as my model. I am taking it because twice in history—first as the Old Testament and then again as the Old and New Testament together—it has formed a culture, and unified and kept together through many generations great masses of people. It has been the basis of the Jewish and Christian civilizations alike. And even in the New World the state of Connecticut did, I believe, in its earliest beginnings, take the Bible as its only law. Throughout the most vital phases of Hebrew history, throughout the most living years of Christian development, the Bible changed and grew. Then its growth ceased and its text became fixed. But the world went on growing and discovering new needs and new necessities.

Modern Problems

LET me deal first with its redundancy. So far as redundancy goes, a great deal of the Book of Leviticus, for example, seems not vitally necessary for the ordinary citizen of to-day; there are long, explicit directions for temple worship and sacrificial procedure. There is, again, so far as the latter-day citizen is concerned, an excess of information about the minor kings of Israel and Judaea. And there is more light than most of us feel we require nowadays upon the foreign policies of Assyria and Egypt. It stirs our pulses feebly nowadays; it helps us only very indirectly to learn that Attai begat Nathan and Nathan begat Zabad, or that Obed begat Jehu and Jehu begat Azariah, and so on, for verse after verse.

And there are a great multitude of modern problems—problems that enter intimately into the moral life of all of us, with which the Bible does not deal—the establishment of American independence, for example, and the age-long feud of Russia and Poland that has gone on with varying fortunes for four centuries. That is much more important to our modern world than the ancient conflict of Assyria and Egypt which plays so large a part in the old Bible record. And there are all sorts of moral problems arising out of modern conditions on which the Bible sheds little or no direct light—the duties of a citizen at an election, or the duties of a shareholder to the labor employed by his company, for example. For these things we need at least a supplement, if we are still to keep our community upon one general basis of understanding, upon one unifying standard of thought and behavior.

We are all so brought up upon the Bible, we are all so used to it, long before we begin to think hard about it, that all sorts of things that are really very striking about it, the facts that the history of Judæa and Israel is told twice over and that the Gospel narrative is repeated four times over, for example, do not seem at all odd to us.

And still more remarkable, it seems to me, is it that the Bible breaks off. One could understand very well if the Bible broke off with the foundation of Christianity. Now this event has happened, it might say, nothing else matters. It is the culmination. But the Bible does not do that. It goes on to a fairly detailed account of the beginnings and early politics of the Christian Church. It gives the opening literature of theological exposition. And then, with that strange book, the Revelation of St. John the Divine, it comes to an end. As I say, it leaves off. It leaves off in the middle of Roman imperial and social conflicts. But the world has gone on and goes on—elaborating its problems, encountering fresh problems—until now there is a gulf of upwards of eighteen hundred years between us and the concluding expression of the thought of that ancient time.

I make these observations in no spirit of detraction. If anything, these peculiarities of the Bible add to the wonder of its influence over the lives and minds of men. It is the book that has held together the fabric of Western civilization. It has been the handbook of life to countless millions of men and women. The civilization we possess could not have come into existence and could not have been sustained without it. It has explained the world to the mass of our people, and it has given them moral standards and a form into which their consciences could work. But does it do that to-day? Frankly, I do not think it does. I think that during the last century the Bible has lost much of its former hold. It no longer grips the community. And I think it has lost hold because of those sundering eighteen centuries, to which every fresh year adds itself, because of profound changes in the methods and mechanisms of life and because of the vast extension of our ideas by the development of science in the last century or so.

Our Need of a Cohesive Force

IT HAS lost hold, but nothing has arisen to take its place. That is the gravest aspect of this matter. It was the cement with which our Western communities were built and by which they were held together. And the weathering of these centuries and the acids of these later years have eaten into its social and personal influence. It is no longer a sufficient cement. And—this is the essence of what I am driving at—our modern communities are no longer cemented; they lack organized solidarity, they are not prepared to stand shocks and strains, they have become dangerously loose mentally and morally. That, I believe, is the clew to a great proportion of the present social and political troubles of the world. We need to get back to a cement. We want a Bible. We want a Bible so badly that we cannot afford to put the old Bible on a pinnacle out of daily use. We want it readapted for use. If it is true that the old Bible falls short in its history and does not apply closely to many modern problems, then we need a revised and enlarged Bible in our schools and homes to restore a common ground of ideas and interpretations if our civilization is to hold together.

Now let us see what the Bible gave a man in the days when it could really grip and hold and contain him; and let us ask if it is impossible to restore and reconstruct a Bible for the needs of these great and dangerous days in which we are living. Can we recement our increasingly unstable civilization? I will not ask now whether there is still time left for us to do anything of the sort.