W.H. Auden once proposed that the extent of civilization could be judged by a dual standard: both “the the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” I don’t fully agree, but at least to me, the idea captures something important. Here’s how Auden put it in his introductory editor’s essay for The Portable Greek Reader, published in 1948.
There is no single Greek literary work of art as great as The Divine Comedy; there is no extant series of works by a single Greek literary artist as impressive as the complete plays of Shakespeare; as a period of sustained creative activity in one medium, the seventy-five-odd years of Athenian drama, between the first tragedies of Aeschylus and the last comedy of Aristophanes, are surpassed by the hundred and twenty-five years, between Gluck’s Orpheus and Verdi’s Otello, which comprise the golden age of European opera: nevertheless, the bewildered comment of any fifth century Athenian upon our society from Dante’s time till our own, and with increasing sharpness every decade, would surely be: “Yes, I can see all the works of a great civilization; but why cannot I meet any civilized persons? I only encounter specialists, artists who know nothing of science, scientists who know nothing of art, philosophers who have no interest in God, priests who are unconcerned with politics, politicians who only know other politicians. …
Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilization is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain of the maximum number of distinct activities. …
In a society like our own … when a man goes to the ballet, he goes simply to enjoy himself and all he demands is that choreography and performance shall be aesthetically satisfying; when he goes to Mass, he knows that it is irrelevant whether the Mass be well or badly sung, for what matters is the attitude of his will towards God and his neighbor; when he plows a field, he knows that whether the tractor be beautiful or ugly or whether he be a repentant or a defiant sinner is irrelevant to his success or failure. … [T]he danger for him is that, instead of being a complete person at every moment, he will be split into three unrelated fragments which are always competing for dominance: the aesthetic fragment which goes to the ballet, the religious which goes to Mass, and the practical which earns its living.
lf a civilization be judged by this double standard, the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained, then it is hardly too much to say that the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. were the most civilized people who have so far existed. The fact that nearly all the words we use to define activities and branches of knowledge, e.g., chemistry, physics, economics, politics , ethics, aesthetics, theology, tragedy, comedy, etc ., are of Greek origin is proof of their powers of conscious differentiation; their literature and their history are evidence of their ability to maintain a sense of common interrelation, a sense which we have in great measure lost as they themselves lost it in a comparatively short time.
This passage is written as an introduction to a reader of some of the great works of ancient Greece, so some exaggeration seems permissible. Still, Auden jumps violently here between what civilization means for individuals and the legacy of some of the greatest writers of ancient Greece. For those actually living in ancient Greece–of whom maybe one-fourth were slaves–you didn’t just meander down the street saying hello to Aristotle and Homer, Sappho and Aristophanes. My guess is that the lament of “why can I not meet any civilized persons?” was heard at that time, too. Auden seems pretty quick to jump from pointing out that Greek philosophers passed down “words we use to define activities and branches of knowledge,” to assuming that Greek people of that time used those words and lived the richness of experience they imply. But you can’t judge what “civilization” was like at a certain time and a place just by looking at the few works of literature and philosophy that survive centuries later.
That said, I’m intrigued by Auden’s notion that “the ideal of civilization is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain of the maximum number of distinct activities.” Think about a modern person who lives in a suburb, works in a city, and vacations at a getaway resort. Think about a modern person who eats a different cuisine almost every day of the week, or for different meals in the same day, without thinking twice about it. Think about the modern person with a range of reading material from news stories to internet memes, from summertime vacation reading to a more serious “book club.” Think about a modern person whose entertainment choices range across music, theater, movies, and art, from a range of different times and places. Think about a modern person who, at least a few times in their life, has travelled across continents or halfway around the world.
There is a challenge here: a civilized person should be more than a disconnected collector of experiences, but should also have anchors in their own background and tradition. As Auden defines the test for civilization, it includes both “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” I have no useful internal scale for measuring the extent of “civilization” as a whole. But for those who reach out to take advantage of the range of diversity and unity that the modern world has to offer, the possibilities for achieving a civilized life seem extraordinary.