I found myself in need of a job. After a month of filling out applications and sitting through interviews, I finally chanced on an offer to work as a janitor in a cheap hotel. It was just off the I-5 onramp, in a section of my hometown in western Oregon noteworthy for nothing but its strip malls, gas stations, and occasional monster.

Truth be told, scrubbing toilets and cleaning carpets for a few months is not a job you’re disposed to brag about in polite company. After spending six months fighting with a vacuum, it became clear to me that the line dividing civilization from barbarism is a boundary that marks abiding possibilities of every human heart.

Life off the I-5 onramp

A cheap hotel is transitive, shoddy, and alienating: impermanent, undervalued, and unfriendly. Despite providing the “comforts of home,” it could not be less homelike. I opened empty rooms only to find them full of trash. Not just a few empty beer cans and sticky wrappers: I mean mountains of trash that took several hours just to clear up; bed sheets that had to be thrown away because they were streaked with human waste; cheap children’s toys worked in garish plastic; spent syringes.

Another, more perplexing feature had to with relationships. There were plenty of regular roomers who had the potential to be characters from Dickens or O’Connor. There was a spindle-thin grandmother with bleached hair, perpetually irate at her chubby eight-year old charge. There were the “lovers” who needed a room for a few hours. There was “Pirate Dave,” a burly guy who squatted in his beat-up RV at the edge of the hotel property for a month. There was the stone-drunk seventy-year old who had fallen off the edge of her bed, breaking her hip.

Is this Civilization or Barbarism?

To talk of “civilization” and “barbarism” may seem tantamount to conjuring Victorian ghosts of an apotheosized bourgeois civility. Our post-Said, post-Levinas haute culture may have good reasons for dismissing the classical opposition between the civilized and barbaric as obsolete and indeed totalizing categories that fail to do justice to the complexity and difference between persons. One might even object that one man’s—or culture’s—civilization is another’s barbarism, and so conclude the terms to be basically meaningless. We are not Greeks and Persians any longer, or so our educators are apt to teach.

Given these kinds of objections—no more than sketched here—it seems that “civilization” and “barbarism” are so loaded down with semantic baggage that they are, at best, anachronistic; at worst, the expression of injustice or the self-congratulatory praise of those “who happen to be merely walking about,” as G.K. Chesterton puts it. Still, they continue to form part of our speech. A cruel action may be described as “barbaric;” a polite, well-rounded person as “civilized.” I suggest that, given our culturally pluralistic society, the creative retrieval of “civilization” and “barbarism” will involve a moral use of these terms.

Saving Civilization and Barbarism.

Civilization is not only composed of artifacts and social structures, but also decision-making, purpose-setting people who set rival possibilities of decisions and purposes over against each other and resolve them through deliberation, in an ever-wider scope of moral reflection. The net worth of these decisions and purposes take the shape of a particular life whose coherence unfolds over time. In brief, the public actions of people offer clues to the story of their lives as moral agents.

Much remains hidden—intention, history, mitigating circumstances—but the possibility of making moral sense of human action remains. We need an outline of an elementary standard that allows us to distinguish between civilization and barbarism as qualitatively distinct, publically embodied forms of human living. This standard may be enunciated as follows: civilization is the delay of self-gratification; barbarism is its indulgence. The question here is what enables a humane standard of living. If we can answer this question, it may be possible to get to the moral heart of a particular civilization.

As a janitor, one of the things I learned was that our American hometowns have a raw underside not readily apparent to the public eye: a mass of sordid, stupid choices that crowd and disorient people’s lives and become publically visible in the way they live. Emily Dickinson proves insightful here:

The soul asks pleasure first,

And then, relief from pain,

And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering.

Without giving way to the twin errors of tragic sentimentality or indifference, reflection on these choices as they become apparent “at the margins” can challenge us locally and generally: locally, by considering what features of our society stimulate these decisions; generally, by asking what they can tell us about the more permanent features of the moral landscape.

It makes moral sense to speak about barbarism when confronted by a standard of human living that is dominated by self-gratification. A civilization whose features help to perpetuate decisions that lead to barbarism is one that has lost its way. Any social critique that seeks to understand the causes of low standards of human life must go hand-in-hand with a moral grammar that is able to articulate why people may choose to live as they do. We not only need social justice, but also temperance, courage, and prudence.

To close on a confessional note, one of the things that the present Pope has constantly reiterated is the need for Christians to “go out to the outskirts of society” as a form of evangelizing charity. If civilization is the positive progress of people bound together by shared practices of self-discipline, then the virtues of Christians committed to the task of social outreach find common cause with the progress of civilization. Fighting barbarians with a vacuum means, ultimately, to remain committed to the dignity of the human person and to be willing to exercise the virtues needed to make the perfection of that dignity possible.