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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Civilization
By François Guizot (1787–1874)
 
From the ‘General History of Civilization in Europe’

THE SITUATION in which we are placed, as Frenchmen, affords us a great advantage for entering upon the study of European civilization; for without intending to flatter the country to which I am bound by so many ties, I cannot but regard France as the centre, as the focus, of the civilization of Europe. It would be going too far to say that she has always been, upon every occasion, in advance of other nations. Italy at various epochs has outstripped her in the arts; England, as regards political institutions, is by far before her; and perhaps at certain moments we may find other nations of Europe superior to her in various particulars; but it must still be allowed that whenever France has set forward in the career of civilization, she has sprung forth with new vigor, and has soon come up with or passed by all her rivals.  1
  Not only is this the case, but those ideas, those institutions which promote civilization but whose birth must be referred to other countries, have, before they could become general or produce fruit, before they could be transplanted to other lands or benefit the common stock of European civilization, been obliged to undergo in France a new preparation; it is from France, as from a second country more rich and fertile, that they have started forth to make the conquest of Europe. There is not a single great idea, not a single great principle of civilization, which in order to become universally spread has not first passed through France.  2
  There is indeed in the genius of the French something of a sociableness, of a sympathy,—something which spreads itself with more facility and energy than in the genius of any other people: it may be in the language or the particular turn of mind of the French nation; it may be in their manners, or that their ideas, being more popular, present themselves more clearly to the masses, penetrate among them with greater ease: but in a word, clearness, sociability, sympathy, are the particular characteristics of France, of its civilization; and these qualities render it eminently qualified to march at the head of European civilization.  3
  In studying then the history of this great fact, it is neither an arbitrary choice nor a convention that leads us to make France the central point from which we shall study it; but it is because we feel that in so doing we in a manner place ourselves in the very heart of civilization itself—in the heart of the very fact which we desire to investigate….  4
  Civilization is just one of this kind of facts: it is so general in its nature that it can scarcely be seized, so complicated that it can scarcely be unraveled, so hidden as to be scarcely discernible. The difficulty of describing it, of recounting its history, is apparent and acknowledged; but its existence, its worthiness to be described and to be recounted, are not less certain and manifest. Then, respecting civilization, what a number of problems remain to be solved! It may be asked, it is even now disputed, whether civilization be a good or an evil. One party decries it as teeming with mischief to man, while another lauds it as the means by which he will attain his highest dignity and excellence. Again, it is asked whether this fact is universal; whether there is a general civilization of the whole human race, a course for humanity to run, a destiny for it to accomplish; whether nations have not transmitted from age to age something to their successors which is never lost, but which grows and continues as a common stock, and will thus be carried on to the end of all things. For my part, I feel assured that human nature has such a destiny; that a general civilization pervades the human race; that at every epoch it augments, and that consequently there is a universal history of civilization yet to be written. Nor have I any hesitation in asserting that this history is the most noble, the most interesting of any, and that it comprehends every other.  5
  Is it not indeed clear that civilization is the great fact in which all others merge; in which they all end, in which they are all condensed, in which all others find their importance? Take all the facts of which the history of a nation is composed, all the facts which we are accustomed to consider as the elements of its existence—take its institutions, its commerce, its industry, its wars, the various details of its government; and if you would form some idea of them as a whole, if you would see their various bearings on each other, if you would appreciate their value, if you would pass a judgment upon them, what is it you desire to know? Why, what they have done to forward the progress of civilization; what part they have acted in this great drama; what influence they have exercised in aiding its advance. It is not only by this that we form a general opinion of these facts, but it is by this standard that we try them, that we estimate their true value. These are as it were the rivers, of which we ask how much water they have carried to the ocean. Civilization is as it were the grand emporium of a people, in which all its wealth, all the elements of its life, all the powers of its existence, are stored up. It is so true that we judge of minor facts accordingly as they affect this greater one, that even some which are naturally detested and hated, which prove a heavy calamity to the nation upon which they fall,—say for instance despotism, anarchy, and so forth,—even these are partly forgiven, their evil nature is partly overlooked, if they have aided in any considerable degree the march of civilization. Wherever the progress of this principle is visible, together with the facts which have urged it forward, we are tempted to forget the price it has cost; we overlook the dearness of the purchase.  6
  Again, there are certain facts which properly speaking cannot be called social—individual facts which rather concern the human intellect than public life; such are religious doctrines, philosophical opinions, literature, the sciences and arts. All these seem to offer themselves to individual man for his improvement, instruction, or amusement, and to be directed rather to his intellectual melioration and pleasure than to his social condition. Yet still, how often do these facts come before us—how often are we compelled to consider them as influencing civilization! In all times, in all countries, it has been the boast of religion that it has civilized the people among whom it has dwelt. Literature, the arts and sciences, have put in their claim for a share of this glory; and mankind has been ready to laud and honor them whenever it has felt that this praise was fairly their due. In the same manner, facts the most important—facts of themselves, and independently of their exterior consequences, the most sublime in their nature—have increased in importance, have reached a higher degree of sublimity, by their connection with civilization. Such is the worth of this great principle that it gives a value to all it touches. Not only so, but there are even cases in which the facts of which we have spoken—in which philosophy, literature, the sciences, and the arts—are especially judged and condemned or applauded according to their influence upon civilization.  7
 
 
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