We find ourselves to-day in the midst of a somewhat peculiar state of society, which we call Civilization, but which even to the most optimistic among us does not seem altogether desirable. Some of us, indeed, are inclined to think that it is a kind of disease which the various races of man have to pass through – as children pass through measles or whooping cough; but if it is a disease, there is this serious consideration to be made, that while History tells us of many nations that have been attacked by it, of many that have succumbed to it, and of some that are still in the throes of it, we know of no single case in which a nation has fairly recovered from and passed through it to a more normal and healthy condition. In other words the development of human society has never yet (that we know of) passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in the process we call Civilization; at that stage it has always succumbed or been arrested.
Of course it may at first sound extravagant to use the word disease in connection with Civilization at all, but a little thought should show that the association is not ill-grounded. To take the matter on its physical side first, I find that in Mullhall’s Dictionary of Statistics (1884) the number of accredited doctors and surgeons in the United Kingdom is put at over 23,000. If the extent of the national sickness is such that we require 23,000 medical men to attend to us, it must surely be rather serious! And they do not cure us. Wherever we look to-day, in mansion or in slum, we see the features and hear the complaints of ill-health; the difficulty is really to find a healthy person. The state of the modern civilized man in this respect – our coughs, colds, mufflers, dread of a waft of chill air, etc. – is anything but creditable, and it seems to be the fact that, notwithstanding all our libraries of medical science, our knowledge, arts, and appliances of life, we are actually less capable of taking care of ourselves than the animals are. Indeed, talking of animals, we are – as Shelley I think points out – fast depraving the domestic breeds. The cow, the horse, the sheep, and even the confiding pussy-cat, are becoming ever more and more subject to disease, and are liable to ills which in their wilder state they knew not of. And finally the savage races of the earth do not escape the baneful influence.
Wherever Civilization touches them, they die like flies from the small-pox, drink, and worse evils it brings along with it, and often its mere contact is sufficient to destroy whole races. But the word Disease is applicable to our social as well as to our physical condition. For as in the body disease arises from the loss of the physical unity which constitutes Health, and so takes the form of warfare or discord between the various parts, or of the abnormal development of individual organs, or the consumption of the system by predatory germs and growths; so in our modern life we find the unity gone which constitutes true society, and in its place warfare of classes and individuals, abnormal development of some to the detriment of others, and consumption of the organism by masses of social parasites. If the word disease is applicable anywhere, I should say it is – both in its direct and its derived sense – to the civilized societies of to-day.
Adapted from Civilization: Its Cause and Cure And Other Essays by Edward Carpenter, 2013
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