“A Talk” – ‘The Story of Civilisation’ (1931)


‘The Story of Civilization’ by C.E.M. Joad – A Sweet Short Profound Book

‘The Story of Civilization’ by C.E.M. Joad – A Sweet Short Profound Book

“… being civilized mean[s] making and liking beautiful things, thinking freely, and living rightly and maintaining justice equally between man and man. Man has a better chance today to do these things than he ever had before.”

CEM Joad’s The Story of Civilization is one of the best examples of the cliche that awesome things come in small packages. All of 94 pages in big font, it packs in some profound philosophy in palatable, often delicious, lines. I read it as a child when my guru, my English teacher, lent it to me (he used to say I bought this book only for two rupees from a roadside book vendor). The book and its take on what it means to be ‘civilized’ have stayed with me ever since. If you want to introduce a child or a young mind to philosophy and good ideas, this is the go-to book. In fact the book’s intended primary audience, when it was first published, was kids.

The Story of Civilization was written in 1931. Author Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was one of Britain’s most colorful and controversial intellectual figures of the 1940s. It is very difficult to find this book or references to it these days: I was surprised to see that even goodreads‘s page on CEM Joad does not mention it. The oblivion that the book currently is in prompted me to write this post. While a lot of what Joad wrote is out-dated information, the beauty of some of his ideas is eternal.

Joad begins his discourse on civilization with a chapter titled ‘A Talk’, in which he describes a wonderful conversation with Lucy (probably his daughter). Below are screenshots of the first two pages of the book:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 3.52.58 pm  Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 3.53.15 pm

The remaining post contains select lines and passages from the book, chapterwise. (I have italicized my personal favorites. I urge readers to remember, at all times, that all of this was written some 90 years back.)


Most of the people who appear most often and most gloriously in the history books are great conquerors and generals and soldiers, whereas the people who really helped civilization forward are often never mentioned at all. We do not know who first set a broken leg, or launched a seaworthy boat, or calculated the length of the year, or manured a field; but we know all about the killers and destroyers.

And I think most people believe that the greatest countries are those that have beaten in battle the greatest number of other countries and ruled over them as conquerors. It is just possible they are, but they are not the most civilized. Fighting means killing, and civilized peoples ought to be able to find some way of settling their disputes other than by seeing which side can kill off the greater number of the other side, and then saying that that side which has killed most has won. And not only has won, but, because it has won, has been in the right.

Chapter 1 – The Great Religious Teachers:

The earliest civilizations of which I shall write are those of India and China… In the sixth century before Christ there arose in India and China three great teachers who tried to make men understand that it was important to do what was right for its own sake, quite apart from whether there was a God or not… The teachings of Buddha, Lao-Tse and Confucius are known in China as the Three Teachings.

He is the only king I shall mention in this book, and his name is Asoka (264-227 B.C.)… Unlike other conquerors in history, he seems to have realized the suffering that war involved… He did much to make India prosperous by digging wells, planting trees, founding hospitals, and educating his people. He even tried to educate women, which was an unheard-of thing in those days.

Chapter 2 – Greece and the Making of Beautiful Things:

From time to time in the history of the world a small section of the human race has gone up like a rocket, and, breaking out like a shower of sparks, lit up everybody and everything around it. Of all these soarings of the human spirit the uprising of the fifth century (B.C.) Greeks was the most startling.

Socrates used to go to the market place and ask people inconvenient questions, the sort that children sometimes ask grown-up people, and which always annoy grown-up people when they find that they don’t know the answers, although they thought they did. Socrates annoyed the Athenians so much that they accused him of harming young men’s minds and had him poisoned.

[Joad proceeds to talk about the ancient Greeks being doctors, historians, scientists and philosophers, and also talks about Dutch and Italian painters, and German musicians. I omit chapter 3.]

Chapter 4 – How Science Has Changed Our Lives:

Human beings today know more than they did two hundred years ago.. and they are not so much afraid of things. This last point is important. Through most of history men have been terribly afraid.. not only of wars and pestilences and famines, but also of unreal things, of the wrath of angry gods, of curses, of the Evil Eye… We call this fear of unreal things superstitious fear, and one of the things science has done is largely to free men of superstitious fears.

The discovery of anaesthetics does not sound particularly important, but it is probable that no single discovery of science has done more to increase people’s happiness.

Chapter 5 – The Spreading of Knowledge:

Once printing was discovered, it did not matter how soon you died or how many copies of what you had written were eaten by mice, for, so long as one copy remained, the idea could be made to last for just so long as people could go on printing it.

Books are the chief carriers of civilization; because of them ideas live and spread.

(The following discourse on tolerance assumes enormous importance in today’s highly fractious times.)

A tolerant person is one who does not interfere with other people, even if he thinks they are wrong, but is prepared to let them think what they like and say what they think. If he thinks they are wrong, he may try to persuade [italics from the original] them to believe differently, but he will not force them… Intolerance has been particularly common in religious matters.

This is how he further beautifully elaborates tolerance:

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 8.10.31 pm   Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 8.12.03 pm

Chapter 6 – The Sharing of Money:

An economically just society would be one where everybody who is prepared to work is certain of getting a reasonable amount of money… In spite of revolutions the advance in economic justice has been very small… We cannot have an all-round civilization while the rewards which people get for their work are so unequal.

Thus the good things that science has brought into this world have not been distributed equally, a fair share to everybody… And much of the money has just been wasted; for example, on wars, and on guns and battleships and tanks for fighting wars.

One thing is fairly certain, and that is that there cannot be any good and lasting civilization in the world until whatever wealth there is, is more fairly divided than it is at present.

Chapter 7 – Our Own Civilization:

Science has given us powers fit for the gods, yet we use them like small children… Machines were made to be man’s servants; yet he has become so dependent on them that they are in a fair way to become his masters.

And this brings me to the point at which I asked, “What we do with all the time which the machines have saved for us, and the new energy they have given us ?” On the whole, it must be admitted, we do very little. For the most part we use our time and energy to make more and better machines; but more and better machines will only give us still more time and still more energy, and what are we to do with them? The answer, I think, is that we should try to become mere civilized. For the machines themselves, and the power which the machines have given us, are not civilization but aids to civilization.


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