Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civilization and Sanity

In Book I of his magnificent History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides famously noted that the ancient Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a more civilized way of life. The epic battle between barbarism and civilization which has characterized much of human history has been a back-and-forth series of advances and setbacks. States - whether classical or Rennaisance cities or ancient or modern empires or post-Westphalian national states - all states serve many functions - from organizing irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia to guaranteeing universal health care in modern democracies. But inherent in the nature and purpose of any State deserving of the name is certainly the provision of order, internal and external security, and some modicum of justice. One step in that direction, which (at least accoridng to Thucydides) the Athenians were among the first to pursue systematically, is the reduction and control of private violence, which can only be achieved by ensuring that the State alone exercises force legitimately. This monopoly of legitimate force is exercised domestically through the State's police power and internationally through the State's military, naval, and air forces.
Cities (hence "civilization") emerged in human history to provide ordered security and to promote prosperity. All too often, however, the presence of private weaponry has inhibited the achievement of this essential purpose. The United States has long been the envy of the world for its political liberty and economic abundance. Its remaining deficiencies, therefore, seem all that much more glaring and cry out all that much luder for remedy. Other societies have their serious deficiencies too, of course; but most modern democracies have long been way ahead of the United States in the provision of universal health care, for example, and in restricting the legitimate use of violence to a State monopoly. The peculilar American practice of tolerating widespread private gun ownership and its resulting social dysfunctions has long been a negative mark against our aspiration to civilization - and social sanity.
To make advances in the struggle for civilization - and sanity - even modest steps, such as those finally being proposed by the President to get some control over the perennial American plague of guns - are to be commended. It's rather late in the day, but late is still better than never.

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