Quotations about   civilization

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I realize that all society rests upon force. But all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front. These intervals are what matter. I want them to be as frequent and as lengthy as possible, and I call them “civilization”.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Added on 10-Apr-19 | Last updated 10-Apr-19
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Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
“Papyrus to Paperbacks: The World That Books Made,” Washington Post (30 Dec 1979)
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Added on 15-Feb-18 | Last updated 15-Feb-18
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If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.

Orson Welles (1915-1985) American writer, director, actor
Interview with David Frost, David Frost Show (12 May 1970)
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Added on 19-Jun-17 | Last updated 21-Jun-17
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[T]here are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
“Christian Faith and the World Crisis,” Christianity and Crisis (10 Feb 1941)
Added on 12-Jun-17 | Last updated 12-Jun-17
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It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone — that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized — though I should not like to be put to giving names — but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“Homo Neandertalensis,” Baltimore Evening Sun (29 Jun 1925)
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Added on 8-May-17 | Last updated 8-May-17
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For to be civilized is to be incapable of giving unnecessary offense, it is to have some quality of consideration for all who cross our path.

Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) American writer
“A Question of Politeness,” Americans and Others (1912)
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Added on 24-Apr-17 | Last updated 24-Apr-17
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Men become civilized not in proportion to their willingness to believe but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“What I Believe,” sec. 4, Forum and Century (Sep 1930)
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Added on 17-Apr-17 | Last updated 17-Apr-17
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Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.

William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981) American historian, teacher, philosopher
The Lessons of History (1968)
Added on 10-Apr-17 | Last updated 10-Apr-17
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What has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power. This same tendency, operating with increasing force, is observable in our civilization to-day, showing itself in every progressive community, and with greater intensity the more progressive the community. Wages and interest tend constantly to fall, rent to rise, the rich to become very much richer, the poor to become more helpless and hopeless, and the middle class to be swept away.

Henry George (1839-1897) American economist
Progress and Poverty, “How Modern Civilization May Decline” (1879)
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Colonel Charles Yancy (6 Jan 1816)
Added on 20-Mar-17 | Last updated 20-Mar-17
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Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.

William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981) American historian, teacher, philosopher
(Attributed)
Added on 13-Mar-17 | Last updated 13-Mar-17
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A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.

William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981) American historian, teacher, philosopher
The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3: Caesar and Christ (1944)
Added on 27-Feb-17 | Last updated 27-Feb-17
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The civilized are those who get more out of life than the uncivilized, and for this the uncivilized have not forgiven them.

Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) English intellectual, literary critic and writer.
The Unquiet Grave (1944)
Added on 20-Feb-17 | Last updated 20-Feb-17
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The goal of every culture is to decay through over-civilization; the factors of decadence, — luxury, skepticism, weariness and superstition, — are constant. The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the next.

Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) English intellectual, literary critic and writer.
The Unquiet Grave (1944)
Added on 13-Feb-17 | Last updated 13-Feb-17
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Yet somehow our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) American writer
My Several Worlds (1954)
Added on 6-Feb-17 | Last updated 6-Feb-17
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The exact measure of the progress of civilization is the degree in which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force.

George Bancroft (1800-1891) American historian, statesman, education reformer
Speech, Adelphi Society, Liamstown College (Aug 1835)
Added on 30-Jan-17 | Last updated 30-Jan-17
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It is stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil, when he is the only explanation of it.

Ronald Knox (1888-1957) English priest, theologian, author, broadcaster
Let Dons Delight, ch. 8 (1939)
Added on 19-Jan-17 | Last updated 19-Jan-17
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Every civilization rests on a set of promises: moral promises about how to behave toward each other, physical promises about how to use our economic system. If the promises are broken too often, the civilization dies, no matter how rich it may be, or how mechanically clever. Hope and faith depend upon promises; if hope and faith go, everything goes.

Herbert Agar (1897-1980) American journalist and historian
(Attributed)
Added on 23-Nov-16 | Last updated 23-Nov-16
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As with most things in life, Lady Maccon preferred the civilized exterior to the dark underbelly (with the exception of pork products, of course).

Gail Carriger (b. 1976) American archaeologist, author [pen name of Tofa Borregaard]
Heartless (2011)
Added on 15-Sep-16 | Last updated 15-Sep-16
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A city is in many respects a great business corporation, but in other respects it is enlarged housekeeping. … May we not say that city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities?

Jane Addams (1860-1935) American reformer, suffragist, philosopher, author
Newer Ideals of Peace, “Utilization of Women in City Government” (1907)
Added on 30-Aug-16 | Last updated 30-Aug-16
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Consider as well that, however one may sing the praises of those who by their virtue either defend or increase the glory of their country, their actions only affect worldly prosperity, and within narrow limits. But the man who sets fallen learning on its feet (and this is almost more difficult than to originate it in the first place) is building up a sacred and immortal thing, and serving not one province alone but all peoples and all generations. Once this was the task of princes, and it was the greatest glory of Ptolemy. But his library was contained between the narrow walls of its own house, and Aldus is building up a library which has no other limits than the world itself.

Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536) Dutch humanist philosopher and scholar
The Adages, “Make Haste Slowly [Festina Lente]” (1508 ed.)
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Discussing the Aldine Press, the first modern publishing house. In Margaret Mann Phillips, ed., Erasmus on His Times (1967).
Added on 25-Aug-16 | Last updated 25-Aug-16
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The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.

Clarence Day (1874-1935) American author and cartoonist
The Story of the Yale University Press (1920)
Added on 9-Jun-16 | Last updated 9-Jun-16
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You express amazement at my statement that “civilized” men try to justify their looting, butchering and plundering by claiming that these things are done in the interests of art, progress and culture. That this simple statement of fact should cause surprise, amazes me in return. People claiming to possess superior civilization have always veneered their rapaciousness by such claims […] Your friend Mussolini is a striking modern-day example. In that speech of his I heard translated he spoke feelingly of the expansion of civilization. From time to time he has announced; “The sword and civilization go hand in hand!” “Wherever the Italian flag waves it will be as a symbol of civilization!” “Africa must be brought into civilization!” It is not, of course, because of any selfish motive that he has invaded a helpless country, bombing, burning and gassing both combatants and non-combatants by the thousands. Oh, no, according to his own assertions it is all in the interests of art, culture and progress, just as the German war-lords were determined to confer the advantages of Teutonic Kultur on a benighted world, by fire and lead and steel. Civilized nations never, never have selfish motives for butchering, raping and looting; only horrid barbarians have those.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) American author
Letter to H. P. Lovecraft (5 Dec 1935)
Added on 6-Jun-16 | Last updated 6-Jun-16
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Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) American author
“The Tower of the Elephant” (1933)
Added on 26-Feb-16 | Last updated 26-Feb-16
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NARRATOR: No moral. No message. No prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.

Serling - civlization to survive - wist_info quote

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
The Twilight Zone, 3×03 “The Shelter” (29 Sep 1961)
Added on 12-Feb-16 | Last updated 1-Jun-16
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The fact that boys are allowed to exist at all is evidence of remarkable Christian forbearance among men — were it not for a mawkish humanitarianism, coupled with imperfect digestive powers, we should devour our young, as Nature intended.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) American writer and journalist
“Town Crier” column, San Francisco News-Letter (c. 1870)
Added on 23-Dec-15 | Last updated 23-Dec-15
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Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice: the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude.

[Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Agricola, Book 1, para. 21 (AD 98) [tr. Church and Brodribb]

Alt. trans.: "Because they didn't know better, they called it 'civilization,' when it was part of their slavery."
Added on 7-Jul-15 | Last updated 7-Jul-15
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Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature, dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. The are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world, and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
“The Book,” Lecture, Library of Congress (17 Oct 1979)
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Reprinted in Authors' League Bulletin (Nov-Dec 1979)
Added on 7-Apr-15 | Last updated 7-Apr-15
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I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Speech, Amherst College (26 Oct 1963)
Added on 31-Dec-14 | Last updated 31-Dec-14
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But when our country had grown great through toil and the practice of justice, when great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairs. 2 Those who had found it easy to bear hardship and dangers, anxiety and adversity, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. 3 Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils. 4 For avarice destroyed honour, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything. 5 Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart.

[Sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, reges magni bello domiti, nationes ferae et populi ingentes vi subacti, Carthago aemula imperi Romani p18ab stirpe interiit, cuncta maria terraeque patebant, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit. 2 Qui labores, pericula, dubias atque asperas res facile toleraverant, eis otium, divitiae,7 optanda alias, oneri miseriaeque fuere. 3 Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit; ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. 4 Namque avaritia fidem, probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subvortit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. 5 Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re sed ex commodo aestumare magisque voltum quam ingenium bonum habere.]

Sallust (c. 86-35 BC) Roman historian and politician [Gaius Sallustius Crispus]
Catiline’s War [Bellum Catilinae], pt. 10 (42 BC) [tr. Loeb (1921)]

Alt. trans.:
  • "Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart."
  • "It is the nature of ambition to make men liars and cheats, to hide the truth in their breasts, and show, like jugglers, another thing in their mouths, to cut all friendships and enmities to the measure of their own interest, and to make a good countenance without the help of good will." (Source)
Added on 1-May-14 | Last updated 1-May-14
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The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) Russian novelist
The House of the Dead (1862) [tr. Garnett (1957)]
Added on 9-Feb-11 | Last updated 27-Feb-17
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Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) American jurist, Supreme Court Justice
Compania General De Tabacos De Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100 (1927) [Dissent]
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Full text is "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure.

References are also found (without citation) to a 1904 speech, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society" (this variation is quoted by the IRS above the entrance of their headquarters).  Bartlett's (1980) cites the above wording, but incorrectly claims it was in 1904.

In Felix Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court (1938), Holmes is quoted as rebuking a secretary's query about hating to pay taxes:  "No, young feller. I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization."

More information here.
Added on 16-Apr-10 | Last updated 10-Apr-17
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A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
Comment (26 Oct 1769)

Quoted by Rev. Dr. Maxwell. In James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).
Added on 3-Aug-09 | Last updated 17-Apr-17
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