Quotations about   civilization

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Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) American writer
Parable of the Sower, ch. 10 (1993)
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Added on 24-Jun-21 | Last updated 24-Jun-21
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And speech he has learned, and thought
So swift, and the temper of mind
To dwell within cities, and not to lie bare
Amid the keen, biting frosts
Or cower beneath pelting rain;
Full of resource against all that comes to him
is Man. Against Death alone
He is left with no defence.

[καὶ φθέγμα καὶ ἀνεμόεν φρόνημα καὶ ἀστυνόμους
ὀργὰς ἐδιδάξατο καὶ δυσαύλων
πάγων ὑπαίθρεια καὶ δύσομβρα φεύγειν βέλη
παντοπόρος: ἄπορος ἐπ᾽ οὐδὲν ἔρχεται
τὸ μέλλον: Ἅιδα μόνον φεῦξιν οὐκ ἐπάξεται.]

Sophocles (496-406 BC) Greek tragic playwright
Antigone, l. 354ff, Stasimon 1, Strophe 2 [Chorus] (441 BC) [tr. Kitto (1962)]
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Original Greek. Alternate translations:

Language and lofty thought,
And dispositions meet for order'd cities,
These he hath taught himself; -- and how to shun
The shafts of comfortless winter, --
Both those which smite when the sky is clear,
And those which fall in showers; --
with plans for all things,
Planless in nothing, meets he the future!
Of death alone the avoidance
No foreign aid will bring.
[tr. Donaldson (1848)]

Speech and the wind-swift speed of counsel and civic wit,
He hath learnt for himself all these; and the arrowy rain to fly
And the nipping airs that freeze, 'neath the open winter sky.
He hath provision for all: fell plague he hath learnt to endure;
Safe whate'er may befall: yet for death he hath found no cure.
[tr. Storr (1859)]

Wise utterance and wind-swift thought, and city-moulding mind,
And shelter from the clear-eyed power of biting frost,
He hath taught him, and to shun the sharp, roof-penetrating rain, --
Full of resource, without device he meets no coming time;
From Death alone he shall not find reprieve;
No league may gain him that relief.
[tr. Campbell (1873)]

Speech and thought fast as the wind and the moods that give order to a city he has taught himself, and how to flee the arrows of the inhospitable frost under clear skies and the arrows of the storming rain. He has resource for everything. Lacking resource in nothing he strides towards what must come. From Death alone he shall procure no escape.
[tr. Jebb (1891)]

And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when 'tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain.
[tr. Jebb (1917)]

Words also, and thought as rapid as air,
He fashions to his good use; statecraft is his,
And his the skill that deflects the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain: from every wind
He has made himself secure -- from all but one:
In the late wind of death he cannot stand.
[tr. Fitts/Fitzgerald (1939)]

The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain
He learnt; found out the laws of living together
In cities, building him shelter against the rain
And wintry weather.
There is nothing beyond his power. His subtlety
Meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth.
For every ill he hath found its remedy,
Save only death.
[tr. Watling (1947), l. 295ff]

Language, and thought like the wind
and the feelings that make the town,
he has taught himself, and shelter against the cold,
refuge from rain. He can always help himself.
He faces no future helpless. There's only death
that he cannot find an escape from.
[tr. Wyckoff (1954)]

And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city --
all these he has taught himself
and shelter from the arrows of the frost
when there's rough lodging under the cold clear sky
and the shafts of lashing rain --
ready, resourceful man!
Never without resources
never an impasse as he marches on the future --
only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue.
[tr. Fagles (1982)]

Language and a mind swift as the wind
For making plans --
These he has taught himself --
And the character to live in cities under law.
He's learned to take cover from a frost
And escape sharp arrows of sleet.
He has the means to handle every need,
Never steps toward the future without the means.
Except for Death: He's got no relief from that.
[tr. Woodruff (2001)]

Both language and thought swift as wind
and impulses that govern cities,
he has taught himself, as well as how
to escape the shafts of rain
while encamped beneath open skies.
All resourceful, he approaches no future thing
to come without resource. From Hades alone
he will not contrive escape.
[tr. Tyrell/Bennett (2002)]

And man has learnt speech and thought, swifter than the wind he mastered
And learnt to govern his cities well
And this omniscient being has learnt how to avoid the blasts of the wild open air: the arrows of the freezing night, the dreadful wind driven piercing gale!
He’s prepared for all events bar Death and from Death he can find no escape.
[tr. Theodoridis (2004)]

He’s taught himself speech and wind-swift thought,
trained his feelings for communal civic life,
learning to escape the icy shafts of frost,
volleys of pelting rain in winter storms,
the harsh life lived under the open sky.
That’s man -- so resourceful in all he does.
There’s no event his skill cannot confront --
other than death -- that alone he cannot shun.
[tr. Johnston (2005), l. 405ff]

He taught himself language and wind-like thought and city-ruling urges, how to flee the slings of frost under winter's clear sky and the arrows of stormy rain, ever-resourceful. Against no possibility is he at a loss. For death alone he finds no aid.
[tr. Thomas (2005)]

Added on 29-Apr-21 | Last updated 9-May-21
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Man’s urge for change and his need for stability have always balanced and checked each other, and our current vocabulary, which distinguishes between two factions, the progressives and the conservatives, indicates a state of affairs in which this balance has been thrown out of order. No civilization — the man-made artifact to house successive generations — would ever have been possible without a framework of stability, to provide the wherein for the flux of change.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“On Violence,” Crises of the Republic (1972)
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If a predatory enemy to our species can’t unite everyone on Earth to fight it, I’m left wondering what hope remains for Civilization.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (b. 1958) American astrophysicist, author, orator
Twitter (19 Apr 2020)
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Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Society in its full sense […] is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates. Conversely, no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual.

Ruth Benedict (1887-1947) American anthropologist
Patterns of Culture, ch. 8 “The Individual and Culture” (1934)
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Sometimes quoted as "The community is never an entity ...."
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There is no accepted test of civilization. It is not wealth, or the degree of comfort, or the average duration of life, or the increase of knowledge. All such tests would be disputed. In default of any other measure, may it not be suggested that as good a measure as any is the degree to which justice is carried out, the degree to which men are sensitive as to wrong-doing and desirous to right it? If that be the test, a trial such as that of Servetus is a trial of the people among whom it takes place, and his condemnation is theirs also.

John Macdonell (1846-1921) British jurist
Historical Trials, ch. 7 (1927)
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John Calvin ordered Michael Servetus be imprisoned for heresy in Geneva; he was tried, then burned at the stake in 1553.
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The newspapers still talk about glory but the average man, thank God, has got rid of that illusion. It is a damned bore, with a stalemate as the most probable outcome, but one has to see it through, and see it through with the knowledge that whichever side wins, civilisation in Europe will be pipped for the next 30 years. Don’t indulge in Romance here, Malcolm, or suppose that an era of jolly little nationalities is dawning. We shall be much too much occupied with pestilence and poverty to reconstruct.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
Letter to Malcolm Darling (6 Nov 1914)
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The world is very full of people — appallingly full; it has never been so full before — and they are all tumbling over each other. Most of these people one doesn’t know and some of them one doesn’t like; doesn’t like the colour of their skins, say, or the shapes of their noses, or the way they blow them or don’t blow them, or the way they talk, or their smell or their clothes, or their fondness for jazz or their dislike of jazz, and so on. Well, what is one to do?

There are two solutions. One of them is the Nazi solution. If you don’t like people, kill them, banish them, segregate them, and then strut up and down proclaiming that you are the salt of the earth.

The other way is much less thrilling, but it is on the whole the way of the democracies, and I prefer it. If you don’t like people, put up with them as well as you can. Don’t try to love them; you can’t, you’ll only strain yourself. But try to tolerate them. On the basis of that tolerance a civilised future may be built.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“The Unsung Virtue of Tolerance,” radio broadcast (Jul 1941)
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Published as "Tolerance," Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)
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Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) British writer [Herbert George Wells]
The Outline of History, Vol. 2, ch. 41, sec. 4 (1921)
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Also attributed to Wells: "Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have."
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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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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)
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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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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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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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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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).
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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."
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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)
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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)
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The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? ch. 5 “Where We Are Going?” (1967)
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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)]
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Any government is in itself an evil insofar as it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into tyranny. However, except for a very small number of anarchists, everyone of us is convinced that civilized society cannot exist without a government.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“A Reply to the Soviet Scientists” (Dec 1947), Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (Feb 1948)
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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."

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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).
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Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being. I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime; nevertheless, I must protect myself from unpleasant contacts. I may consider him guiltless, but I prefer not to take tea with him.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
“What Life Means to Einstein,” Interview with G. Viereck, Saturday Evening Post (26 Oct 1929)
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Edited as "I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly. I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him," in Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (1930).
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Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
“Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790)
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