Political Psychology 1996, 17(3), 587-589.


The ethical crises of civilization. By Leslie Lipson.
Sage Publications. Newbury Park.
1993. 343 pp. Paper.

The author of this book seems to be known as the author of a long-influential political science textbook and for TV appearances. As we will see below, however, his present book fares badly when judged by normal scholarly standards. As such, its interest would appear to be essentially personal rather than academic.

The author declares himself at the outset to be a political liberal and disavows the aim of being "value-free" in his work. His book does appear to be largely true to this declaration and this alone would appear to limit the interest of the book.

Some of the author's biases do have a rather 19th Century ring -- e.g. "The faith to which I adhere is a faith in humanity" (p.12). Why any faith of any kind is deemed necessary we are left to guess. Are we meant to understand that the skeptically-inclined need read no further? Such utterances do serve to make clear, however, that any conclusions the author draws will be highly coloured by the author's viewpoint.

The ostensible scope of the book ("Civilization") is remarkably broad so it should not really surprise us that the treatment given to this large topic is desultory and idiosyncratic. As just one indicator of this, one might note that civilization in India and China is covered in a single chapter of 14 pages (out of a total of 343 pages)! The author's conception of "civilization" would thus appear to be profoundly ethnocentric.

The whole purpose, aim and point of the book is remarkably diffuse. It is more like a ramble through (selected) history than a book concerned to argue a thesis or draw any conclusions. As far as one can tell, the book seems to be motivated by puzzlement over the combination of highly ethical and highly unethical behaviour that seems to characterize our times. The author seems to want to use history to help him decide which way human society is progressing -- towards greater or lesser altruism. He seems to hope that history will provide some precedent that will help us to understand where we are going but in the end finds (unsurprisingly) nothing in history that can really do that.

Throughout the book there are bold claims made with only a minimum of argument and no supporting references. For example, the statement that Western civilization began in Minoan Crete (p. 41) will no doubt surprise many. There is no consideration given to the claims of other societies for this honour and the arguments advanced in favour of Crete are:

1). That Crete depended significantly on the sea;
2). That the religious temples found were small and,
3). That Cretan art is judged by Lipson to be "joyous, blithe, fresh and free".

A more idiosyncratic set of criteria would be hard to imagine but, despite that, no argument about the centrality or importance of these criteria is advanced.

As the conception of what constitutes civilization would appear to be central to any evaluation of this book, however, one might ask in passing at this point if ancient Roman art too was "joyous, blithe, fresh and free"? I suspect not. Ponderous, formal and derivative, perhaps, but hardly "joyous, blithe, fresh and free". So does that make Rome no part of the development of Western civilization? To assert as much would surely be absurd. So Lipson's criteria for what constitutes Western civilization obviously run into serious difficulties at almost the moment we begin to examine them.

Another surprising assertion is that: "Socrates, not Jesus, has been the mentor of the civilization that in modern times has influenced or dominated most of the planet" (p. 63). Since the New Testament is found in almost every home of the Western world whereas the Socratic dialogues would normally be found only the homes of some graduates in the Humanities, one can only speculate that Lipson is using the word "mentor" in some sense peculiar to himself. It is common to claim that we live in a "Christian" or "Post-Christian" civilization but a "Socratic" civilization??? Is the United States plagued by "Socratic" fundamentalists?

Another bald assertion is that, although we have in recent centuries made great progress in science and technology, we have not made equivalent progress in ethics (p. 99). Yet in just the last 50 years we have seen the Protestantization of the Roman Catholic Church (after the Vatican II council), the collapse of Imperialism, Nazism, Fascism and Communism, the re-establishment of the State of Israel after millennia of longing and even democracy in South Africa. That seems a lot of progress to me but the point surely is that it is all a matter of opinion and Lipson's assertions therefore have no real scholarly character.

On the same page Lipson characterizes the horrors of the twentieth century as being Hitlerism and the nuclear bomb. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et al. are not mentioned. Lipson seems to see Communist mass murders as somehow less than horrible. The fact that Communist tyranny lasted longer and killed more of its own people seems to be not worth noting to this so-called "liberal". Lipson even repeats this bias later on in his book (p. 221). One would have thought that such biases were at least passe in the post-Soviet world. In the circumstances, then, the underlying orientation of the book would seem to be hard-Left rather than than the claimed "liberal".

But perhaps the strangest thing in Lipson's book is his quite emphatic assertion that war is waged only by civilized men (p. 200)! He makes no attempt to substantiate or argue this assertion. One can only speculate what his definition of "war" might be.

Another bald and idiosyncratic statement that Lipson inflicts on his readers is that: "Our century is not distinguished for its artistic achievement". One would have thought that no other century came close to ours for artistic productivity. Certainly we cannot yet be sure which 20th century artists will be remembered in future centuries but one should surely reflect that Bach and Mozart were thought little of for much of their lives too. How can anyone be dogmatic about what or how much will survive from this century?

So what are Lipson's final conclusions? They are "motherhood" ones: Society needs to become more ethical and more internationalist. Ho Hum! Why ancient history had to be invoked to arrive at such conclusions remains unclear. One would have thought that the obvious inference to be drawn from history was that most of humanity has always been ruled by tyranny, that most tyrannies are brutal if not bloodthirsty and that one tyranny falls only to be replaced by another. One would never guess that from Lipson's book, however.

The above are just a sampling of the criticisms that could be made of this book but they would appear to be sufficient to show that this book is (perhaps deliberately) systematically unscholarly. It does not even have the virtue of offering new speculations.

John Ray

Qld., Australia.

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