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  • Towards a Common Civilization:G. Lowes Dickinson, China, and Global Humanism
  • Q.S. Tong

The older I get the more convinced I become that for us the most important and real thing is the passion to develop a higher, more extensive life; and that that passion is just an ultimate fact to be accepted and acted on.

G. Lowes Dickinson (Autobiography 182)

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Benjamin (256)

Interest in civilizational studies is often stimulated by the experience of major social crisis; comparative civilizational theory flourishes when civilizations clash, or are in the danger of clash. At moments of radical historical transformation, geo-cultural units, considered to be civilizational formations, are compared and contrasted in response to contemporary socio-political problems. The origin of Toynbee’s Study of History, for example, lies in the author’s attempt to understand the catastrophic consequences of WWI in terms of a geo-historical other. Reading Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, he was struck by the similarities between the two wars. “Two societies could be spaced wide apart chronologically and yet be mentally contemporaneous,” and with time banished as a factor from the life of a society, Toynbee believed that human mind could compare and contrast societies and deduce a set of scientifically valid generalizations about man’s experience in the universe (Mehta 121). His multi-volume Study of History (1934-1961) is the result of a sustained effort to compare societies and civilizations in order to understand the pattern of civilizational development. To compare the present and here with the distanced and there was to be a major mode of enquiry and understanding of world history. [End Page 156]

In the early decades of the twentieth century, for such progressive Cambridge intellectuals as G. Lowes Dickinson and Bertrand Russell, it was more than an intellectual enterprise to understand civilizational diversities.1 They shared the intellectual impulse to uncover the logic of universal history and civilizational progress. It’s their vision of a common humanity that brought them to China for an alternative model of development. Russell’s visit to China is better known, more extensively reported and widely referenced.2 He came to China on a lecture tour which lasted for about nine months between October 1920 and July 1921. Mao Zedong was said to be among his audience, though Mao was not impressed with Russell’s analysis of Chinese civilization. Seven years prior to Russell’s visit, Dickinson had visited China for the same purpose. In the early twentieth century, the wheels of the Industrial Revolution had carried Europe further down the road where its golden past was irrecoverably lost. In an attempt to recover from the shock of the devastating human consequences of industrial modernity, Dickinson looked beyond Europe and came to China for an answer to the insurmountable difficulties that the West encountered at the fin de siècle. China offered an attractive model of civilizational development and fresh possibilities of a civilizational future. But it was WWI that permanently changed Dickinson: “Out of the wreckage of his shattered hopes and aspirations, he pieced together a new self, which stood forth as a flaming crusader for peace” (Harrod 64). Since the war, the theme of his life would have been pacifism; his humanism would be an international practice that aimed at promoting the understanding of world civilizations for international peace and justice.

For Russell and Dickinson, culture and civilization are two concepts that are interchangeable, overlapping, and conflated. And consideration of civilizational development of the human species is not a matter of giving civilization a neat dictionary-type definition that seeks to sort out its etymological and semantic complexities. Dickinson and Russell were public intellectuals, committed to the actualities of the present: its problems and its promises, and determined to explore all the possibilities of overcoming the forces that created and sustained international inequalities; their understanding of the human species’ future and destiny, which was tested and acted out in their active participation in practical work on global justice and peace, articulates what I would call a global humanism, which must be willing to treat...


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pp. 156-173
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