From Ch. XXXVI, ‘The Essence of Civilization’, in R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan (Oxford, 2000; original publication, 1942)
Do you suspect me, Reader, of refurbishing the old stories of the Golden Age? Do you brush aside my fancy picture of a distant past when men were glad to teach and glad to learn with the latest catchword of bogus anthropology: ‘No savage ever invented anything; all they possess is decayed scraps from the cultures of more civilized peoples’?
Origins do not matter. Who invented the bowline? Ignoramus, ignorabimus. How did he invent it? Ignoramus, ignorabimus. I cannot conceive how anybody ever did anything so brilliant. Nor (confess it) can you. But how, once invented, was it transmitted? In general terms I know the answer. The conditions for such an event are that there should be a community in which inventions are not hoarded, but taught; that there should be men who know them and are willing to teach them, and men who do not know them and are willing to learn them.
If that is a Golden Age, the picture (I mean) of a condition so different from our own that we cannot soberly believe it ever to have existed, then God help us as anthropologists; for we cannot explain, with all our myths about diffusion, how any civilization, however low, ever continued in existence for more than a single generation. We are diffusionists who do not believe in diffusion.
And God help our children; for if we have really lost the will to teach, then of all the civilization our ancestors have left us they will inherit nothing.
It is not a Golden Age. The passion for learning and the passion for teaching have not disappeared from humanity. They still live.
It is as true as when Aristotle wrote it that all men have a natural desire for knowledge.
It is true, too, that all men have a natural desire to impart knowledge.
That there is also a desire, at war with this, to gain power over men by monopolizing knowledge I do not deny.
But although there is certainly an eristic of knowledge, a tendency to make it a matter of contention and competition and monopoly, there is also a dialectic of knowledge, a tendency to make it a matter of agreement and co-operation and sharing.
This is the origin and essence of civilization. Civilization, even in its crudest and most barbarous form, in part consists in civility and in part depends on civility: consists in it so far as it consists in relations of man to man; depends on it so far as it consists in relations of man to nature.
Hobbes thought (utilitarian that he was, like all the men of his century) that men were naturally enemies to each other, but that reason taught them to avoid the frightful consequences of mutual enmity by deciding to make friends.
He was right to think that men are ‘naturally’ enemies to each other; so they are; but they are ‘naturally’ friends too.
Human co-operation does not rest, as Hobbes thought, on so feeble a foundation as human reason.