Man’s Growth Toward Civilization

George Leslie Stout - Worcester, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, February 7, 2014
George Leslie Stout
Photo from The Walker Hancock Collection

One of the original "Monuments Men," George Leslie Stout had a hopeful look toward mankind's future and believed that man is growing toward a more civilized state. With an appetite for knowledge, fairness, and truth, Mr. Stout sees each individual contributing to a civilization larger than himself.

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Years ago, I sat occasionally in the company of a few scholars who had concluded that man as a creature is slowly getting worse, moving downwards from an older and a better state towards a poorer one. I could not agree with them. To me, mankind, a vast family of creatures, is growing inevitably towards a state of civilization.

I believe that in time long past, there started among us an appetite for understanding and fairness. We began to learn mercy, to love others, to seek truth, to inquire after knowledge, and to find contentment in the song of a bird, or the shape of a hill against the sky. We began to look for justice in the government of our affairs, to tell about the meanings of our life together, to laugh at our follies. And we began to make things that would contain some of the meanings we found and hold them in words or paint or stone.

How this craving for civilization started I do not claim to know. I do not expect it to be satisfied by any contrivance, or imagine it to be the special property of any group or any race. I cannot link my own belief in it to the revelation of a single event. Somehow the belief came, it stays, and it furnishes me with a constant motive for work and for existence.

I have to admit that man’s growth toward civilization looks slow and unsteady. At moments, whole nations seem to fall back, their people fret for deliverance from selfish fears. They pay homage to persons who have snatched power for themselves, all manner of tyrants, and people beg them for comfort and for peace. But when I look beyond the weak spots, I can notice those men who pursue knowledge for the common benefit, or labor for sound structures rather than for gain, or fight and die—not for praise or possessions but for the freedom of others. These are not strange or distant to men.

A friend of mine talked over the fence one day with a farmer in the stony hills of New Hampshire. My friend said, “There must be a lot of drudgery on a place like this.” And the farmer answered him, “Work ain’t drudgery if you’re building something.” That, I believe, is it—to build something: a farm on a hillside, a home, a mill, a congenial neighborhood, an explanation of natural laws, a cure for ills, a comedy, a record of history, a poem, an altar. To be of such works is to move on the way to civilization, and it must be a way without end.

Although they might wander off, men come back to works like these and back to the way of civilization. I believe they always will. At such tasks they are free from strife, they are calm in the awareness that although the partial of a man’s life is small, the grandeur of men’s growth is infinite. An old saying goes, “He who sustains all the calamities of the country can be the king of the world;” and another: “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” This I believe.

George Leslie Stout was an American art conservationist and well-known expert on art conservation techniques. During World War II, he was a member of the U.S. Army unit devoted to recovering and protecting artwork and monuments—the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA), also known as "The Monuments Men." Stout died in 1978.