Synopses & Reviews
In Beyond Civilization
, Daniel Quinn thinks the unthinkable. We all know there's no one right way to build a bicycle, no one right way to design an automobile, no one right way to make a pair of shoes, but we're convinced that there must be only one right way to live -- and the one we have is it, no matter what.
Beyond Civilization makes practical sense of the vision of Daniel Quinn's best-selling novel Ishmael. Examining ancient civilizations such as the Maya and the Olmec, as well as modern-day microcosms of alternative living like circus societies, Quinn guides us on a quest for a new model for society, one that is forward-thinking and encourages diversity instead of suppressing it. Beyond Civilization is not about a "New World Order" but a "New Personal World Order" that would allow people to assert control over their own destiny and grant them the freedom to create their own way of life right now -- not in some distant utopian future.
In the first work of nonfiction to build on the ideas behind his bestselling "Ishmael" books, Quinn argues that, if humanity is to survive, we must move beyond the exploitation of the planet, other species, and other human beings that is fundamental to our concept of civilization.
About the Author
DANIEL QUINN is the award-winning author of Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael. His Web site address is www.ishmael.org. He lives in Houston, Texas.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does Quinn gain by starting with a fable? What effect did reading this fable have on you? The fable is a mixture of realistic elements and fabulous elements. Which are which? What events and stages in our cultural development correspond to the events of the fable? How do you think the leaders of our society would respond to the challenge posed by the masses in this fable?
2. Do you agree that "there's nothing the people of our culture want more than change"?
3. According to Quinn old minds think "How do we stop these bad things from happening?" while new minds think "How do we make things the way we want them to be?" What difference do you see between "stopping bad things" and "making things the way we want them to be"?
4. Choose for discussion an example of some bad thing (for example, school shootings like the Columbine High School tragedy). Consider various ways the bad thing might be stopped. Then consider instead how you'd like things to be and how you might go about making them that way. Which way of discussing the matter seems more productive?
5. The term "manifest destiny" was coined by historian John Louis O'Sullivan, who wrote: "The expansive future is our arena. We are entering on its untrodden space with the truth of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits on our onward march?" Discuss these ideas in the terms presented in "Conspicuous success, invisible source" on page 13.
6. Put together a list of memes (for example, relating to success) that you grew up with. How do these memes compare with the ones your parents grew up with and the ones your children are growing up with? What memes relevant to family life were reinforced by television fare in the fifties? How do these compare to memes being reinforced by television fare in the nineties?
7. A well-known folk song announces that "This land is your land, this land is my land...this land was made for you and me." Has your reading of these "patriotic" sentiments been colored by the ideas expressed "Holy work" on page 50?
8. In "Pyramid builders," on page 51, Quinn cites his impressions of how today's young people feel about the prospect of entering the world of work. Do your impressions agree with his? When you were in school, how did you feel about the world of work?
9. Is it fair to compare the building of a company like Bill Gates's Microsoft to the building of Khufu's pyramid? How are the ventures similar? Different?
10. Did such a thing as running off to join the circus ever cross your mind when you were young? If so, can you remember and describe what the attraction was for you?
11. Quinn describes three ways the people of our culture have traditionally dealt with their place within the hierarchy. They've justified it as karmic (as something they deserve); they've transcended it by looking for justice in a better existence after death; and they've worked to overturn it by revolution. What are your own strategies for dealing with the discontents of the hierarchical life (if you experience any)?
12. On page 82, Quinn describes tribal life as "the gift of natural selection to humanity." We usually think of natural selection as a process that in some way weeds out unsuccessful traits. How does this process end up bestowing "gifts"? What are some other "gifts" that have been bestowed on humanity or other species by natural selection?
13. How do you think you'd like living in a system like that of the Natchez?
14. Quinn says that in Houston he and his wife have upped their standard of living tenfold over the one they enjoyed in Madrid, but adds that what has not been upped is their "overall feeling of contentment and well-being." Most of us experience changes in standards of living in the course of our lives. Discuss the effect such experiences have had on you.
15. Quinn says he wasn't surprised to hear from many youngsters who feel "just like Jeffrey." Are there any such in your own personal experience?
16. Quinn characterizes our "overriding response to failure" as: If it didn't work last year, do it AGAIN this year (and if possible do it MORE). What didn't work last year in our "war against crime" or in our effort to "fix the schools," is exactly what we'll do this year, predictably spending MORE on it. Can you give any examples of this from your own sphere of experience -- at work, for example?
17. As you began to read Quinn's proposals aimed at "helping the homeless succeed while being homeless," what were your initial responses? Did these responses change or remain the same as you read on?
18. Do you think Quinn makes a realistic assessment of the likely "objections" to his proposals for the homeless (page 135)?
19. Among Quinn's examples of modern-day, non-ethnic tribes is that of team of con-artists. Do you think this example was chosen to make some subtle moral point about tribalism?
20. Have you encountered any businesses that operate in a tribal way?
21. In his discussion of the Columbine massacre, does it seem to you that Quinn is offering an excuse for killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold?
22. Back in the 1960's Timothy Leary set off an explosion of "flower power" with this famous formula: "Tune in, turn on, drop out." In deliberate juxtaposition to this formula, Quinn has elsewhere articulated the formula presented in this book as: "Walk away, go tribal, think incremental." Leary's formula led to a dead end. Is Quinn's more promising?