by David Warren
Columnist for Ottawa Citizen
I found a book in a junkshop this week, published in Canada, a half-century ago. With a foreword by Vincent Massey -- a dry stick, as he is remembered, but nevertheless our 18th governor-general. The book was published by the Anglican Church of Canada, Jarvis Street, Toronto. This was, in those days, a formidable imprimatur. While my copy is water-stained down the spine, and otherwise bedraggled (I did not pay much), it would have been a respectable thing when new, in 1958. It was published as the Lenten offering of the General Board of Religious Education.
The book is by Professor Samuel Henry Prince of King’s College, in Halifax. It is entitled: The Dykes of Civilization. The reader today will be taken aback; the word “diesel” may briefly flit through his mind.
Professor Prince meant dykes in the old-fashioned sense, of walls to hold water out or in. As, the dykes of Holland. The dykes to which he specifically refers are those of the Annapolis Valley, in Nova Scotia -- the “Evangeline” country of the once-immortal poet, Longfellow. They were built up by the first French settlers, in the middle of the 17th century; miles and miles of them, to hold out the sea, and reclaim the rich soils of the Grand Pré delta.
Using this literary conceit, the author compares the work of maintaining civilization to the work of maintaining these dykes. It does not matter who built them or when, for the purpose of maintenance -- if the dykes are ignored, they will disintegrate, and salt water will flood into the valley, poisoning the soil.
The late professor identified four main dykes which guard our “cultural and spiritual achievements”. He lists them, thus: “The Ermine (the insignia of Law); the Mantle (the insignia of Education); the Family Crest (insignia of the Home); and the Mitre (insignia of the Church). The Queen’s Bench, the Academic Chair, the Fireside, and the Altar are the guardians of our way of life.”“Perhaps when he wrote that,” I can hear my reader saying, “but surely not today.” I am myself sufficiently reactionary to be unsurprised by this list, though it appears to be in reverse order of importance. But I know many will titter at both the antiquated form, and the antiquated content.
I wrote some years ago in praise of an Ontario schoolbook, entitled Manners, that was passed to my teenaged grandmother, upon her entry into Canada, about 1913. I received several letters from readers unable to suppress their derision. One in particular found the idea that a young lady should have any manners at all, hysterically funny. Having no detectable good manners herself, she couldn’t see why anyone else would need any.
Now, “manners” would fall under all four of Professor Prince’s headings, for while manners may be codified, and recorded in a book, they are inculcated by every social institution. They live, or die.
A civilization is not a thing external, like the instruction manual for a computer. It consists of men and women, and the children they are raising, and their manners are only the outward expression of the civilization they carry, through time. Likewise, barbarism is an inward condition, though it finds outward expression in savage behaviour.
A half-century may seem a very long time to us today, given the speed at which our society is disintegrating. But it is less than one average lifetime, and I myself was actually alive when this Dykes book appeared. To any age that had not suffered a catastrophe, a half-century would seem a short period of historical time.
I, at least, am struck by how recent this book is, and by the memory that the Canada into which I was born was a country where ancient law, moral education, the traditional family, and the Christian church, were publicly upheld, and universally accepted. A civilized country.
Moreover, the author seems perfectly aware of currents in social life that will lead to disintegration. For instance, he stresses the changing view of sex -- that it has come to be regarded not as a means to a profound end, but as an end in itself, existing only for pleasure. He correctly predicts what must come of such a view.
Today is, for Christians, part of the vigil that will end tonight, in which we contemplate a world from which Christ is withdrawn. It is our own world we contemplate: where the dykes have been breached, and those who try to repair them are mocked.