In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill presents the case that while barbarians were despoiling Europe during the Dark Ages, Irish monks were preserving the fruits of Roman civilization in meticulously copied texts. As the continent began recovering from the barbarian incursions, these monks were poised to spread that knowledge, allowing civilization to recover more quickly. It’s a good argument, one my Irish friends like to cite frequently (along with the jest that God put the Irish on an island so they wouldn’t take over the world).
In a larger sense, of course, all around the globe, the very growth of civilization has been inextricably interwoven with the rise of writing. Records allowed for the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, which allowed for the accumulation of further knowledge. That’s all pretty obvious.
What is less obvious, I’d argue, is that the very act of writing has a civilizing effect on the individual. Writing anything more complicated than a shopping list means tapping into a deeper part of oneself than mere surface consciousness. Whether you prefer to think of that as the creative right brain or the subconscious or the heart, writing provides a tool for grappling with those deeper ideas, getting them onto paper, and arranging them into a workable order. As a result, we are more able to act upon what we know, not just react to what we feel—and reflective, knowledgeable action is the very definition of what it means to be civilized.