The Measure of a Civilization

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl Buck, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1954)

A related quote is “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members” or “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member” often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, Gandhi never said or wrote those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” The source of the quote is supposedly a speech given by Gandhi in 1931; but according to quotation sleuth Ralph Keyes, the words cannot be found in that speech. Nevertheless, this quote is often cited by animal rights organizations and advocates.

Speaking at the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, former U.S. Vice President (1965-69) Hubert Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of a government: “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

For further reading: The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes, St. Martin’s Griffin (2006).


2 responses to “The Measure of a Civilization

  • Kim Wymer

    I was recently informed that one of our new MCO’s (insurance company replacing Medicaid) stated that old people only need 2 meals a day. I provide care for an intellectually disabled young man. I am paid $5.58 per hour (by the MCO). He is paid $7.75 while in training at Goodwill. If I can no longer provide care for him; where will he go? Group homes are closing. Institutions are not an option. He has no family. He is unable to care for himself. Is he to live under a bridge? In the streets? Is this how we care for our weakest? Our most vulnerable? What has our great country become???? It is frightening to think what the future holds for those who depend on the conscience/ care of others! Is anybody listening? Do you know what is happening to our old? Our young? Our infirm? Does anybody care????!?

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