published on 23 February 2013
The word civilization is related to the Latin word, civitas ”city”. The term is used in several ways, generally denoting complex human cultural development. Some scholars restrict the use of the term to urbanized societies, in other words, cultures that have achieved a development that has allowed them to create large and permanent settlements; in this sense, the word sets apart the “civilized” people from the nomadic people, those who lack a permanent settlement. There is also a wider use of the term as a synonym for culture. Even in this case, the term civilization focuses on those human societies that have attained a specific degree of advancement. Will Durant defines the term as “social order promoting cultural creation”. This is in line with the wider use of the term. The following quote summarizes the essence of civilization:
It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.
Civilization, at least in the first sense, implies the building of cities. The first cities were essentially agricultural villages which during time became bigger and more complex to the point where division of labour was highly developed. At this point some citizens are set aside from the making of material goods to producing philosophy, science and art.
Conditions of civilization
One of the most important conditions for civilization is economic. Agriculture is key to civilization: without it, a society would base its economy on hunting and gathering. This, of course, would only allow temporary settlements. Agriculture not only forces a group of people to settle (plots of land cannot be moved), but also provides a food supply much larger and reliable than the hunting gathering economy. If a society remains in the hunting stage, its entire existence is based on the precarious fortunes of the chase.
A reliable supply of water and food teaches mankind to work with order and regularity and to plan in the long term. It also requires less people directly involved in the food supply activities, thus allowing a portion of society to be relatively free from labour and to engage in other activities. There are also some other changes associated with the sedentary life. In the days of nomadism, one roving band might meet another and there might be a display of force in order to gain the right to exploit a specific area. These encounters would rarely be deadly: the weaker band, foreseeing a defeat, would retreat and search for another area. There was no area worth the loss of life. Farmers, on the other hand, do not really have a choice, they have to defend their immovable farms. To stand and fight is their only alternative. By defending their farms they had a chance to survive, their only other option would be to die of starvation. This is the beginning of organized warfare.
Another condition for civilization is intellectual: many aspects could be included here, such as language unit, and the pursuit of knowledge (philosophy, science, art). There has to be some language unity to allow the exchanging of ideas. This could be either an homogeneous fully consistent language or a variety of dialects close enough to prevent language barriers. Mental exchange feeds into the developing of philosophy, science and arts, enriching the cultural development and it facilitates the transmission of morals and education. This might sound like an extremely basic point but it is often taken for granted. However, a language complex which is homogeneous enough to allow these consequences seems to be a relatively later achievement in human history.
An intellectually complex civilization will appreciate and encourage art and crafts in its many manifestations: paintings, pottery, music, sculpture, architecture. It is not that these elements do not exist prior to the time of cities, but it is in the cities that they flourish, multiply and get richer as the sense of beauty increases.
It seems that originally objects are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The beholder is not pleased because an object is beautiful but rather the object is named beautiful because it pleases him. The spirit of art is not in the objects but within ourselves. And there is a strong link between the complexity of human thought and language and the flourish of art. In the words of Oscar Wilde.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. [...]
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated one.
For these there is hope.[...]
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
(Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray)
A moral code is also essential for civilization. Without it, social order and cohesion would not be possible. Several means can serve for the transition of a moral code: family, school, religious institutions. Clear rules reduce the conflict among citizens. Those who violate the rules are punished and those who live by them are rewarded: this basic dynamic offers some direction and stimulus to human conduct. A moral code is a message that encourages or prevent specific behaviours.
There must also be education. This includes any technique, however primitive, for the transmission of culture. Here we can also see a number of institutions involved in handing down to the young what has to be learned: relatives, lore, teachers, priests, etc. Language, knowledge, moral code, arts, these are some of the things that should be transmitted through education.
There is another condition for civilization: political order. Citizens must feel a relative social stability. However, it seems that in the simplest societies there is hardly any government, at least in the form we recognise. Association and cooperation are for special situations like hunting or fishing. However, these associations are not permanent political orders, they seem to be purely ad-hoc. The earliest forms of political organizations were the clan (a group of related family members) governed by the same customs. Eventually a group of clans united under the same chief becoming a second stage on the way to a permanent state. It is important to point out that the simplest societies are relatively free from a state or even a rigid set of laws partly because they tend to be ruled by customs which can be as rigid and sacred as any law and partly because crimes in general are seen as a private matter and tend to be left to personal revenge.
The state is a late development which arises before the time of written history. As societies become more complex, the need for an instrument to adjust the interests of the many conflicting groups is inevitable. Further, this is one of the main purposes of a state. Instruments of indoctrination are key to building the soul of the citizen, their loyalty and patriotic pride; otherwise, in order to maintain order, a state would need to rely upon force. A state which relies solely on force would soon fall and this is why indoctrination is so important and the state usually takes an active role in shaping education, religion and family among others institutions.
Decay of civilizations
The disappearance of some of the above conditions (sometimes of only one of them) may result in the destruction of a civilization. In addition, Geological or climatic changes, natural disasters, uncontrolled epidemics, failure of natural resources, decay of leadership, pathological concentrations of wealth: these are all possible causes for a civilization to end.
Civilization is not something inborn or natural: we have acquired it after a long history and it rests upon the shoulders of thousands of generations of men and women. It must literally be acquired anew by every generation, by every single member. Any serious interruption in either its financing or its transmission may bring civilization to an end. It was the famous writter Herbert George Wells who said that, 'Civilization is a race between disaster and education'.
Donate and help us!
We're a non-profit organisation and we need your help! This website costs money and we have to buy quality research material to produce great content. Our donors make this project possible. Please consider donating; even small amounts help. Thank you!
- DURANT, WILL. The Story of Civilization, Vol. I: Our Oriental Heritage. New York, 1963. Page(s) Simon and Schu.
Are you qualified to peer review ancient history information? Apply now and help provide quality ancient history information on the web!
Viking Adult (14 November 2013)Price: $24.00 £22.38
Scribner (09 August 2011)Price: $13.90 £10.82
Random House (22 October 2013)Price: $22.14 £21.69
Penguin Books (28 January 2003)Price: $13.69 £10.04
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (24 April 2012)Price: $11.46 £8.47