Reading History #3 : Defining Civilization

Copyright @ 2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider during this unit:

  1. What are some of the problems with defining a civilization? Recall how Always Win thought about the civilized life. How would YOU define a civilization (after reading below)?
  2. What is the difference between civilized and uncivilized?
  3. Why should we not consider early cities such as Jericho and Çatal Hüyük as part of civilizations?

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race.  It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems.  But there are tens of thousands of years in the future.  Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on. (Richard P. Feynman, winner of  the Nobel Prize for Physics)

By Kecko, 2011

By Kecko, 2011

Passing along solutions from one generation to the next is a uniquely human trait. Think about it. Everything that a grizzly bear knows about its world is derived from three sources: genetic coding, what its mother taught it during the first years of life, and its own experiences. Nothing of the educational sum total of a bear life lived will be passed down to more than immediate off-spring. Humans, however, possess most of the cumulative knowledge of past generations literally at our fingertips. The brilliant physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Netwon hammered upon a fundamental element of civilization when he famously wrote in a letter to a fellow scientist that “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (Newton, quite appropriately for the metaphor, lifted the expression from a scholar, John of Salisbury, who preceded Newton by five hundred years.) Standing on the shoulder of giants is what elevates human understanding and allows us to pass along technology, it’s what makes us ‘advanced’ in ways that animals are not.

14th-century MSS. Germany. Library of Congress.

14th-century MSS. Germany. Library of Congress.

Quite simply, we do not have to reinvent the wheel, or electrical circuits, or nuclear reactors, etc. every generation.

Recent trends in the digitization of information and global connectedness have for the past thirty years or so placed more people than even on the shoulders of larger and larger giants. We are now confronted with more information than we can ever hope to digest. But the simple fact that we have access to thousands of years of human knowledge and thinking distinguishes us from animals and primitive (i.e. prehistorical) human communities. 1 The grizzly bear, even if it happened to develop the opposable thumbs needed to pick up a book, does not have access to a bear library for researching better methods for elk hunting. Perhaps civilization, then, involves at its most basic level, access to information, information beyond what we learn from family or by way of our own experiences, information that may be passed along from generation to generation. This is what might be termed historical consciousness, understanding that we can learn from people who came before us and that we will pass along even more to those who come after us. Collecting written records is intimately tied to both civilization and cities (it is also a requirement for the study of history), because writing itself is a requirement for civilization and cities provide the necessary environment for literacy and the space to house a library.

Recognizable cities, with their distinctive features of defensive walls, religious structures and large populations, appeared around the year 7000 BC, preceding the appearance of civilization by nearly three thousand years. Fresh water springs have been watering an oasis and substantial settlement at Jericho in the West Bank (Palestine) for over nine thousand years; many historians and archaeologists consider Jericho to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. A similar type of dense settlement, i.e. a city, known as Çatal Hüyük, also appeared in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey at about the same time. At select locations across the so-called Near East, then, farming villages were, by 7000 BCE or so, producing enough surplus food to support a division of labor, necessary for an urban existence. Art and construction projects followed.  Jericho and Çatal Hüyük were obviously considerable places by 6000 BCE, catering to a settled population of 5000-10,000 — Jericho even had huge water storage tanks. They certainly exhibited a unified culture, but did these early settlements constitute civilizations? In a word, no.

Artist's Rendition of Çatal Hüyük c.5000 BCE

Artist’s Rendition of Çatal Hüyük c.5000 BCE

Historians argue mightily over the precise definition of a civilization and some even question the  usefulness of the term. Civilized, in its strict sense, should not be confused with culture. All human communities have culture — that is, an accepted mode of expressing day-to-day life within the community — but not all constitute a civilization. For example, the Bedouin in the Middle East and the Yupik in Alaska maintain distinct cultural traditions, but do not form unique civilizations.  For one thing, they neither settled into cities nor adopted a written language until recent times. Despite the hang-ups of people who simply do not like the perceived implications of calling something ‘civilized’ (if some societies are civilized we must accept that others are uncivilized, and that can fall poorly on some ears), the word does have value when assessing historical development and we should perhaps think more deeply about throwing away words that convey real meaning. The word itself is derived from the Latin root civis which means citizen (and is connected by implication to the English word ‘city’). Based on etymology alone,  we are dealing with the concept of individual membership in a certain type of shared society. But what is a citizen, and what type of society produces one? Most will agree that there are indeed differences between a member of a tribe and a citizen. The distinction matters, and civilizations imply citizenship.

So what, then, is a civilization? Let’s begin by looking at a few conventional definitions.   The Oxford English Dictionary makes the vague pronouncement that a civilization is ‘a developed or advanced state of human society.’ Just how developed or advanced is left up in the air.  A Google search will inform you that, besides being a turn-based strategy game by Sid Meiers, civilization is a society in an advanced state of social development with complex organization. Not much better, but two words stand out already: advanced and complex. Here are a couple more ideas culled from textbooks:

  • a civilization is form of human culture in which many people live in urban centers, have mastered the art of smelting, and have developed writing
  • a civilization requires a sense of history, a self-conscious understanding that the past matters

First of all, I wasn’t aware that plants or animals had cultures that necessitate distinguishing “human culture” from non-human culture, but I like the inclusion of cities, writing, and metal-work here. I also agree that a sense of history is important, that is, a civilization has a sense that things happened before us and will continue after, that dwarves will continue to be placed on the shoulders of giants. But is it THE distinguishing characteristic?

While more specific, these definitions barely provide the foundations for understanding the concept of civilized. The historian J.M. Roberts compared the problem to an attempt to define ‘an educated man’; we know one when we see one, says Roberts, but not all of them are recognized by everyone, nor are formal qualifications (a diploma for example) sufficient indicators. Perhaps we would do better to point to attributes shared by civilizations rather than try to formulate an all-encompassing definition. An American cultural anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn, has suggested that civilizations share three essential characteristics: 1) cities with populations over 5000, 2) a system of writing, and 3) monumental ceremonial centers. Other shared attributes that regularly find their way into discussions of civilization include the following:

  • a unique literature
  • a distinct cultural identity
  • metallurgy (the ability to work metals)
  • significant populations over an extended geographical area
  • monumental architecture
  • a hierarchical social structure with clearly designated elites

If we look at examples of civilization, say J.M. Roberts, it becomes clear that what they all have in common is complexity. 2 Complexity that demands organization, labor specialization, and a collective sense of purpose.  Without complexity, artistic and technological advancements become difficult. Why, for example, have the Blackfoot not built spectacular cities or monumental art? It’s not because they are incapable of it, but rather that the entire community was historically involved primarily in other pursuits (food collecting mostly). While the Blackfoot most certainly possess a distinct culture, the lack of specialization in their labor force, a mark of complexity, blocked developments beyond a point.

If we recall the origin of the word civis (citizen), civilization implies a certain type of people with its borders. A civilization carries all of the attributes above, but also demands a shared way of thinking and living from those who consider themselves a part of it. This makes it much easier to distinguish a full-blown civilization, Western Civilization for example, from one of its constituent parts, Canada or Poland. This may not always be easy to determine because everyone living in a society certainly does not think in entirely the same way, but they do share some core ‘hard-wiring’ about fundamental aspects about how society functions. Canadians, for example, may differ from Poles in such things as language and festivals (Dingus Day anyone?), but both fundamentally think along similar lines about law and government and share commonalities in attitudes about what is expected from their citizens.  Also, many modern societies share attributes from multiple civilizations. Is modern Turkey, for example, a part of Western Civilization (parliamentary government, rule of secular law, separation of religion and state, etc.) or part of Islamic Civilization? The answer matters because these commonalities indicate some basic core elements of how any given society functions and the way its people think about how one behaves. If most Turks consider themselves more engaged in Islamic Civilization, they may prefer to be governed by imams and Sharia law rather than by elected parliaments and a civil law code. Some scholars, most famously the political theorist Samuel Huntington, point to this fundamental structuring of thought and human relations along civilizational lines as the main cause of global friction today. In short, they perceive the world locked into what is termed a Clash of Civilizations.

In many ways, the major civilizations of the modern world all have a connection to the historical civilizations first established in the ancient world. The founders of the government of the United States, for example, drew heavily upon their heritage as lineal descendants from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Likewise, the government of Saudia Arabia enforces cultural attitudes, about women for example, that are informed from the Arab and Islamic past. Learning about the ancient world, then, can tell us a great deal about our own.

The first civilizations all appeared in areas with favorable environments that could easily support large populations and sustain cities — Mesopotamia and the Nile, Indus, and Yellow river valleys — but civilizations have also appeared far away from the fertile rivers (the Olmec and Greeks for example), so it remains difficult to nail down absolute causes for their development. Suffice it to say that by the beginning of the Christian Era, a handful of major civilizations had made their appearance:

  • Sumerian c.3500 BC
  • Egyptian c.3000 BC
  • Chinese (Shang) c.1700 BC
  • Indian c.2300
  • Meso-American c.1000 BC
  • Greek/Roman c.800 BC
  • Persian c.550

As we begin looking more deeply into ancient history, it is important the bear in mind the defining features that all civilizations share. We should also understand that each developed in its own way, that is it has a unique history, and produced special characteristics. Explaining HOW and WHY these distinguishing characteristics evolved is the task for the historian.

  1. Pre-historical and illiterate human communities may pass along information by way of oral tradition, but the reliability of the transmission is always questionable and the amount of information is always limited by the capacity of human memory. A book, on the other hand, never forgets what it wanted to tell you or mistakenly attributes the Gettysburg Address to George Washington.
  2. J.M. Roberts, Penguin History of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), p.42.

Photo: ‘Bregenz Aida’ by sd98fw897r, 2009.


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