The Idea of Civilization in World Historical Perspective

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The Idea of Civilization in World Historical Perspective
The belief that there are fundamental differences between civilized and "barbaric" or "savage" peoples is very ancient and widespread. For thousands of years the Chinese set themselves off from cattle- and sheep-herding peoples of the vast plains to the north and west of China proper, whom they saw as barbar­ians. To the Chinese, being civilized was cultural, not biological or racial. If barbarians learned the Chinese language and adopted Chinese ways—from the clothes they wore to the food they ate—they were regarded as civilized.

A similar pattern of demarcation and cultural absorption was found among the American Indian peoples of present-day Mexico. Those who settled in the valleys of the mountainous interior, where they built great civilizations, lived in tear of invasions by peoples they regarded as barbarous and called Chichimecs, meaning "sons of the dog." The latter were nomadic hunters and gatherers who periodi­cally moved down from the desert regions of north Mexico into the fertile central valleys in search of game and settlements to pillage. The Aztecs were simply the last, and perhaps the fiercest, of a long line of Chichimec peoples who entered the valleys and conquered the urban-based empires that had developed there. But after the conquerors settled down, they adopted many of the religious beliefs and institutional patterns and much of the material cul­ture of defeated peoples.

The word civilization is derived from the Latin word civilis, meaning "of the citizens." The term was coined by the Romans. They used it to distinguish between themselves as citizens of a cosmopolitan, urban-based civilization and the "inferior" peoples who lived in the forests and deserts on the fringes of their Mediterranean empire. Centuries earlier, the Greeks, who had contributed much to the rise of Roman civilization, made a similar distinction between themselves and outsiders. Because the lan­guages of the non-Greek peoples to the north of the Greek heartlands sounded like senseless babble to the Greeks, they lumped all the outsiders together as barbarians, which meant "those who cannot speak Greek." As in the case of the Chinese and Aztecs, the boundaries between civilized and barbarian for the Greeks and Romans were cultural, not biological.

Until the 17th and 18th centuries C.E., the pri­ority given to cultural attributes (e.g., language, dress, manners) as the means by which civilized peoples set themselves off from barbaric ones was rarely challenged. Rut in those centuries, a major change occurred among thinkers in Western Europe. Efforts were made not only to define the differences between civilized and barbarian but to identify a series of stages in human development that ranged from the lowest savagery to the highest civilization. Depend­ing on the writer in question, candidates for civiliza­tion ranged from Greece and Rome to (not surprisingly) Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of the other peoples of the globe, whose "dis­covery" since the 15th century had prompted the efforts to classify them in the first place, were ranked in increasingly complex hierarchies. Nomadic, cattle-and sheep-herding peoples, such as the Mongols of central Asia, usually were classified as barbarians. Then in the 19th century racial differences were added to the hierarchy, with white people seen as hav­ing evolved the most advanced civilizations.

The second major shift in Western ideas about civilization began at the end of the 18th century but did not really take hold until a century later. In keep­ing with a growing emphasis in European thinking and social interaction on racial or biological differ­ences, modes of human social organization and cul­tural expression were increasingly linked to what were alleged to be the innate capacities of each human race. Although no one could agree on what a race was or how many races there were, most Europe .in writ­ers argued that some races were more inventive, moral, courageous, and artistic—thus more capable of building civilizations—than others. Of course, white [or Caucasian] Europeans were considered by white European authors to be the must capable of all. The hierarchy from savage to civilized took on a color dimension, with white at the top, where the civilized peoples clustered, to yellow, red, brown, and black in descending order.

Some authors sought to reserve all the attain­ments of civilization for whites, or peoples of Euro­pean stock. As the evolutionary theories of thinkers such as Charles Darwin came into vogue in the late 1800s, race and level of cultural develop men were seen in the perspective of thousands of years change and adaptation rather than as being fixed in time. Nevertheless, this new perspective had little effect on the rankings of different human groups. Civ­ilized whites were simply seen as having evolved much further than backward and barbaric peoples.

The perceived correspondence between race and level of development and the hardening of the bound­aries between civilized and "interior" peoples affected much more than intellectual discourse about the nature and history of 'human society. These beliefs were used to justify European imperialist expansion, which was seen as a "civilizing mission" aimed at uplifting barbaric and savage peoples across the globe. In the last half of the 19lh century virtually all non-Western peoples came to be dominated by the Euro­peans, who were confident that they, as representatives of the highest civilization ever created, were best equipped to govern lesser breeds of humans.

In the 20th century much of the intellectual bag­gage that once gave credibility to the racially embed­ded hierarchies of civilized and savage people was discarded. Racist thinking was discredited by 20th-centnry developments, including the revolt of the col­onized peoples and the crimes committed by the Nazis before and during World War II in the name of racial purification. In addition, these ideas have failed because racial supremacists cannot provide convincing proof of innate differences in mental and physical apti­tude between various human groups. These trends, as well as research that has resulted in a much more sophisticated understanding of evolution, have led to the abandonment of rigid and self-serving 19th-cen­tury ideas about civilization. Yet even though non European peoples such as the Indians and Chinese are increasingly given credit for their civilized attainments, much ethnocentrism remains in the ways social theo­rists, determine who is civilized and who is not.

Perhaps the best way to avoid the tendency to define the term with reference to one's own society is to view civilization as one of several human approaches to social organization rather than attempting to identity .specific kinds of cultural achievement (e.g., writing, cities, monumental architecture). All peoples, from small hands of hunters and gatherers to farmers and factory workers, live in soci­eties. All societies produce cultures: combinations of the ideas, objects, and patterns of behavior that result from human social interaction. But not all societies and cultures generate the surplus production that permits the levels of specialization, scale, and com­plexity that distinguish civilizations from other modes of social organization. All peoples are intrinsically capable of building civilizations, but many have lacked the resource base, historical circumstances, or desire to do so.
Questions: Identify a society you consider to be civilized. What criteria did you use to deter­mine that it was civilized- Can you apply those criteria to other societies- Can you think of societies that might not fit your criteria and yet be civilizations? Do the standards that you and others use reflect your own society's norms and achievements rather than neutral, more uni­versal criteria?

Essay: Use the above article and questions to write a 1 page essay about what is civilization, including the following:

  1. Example of a civilized society

  2. What criteria did you use to determine that it was civilized?

  3. Are there other societies that fit the definition but are not civilized?

  4. Are your criteria cultural specific or more universal?

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