History and Civilization

We may think and talk about civilization as one pattern or level of culture, one stage through which human life flows and ebbs. In that sense we may regard it abstractly and historically, as we regard the most recent ice age or the long and painful record of large-scale chattel slavery.
From quite another viewpoint we may think of civilization as a technologically advanced way of life developed by various peoples through ages of unrecorded experiment and experience, and followed by millions during the period of written history. It is also the way of life that the West has been trying to impose upon the entire human family since European empires launched their crusade to westernize, modernize and civilize the planet Earth.
A third approach would regard civilization as an evolving life style, conceived before the earliest days of recorded human history and matured through the series of experiments marking the development of civilization as we have known it during the five centuries from 1450 to 1975.
Thinking in terms of this age-old experience, with six or more thousand years of social history as a background, it is possible to give a fairly exact meaning to the word “civilization” as it has been lived and is being lived by the present-day West. It is also possible to understand the history of previous civilizations in cycle after cycle of their rise, their development, decline and extinction. At the same time it will enable the reader to recognize the relationship (and difference) between the words “culture” and “civilization”.
Human culture is the sum total of ideas, relationships, artifacts, institutions, purposes and ideals currently functioning in any community. Three elements are present in each human society: man, nature and the social structure. Human culture at any point in its history is the social structure: the aggregate of existing culture traits, the products of man’s ingenuity, inventiveness and experimentation, set in their natural environment.
Civilization is a level of culture built upon foundations laid down through long periods of pre-civilized living. These foundations consist of artifacts, implements, customs, habit patterns and institutions produced and developed in numerous scattered localities by groups of food-gatherers, migrating herdsmen, cultivators, hand craftsmen and traders and eventually in urban communities built around centers of wealth and power: the cities which are the nuclei of every civilization.
Urban centers, housing trade, commerce, fabrication and finance, with their hinterlands of food-gatherers, herdsmen, cultivators, craftsmen and transporters, are the nuclei around which and upon which recurring civilizations are built. Within and around these urban centers there grows up a complex of associations, activities, institutions and ideas designed to promote, develop and defend the particular life pattern.
A civilization is a cluster of peoples, nations and empires so related in time and space that they share certain ideas, practices, institutions and means of procedure and survival. Among these features of a civilized community we may list:
(1) means of communication, record-keeping, transportation and trade. This would include a spoken language, a method of enumeration, writing in pictographs or symbols; an alphabet, a written language, inscribed on stone, bone, wood, parchment, paper; means of preserving the records of successive generations; paths, roads, bridges; a system for educating successive generations; meeting places and trading points; means for barter or exchange;
(2) an interdependent urban-oriented economy based on division of labor and specialization; on private property in the essential means of production and in consumer goods and services; on a competitive survival struggle for wealth, prestige and power between individuals and social groups; and on the exploitation of man, society and nature for the material benefit of the privileged few who occupy the summit of the social pyramid;
(3) a unified, centralized political apparatus or bureaucracy that attempts to plan, direct and administer the political, economic, ideological and sociological structure;
(4) a self-selected and self-perpetuating oligarchy that owns the wealth, holds the power and pulls the strings;
(5) an adequate labor force for farming, transport, industry, mining;
(6) large middle-class elements: professionals, technicians, craftsmen, tradesmen, lesser bureaucrats, and a semi-parasitic fringe of camp-followers;
(7) a highly professional, well-trained, amply-financed apparatus for defense and offense;
(8) a complex of institutions and social practices which will indoctrinate, persuade and when necessary limit deviation and maintain social conformity;
(9) agreed religious practices and other cultural features.
This description of civilization covers the essential features of western civilization and the sequence of predecessor civilizations for which adequate records exist.
Successive civilizations have introduced new culture traits and abandoned old ones as the pageant of history moved from one stage to the next, or advanced and retreated through cycles. Using this description as a working formula, it is possible to understand the development followed in the past by western civilization, to estimate its current status and to indicate its probable outcome.
Long-established thought-habits cry aloud in protest against such a description of civilization. Until quite recently the word “civilization” has been used in academic circles to symbolize a social idea or ideal. Professor of History Anson D. Morse of Amherst College presents such a view in his Civilization and the World War (Boston: Ginn 1919). For him, civilization is “the sum of things in which the heritage of the child of the twentieth century is better than that of the child of the Stone Age. As a process it is the perfection of man and mankind. As an end, it is the realization of the highest ideal which men are capable of forming…. The goal of civilization … is human society so organized in all of its constituent groups that each shall yield the best possible service to each one and thereby to mankind as a whole, (producing) the perfect organization of humanity.” (page 3).
Such thoughts may be noble and inspired; they are not related to history. We know more or less about a score of civilizations that have occupied portions of the earth during several thousand years. We know a great deal about the western civilization which we observe and in which we participate. Professor Morse’s florid words apply to none of the civilizations known to history. Certainly they are poles away from an accurate characterization of our own varient of this social pattern.
We are writing this introduction in an effort to make our word pictures of mankind and its doings correspond with the facts of social history. With the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, it is high time for us to exchange the clouds of fancy and the flowers of rhetoric for the solid ground of historical reality. The word “civilization” must generalize what has been and what is, as nearly as the past and present can be embodied in language.
Civilization is a level or phase of culture which has been attained and lost repeatedly in the course of social history. The epochs of civilization have not been distributed evenly, either in time or on the earth’s surface. A combination of circumstances, political, economic, ideological, sociological, resulted in the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Roman civilizations. One of these was centered in North Africa, the second in Asia, the third in eastern Europe. All three spilled over into adjacent continents.
No two civilizations are exactly alike at any stage of their development. Each civilization is at least a partial experiment, a process or sequence of causal relationships, altered sequentially in the course of its life cycle.
These thoughts about culture and civilization should be supplemented by noting the relationship between civilizations and empires. An empire is a center of wealth and power associated with its economic and political dependencies. A civilization is a cluster or a succession of empires and/or former empires, co-ordinated and directed by one of their number which has established its leadership in the course of survival struggle.
The total body of historical evidence bearing on human experiments with civilization is extensive and impressive. It covers a large portion of the Earth’s land surface, includes parts of Asia, Africa and Europe and extends sketchily to the Americas. In time it covers many thousands of years.
Experiments with civilization have been conducted in highly selective surroundings possessing the volume and range of natural resources and the isolation and remoteness necessary to build and maintain a high level of culture over substantial periods of time. In these special areas it was possible to provide for subsistence, produce an economic surplus large enough to permit experimentation and ensure protection against human and other predators. Egypt and the Fertile Crescent were surrounded by deserts and high mountains. Crete was an island, extensive but isolated. Productive river valleys like the Yang-tse, the Ganges and the Mekong have afforded natural bases for experiments with civilization. Similar opportunities have been provided by strategic locations near bodies of water, mineral deposits and the intersections of trade-routes. Others, less permanent, were located in the high Andes, on the Mexican Plateau, in the Central American jungles.
Histories of civilizations, some of them ancient or classical, have been written during the past two centuries. There have been general histories in many languages. There have been scholarly reports on particular civilizations. Prof. A.J. Toynbee’s massive ten volume Study of History is a good example. Still more extensive is the thirty volume history of civilization under the general editorship of C.K. Ogden. These writings have brought together many facts bearing chiefly on the lives of spectacular individuals and episodes, with all too little data on the life of the silent human majority.
At the end of this volume the reader will find a list, selected from the many books that I have consulted in preparation for writing this study. Most of these authorities are concerned with the facts of civilization, with far less emphasis on their political, economic and sociological aspects.
In this study I have tried to unite theory with practice. On the one hand I have reviewed briefly and as accurately as possible some outstanding experiments with civilization, including our own western variant. (Part I. The Pageant of Experiments with Civilization.) In Part II I have undertaken a social analysis of civilization as a past and present life style. In Part III, Civilization Is Becoming Obsolete, I have tried to check our thinking about civilization with the sweep of present day historical trends. Part IV, Steps Beyond Civilization, is an attempt to list some of the alternatives and opportunities presently available to civilized man.
Any reader who has the interest and persistence to read through the entire volume and to browse through some of its references will have had the equivalent of a university extension course dealing with one of the most critical issues confronting the present generation of humanity.
  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: