What is civilization? This question was the basis of the first lecture in the history class that I’m taking this semester (Fall 2020). It’s a good question, and one I’d been pondering for some time prior to taking the class and listening to the lecture. I’m writing this article to better organize my research and ideas on the question, and also to assist others if they ever want to explore the answer to this question.
What is civilization?
This question has received many conflicting answers. Some historians have chosen not to use the word at all, and I fall into that category except for when referencing the dawn of civilization. That is why right off the bat here I want to say that I don’t think my definition below is the end all for this discussion. Rather, it serves as my best attempt at creating an up-to-date definition for civilization that I would be comfortable using. I also explain my reasoning as to why I’ve chosen my definition, and I’m open to constructive criticism and extended discussion. Again, I typically will not use this word, but if I had to, what follows is my explanation as to what I mean and why I mean it.
The word civilization comes from the combination of “civil” + “-ization”. The suffix “-ization” comes from the combination of the suffixes “-ize” and “-ation”, and is used to “form nouns from some verbs”. The suffix “-ization” can be used to denote an “Action, process, or result of doing or making: colonization“. Therefore, in relation to humans, civilization can be defined as “the action, process, or result of civilizing a human population”. In other words, civilization can be defined as “the action, process, or result of introducing order to a human population”. I will return to this definition after going over the definitions for civil, civilize, civilization, and savage.
At the core of the noun “civilization” is the adjective “civil”. Here’s a list of definitions for civil from within the past thousand years:
Latin civilis: “”relating to a society, pertaining to public life, relating to the civic order, befitting a citizen,” hence by extension “popular, affable, courteous;” alternative adjectival derivative of civis “townsman””.
Old French civil, 13th century: “”civil, relating to civil law”.
late 14 century: “relating to civil law or life; pertaining to the internal affairs of a state”.
1550’s: “not barbarous, civilized”.
by 1610’s: “”relating to the commonwealth as secularly organized” (as opposed to military or ecclesiastical)”.
1755: 1, “Relating to the community; political; relating to the city or government”.
2, “Relating to any man as a member of the community”.
3, “Not in anarchy; not wild; not without rule or government”.
4, “Not foreign; intestine”.
5, “Not ecclesiastical; as, the ecclesiastical courts are controlled by the civil“.
6, “Not natural; as, a person banished or outlawed is said to suffer civil, thought not natural death.
7, “Not military; as, the civil magistrates authority is obstructed by war”.
8, “Not criminal; as, this is a civil process, not a criminal prosecution”.
9, “Civilized; not barbarous”.
10, “Complaisant; civilized; gentle; well bred; elegant of manners; not rude; not brutal; not course”.
11, “Grave; sober; not gay or showy”.
12, “Relating to the ancient consular or imperial government; as, civil law”.
1789: “Relating to the community, political; not foreign, intestine; not ecclesiastical; not military; civilized, not barbarous; complaisant, gentle, well bred; relating to the ancient consular or imperial government, as civil law”.
1828: 1, “Relating to the community, or to the policy and government of the citizens and subjects of a state; as in the phrases, civil rights, civil government, civil privileges, civil war, civil justice. It is opposed to criminal; as a civil suit, a suit between citizens alone; whereas a criminal process is between the state and a citizen. It is distinguished from ecclesiastical, which respects the church; and from military, which respects the army and navy”.
2, “Relating to any man as a member of a community; as civil power, civil rights, the power or rights which a man enjoys as a citizen”.
3, “Reduced to order, rule and government; under a regular administration; implying some refinement of manners; not savage or wild; as civil life; civil society”.
4, “Civilized; courteous; complaisant; gentle and obliging; well-bred; affable; kind; having the manners of a city, as opposed to the rough, rude, coarse manners of a savage or clown”.
5, “Grave; sober; not gay or showy”.
6, “Compaisant; polite; a popular colloquial use of the word”.
7, “civil death, in law, is that which cuts off a man from civil society, or its rights and benefits, as banishment, outlawry, excommunication, entering into a monastery, etc., as distinguished from natural death”.
8, “civil law, in a general sense, the law of a state, city or country; but in an appropriate sense, the Roman empire, comprised in the Institutes, Code and Digest of Justinian and the Novel Constitutions”.
9, “civil list, the officers of civil government, who are paid from the public treasury; also, the revenue appropriated to support the civil government”.
10, “civil state, the whole body of the laity or citizens, not included under the military, maritime, and ecclesiastical states”.
11, “civil war, a war between people of the same state or city; opposed to foreign war”.
12, “civil year, the legal year, or annual account of time which a government appoints to be used in its own dominions, as distinguished from the natural year, which is measured by the revolution of the heavenly bodies”.
13, “civil architecture, the architecture which is employed in constructing buildings for the purposes of civil life, in distinction from military and naval architecture; as private houses, palaces, churches, etc”.
“The word civil has about twelve different meanings; it is applied to all manner of objects, which are perfectly disparate. As opposed to criminal, it means all law not criminal. As opposed to ecclesiastical, it means all law not ecclesiastical: as opposed to military, it means all law not military, and so on.”
~ John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence (1873)
The association of civil with being “polite” entered the English language around the end of the 16th century. Since then, it has more so meant “meeting minimum standards of courtesy”. “Courteous is thus more commonly said of superiors, civil of inferiors, since it implies or suggests the possibility of incivility or rudeness” [OED].
“Civil, literally, applies to one who fulfills the duty of a citizen; It may mean simply not rude, or observant of the external courtesies of intercourse, or quick to do and say gratifying and complimentary things. … Courteous, literally, expresses that style of politeness which belongs to courts: a courteous man is one who is gracefully respectful in his address and manner — one who exhibits a union of dignified complaisance and kindness. The word applies to all sincere kindness and attention.”
~ Century Dictionary (1895)
Since civilization can be defined as a result of civilizing a population (making a population civil), it is worth reviewing some definitions for civilize before moving onto a list of definitions for civilization. Here’s a list of definitions for the verb “civilize”:
c.1600: “to bring out of barbarism, introduce order and civil organization among, refine and enlighten”.
1755: “To reclaim from savageness and brutality; to instruct in the arts of regular life”.
1789: “To reclaim from savageness and brutality”.
1828: “To reclaim from a savage state; to introduce civility of manners among a people, and instruct them in the arts of regular life”.
1868: “become civilized”.
“We send the graces and the muses forth,
To civilize and instruct the North.”
Here’s a list of definitions for the noun “civilization” from over the past few centuries:
1704: “law which makes a criminal process civil”.
1755: Civilisation, “A law, act of justice, or judgement, which renders a criminal process civil; which is performed by turning an information into an inquest, or the contrary”.
1772: “civilized condition, state of being reclaimed from the rudeness of savage life”.
1789: Civilisation, “The law or act which renders a criminal process civil”.
1789: Civilization, “The state of being civilized; the act of civilizing”.
1828: Civilization, 1, “The act of civilizing, or the state of being civilized; the state of being refined in manners, from the grossness of savage life and improved in arts and learning”.
2, “The act of rendering a criminal process civil”.
1857: “a particular human society in a civilized condition, considered as a whole over time”.
Oxford Languages defines civilization as “the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced” and as “the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development, specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained” and also as “the culture characteristic of a particular time or place”.
Dictionary.com offers 7 definitions for civilization:
1, “an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached”.
2, “those people or nations that have reached such a state”.
3, “any type of culture, society, etc., of a specific place, time, or group”.
4, “the act or process of civilizing, as by bringing out of a savage, uneducated, or unrefined state, or of being civilized”.
5, “cultural refinement; refinement of thought and cultural appreciation”.
6, “cities or populated areas in general, as opposed to unpopulated or wilderness areas”.
7, “modern comforts and conveniences, as made possible by science and technology”.
National Geographic defined civilization as “a complex human society, usually made up of different cities, with certain characteristics of cultural and technological development”.
The lecturer from my class shared three definitions for civilization that they found in textbooks.
1 – “Civilization is a form of human culture in which many people live in urban centers, have mastered the art of smelting metals, and have developed a method of writing”.
2 – “The first civilizations began in cities, which were larger, more populated, and more complex in their political, economic, and social structure than Neolithic villages.”
3 – “…definition of civilization requires that a civilized people have a sense of history — meaning that the past counts in the present.”
It is unfortunate, but the lecturer did not provide citations to where they pulled the definitions from, and so seeking greater context for these definitions would require a bit of extra work. Maybe I will email them to see if they can remember or locate the sources.
As can be seen in the above list of definitions for civilization, it originally was related to law, but over time it became more related to human populations being or becoming civilized. I felt it useful to discuss the development of the meanings of civil and civilize prior to civilization because without an understanding of those two words it can be difficult to comprehend exactly how civilization can be defined. The word civil can be considered an antonym to the word savagery.
“To deprive us of metals is to make us mere savages; to change our corn for the old Arcadian diet, our houses and cities for dens and caves, and our clothing for skins of beasts: ’tis to bereave us of all arts and sciences, nay, of revealed religion.”
~ Richard Bentley (1662-1742)
Here’s a list of definitions for savage:
c.1300: (adj.), 1, “”wild, undomesticated, untamed” (of animals and places)”
2, “indomitable, valiant”
mid-13th century: (adj.), “fierce, ferocious”.
c.1400: 1, (adj.), “reckless, ungovernable”.
2, (n.), “wild person”.
1789: 1, “Wild, uncultivated; uncivilized, barbarous”.
2, “a man untaught and uncivilized, a barbarian”.
1799: (adj.), 1, “Wild, uncultivated”.
2, “Untamed, cruel”.
3, “Uncivilized; barbarous; untaught; wild; brutal”.
(n.), 1, “A man untaught and uncivilized; a barbarian”.
1828: (adj.), 1, “Pertaining to the forest; wild; remote from human residence and improvements; uncultivated; as a savage wilderness”.
2, “Wild; untamed; as savage beasts of prey”.
3, “Uncivilized; untaught; unpolished; rude; as savage life; savage manners”.
4, “Cruel; barbarous; fierce; ferocious; inhuman; brutal; as a savage spirit”.
(n.), 1, “A human being in his native state of rudeness; one who is untaught, uncivilized or without cultivation of mind or manners. The savages of America, when uncorrupted by the vices of civilized men, are remarkable for their hospitality to strangers, and for their truth, fidelity and gratitude to their friends, but implacably cruel and revengeful towards their enemies. From this last trait of the savage character, the word came to signify”,
2, A man of extreme, unfeeling, brutal cruelty; a barbarian.
3, The name of a genus of fierce voracious flies”.
There are other forms of the word savage, such as savagize and savagization. Savagize is a verb meaning “To make savage; to cause to adopt a way of life regarded as primitive or uncivilized. Frequently in passive. Also without object: to become savage”. Savagization is a noun defined as “the process of savagizing”. However, given the information in the earlier part of this article about the suffix “-ization”, a better definition may be “the action, process, or result of savagizing”.
Civilization can be defined as “the action, process, or result of introducing order to a human population”. Cultures and societies are the components of a population. Every civilization is made up of cultures and societies, but not every culture and society is a civilization.
The lecturer named three people and the characteristics they attribute to civilization. The three people are: Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-1960), and (I think) Robert McCormick Adams Jr. (1926-2018).
Vere Gordon Childe proposed this list as the hallmark “elements of civilization”:
– Wheeled carts
– Weights and measures
– Urban centers
– Food surplus
Others added onto Childe’s list:
– Privileged ruling class
– Centralized government
– National religion
– Towns over 5000
– Monumental architecture
– Social institutions
– Class stratification
– Religious hierarchies
– Complex division of labor
– Soldiers & officials
McKay, Hill, et al., A History of World Societies, 2012, p. 36 has this to say about civilization:
“In the ancient world, residents of cities generally viewed themselves as more advanced and sophisticated than rural folk – a judgment still made today. … Beginning in the 18th century, European scholars described those societies in which political, economic, and social organizations operated on a large scale, not primarily through families and kin groups, as “civilizations”. Civilizations had cities; laws that governed human relationships; codes of manners and social conduct that regulated how people were to behave; and scientific, philosophical and theological ideas that explained the larger world. Generally, only societies that used writing were judged to be civilizations, for writing allowed laws, norms, ideas, and traditions to become more complex. … The idea of a civilization came to mean not simply a system of political and social organization, but also particular ways of thinking and believing, particular styles of art, and other facets of culture.”
The above quote is also on page 5 of A History of Western Society (2017), by McKay, Hill, et al.. Page 5 also provides a concise definition, that being, civilization is “A large-scale system of human political, economic, and social organizations; civilizations have cities, laws, states, and often writing”.
Duiker & Spielvogel, World History, 2016, p.8 identify these characteristics of civilization:
1 – “An urban focus. Cities became the centers for political, economic, social, cultural, and religious development”.
2 – “New political and military structures. An organized government bureaucracy arose…armies were organized to gain land and power for defense”.
3 – “A new social structure based on economic power“.
4 – “The development of more complexity in a material sense. Surpluses of agricultural crops freed people to work in occupations other than farming. … as urban populations exported finished goods in exchange for raw materials from neighboring populations, organized trade grew substantially”.
5 – “A distinct religious structure“.
6 – “The development of writing“.
7 – “New forms of significant artistic and intellectual activity. For example, monumental architectural structures”.
Stearns, World Civilizations: A Global Experience, 2017, p.22 reads:
“After the rise of agriculture, the introduction of civilization as a form of human organization was a crucial step for many people. Civilization first developed in Mesopotamia, after about 3500 BCE on the heels of several changes in technology and communication. Human organization along civilization lines did not emerge everywhere at the same time, and many regions – even some successful agricultural economies – avoided it altogether, at least until much more recently. Hunting-and-gathering and nomadic societies lacked the economic surplus necessary to develop civilization and often actively disliked the constraints they saw in civilization as well.
Civilizations normally demonstrated four distinctive features, operating powerfully in combination. First, they developed greater amounts of economic surplus, beyond subsistence needs, and they distributed this surplus unequally. This provided funds for new kinds of monuments. It also heightened social inequalities compared to other “noncivilized” kinds of societies. Second, civilizations developed formal governments with at least small bureaucracies. Leadership thus became more specialized than in simpler agricultural or nomadic societies. Third, almost all civilizations, including all the early ones, had writing. This facilitated trade over long distances by facilitating standardized communication; it enhanced recordkeeping. And fourth, they developed larger and more important urban centers as cities emerged as concentrations of populations.”
In my opinion, the only two fundamental characteristics of civilization are the development of sciences and arts by humans. Pure sciences include subjects such as physics and chemistry, while pure arts include anything created by humans. Applied sciences are where technology comes from, and applied arts provide aesthetics to practical items. There are also subjects that are a mix of art and science, such as agriculture and architecture. Wheels, plows, smelting, sailing, food surpluses, calendars, etc., are all the results of pursuing the development of the sciences and arts. These pursuits demand some level of discipline and order, and because of that, I would not call them savage, but civil pursuits.
Not all civilizations developed at the same time, and due to this there can be some confusion when asking “when was the dawn of civilization?”. This question can be reworded as, “when was the dawn of the first human civilization?”. This question has been the center of lively debates for hundreds of years.
“How would you define [civilization]? How does it differ from culture or society?”. These are basically two of the questions for the first discussion forum in the class that I’m taking this semester. I answer them here to record my answers outside of the forum itself.
I define civilization as the “action, process, or result of introducing order to a human population”. The result of order being introduced can be seen in populations that have developed sciences and arts. Civilization differs from a culture or a society in that civilization is a result of a mix of cultures and societies. They are fundamental requirements for civilization, but civilization is not a fundamental requirement for a society or a culture.
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