The Idea, of Civilization in World Historical Perspective



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The Idea, of Civilization in World Historical Perspective

The perception that there are fundamental differences between civilized and "barbaric" or "savage" peoples is very ancient and widespread. For thousands of years the Chinese, the civilized inhabitants of the "Middle King­dom," set themselves off from neighboring peoples, in­cluding the pastoral or nomadic cattle- and sheep-herd­ing peoples of the vast plains or steppes to the north and west of China proper, whom they regarded 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—these outsiders were admit­ted into the exalted circle of the 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 fear of invasions by peoples they re­garded as barbarous and referred to as 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 most fierce, of a long line of chichimec peoples who entered the val­leys and either destroyed or conquered the urban-based empires that had developed there. But after the con­querors settled down in the mountain valleys, they adopted many of the religious beliefs and institutional patterns and much of the material culture of the van­quished peoples.

The word civilization is derived from the Latin word civilis meaning "of the citizens." The term was coined by the Romans to distinguish between them-. selves as citizens of a cosmopolitan, urban-focused civi- lization 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 that non-Greek peoples to the north of the Greek heartlands spoke sounded like sense­less blabber to the Greeks, they lumped all the outsiders together as barbarians, which meant literally "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. Regardless of the color of one's skin or the shape of one's nose, it was possible for free individuals to become members of a Greek polis—city-state—or to become Ro­man citizens by adopting Greek or Roman customs and swearing allegiance to the polis or the emperor.

Until the 17th and 18th centuries C.E., the primacy of cultural attributes (language, dress, manners, etc.) as the means by which civilized peoples set themselves off from barbaric ones had been rarely challenged. But in those centuries, two major changes occurred among thinkers in western Europe. First, efforts were made not only to define systematically 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. Peoples like the Chinese and the Arabs, who had created great cities, monumental architecture, writing, advanced technology, and large empires, usually won a place along with the Europeans near the top of these ladders of hu­man achievement. Nomadic, cattle- and sheep-herding peoples, such as the Mongols, were usually classified as barbarians. Civilized and barbarian peoples were in turn pitted against various sorts of savages. These ranged from the hunters and gatherers who inhabited much of North America and Australia before the arrival of the Euro­peans to the slash-and-burn or migratory cultivators in the hill and forest zones on most of the continents.

The second major shift that European writers brought about in our ideas regarding civilization began



Peter Stearns, Michael Adas, and Stuart Schwartz. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 2nd edition. HarperCollins, 1996.


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. Though no one could agree on what a race was or how many races there were, most European writers argued that some races were more inventive, more moral, more courageous, more artistic—thus more capable of building civilizations—than others. White, or Caucasian, Europeans were, of course, considered by white European authors to be the most capable of all. The hierarchy from savage to civilized took on a color dimension from 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 as some preferred to call them, Aryans. Confronted with clear evidence of civi­lization in places such as China and the Middle East, these writers categorized Arabs as Caucasian and argued that Aryan migrants had carried the essence of civiliza­tion to places like India and China. As the evolutionary theories of thinkers such as Charles Darwin came into vogue, race and level of cultural development were seen in the perspective of thousands of years of human 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 "inferior" 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 19th 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 peoples has been jetti­soned. Racist thinking has been discredited by 20th-century developments, including the revolt of the colo­nized peoples and the persistent failure of racial

supremacists to provide convincing proof for innate dif­ferences in mental and physical aptitudes between vari­ous human groups. These trends, as well as research that has resulted in a much more sophisticated understanding of the evolutionary process, 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 ethnocen-trism 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 identify specific kinds of cultural achievement (writing, cities, monumen­tal architecture, etc.). All peoples, from small bands 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, quite simply, the moti­vation for doing so.





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