Editor’s Introduction: Civilization (Critical Concepts in Political Science)

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Editor’s Introduction: Civilization (Critical Concepts in Political Science)

Brett Bowden

Introduction: Setting the Scene on the Seine

In the opening pages of Civilisation: A Personal View, the book based on the BBC television series of the same name, Kenneth Clark asks himself, ‘What is civilization?’ His response is, ‘I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now’. At the time, Clark was standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. On one side of the River Seine he took in the ‘harmonious, reasonable façade’ of the Institut de France, built around 1670 and home to five of France’s learned academies. On the other bank of the Seine stands the Musée du Louvre, home to many of the art world’s masterpieces and the most visited art museum in the world. Looking upstream he could just catch a glimpse of the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Under the trees that line the banks of the Seine, Clark could see the open bookstalls that have provided ‘intellectual nourishment’ to generations of students and a welcome distraction to those who indulge in the ‘civilized pastime of book collecting’. As he stood on the bridge, Clark wondered how many others had paused to take in the views, ponder the history, soak up the atmosphere, ‘and felt themselves to be at the very centre of civilization’. Clearly, the arts, particularly the fine arts, architecture, and the written word are at the forefront of Clark’s mind as he ponders the achievements of civilization. The fact that he was standing in the centre of Paris, the French capital and the birthplace of the word civilization, is also worthy of note, as becomes particularly apparent in volume one of this collection. In making his observation, Clark did not mean to suggest ‘that the history of civilization is the history of art’.1 The point he was seeking to make was that civilization was visible, audible, and comprehensible through the various artistic media.

While art might be a marker of civilization, it is civilization that makes the arts possible. Underlying this statement is the assertion that civilization is first and foremost about socio-politics. As most dictionaries will recount, civilization refers to an advanced state of human society. It is applied, more or less exclusively, to human collectives that demonstrate a relatively high level of social complexity and socio-political organization. This is not unrelated to Clark’s observations about the symbiotic relationship between art and civilization, and it helps to address his question, what is civilization, or perhaps more accurately, what does civilization mean. The reason why socio-politics trumps all other concerns when it comes to considerations of civilization is discernible in the following oft-quoted passage from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.2
The primary lesson that is generally drawn from this passage is that life lived outside of society in a state of nature is constantly under threat – there is little to no chance of peace among humans without society. Another key point for the purposes here is that some degree of socio-political co-operation and organization is a basic necessity for the foundation of civilization. As Hobbes’ went on to explain, the ‘procuring of the necessities of life … was impossible, till the erecting of great Common-wealths’, which are ‘the mother of Peace, and Leasure’, which is, in turn, ‘the mother of Philosophy … Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy’.3 As Robert Kraynak notes, Hobbes held that ‘wherever government is sufficiently strong and well-established to provide peace and leisure, men began to cultivate the finer things in life; above all, they began to cultivate philosophy or the arts and sciences’.4 Thus, it is in society, and as members of society, that human beings were afforded the necessities of life that allowed them to engage in the very activities that are the outward expression of civilization; the arts Clark used to tell the story of civilization. Without co-operation in political society, there is no knowledge of science and technology, no leisure time or philosophy and fine arts, just as there is no industry and no personal property, wealth, or wellbeing. At least in the first instance, it is the first of these hallmarks of civilization, the presence of increasingly complex socio-political organization, which is the prerequisite and facilitator of the latter qualities. Social and political progress comes prior to every other form of progress; moreover, progress within the other sub-elements of civilization is contingent upon it. Friedrich von Schiller later posited the situation in these terms, ‘would Greece have borne a Thucydides, a Plato, and an Aristotle, or Rome a Horace, a Cicero, a Virgil, and a Livy, if these two states had not risen to those heights of political achievement which in fact they attained?’5 Hobbes believed not. And many thinkers before and since Hobbes’ time have agreed on the basic underlying principle.

This is the primary reason why civilization is indeed a critical concept, and not only critical to the political sciences, but also to the humanities and social and behavioural sciences more generally. It also underpins the rationale as to why, in the following four volumes dedicated to the concept of civilization, there are not more substantial extracts from Clark’s or other important books that are predominantly concerned with the ‘finer things’. For this collection of key works on the concept of civilization is primarily concerned with the social, legal, and political dimensions of civilization. This concern extends from the level of the individual to the small localized communities to which they belong, and from the broader societies and nations to which they in turn belong to the international system in which the cut and thrust of global politics is played out.

The ninety-one articles and extracts presented in these four volumes go a long way toward answering Clark’s question: What is civilization? But they do a lot more than that. They explain what civilization is, and what it is not. They explore its origins, its meanings, where it is has been, and where it is going. They describe how you get it, and how civilization is imposed. From the classic texts of some of history’s leading thinkers to the latest cutting edge commentary, these essays and extracts explore, explain, and debate the ideas, ideals, and myriad issues surrounding the concept of civilization. Included are works from such diverse thinkers as François Guizot, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Engels, and Friedrich von Schiller; extracts from such distinguished historians as Fernand Braudel, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold J. Toynbee; sociologists of the calibre of Norbert Elias and Zygmunt Bauman; and more recent commentaries from political scientists such as Wendy Brown, Robert W. Cox, and Samuel P. Huntington. Complementing and contrasting with these works are documents from the United Nations, and contributions from statesmen such as the former President of Germany, Roman Herzog, and the late United States Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Naturally, some readers will take note of whom and what is not represented here, some of these selection issues are beyond the control of the editor for one reason or another, others are the result of careful evaluation and decision-making. Unfortunately, everything one might like to include simply does not fit. The essays and extracts that are included herein, individually and collectively, will guide the reader through the origins and evolutionary twists and turns of this most important of social scientific terms – civilization. Moreover, the hope is that these four volumes will prove invaluable in assisting readers to gain a better understanding of contemporary domestic and global political environments, and their potential trouble spots, by piecing together and explaining some of the key events and relationships in history that have brought us to this point.

The Significance of Civilization

The idea of civilization occupies a prominent, yet at times complicated, even troubled place in the history of ideas and world history more generally. Indeed, it has played no small part in shaping history; the demands of civilization have long been employed to describe, explain, rationalize, and justify all manner of interventions and socio-political engineering.6 The significance of civilization as a word and an ideal is captured in the suggestion by the French linguist Emile Benveniste that it is one of a small number of ‘essential’ concepts intimately linked to the ‘whole history of modern thought and the principal intellectual achievements in the western world’.7 Benveniste is right in that civilization is a distinctly Western idea; as such, the vast majority of the ninety-one articles and extracts collected in these four volumes are the work of Western authors or of Western origins. But much of this material involves or is the direct result of observations of the non-Western world, the realm where much of the aforementioned intervention and socio-political engineering has taken place.

For a period in the twentieth century, following two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust, it seemed as though the very idea of civilization might be rendered something of an anachronism. As Wolf Schäfer notes, ‘Sociologists, anthropologists and historians have learned to avoid civilization, and instead, analyze everything with culture’ as a point of reference. As such, a generation of social and behavioural scientists have hesitated to use the concept of civilization as a tool of social analysis; it was more the case that ‘Culture is ‘in’ and civilization is ‘out’’.8 But the end of the Cold War has changed this way of thinking and brought about a revival in the use of the term civilization – and its plural, civilizations – as tools for describing and explaining a wide range of events and issues. Nowhere is this more the case than in politics and international affairs. The catalyst for this turn in thinking can in large part be attributed to Samuel P. Huntington’s provocative article and book in which he developed his version of the clash of civilizations thesis.9

The extremist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington D.C., along with subsequent attacks in Madrid, London, and elsewhere, and the response they generated in the form of the global war on terror, have further elevated the idea of civilization as a critical concept in describing and explaining politics and international affairs. For instance, in a speech to the United States Congress on September 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush stated, ‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. He further declared that the terrorists responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington were ‘the heirs of all murderous ideologies of the twentieth century … they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism’. Bush went on to cast the war as a ‘fight for civilization’. He confidently added that ‘the civilized world is rallying to America’s side’.10 This environment of heightened domestic and international tensions gives rise to ever-increasing speculation and rhetoric about struggles ‘for civilization’ or a possible ‘clash of civilizations’, particularly between the West and the Islamic world.11

As this heated rhetoric suggests, the term civilization is used to both describe and cast value laden judgements about people, places, and events. In this respect, civilization falls into the category of what Quentin Skinner refers to as ‘evaluative-descriptive’ terms; a range of concepts ‘which perform evaluative as well as descriptive functions in natural languages’.12 The power of ideas and language is not be overlooked or underestimated, for as Ken Booth has observed, social and behavioural scientists should ‘give language more attention than hitherto, as words shape as well as reflect reality’.13 This is a particularly prescient point in regard to the concept of civilization, for it has long been and continues to be used to both describe and shape reality. As Skinner notes, the ‘special characteristic’ of such concepts is that ‘they have a standard application to perform one of two contrasting ranges of speech-acts. They are available, that is, to perform such acts as commending (and expressing and soliciting approval) or else of condemning (and expressing and soliciting disapproval) of any action or state of affairs they are used to describe’.14 As can be seen in many of the works that follow, civilization is a term and idea of considerable power, it is used both to commend and condemn; moreover, it has been used as motivation and justification for all manner of policies and practises.

In exploring and seeking to better understand the concept of civilization, J.G.A. Pocock is particularly helpful when he writes of ‘the functions within a political society of what may be called its language (or languages) of politics’. He further notes, ‘Any stable and articulate society possesses concepts with which to discuss its political affairs’.15 Civilization is one of these key concepts, but it is not only used in shaping domestic social and political affairs, it is a concept that has also long been employed to describe and shape relationships in international political affairs. In essence, this general approach to key ideas and critical concepts can be conceived of as ‘rooted in the role of language in the establishment, communication, and reproduction of political legitimacy’. It particularly asks us to focus ‘on the role of politico-moral concepts’, concepts such as civilization, ‘through which we order social and political life and by which we are in turn ordered, and the manner in which such concepts are manipulated and embedded in the discursive construction’ of all levels of society and politics.16

As the idea of civilization is increasingly bandied about in domestic and international discourse, it is almost inevitable that it is increasingly misinterpreted, misapplied, and worse, misused for ill purposes. As suggested above, this can have serious, even dangerous ramifications when it comes to policy-making and practise. Given the sensitive and at times precarious environment in which global politics in particular are presently being played out, Civilization (Critical Concepts in Political Science) is a particularly timely publication. In response to the revival of civilization as a tool for describing and judging global political affairs, and as a counter to its often ill-directed use, these four volumes give a comprehensive overview of the origins, contested meanings, contextual applications, general history, and the intellectual baggage that is associated with the concept of civilization.

Civilization in Four Volumes

The aim here is to briefly introduce and explain the thematic rationale behind these four volumes how they link together. Volume one, ‘The Origins and Meaning of Civilization’, is made up of essays by distinguished linguists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, and political scientists outlining the origins of the concept of civilization and its many and contested meanings. The first volume is invaluable in establishing the all-important foundations upon which much of the analysis and debate included in subsequent volumes is based. Volume two, ‘Civilization, Civilizations, Progress and History’, includes a range of essays and extracts that intimately outline the relationship between the ideal of civilization and the idea of progress, including progress in the social, cultural, moral, scientific, and political realms. Essays in the volume further expound on how the concepts of civilization and progress relate to the more general passage of history, particularly the idea that history has a purpose and the notion of universal civilization. Volume three, ‘Civilization and its Others’, is made of material that explores the somewhat sensitive idea of what civilization is not, or civilization and its others. The volume discusses work form some of history’s most distinguished anthropologists, controversial ethnologists, and leading international lawyers and political scientists about the drawing of distinctions between civilized, savage, and barbarian peoples. The consequences of such divisions have been and remain far-reaching and long-lasting. The fourth volume, ‘Civilizational Relations: Past, Present and Future’, navigates through the equally sensitive field of historical and contemporary relations between the world’s major civilizations or religio-cultural groups. It includes the catalysts of debates such as the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis and the many and varied responses it has spawned. At a time of heightened inter-civilizational tensions and suspicion, this volume provides the essential material for understanding all sides and aspects of the various debates.

As outlined in volume one, the word civilization has its foundations in the French language, deriving from words such as civil (thirteenth century) and civilité (fourteenth century), all of which in turn derive from the Latin civitas. Prior to the appearance of civilization, words such as poli or polite, police (which broadly meant law and order, including government and administration), civilizé and civilité had all been in wide use but, in Benveniste’s view, none of these adequately met the evolving demands on the language. For some time, civilizer and civilization had been used in jurisprudence to describe the transformation of a criminal matter into a civil one. Upon the appearance of the verb civilizer sometime in the sixteenth century, which provided the basis for the noun, the coining of civilization was only a matter of time, for civilization was a neologism whose time had come. As Benveniste states, ‘civilité, a static term, was no longer sufficient’, requiring the coining of a term ‘which had to be called civilisation in order to define together both its direction and continuity’.17

Just when the written word civilization first appeared in its more contemporary sense is open to conjecture. Despite his extensive enquiries, the French historian Lucien Febvre admits that he has no accurate idea as to ‘Who was the first to use it or at least to have it printed’. But he offers that he has ‘not been able to find the word civilisation used in any French text published prior to the year 1766’, when it appeared in a posthumous publication by M. Boulanger titled, Antiquité dévoilée par ses usages.18 The passage in which it appeared reads, ‘When a savage people has become civilized, we must not put an end to the act of civilisation by giving it rigid and irrevocable laws; we must make it look upon the legislation given to it as a form of continuous civilisation’.19 It is evident that civilization is used to represent both an ongoing process and a state of being that is an advance on the condition of savagery. Benveniste and Jean Starobinski independently argue that civilization first appeared in written form in its non-juridical sense ten years earlier than Febvre believed.20 Dated 1756, but not published until 1757, civilization appears three times in Victor de Riquetti, marquis de Mirabeau’s treatise on population, L’Ami des hommes ou Traité de la population. Curiously, Voltaire makes no use of what one would think would be a highly useful word (civilization) in his work of the same year, Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations. Reflecting Mirabeau’s coining of the term, the 1771 edition of the Trévoux Dictionnaire universel included for the first time both the jurisprudential and newer meaning of civilization. Starobinski notes that once coined, the term civilization was rapidly adopted into common usage because it encapsulated a broad range of terms that were already in use to describe a pre-existing concept; one that included notions such as advancements in comfort, increased material possessions and personal luxuries, improved education techniques, ‘cultivation of the arts and sciences’, and the expansion ‘of commerce and industry’.21

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word civilization first appeared in English in 1772, some fifteen years after its initial appearance in a French text. The reference it cites is taken from a passage in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson that reads, ‘On Monday, March 23, [1772] I found him [Dr. Samuel Johnson] busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary … He would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him, I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity, than civility; as it is better to have a distinct word for each sense, than one word with two senses, which civility is, in his way of using it’.22 The entry in Boswell’s diary is much in keeping with civilization’s French foundations; it also gives a good indication of at least one sense in which the term entered into English usage. But as the context in which Boswell uses it hints at, it appears as though the word had already been in use for some time prior. The first recorded English usage of civilization is attributed to the Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Ferguson, who used civilization in his Essay on the History of Civil Society, first published in 1767.23 There is good reason to believe, however, that Ferguson actually used the term some years prior to 1767, as is indicated in a letter of 12 April, 1759 from David Hume to Adam Smith in which he makes reference to a ‘treatise on Refinement’ by ‘our friend Ferguson’.24 If Ferguson also used the word civilization in this earlier draft of his Essay manuscript, then there is cause to believe that civilization was in use in English no more than two or three years after its first recorded use in French.25 As to whether Ferguson began using civilization independently of the French, assuming that he was indeed the first to use and record it, which cannot be guaranteed, or had picked it up from the French remains open to speculation.

While the word civilization only appears in Ferguson’s Essay a total of eight times, the work itself has been described as ‘a history of civilization’.26 In essence it is an investigation into the progress of humankind and society from a state of ‘rudeness’ to a ‘refined’ or ‘polished’ state. This theme is established on the first page of the Essay where Ferguson writes, ‘Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization’.27 As Duncan Forbes writes in his introduction to the 1966 edition of the Essay, what Ferguson was looking for was a ‘true criterion of civilization’.28 And, as Ferguson clearly states in his later Principles of Moral and Political Science, that criterion was some degree of socio-political organization. For he writes in the Principles that ‘success of commercial arts … requires a certain order to be preserved by those who practice them, and implies a certain security of the person and property, to which we give the name civilization, although this distinction, both in the nature of the thing, and derivation of the word, belongs rather to the effects of law and political establishment, on the forms of society, than to any state merely of lucrative possession or wealth’.29 From these passages and from the general theme of Ferguson’s Essay, it is apparent that like the French he too uses civilization to describe both a process and a condition. Ferguson’s line of thought on the criteria of civilization has much in common with Hobbes’ thinking on this matter, as discussed above.

One of the reasons why the concept of civilization is so complicated is the fact that the term civilization and its plural have been applied to so many arenas of analysis. Trying to get a good understanding of what civilization means and how it applies to human affairs more generally is not as straightforward as one might hope; from the time it was coined the term civilization was imbued with a range of meanings. And in the time since then so much analysis has fallen under the broad umbrella of civilization that it often lacks any specific or readily graspable meaning. As noted above, civilization is used to describe both a process through which individual human beings and nations became civilized, and the cumulative outcome of that process. As Starobinski exaplains, the ‘crucial point is that the use of the term, civilization, to describe both the fundamental process of history and the end result of that process established an antithesis between civilization and a hypothetical primordial state (whether it be called nature, savagery, or barbarism)’.30 This account suggests that the term civilization is used to more than simply describe the civilizing process and the state of civilization that is achieved through that process. It implies that the idea of civilization also has an inherent value-laden or normative quality. Thus, the idea of civilization has widely been thought of and applied in two distinct senses. These two uses of civilization are neatly expressed by Febvre, who noted that the ‘same word is used to designate two different concepts’. First, it is used to identify and describe what are thought to be quantifiable traits and values held in common by a distinct group of peoples – a civilization. Referring to this sense, Febvre writes:

In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the ‘ethnographical’ conception of civilization. It does not imply any value judgement on the detail or the overall pattern of the facets examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or their personal reactions or individual behaviour. It is above all a conception which refers to a group.31

In this sense civilization is said to be largely a ‘descriptive and neutral’ term that is used to describe specific civilizations such as those of ancient Greece or contemporary Western civilization. Furthermore, it is this sense of the term with which the plural – civilizations – has been so readily associated.

In the second sense, civilization is described as a ‘normative concept on the basis of which it was possible to discriminate the civilized from the uncivilized, the barbarian, and the incompletely civilized’.32 Following his ethnographic account of civilization, Febvre defines civilization as a normative ideal or value thus.

In the second case, when we are talking about the progress, failures, greatness and weakness of civilization we do have a value judgement in mind. We have the idea that the civilization we are talking about – ours – is itself something great and beautiful; something too which is nobler, more comfortable and better, both morally and materially speaking, than anything outside it – savagery, barbarity or semi-civilization. Finally, we are confident that such civilization, in which we participate, which we propagate, benefit from and popularize, bestows on us all a certain value, prestige, and dignity. For it is a collective asset enjoyed by all civilized societies. It is also an individual privilege which each of us proudly boasts that he possesses.33

While these two definitions appear straightforward enough, the idea of civilization (and its plural, civilizations) is complex, and does not readily lend itself to a simple or concise definition. Particularly important here is the fact that Febvre’s ethnographic definition of civilization is more than just descriptive; it too has an (unacknowledged) normative-evaluative component. The label civilization is not usually used to describe the collective life of just any group, as culture sometimes is; rather, it is reserved for social collectives that demonstrate a degree of urbanization and organization. This normative assumption is evident in that Febvre’s ethnographic markers all relate, either directly or indirectly, to a group’s socio-political organization. The point to be emphasized here is that the study of civilizations, that is, ethnographic civilizations, cannot be readily divorced from a concern with the normative demands of civilization, as can be seen in volumes two and three in particular. This important point is largely overlooked by Huntington who simply notes, ‘To be civilized was good, to be uncivilized was bad’. While he acknowledges that there evolved a distinction between the use of civilization and civilizations, this is oversimplified to the point that the arrival of the latter marks the ‘renunciation of a civilization defined as an ideal, or rather as the ideal’.34 But as Fernand Braudel notes, the ‘triumph’ of one over the other ‘does not spell disaster’ for one or the other, for they are necessarily tied together in ‘dialogue’.35

The relationship between civilizations and civilization was captured by Arnold Toynbee, one of the leading and most influential exponents of the comparative study of civilizations. He noted that ‘civilizations have come and gone, but Civilization (with a big ‘C’) has succeeded’ or endured. That is, while particular civilizations might rise and fall, other civilizations rise in turn to advance the lot of humankind. So, despite the persistence of war, famine, and pestilence, Civilization keeps ‘shambling on’.36 Toynbee further articulated the link between ‘civilizations in the plural and civilization in the singular’, noting that the former refers to ‘particular historical exemplifications of the abstract idea of civilization’. This abstract idea of civilization is defined in ‘spiritual terms’, which ‘equate civilization with a state of society in which there is a minority of the population, however small, that is free from the task, not merely of producing food, but of engaging in any other of the economic activities – e.g. industry and trade – that have to be carried on to keep the life of the society going on the material plane at the civilizational level’.37 This is in keeping with the requirements of civilization as articulated by Hobbes and Ferguson outlined above.

As suggested, civilization and its plural are interrelated terms and subjects of study that have been examined both independently and with reference to one another. An initial concern with the concept of civilization gave way in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to detailed comparative studies of civilizations, in large part instigated by the foundation and development of the fields of anthropology and ethnography.38 Such a shift led to claims that a broader concern with the normative-evaluative aspects of civilization had ‘lost some of its cachet’.39 The result of this shift was a preoccupation with narrow definitions, such as the suggestion that a ‘civilization constitutes a kind of moral milieu encompassing a certain number of nations, each national culture being only a particular form of the whole’.40 This is the conceptualization of civilization that is central to the clash of civilizations thesis that has done so much to get people thinking in terms of civilizations and their respective security requirements, particularly in relation to other civilizations.41 But the idea of civilization is widely conceived of as both a process and a destination or state of being; in either way civilization is inextricably linked to the ideal of civilization as a comparative benchmark against which other human collectives are measured and evaluated. That is, as an ‘evaluative-descriptive’ concept, civilization is used both to describe and evaluate; or pass judgement in the very act of describing. In contradistinction to Febvre’s supposedly purely ethnographic account of civilization, such terms have no neutral reading, they at once describe and evaluate, commend and condemn.

In this respect, Zygmunt Bauman argues that the ‘concept of civilization entered learned discourse in the West as the name of a conscious proselytizing crusade waged by men of knowledge and aimed at extirpating the vestiges of wild cultures’.42 The nature of the proselytizing crusade is not too difficult to determine when one considers Starobinski’s assertion, ‘Taken as a value, civilization constitutes a political and moral norm. It is the criterion against which barbarity, or non-civilization, is judged and condemned’.43 A similar point is made by Anthony Pagden, who states that civilization ‘describes a state, social, political, cultural, aesthetic – even moral and physical – which is held to be the optimum condition for all mankind, and this involves the implicit claim that only the civilized can know what it is to be civilized’.44 It is out of this implicit claim and the judgements passed in its name that the notion of the ‘burden of civilization’ was born. The argument that only the civilized know what it means to be civilized is an important one, for as Starobinski notes, the ‘historical moment in which the word civilization appears marks the advent of self-reflection, the emergence of consciousness that thinks it understands the nature of its own activity’. More specifically, it marks ‘the moment that Western civilization becomes aware of itself reflectively, it sees itself as one civilization among others. Having achieved self-consciousness, civilization immediately discovers civilizations’.45 But as Norbert Elias notes, it is not a case of Western civilization being just one amongst equals, for the very concept of civilization ‘expresses the self-consciousness of the West … It sums up everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or “more primitive” contemporary ones’. Elias further explains that in using the term civilization, ‘Western society seeks to describe what constitutes its special character and what it is proud of: the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its scientific knowledge or view of the world, and much more’.46 As much of the work reproduced in volumes two and three demonstrates, it is not too difficult to see how the harbingers of civilization might gravitate toward a (well-meaning) ‘proselytizing crusade’ driven, at least in part, by a deeply held belief in the ‘burden of civilization’.

With the rise of disciplines such as anthropology and ethnology, the comparative study of civilizations and discussions of the merits or otherwise of various civilizations led to thinking and theorizing about the relationship between the ideal of civilization and the idea of progress. As Starobinski notes, the ‘word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress. The two words were destined to maintain a most intimate relationship’.47 The idea of progress has two related components. The first is that the human species universally progresses, albeit at different rates and to different degrees, from an original primitive or child-like condition, referred to as savagery, through to barbarism, and culminates at the apex of progress in the status of civilization. The second component of the idea of progress holds that human experience, both individual and collective, is cumulative and future-directed, or teleological, with the specific objective being the ongoing improvement of the individual, the society in which the individual lives, and the world in which the society must survive. Indicative of this line of thinking is Friedrich von Schiller’s thoughts on the significance of the discovery of the Americas. He stated, ‘A wise hand seems to have preserved these savage tribes until such time as we have progressed sufficiently in our own civilization to make useful application of this discovery, and from this mirror to recover the lost beginning of our own race’. But like many other commentators on the discovery of the indigenous peoples of the New World and elsewhere, he adds, ‘But how embarrassing and dismal is the picture of our own childhood presented in these peoples!’ For they represent the ‘barbarous remains of the centuries of antiquity and the middle ages!’48

With further European discoveries of aboriginal peoples around the globe in the centuries following Spain’s stumbling upon the New World, the theory of stages of progress of the human species became more widely studied and accepted as fact. Based on a broad study of historical societies and aboriginal peoples – including his own extensive observations of Amerindians, particularly the Iroquois Confederation – the American lawyer-cum-anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, furthered the cause with his elaboration of a yet more detailed hierarchy of human progress. In his influential book of 1877, Ancient Society, he wrote, ‘It can now be asserted upon convincing evidence that savagery preceded barbarism in all tribes of mankind, as barbarism is known to have preceded civilization’. He was further convinced ‘that this sequence has been historically true for the entire human family’, because ‘these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress’. Or to put it another way, Morgan was of the opinion that the ‘history of the human race is one in source, one in experience, and one in progress’.49

The degree of interrelation between the concepts of civilization and progress is evident in Robert Nisbet’s questioning of ‘whether civilization in any form and substance comparable to what we have known … in the West is possible without the supporting faith in progress that has existed along with this civilization’.50 In exploring the nature of this relationship it is evident that these twin ideals have played a significant role in the pursuit of a wide-reaching philosophy of history. The nature and significance of this pursuit is hinted at in Nisbet’s claim that ‘No single idea has been more important than … the idea of progress in Western civilization for nearly three thousand years’. While ideas such liberty, justice, equality, and community have their rightful place and should not be discounted, it ‘must be stressed: throughout most of Western history, the substratum of even these ideas has been a philosophy of history that lends past, present, and future to their importance’.51 Its significance is further revealed when Starobinski’s point that ‘civilization is a powerful stimulus to theory’ leads to the conclusion, ‘Despite its ambiguity … the temptation to clarify our thinking by elaborating a theory of civilization capable of grounding a far-reaching philosophy of history is thus irresistible’.52 Indeed, it has proved irresistible to a diverse range of thinkers from across the political spectrum.

At least since ‘the early nineteenth century … belief in the idea of progress of mankind, with Western civilization in the vanguard, was virtually a universal religion on both sides of the Atlantic’.53 But as noted, there is more to the idea of progress than this, for one of the central elements of most philosophies of progress ‘is the concept of the unity of man’s history’, which further necessitates ‘the conception that civilization is one and universal’, that is, there is but ‘one world history’. As George Iggers explains, historically, Europe, ‘specifically France and the English-speaking world … represents the vanguards of civilization’. The history of humankind is therefore thought to be ‘identical with the history of Western civilization’. As such, implicit in the idea of progress from the Enlightenment onward ‘is the notion of the civilizing mission of the European nations’. For the Enlightenment theorists of progress, ‘the history of the West becomes ultimately the history of the non-West, as the West extends it hegemony over the world’. Thus, the non-Western ‘world will find the completion of its historical development not in the further development of its own heritage but, because its heritage represents an earlier phase in the progress of mankind, in total Europeanization’, or perhaps more accurately today, in total Westernization.54 In a similar line of thought, John Gray argues that ‘it is not too difficult to discern … [a core] project in the central Enlightenment thinkers’. In essence, the philosophical anthropology of the Enlightenment held that different ‘cultural identities, along with their constitutive histories, were like streams, whose destiny was to flow irresistibly into the great ocean of universal humanity’. Gray argues it is not unreasonable to assert that ‘just as the category of civilization is a central element in the Enlightenment project, so the idea of a universal history of the species is integral to it’.55

The study of different civilizations or peoples and their respective places in the narrative of universal civilization resulted in civilizational hierarchies based on degrees of progress toward achieving the peak of civilization. A key legal and political mechanism for distinguishing between such groups are standards of civilization, which are essentially a means to regulate relations between ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ nations or peoples while determining the criteria for membership in the international society of states. Membership in international society confers full sovereignty upon a state, thus entitling it to full recognition and protection under international law. The general test of whether a nation was deemed civilized revolved around its degree of socio-political organization and capacity for self-government in accordance with accepted European standards. By the nineteenth century a civilized state required: a) basic institutions of government and public bureaucracy; b) organizational capacity for self-defense; c) published legal code and adherence to the rule of law and; d) recognition of international law and norms, including those on the conduct of war and diplomatic exchange. If a nation could meet these requirements it was generally deemed to be a legitimate sovereign state entitled to full recognition as an international personality. In essence, a government had to be sufficiently stable to allow it to enter into reciprocally binding commitments under international law, and possess the will and capacity to guarantee the life, liberty, and property of members of foreign civilized states living and operating within its borders. Georg Schwarzenberger succinctly captures a good measure of the rationale underpinning the origins and enforcement of the classical standard of civilization thus, ‘Once civilisation is related to the basic types of human association, it is no longer necessary to be content with the mere enumeration and description of a bewildering number of civilisations’, as suggested by Febvre’s supposedly purely ethnographic definition of civilization. But as noted, the concept of civilization is both descriptive and evaluative, and given its normative demands it is ‘then possible to evaluate and to measure individual civilisations in the light of a universally applicable test of the degree of civilisation which any such particular endeavour has attained’.56 For those that did not measure up to the requirements of civilization, intervention, even colonization, and training in the ways of civilization was the antidote. As Elias has poignantly noted, ‘It is not a little characteristic of the structure of Western society that the watchword of its colonizing movement is “civilization”.’57 Indeed, many unsavory acts have been carried out through the past five hundred-plus years in the name of civilization.

This history of confrontation, conquest, and colonization might suggest that volume four is primarily concerned with clashes between the various peoples and civilizations that make up our world. And it does seem that for one reason or another, conflict and what sets different peoples apart tends to attract more attention than co-operation and what we have in common. To many observers, the various comings together of the ‘West and the rest’ are defined by a recurring or ongoing series of confrontations and clashes; from the eleventh-century Crusades (1095-1291) through to the modern-day Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’ being played out in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and beyond. But, as some of the works in volume four note, this preoccupation with clashes and confrontations obscures what many civilizations or socio-cultural groups share in common and sidelines centuries of migration and mingling, peaceful co-operation, cultural borrowing, and exchanges of ideas. There is much to be gained by directing greater attention toward what the ‘West and the rest’ have in common and have shared and shaped together. Western civilization and the myriad of other non-Western civilizations or cultural groupings have overlapped and freely borrowed from one another and share more in common than is generally acknowledged. Now more than ever there is a need for more attention to co-operation over conflict as we seek out opportunities for genuine inter-civilizational dialogue and greater shared understandings.


1 Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: a personal view (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and John Murray, 1969), 1.

2 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1651] 1985), 186.

3 Hobbes, Leviathan, 683.

4 Robert P. Kraynak, ‘Hobbes on Barbarism and Civilization’, Journal of Politics, 45:1 (1983), 90.

5 Friedrich von Schiller, ‘The Nature and Value of Universal History: An Inaugural Lecture [1789]’, History and Theory, 11:3 (1972): 329.

6 See Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

7 Emile Benveniste, ‘Civilization: A Contribution to the History of the Word’, in Problems in general Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971), 289.

8 Wolf Schäfer, ‘Global Civilization and Local Cultures: A Crude Look at the Whole’, International Sociology, 16:3 (2001): 302.

9 Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’, Foreign Affairs, 72:3 (1993): 22-49; Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Touchstone Books, 1998).

10 U.S. President George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001 http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html. Emphasis added.

11 See for instance, Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (London and New York: Continuum, 2002). Similar terminology to the ‘West and the rest’ has been used earlier by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, and the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, see especially his 1952 BBC Reith Lectures, The World and the West (London: Oxford University Press, 1953).

12 Quentin Skinner, ‘Rhetoric and Conceptual Change’, Finnish Yearbook of Political Thought 3 (1999): 61; and Quentin Skinner, ‘Language and Social Change’, in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics, ed. James Tully (Cambridge: Polity, 1988), 122.

13 Ken Booth, ‘Discussion: a reply to Wallace’, Review of International Studies 23:3 (1997): 374 (371-377).

14 Skinner, ‘Rhetoric and Conceptual Change’, 61.

15 J.G.A. Pocock, ‘The History of Political Thought: A Methodological Enquiry’, in Philosophy, Politics, and Society, second series, ed. Peter Laslett and W. C. Runicman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 183, 195.

16 Duncan S.A. Bell, ‘Language, legitimacy, and the project of critique’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 27:3 (2002): 336.

17 Benveniste, ‘Civilization’, 292.

18 Lucien Febvre, ‘Civilization: evolution of a word and a group of ideas’, in A New Kind of History: from the writings of Febvre, ed. P. Burke, trans. K Folca (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 220-221.

19 M. Boulanger Antiquité dévoilée par ses usages (Amsterdam, 1766), Vol. III, Book VI, Ch. 2, 404-405, quoted in Febvre, ‘Civilization’, 222. Emphasis in original.

20 Benveniste, ‘Civilization’, 290; and Jean Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, in Blessings in Disguise; or The Morality of Evil, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 3.

21 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 3.

22 James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson [1791], 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), II, 155. Emphasis in original.

23 Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society 1767, ed. Duncan Forbes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966).

24 The letter is quoted in Benveniste, ‘Civilization’, 295.

25 The context of Hume’s letter suggests that Ferguson had been working on the manuscript for some time and that Hume had read an earlier draft still.

26 Duncan Forbes, ‘Introduction’, to Ferguson, xix.

27 Ferguson, Essay, 1.

28 Forbes, ‘Introduction’, xx.

29 Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2 vols (Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, [1792] 1975), 1: 252.

30 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 2-5, quote at 5.

31 Febvre, ‘Civilization’, 220.

32 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 7-8.

33 Febvre, ‘Civilization’, 220.

34 Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 40-41.

35 Fernand Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), 213.

36 Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 24.

37 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, revised and abridged edn (London: Thames and Hudson, and Oxford University Press, 1972), 44-45.

38 See for example, Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1934-1961); and Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West: vol.1: Form and Actuality; vol. 2: Perspectives of World History, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1926-1928).

39 Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, 41. Important exceptions include work on standards of civilization, of which, two of the earliest are, Georg Schwarzenberger, ‘The Standard of Civilisation in International Law’, in Current Legal Problems, eds. George W. Keeton and Georg Schwarzenberger, (London: Stevens & Sons Ltd., 1955), 212-234; and Gerrit W. Gong, The Standard of ‘Civilization’ in International Society, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

40 E. Durkheim and M. Mauss, ‘Note on the Notion of Civilization’, Social Research 38:4 (1971): 811.

41 See Brett Bowden, ‘Civilizational Security’, in Handbook on New Security Studies, ed. J. Peter Burgess (London & New York: Routledge, 2009).

42 Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters: On modernity, post-modernity and intellectuals (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 93. Emphasis in original. See also, John Keane, Reflections on Violence (London: Verso, 1996), 19.

43 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 31.

44 Anthony Pagden, ‘The “defence of civilization” in eighteenth-century social theory’, History of the Human Sciences, 1:1 (1988), 33.

45 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 32. Emphasis in original.

46 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, revised edn, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 5. Emphasis in original.

47 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 4. Emphasis in original.

48 von Schiller, ‘The Nature and Value of Universal History’, 325-327.

49 Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society: Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1907), v-vi, 3 and vi.

50 Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (London: Heinemann, 1980), 9.

51 Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, 4.

52 Starobinski, ‘The Word Civilization’, 33-34. Emphasis in original.

53 Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, 7.

54 Georg G. Iggers, ‘The Idea of Progress in Historiography and Social Thought Since the Enlightenment’, in Progress and its Discontents, eds. Gabriel A. Almond, Marvin Chodorow, and Roy Harvey Pearce (Berkely: University of California Press, 1982), 43-44, 59 and 53.

55 John Gray, Enlightenment’s wake: Politics and culture at the close of the modern age (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 123 and 125. Emphasis in original.

56 Schwarzenberger, ‘The Standard of Civilisation in International Law’, 218.

57 Elias, The Civilizing Process, 431.

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