We all have an idea about the meaning of the word “civilization”: a concept that we use to relate to a complex, advanced society like the current one on Earth, but also ancient cultures which flourished centuries ago, leaving us with a splendid legacy. If we focus primarily on the social sciences, the term civilization is used to indicate a high state of progress – a certain level of social, cultural, political, economic and technological evolution that differentiates us from early cultures as well as current primitive communities that stay more or less isolated from what we call the modern world. Nevertheless, we must take into account that the word civilization can be also used in a broader sense: to denote the set of ideas, knowledge, values, institutions and achievements of a society at a certain time.
The idea that civilization equates to the summit of human development is long established in our history and relates directly to the rise of cities and states. However, with the triumph of evolutionism as a scientific theory, this definition was cemented; evolutionism not only impacted the natural sciences, but also greatly affected the social sciences such as history, archeology and anthropology. Thus, the most remote human past began to be explained not in religious or mythical terms, but under a scientific pattern: from the origin of man until the outbreak of civilization which took place more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Archaeological record demonstrates that early humans practiced nomadism for many thousands of years and had a simple —though not easy— life as hunter-gatherers. However, at the end of the last Ice Age (circa 10,000 BC) a radical change occurred and the human population entered a stage of progressive settlement that altered their strategy for survival: in addition to hunting and gathering, men began to domesticate plants and animals, thus becoming farmers and shepherds. Archeologist Gordon V. Childe called this process the “Neolithic Revolution”. And, between 4000 and 3000 BC, after a few millennia of Neolithic communities which had been developing in several areas of the world, the first known civilizations appeared, first in Mesopotamia and soon after in Egypt. Some centuries later, civilization emerged strongly in other parts of the world: the Indus Valley, China and finally the New World.
This new breakthrough, the so called “Urban Revolution”, was characterized by several milestones:
- Population was divided into small rural villages and large settlements which eventually became cities.
- A centralized religious-political power grew in the cities, achieving control over vast areas and thus creating the first state structures. Administrative apparatus and legal doctrines were created as a support for these structures.
- The surplus of resources promoted growth and economic exchange, leading to the development of trade.
- Society was stratified in several levels; there was a progressive specialization of work, especially in the urban environment.
- Systems of writing appeared as a means of recording and managing information (a factor that eventually led to the creation of predominant historical cultures).
- There was significant progress in science and technique in general, particularly in terms of practical application. An important material culture was developed in various arts and industries.
This process charts mankind’s drastic change from primitive existence into a complex world of increasing material welfare: man now controlled and exploited his surroundings, transforming them into a somewhat artificial environment.
There is no doubt that every new civilization established itself by building on the legacy of its predecessors and raising itself to new heights. Mesopotamia and Egypt were unrivalled in their own times, but in the fifth century BC Classical Greece arose and brought with it democracy, art, philosophy and science. Athens, and later Rome, spread civilization throughout the Mediterranean Sea, forever changing the face of Europe. And finally, this classical legacy built the foundations of the modern Western civilization, initially fostered in Europe and later carried further by America. This is the civilization we have now, which reaches all corners of the globe; though there are still countless different cultures with their own customs and values, the Western civilization has inarguably permeated and altered even the furthest of these.
This historical review may lead us to conclude that civilization is the logical progression of mankind from a state of mere subsistence to a complex culture in which scientific and technological progressions enable a much easier standard of living. However, we should question whether we should really consider progress and civilization to be synonymous. There is no doubt that evolutionary ideology enhanced the idea that man progresses through history and therefore some societies are superior to others simply because they are civilized. Nineteenth century anthropology proposed a simple classification of human cultures: savagery (hunter-gatherers), barbarism (farmers and shepherds) and civilization (the man of the urban environment). Similarly, archeology created a system of ages based on technology and certain material achievements. These categorizations would only allow us to conclude that the older a society is, the more primitive, and the more primitive, the more undesirable. Cultural evolutionism defended the notion that man moves naturally to a higher stage, and this is the desirable goal for all human beings; civilization represents progress, and the higher degree of civilization, the higher degree of progress for everyone. However, we must question this presumption and ask whether the evolutionary paradigm, first developed in the West during a period of marked eurocentrism, is compromised when applied to the history of civilizations.
History demonstrates that societies who considered themselves to be “civilized” did not hesitate to impose their own custom and value systems on those “wild” people and societies that they considered less evolved. Though this behavior is perhaps most relatable to European colonialism, it is evident in very different contexts, throughout history and all over the world. For example, the admired Aztec civilization is also renowned for its heavy handed imperialism and for the mass human sacrifices which horrified the Spanish conquistadors; and yet, it is documented that when the Aztecs became the conquered, they too were subjected to abuse, genocide and slavery by the so called “civilized” Spanish. Therefore, it could be said that cultural evolutionism is just a qualification “in scientific terms” of this long-established imperialist attitude. Global imperialism was justified in this way with the belief that the spread of “civilization” meant progress for all, even though the means was often marked by extreme abuses to those this “progress” was imposed upon. Indeed, civilization has not been an easy ride, because in most cases it has involved a political-economic conquest – often by force of arms – which has radically changed lifestyles and created new problems to overlay supposed existing problems.
The echo of this civilized aggression is still heard today in the cry of resistance of many indigenous communities to their cultural invaders all over the world. Instead of seeing the “benefits” of civilization, these people see only the loss of their own beliefs and traditions, and as seems common to all, the loss of their intimate bond with Earth and nature. However, it is important not to idealize a certain myth of the noble savage nor condemn the wonders which civilization has brought: the works of Virgil, the Taj Mahal, Rembrandt’s pictures or Puccini’s operas. And yet, in spite of recognizing many positive or desirable outcomes of civilization, it is impossible not to feel some uneasiness, from a historical perspective, at its great contradictions: the wars, genocide, intolerance, poverty, corruption, destruction and persecution which have resulted in its name.
If we concede that man progresses, how can we equate this with the 20th century’s “civilized” world which has suffered two brutal world wars with millions of victims? Are Hiroshima and Nagasaki symbols of civilization? How could an advanced and “civilized” nation such as modern Germany could fall into the moral barbarism of Nazism? Is the global pollution and irrational use of natural resources civilized behavior? Can the complex international financial system be the solution to the crisis created by itself? And why is this world civilization, with many international organizations, incapable of ending the famine and poverty in so many countries? In short, how can we talk about civilization if, for so many, the human condition has not substantially improved since the time of the Pharaohs? The accumulation of knowledge and material achievements for the privileged minority cannot justify an apparent lack of spiritual progress and human empathy. A voice that resonates inside us tells us that this cannot be civilization.
Now we’re getting to the heart of the question. In order to discover a new vision of the concept of civilization we must leave our Western rational mind and find another approach to study human existence. The writer and Egyptologist John Anthony West has a radically different definition of civilization:
“By civilisation I mean a society organised upon the conviction that mankind is on earth for a purpose. In a civilisation, men are concerned with the quality of the inner life rather than with the conditions of day to day existence.” (West, J.A. Serpent in the Sky. p. 6)
Indeed, West presents a key point: the true meaning of human existence goes beyond the material world that surrounds us, it begins within the boundaries of our own skin. Neither science nor history have been able to provide real answers to philosophy’s great questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? What happens when we die? From the evolutionist point of view, there is no order or defined purpose, only chance. And chance determines what we perceive in the universe through our five senses. Man is just another animal, a physical being that shares a high percentage of DNA with chimps. But it is our differences from animals, those intellectual and rational attributes that make us human, that may lead us to question the idea of consciousness. We cannot deny that man needs food and shelter as other living beings, but he also asks questions and seeks answers about his own existence.
In this civilized world of immediate satisfaction, we think that having a powerful car, a new cell phone or a 3D TV means our lifestyle is far superior to that of indigenous people living in the deep jungle. It is true, we have more possessions, but does this equate to more happiness? Beyond this material wealth, humans still live and die as they did two, three or five thousand years ago. Civilization, as a frame of human existence in the past 5,000 years, has not only failed to connect us to our inner being, but is still unable to erase all of the problems our species faces.
In fact, the development of civilization has offered us several political-economic systems (including revolutions) which have tried to improve human existence, but they have not been successful. Perhaps this is because they have not reached the heart of the matter: man must first be transformed inside in order to change the world around him. Again and again we have seen philosophers and politicians make the same mistake when seeking to create a utopia. Thus, socialist ideology, which should have released humanity from the evils of western civilization, became a monster that forced men and women to live a materialistic and oppressive existence. Communism in the USSR demonstrates this clearly: this workers’ paradise was a totalitarian state that created its own imperialist policy all around the globe and was involved in several major wars from 1917 to 1991. At the end, the freedom of its people was hugely limited; they suffered very poor living conditions and terrible periods of political repression.
So, we see that civilization, in many forms throughout history, has completely failed to eliminate the selfishness and apparent need for confrontation that are at root of so many of humanity’s problems. Moreover, the arrival of capitalism in the recent centuries has only enhanced these negative attributes to land us in our current climate of consumerism and free economy where, while millions suffer famine around the world, huge quantities of food are destroyed in “civilized” countries in order to control the prices in the stock market. If we look at it like this, it is clear that somewhere along the line the evolution of civilization has gone very wrong; it hasn’t been able to improve the happiness of humanity at large, and it has not been able to provide a decent standard of living for all, instead it has just greatened the distance between rich and poor and increased the depths of human selfishness.
On the other hand, if we consider civilization as a set of values, knowledge, beliefs or products of a society, it is clear that the present world is really very complex and sometimes incomprehensible to the average citizen who has no idea of the final destination of human development. The modern civilized world looks like an astounding technological façade with no values or spirit behind it, except the materialist motivations. In this context, a growing sense of apathy and bewilderment seizes modern society. We cannot understand why one day we are fortunate and the next we have nothing, while many people grow up having nothing at all, not even hope. The multiple forms of corruption only increase this feeling of astonishment and indignation.
Now that we have all seen this scenario, perhaps it’s time to raise fearlessly a new vision, one where we have the right to judge and reject the “civilized world” for directly undermining the moral essence of man. And yet, the lack of obvious alternative to civilization impedes this change: people can only foresee a return to barbarism if we cast it off. But what could be worse than the barbarisms that we see in our world today? Are we blind to the things that are happening around us as long as we live a comfortable life? Isn’t this just more of the same selfishness and individualism?
The transformation of civilization it’s not about any kind of revolution, but about changing our focus from matter to spirit. Thus, in order to live in harmony with everyone and with our environment, in the mythical realm of the so-called “Golden Age”, we must transform our conscience. The first step in this global shift should be a personal commitment in our public and private behavior to live in alignment with love, dignity, solidarity, decency, honesty, and sincerity. Only then will humanity be on the right path, in a world that will not perhaps require large cities or flashy gadgets, but will give harmony to human communities and spiritual meaning to our lives.