What is Civilization?

  1. Did civilization progressed from savagery to barbarism to civilization?
  2. Is civilization a process by which nature is ‘recrafted by the civilising impulse?
  3. Does civilization have universal values or it is limited by geographic boundaries? 

A book review by Kenan Malik on ” Civilizations” written by historian, Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

‘It can now be asserted upon convincing evidence that savagery preceded barbarism in all the tribes of mankind, as barbarism is known to have preceded civilization.’ So wrote Victorian anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1877 classic Ancient Societies. According to Morgan, savagery, barbarism and civilization ‘are connected with each other in a natural as well as a necessary sequence of progress.’

The idea of history as progressing in a series of natural stages from savagery to civilization is a very Victorian notion, testament to the values of a bygone era. Ours is an age deeply skeptical both of the idea of historical progress and of the capacity of humans to be civilized. No one articulates better such skepticism than the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The notion of ‘civilization’, he points out, is often a self-serving one, defining as ‘civilized’ the culture to which one belongs. This was particularly the case with nineteenth century European ideas of civilization, rooted in racial theory, which saw Europe at the summit of historical development, and the rest of the world as savage or barbarian. For Fernández-Armesto the idea of a progressive history is ‘repugnant’. History, he suggests, ‘lurches between random crises, with no direction or pattern, no predictable end’. It is ‘a genuinely chaotic system’.

But if Fernández-Armesto dismisses the Victorian concept of civilization, he doesn’t reject the idea altogether. Rather than describing civilization in terms of human progress, however, he describes it as a relationship between human beings and their natural environment. Civilization is the process by which nature is ‘recrafted by the civilising impulse, to meet human demands.’ In this sense every society is civilized, because every society is faced with a constant battle with nature. Certain societies, Fernández-Armesto believes, are more civilized than others, but only because they ‘more strenuously challenge nature’. This does not mean, as the Victorians thought, that such societies are in any way ‘better’. Indeed, according to Fernández-Armesto, civilization is often ‘irrational’ because in measurable ways such as ‘the durability of the way of life or the levels of nutrition or standards of health’, more civilized societies are often worse than less civilized ones.

Armed with this definition, Fernández-Armesto takes us on global tour.

Read full review


Posted by F. Sheikh


One thought on “What is Civilization?

  1. Are we civilized? This is a question that makes me wonder a lot. I am sure this book must be very interesting. I agree, it (becoming civilized) is a work in progress and we are far from declaring ourselves civilized. Sometimes I doubt that we can ever become civilized.
    Wars still rage and now we kill with remote control instead of swords and we are becoming more lethal and the distance between the killer and his/her kill gives us false sense of our “civilized” act. Similarly, we buy nicely packaged meat/beef in air conditioned and shining stores without ever thinking how some animal was butchered.
    We enforce economic sanctions for political reasons and don’t even think about the misery caused by it over innocent people. We debate over humane way of putting condemned murderers to death and think we are being civilized. All we are doing is burying our head in the sand like an ostrich and call ourselves civilized. Certainly most of us don’t feel proud of our barbarian past of witch hunt, stoning to death or chopping hands but still there are movements to revert to those punishments and intolerance, so we do have a long way to go. When we will be truly civilized to our own kind we will only be half way to becoming civilized – as there is all other life that we don’t even bother to think about (because we are special).


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