A civilization (UK and US) or civilisation (British English variant) is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication form (typically, writing systems) and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment, and social domination by cultural elite.
Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labour, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming and expansionism. Historically, a civilization was a so-called "advanced" culture in contrast to more supposedly primitive cultures. In this broad sense, a civilization contrasts with non-centralized tribal societies, including the cultures of nomadic pastoralists, egalitarian horticultural subsistence neolithic societies or hunter-gatherers. As an uncountable noun, civilization also refers to the process of a society developing into a centralized, urbanized, stratified structure. Civilizations are organized in densely populated settlements divided into hierarchical social classes with a ruling elite and subordinate urban and rural populations, which engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending human control over the rest of nature, including over other human beings.
The earliest emergence of civilizations is generally associated with the final stages of the Neolithic Revolution, culminating in the relatively rapid process of urban revolution and state formation, a political development associated with the appearance of a governing elite. The earlier neolithic technology and lifestyle was established first in the Middle East (for example at Göbekli Tepe, from about 9,130 BCE), and later in the Yellow River and Yangtze basins in China (for example the Pengtoushan culture from 7,500 BCE), and later spread. Similar pre-civilized "neolithic revolutions" also began independently from 7,000 BCE in such places as northwestern South America (the Norte Chico civilization) and Mesoamerica. These were among the six civilizations worldwide that arose independently. Mesopotamia is the site of the earliest developments of the Neolithic Revolution from around 10,000 BCE, with civilizations developing from 6,500 years ago. This area has been identified as having "inspired some of the most important developments in human history including the invention of the wheel, the development of cursive script, mathematics, astronomy and agriculture."
The civilized urban revolution in turn was dependent upon the development of sedentarism, the domestication of grains and animals and development of lifestyles that facilitated economies of scale and accumulation of surplus production by certain social sectors. The transition from complex cultures to civilizations, while still disputed, seems to be associated with the development of state structures, in which power was further monopolized by an elite ruling class who practised human sacrifice. Towards the end of the Neolithic period, various elitist Chalcolithic civilizations began to rise in various "cradles" from around 3300 BCE. Chalcolithic civilizations, as defined above, also developed in Pre-Columbian Americas and, despite an early start in Egypt, Axum and Kush, much later in Iron Age sub-Saharan Africa. The Bronze Age collapse was followed by the Iron Age around 1200 BCE, during which a number of new civilizations emerged, culminating in a period from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE which German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age, and which he claimed was a critical transitional phase leading to Classical civilization. A major technological and cultural transition to modernity began approximately 1500 CE in Western Europe, and from this beginning new approaches to science and law spread rapidly around the world, incorporating earlier cultures into the industrial and technological civilization of the present.
Anthropologist Layla AbdelRahim defines civilization as the material manifestation of "the sum of domesticated relationships with everything material and symbolic that issues from the labour and consumption of those categorized as resources and the (necessarily) unequal value for that labour, victimhood, and lives". This economic and socio-environmental paradigm is unsustainable, says AbdelRahim, because it is constantly growing and demanding the colonization of new territories and human and nonhuman lives.
The English word "civilization" comes from the 16th-century French civilisé ("civilized"), from Latin civilis ("civil"), related to civis ("citizen") and civitas ("city"). The fundamental treatise is Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process (1939), which traces social mores from medieval courtly society to the Early Modern period. In The Philosophy of Civilization (1923), Albert Schweitzer outlines two opinions: one purely material and the other material and ethical. He said that the world crisis was from humanity losing the ethical idea of civilization, "the sum total of all progress made by man in every sphere of action and from every point of view in so far as the progress helps towards the spiritual perfecting of individuals as the progress of all progress".
Adjectives like "civility" developed in the mid-16th century. The abstract noun "civilization", meaning "civilized condition", came in the 1760s, again from French. The first known use in French is in 1757, by Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, and the first use in English is attributed to Adam Ferguson, who in his 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society wrote, "Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilisation". The word was therefore opposed to barbarism or rudeness, in the active pursuit of progress characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, during the French Revolution, "civilization" was used in the singular, never in the plural, and meant the progress of humanity as a whole. This is still the case in French. The use of "civilizations" as a countable noun was in occasional use in the 19th century, but has become much more common in the later 20th century, sometimes just meaning culture (itself in origin an uncountable noun, made countable in the context of ethnography). Only in this generalized sense does it become possible to speak of a "medieval civilization", which in Elias's sense would have been an oxymoron.
Already in the 18th century, civilization was not always seen as an improvement. One historically important distinction between culture and civilization is from the writings of Rousseau, particularly his work about education, Emile. Here, civilization, being more rational and socially driven, is not fully in accord with human nature, and "human wholeness is achievable only through the recovery of or approximation to an original prediscursive or prerational natural unity" (see noble savage). From this, a new approach was developed, especially in Germany, first by Johann Gottfried Herder, and later by philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. This sees cultures as natural organisms, not defined by "conscious, rational, deliberative acts", but a kind of pre-rational "folk spirit". Civilization, in contrast, though more rational and more successful in material progress, is unnatural and leads to "vices of social life" such as guile, hypocrisy, envy and avarice. In World War II, Leo Strauss, having fled Germany, argued in New York that this opinion of civilization was behind Nazism and German militarism and nihilism.
Social scientists such as V. Gordon Childe have named a number of traits that distinguish a civilization from other kinds of society. Civilizations have been distinguished by their means of subsistence, types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, economic systems, literacy and other cultural traits. Andrew Nikiforuk argues that "civilizations relied on shackled human muscle. It took the energy of slaves to plant crops, clothe emperors, and build cities" and considers slavery to be a common feature of pre-modern civilizations.
All civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence. Grain farms can result in accumulated storage and a surplus of food, particularly when people use intensive agricultural techniques such as artificial fertilization, irrigation and crop rotation. It is possible but more difficult to accumulate horticultural production, and so civilizations based on horticultural gardening have been very rare. Grain surpluses have been especially important because they can be stored for a long time. A surplus of food permits some people to do things besides produce food for a living: early civilizations included soldiers, artisans, priests and priestesses, and other people with specialized careers. A surplus of food results in a division of labour and a more diverse range of human activity, a defining trait of civilizations. However, in some places hunter-gatherers have had access to food surpluses, such as among some of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps during the Mesolithic Natufian culture. It is possible that food surpluses and relatively large scale social organization and division of labour predates plant and animal domestication.
Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from other societies. The word "civilization" is sometimes simply defined as "'living in cities'". Non-farmers tend to gather in cities to work and to trade.
Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state. State societies are more stratified than other societies; there is a greater difference among the social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in the cities, has control over much of the surplus and exercises its will through the actions of a government or bureaucracy. Morton Fried, a conflict theorist and Elman Service, an integration theorist, have classified human cultures based on political systems and social inequality. This system of classification contains four categories
Economically, civilizations display more complex patterns of ownership and exchange than less organized societies. Living in one place allows people to accumulate more personal possessions than nomadic people. Some people also acquire landed property, or private ownership of the land. Because a percentage of people in civilizations do not grow their own food, they must trade their goods and services for food in a market system, or receive food through the levy of tribute, redistributive taxation, tariffs or tithes from the food producing segment of the population. Early human cultures functioned through a gift economy supplemented by limited barter systems. By the early Iron Age, contemporary civilizations developed money as a medium of exchange for increasingly complex transactions. In a village, the potter makes a pot for the brewer and the brewer compensates the potter by giving him a certain amount of beer. In a city, the potter may need a new roof, the roofer may need new shoes, the cobbler may need new horseshoes, the blacksmith may need a new coat and the tanner may need a new pot. These people may not be personally acquainted with one another and their needs may not occur all at the same time. A monetary system is a way of organizing these obligations to ensure that they are fulfilled. From the days of the earliest monetarized civilizations, monopolistic controls of monetary systems have benefited the social and political elites.
Writing, developed first by people in Sumer, is considered a hallmark of civilization and "appears to accompany the rise of complex administrative bureaucracies or the conquest state". Traders and bureaucrats relied on writing to keep accurate records. Like money, writing was necessitated by the size of the population of a city and the complexity of its commerce among people who are not all personally acquainted with each other. However, writing is not always necessary for civilization, as shown the Inca civilization of the Andes, which did not use writing at all except from a complex recording system consisting of cords and nodes instead: the "Quipus", whose still functioned as a civilized society.
Aided by their division of labour and central government planning, civilizations have developed many other diverse cultural traits. These include organized religion, development in the arts, and countless new advances in science and technology.
Through history, successful civilizations have spread, taking over more and more territory, and assimilating more and more previously-uncivilized people. Nevertheless, some tribes or people remain uncivilized even to this day. These cultures are called by some "primitive", a term that is regarded by others as pejorative. "Primitive" implies in some way that a culture is "first" (Latin = primus), that it has not changed since the dawn of humanity, though this has been demonstrated not to be true. Specifically, as all of today's cultures are contemporaries, today's so-called primitive cultures are in no way antecedent to those we consider civilized. Anthropologists today use the term "non-literate" to describe these peoples.
Civilization has been spread by colonization, invasion, religious conversion, the extension of bureaucratic control and trade, and by introducing agriculture and writing to non-literate peoples. Some non-civilized people may willingly adapt to civilized behaviour. But civilization is also spread by the technical, material and social dominance that civilization engenders.
Assessments of what level of civilization a polity has reached are based on comparisons of the relative importance of agricultural as opposed to trade or manufacturing capacities, the territorial extensions of its power, the complexity of its division of labour, and the carrying capacity of its urban centres. Secondary elements include a developed transportation system, writing, standardized measurement, currency, contractual and tort-based legal systems, art, architecture, mathematics, scientific understanding, metallurgy, political structures and organized religion.
Traditionally, polities that managed to achieve notable military, ideological and economic power defined themselves as "civilized" as opposed to other societies or human groupings outside their sphere of influence—calling the latter barbarians, savages, and primitives. In a modern-day context, "civilized people" have been contrasted with indigenous people or tribal societies.
"Civilization" can also refer to the culture of a complex society, not just the society itself. Every society, civilization or not, has a specific set of ideas and customs, and a certain set of manufactures and arts that make it unique. Civilizations tend to develop intricate cultures, including a state-based decision making apparatus, a literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion and complex customs of education, coercion and control associated with maintaining the elite.
The intricate culture associated with civilization has a tendency to spread to and influence other cultures, sometimes assimilating them into the civilization (a classic example being Chinese civilization and its influence on nearby civilizations such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam). Many civilizations are actually large cultural spheres containing many nations and regions. The civilization in which someone lives is that person's broadest cultural identity.
Many historians have focused on these broad cultural spheres and have treated civilizations as discrete units. Early twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler, uses the German word Kultur, "culture", for what many call a "civilization". Spengler believes a civilization's coherence is based on a single primary cultural symbol. Cultures experience cycles of birth, life, decline and death, often supplanted by a potent new culture, formed around a compelling new cultural symbol. Spengler states civilization is the beginning of the decline of a culture as "the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable".
This "unified culture" concept of civilization also influenced the theories of historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the mid-twentieth century. Toynbee explored civilization processes in his multi-volume A Study of History, which traced the rise and, in most cases, the decline of 21 civilizations and five "arrested civilizations". Civilizations generally declined and fell, according to Toynbee, because of the failure of a "creative minority", through moral or religious decline, to meet some important challenge, rather than mere economic or environmental causes.
Samuel P. Huntington defines civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species". Huntington's theories about civilizations are discussed below.
Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, looks at a civilization as a complex system, i.e., a framework by which a group of objects can be analysed that work in concert to produce some result. Civilizations can be seen as networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them. Any organization is a complex social system and a civilization is a large organization. Systems theory helps guard against superficial but misleading analogies in the study and description of civilizations.
Systems theorists look at many types of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges and political/diplomatic/military relations. These spheres often occur on different scales. For example, trade networks were, until the nineteenth century, much larger than either cultural spheres or political spheres. Extensive trade routes, including the Silk Road through Central Asia and Indian Ocean sea routes linking the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, India and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations. The first evidence of such long distance trade is in the ancient world. During the Uruk period, Guillermo Algaze has argued that trade relations connected Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and Afghanistan. Resin found later in the Royal Cemetery at Ur is suggested was traded northwards from Mozambique.
Many theorists argue that the entire world has already become integrated into a single "world system", a process known as globalization. Different civilizations and societies all over the globe are economically, politically, and even culturally interdependent in many ways. There is debate over when this integration began, and what sort of integration – cultural, technological, economic, political, or military-diplomatic – is the key indicator in determining the extent of a civilization. David Wilkinson has proposed that economic and military-diplomatic integration of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations resulted in the creation of what he calls the "Central Civilization" around 1500 BCE. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe, and then expanded to a global scale with European colonization, integrating the Americas, Australia, China and Japan by the nineteenth century. According to Wilkinson, civilizations can be culturally heterogeneous, like the Central Civilization, or homogeneous, like the Japanese civilization. What Huntington calls the "clash of civilizations" might be characterized by Wilkinson as a clash of cultural spheres within a single global civilization. Others point to the Crusades as the first step in globalization. The more conventional viewpoint is that networks of societies have expanded and shrunk since ancient times, and that the current globalized economy and culture is a product of recent European colonialism.
Historically civilizations were assumed by writers such as Aristotle to be the natural state of humanity, so no origin for the Greek polis was considered to be needed. The Sumerian King List for instance, sees the origin of their civilization as descending from heaven. However the great age of maritime discovery exposed the states of Western Europe to hunter-gatherer and simple horticultural cultures that were not civilized. To explain the differences observed, early theorists turned to racist theories of cultural superiority, theories of geographic determinism, or accidents of culture. After the Second World War, these theories were rejected on various grounds and other explanations sought. Four schools have developed in the modern period.
The process of sedentarization is first thought to have occurred around 12,000 BCE in the Levant region of southwest Asia though other regions around the world soon followed. The emergence of civilization is generally associated with the Neolithic, or Agricultural Revolution, which occurred in various locations between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE, specifically in southwestern/southern Asia, northern/central Africa and Central America. At first, the Neolithic was associated with shifting subsistence cultivation, where continuous farming led to the depletion of soil fertility resulting in the requirement to cultivate fields further and further removed from the settlement, eventually compelling the settlement itself to move. In major semi-arid river valleys, annual flooding renewed soil fertility every year, with the result that population densities could rise significantly. This encouraged a secondary products revolution in which people used domesticated animals not just for meat, but also for milk, wool, manure and pulling ploughs and carts—a development that spread through the Eurasian Oecumene. The 8.2 Kiloyear Arid Event and the 5.9 Kiloyear Interpluvial saw the drying out of semiarid regions and a major spread of deserts. This climate change shifted the cost-benefit ratio of endemic violence between communities, which saw the abandonment of unwalled village communities and the appearance of walled cities, associated with the first civilizations. This "urban revolution" marked the beginning of the accumulation of transferrable surpluses, which helped economies and cities develop. It was associated with the state monopoly of violence, the appearance of a soldier class and endemic warfare, rapid development of hierarchies, the appearance of human sacrifice and a fall in the status of women.
The Iron Age is the period generally occurring after the Bronze Age, marked by the prevalent use of iron. The early period of the age is characterized by the widespread use of iron or steel. The adoption of such material coincided with other changes in society, including differing agricultural practices, religious beliefs and artistic styles. The Iron Age as an archaeological term indicates the condition as to civilization and culture of a people using iron as the material for their cutting tools and weapons. The Iron Age is the third principal period of the three-age system created by Christian Thomsen (1788–1865) for classifying ancient societies and prehistoric stages of progress.
Karl Jaspers, the German historical philosopher, proposed that the ancient civilizations were affected greatly by an Axial Age in the period between 800 BCE–200 BCE during which a series of male sages, prophets, religious reformers and philosophers, from China, India, Iran, Israel and Greece, changed the direction of civilizations. William Hardy McNeill proposed that this period of history was one in which culture contact between previously separate civilizations saw the "closure of the oecumene" and led to accelerated social change from China to the Mediterranean, associated with the spread of coinage, larger empires and new religions. This view has recently been championed by Christopher Chase-Dunn and other world systems theorists.
The spread of the Higher Religions, beginning with Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and Buddhism was linked to the developments of the Axial Age. Principal amongst this was the creation of large militaristic territorial states, which saw an increase in the state as a powerful unit monopolizing the use of violence. It was also linked with the spread of coinage and monetary economies, which had the effect of dissolving the previous local community traditions. The rise of the confessional religious brought the ability to unify larger states than had existed previously.
Civilizations have generally ended in one of two ways; either through being incorporated into another expanding civilization (e.g. As Ancient Egypt was incorporated into Hellenistic Greek, and subsequently Roman civilizations), or by collapse and reversion to a simpler form, as happens in what are called Dark Ages.
There have been many explanations put forward for the collapse of civilization. Some focus on historical examples, and others on general theory.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be a clash of civilizations. According to Huntington, conflicts between civilizations will supplant the conflicts between nation-states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries. These views have been strongly challenged by others like Edward Said, Muhammed Asadi and Amartya Sen. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued that the "true clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West is caused by the Muslim rejection of the West's more liberal sexual values, rather than a difference in political ideology, although they note that this lack of tolerance is likely to lead to an eventual rejection of (true) democracy. In Identity and Violence Sen questions if people should be divided along the lines of a supposed "civilization", defined by religion and culture only. He argues that this ignores the many others identities that make up people and leads to a focus on differences.
Cultural Historian Morris Berman suggests in Dark Ages America: the End of Empire that in the corporate consumerist United States, the very factors that once propelled it to greatness―extreme individualism, territorial and economic expansion, and the pursuit of material wealth―have pushed the United States across a critical threshold where collapse is inevitable. Politically associated with over-reach, and as a result of the environmental exhaustion and polarization of wealth between rich and poor, he concludes the current system is fast arriving at a situation where continuation of the existing system saddled with huge deficits and a hollowed-out economy is physically, socially, economically and politically impossible. Although developed in much more depth, Berman's thesis is similar in some ways to that of Urban Planner, Jane Jacobs who argues that five pillars of United States culture that are in serious decay: community and family; higher education; the effective practice of science; taxation and government; and the self-regulation of the learned professions. The corrosion of these pillars, Jacobs argues, is linked to societal ills such as environmental crisis, racism and the growing gulf between rich and poor.
Some environmental scientists also see the world entering a Planetary Phase of Civilization, characterized by a shift away from independent, disconnected nation-states to a world of increased global connectivity with worldwide institutions, environmental challenges, economic systems, and consciousness. In an attempt to better understand what a Planetary Phase of Civilization might look like in the current context of declining natural resources and increasing consumption, the Global scenario group used scenario analysis to arrive at three archetypal futures: Barbarization, in which increasing conflicts result in either a fortress world or complete societal breakdown; Conventional Worlds, in which market forces or Policy reform slowly precipitate more sustainable practices; and a Great Transition, in which either the sum of fragmented Eco-Communalism movements add up to a sustainable world or globally coordinated efforts and initiatives result in a new sustainability paradigm.
Cultural critic and author Derrick Jensen argues that modern civilization is directed towards the domination of the environment and humanity itself in an intrinsically harmful, unsustainable, and self-destructive fashion. Defending his definition both linguistically and historically, he defines civilization as "a culture... that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities", with "cities" defined as "people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life". This need for civilizations to import ever more resources, he argues, stems from their over-exploitation and diminution of their own local resources. Therefore, civilizations inherently adopt imperialist and expansionist policies and, to maintain these, highly militarized, hierarchically structured, and coercion-based cultures and lifestyles.
The Kardashev scale classifies civilizations based on their level of technological advancement, specifically measured by the amount of energy a civilization is able to harness. The Kardashev scale makes provisions for civilizations far more technologically advanced than any currently known to exist (see also: Civilizations and the Future and Space civilization).
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