What the Heck is “Civilization?”

Civilization R Us
Civilization R Us

We use the word all the time, but what the heck is “civilization” anyway?

“Oh, it’s like the opposite of savagery, or barbarism, you know.”

Then why do civilizations act so uncivilized? So savage and barbarous? It must mean something else.

I like to study ancient history, so I often go to Youtube, that font of both information and nonsense. When I enter the word “civilization” in the search bar I get 1,330,000 hits. We are obviously very interested in civilizations: lost civilizations, alien civilizations, civilizations buried under the sea.

Rome had a civilization. They took the Greek idea of “barbarians” people who did not speak Greek and sounded like they were saying, “barbarbar.” So there were Latin-speakers, and then there were barbarians, who sometimes were “at the gates.” “Necate omnes!” yelled the Romans, in civilized Latin, which means “Kill them all!”  Because that’s what you should with to barbarians if you are civilized.

You are a busy person, so I won’t detail my quest to find the meaning for ‘civilization.” So here’s the short version:

The word entered general discourse near the beginning  of the Enlightenment (1750ish) and meant basically “us”-we are civilized. They are not. We live in cities and have writing and superior customs and culture. They do not. When you boil it all down, civilization means a society that produces enough surplus to enable the upper crust to accumulate wealth and more power, without actually producing anything themselves.

Now I’m all for technology, double-edged sword that it is, and for medical discoveries and education, good things most of us probably think of as civilization. But humans have always had inventions, healing arts, have always taught their children, have always had religious beliefs, and made laws. The difference between a culture and a civilization is more one of degree than substance, more something pulled out of some imperialist’s booty to justify their “civilizing mission. “No we aren’t raiding and looting others, that’s what those nasty savages do! We are bringing civilization to them. They will be grateful. They will greet us as liberators.”

This famous speech about Rome, supposedly spoken by Calgacus, the Scottish chieftain, but probably made up by Tacitus, says it nicely:

“Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desolation and call it peace.



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