How ‘civilisation’ is interpreted

How ‘Civilisation’ is interpreted

What is the meaning of the word civilisation? Civilisation is a very slippery word with many different definitions, so I set out to read the most fashionable books on the subject to try to find out what various thinkers have said. It began as a simple bibliography, but it gradually expanded and as I read, the subject began to arrange itself under four or possibly 4 ½ different headings: the American, the British prehistorians, the Classical (and Toynbee) , and the Modern ‘Clash of Civilisations’. There is perhaps a further half view, or perhaps even non-view, that of the BBC. I conclude by trying to investigate the allure of primitive art to modern eyes.

Lewis Morgan

The term civilisation came into widespread use in archaeology in the late 19th century, notably through the writings of Lewis Morgan, an American anthropologist who propounded a scheme of progression from savagery, though barbarism, to civilisation, with savagery, and barbarism being subdivided into three different phases. This definition nags at all subsequent definitions, most of which studiously avoided trying to define barbarism and therefore what civilisation is. But unless one defines barbarism, one cannot define civilisation.

The word civilisation tends to have two very different meanings. There is a strict meaning in which it is contrasted with barbarism – it includes a value judgement. However in more general usage, it tends to mean any form of society,  perhaps any form of society where there are towns or cities —   we talk for instance of the Egyptian civilisation. Here, however I am using it in the strict narrow sense.


The American view

The American direction has been rooted firmly in anthropology. In America, archaeology was slow to take off and the first archaeologists in universities found their homes in departments of anthropology. Anthropology was moving from fieldwork to a search for ‘theory’, and the theoretical basis reached its peak with the great anthropologists of the 1950s — Elman Service, Leslie White, and Julian Stewart.

The major study was of the native Americans in the United States, which proved to be extremely interesting as the native Americans show a wide range of development,  and Elman Service put forward an evolution going from bands to tribes to chiefdoms and then to states. Civilisation itself was mainly discussed in terms of the civilisations of Mexico, with the rise of the Maya. Much discussion took place over the problems of neo-evolutionism: the initial terminology saw human evolution as being parallel to Charles Darwin’s biological evolution. This was criticised as being too rigid, and so neo-evolutionism was put forward as a less rigid formulation.

Bruce Trigger

Thus the two comparatively recent American books on civilisation have been concerned with American ideas of ‘theory’. What has become the classic book is Understanding Early Civilizations by Bruce G. Trigger.  Bruce Trigger was a Canadian Anthropologist who did his classic work on the study of one of the Huron tribes in the north west of Canada and thus he approaches it from an anthropological viewpoint.

He looks at seven early civilisations: two in the Near East – Egypt and Southern Mesopotamia, then Shang China in the First Millennium BC, then two different aspects of the Maya in Mexico, and finally the Inca kingdom in South America and the Yoruba-Benin tribes in West Africa. In three major sections he deals with Socio-political Organisation, Economy, and finally Cognitive and Symbolic Aspects.

Much of the introduction and discussion is written in anthropological jargon, and unless one has read all the background books in which the various terms are defined, it is difficult to follow the arguments.  However hidden away, there is a lot of fascinating information: for example, hidden in the section of Cognitive and symbolic aspects, there is a fascinating discussion of art and architecture. He discusses the politics of each of these seven civilisations one by one in an encyclopaedic style. The trouble is they all come to rather similar conclusions, as he lacks any concept of barbarism, to compare them with. This is a massive book, 750 pages long, which offers a mass of rather undigested information.

A slightly more approachable book is Myths of the Archaic State: evolution of the earliest cities, states and civilizations by Norman Yoffee, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.  The trouble with this book from my point of view is that two thirds of it is ‘theory’, or as he calls it, ‘Myths’.  Norman Yoffee is professor at Michigan, and is at pains to point out that not all societies follow the pattern of bands, tribes and chiefdoms. His arguments tend to be somewhat theological as seen from this side of the Atlantic, and though he is concerned to knock down the Myths of the Archaic State, it is not altogether clear what he is putting in their place.

However, interspersed with the myths, there is quite a lot of archaeology. He is himself an expert on Mesopotamia on which he has some very interesting ideas, but he also covers Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, as well as Meso-America and Peru. At times it gives the impression of being a collection of miscellaneous essays – there is a good discussion on the collapse of Mesopotamian states, but he never gets round to giving an account of what he means by civilisation: he is more interested in the distinction between chieftains and states and never really gets round to civilisation.


The British prehistorians view of civilisation

Gordon Childe

In Britain, and to a lesser extent Europe, the discussion of civilisation has been dominated by prehistorians, who tend to concentrate on the rise of urbanism, and thus civilisation has come to me to be coterminous with urbanisation. Much of the discussion has taken place with regards to Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the first cities were formed, which is assumed to mean the advent of civilisation. Here a major influence has been that of Gordon Childe the Marxist archaeologist who began his studies with the Neolithic development of Central Europe, along the River Danube, and his great work, The Rise of European Civilisation is a magnificent compendium of the archaeology of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe, showing the spread of farming from Greece up through Europe.

Interestingly however, despite the title, the word ‘civilisation’ is barely mentioned, and one wonders whether the title was pushed onto him by the publisher. However his most influential work was a paper entitled The Urban Revolution, which was published in what is for archaeologists a somewhat obscure journal, The Town Planning Review in 1950. This lists 10 criteria for assessing the revolution, ranging from the size and density of settlements, down to the presence of residential specialist craftsmen.  However it is important to note that he quite deliberately seems to skirt the question of civilisation and is talking about urbanism.

A notable subsequent formulation is by Glyn Daniel, who rose to fame as the question master on the TV programme Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, but ended up by being the Disney Professor of archaeology at Cambridge. His book The First Civilisations was a lecture series spurred on by the advent of radiocarbon dating, which showed that the first civilisations around the world were earlier than expected and he looked at the rise of civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley, China and America and showed how they developed.

David Wengrow

David Wengrow

The latest proponent of civilisation equals urbanism is David Wengrow, the Professor of Comparative Archaeology at University College London, who in his book What Makes Civilisation offers a fine discussion of the term civilisation, to which I am much indebted,  and then goes on to give a masterful survey of the rise of urbanism mainly in Mesopotamia with notes on Egypt, which is in fact his original field of study.

He ends his discussion of civilisation by looking at the Samuel Huntington’s recent book on the Clash of Civilisations, and wonders whether Huntington’s concept of separate civilisations can be applied to the Near East.

One should perhaps bring in here the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who wrote a very influential book, ‘Le Don’ – ‘The Gift’ arguing that the gifts given in gift exchange always require a reciprocal exchange. He also made important theoretical contributions to the study of civilization, together with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.


The classical view of civilisation

There is however a third definition of barbarism and civilisation which I largely follow here, which goes back to the definition, not of civilisation, but of barbarism. Barbarism is a term invented by the Greeks for the foreigners who did not speak Greek, but simply said Bar bar, and were therefore Barbarians. It is a term that the Greeks tended to apply mostly to the Persians, who in fact built up a much greater civilisation than the Greeks, — until it was taken over by Alexander the Great and made at least partially Greek.

More generally, the term was applied to the Iron Age societies of Europe, and following Lewis Morgan definition, it tends to be applied to the cultures that lay between the simple societies that he termed savagery and the sophisticated cultures that we call civilised. But this raises the question of just what do we mean by civilisation? This definition tends to be applied to the great civilisations of Greece and Rome, and then even more to our own Western civilisation, but inevitably the term come under heavy criticism from modern critics and has fallen into disrepute. I believe that it is nevertheless it is still valid and extremely useful — a distinction to which I hope to be able to supply the answer.

The starting point in this discussion is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We often underestimate the sheer originality of Gibbon’s work, the idea that civilisations could decline and fall. This was a book that marked the coming of age of the study of history, when history finally escaped from the myths of Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Arthur. It also remarkably proclaimed the concept of decline and fall, that an Empire can decline and fall, a concept that even today is controversial, for all too many historians try to avoid being judgemental and to pass judgement as to the success or otherwise of civilisations. He also makes a very important contribution by giving reasons for the decline and fall — due to the invasions of Barbarians from without, and from Christianity from within.


Arnold Toynbee

What should have been the most important study of the rise of civilisation, but turned out to be the most disappointing was Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History, published in 12 volumes between 1934 and 1961, though it is best known in its summary in a mere two volumes by D C Somervell.

Arnold Toynbee was one of the foremost public intellectuals of the early 20th century. Today, one might call him a political activist: he wrote numerous books and pamphlets, became Professor of Modern Greek at King’s College London, but was then sacked for being too favourable to the Turks. He pontificated on politics and history round the world, discussed politics with Hitler, and became Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His widespread interest in politics led him to make A Study of History, published in 12 volumes between 1934 and 1961. After a long process of elimination, he eventually settled on 19 major civilisations to which he added four abortive and five arrested societies. He then set out to analyse them in their various stages, starting from Genesis and growth, which took place by a process of challenge and response where societies grew, or did not grow, through the leadership of a creative minority. This then turned into breakdown due to the failure of creative power in the creative minority, which thus becomes a dominant minority, which was followed by a Universal State and ended up by becoming a Universal Church.

The early volumes were well received, but from the 1960s onwards, it was clearly out of touch with the mainstream, and has been almost entirely forgotten.  Part of the problem is that the scheme is too rigid and too closely based on the Roman model of decline and fall, with too much emphasis on the idea of a universal Religion, where one suspects that Christianity is a misleading model. It was unfortunate too that he rather neglected archaeology just at the time when archaeology was beginning to produce a whole raft of new histories, and he also ignored or was unaware of the new ideas of the American anthropologists. And I suspect too that politics had changed and that the new buzz-words of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism were entirely outside his mindset. His emphasis on growth being dependent on creative minorities did not help in the new age of democracy.

Nevertheless, his virtues should not be overlooked. His aim to study all civilisations was the broadest sweep that has ever been attempted, and his interest in the whole life cycle of the civilisation from birth to breakdown is extremely valuable. It is ironic that having set out with a very worthy objective of studying all civilisations on an equal basis, he ends up by trying to jam them all into the straitjacket of the Greek and Roman world.

An interesting parallel to Toynbee is the American author Carol Quigley (1910 – 1977) , who wrote a book on The Evolution of Civilizations – thankfully only in a single volume.  He was a professor at the Georgetown University and greatly influenced the later American president Bill Clinton.


The clash of Civilisations

The most interesting, or at least the most provocative recent book on civilisation is that of Samuel Huntington on The Clash of Civilisations. This began as a riposte to a book, The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama ,  who had been a pupil of Huntingdon’s at Harvard University. Both books began as long articles in learned American periodicals which aroused so much controversy that both were enlarged to become very successful books.

Fukuyama was writing in 1992, shortly after the collapse of communism, and he argued that liberal democracy as a system of government had been so successful that it had emerged as the final form of human government, and as such, constituted the ‘end of history’. He was much influenced by Hegel and saw history as a development of human society from simple tribal societies,  through theocracies, monarchies and feudal aristocracies up to our modern liberal democracies. Marx followed a similar  belief in history reaching a final stage, though Marx saw the final stage as being communism; but as communism had just collapsed, Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as being ‘the end of history’. It was a provocative title – and helped sell the book.

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntingdon at Harvard thought this was far too simple and optimistic,  and set out an alternative analysis of world politics, and that what we should be studying were civilisations. He argued that the most important distinctions among peoples today are not ideological, political, or economic, but cultural.

The book proved to be extremely controversial. In retrospect, some of the analysis has proved to be spot on. For an example, he pointed out that the Ukraine straddles two different civilisations, with Western Ukraine belonging to the West and eastern Ukraine belonging to the Orthodox civilisation; much of the current stand-off with Russia would have been avoided if the politicians had realised that the break was in a way logical. However he underestimated the success of China, which though a very different civilisation in his definition, appears in many ways to be following a similar path to the Western civilisation except, perhaps, in politics.

His most important – and most controversial theme has been his recognition of the rise of Islam, where a clash of civilisations seems to be occurring even if denied by many of the intelligentsia.  But one feels that events are proving him right: Islam it is not just a minority of extremists, but a firm belief that Islam is morally superior to the West and should therefore impose its principles on the West.

But above all Samuel Huntington introduces identity politics into the discussion. In the Cold War, alignments were defined by ideology, but he argues that in the future, alignments will be defined more by culture and civilisation. The question “Which side are you on”  has been replaced by a much more fundamental question “Who are you?” The terminology of left and right is becoming less meaningful and we are moving towards a world where cultural identification is increasing in importance.


The BBC civilisations

Kenneth Clark

And so finally we come to the to the most influential view of civilisation, the two series of programmes put out by the BBC, the first in 1969, fronted by Sir Kenneth Clark, the second in 2018 fronted by a trio of authors.  Kenneth Clark began disarmingly by saying that he did not know what civilisation was, though he recognised it when he saw it, and he goes on to present a history of Western art and calls it civilisation. He begins with Celtic art in the West of Ireland, which was scarcely very civilised,  and in his last programme he despairs of the Industrial Revolution, and doesn’t really ask the  interesting question how the how it was that an earth shattering Industrial Revolution somehow lost its way in art and went back first to mediaeval art and then to the barbarisms of modern Art.  But it is very elegantly done and one is swept away by the enthusiasm and the sheer depth of his knowledge.

And then in 2018, the BBC set out to produce a new version of civilisation that would signalise its virtues.. The latest production is called Civilisations in the plural, so that the BBC can signal the  virtue of multiculturalism  and by using civilisations in the plural can avoid calling anything barbaric or primitive. It therefore sets out to present little bits of art from all over the world,  higgledy-piggledy. In order to avoid offending anybody, it has three different presenters.

The first is Simon Sharma, who covers much the same ground as Kenneth Clarke.

Mary Beard

Secondly, and for me the biggest attraction and the biggest disappointment is Mary Beard, my favourite classicist. However, I feel that she didn’t really want to do this project, so she took the opportunity to give two disparate presentations of subjects that were on her mind at the time, but have little connection with civilisation. Firstly, she looks at the question of how different people look differently at the human figure, and secondly, is there a relationship between art and religion. Both interesting questions but little to do with civilisation.

For their third presenter, they chose David Olusega who has a Nigerian father, but an English mother. I think he was intended to decry Western civilisation, but he cleverly avoided the trap and instead looks at the effect of Western artists meeting primitive art. Interestingly, he mostly showed how British artists painted native peoples and then how far the Impressionists were turning their backs on the Industrial Revolution.

The series as a whole does not hang together. By using the term civilisations in the plural, they imply that there are different civilisations, but they made no attempt to analyse them and say how they differ from one another or are related to one another. The question, what is civilisation, is never asked, nor, what is perhaps the more important question, what is not civilisation. The conclusion must surely be that the series as a whole reflects the situation in 2018, of a society that has lost its values and has no idea which way to go. This is a very dangerous place to be.


But the problem with civilisation is that the very word contains implies a value judgement. Civilisation always implies a contrast with barbarism. Indeed, if we are looking at art, we must be prepared to consider not only civilised art but also barbaric art. But though a value judgement is implied this need not imply  that barbaric art should be ignored: it may be that it is just different and possibly therefore more interesting  – different traditions are always stimulating. We can say that the art of the Pacific Islands,  Africa and much prehistoric art, is barbaric, – but this has been  the art that inspired Picasso and much modern art. Indeed we can ask interesting questions as to how one should categorise say Celtic art, or perhaps even Egyptian art, or we might look at how Greek pottery began as barbaric art (proto-geometric and geometric), but then developed into civilised art (black figure and red-figure).

Is there perhaps an existential difference between civilised art and barbaric art? Is civilised art, art that is produced by free artists, selling to a wide variety of consumers? And is barbaric art, art that is produced for the ruler, by workers employed by the ruler, and working in the ruler’s workshops? And how about tribal art, art that is produced according to the strict conditions of tribal lore, which we may admire as abstract art whereas in fact the features all have a meaning that is only known to the tribe?

One of the remarkable and aspects of the 20th century has been the influence of primitive art and we need to ask what was the problem with civilised art.  Part of the trouble was photography which produced much greater realism than most realistic art. Part of the trouble too was that it became mass produced – look at the mechanical art of Roman Samian ware, and all the clutter of Victorian England. Civilised art can be poor art, and we may find primitive art invigorating, particularly if we are unaware of the social constraints within which it is produced. These are interesting and important questions that go to the very heart of understanding civilisation. They are questions that I hope I have raised. Pursuing the answer will illuminate both civilisation – and art.

Back to The meaning of Civilisation


Why this account is biased,


On to The Trobriand Islands 

November, 2018