What is Civilisation?
What is civilisation? This is a question that the BBC has twice tried to answer and has twice failed. It is time for another attempt. My answer is that civilisation is essentially wound up with choice; it denotes a society where individuals are free to have their own thoughts, to live their own life and ‘do their own thing’. It is the opposite of a totalitarian society, where the rulers attempt to control your whole life.
I believe that this sort of society began with the civilisations of Greece and Rome, and this is what this book is all about. Here I am going to look at Greece and Rome, and argue that they were different to the societies that came before, and I compare them with three earlier societies of Egypt, the Minoans, and the Chinese.
These were ‘palace’ societies, ruled over by a single ruler who demanded the allegiance of all his people: they were in effect totalitarian societies. They could be very efficient (Egypt built the pyramids) and probably they could often have been quite good places to live, — provided you didn’t want to think too much for yourself. The big change came with Greece, where the idea of freedom, and the even more subversive idea of democracy, began to creep in.
The main difference was in economics with the emergence of a new economic basis for society. Instead of goods being distributed by the ruler or by the state, they were distributed person to person, in markets. In Greece and Rome, the centre of a city was the forum, or agora, that is the market place. This new form of economics in turn depends on the existence of money: money is something invented, or at least first used by the Greeks and it is in Greece that the concept of the market economy emerges, to be adopted, changed and perhaps coarsened by the Romans.
This is very relevant to us today. In modern political discussion, markets are rather forgotten – democracy is considered to be all important. Yet our priorities need to be reversed, and we need to recognise that economics are more important than politics. In analysing or reporting on any society, we need to ask whether markets work, and how markets work. Likewise, we need to be more critical of democracy and realise that often it doesn’t work – the rulers bribe the electorate or part of it — by subsidising them in return for their votes.
These problems first arose in the classical world, with Greece and Rome, and the best way to study the market economy is to look at its beginnings and to study the difference between the early pre-market societies, the Palace societies, and the market economies of Greece and Rome. Here we can see the advent of democracy – which never worked very well in the classical world: it was only with the invention of representative democracy thrashed out by the slow genius of the English – that democracy began to function. What we can see, however, is the success of the market economy, not only its direct success in the mundane matter of living, but also its indirect success in the evolution of choice, with wonderful results as seen in the arts and history and philosophy.
But in studying the Greeks and Romans we can see not only their rise but also their fall. We trace the history of the Roman civilisation and mark its success, but we also see its decline and fall and we must ask ourselves not only how far we are replicating its success, but also whether we will be able to avoid the decline and fall of our own civilisation.
Here then is a new account, that not only looks at the ancient and classical worlds, but also has major implications for the world today, looking at the slippery concepts of democracy and freedom, markets and capitalism, and challenging the usage of many of these concepts today. All history is written from a particular point, but here is a new and, I hope, persuasive view of history – and today. So plunge ahead, be challenged. Here is the contents page, or plunge straight into the main text with a quick visit to the the Trobriand islands in the South Pacific, to learn how a primitive economy works – without money.
Either: go to the Contents page
Or, go direct to the Trobriand Islands