Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is Civilization?

The free online dictionary ( defines civilization as “An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.”

Such a definition is very useful for drawing conclusions about mounds of decorative pots, indecipherable squiggles, and big stones arranged in even bigger piles. What it isn’t very useful for is telling us anything about civilization itself. It describes the results of civilization without actually describing the mechanism by which these results are obtained. This is like trying to define industrialization as the abundance of automobiles and refrigerators. To truly understand either concept it is not enough to simply describe the results; one must consider the source of the goods being produced.

Civilization is much more profound than some unexplained occurrence of literacy, art, or science. Civilization is a state of human existence in which the individual is liberated from the pursuit of quenching basic needs long enough to allow for the pursuit of self-fulfilling psychological development.

The very fact that you are reading this is an indication that you are living a very civilized life. A great deal of your life was allocated to developing your literacy; perhaps not very self-fulfilling at the time but certainly more self-fulfilling than digging potatoes. You have leisure time; so much of it that you can actually give some of it to reading an article written by me – thank you. You aren’t distracted by acquiring food, dodging bullets or fighting off rapists. Take a moment to ponder just how fortunate you are – because most people in the world aren’t so fortunate.

The dictionary definition of civilization is intentionally abstract because in point of fact we know very little about ancient civilizations. Furthermore, it remains intentionally abstract because we really don’t want to face any quantifiable measure of just how civilized we truly are – and for good reason.

Every aspect of modern society is subject to some form of quantification; Unemployment, mean income, life expectancy - why not civilization? You might ask how civilization could possibly be quantified and here is the answer: by the amount of time the average individual can devote to pursuits of interest rather than pursuits of burden.

This definition opens the door to lengthy debate. How would we categorize hours spent sleeping? How would we categorize time spent preparing a succulent meal as opposed to simply sourcing out enough nourishment to fill our bellies? I won’t begin to delve into solutions to these finer points but rather I think it is the sort of thing better left to the reader as a thought exercise.

No matter how we resolve such debates, it is easy to see that we can measure the level of civilization achieved in a culture by the amount of time available for higher pursuits. It is easy to see that most of humanity is stripped of humanity and that civilization is the gift of a very exclusive minority. Most humbling is the realization that the human species may be no more civilized today than it was millennia ago – no matter how many automobiles and refrigerators line our landfills.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that the greatest mind that ever lived was that of a young girl born in Sierra Leone in 1979. She had a greater capacity for love and intellect than any other human being ever born. Surely she would have ascended to lead the United Nations in a campaign of such charisma that the world’s most despotic dictators would have been humbled and begged for her forgiveness. Unfortunately she was traumatized at the age of 11 when she witnessed her mother being raped. By the age of 15 she was horribly disfigured in a beating and began to avoid public interaction. At 18 she had her arms chopped off by a soldier of the RUF. She might have actually managed to crawl far enough to find the help she needed to survive, but she became so overwhelmed by the inequities of the world that she just gave up and died, alone, in the forest. What is civilization?