Defining Civilizations

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Matthew Melko:

"Civilizationists tend to agree that civilizations are distinct from primitive cultures. Spengler saw these high cultures being born, having a soul, emerging in a very short period of time. Others have insisted that it is not a matter of civilizations gradually evolving from primitive cultures. Coulborn sees them on several occasions emerging relatively quickly and decisively, replacing a multiplicity of primitive societies on several occasions with unified cultures that are entirely different [1958: 3-30], Civilizations are perceived to be a great deal larger than primitive cultures, usually incorporating a great number of primitive cultures, but in so doing, transforming them. Civilizations are characterized by new religious forms, "higher religions" that contribute to civilizational unity, religions that are qualitatively different from those of primitive cultures [e.g. Spengler 1980: I, 399-402; Toynbee 1934-1961: XII, 68-102; Coulborn 1958: 129-171; 1966:412-413,417-421], Economically civilizations exercise greater control of the environ-ment, practicing agriculture, domesticating animals, employing metals, building surpluses. Civilizations are also characterized by new political forms that unify much larger areas and bring about more centralized political unification which is often not to the benefit of most of the people who experience this transformation. It is a matter of debate whether the building of economic surplus is a cause of the political transformation, or whether the religious, economic and political transformations are themselves integrated responses to another challenge, such as desiccation or population pressure. The developing political and economic forms enable civilizations to build cities and lead them to develop methods of record keeping that often, but not always, include writing. Invariably the development of cities, and the intense change involved in the whole process induces a need for new expressions of art, manifested particularly in the architecture of the cities, which in turn provide scope and need for sculpture, engraving and painting. Warfare, as a means of controlling territory, was seen as a phenomenon of civilization. Primitive societies did fight one another, but not for the control or acquisition of territory. Civilizations have much more elaborate systems of stratification, with a small minority of religious and political leaders dominating a powerless and subordinate majority. Regardless of civilizational characteristics, there must be universals. Technologies, irrigation for instance, can be operated only in a limited way, or they will not work. Much of the difficulty with definition has come from the critical thinking capacities of our scholars. If you start to list the characteristics of a civilization, the critical thinker will show you that primitive societies have these characteristics, they have horticulture if not agriculture, centers if not cities, often war over similar issues to those of civilizations, some way of keeping records if not writing. But civilizations have a mass, style, economy and sets of internal relationships that make them distinctly different from primitive cultures. There may be marginal cases, primitive cultures that were coalescing and on their way to becoming civilizations, but for one reason or another didn't get there. We debate about these, but that need not get in the way of our acceptance of a number of mainstream civilizations, not only by civilizationists, but by librarians in their cataloging, by journalists in their reporting, by all of us. And this shows that I still cannot get away from the plurality of civilizations, even while trying to frame a definition. For now, then, let's say a civilization is a large society possessing a degree of autonomy and internal integration, an agricultural economy, religion, stratification, warfare, usually cities and writing, or some other method of keeping long term records, and central government at least at a regional or urban level."