Theories of Civilization

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The Biological Theory of Civilization

Oswald Spengler’s theory of civilization became famous and gave rise to many discussions in the twentieth century. Spengler’s thought had an important influence on political actions in Germany during Nazi times. In his work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), under the influence of the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hegel, and Gnosticism, Spengler stated that culture and civilization are manifestations of one biological process of life, which is subject to the cosmic and universal law of generation and corruption, birth and death, violent quantitative and qualitative changes. Hence, all the events of the history of humanity are organically and structurally connected; they are a manifestation of one biological life process; humanity is a zoological category. The historical events of humanity (i.e., the process of the development of cultures) pass through stages analogous to the stages in the development of an organism, that is, youth, maturity, and old age. Culture is a stage of maturity in the development of historical events, whereas civilization is a stage aiming at death, that is, the state of the loss of life, a time of regress, decline, lameness, and inefficiency in the history of mankind.

For Spengler, civilization appears as a stage of the end of life, twilight (Untergang), and at the same time, the stage of completion (Vollendung). Spengler, like Giambattista Vico in his work Scienza nuova (The New Science), believed in the cyclicity of occurring changes, births and deaths. While Vico saw in history the manifestation and action of divine providence, and history itself passed through the stages of myths (the poetical-religious imagination), heroes (the will), and the reason, Spengler believed that the transformations that occur are irrational, pessimistic, and catastrophic in character (there is no cause for coming into-being or decline, and no purpose for transformations).

Transformations of culture into civilization occur spontaneously, caused by an inner “irrational and blind” instinct. Spengler distinguished eight civilizations: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, ancient, Western European, and Russian, which is still being born. Each of the cultures has its own profile, including fine arts, mathematics, physics, philosophy, music, and technology. According to Spengler, Western culture had entered a time of twilight and completion, and thereby was becoming a civilization. The people of the West faced the task of completing the ultimate possibilities of their culture. The Germans (the “Romans of the culture of the West”)—the Prussian socialists represented by an authoritarian state with a Faustian culture—had a special mission here. They were the ones who—after ridding themselves of sentiments, and living boisterously, hard, actively, with will and power—should complete the destiny of cosmic necessary law (death)."

The Historical Theory of Civilization

"The English historian Arnold J. Toynbee created an original theory of civilization (A Study of History and Civilization on Trial). He distinguished over twenty different civilizations; they are not forms of life separate from one another, but between them there is the possibility of contact and rivalry, which is the reason for the development of civilization. Europe, conceived in geographic terms, is not uniform in its civilization, which explains the many armed conflicts appearing over its history. Western civilization is threatened by Byzantine civilization, represented by Russia. Civilizations arise as the result of the interaction of man and the natural environment. Each civilization—in Toynbee, “the smallest unit of historical study”2—is an organized form of human group life, the result of a challenge posed to man and his society by the natural environment. Unless he meets this challenge, man and his society cannot exist; to meet the challenge requires creative solutions and the efficient organization of group life, which leads to the existence of the civilization. The more difficult, richer, and varied the challenge, the richer is the civilization. When human societies lose the ability to react effectively to challenges from the environment, or when the environment stops presenting challenges, or they change into something completely new, then civilizations must fall. A civilization can be leaning toward a fall even over hundreds of years, but by its nature a civilization is not mortal and by creative thoughts it can lift itself from a fall. The development of a civilization cannot be reduced to man’s interference in the natural environment or to the development of technology, but it is fundamentally visible in the increasing consolidation of human society. Social elites who are capable of creating and undertaking creative thoughts, of putting together internal solidarity and of alleviating social conflicts play an important role here.

The Sociological Theory of Civilization

"Alvin Toffler took up the topic of civilization in his works: The Third Wave, Creating a New Civilization, and Future Shock. According to him, civilizations arise as the result of violent transformations (waves) that include the life of individuals, families, societies, political communities, and the states. The first wave of transformations arose together with the spread of agrarian culture, and thereby led to the existence of the first civilization, which was connected with land; in this civilization, religion, tradition, and the multi-generational family played an important role. It lasted on the Earth for over 10,000 years. In the seventeenth century, industrial civilization began to take shape, called into existence by the wave of technological and scientific transformations which caused a shift of life to cities and industrial centers, and thereby it waged war against the agrarian civilization. The friction between two different civilizations became a conflict which occurred fundamental for history. In practice, such conflicts took the form of wars, revolutions, rebellions, or social crises. In the beginnings of industrial civilization, a new model of the family as a small cell was formed, and new ideas of social life appeared, such as progress, the rights of the individual, the theory of the social contract, the idea of separation of religion (the Church) and the state, and the election of rulers by the populace; this was accompanied by mass production and consumption, universal education and information, leading to the creation of a new culture called mass culture; other features of this culture were cheap labor, predatory colonial policies, and the unchecked exploitation of natural resources. Beginning in the 1970s, a new wave of transformations appears, connected with computer technology, leading to the rise of a new civilization that is globalist and information-based. The foundation of this form of civilization is knowledge and the rapid flow of information. Its universal characteristic is mobility, especially with respect to economic life. It eliminates the existence of independent and sovereign nation states, which are the product of the agrarian and industrial civilizations, and it proposes globalization. It eliminates the family based on indissoluble marriage for business partnerships, and it leads to non-religion. According to Toffler, the ideas of a “borderless world” and “planetary consciousness” should animate the culture of the “third-wave” civilization."

The Political-Science Theory of Civilization

"Toward the end of the twentieth century, the theory of the clash of civilizations developed by the American political scientist and sociologist Samuel P. Huntington resounded throughout the world.3 According to him, worldwide conflicts in the past and present have their source in clashes and rivalries between civilizations, which in fact play the role of the subjects of political actions in the world. By reason of the different goals that civilizations set for themselves, political actions have a multi-polar character, and the history of the world is the history of civilizations, which include a material and a spiritual heritage. Huntington distinguishes seven existing civilizations (Chinese, Japanese,4 Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox,5 Western,6 Latin American7) and African civilization, which is still being created. According to him, the foundation of a civilization is not a language, race, or religion, but culture conceived in a broad sense. He emphasizes that the reception of technical skills and technology by non-Western cultures does not lead to their westernization or to the creation of a single world civilization; on the contrary, it leads to a threat to Western civilization, since there is a permanent rivalry between civilizations. We are witnesses to the weakening of Western culture, being a result of artificial attempts to universalize it (making out of it a global and dominant civilization), which in practice lead to its loss of cultural identity and power, and also to conflicts and clashes of civilizations. The chief threat to Western civilization, according to Huntington, lies in Islamic and Chinese civilizations, while he sees the chief cause of the political setbacks of Western civilization in a failure to perceive differences in civilizations or to take them into account."


The Historical-Philosophical Theory of Civilization of Feliks Koneczny

Pawel Skrzydlewski:

"Questions about civilization were also studied by Polish scholars,11 including Feliks Koneczny, whose achievements in this field have been recognized throughout the world (Arnold J. Toynbee, Anton Hilckman). Koneczny based his analysis of civilization on historical studies, and he regarded the science concerning civilization as the crowning point of philosophical and historical investigations on human history. Koneczny formulated a coherent theory of civilization. His theory contained general conclusions concerning the social affairs of Poland, Europe, and the world. According to Koneczny, civilization is a method of organizing group life. Civilization is composed of both a material and a spiritual heritage. These overlap and constitute an indissoluble whole.

In history there have been many civilizations, and at present there are seven living ones: Latin, Byzantine, Jewish, Arab, Turanian (Muscovite-Cossack), Brahmin, and Chinese. Within each of these several varieties can arise, but they will have a common civilizational skeleton. According to Koneczny, there is no single European civilization, but in the geographical terrain of Europe, civilizations such as Latin, Byzantine, Jewish, and Muscovite-Cossak exist and are in constant rivalry, and therefore one cannot speak of a single vision or a single understanding (or functioning) of European politics. As long as they are alive, all civilizations are in rivalry with each other, which is manifested also in the form of conflicts (including wars) between states; the rivalry between civilizations is focused on the preservation and extension of their material, moral, and intellectual heritage. The expansive character and rivalry of civilizations seems to be explained by the natural increase of human societies and man’s natural tendency to preserve and amass the heritage with which he identifies and whereby he is able to live. However, there are civilizations (such as Turanian) that cannot develop except by the conquest and enslavement of others. In such civilizations, the entire politics and apparatus of power will be subordinated to war and plunder, and for them peacetime and the absence of war will be a destructive factor. Between civilizations, as between religions, no stable synthesis can arise. None of the civilizations is by its nature immortal, and there is no guarantee that any civilization will endure; the existence of a civilization depends on whether it is equal to the challenges of life, while keeping its uniformity and the equal measure of its components.

According to Koneczny, civilizations do not depend on race, language, or religion, although these have enormous importance. There are civilizations that build their structures on religious principles and are guided by them in their social actions. Koneczny calls civilizations of this type sacral; at present this includes the Jewish and Brahmin civilizations. Social actions in these civilizations abstract from the good of man because in them religion is an a priori factor that models the reality of social life against man’s natural inclinations; and religiousness is not man’s personal contact with God, but rather it is the fulfillment of law (Jewish civilization) or duties commanded by holy books or tradition (Brahmin civilization). Sacralization also leaves an imprint on those who exercise power, who—most often distinguished “by divine anointing”—are seen as the incarnation or instrument of a deity. As such, they become omnipotent, free from all principles of moral conduct. Also, in sacral civilizations the people who compose society are treated generally as means or instruments. To understand what a particular civilization is, according to Koneczny, we must become familiar with how it relates to five domains of values, five categories of human existence that occur everywhere and in everyone at every time.

Koneczny calls these categories the quincunx: morality (the good), knowledge (the truth), health (and matters associated with it), property (well-being), and harmony (the beauty). The quincunx, although present in all social organizations, is not uniform in individual and public life. Human groups differ because of it, since morality, knowledge, health, property, and beauty are realized in many ways in them. Sometimes the pressure from the quincunx is so strong that it makes it impossible, for example, for the family to exist as a sovereign subject emancipated from the clan; this takes place, for example, in Chinese civilization. Besides the quincunx, every civilization has its own threefold law—a set of norms to guide individual and group life. It is composed of family law, property law, and inheritance law. What is essential is whether in a civilization there is monism or dualism of law. Legal monism and the domination of one kind of law entails important consequences in social actions, for where it occurs, man is doomed to despotism and enslavement, whether by the ruling authority who possesses everything and rules everything (Turanian civilization), or by the state, which leaves its stamp on everything (Byzantine civilization). In all civilizations, except Latin civilization, the law that directs human undertakings does not have to be in agreement with the natural law. Moreover, the law can be immoral and irrational, ignoring really existing human relations, and it can even claim to subordinate the domain of morality to itself. This does not change the fact that the law in every situation has some sort of justification, some foundation; but it is not that morality is this foundation in every civilization. The quincunx and the threefold law, together with other legal norms, reveal the conception of man that functions in a particular civilization.

In every civilization, the image of man is different; this can explain why there are many civilizations and why their structures differ, why there are different types of social actions, varied states and varied purposes that states set for themselves. The conception of man may be more or less adequate to reality. From this comes the conclusion that there are no equal civilizations; there are better and worse civilizations—ones that more or less serve the realization of human potentialities. A plurality of civilizations on the territory of one state is a factor that splits and weakens the state. The history of the state of Alexander the Great or of Rome, and today Russia, Yugoslavia, and India, is evidence of this. A state comprising many civilizations can exist only under the condition that it is based on an apparatus of physical coercion that keeps a firm hand on everything and everyone (e.g., a strong army or bureaucratic structures). Some civilizations build their structures on the basis of physical power, others on that of spiritual power, which causes the political body to come into being either by virtue of force or by virtue of the free decision of its members. Civilizations that prefer to resolve their problems by force are compelled to destroy all manifestations of man’s life as a person in the life of the group (freedom, creativity, and responsibility), which causes the spiritual life to perish in society. In this type of civilization, the persons who exercise power will always strive to subordinate everything, including religion, to themselves, since force is the most effective; the mechanisms by which such a civilization operates cannot be maintained without force. The situation is different in civilizations that are based on the primacy and development of the spiritual powers in man. Some civilizations order the life of the group after the model of an organism. They esteem and develop all the manifestations of life, its wealth and variety. They do not pose any obstacles to individuality in the belief that the power and future of society, and of civilization itself, reside in this. In this type of civilization, there is no place for the bureaucracy and omnipotence of the state. Other civilizations strive, in every domain of life, to build mechanisms controlled from above by the authorities, and—what follows this—they strive for the omnipotence of the political authority, the state, and the law. A single mode according to which life should be lived is imposed on all forms of contact between people. In this type of civilization, the variety and plurality of human forms of behavior will be treated as the greatest threat.

Some civilizations prefer openness to really existing reality with its variety of forms and manifestations, prefer and creatively develop tradition, and nurture historical awareness in the belief that they are a priceless treasure for the present and future generations. Other civilizations are marked by an omnipotent apriorism in resolving all matters, which in practice concludes by modeling man’s life by priorly accepted principles without examining the effects of the actions undertaken; the theoretical rationale for this type of civilization is the belief that man is only an element of a greater whole, a thing and an object that can be shaped arbitrarily. Not every civilization has arrived at the point where the family is emancipated from the clan or tribe, or what follows this, that members of a clan or tribe are able to achieve maturity while their parents are alive. Not every association can produce a society from itself—a society that calls to mind a living organism, one capable of life for purposes beyond the biological, one that is varied, able to struggle for existence on its own, possessing autonomy from the state, an autonomy that is expressed in public law and local governments that govern some domains of group life. There are civilizations that do not permit the creation of a society or nation—these are civilizations (e.g., Turanian, Byzantine, Chinese) in which the domain of social actions is reserved only for the political authorities and the state; society and its members cannot undertake any actions unless permitted by the authority of the state.

As historical experience shows, of all known civilizations, only Latin civilization enables the freedom of social actions, and at the same time it serves the development and endurance of the state, which is called to protect society, or more precisely, to protect the persons who live in society. In Latin civilization, political life is guided by law based on the good and what is right—law that flows from morality and is in harmony with morality. Latin civilization bases social life on monogamous indissoluble matrimony, on respect for human physical work, it bears justice instead of the revenge (which is characteristic of other civilizations), and on the independence of religion and the Church from secular governing authority.

Koneczny holds that civilizations can build their structures, including political order, on principles of emanationism or creationism. These concepts, although fundamentally linked with religious-philosophical systems, are of capital importance for civilization as a whole, and especially for political matters and the state itself. Emanationism is usually at the basis of claims to the sacralization and omnipotence of the political authority, which has the right to everything, since it is of divine origin. Such a “sanctified” political authority will carry out policies based on the caprice of the “anointed” ones, who will treat their subjects like a herd, and will treat the whole country like their private estate. Emanationism is a factor that has a paralyzing effect in the domain of social actions, and therefore it inseparably bears with it the belief that one can reach the primary source of being conceived as the end of human life only directly, that is, by rejecting everything that is material, that in any way would mediate man’s way to the end-goal of life. The material world is regarded, in a civilization with emanationist foundations, as evil, and for this reason all man’s actions, which by their nature must be connected with matter, lose their raison d’etre. There are no actions of man not joined with matter, hence all human actions, including politics, are secondary or basically evil, for they cannot lead to the end-goal of life. Emanationism takes the position that it would be best if there were no such activities at all. Creationism will always restrain views of this type and the practices that result from them, since it shows an end-goal of man’s life that is transcendent to the world, an end to which one can aspire by means of work, creativity, knowledge, and moral perfection, in a word, by the actualization of human potentialities. The whole being-reality, in a civilization whose foundation is creationism, will be perceived as good and rational, worthy that man should live and act in it. Man’s life and social actions (politics, the state) are no exception here."


The Specificity of Latin Civilization According to Feliks Koneczny

Pawel Skrzydlewski:

"According to Koneczny, of all existing civilizations only Latin civilization is free from emanationist influences, and thereby only in it can politics and the state truly serve man. Latin civilization owes its existence to the culture-creating and educational activity of the Catholic Church. It is a civilization based not only on creationism, but also on personalism (it understands man as the subject and at the same time as the end-goal of social actions, and the good of man here is the measure and criterion of actions). It takes into account the nature of man, whose end is the universal development of the human person, and so this end also contains freedom, for without freedom there is no personal development. Personalism emphasizes man’s individual responsibility, while in civilizations without personalism the collective is preferred. Latin civilization’s affirmation of the human person can be exemplified by the fact that no one except the concrete man can have responsibility for the realization and achievement of the end-purpose of his life.

Personalism requires that the structures of group life should respect man. These structures include the state, which appears for man as a being less perfect than man, for it does not possess a subjective character of being. Only Latin civilization fully respects human health and life, both at the individual and public levels. The way Latin civilization operates is based on respect for private property, which ultimately will always remain one of the external foundations of man’s freedom. Latin civilization is the only existing civilization to preserve the dualism of public and private law, whereby the primacy of the nation over the state, of the family over society, and the primacy of man over all the associations that exist for him and for his development are grounded. In such a civilization, politics must always conform with morality, and there is no schizophrenic division into one kind of morality in public life and another kind in private life. Also, there is no room for an omnipotent state or law, for apriorism. There is no centralism, which leads to the mechanization of life and to a monotony that is so opposed to personalism and, by the same token, to freedom. Latin civilization is an a posteriori civilization, open to the experience of reality—proof of which is the existence of science—and on the other hand, it is characterized by historicism, without which a nation would not be created, nor would there be tradition and spiritual wealth. The Church, perceiving man as a person, also caused monogamous marriage and the family based on it to be the foundation of group life; in other civilizations polygamy is dominant, and the clan or family is not in principle indissoluble; by life-long monogamy, the equality of woman and man in dignity is confirmed (an equality that in fact is absent everywhere else), foundations are provided for children to achieve maturity while their parents are still alive, and foundations are provided for the functioning of private property. In

Latin civilization, as opposed to others, there are no a priori factors that would force man’s life to be modeled against his nature and natural inclinations. The only demand that it makes of both the individual and all the human associations is to do good and not to undertake individual, public, and state activities that would be immoral. This is the chief principle of Latin civilization and is unknown in all other civilizations. Latin civilization takes into account existing reality, draws from reality its experiences, and aims to create structures analogous to organisms—ones capable of independent life, guided by their own laws, as opposed to other civilizations that create mechanisms that do not take into account the variety of the manifestations of man’s life or man’s right to direct himself freely, since they strive to subordinate man to themselves. This a posteriori character of Latin civilization is manifested and is possible due to the presence in it of law, fundamentally understood as the order of good and what is right, public law and private law, the source of which is the reading of the moral order of human affairs. In the Catholic Church, Koneczny sees a factor that creates states, although in no measure does it sacralize the state or politics. The state, like the individual, is not free from the obligation to realize the moral good. The independence of the Church from secular authority is in Latin civilization one more thing that gives strength to man, something that flows out of the belief that spiritual life is higher than the biological and material sphere, and from the belief that human life does not end in temporal biological-sensory existence, and it cannot be reduced to it, but it is completed in the Creator of being, Who is the Truth, the Good, and the Beautiful, and at the same time the End Purpose of man’s life."



  • "This article is a part of The Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be published by the Polish Society of Thomas Aquinas. It is a revised and translated version of the encyclopedia entry originally published in Polish as: Paweł Skrzydlewski, “Cywilizacja,” in Powszechna encyklopedia filozofii, vol. 2, ed. Andrzej Maryniarczyk (Lublin: PTTA, 2001)." [1]

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