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The ruins of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," has become the most recognizable symbol of the Inca civilization.

A civilization or civilisation is a society or culture group normally defined as a complex society characterized by the practice of agriculture and settlement in cities.

Compared with less complex cultures, members of a civilization are organized into a diverse division of labour and an intricate social hierarchy.

The term civilization is often used as a synonym for culture in both popular and academic circles. Every human being participates in a culture, defined as "the arts, customs, habits... beliefs, values, behavior and material habits that constitute a people's way of life". Civilizations can be distinguished from other cultures by their high level of social complexity and organization, and by their diverse economic and cultural activities.

The term has been defined and understood in a number of ways different from the standard definition. Sometimes it is used synonymously with the broader term culture. Civilization can also refer to society as a whole. To nineteenth-century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, civilization was "the total social heredity of mankind;" in other words, civilization was the totality of human knowledge and culture as represented by the most "advanced" society at a given time. Civilization can be used in a normative sense as well: if complex and urban cultures are assumed to be superior to other "savage" or "barbarian" cultures, then "civilization" is used as a synonym for "superiority of certain groups." In a similar sense, civilization can mean "refinement of thought, manners, or taste". However, in its most widely used definition, civilization is a descriptive term for a relatively complex agricultural and urban culture.

Etymology and definition

The word Civilization comes from the Latin word civilis, the adjective form of civis, meaning a "citizen" or "townsman" governed by the law of his city.

In the 6th century, the Roman Emperor Justinian oversaw the consolidation of Roman civil law. The resulting collection is called the Corpus Juris Civilis. In the 11th century, professors at the University of Bologna, Western Europe's first university, rediscovered Corpus Juris Civilis, and its influence began to be felt across Western Europe. In 1388, the word civil appeared in English meaning "of or related to citizens". In 1704, civilization began to mean "a law which makes a criminal process into a civil case." Civilization was not used in its modern sense to mean "the opposite of barbarism"; as contrasted to civility, meaning politeness or civil virtue — until the 18th century.

According to Emile Benveniste (1954 name=Benveniste> Émile Benveniste, "Civilization. Contribution à l'histoire du mot" (Civilization. Contribution to the history of the word), 1954, published in Problèmes de linguistique générale, Editions Gallimard, 1966, pp.336-345 (translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek as Problems in general linguistics, 2 vols., 1971), the first occurrence in English of civilization in its modern sense may be found in Adam Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh, 1767 - p.2):

"Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.

Before Benveniste's inquiries, the New English Dictionary quoted James Boswell's conversation with Samuel Johnson concerning the inclusion of Civilization in Johnson's dictionary:

"I found him busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary... He would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity than civility, as it is better to have a distinct word for each sense, than one word with two senses, which civility is, in his way of using it.}}

Benveniste demonstrated that previous occurrences could be found, which explained the quick adoption of Johnson's definition. In 1775 the dictionary of Ast defined civilization as "the state of being civilized; the act of civilizing", and the term was frequently used by Adam Smith in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Beside Smith and Ferguson, John Millar also used it in 1771 in his Observations concerning the distinction of ranks in society

As the first occurrence of civilization in French was found by Benveniste in the Marquis de Mirabeau's L'Ami des hommes ou traité de la population (written in 1756 but published in 1757), Benveniste's query was to know if the English word derived from the French, or if both evolved independently; a question which needed more researches. According to him, the word civilization may in fact have been used by Ferguson as soon as 1759.

Furthermore, Benveniste notes that, contrasted to civility, a static term, civilization conveys a sense of dynamism. He thus writes that...

"It was not only a historical view of society; it was also an optimist and resolutely non theological interpretation of its evolution which asserted itself, sometimes at the insu of those who proclaimed it, and even if some of them, and first of all Mirabeau, still counted religion as the first factor of 'civilization.

Another source of the word may relate to chivalry: a set of rules of engagement, originally for knights in warfare, but later expanded to cover conduct of knighthood or nobility. The English 'chivalry' comes from the French 'chevalier': a horseman. England and France would therefore have given rise to the terms at similar times.


26th century BC Sumerian cuneiform script in Sumerian language, listing gifts to the high priestess of Adab on the occasion of her election. One of the earliest examples of human writing.

Social scientists such as V. Gordon Childe have named a number of traits that distinguish a civilization from other kinds of society. Civilizations have been distinguished by their means of subsistence, types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, social stratification, economic systems, literacy, and other cultural traits.

All human civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence. Growing food on farms results in a surplus of food, particularly when people use intensive agricultural techniques such as irrigation and crop rotation. Grain surpluses have been especially important because they can be stored for a long time. A surplus of food permits some people to do things besides produce food for a living: early civilizations included artisans, priests and priestesses, and other people with specialized careers. A surplus of food results in a division of labour and a more diverse range of human activity, a defining trait of civilizations.

Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from other societies. The word civilization is sometimes defined as "a word that simply means 'living in cities'". Non-farmers gather in cities to work and to trade.

Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state. State societies are more stratified than other societies; there is a greater difference among the social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in the cities, has control over much of the surplus and exercises its will through the actions of a government or bureaucracy. Morton Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman Service, an integration theorist, have classified human cultures based on political systems and social inequality. This system of classification contains four categories:

  • Hunter-gatherer bands, which are generally egalitarian.
  • Horticultural/pastoral societies in which there are generally two inherited social classes; chief and commoner.
  • Highly stratified structures, or chiefdoms, with several inherited social classes: king, noble, freemen, serf and slave.
  • Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.

Economically, civilizations display more complex patterns of ownership and exchange than less organized societies. Living in one place allows people to accumulate more personal possessions than nomadic people. Some people also acquire landed property, or private ownership of the land. Because many people in civilizations do not grow their own food, they must trade their goods and services for food in a market system. Early civilizations developed money as a universal medium of exchange for these increasingly complex transactions.

Writing, developed first by people in Sumer, is considered a hallmark of civilization and "appears to accompany the rise of complex administrative bureaucracies or the conquest state." Traders and bureaucrats relied on writing to keep accurate records. Aided by their division of labor and central government planning, civilizations have developed many other diverse cultural traits. These include organized religion, development in the arts, and countless new advances in science and technology.

Cultural identity

"Civilization" can also describe the culture of a complex society, not just the society itself. Every society, civilization or not, has a specific set of ideas and customs, and a certain set of items and arts, that make it unique. Civilizations have even more intricate cultures, including literature, professional art, architecture, organized religion, and complex customs associated with the elite. Civilization is such in nature that it seeks to spread, to have more, to expand, and the means by which to do this.

Nevertheless, some tribes or peoples remained uncivilized even to this day (2007). These cultures are called by some "primitive," a term that is regarded by others as pejorative. "Primitive" implies in some way that a culture is "first" (Latin = primus), and as all cultures are contemporaries today's so called primitive cultures are in no way antecedent to those we consider civilized. Many anthropologists use the term "non-literate" to describe these peoples. In the USA and Canada, where people of such cultures were the original inhabitants before being displaced by European settlers, they use the term "First Nations." Generally, these people do not have hierarchical governments, organized religion, writing systems or money. The little hierarchy that exists, for example respect for the elderly, is mutual and not instituted by force, rather by a mutual reciprocal and customary agreement. A specialized monopolizing government does not exist, or at least the civilized version of government which most of us are familiar with.

The civilized world has been spread by invasion, conversion and trade, and by introducing agriculture, writing and religion to non-literate tribes. Some tribes may willingly adapt to civilized behaviour. But civilization is also spread by force: if a tribe does not wish to use agriculture or accept a certain religion it is often forced to do so by the civilized people, and they usually succeed due to their more advanced technology, and higher population densities. Civilization often uses religion to justify its actions, claiming for example that the uncivilized are "primitive," savages, barbarians or the like, which should be subjugated by civilization.

The intricate culture associated with civilization has a tendency to spread to and influence other cultures, sometimes assimilating them into the civilization (a classic example being Chinese civilization and its influence on Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and so forth), all of them sharing the fact that they belong to an East Asian civilization, sharing Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, a "Mandarin" class an educated understanding of Chinese ideograms and much else. Many civilizations are actually large cultural spheres containing many nations and regions. The civilization in which someone lives is that person's broadest cultural identity.

Whereas the etiology of civilization is Latin or Roman, defined above as the application of justice by "civil" means, one may also examine and reflect upon Jewish or Hebrew civilization. A Hebrew "civilization" is defined not as an expression or extension of the subjective trappings of culture and society, but rather as a human society and/or culture being an expression of objective moral and ethical moorings as they are known, understood and applied in accordance with the Mosaic Covenant.Template:Fact A "human" civilization, in Hebrew terms for instance, may contrast sharply with conventional notions about "civilization." A "human" civilization, therein, would be an expression and extension of the two most basic pillars of human "civilization." These two pillars are, honest standardized weights and measures and a moral and healthy constitution. Everything else, whether technology, science, art, music, etc., is by this definition considered as commentary. Indeed, to the degree the surface terrain of a human society, i.e., culture is "civilized," is to the degree the internal terrain (characteristics, personality or substance) of the people and leadership must also have been inoculated by, and inculcated with a moral foundation. The Biblically described Sodom, for instance, while being a society comprised of people with a culture, would by Jewish or Biblical standards of "civility" have been uncivilized. And while the Roman sentiment is largely focused upon how justice must "appear" to be done in a "civil" manner, the Hebrew or Biblical approach to justice, in principle, is never limited to subjective pretenses or appearance, but more importantly, justice must be predicated upon objective principles. Ultimately, there is no true or lasting "civility" for any man in the absence of moral composure.Template:Fact

Many historians have focused on these broad cultural spheres and have treated civilizations as single units. One example is early twentieth-century philosopher Oswald Spengler, even though he uses the German word "Kultur," "culture," for what we here call a "civilization." He said that a civilization's coherence is based around a single primary cultural symbol. Civilizations experience cycles of birth, life, decline and death, often supplanted by a new civilization with a potent new culture, formed around a compelling new cultural symbol.

This "unified culture" concept of civilization also influenced the theories of historian Arnold J. Toynbee in the mid-twentieth century. Toynbee explored civilization processes in his multi-volume A Study of History, which traced the rise and, in most cases, the decline of 21 civilizations and five "arrested civilizations." Civilizations generally declined and fell, according to Toynbee, because of moral or religious decline, rather than economic or environmental causes.

Samuel P. Huntington similarly defines a civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." Besides giving a definition of a civilization, Huntington has also proposed several theories about civilizations, discussed below.

Complex systems

Another group of theorists, making use of systems theory, look at civilizations as complex systems or networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures, and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and cultural interactions between them.

For example, urbanist Jane Jacobs defines cities as the economic engines that work to create large networks of people. The main process that creates these city networks, she says, is "import replacement". Import replacement is the process by which peripheral cities begin to replace goods and services that were formerly imported from more advanced cities. Successful import replacement creates economic growth in these peripheral cities, and allows these cities to then export their goods to less developed cities in their own hinterlands, creating new economic networks. So Jacobs explores economic development across wide networks instead of treating each society as an isolated cultural sphere.

Systems theorists look at many types of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges, and political/diplomatic/military relations. These spheres often occur on different scales. For example, trade networks were, until the nineteenth century, much larger than either cultural spheres or political spheres. Extensive trade routes, including the Silk Road through Central Asia and Indian Ocean sea routes linking the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations scarcely shared any political, diplomatic, military, or cultural relations. The first evidence of such long distance trade is in the ancient world. During the Uruk phase Guillermo Algaze has argued that trade relations connected Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and Afghanistan. Royal Tombs of [Ur] it is suggested was traded northwards from Mozambique.

Many theorists argue that the entire world has already become integrated into a single "world system", a process known as globalization. Different civilizations and societies all over the globe are economically, politically, and even culturally interdependent in many ways. There is debate over when this integration began, and what sort of integration – cultural, technological, economic, political, or military-diplomatic – is the key indicator in determining the extent of a civilization. David Wilkinson has proposed that economic and military-diplomatic integration of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations resulted in the creation of what he calls the "Central Civilization" around 1500 BC. Central Civilization later expanded to include the entire Middle East and Europe, and then expanded to a global scale with European colonization, integrating the Americas, Australia, China and Japan by the nineteenth century. According to Wilkinson, civilizations can be culturally heterogeneous, like the Central Civilization, or relatively homogeneous, like the Japanese civilization. What Huntington calls the "clash of civilizations" might be characterized by Wilkinson as a clash of cultural spheres within a single global civilization. Others point to the Crusades as the first step in globalization. The more conventional viewpoint is that networks of societies have expanded and shrunk since ancient times, and that the current globalized economy and culture is a product of recent European colonialism.


Political scientist [[Samuel Huntington has argued that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be a clash of civilizations. According to Huntington, conflicts between civilizations will supplant the conflicts between nation-states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries.

Currently, world civilization is in a stage that has created what may be characterized as an industrial society, superseding the agrarian society that preceded it. Some futurists believe that civilization is undergoing another transformation, and that world society will become a so-called informational society.

Some environmental scientists see the world entering a Planetary Phase of Civilization, characterized by a shift away from independent, disconnected nation-states to a world of increased global connectivity with worldwide institutions, environmental challenges, economic systems, and consciousness.Orion Thoughts on America[ Kosmos Journal Paths to Planetary Civilization. In an attempt to better understand what a Planetary Phase of Civilization might look like in the current context of declining natural resources and increasing consumption, the Global scenario group used scenario analysis to arrive at three archetypal futures: Barbarization, in which increasing conflicts result in either a fortress world or complete societal breakdown; Conventional Worlds, in which market forces or Policy reform slowly precipitate more sustainable practices; and a Great Transition, in which either the sum of fragmented Eco-Communalism movements add up to a sustainable world or globally coordinated efforts and initiatives result in a new sustainability paradigm.

The Kardashev scale classifies civilizations based on their level of technological advancement, specifically measured by the amount of energy a civilization is able to harness. The Kardashev scale makes provisions for civilizations far more technologically advanced than any currently known to exist. (see also: Civilizations and the Future, Space civilization)

The fall of civilizations

There have been many explanations put forward for the collapse of civilization.

Edward Gibbon's massive work "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" began an interest in the Fall of Civilizations, that had begun with the historical divisions of Petrarch [1] between the Classical period of Ancient Greece and Rome, the succeeding Medieval Ages, and the Renaissance. For Gibbon:-

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."[Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., vol. 4, ed. by J. B. Bury (London, 1909), pp. 173-174.] Gibbon suggested the final act of the collapse of Rome was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

Theodor Mommsen in his "History of Rome", suggested Rome collapsed with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and he also tended towards a biological analogy of "genesis," "growth," "senescence," "collapse" and "decay."

Oswald Spengler, in his "Decline of the West" rejected Petrarch's chronological division, and suggested that there had been only eight "mature civilizations." Growing cultures, he argued, tend to develop into imperialistic civilizations which expand and ultimately collapse, with democratic forms of government ushering in plutocracy and ultimately imperialism.

Arnold J. Toynbee in his "A Study of History" suggested that there had been a much larger number of civilizations, including a small number of arrested civilizations, and that all civilizations tended to go through the cycle identified by Mommsen. The cause of the fall of a civilization occurred when a cultural elite became a parasitic elite, leading to the rise of internal and external proletariats.

Joseph Tainter in "The Collapse of Complex Societies" suggested that there were diminishing returns to complexity, due to which, as states achieved a maximum permissible complexity, they would decline when further increases actually produced a negative return. Tainter suggested that Rome achieved this figure in the 2nd Century AD.

Jared Diamond in his recent book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" suggests five major reasons for the collapse of 41 studied cultures.

Peter Turchin in his Historical Dynamics and Andrey Korotayev et al. in their Introduction to Social Macrodynamics, Secular Cycles, and Millennial Trends suggest a number of mathematical models describing collapse of agrarian civilizations. For example, the basic logic of Turchin's "fiscal-demographic" model can be outlined as follows: during the initial phase of a sociodemographic cycle we observe relatively high levels of per capita production and consumption, which leads not only to relatively high population growth rates, but also to relatively high rates of surplus production. As a result, during this phase the population can afford to pay taxes without great problems, the taxes are quite easily collectible, and the population growth is accompanied by the growth of state revenues. During the intermediate phase, the increasing overpopulation leads to the decrease of per capita production and consumption levels, it becomes more and more difficult to collect taxes, and state revenues stop growing, whereas the state expenditures grow due to the growth of the population controlled by the state. As a result, during this phase the state starts experiencing considerable fiscal problems. During the final pre-collapse phases the overpopulation leads to further decrease of per capita production, the surplus production further decreases, state revenues shrink, but the state needs more and more resources to control the growing (though with lower and lower rates) population. Eventually this leads to famines, epidemics, state breakdown, and demographic and civilization collapse (Peter Turchin. Historical Dynamics. Princeton University Press, 2003:121–127).

Peter Heather argues in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the BarbariansISBN 0195159543 that this civilization did not end for moral or economic reasons, but because centuries of contact with barbarians across the frontier generated its own nemesis by making them a much more sophisticated and dangerous adversary. The fact that Rome needed to generate ever greater revenues to equip and re-equip armies that were for the first time repeatedly defeated in the field, led to the dismemberment of the Empire. Although this argument is specific to Rome, it can also be applied to the Asiatic Empire of the Egyptians, to the Han and Tang dynasties of China, to the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate, and others.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization[1] shows the real horrors associated with the collapse of a civilization for the people who suffer its effects, unlike many revisionist historians who downplay this. The collapse of complex society meant that even basic plumbing disappeared from the continent for 1,000 years. Similar Dark Age collapses are seen with the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean, the collapse of the Maya, on Easter Island and elsewhere.

Arthur Demarest argues in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization[2], using a holistic perspective to the most recent evidence from archaeology, paleoecology, and epigraphy, that no one explanation is sufficient but that a series of erratic, complex events, including loss of soil fertility, drought and rising levels of internal and external violence led to the disintegration of the courts of Mayan kingdoms which began a spiral of decline and decay. He argues that the collapse of the Maya has lessons for civilization today.

Jeffrey A. McNeely has recently suggested that "A review of historical evidence shows that past civilizations have tended to over-exploit their forests, and that such abuse of important resources has been a significant factor in the decline of the over-exploiting society."[3]

Thomas Homer-Dixon in "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization", considers that the fall in the energy return on investments; the energy expended to energy yield ratio, is central to limiting the survival of civilizations. The degree of social complexity is associated strongly, he suggests, with the amount of disposable energy environmental, economic and technological systems allow. When this amount decreases civilizations either have to access new energy sources or they will collapse.


Civilization has been criticized from a variety of viewpoints and for a variety of reasons. Some critics have objected to all aspects of civilization; others have argued that civilization brings a mixture of good and bad effects.

Many environmentalists criticize civilizations for their exploitation of the environment. Through intensive agriculture and urban growth, civilizations tend to destroy natural settings and habitats. This is sometimes referred to as "dominator culture". Proponents of this view believe that traditional societies live in greater harmony with nature than civilizations; people work with nature rather than try to subdue it. The sustainable living movement is a push from some members of civilization to regain that harmony with nature.

Primitivism is a modern philosophy totally opposed to civilization. Primitivists accuse civilizations of restricting human potential, oppressing the weak, and damaging the environment. They wish to return to a more primitive way of life which they consider to be in the best interests of both nature and human beings. Leading proponents are John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen, whereas a critic is Roger Sandall.

However, not all critics of past and present civilization believe that a primitive way of life is better. Some have argued that many negative aspects of current 'civilized' nations can be overcome. Karl Marx, for instance, argued that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression and exploitation, but also believed that these things would eventually be overcome and communism would be established throughout the world. He envisioned communism not as a return to any sort of idyllic past, but as a new stage of civilization. Conflict theory in the social sciences also views the present form of civilization as being based on the domination of some people by others, but does not judge the issue morally.

Given the current problems with the sustainability of industrial civilization, some, like Derrick Jensen, who posits civilization to be inherently unsustainable, argue that we need to develop a social form of "post-civilization" as different from civilization as the latter was with pre-civilized peoples.



Old World

New World

Classical Antiquity

Karl Jaspers, the German historical philosopher, proposed that the ancient civilizations were affected greatly by an Axial Age in the period between 600 BCE-400 BCE during which a series of male sages, prophets, religious reformers and philosophers, from China, India, Iran, Israel and Greece, changed the direction of civilizations forever[4]. Julian Jaynes proposed that this was associated with the "collapse of the bicameral mind", during which subconscious ideas were recognized as simply subjective, rather than being voices of spirits. William H. McNeill proposed that this period of history was one in which culture contact between previously separate civilizations saw the "closure of the oecumene", and led to accelerated social change from China to the Mediterranean, associated with the spread of coinage, larger empires and new religions. This view has recently been championed by Christopher Chase-Dunn and other world systems theorists.

Civilizations affected by these developments include

  • Middle Eastern Civilizations
  • East Asian Civilizations
  • The Civilizations of South East Asia
  • Central Asian Civilization
  • European Civilizations

Since the voyages of discovery by European explorers of the 15th and 16th century, another development has occurred whereby which European forms of government, industry, commerce and culture have spread from Western Europe, to the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and through colonial empires, to the rest of the planet. Today it would appear that we are all parts of a planetary industrializing world civilization, divided between many nations and languages.



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  8. Benveniste (French): Ce n'était pas seulement une vue historique de la société; c'était aussi une interprétation optimiste et résolument non théologique de son évolution qui s'affirmait, parfois à l'insu de ceux qui la proclamaient, et même si certains, et d'abord Mirabeau, comptaient encore la religion comme le premier facteur de la "civilization".
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  3. McNeely, Jeffrey A. (1994) "Lessons of the past: Forests and Biodiversity" (Vol 3, No 1 1994. Biodiversity and Conservation)
  4. Tarnas, Richard (1993) "The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View" (Ballatine Books)