What is Civilization?

Is civilization worth defending? Should we aim to conform to it so that we can be considered civilized? Should we aim to bring our children up according to its norms so that they can also be considered civilized? Should we try to make our country and our world as civilized as possible? The chances are that most people will answer in the affirmative to all of these questions. Most people, even in the dark ages in which we live, consider being civilized a good thing. The problem is that most people have no clear understanding of what civilization is or, perhaps as important, what it is not. It might be a good exercise, therefore, to begin to seek a clear definition of the thing to which most of us are happy to subscribe.

What is civilization?

Perhaps the best place to start would be to consult the oracle of oracles, the palantir of all palantiri, by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia. According to this seemingly omniscient cyber-seer, civilization is defined most broadly as “any complex state society characterized by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.” Along with this broad definition, Wikipedia adds other key characteristics of civilization as being “urbanization (or the development of cities), centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon agriculture and expansionism.”

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At this point, some of us might be questioning whether we still see civilization as something that is good and worth defending. How many of us would fight for civilization if we thought that we were fighting for the increasing complexity of the state and its social hierarchy? How many of the agrarians amongst us would fight for a civilization that defined itself as being separate from the natural environment and as seeking to dominate it? How many of us would fight for incessant urbanization, centralization, and the passive domestication of ourselves alongside the domestication of other organisms? How many of us had realized that being civilized was the willingness to make ourselves cattle in the service of increasingly complex social hierarchies? How many of us thought that civilization was marked by the sort of “specialization of labour” that had reduced human labour to that of a disposable cog in an increasingly large and complex wheel? How many of us guessed that civilization was defined by culturally ingrained progressivism and other supremacist ideologies? How many of us perceived that taxation was civilized and that increasing taxation was therefore and presumably a mark of increasing civilization?

If this is civilization we would be justified in hoping that civilization would go to hell and that, indeed, we would be equally justified in believing that it was all too evidently going there.

We would, however, be wrong to abandon civilization because of such woefully awry definitions of it. A closer look at Wikipedia’s entry on “civilization” will show that the devil is indeed in the detail. We discover, if we scroll down, that “civilization” is described as a concept that has its origins in the Enlightenment. According to Wikipedia, “civilization” is merely an ideological construct of the eighteenth century! It is not a reality in itself but an idea by which an irreligious and irrational “rationalism” can explain and explain away, to its own prejudiced satisfaction, the history of human culture. Amongst those cited by Wikipedia as crucial to the definition of “civilization” are the social Darwinists, on the one side, and the followers of Rousseau, on the other. Civilization is, therefore, defined either by those who advocate a secularist understanding of “progress” or those who call for its rejection through the secularist idealization of so-called noble savagery. Other thinkers are cited to buttress this materialistic understanding of “civilization,” from Spengler to Toynbee, but one will search in vain for the traditional Christian understanding of civilization.

Having seen how civilization is defined on the internet (the one Thing to rule them all and in the darkness bind them), let us distinguish between such a definition and the Christian understanding of what it is to be civilized.

True civilization is a culture animated by the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The authentic presence of goodness is love and its manifestation in virtue; the authentic presence of truth is to be seen in the culture’s conformity to reason, properly understood as an engagement with the objective reality beyond the confines of egocentric subjectivism; the authentic presence of the beautiful is a reverence for the beauty of Creation and creativity, properly perceived in the outpouring of gratitude which is the fruit of humility. A society informed and animated by such a culture is truly civilized.

A civilized man is not animated by a desire to shape himself into an image of his “self,” which is itself unknowable, but is willing to allow himself to be shaped into an image of the perfect Person beyond himself. Responding to Christ’s Trinitarian description of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, a civilized man surrenders himself to the Way of Virtue (Love), the Truth of Reason, and the Life of Grace (Beauty). In short and in sum, civilization manifests itself in the conforming of the will of Man to the will of the Giver of all goodness, truth and beauty.

What is civilization? It is the conforming of the heart of humanity to the Heart of Christ. All other definitions of civilization are not only wrong but are ultimately uncivilized!

Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 5, 2014 on Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is “The Consummation of the Empire” painted  by Thomas Cole in 1835-6.


  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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