What is it to be civilised?

In fact this is an old debate from back in 2010. But I thought it could do with reviving. Feel free to check out the old debate here.

After giving a number of anthropological examples to explain what civilisation is not, Clive Bell (art critic and philosopher of art), writing in 1928, said:

“I think we must take it as settled that neither a sense of the rights of property, nor candour, nor cleanliness, nor belief in God, the future life and eternal justice, nor chivalry, nor chastity, nor patriotism even is amongst the distinguishing characteristics of civilisation, which is, nevertheless, a means to good and a potent one.”

funny-civilized-uncivilized-boat-trashIt seemed quite easy for Clive to refute the notion that one or two traits might be unique to civilised societies. And yet he found himself agreeing with a soldier who said this to him:

“I can’t tell you what civilisation is, but I can tell you when a state is said to be civilised. People who understand these things assure me that for hundreds of years Japan has had an exquisite art and a considerable literature, but the newspapers never told us that Japan was highly civilised till she had fought and beaten a first-class European power.”

This does not mean to say that power is a sign of civilisation either however. As Clive rightly said, few people would describe the eastern tribes and ‘barbarians’ who overran the Roman Empire, or the Tartars who overthrew the Sung Empire, to be civilised. Indeed we often think of fairness and civilisation as intrinsically linked. And yet in the era of Social Darwinism it was quite popular to say “leave it to nature”. They would say that true civilisation would only come when the weak are left to die, and it is formally recognised that might is right.

So what did Clive conclude about what civilisation is? He reached his conclusion by making assumptions about which societies were civilised and which were not (Periclean Athens and 18th century Paris seemed to be ranked number one and two), and then drawing a list of similarities and peculiarities. He used this assumption of the existence of both to prove that civilisation is not natural, but rather a product of education. And he did seem to think that the idea of what it is to be civilised stays constant throughout time. However he recognised that for those who don’t buy into his assumptions then agreement might not be found.

Do you agree with him? Can we distinguish what is civilised from what is not? And if so how do we do this? What is it to be civilised?

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