Tag Archives: civilisation

Does Civilisation Lead to Fragmentation, or Collapse?

If civilisation is that which broadens society, within the framework of a social contract between people, (if you wish to dispute this definition then please see the previous posts: what is civilisation & what is it to be civilised) then what happens when society grows too big/civilised?

You could debate the extent to which civilisation is growing or shrinking (the sick society post seems to suggest that we may in fact be at the beginning of our decline). But if/when it is expanding, then this broadening of society seems doomed to lead towards societal fragmentation.

More InfoAs civilisation has grown, we have built more complex identities & more complicated lives; we have explored far and wide; we have built bigger social networks than ever before; we have settled in more places; we have constructed more buildings, groups and works of art; and we have more commitments on what precious resources we have. How can we keep up with all of these developments?

In short, due you think civilisations come to ends in ‘Big Crunches’, when the gravitational forces that held civilisations together (e.g. ideologies, nationalism, religion etc) begin to crush the spirit of civilisation? Or do you think, like scientists currently think about the universe, that modern societies could continue to expand, until one day that one society has become ten, or twenty or more?

This question is in fact much more difficult than it seems. And you can see this by thinking about fallen civilisations from eras past. The ancient Sumerian civilisation (the civilisation which invented writing, and whose name means ‘land of the civilised kings’) collapsed under the strain of repeated invasions. The Mayan civilisation came to an end palenque-overview_mg_1198as a result of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, due to war, disease, and a foreign civilisation determined to assert its own supremacy. The Khmer civilisation in modern Cambodia came to an end due largely to environmental changes. Ancient Rome fell as a result of repeated invasions, but over an incredibly long period of internal economic decay. All of these falls are caused by very pragmatic things: food resources, safety, environment and economics.

Are you still following? Good! Because almost all of the above ‘falls’ were in fact the falls of political and economic entities; and not civilisations! That one requires the other could be true, and should be the topic for another day. But that point aside, if civilisations are primarily about societies, then how much do those above examples really help? Was Roman civilisation expanding when it fell? Did it end up splitting into various smaller civilisations, all of which bore the mark of its ideas, art, music, writings and religion? Or was it in fact being pulled towards a ‘big crunch’, by entrenched ideas of aristocracy, hierarchy, militarism and hedonism? Did Mayan civilisation get destroyed by the Spanish? Or did its spread get temporarily halted, only to re-emerge and fragment into various different territories, such that signs of it can be seen today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize?

Author and historian William R. Everdell once said that the rise and fall of civilizations is

“more a pattern in the mind than a pattern in the world.”

If this is true, and civilisations are carried not by the size of your guns, but rather the potential within the minds of your society, then what is the future for modern civilisations today? Are we headed towards a big crunch? Or are we headed towards accelerated expansion and fragmentation?

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?