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What is “civilization”?

Posted in Percolating Ideas

Today one often hears talk about “civilized” conduct or standards of civilization, but what do we mean by these terms and ideas? When and how did come about? and why?  More importantly, why does it matter?

First, I should clarify that there are two distinct meanings of “civilization”:

  1. It is a noun, which describes both the process and result of an individual or community becoming “civilized.” The Modern Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: “A particular culture, society, and way of life as characteristic of a community of people; (also) a civilized society; the comfort and convenience of modern life, as found in towns and cities; populated or urban areas in general.” [i] In this series of posts I will clarify what “civilized” meant to the French who first coined the term “civilisation” and offer a few ideas on why this remains an important concept.
  2. It is a value-laden normative concept by which “others” are judged (i.e. the “standard” of civilization)

The idea developed, like many others, during the Enlightenment and appeared first in French (1756) and three years later in English.[ii]  In my upcoming presentation at the American Studies Association conference (November 15-18), I will delve into the etymology of “civilization” and related words.  For now, a brief summary of my argument will suffice to explain how and why the concept developed when it did:

After the Valois victory in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, it became increasingly important to define a distinct and unifying French identity as the monarchy attempted to unite France beginning in the mid-fifteenth century.  Contact with “others” in Africa, the Americas, and even the Far East provided different people and cultures with which to compare their own.  As populations previously unknown to Europeans, Native Americans provided particularly powerful images. They either embodied everything that was not European and therefore deficient, or served as exemplars of the “Natural Man,” or were used to critique the decadent and corrupt French social and political systems.

I argue that French philosophers refined ideas about civilization and barbarism through contact with Native Americans.  The coining of the new term “civilization” in the mid-eighteenth century marked its significance in contemporary discourse and served to identify and define in positive terms an extant concept, previously subsumed in the meanings of sociabilité (sociability) and politesse (politeness).

By 1771 the recently invented word civilisation had come to incorporate a number of common ideas.  It referred to a group of people who were sociable, civil (polite), tractable (compliant & governable), able to live in community with one another because they recognized their religious and moral obligations to God and others, and who lived in an ordered society that was governed by laws and sovereign authority.

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, French explorers, missionaries, statesmen, and scholars often defined civilization by what it was not and employed accounts and images of Native Americans either to support the superiority of French society and norms or critique the decadence of French culture.  In their writing, certain markers of civilization stand out. Hygiene, “politeness,” religion, and gender norms were among the most common measures of civilization by which Frenchmen judged Others.

In early modern France, to be civilized was to be Christian and to be Christian was to be civilized. However, a number of Enlightenment intellectuals, including Diderot, Rousseau, Condorcet, and Englishman Adam Ferguson, worked to separate the concept of civilization from religion.  They connected the ideas of civilization and progress to develop secular theories about the stages of human development from primitivism (hunter-gatherers) to European Enlightenment.[iii]  Their use of civilisation expanded its definition to include the “advancements in comfort, increased material possessions and personal luxuries, improved [and expanded] education, ‘cultivation of the arts and sciences,’ and the expansion ‘of commerce and industry.’”[iv]

At the same time, French and Scottish philosophers used the life cycle as an analogy to create a history of mankind’s progress from “savagery” to “civilization.”  In his 1777 work The History of America, Scottish historian William Robertson established a model for American intellectuals, as he employed the French concepts of “civilization” and the progression of mankind through stages of development to describe American Indians’ place in history. His work was foundational in shaping early American leaders’ understanding of Indians and a nascent American identity. In his analysis of Indian origin hypotheses, Robertson clearly ranks Indians’ level of civilization on a social hierarchy, as did the French, using the same definition of civilization that developed in Enlightenment France. To be civilized was to be unified socially, to exhibit social “norms” necessary for civil life, to exchange complete liberty for life in community with others and therefore be subject to government and its laws.  Furthermore, a community must understand property rights, express its culture in the arts (as Euro-Americans defined them), and have established industry to be considered “civilized.”[v]  Thomas Jefferson took many of his ideas about Indians from Robertson and other Scottish philosophers who argued that “circumstance” (rather than environment) created character, as well as the French philosophes’ notions of civilization and human progression through stages of development.[vi]

In the next two posts, I will examine the role this concept has played in colonial efforts, particularly those of France, and why it remains important today.

Finally, I would like these posts to serve as conversation-starters. Please ask questions and offer constructive feedback in the comments section below.  If you choose to use any part of this work in your own writing, cite it. [See citation information below.] Thank you!


[i] “civilization, n.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/33584?redirectedFrom=civilization (accessed November 09, 2012).

[ii] Brett Bowdwn, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 31.

[iii] Jean Starobinski, Blessings in Disguise; or The Morality of Evil, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 4-5.

[iv] Starobinski, 3 in Bowden, 30.

[v] William Robertson, The History of America (London: Printed for W. Strahan, T. Cadell, and J. Balfour, 1777), vol. I, pp. 282-3

[vi] Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, [1953], 1965), 92-96.
Citation for this post:
Ashley Wiersma, “What is ‘Civilization’?” Weblog Entry. Colonialism Through the Veil. 9 November 2012. <http://colonialismthroughtheveil.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/what-is-civilization/> (Accessed [date]).

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