top of page
  • Lara

On Civilization

The final part of a three-part series on civilization, published April 2018 in Bilkent News.

As explained, all communities are based around common values, but only when these values are grounded (and the means for their enforcement provided) can a society become civilized. The code of conduct must be centered as the skeleton of the community, often in the form of written laws propagated through a formalized vector. Law enforcement progresses on various scales and in different fields: all activities framed by the law that further communal purpose contribute to the process of civilization, simply by normalizing observance of the law, and by strengthening the community the law cradles and serves.Civilizations incorporate definite bodies of law enforcement that must be supported by a strict hierarchy, which preserves their authority (and therefore their power of enforcement): if all categories of citizens were hierarchically equal, no individual would be likely to bow to another, even if obedience were certain to protect society; such is human nature. By asserting superiority of position over other groups, some individuals safeguard the social contract; laws allow for this hierarchy either by vesting some people with temporary or situational authority (tasks, promotions, titles) or by imbuing them with inherent authority (as in the caste system, which categorized people by their social stations at birth, or by feudal divisions that allowed for the inheritance of authority through lineage). Alongside hierarchy, a means of production or acquisition of social staples and objects of desire must be provided within the civilization – not only to physically and positionally support law enforcers, but also to ensure that the civilization thrives: a steady means of production (or acquisition, as will be explained) makes easier the fulfillment of communal purpose and attracts new members to the workforce by signaling security of livelihood. Societal necessities may be acquired from outside by raiding other communities, for instance, or by growing them within the community (through agriculture, raising of livestock, and so on.)

Although all three of these conditions are necessary for a society to be a civilization – for its values to be formalized and enforced, and for this enforcement to be made easier through secure means of production and hierarchical authority – they are not sufficient. A pack of wolves is a community with a definite purpose in which there is a strict hierarchy and formulated rules of the hunt; it has a means of acquisition of food, which is the purpose of communal organization, and within this strength-centered community the hierarchy is self-perpetrating (the strongest takes over, and eats most, thereby reasserting its strength – both by increasing physical power and demonstrating that it has the means by which to deprive other members of a scarce and widely demanded good). However, this community is not civilized, simply by virtue of the fact that it is not creative. Just as the only difference between human and animal is the human potential to create (a thesis discussed in a previous column, “What It Means to Be Human”), the main difference between a community and a civilization is that the latter synthesizes capital. Capital of various forms is the touchstone of civilization; the more capital a civilization earns, the better off it is, and so the more likely it is to pass on its mode of living (its purpose, its morals and its laws, which together form its culture and identify it).

Political capital must be produced; it cannot be appropriated, but may be enhanced through the integration of an object of high political value (intermarriage, annexation). The more political capital a community has, the greater chance it will have of getting its way when in dialogue with other communities; increases in political influence beget increases in acquisitive capability, and allow the purpose of the politically dominant community to dominate the purposes of others. Economic capital works in much the same way – the creation of an independent currency has always been a marker of sovereignty, and where a community is secure enough to declare sovereignty, it has accumulated enough of a capability to produce and propagate its culture; it is a marker of ability to serve the communal purpose, and if it is a true marker, it also increases political capital by signaling to the world that a new power player – a new sets of means and ends – has arrived. Beyond this, the simple possession of large sums of money (and, of course, natural resources – oil, gold) increases economic capital, but this aspect of it is less immediately beneficial: if the civilization is incapable of defending its capital from acquisitive communities, it collapses. (See, for instance, the South American civilizations’ collapse under the Spanish invasion, which ended in Spanish culture dominating the continent, and Spanish rule making use of its resources, thereby making Spain the triumphant civilization. Its fundamental productive character required material to fulfill its purpose – of production – which the obtainment of economic capital and spread of culture by force allowed it to do more effectively.) Sexual capital in terms of a society is simply societal desirability; the more attractive a community is in terms of how comfortable it is to survive within it (an agricultural society, for instance), how fulfilling it is intellectually or emotionally to contribute to it (a religious community, for instance), or how easy it is to find a place within it, the more people join it; a larger population means a larger workforce and so a more efficient fulfillment of communal purpose. Just as sexual capital in terms of the individual attracts other individuals with an eye to procreate, and pass on one’s genome, sexual capital in terms of society works toward demographic expansion – toward the transmission of culture.

Once a society is able to reproduce its culture – which it has formalized and safeguards using institutionalized or semi-institutionalized means of enforcement – and to fulfill its aims of formation (the common purpose of its members) through its synthesis of capital, it may be termed a civilization. If there is no creative power in the community, it is not civilized; a civilization sets standards for its values, and the closer it gets to those standards (maximum industrial productivity, unshakeable piety and moral fervor, military victory), the more civilized it is, although the standards may change with time or find minor expressions in subcultures of the same civilization (the standards of subcultures belong to communities, and may be religious, artistic, aesthetic and so on, depending on the identity of the community). Civilizations triumph over each other when the subjects of one civilization accept the standards of another (e.g., the Spanish colonization of South America), either by force (e.g., the Ottoman infiltration of the Balkans) or cultural expansion (e.g., the globalization of “Western culture”), or by losing means of production to another community. The decline of a civilization follows its departure from its values, its inability or unwillingness to enforce laws, its acceptance of a new set of standards without integration (simply internalizing a foreign code of conduct instead of modifying it to fit the needs of the receiving society, in line with cultural evolution and progress), its physical incapability to fulfill its purpose (as when drought leads a desert civilization to disperse, its failed irrigation the original aim around which it had been formed, or when military weakness lays open a civilization and its means of production to capture), or its prioritization of unobserved morals over clear-cut laws. It is so that self-awareness of aim and method civilizes societies, and all failures to observe or improve the method lead to cultural and civil decline, and perhaps eventual collapse. There can be no civilization without control.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

A Slight Ache

Isn’t it dark, Barnabas? Your eyes, your eyes, your great big eyes,

On Signs and Symbols

Just what the son does with the clouds and streams, we do in literature. Choosing playing cards, fish, jellies. Like life.


bottom of page