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COMMENTARY: HISTORY FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN

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What is Civilization?
a criticism of Will Durant

Rewritten September 26, 2010

The old master Will Durant begins: "Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation." He goes on to describe four elements that constitute civilization, one of which is economic activity. But what kind of economic activity? There was economic activity before civilization.

Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee also described civilization. Toynbee described what he called "nomadic civilization" as having failed. One might ask whether nomads – hunter-gatherers and herders – had a civilization. And we question whether this so-called civilization failed or was murdered.

Durant writes that civilization "begins where chaos and insecurity end." This has a peculiar ring to it. In places insecurity increased when people became dependent on agriculture for their nutritional sustenance. And with civilization rather than a guarantee of the social order that Durant associates with civilization there was a frequent breakdown of order in addition to insecurity regarding invasions by foreigners.

Can we settle on the idea that civilization appeared after people created permanent settlements and started relying on growing food? The word "civilization" derives from the word "cities." This is about cities that today would be considered small towns. At any rate, cities appeared in ancient times accompanied by a growth in population and a greater density in population compared to hunter-gatherer societies. Perhaps we can say that these are the ingredients that make civilization.

As for Durant describing civilization as promoting culture, yes, there has been the promotion of culture among the so-called civilized. But with civilization also came cultural diffusions and a greater diversity of opinion within societies. Rather than a necessary ingredient for civilization, promoting aspects of one's culture was a conservative endeavor while what societies needed in order to maintain the order that Durant speaks of was tolerance, and this tolerance was often lacking.

Some intellectuals in Durant's generation joined Spengler and Toynbee in thinking of civilization as divided among various ethnicities and races. Durant spoke of a Chinese civilization, and he thought of an Indic civilization. Toynbee, in addition to his nomadic civilization, divided the world into Western, Islamic, Hindu and Far Eastern civilizations.

Which country represents Islamic civilization? Islam is a product of Judaism and Christianity mixed with Arab tribalism and Persian culture, and it fragmented politically. Is it Saudi Arabia that represents Islamic civilization or is it Oman or Turkey or Indonesia?

A century ago there were white people who viewed the world with a Social Darwinistic interest in Westerners succeeding over Asians and Africans. Today we have Islamists concerned about Western influences and consider themselves at war with the West. They may think of an Islamic civilization.

Also some Westerners believe that a war of civilizations has been in the making. There is friction and fundamental differences between fundamental Islam and the Western values that arose during the Enlightenment and thereafter. But how much will cultural diffusion erode Islamic fundamentalism and mitigate this conflct?

With the Chinese having absorbed the ideas of Westerners (Marx and Lenin among them) and having integrated with the West economically and somewhat culturally, where is the clash between Chinese civilization and Western civilization?

Like Toynbee, Durant saw various civilizations, and he suggested that civilizations fail. Writing about his own civilization, he claimed that "it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. It seems to me that the civilization thus described, at lease with a financial interruption, doesn't end but limps along.

People talk about civilizations collapsing, but the word "collapse" here is a metaphor. People are invaded. Cultural diffusions occur. Genocides have occurred. But does a civilization ever collapse

Question: Empires have disintegrated, but should we equate that with civilizations declining? Demise of empires, I submit, were improvements.

Durant wrote that, "Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul." This is an old idea that is out of tune in the 21st century. We might wish to think of civilizations as something other than "racial soul."

Durant wrote of morality as a requisite for civilization, that there must be "some unity of basic belief, some faith – supernatural or utopian – that lifts morality from calculation to devotion, and gives life nobility and significance despite our mortal brevity."

Some of us see in the long history of thriving civilization a lot of moral failure

Concerning morality, Durant also writes: "Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children." This suggests that we instill in the young our values. This would work well for our civilization if the parents handing down their heritage actually believe in freedom of inquiry and thought – freedoms necessary if our civilization is to improve. Rather than simply offer our children our values as Durant suggests, we should offer the younger generation good tools for thought. This would include access to clear and honest descriptions of the past – not myths, distortions or dogma. But how many parents are willing to empower their children to think for themselves in areas that are contrary to their own heritage and habits of thought?

December 9, 2012

A new critique of Durant's The Lessons of History is here.

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