Meaning of Civilization


Epigraph to Book I

Though but an atom midst immensity,
  Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand

I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth --
  On the last verge of mortal being stand

Close to the realms where angels have their birth
  Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!

The chain of being is complete in me --
  In me is matter's last gradation lost,

And the next step is spirit -- Diety!
  I can command the lightning, and am dust!

-- Bowring's translation of Dershavin


Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy

Chapter IV
Civilization -- What It Means

Showing That Civilization Consists in the Welding of Men into the Social Organism or Economic Body

Vagueness as to what civilization is -- Guizot quoted -- Derivation and original meaning -- Civilization and the State -- Why a word referring to the precedent and greater has been taken from one referring to the subsequent and lesser. 01

The word civilization is in common use. But it is used with vague and varying meanings, which refer to the qualities or results that we attribute to the thing, rather than to the thing itself the existence or possibility of which we thus assume.

02

Sometimes our expressed or implied test of civilization is in the methods of industry and control of natural forces. Sometimes it is in the extent and diffusion of knowledge. Sometimes in the kindliness of manners and justice and benignity of laws and institutions. Sometimes it may be suspected that we use the word as do the Chinese when they class as barbarians all humanity outside of the "Central Flowery Kingdom." And there is point in the satire which tells how men who had lost their way in the wilderness, exclaimed at length when they reached a prison: "Thank God, we are at last in civilization!"

03

This difficulty in determining just what civilization is, does not pertain to common speech alone, but is felt by the best writers on the subject. Thus Buckle, in the two great volumes of the general introduction to his History of Civilization in England, which was all his untimely death permitted him to complete, gives us his view of what civilization depends on, what influences it, what promotes or retards it; but does not venture to say what civilization is. And thus Guizot, in his General History of Civilization in Modern Europe, says of civilization itself:

04

    It is so general in its nature that it can scarcely be seized; so complicated that it can scarcely be unraveled; so hidden as scarcely to be discernible. The difficulty of describing it, or recounting its history, is apparent and acknowledged; but its existence, its worthiness to be described and to be recounted, is not less certain and manifest.
05

Yet, surely, it ought to be possible to fix the meaning of a word so common and so important; to determine the thing from which the qualities we attribute to civilization proceed. This I shall attempt, not only because I shall have future occasion to use the word, but because of the light the effort may throw on the matter now in hand, the nature of political economy.

06

The word civilization comes from the Latin civis, a citizen. Its original meaning is, the manner or condition in which men live together as citizens. Now the relations of the citizen to other citizens, which are in their conception peaceable and friendly, involving mutual obligations, mutual rights and mutual services, spring from the relation of each citizen to a whole of which each is an integral part. That whole, from membership in which proceeds the relationship of citizens to each other, is the body politic, or political community, which we name the state, and which, struck by the analogy between it and the human body, Hobbes likened to a larger and stronger man made up by the integration of individual men, and called Leviathan.

07

Yet it is not this political relation, but a relation like it, that is suggested in this word civilization -- a relation deeper, wider and closer than the relation of the citizen to the State, and prior to it.

08

There is a relation between what we call a civilization and what we call a state, but in this the civilization is the antecedent and the state the subsequent. The appearance and development of the body politic, the organized state, the Leviathan of Hobbes, is the mark of civilization already in existence. Not in itself civilization, it involves and presupposes civilization.

09

And in the same way the character of the state, the nature of the laws and institutions which it enacts and enforces, indicate the character of the underlying civilization. For while civilization is a general condition, and we speak of mankind as civilized, half civilized or uncivilized, yet we recognize individual differences in the characteristics of a civilization, as we recognize differences in the characteristics of a state or in the characteristics of a man. We speak of ancient civilization and modern civilization; of Asiatic civilization and European civilization; of the Egyptian, the Assyrian, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, the Peruvian, the Roman and the Greek civilizations, as separate things, having such general likeness to each other as men have to men, but each marked by such individual characteristics as distinguish one man from other men. And whether we consider them in their grand divisions or in their minor divisions, the line between what we call civilizations is not the line of separation between bodies politic. The United States and Canada, or the United States and Great Britain, are separate bodies politic, yet their civilization is the same. The making of the Queen of Great Britain Empress of India does not substitute the English civilization for the Indian civilization in Bengal, nor the Indian civilization for the English civilization in Yorkshire or Kent. Change in allegiance involves change in citizenship, but in itself involves no change in the civilization. Civilization is evidently a relation which underlies the relations of the body politic as the unconscious motions of the body underlie the conscious motions.

10

Now, as the relations of the citizen proceed essentially from the relation of each citizen to a whole -- the body politic, or Leviathan, of which he is a part -- is it not clear, when we consider it, that the relations of the civilized man proceed from his relations to what I have called the body economic, or Greater Leviathan? It is this body economic, or body industrial, which grows up in the cooperation of men to supply their wants and satisfy their desires, that is the real thing constituting what we call civilization. Of this the qualities by which we try to distinguish what we mean by civilization are the attributes. It does indeed, I think, best present itself to our apprehension in the likeness of a larger and greater man, arising out of and from the cooperation of individual men to satisfy their desires, and constituting, after the evolution which finds its crown in the appearance of man himself, a new and seemingly illimitable field of progress.

11

This body economic, or Greater Leviathan, always precedes and always underlies the body politic or Leviathan. The body politic or state is really an outgrowth of the body economic, in fact one of its organs, the need for which and appearance of which arises from and with its own appearance and growth. And from this relation of dependence upon the body economic, the body politic can never become exempt.

12

Why, then, it may be asked, is it that we take for the greater and precedent a word drawn from the lesser and subsequent, and find in the word civilization, which expresses an analogy to the body politic, the word that serves us as a name for the body economic? The reason of this is worth noting, as it flows from an important principle in the growth of human knowledge. Things that come first in the natural order are not always first apprehended. As the human eye looks out, but not in, so the human mind as it scans the world is apt to observe what is of the superstructure of things before it observes what is of the foundation.

13

The body politic is more obvious to our eyes, and, so to speak, makes more noise in our ears, than the unseen and silent body economic, from which it proceeds and on which it depends. Thus, in the intellectual development of mankind, it and its relations are noticed sooner and receive names earlier than the body economic. And the words so made part of our mental furniture, afterwards by their analogies furnish us with words needed to express the body economic and its relations when later in intellectual growth we come to recognize it. Thus it is that while the thing civilization must in the natural order precede the body politic or state, yet when in the development of human knowledge we come to recognize this thing, we take to express it and its relations words already in use as expressive of the body politic and its relations.

14

But without at present pursuing further that record of the history of thought that lies in the meaning of words, let us endeavor to see whence comes the integration of men into a body economic and how it grows.


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