Civilization:A New History Part 1




PIMLICO      2007


Back cover

Ever since the attacks of 11th September western leaders have described a world engaged in a ‘fight for civilization’. But what do we mean by civilization? We believe in a western tradition of openness and freedom that has produced a good life for many millions of people and a culture of enormous depth and creative power. But the history of our civilization is also filled with unspeakable brutality – for every Leonardo there is a Mussolini, for every Beethoven symphony a concentration camp, for every Chrysler Building a My Lai massacre. How can we come to the defence of a civilization whose benefits seem so questionable? In this ambitious and important book Roger Osborne shows that we can only truly understand our civilization by re-examining and confronting our past, with all its glories and catastrophes. Sweeping in its scope and comprehensive in its coverage, Civilization tells the story of the Western world from its origins to the present. At such a dangerous time in the world’s history, this brilliant book is required reading.


On 21 September 2001, President George W. Bush said of America’s response to the attack on the World Trade Center, ‘This is civilization’s fight.’ On 5 December 2001, he declared, ‘I’m not moving on because we’re in a fight for civilization itself.’ And nearly 2 years later, speaking about continuing attacks on US troops in Iraq, the President said, ‘The choice is between civilization and chaos.’ Other western leaders had already adopted the same theme: on 12 September 2001 Gerhard Schroeder, Chancellor of Germany, described the previous day’s attacks as ‘a declaration of war against the entire civilized world’; and on 8 October the leader of the British Conservative Party described al-Qa’eda as ‘dedicated to the destruction of civilization’.

The events of 11 September 2001 shocked the world. They also focused our attention on what was being attacked – not only the lives of innocent office workers, not only some glass and metal buildings, but something less tangible and more difficult to define. In such a grave situation our political leaders needed to invoke something grand and noble, something strong and enduring to stand in opposition to the enormity of the offence that had been committed. Whatever we put up against the forces of terror needed to embody both the values of our society and its traditions; its current state of being and its history. The word that carries these meanings is ‘civilization’, so civilization became and has remained the entity that we wish to protect, and the concept for which we believe we must fight.

For most of the last 50 years we have allowed the concept of civilization to lie comfortably undisturbed, tucked away somewhere at the back of our minds. But the events of 11 September 2001 and its aftermath have brought this vague notion suddenly into the foreground. Catastrophic events tend to focus minds. By invoking civilization at such a tragic and dangerous time, our political leaders have tapped into a latent but powerful belief and shown how central it is to our sense of ourselves. Our civilization is a reflection of who we are and what we value, but we are not used to thinking about what civilization really means to us. Now that the idea of civilization has been hauled out into the light, it must inevitably be subjected to closer examination: if the war against terror is a war for civilization then we need a strong sense of what civilization is.

The following chapters comprise an investigation of western civilization by re-examining the events and legacy of our history. Before we embark on that history, this brief Prologue will set out our past and current understanding of the concept of civilization, the reasons why we need a re-appraisal, and the arguments in favour of a historical approach. If we are to investigate the real meaning of civilization, then we need to understand from the outset that civilization and western civilization are quite different things. Though political leaders may like to pretend that one stands for the other, it is clear that the values that westerners hold are quite different from those of others – indeed the whole idea of ‘values’ can be seen as a western invention. The civilization that was invoked in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 was not Aztec or Chinese or Polynesian, but specifically western. The civilization that we must seek to understand is our own and no one else’s.

We like to believe that western civilization is something we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Christian Church via the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Its spirit is embodied in beautiful buildings – Ionian temples, Gothic cathedrals, Art Deco skyscrapers – and in wonderful paintings, in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the novels of Cervantes and Tolstoy and the work of Galileo and Einstein. We sense that civilization is not Hamlet or Mont St Victoire or the Chrysler Building, it is not even Shakespeare or Cézanne or William van Alen; it is something to do with the spirit that inspired them and the society that allowed this spirit to manifest itself. This spirit is hard to pin down, but we believe there is some relationship between the cultural icons of the west and the values of western society, so that together they embody western civilization.

We nod in agreement when the leader of the western world tells us that our civilization has always stood for ‘openness, tolerance, freedom and justice’, but at the same time we recognize a potential difficulty. This inclusiveness that makes civilization useful to political leaders is, of course, selective; they want us to think of civilization as tolerance, freedom of expression and democracy; not poverty, family breakdown, inequality, crime and drug dependency. If civilization stands simply for everything good, then we can happily fight wars on its behalf, but we can only accept this if we are prepared to divorce the theoretical values that we hold from the practical effects of western society over its history.

Here we have a choice to make. If we look at civilization purely in conceptual terms, then we can happily accord it every virtue, while giving its opposite every vice. But when we talk of defending our civilization, we do not just mean our present way of life, we mean the values that we have gratefully inherited. Civilization is not simply a collection of virtuous concepts, it is the historical effects that those concepts have generated. But we are only too aware that the history of the western world contains an almost unbearable amount of suffering and misery, of injustice and cruelty to ourselves and to others. Do we include war and torture, slavery and genocide in our concept of civilization? And if we simply place them outside our definition of civilization, are we not in danger of misunderstanding the real meaning of our past? If we seek a real understanding of civilization, we need to ask whether the glories and disasters of our past that accompany each other through the pages of history form a necessary conjunction. Does freedom always mean the freedom to exploit others, is tolerance always matched by exclusion, is opportunity always partnered by selfishness and greed? The quest for the meaning of civilization must begin with the untangling of the threads of our history.

The word civilization was first used in 18th century France, but the western idea of a civilized society dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. During the classical period, Greeks began to see themselves as not just different from, but better than, other peoples. When Herodotus, writing in the mid-fifth century BC, referred to ‘the barbarians’, this was really a shorthand term for non-Greeks; but by the time of Aristotle, a hundred years later, barbarians and barbarous nations could be defined by certain types of behaviour – their treatment of slaves, a barter rather than money economy – that were frowned on by the civilized Greeks. Barbarians had, through their cultural habits, become lesser people than the Greeks, who were seen by themselves, and later Europeans, as the epitome of civilization.

  • Civilization derives from civis, the Latin word for citizen. Although the Romans used the word cultura or ‘culture’, rather than civilization, to describe their spiritual, intellectual, social and artistic life, to be a citizen was to be part of this culture. The two concepts of culture and civilization became, in retrospect, synonymous.
  • The definition of civilization in the west was revived by the Christian scholars of the 7th and 8th centuries. The organization of the Church, its literacy and its alliance with the likes of Charlemagne allowed Latin Christendom to become self-consciously synonymous with western civilization.

The revival of interest in the classical world before and during the Renaissance re-ignited the idea of a distinctly European civilization reaching back beyond, and existing parallel to, Christianity. Western Europeans gave themselves a noble tradition by adopting Sophocles, Plato, Virgil and Seneca, as well as Christ and St Paul, as their cultural ancestors. The discovery of a New World across the Atlantic, and of multitudes of seemingly primitive peoples in all parts of the world, encouraged 16th century Europeans to identify even more strongly with the ancient Greeks and Romans – civilized people surrounded by barbarians.

  • By the 18th century, when the word civilization was coined, European intellectuals were in a state of optimism about the essential goodness of the world, the grace of God, and the ability of the rational mind to categorize all knowledge and solve humanity’s problems.
  • The notion of civilized behaviour took hold as French-inspired politesse converted landowners, merchants and traders into refined gentlefolk with correct, if not exquisite, manners.
  • During the Age of Progress and the growth of the British empire, Macaulay, Carlyle and Buckle showed how the wonders of ancient Greece and Rome, of Venice and Florence, were of a piece with each other and with the marvels of industrial Britain.
  • Henry Thomas Buckle showed, in 1857, how civilization could be understood as a great chain of history whose first link, the civilization of ancient Egypt, led to Greece and on through Rome, the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and up to the present glories of British society.
  • Those who lay outside this sacred line were discounted as barbarian – and those within as civilized.

The civilized world of Buckle’s time was not only self-defining, it had a mission ‘to suppress, to convert and to civilise’ the rest of humanity, justifying the European colonization of the world as a beneficial mixture of evangelism and moral superiority. The boundary between civilization and the uncivilized was easily drawn, even if it involved some sleight of hand when dealing with Moghul maharajas, and Chinese and Japanese emperors: civilization was white and Christian and everything else was barbarian.

  • The concept of western civilization as a continuous (if occasionally interrupted) chain of history was strengthened by renewed interest in both the classical and renaissance worlds.
  • 18th and 19th century gentleman-scholars toured the continent and went south to unearth for themselves the wonders of the past.
  • Pieces of pottery, statues, carved stones, paintings and mosaics were transported north in huge quantities, and in hundreds of north European towns museums were built to accommodate finds brought from Egypt, Greece, Rome and Florence.
  • In the 1890s European colonization expanded dramatically and it seemed likely that the whole world would soon feel the benefits of western civilization.
  • This comfortable way of thinking about civilization came to a rude end in the Great War of 1914-18, when the deaths of 10 million soldiers, and the maiming and blinding of uncounted others, exposed it as a grand illusion.
  • The 1914-18 war was either a conflict between groups of civilized nations, or a fight between the civilized nations (France, Britain, America) and those who had, quite suddenly, become uncivilized (Germany and Austria).
  • Either way it was unarguably as much the product of western civilization as steam trains and Michelangelo’s David.

How could civilization have come to this? How could so many millions have died so unnecessarily? The most persuasive answer came not from historians or philosophers, but from an entirely unexpected quarter. Sigmund Freud, whose views on human psychology were beginning to spread across Europe, had a startling and pessimistic message for humanity. Freud said of the First World War, ‘It is not that we sank so low, but that we never came so high as we thought.’

Human beings, Sigmund Freud argued, are prey to the base and brutal instincts that we inherit from our animal and primitive human ancestors. Civilization tames the brutal savagery that lies within all us, but it cannot rid us of our instincts. Occasionally these break through the fragile veneer and we commit extraordinary acts of violence. Freud’s explanation of the carnage of the Great War forged a relationship between individual psychology and the nature of civilization, and made psychoanalysis the dominant method for exploring that relationship. The boundaries of civilization were no longer drawn on a map around western Europe and North America, or in a historical space around ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but in ourselves. We became both the barbarians and the civilized.

  • Freud’s theories overturned the 19th century idea of civilization as a benign force and demolished the idea of human progress.
  • St Augustine’s words: ‘Take away the barriers created by laws, men’s brazen capacity to do harm, their urge to self-indulgence, would rage to the full’ could have been written by Freud, whose Augustinian ideas about civilization focused attention away from society and on to the individual.
  • Ever since then, the first place we have looked to find answers to the great questions of war, cruelty, progress, hatred, creativity and destruction has been the individual human mind.

More conventional historians … (to be continued)

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