Human Civilization

Image credit: Merelize at Stockvault.

I remember my first day in Western Civ when I was an undergrad, my second college class ever. We had this middle-aged professor who asked what should have been an obvious question: what is a civilization? None of us recent high school students had an answer.

Because the answer isn’t easy. Depending on the definition, a civilization might be a collection of people who share similar customs and language. But that would exclude the Roman Empire. The Romans ruled many different places with different customs and languages. It wasn’t a Roman civilization in the sense of one language and set of shared beliefs. Rather, it was Roman because people had acquiesced to Roman rule through conquest or subjugation.

What if a civilization has to invent something like writing? Congratulations, you’ve now excluded every culture in prehistory (and every current culture that doesn’t have writing). You’ve also excluded many modern cultures that use older writing systems. Which, if we’re counting, is most of them.

Why this question was important to me.
I felt like the question was important enough at the time that I should have had an answer for it. It seems fundamental to most human existence. We don’t live alone. When I was born, a record of it was taken. I had a birth certificate. When I die, there will be another document noting my passing. These things will exist whether I ask for them or not.

Civilizations, for lack of a better term, are the things that humans create when they operate together on a long enough timeline. They used to be small, the size of cities and towns. Then they grew to encompass larger and larger territories. Historians can argue over the reasons, but at the core of it is that humans at least felt together enough to establish a working relationship. If they were lucky, they wrote some of it down in a way that people can understand after they died.

Just like my life doesn’t require a birth certificate or death certificate, civilizations don’t require anything permanent to note their passing. Like the humans that built them, a civilization can be born, live, and die without anyone knowing what happened. One great example of this is Stonehenge; nobody has a clue who built it.

With that thought in mind, I wonder often about the many people who lived and died before me. What did they learn? Was it important? What things did they know that would have been priceless to me now? Just because someone died without a record doesn’t make that life any less real than mine.

It’s easy to miss important stuff if I don’t look for it.
This should be the motto for my life. There are so many important things that happen every day outside my notice, but because I don’t appreciate them, I can’t tell what they are. Some things I have done in my life have been done for no other reason than that’s what I thought should be proper. Maybe it’s easy to just do them, or maybe I didn’t have the chance to figure out the right way to do them.

2 thoughts on “Human Civilization

  1. Re “Civilizations, for lack of a better term, are the things that humans create when they operate together on a long enough timeline.” I am so glad you used the word “operate” and not cooperate. Most of the early civilizations collapsed in very little time because they were so distasteful. Basically a bunch of swells got together and told all the others in their village “Gee, we have this cool idea … we stop working and you all pick up the slack.” Nobody else thought this was a good idea. They asked “Why would we want to do that for you?” And the swells answered “Oh, no, we are going to do a great deal for you when we have the time to do it. This isn’t for us, it is for you.”

    And the first civilization scam was born. Since such a deal must be built upon grain because it can be harvested, dried, and stored with little spoilage, this meant that all of the “others” had to become grain farmers, which was back breaking work, so they left. Not having enough workers meant the swells had to enroll some of the village toughs to make slave raids on neighboring villages, and then the toughs had to be put on the dole, too, because who was to watch over the slaves?

    You can see why this fell apart time and time again.

    It always bothered me that all “civilization” course presupposed that civilization was “a good thing” and opposition to it was mindless anarchy as opposed to what it really was which was resistance to oppression.


  2. “I wonder often about the many people who lived and died before me. What did they learn? Was it important? ”

    Conversely, I find myself wondering what future generations will experience. What will the world look like for my descendents *even for my own sons, because of human caused climate change (AGW).

    But also, assuming we’re able to survive said AGW, what will life be look like given inevitable scientific break throughs. How I would love to time travel into the future!


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