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.