This essay deals with the notion of civilization and what it means to be considered civilized. A definition is offered, and it is, consequently, applied to the individual himself, though a conclusion is reached that being considered civilized is a term which evades being defined succinctly, but rather, it encompasses numerous other meanings in itself.
Keywords: civilization, definition, civilized
The term that is usually contradicted to the notion of civilization is that of savagery, of something that lacks refinement, enlightenment, social elevation and advanced culture. When one thinks of it, civilization arises only in terms of pertaining to official living areas, with concentrated population, thus encompassing the meaning of bigger or smaller, organized and ordered clusters of settlements, where the inhabitants must negotiate their existence in these establishments, by following rules and regulations, which in turn, allow them to refer to themselves as civilized.
Just like in the animal world, there has always existed an inextricable bond between living organisms of not only different, but also the same species. Throughout the centuries, these global connections have led to an “essential collective identity of humanity,” where the political, social and environmental unification has led to the idea of civilization (Bar-Yam 2). Initially, civilization was defined in terms of white people versus people of color, which was abusive and discriminatory. It stated that “the test of the classic standard of civilization was ‘government capable of controlling white men under which white civilization can exist’” (Donnelly 4). However, as the term developed alongside the world itself, this notion of reforming what were perceived to be savages, simply for their simplistic life of honoring nature and polytheism, came to mean civilization, which encompassed functioning in a larger social group, following rules and regulations, and overall, existing peacefully in an organized society. Bar-Yam states that “our complex social environment is consistent with identifying global human civilization as an organism capable of complex behavior that protects its components (us) and which should be capable of responding eﬀectively to complex environmental demands” (1). Thus, the term civilization refers to a developed, highly functional society, with individuals of decidedly moral and emotional social standards.
In connection with this, it is relevant to acknowledge and comprehend the idea of what makes a person civilized. Throughout the ages, this has been a question that has puzzled artists and writers, philosophers and thinkers, all of them providing a personal answer that could, but also did not have to, apply to the entire human kind. John Searle states that this definition is dependent on and derived from the mental phenomena and behavior of individual human beings (3). Mere human goodness does not constitute being considered civilized. If one takes into account the Aztec civilization, that weas considered highly developed, yet they resorted to human sacrifice, which is something that definitely does not fall under the category of civilization.
Often, people tend to confuse the term civilized with the term cultured, but taking into account people who have done deeds that marred human history, and were still considered civilized and cultured by their peers before their crimes were revealed, it is possible to conclude that defining what makes a person civilized is a difficult endeavor. Being simply civilized means very little. It would refer to merely being a part of a large, socio-historical group of following basic rules of existence. For a person to be considered truly civilized, he would have to be in possession of numerous other human qualities, such as empathy, altruism, fairness and an overall love of his fellow man. This is what would truly deem a person civilized.
Thus, the term civilization and civilized are not easy to define, as they encompass numerous meanings within themselves, some of which are contradictory, such as how can a society which boasts being highly civilized have pedophiles and murderers within its midst? Nonetheless, even with these flaws, humans still prefer to think themselves and their settlements highly organized and orderly, showing, if not intrinsically, but then extrinsically, what civilization should be like.
Bar-Yam, Y. (1997). “Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, a Complexity Profile.” December 1997. Web. 4 Oct 2012.
Donnelly, J. (1998). “Human Rights: A New Standard of Civilization?” International Affairs 74, I, 1-24.
Searle, J. (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.