Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What is Civilization?

Russ Smith, my friend and fellow parishioner with whom I have debated monarchy in the past, provided an interesting challenge to a conventional use of the term “civilization.” In the good ol’ days, especially before colonialism became a bad thing, terms like “civilization” and “civilized” carried a moral connotation that implicitly judged all other human societies against the superior standard of western Civilization. Russ objects to this sort of Eurocentrism, and wants to reserve the term to a technical use that denotes a particular form of social organization.

A Confusion of Categories?

Russ writes, “the term ‘civilization’ is a description of a particular type of order… this view of civilization demands that the term be value-neutral… The problem with using the term ‘civilized’ in both a descriptive and evaluative sense is that it blurs that distinction between what all civilizations must share and the particulars that set them apart from each other… ‘civilized’ is properly a category of order… [not] a category of justice.”

To be clear, Russ does not object to Eurocentrist language because he is a cultural relativist. He clearly wants to call some civilizations better and others worse. Russ is concerned that “the [moral] standard of evaluation be external to the civilization in question and objective.” I share with Russ this concern that we not conflate the ideal with an imperfect historical instance.

Yet, as a Christian who accepts the biblical revelation, I would not characterize the antitheses between Greek-Barbarian and Jew-Gentile (under the old covenant) the same way. The Greeks were never the chosen people of God, but the Hebrews were. Furthermore, the Jewish order (c. 2000 B.C. - A.D. 70) was the historical instantiation of the Kingdom of God. I would further say that Christian civilization has succeeded OT Jewish civilization as the present social instantiation of God’s Kingdom. In this present phase of the Kingdom, the locus of order has moved from a national religio-political center (Earthly Jerusalem) to a universal religio-political center (Heavenly Jerusalem).

As something of a Christian Platonist, I have no problem with saying that a particular thing can participate in an ideal without being absolutely identical to the ideal itself. As something of a Christian Aristotelian, I can say that something can be in the process of actualizing its potential or achieving its perfection without being perfect. As a Christian who confesses the communion of the saints, I can say that the historic Church Militant is presently identified with the Church Expectant and will on the Last Day become the Church Triumphant, yet there is only one Church.

It may be that the present historic Church is sinful, incomplete and imperfect. The eschatological Church will be spotless and perfect. Without a realistic metaphysic of identity guaranteeing continuity, there would be (at least) three separate churches. However, because there is one Lord who has one Body, there is one Church (Eph. 4:4-5). In Christ all things have their being (Col. 1:17) and the Church being his fullness (Eph. 1:23) is one.

Civilization Defined

Returning to the question at hand, “What is civilization,” Russ has offered a working definition of his value-free notion of civilization. Russ says that civilization is “a way of ordering groups of people that are too large to be managed as individuals.” Developing his thought further, Russ explains that this means that the disparate interests that inevitably arise in a large population must lead to a reduced degree of homogeneity. Consequently, impersonal management techniques must be developed to neutrally arbitrate between the differences. Now, I’m sure Russ does not want to be held too strictly to this definition, and he is free to offer a fuller and more nuanced definition any time he wants.

Because my definition of civilization is assuredly not his, I’d like to briefly consider the four elements of Russ’ proffered definition: large population, disparate interests, reduced homogeneity, and impersonal management technique. Further, I’d like to consider whether these elements are as value free as Russ suggests.

As far as population goes, Russ has indicated that some sort of “civilization barrier” is broken when a population grows larger than a moderately sized town. So, apparently the rules of civilization come into play when we deal with groups composed of several thousands to several hundreds of millions. That’s quite a range!

Last year, Wal-Mart the largest company in the world, employed about 2,055,000 employees. The population of ancient Egypt (c. 2000 B.C.) was this size. Wal-Mart employs people of every age, sex, race, class and religious persuasion. In order to manage their employees, Wal-Mart executives employ impersonal management techniques in the form of human resource policy. So, according to Russ’ definition, it would seem that Wal-Mart is a civilization!

But, of course Russ doesn’t think Wal-Mart is a civilization, and neither do I. The definition we have been considering is incomplete. In addition to a large population and all that comes with it, a particular human society must possess an additional quality that sets it apart as a civilization. This quality must be some general interest or purpose that binds its people into a unity. And this common purpose must be able to trump any special interest that might threaten the integrity of the whole.

(To be continued…)


Jack said...

The Wal-Mart example is intriguing. I am not sure where you are going with that and I don't want to steal your thunder so forgive me if I make some of the points you were planning on making yourself.

As I see it, the modern concept of corporations owes much to the concept of civilization. Though you are right in saying we cannot consider Wal-Mart a civilization, I would argue that the proper analogy would be to consider Wal-Mart as an abstraction of a city. Just as many cities can make up a civilization (though in some older civilizations one city was sufficient) so Wal-Mart is part of the make-up of our civilization in some similar ways that actual cities are, such as Los Angeles.

Now, of course, the analogy is not perfect. Corporations are not exactly like cities, mostly because their scope of activity is limited to the economic sphere, whereas cities have a much more comprehensive scope. This however, is less true in other cultures such as Japan and (I think) Germany where the corporation provides many of the services we tend to think of as belonging to the city. This was also the case in some early corporations in our own culture; see, for instance, Russell Kirk's discussion of the Pullman towns in Roots of American Order. But this is getting somewhat off topic. Both cities and corporations take up some of the slack that more intimate structures provide on smaller scales. Furthermore, they both do so by means, (as you note), of a more disinterested policy which is the halmark of civilization. Thus the proper distinction is not between Wal-Mart and Los Angeles (though I admit that they are distinct) but between say Wal-Mart and Joe's Hardware. This contrast is not exactly the same as the contrast between Los Angeles and Mayberry, but the parallels are close enough for my point.

And what is that point? Well, let's push the Wal-Mart analogy a bit further. There are many who use the word "corporation" in much the same value-laden way that Gilder was using the term "civilization" in your earlier post. The difference that they tend associate it with negative values whereas Gilder's usage is mostly positive is irrelevant, because both usages are turning a descriptive term into one of evaluation. People that suggest that Wal-Mart is bad for society simply because it is a corporation are guilty of much the same confusion as people who suggest that civilization is good just because it is civilized. However, the discussion is much clearer if we can say that Wal-Mart is a good corporation or a bad one based on some external standard. This would be analogous to saying that Greek civilization is better than Persian civilization because the latter had less freedom.

Jack said...

One further point: You seem to be suggesting that my preference for a value-neutral application of the term "civilization" implies that the management of such a civilization must itself be value-neutral. That is not my point at all. When I say that the scale of a city demands an impartial appeal to principle, that does not mean that the principles are somehow supposed to be value-neutral. A Christian city, for instance, would rightly condemn those behaviors, such as polygamy or adultery, that undermine the Christian concept of marriage, regardless of what the Muslims or hippies inhabiting it might prefer. However, a Christian city and a Muslim city are both cities and would properly be understood as components of their respective civilizations.

Andrew Matthews said...

Don't worry, Russ. I haven't forgotten this conversation!

Andrew Matthews said...

Russ, I've written a second part to this article that partially addresses the issues you've raised here.

One point I didn't get to address in the second part is your concern that I'm implying you think the principles that govern civilization are value neutral.

Since you advocate a kind of theonomy, this is of course absurd. However, implicit in your definition of civilization is an acceptance of Ellul's critique of the city as a technocracy. Whatever the strengths of Ellul's book, the Meaning of the City, may be, I think his reading of technocracy back into Genesis is anachronistic.

Technocracy is not a value neutral idea. It is in fact the reign of unbelief in the guise of science, rationality, and bureaucracy.

"Impersonal" is different from "impartial." Impersonal management is obviously not the same thing as impartial justice, and neither implies the other.

Jack said...

With regard to Ellul: fair enough. I have similar problems with his critique of technocracy which he sometimes seems to equate with technology as such.

However, I don't think Ellul's critique is implicit in my definition of civilization. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he is making precisely the same error as Gilder, but in the negative direction. I was actually going to make that point in my Wal-Mart analogy, but I thought it was already getting a bit too far off topic.

My definition of civilization is simply that it is the organization of society that grows out of living in cities. That might be a bit too broad for some purposes, and I am open to refinements, but I mainly want to avoid the equation of civlization with the Good. That leads to difficulties when trying to compare two civilizations because the temptation to equate the prefered civlization with Civilization and to disparage the other as "uncivilized" is almost overwhelming. Yet such a conflation is demonstrably silly and leads to trying to define civilzation (as we are now doing) rather than sticking to the original point of describing why this civilization is good and the other not so good. In other words, it is an attempt to appropriate and even monopolize a useful concept, in the process making it much less useful. We already have words like "good" and "bad" and there are plenty of other, more specific, value-laden words if we need to go into detail.

Now, I am open to the assertion that different social structures (such as civilization and tribalism, for instance) can themselves be compared, which I think is what you are trying to do in some places. But that is not what Gilder was doing, which caused my original objection. I will reserve further elaboration on this to my comments on your other post, which I am still contemplating.