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.
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…)