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What is a Civilization?  

A civilization is a type of human community or society that has achieved a certain level of culture. It is contrasted with primitive communities lacking this culture. The culture must be comparatively advanced or developed. It would include large-scale political organization and sophisticated expression in a medium such as writing. The term “advanced” implies (perhaps wrongly) that the culture is superior to others.

Arnold Toynbee, the noted British historian, saw civilization as a society which had advanced to a certain level. A “society“ provided “common ground” for human interaction; it was a self-contained community. Searching world history, Toynbee found twenty-one societies which had become civilizations. They were the Egyptiac, Sumeric, Minoan, Hittite, Babylonic, Syriac, Hellenic, Western Christian, Orthodox Christian, Russian Orthodox, Arabic, Iranic, Sinic, Indic, Far Eastern, Japanese Far eastern, Hindu, Mayan, Andean, Yucatec, and Mexic civilizations. Most of these civilizations were extinct. A few yet survive.

The scheme of civilization in Five Epochs of Civilizations departs from the Toynbee model in several respects. First, while Toynbee sees civilizations as geographically distinct regional cultures, McGaughey sees civilization as a stage in a single world-wide culture. Some peoples come to this stage of cultural development earlier or later than others. Second, Toynbee sees civilization as being a society - i.e., a body of people who are politically and culturally organized. McGaughey puts emphasis on the society’s culture. In this scheme, a civilization is a certain cultural configuration, regardless of where it might be embodied.

Civilizations are most easily understood when particular communities of advanced culture spring up in the midst of primitive societies. For example, the city of Babylon became the center of an empire during the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) Founded by Amorite tribesmen in the late 3rd millennium B.C., it was one of several successor states to the empire of Sumer and Akkad. King Hammurabi of Babylon united most of them during a nine-year military campaign. Then, seven years after Hammurabi’s death, Kassite barbarians attacked the city and its empire fell. Even so, the Babylonian “civilization”, in a sense, lasted for several more centuries since the culture developed under Hammurabi remained dominant in the region during that time.

So it is that people feel comfortable talking about an “Egyptian”, or “Hittite”, or “Minoan” civilization whose societies achieved an advanced culture and then fell. Some reverted to a primitive state while others (such as Egypt) merely lost their political integrity. When we come to the modern era, however, it is less clear who belongs to what civilization since cultures and peoples are substantially intermingled. Toynbee supposes that most present-day Americans and Europeans belong to a “western” (or western Christian) civilization which began at the time of Charlemagne. If so, the civilization is so extended and diffuse in culture as to lack real identity.

The scheme of regional civilizations breaks down at this point. If human communities have substantial contact and awareness of each other, then their “civilizations” must be contaminated with many alien influences. Eventually, the several regional cultures would form a common culture or amalgamation of cultures to varying degrees. It makes more sense, under those circumstances, to talk of a single culture which is worldwide and to differentiate between civilizations on the basis of their degree of cultural progress. Civilizations would describe how this society was organized at particular stages in its history. Each stage would loosely be associated with a particular period of years, recognizing that some communities “progress” more rapidly to a new stage than others do.

The scheme of civilizations in the book, Five Epochs of Civilizations, divides world history into five stages, or epochs, after the first civilized states arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia five to six thousand years ago. Each epoch is associated with a particular civilization (conveniently labeled Civilization I, Civilization II, Civilization III, Civilization IV, and Civilization V). Strictly speaking, civilization is a cultural configuration while an epoch is, of course, a period of time. In a practical sense, however, the two terms are synonymous. An epoch changes when the civilization changes.

Because human culture is subject to various interpretations, there is a need for definitions to introduce some rigor into the discussion. The scheme presented in Five Epochs of Civilization employs two sets of variables in defining civilizations. First would be the type of communication technique that was dominant in its public discussions. Second would be the institution that was dominant in society. The element that was dominant also became fully developed at the beginning of its epoch in history.

And so, in tabular form, we have the following scheme of civilizations:


name of civilization
communication technology
institution of power
Civilization I
ideographic writing
imperial government
Civilization II
alphabetic writing
world religion
Civilization III
commerce and education
Civilization IV
electronic recording and broadcasting
media of news and entertainment
Civilization V
the internet


This scheme of civilization offends certain people. Some believe that since civilizations have traditionally had a regional association, the idea of worldwide civilizations falls outside their scope of definition; and, really, some other word ought to be used. Others are offended by the idea that popular entertainment, coming in the fourth epoch of world history, would seem to be more advanced, historically speaking, than the literate culture that preceded it. Are those young men and women walking around with headphones and wearing sports jerseys and jeans really more “civilized” than the person who relaxes with a good novel?

In response, let us say that civilizations are not necessarily better or worse than others but merely different. One can recognize the culture of Victorian England - Civilization III - in its emphasis upon literary excellence, education, and commercial enterprise. Today’s popular culture - Civilization IV - would be obsessed with the images, sounds, and personalities that have been broadcast to the masses through motion pictures, radio, and television. They are, indeed, two civilizations.

Societies throughout the world experience a transition from one form of culture to another. As much as some would say, for instance, that modern-day China has a “Chinese culture” inspired by Confucius and others, it also belongs to the international culture of rock ‘n roll music, high fashion, and multinational business. Scholars may debate which scheme of civilization is analytically more useful or is closer to known historical facts.

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