What is Civilization?

Is civilization worth defending? Should we aim to conform to it so that we can be considered civilized? Should we aim to bring our children up according to its norms so that they can also be considered civilized? Should we try to make our country and our world as civilized as possible? The chances are that most people will answer in the affirmative to all of these questions. Most people, even in the dark ages in which we live, consider being civilized a good thing. The problem is that most people have no clear understanding of what civilization is or, perhaps as important, what it is not. It might be a good exercise, therefore, to begin to seek a clear definition of the thing to which most of us are happy to subscribe.

What is civilization?

Perhaps the best place to start would be to consult the oracle of oracles, the palantir of all palantiri, by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia. According to this seemingly omniscient cyber-seer, civilization is defined most broadly as “any complex state society characterized by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.” Along with this broad definition, Wikipedia adds other key characteristics of civilization as being “urbanization (or the development of cities), centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon agriculture and expansionism.”

At this point, some of us might be questioning whether we still see civilization as something that is good and worth defending. How many of us would fight for civilization if we thought that we were fighting for the increasing complexity of the state and its social hierarchy? How many of the agrarians amongst us would fight for a civilization that defined itself as being separate from the natural environment and as seeking to dominate it? How many of us would fight for incessant urbanization, centralization, and the passive domestication of ourselves alongside the domestication of other organisms? How many of us had realized that being civilized was the willingness to make ourselves cattle in the service of increasingly complex social hierarchies? How many of us thought that civilization was marked by the sort of “specialization of labour” that had reduced human labour to that of a disposable cog in an increasingly large and complex wheel? How many of us guessed that civilization was defined by culturally ingrained progressivism and other supremacist ideologies? How many of us perceived that taxation was civilized and that increasing taxation was therefore and presumably a mark of increasing civilization?

If this is civilization we would be justified in hoping that civilization would go to hell and that, indeed, we would be equally justified in believing that it was all too evidently going there.

We would, however, be wrong to abandon civilization because of such woefully awry definitions of it. A closer look at Wikipedia’s entry on “civilization” will show that the devil is indeed in the detail. We discover, if we scroll down, that “civilization” is described as a concept that has its origins in the Enlightenment. According to Wikipedia, “civilization” is merely an ideological construct of the eighteenth century! It is not a reality in itself but an idea by which an irreligious and irrational “rationalism” can explain and explain away, to its own prejudiced satisfaction, the history of human culture. Amongst those cited by Wikipedia as crucial to the definition of “civilization” are the social Darwinists, on the one side, and the followers of Rousseau, on the other. Civilization is, therefore, defined either by those who advocate a secularist understanding of “progress” or those who call for its rejection through the secularist idealization of so-called noble savagery. Other thinkers are cited to buttress this materialistic understanding of “civilization,” from Spengler to Toynbee, but one will search in vain for the traditional Christian understanding of civilization.

Having seen how civilization is defined on the internet (the one Thing to rule them all and in the darkness bind them), let us distinguish between such a definition and the Christian understanding of what it is to be civilized.

True civilization is a culture animated by the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The authentic presence of goodness is love and its manifestation in virtue; the authentic presence of truth is to be seen in the culture’s conformity to reason, properly understood as an engagement with the objective reality beyond the confines of egocentric subjectivism; the authentic presence of the beautiful is a reverence for the beauty of Creation and creativity, properly perceived in the outpouring of gratitude which is the fruit of humility. A society informed and animated by such a culture is truly civilized.

A civilized man is not animated by a desire to shape himself into an image of his “self,” which is itself unknowable, but is willing to allow himself to be shaped into an image of the perfect Person beyond himself. Responding to Christ’s Trinitarian description of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, a civilized man surrenders himself to the Way of Virtue (Love), the Truth of Reason, and the Life of Grace (Beauty). In short and in sum, civilization manifests itself in the conforming of the will of Man to the will of the Giver of all goodness, truth and beauty.

What is civilization? It is the conforming of the heart of humanity to the Heart of Christ. All other definitions of civilization are not only wrong but are ultimately uncivilized!

Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 5, 2014 on Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is “The Consummation of the Empire” painted  by Thomas Cole in 1835-6.

Joseph Pearce


Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN. He is also the co-editor of the St. Austin Review, executive director of Catholic Courses and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. His book on Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the prestigious Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Whenever one encounters a definition that begins “True civilization is…” or “True freedom is…” one can be sure one is about to be offered a tactical definition, not a description of how the word is actually used in the language. Often enough, it is a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Sometimes, the search for a definition is itself misguided; one recalls Wittgenstein’s example of the word “game.” He argues that it is impossible to devise some definition of “game” that includes everything that we call games, but excludes everything that we do not. His point is that we do not need a definition and we get on very well without one, for we are all familiar with enough things that are games and enough things that are not games to be able to categorize new activities as either games or not.

    In short, a word need not have an essential core meaning that is common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing.” We have to see how it functions in a specific social situation.

    • Michael B Rooke

      Here are some Definitions of Civilisation
      Merriam Webster
      : the condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organizing a society and care about art, science, etc.
      : a particular well-organized and developed society
      : all the societies of the world

      Oxford Dictionaries
      The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced:

      A civilization (or civilisation in British English) most broadly is any complex state society characterized by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.

      Joseph Pearce
      (True) civilization is a culture animated by the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful

      Only Joseph Pearce describes what civilisation is.

      • Tamsin

        The Oxford definition is quite bloodless. At least the Merriam definition gives a nod to an ability to define what is good, true, and beautiful, in their use of the word “well-organized”.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        A good test is to substitute the definition for the thing defined in passages in which the word is used, say in books or newspaper articles and see how well it fits into its context.

    • Tamsin

      Interesting point about tactical definitions, which describes the Wikipedia entry very well.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I suppose the Wiki definition tries to include the etymology of the word, which is from Latin “civitas” meaning a polity or self-governing community. Thus, the Jus Civile or Civil Law is the law of the Roman civitas or state.

        The word “citizen” has the same root, as does “civility,” just as “urbane” comes from “urbs” = a town. The notion, one supposes, is that city-dwellers are thought of as more refined and polished than rustics. “Boorish” comes from “boor” = a peasant. “Pagan” comes from “pagus” = a country-dweller.

    • Vincent

      Well, someone ought to tell Mr. Wittgenstein followers that we’re not really getting along well without a definition right now.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Language has innumerable uses and no definition can capture all of the uses of a word. Wittgenstein offers these examples:

        “Forming and testing a hypothesis—
        Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams—
        Making up a story; and reading it—
        Singing catches—
        Guessing riddles—
        Making a joke; telling it—
        Solving a problem in practical arithmetic—
        Translating from one language into another—
        Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.
        —It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language
        and of the ways they are used”

        Then again,

        “Think of exclamations alone, with their completely different functions.


        Are you inclined still to call these words “names of objects”?”

  • Fred

    I love the Catholic Church, but I will say one faith that I admire is the truly communal nature of the Amish people. Not the aspects of shunning the modern world (as appealing as that sounds some times), but how they live a life truly dependent upon and help one another beyond just the spiritual but also in the every day toils of living. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had civilizations that connected people that way, rather than being dependent on faceless and nameless bureaucracies with seemingly no accountability.

    • ForChristAlone

      Only a group like that whose children were murdered in their own school house by a deranged man could then assemble en masse and go to the home of the madman’s family to offer their forgiveness and succor. Christian love in pure form is how I view it.

    • Howard

      I sometimes wonder what they would be in a better world in which Christendom were not divided. I think there would still be something like an Amish community. It would be something halfway between a “normal” lay community and a religious community; something like a resident 3rd-order community. Is there anything like that presently?

      • Vincent

        There was an attempt by the founder of the journal Integrity, Ed Willock, called Marycrest in the 1940’s and 50’s. He really took the Papal Encyclicals to heart and tried to find Catholic answers to modern problems.

  • Paul

    Perhaps the term “society” is more apt than “civilisation” as described on the internet ? This is not a case of semantics because “civilisation” , as the term denotes, embodies the quality of being civil (to one another). The only avenue of being civil to each other is to develop a sense of conscience. And this can best be instilled by the belief in a metaphysical power (aka God) that is greater than all of us and , ultimately, we are all answerable to Him.

    • guest

      I am so inspired by this article and by the comments. Thank you Mr. Peace. As a prodigal returning to Catholicism, I have realised what a true treasure is. I can understand how Alexandr Solzhenitzyn must have felt a similar relief and joy upon returning to his mother’s Christian faith from a fascist world of brutal barbarism.

      Even JurgenHabermas, a prominent neo-Marxist, a postmodernist critic, NOW, surprisingly, sings the praises of Christianity” (Polity Press, 2006):

      Full Text: “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct
      heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation.

      To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
      (Habermas’s book “Time of Transitions p. 150).”

      “Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      It is worth noting that “civil” comes from the Latin “civitas,” a city, just as “politeness” comes from the Greek word for city – πτόλις.

  • Tamsin

    A civilized man is… willing to allow himself to be shaped into an image of the perfect Person beyond himself.

    Which goes to the point that a civilization needs to agree on a perfect Person. The more perfect the Person, the better the civilization.

  • “True civilization is a culture animated by the transcendental trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
    That is very insightful. I like that. You expanded my knowledge here. Thanks.

  • bonaventure

    There is no civilization without Christ. Consciously or anonymously.

    If Christ, who alone reveals man to himself, is deliberately rejected, all that’s left is a culture of death. Witness the direction toward which our contraceptive culture is going; witness the direction in which Islamist cultures are going; witness the direction in which atheist regimes have gone in the past.

    No Christ = no civilization = no foundations for society.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      And yet, as Sir Harold Nicholson wrote of the Greek and Roman civilisations, “The Greek ideal of the beautiful and the good, although it was realised for no more than eighty short years, has left behind it an imperishable memory. We may deplore their indifference to suffering and untruthfulness, yet it was they who discovered and bequeathed the bliss of abstract speculation and aesthetic delight. The treacheries and tragedies that marred the dominance of Athens are to our minds barbaric. Yet still she shines for us, violet-crowned and unblemished, serene and formidable, across two thousand years of fog and strife.

      The Roman cult of dignity may to us seem ponderous, even as their enjoyments were obscene. Yet their genius for equity and order has left its impress upon their former subjects, and those countries and areas which never experienced Roman conquest and administration have never since succeeded in becoming wholly European. There was much in the Roman type of civility that was clumsy and gross: yet they left behind them a lapidary respect for law, contract, and faithfulness.”

  • Howard

    To say that only Christian societies can be civilized is not very different from saying only Christians are truly human. I believe that Christianity enables a society or a person to experience the maximum of what Pope Benedict XVI called “authentic integral human development” — or more briefly, to flourish — but although grace perfects nature, the nature must be there to begin with.

    I’ll stick with the take on civilization that I chanced upon in the 1980’s: it is the golden mean between being a wild savage and being a domesticated animal. (I have in mind the Far Sides cartoon that shows a pack of wolves in the forest looking at the first dog in the small clearing. “That’s Bob, all right, but look at the vacant stare, the goofy grin. He’s been domesticated, I tell you!”)