What Defines Civilization

‘Civilized’ is a word often used too loosely, as can any nation truly call itself civilized – if you dig deep enough under the surface.

Powerful nations and states, throughout history, have revelled in the hubris of calling themselves civilized, and those they vanquished, barbarians. The Romans, for instance, had their great writers to record the noble feats of imperial Rome. Though the Christians thrown to the lions for the amusement of ‘noble’ Romans would not have seen anything but an evil, baying, uncivilized mob.

In the Middle Ages, throughout Europe, the Christian Church was happily burning people to death considered heretics. The Church being the civilized authority everyone was expected to look up to.

In England around 200 years ago (not ancient history, relatively), women (not men) were not only hung for crimes less than murder, but, after death, a fire would be lit under them, so as not to even give them the dignity of a burial (cremation was illegal in England at this time in the cases of normal deaths).

Jumping forward to the 20th Century we had the carnage of two World Wars, with supposedly civilized countries destroying millions of human beings, and World War Two reached new depths in terms of what had gone before regarding mass killings – Belsen, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Warsaw Ghetto, Pearl Harbor, Dresden, Tokyo, Stalingrad.

In the modern age, torture has recently made a comeback in the Western world with suspected Islamic terrorists treated like suspects from the Middle Ages. While in Iran, which as Persia was one of the great early civilizations, gays and adulterers are given death sentences. No doubt, Iran thinks it is civilized and superior to the West, and vice versa.

It is not, however, just how man treats man which should determine civilized behaviour. The great Mahatma Gandhi wanted kindness to animals as well as humans in society. We treat animals even worse than we treat each other, and we also take this beautiful planet of ours for granted. At the moment we are going through a dark phase in history, and maybe the credit crunch was part of our punishment. Although global warming could make monetary fears seem almost irrelevant – and be a self-inflicted disaster.

But, from such a low base, at least we have the opportunity to finally get our mentality out of the caves, because though technologically we have advanced since the Stone Age, I’m not sure the human psyche has really evolved. Those basic, negative emotions of greed, jealousy, and aggression still seem to dominate. It’s time to really enter the 21st Century, and having roads, electricity, and nice art galleries is not really enough to call a society civilized.