Defining Civilization

Will Durant provided us a very good, brief summary of what civilization really is: “Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.”

Civilization, the city and the political state are all highly interrelated. Most anthropologist, historians and sociologist would agree that all three develop nearly simultaneously.

A civilized city whether it creates or is created by a civilization, has some primary characteristics: a large population of at least around 5000 people. The urban area is densely settled. The urban population is generally not engaged in agricultural work; rather they produce arts, crafts or are administrators, record-keepers, and other specialists. This urban population is supported by the food production of others, usually in the surrounding hinterland. The agricultural population exchanges goods and services with the urban dwellers. Therefore, the city is part of a complex system of urban and non-urban production and exchange. The exchange may be market-based or more directed through central controls, such as thorough taxes or tribute. Regardless of how the exchange is managed, urban and hinterland populations are interdependent on each other for specialized goods and services.

Also a city usually has some kind of public spaces set aside for public business and an infrastructure to move goods and people from the outland into the urban center and back again.

The political state has a direct relation with cities and civilization. To the Greeks, the city and the state were one in the same, thus the Greek’s very concept of civilization was rooted in the poleis, or city-state. The characteristics of the state are those of the city, but also with a political organization as well. A state has some central authority or government, an administrative hierarchy, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to both enforce laws and defend the state. The state has some form of legal coercive power, however limited, on its citizens. The state also collects taxes, maintains territorial sovereignty, and finally a state has the right, ability and power to make decisions regarding is sovereign territory.

In addition, a civilization will have full-time labor specialization among a large population, the concentration of surplus of goods, or wealth, in the hands of large institutions like an organized religion structure or government or into the hands of certain individuals like a monarch, or aristocrats or both, leading to a class structure. Also civilizations have a state organization with political hierarchies of power and administration. Civil and economic organizations are fueled by writing, arithmetic and other arts and sciences. Secondary civilization traits are monumental public works such as temples, palaces, city walls and gates, and may include long-distance trade, standardized and monumental artwork.


Whitehouse, Ruth; Wilkins, John. The Making of Civilization: History Discovered Through Archaeology New York: Knopf, 1986. Childe, V. Gordon. Man Makes Himself London: Coronet Books, 2003.

Childe, V. Gordon. Man Makes Himself (London: Coronet Books, 2003.)


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