“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it…” Sir Kenneth Clark’s use of the term “civilisation” in his series with the same name illustrates the ambiguity of the concept; it can therefore perhaps best be described as an Idealtypus similar to Max Weber’s concept, in that its legitimacy can be determined only in terms of adequacy.
Civilisation has been described as a set of values of a people or society; it can indicate a level of economic development, and can also point to a certain level of intellectual and artistic excellence. Furthermore, it can denote a boastful ideal of sophisticated civility, distinguishing our own regular habits from those of our neighbours. The distinction between what is supposed to be civilised or not has often bordered upon the xenophobic, and has sometimes also very much been an expression of that: not only the ancient Greeks distinguished between themselves and other peoples that they saw as barbarians.
Another distinction of importance in more modern times is the notion that the German peoples are cultured whereas as French and Anglo-Saxons only display a superficial civilisation without depth; a notion that played a significant role in propaganda during the First World War.
But what are the roots of civilisation and how did particular civilisations emerge in the ancient world? What do we today have in common with early civilisations, and what values do we still uphold that have their origins in the ancient world?
What explains the rise and fall of civilisations, and how did the present Western ideals of civilisation emerge? In what way have the alleged values of past civilisations re-emerged as exemplary models in a new context? How true is the popular golden age stereotype “already the Greeks”? What is really unique about Greek culture and which cultures influenced what we recognise as Greek?
The supposed superiority of Western culture and its achievements was for a long time taken for granted. However, in the era of globalisation countries like India and China are already challenging Western dominance.
Rome conquered Greece, but it is said that Greek culture conquered Rome; will we see new civilisations emerge and dominate the world, or will the challengers instead in practice become Westernised as Western technology and capitalism triumphs? And will then “Greek culture” once again conquer “Rome”?
In the final analysis: is it possible to sustain a civilisation without the use of aggression and the willingness to defend its values by means of war?
John Armstrong: Civilisation as an Ideal
Senior Adviser in the office of the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne, and Author, Australia
Graeme Barker: Origins of Human Settlement
Professor of Archaeology and Director at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, UK
Örjan Berner: The Problem of American Power
Ambassador, Sweden. Implications of the Rise of China Philip Bobbitt, Herbert Wechsler Professor of Federal Jurisprudence and the Director of the Center for National Security at Columbia University, USA
Peter Burke: Civilisation: A Historian’s View
Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, University of Cambridge, UK
Richard Buxton: Can Ancient Greece still Offer us Viable Models of Behaviour and Thought?
Professor of Greek Language and Literature, University of Bristol, UK
Stephen Cave: Civilisation and the Promise of Immortality
Philosopher, Author, UK
Christopher Coker: Civilisation and its Malcontents
Professor of International Relations, LSE, UK
Harriet Crawford: Civilisation: An Example from Fourth Millennium Mesopotamia
Honorary Visiting Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, and a Fellow of the McDonald Institute, Cambridge
Rolf Ekéus: Civilisation and its Challenges
Ambassador, former Ambassador to the USA, Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament and Director of United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, Sweden
Karsten Fischer: Sublimation and its Discontents: On the Modern Semantics of Decadence
Professor of Political Science, Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich, Germany
Jack Fuller: Civilisation as the Good and Ambitious Use of Freedom
Anthony Grafton: The Revival of Greek in Renaissance Europe: The Changing Contours of a Canon
Henry Putnam University Professor of History, Princeton University, USA
Jonathan Haslam: The Rise and Rise of China or the Rise and Fall of China? Implications for Western Policy
Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University, UK
Eva Hoffman: Freedom, Fragmentation, Conversation: The Good Life Today
Author and Broadcaster, UK
Tom Holland: The Rise of Rise and Fall
Historian, Author and Broadcaster, UK
Jonathan Israel: Civilisation Versus the “State of Nature”
Professor of Modern History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA
Robert Johnson: The Paradox of the Nature of War
Director of the Changing Character of War (CCW) research programme at Oxford University, UK
Richard Miles: The End of (Roman) Civilisation and the Rise of Decline
Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Sydney, Australia
Rana Mitter: The Rise of China, the Decline of the West and the New Nationalism
Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, UK
Sheldon Pollock: Classicism: A Greek and Indian Comparison
Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia University, USA
Göran Rosenberg: What Makes the Values of Auschwitz Possible?
Author and Journalist, Sweden
Donald Sassoon: Trailblazers and Laggards in the Long 19th Century
Professor Emeritus of History, Queen Mary College, University of London, UK
Nathan Shachar: Greeks and Jews: A Relationship Like No Other
Journalist and Author, Sweden
Richard Swartz: Are the Basic Values of Civilisation Challenged?
Author and Journalist, Sweden
David J. Taylor: George Orwell and the Idea of Civilisation
Author and Critic, UK
Ruut Veenhoven: Does Civilisation Add to the Value of Life?
Professor Emeritus of Social Conditions for Human Happiness at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
David Wengrow: Civilisation Before the State
Professor of Comparative Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College, University of London, UK
Martin West: The Greeks’ Concept of Civilisation
Emeritus Fellow of All Souls, University of Oxford. A former Fellow and Praelector in Classics at University College, Oxford, UK
Rita Wright: Comparing Civilisations: Frameworks for Understanding their Variability
Anthropological Archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at New York University, USA