It is difficult to draw a fixed line between civilized and uncivilized peoples. There is a broader conception of civilization which recognizes all phases of human achievement, from the making of a stone axe to the construction of the airplane; from the rude hut to the magnificent palace; from crude moral and religious conditions to the more refined conditions of human association.
If we consider that civilization involves the whole process of human achievement, it must admit of a great variety of qualities and degrees of development, hence it appears to be a relative term applied to the variation of human life. Thus, the Japanese are highly civilized along special lines of hand work, hand industry, and hand art, as well as being superior in some phases of family relationships. So we might say of the Chinese, the East Indians, and the American Indians, that they each have well-established customs, habits of thought, and standards of life, differing from other nations, expressing different types of civilization.
As soon as people began to co-operate with one another in obtaining food, building houses, or for protection against wild animals and wild men, that is, when they began to treat each other civilly, they were becoming civilized. We may say then in reality that civilization has been a continuous process from the first beginning of man’s conquest of himself and nature to the modern complexities of social life with its multitude of products of industry and cultural arts.
It is very common for one group or race to assume to be highly civilized and call the others barbarians or savages. Thus the Hebrews assumed superiority when they called other people Gentiles, and the Greeks when they called others barbarians. Indeed, it is only within recent years that we are beginning to recognize that the civilizations of China, Japan, and India have qualities worth studying and that they may have something worthwhile in life that the Western civilization has not.
It is a fatal error for an individual, neighborhood, tribe, or nation to assume superiority to the extent that it fails to recognize good qualities in others. One should not look with disdain upon a tribe of American Indians, calling them uncivilized because their material life is simple. In reality in point of honor, faithfulness, and courage they excel a large proportion of the races assuming a higher civilization.
Observe the happy homes, with all of their sweet and hallowed influences, and the social mingling of the people searching for pleasure or profit in their peaceful, harmonious association. Witness the evidences of accumulated knowledge in newspapers, periodicals, and books, and the culture of painting, poetry, and music. Behold, too, the achievements of the mind in the invention and discovery of the age; steam and electrical appliances that cause the whirl of bright machinery, that turn night into day, and make thought travel swift as the wings of the wind! Consider the influence of chemistry, biology, and medicine on material welfare, and the discoveries of the products of the earth that sub serve man’s purpose! And the central idea of all this is man, who walks upright in the dignity and grace of his own manhood, surrounded by the evidence of his own achievements. His knowledge, his power of thought, his moral character, and his capacity for living a large life, are evidences of the real civilization. For individual culture are, after all, the flower and fruit, the beauty and strength of civilization.
Man became a co-operating creature, working with his fellows in the satisfaction of material wants and in protecting the rights of individuals. Slow and painful was this process of development, but as he worked his capacity enlarged, his power increased, until he mastered the forces of nature and turned them to serve him; he accumulated knowledge and brought forth culture and learning; he marshaled the social forces in orderly process. Each new mastery of nature or self was a power for the future, for civilization is cumulative in its nature; it works in a geometrical progression. An idea once formed, others follow; one invention leads to another, and each material form of progress furnishes a basis for a more rapid progress and for a larger life. The discovery and use of a new food product increased the power of civilization a hundredfold. One step in social order leads to another, and thus is furnished a means of utilizing without waste all of the individual and social forces.
Yet how irregular and faltering are the first steps of human progress. A step forward, followed by a long period of readjustment of the conditions of life; a movement forward here and a retarding force there. Within this irregular movement we discover the true course of human progress. One tribe, on account of peculiar advantages, makes a special discovery, which places it in the ascendancy and gives it power over others.
Different ideals and the adaptation to different environment cause different types of life. The ideals of the Persian, the Greek, the Roman, and the Teuton varied. Still greater is the contrast between these and the Chinese and the Egyptian ideals. China boasts of an ancient civilization that had its origin long before the faint beginnings of Western nations, and the Chinese are firm believers in their own culture and superior advancement. The silent grandeur of the pyramids and temples of the Nile valley bespeak a civilization of great maturity, that did much for the world in general, but little for the Egyptian people. Yet these types of civilization are far different from that of Western nations. Their ideas of culture are in great contrast to others. But even the Western nations are not uniform in ideals of civil life or in their practice of social order. They are not identical in religious life, and their ideals of art and social progress vary.
As we stand and gaze at the movements of the airplane, or contemplate its rapid flight from ocean to ocean and from land to land around the world, we are impressed with this great wonder of the age, the great achievement of the inventive power of man. But what of the gain to humanity? If it is possible to transport the mails from New York to San Francisco in sixteen hours instead of in five days, is there advantage in that except the quickening process of transportation and life? Is it not worthwhile to inquire what the man at the other end of the line is going to do by having his mail four days ahead? He will hurry up somebody else and somebody else will hurry the next one, and we only increase the rapidity of motion. Does it really give us more time for leisure, and if so, are we using that leisure time in the development of our reflective intellectual powers or our spiritual life? It is easier to see improvement in the case of the radio, whereby songs and lectures can be broadcast all over the earth, and the community of life and the community of interest are developed thereby, and, also, the leisure hours are devoted to a contemplation of high ideals, of beautiful music, of noble thoughts. We do recognize a modicum of progress out of the great whirring, rapid changes in transportation and creative industry; but let us not be deceived by substituting change for progress, or making the two identical.
Granted that the life of the human race has originated from a common biological origin and from a common geographical centre, it has taken a very long time for the races to be differentiated into the physical traits they possess to-day, as it has taken a long time for man to spread over the earth. The generalized man wandering along the streams and through the forests in search of food, seeking for shelter under rocks and in caves and trees, was turned aside by the impassable barriers of mountains, or the forbidding glacier, the roaring torrent, or the limits of the ocean itself, and spread over the accessible parts of the earth’s surface until he had covered the selected districts on the main portions of the globe. Then came race specialization, where a group remained a long time in the same environment and inbred in the same stock, developing specialized racial characters. These changes were very slow, and the wide difference to-day between the Asiatic, the African, and the European is indicative of the long period of years which brought them about. Certainly, six thousand years would not suffice to make such changes.
Not only is civilization primarily based upon the physical powers and resources of nature, but the quality of social order is determined thereby. Thus, people following the streams, plains, and forests would develop a different type of social order from those who would settle down to permanent seats of agriculture. The Bedouin Arabs of the desert, although among the oldest of organized groups, have changed very little through the passing centuries, because their mode of life permits only a simple organization. Likewise, it is greatly in contrast with the modern nations, built upon industrial and commercial life, with all of the machinery run by the powers of nature.
Civilization is a continuous movement—hence there is a gradual transition from the Oriental civilization to the Western. The former finally merges into the latter. Although the line of demarcation is not clearly drawn, some striking differences are apparent when the two are placed in juxtaposition. Perhaps the most evident contrast is observed in the gradual freedom of the mind from the influences of tradition and religious superstition. Connected with this, also, is the struggle for freedom from despotism in government. It has been observed how the ancient civilizations were characterized by the despotism of priests and kings. It was the early privilege of European life to gradually break away from this form of human degradation and establish individual rights and individual development. Kings and princes, indeed, ruled in the Western world, but they learned to do so with a fuller recognition of the rights of the governed. There came to be recognized, also, free discussion as the right of people in the processes of government. It is admitted that the despotic governments of the Old World existed for the few and neglected the many. While despotism was not wanting in European civilization, the struggle to be free from it was the ruling spirit of the age. The history of Europe centers on this struggle to be free from despotism and traditional learning, and to develop freedom of thought and action.
Among Oriental people the idea of progress was wanting in their philosophy. True, they had some notion of changes that take place in the conditions of political and social life, and in individual accomplishments, yet there was nothing hopeful in their presentation of the theory of life or in their practices of religion; and the few philosophers who recognized changes that were taking place saw not in them a persistent progress and growth. Their eyes were turned toward the past. Their thoughts centered on traditions and things that were fixed. Life was reduced to a dull, monotonous round by the great masses of the people. If at any time a ray of light penetrated the gloom, it was turned to illuminate the accumulated philosophies of the past. On the other hand, in European civilization we find the idea of progress becoming more and more predominant. The early Greeks and Romans were bound to a certain extent by the authority of tradition on one side and the fixity of purpose on the other. At times there was little that was hopeful in their philosophy, for they, too, recognized the decline in the affairs of men. But through trial and error, new discoveries of truth were made which persisted until the revival of learning in the Middle Ages, at the time of the formation of new nations, when the ideas of progress became fully recognized in the minds of the thoughtful, and subsequently in the full triumph of Western civilization came the recognition of the possibility of continuous progress. Future progress will depend upon a clearness of vision, a unity of thought, the standardization of the objectives of social achievement, and, moreover, an elevation of human conduct. Truly, “without vision the people perish.”
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of History of Human Society, by Frank W. Blackmar)


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