What is Civilization?

I again picked up my copy of Mises’s Socialism recently, and was struck once again by Mises’s passion for civilization. To Mises, economics is not an end in itself; it is merely the study of how men act to attain their goals. His book Socialism is no mere economics text, but an apologia for civilization itself. If Plato’s Republic is the question (and certainly Socrates asks a lot of questions in the Republic!) then Mises’s writings are the answer. Plato asks: What is the best government? And Mises (correctly) replies: The highest civilization.

But what is civilization? What does the word mean? What is the idea of civilization? And what is the highest civilization?

Unfortunately, civilization is one of those words that men use to mean what they want. Words like “Liberalism,” “Communism,” and so forth. For example, the opening sentence of Wikipedia’s entry on civilization is this: “Civilization or civilisation generally refers to polities which combine three basic institutions: a ceremonial centre, a system of writing, and a city.” Ugh. Mises himself would despair to read such a lowest-common-denominator, politically-correct “definition.”

Of course the natural response to criticism of Wikipedia content is: Can you do any better?

Civilization is such a rich, important topic (one that Mises spent his life on) that one should hesitate before blithely offering a one-sentence answer, or some witty bon mot. So I thought I would use a blog entry (maybe even more than one) to collect some thoughts, and list some hallmarks of civilization that seem relevant to me.

The first hallmark of civilization in any list must be individual liberty. Liberty is the touchstone of civilization; “Liberty” used not only in the legal sense but also in the capabilities sense. (For example, modern aviation gives men the freedom to fly.) The higher the individual liberty (in all senses), the higher the civilization.

Some other hallmarks, in no particular order:

Complexity. Opportunity and thus liberty cannot grow in a monoculture, they need the clash of ideas and environments to create new combinations of options and means.

Change. Much the same idea as the previous paragraph, but with the element of time.

Literacy. A civilization cannot build on its progress if it cannot record its past.

Communications. Here I mean something broader than mere language, I include the arts and fashion as well. Once a member of a civilization creates or discovers a step towards a higher civilization, how does that member teach others about that step? How does he persuade others to take that step?

Intellect. A civilization not only needs to record its past, but also analyze it.

Tools. Civilizations require tools to make progress. (Notice that the previous three paragraphs also describe a computer: memory, buses, and processor(s).)

More thoughts to come, let me end this post with the final paragraph of Mises’s Socialism:

“Neither God nor a mystical “Natural Force” created society; it was created by mankind. Whether society shall continue to evolve or whether it shall decay lies – in the sense in which causal determination of all events permits us to speak of freewill – in the hands of man. Whether society is good or bad may be a matter of individual judgment; but whoever prefers life to death, happiness to suffering, well-being to misery, must accept society. And whoever desires that society should exist and develop must also accept, without limitation or reserve, private ownership in the means of production.”

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