Civilization, Concept of

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civilizing mission
controversies and variants

According to the historian Lucien Febvre, the French word civilisation was first coined in the middle of the eighteenth century, and denoted the state of being conditioned into civility or polite society (often associated with a state, civitas). The same concept was expressed in English by the word refinement (before the advent of the word civilization) and in German by Kultur (even after the invention of Zivilisation). Eventually, "civilization" would accumulate additional meanings: the process of acquiring culture or refinement, the sum total of cultural assets at a certain level of development, and the identity of a group sharing these assets. Although the last definition gave rise to a looser usage—seemingly interchangeable with designations such as "people," "culture," or "race"—"civilization" in the nineteenth century was usually applied to what were considered "advanced" groups, often appearing as the last of a developmental triad with "savagery" and "barbarism."

Writers have never agreed on the precise form of development denoted by civilization, but generally the concept was understood to include some or all of the following: written language, the dominance of intellect over passion and superstition, dissemination of knowledge by education, religious monotheism, political organization, technological mastery over the natural environment, and the progress of economic subsistence through modern agriculture, urban commerce, and manufacturing.

For the Enlightenment philosophers, who saw civilization outside of Europe as well as within it, the concept implied a unitary standard of human values. Civilization rested on a universalistic, democratic optimism that all human societies were united by the capacity for progress along the same path, either on their own or through the tutelage of others. At the same time, the concept implied (rather undemocratically) a hierarchy of peoples according to where they stood presently on the continuum between primitive or savage and civilized. In the middle of the nineteenth century, these core beliefs became the foundation of what is known in the history of anthropological thought as classical evolutionism (lucidly explicated by George Stocking). In spite of the etymological association of civilization with Enlightenment ideas, nevertheless, it is clear that many nineteenth-century Europeans understood civilizations and cultures through a lens of Romantic pluralism: different civilizations were essentially different, might have had different origins, and might be subject not only to progress but also to degeneration or disappearance. Some peoples, according to this worldview, might even be incapable of reaching some of the milestones of civilization (and therefore could be disregarded or even sacrificed to European expansion).

Whatever its philosophical underpinnings or exact definition, civilization, in the words of Norbert Elias, became essentially "the self-consciousness of the West." Europeans' confidence that their civilization was of a level unprecedented by any other in human history was further solidified by the political and especially (as Michael Adas argues) industrial-technological transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Europeans' generalized identity as civilized, however, never entirely overshadowed the divisiveness of national identities. Many thinkers invented nationalistic variants of civilization and claimed that theirs was the most advanced.

civilizing mission

Civilization's putative universality made it transferable beyond Europe and thus seemed to give new purpose and justification to European expansion. Indeed, the term civilizing mission has traditionally been associated with European activities in Asia and Africa. But only since the late twentieth century has its role within Europe taken a prominent place in the work of historians. Arguably, one of the first civilizing missions was the spread of the French Revolution—that great crusade for progress—throughout Europe by Napoleonic France. Afterward, European states and elites undertook the extension of civilization downward on the social scale and outward from capitals to the rural world. As Eugen Weber has described it, the process of making "peasants into Frenchmen"—rooting out linguistic and intellectual parochialism and instilling what were considered proper manners, mores, and mentalities through nationalizing institutions such as schools—was essentially a civilizing mission. According to Weber, the completion of this process came relatively late (between 1870 and 1914), but many historians have described such civilizing activities earlier in the nineteenth century.

While such campaigns seemed natural to those with a nationalistic worldview, Europeans' efforts to conquer, exploit, and dominate peoples on other continents stood in greater need of a justifying slogan. And because of the starker cultural differences between Europeans and their overseas subjects, such a slogan had to surmount doubts about those subjects' capability of being improved. Few historians argue that the civilizing mission was the core motivation or origin of European imperialism. To the contrary, many describe it as humanitarian window dressing to excuse the sins of imperialists in the eyes of both metropolitan audiences and the colonized themselves. It included projects such as schooling; conversion to Christianity; the development of commerce; administrative, legal, and judicial reform; scientific research on local cultures and natural resources; public-health efforts; and campaigns to instill new norms of domesticity. Each of these spheres gave rise to its own discourse of civility and civilization. Many of these activities, although packaged as the fulfillment of humanitarian obligation, were at least in part matters of expediency and self-interest, undertaken to enhance European states' control and domination of colonized peoples. Most historians would agree, nonetheless, that the concept of civilizing mission—by constraining rhetorical strategies, setting moral standards (even if these were not always followed in practice), and expressing European vanity—did help to shape imperial policies.

controversies and variants

Civilizing missions rarely treated the non-European milieu as a tabula rasa for the simple replication of European standards. Usually the civilizers pursued their goals using a combination of indigenous and European elements, engendering controversies over when to supplant native customs, when to modify them, when to leave them alone, and how much agency to give subjects in their own improvement. The outcome of such debates depended upon both pragmatism and views of subjects' civilizational status and capacity for progress. The imposition of European ways was most aggressive when local practices seemed to conflict sharply with "civilized" mores, as in campaigns against cannibalism, sati (ritual widow-burning in India), slavery, brigandage, child marriage, brutal punishments, and tyranny. Even in these initiatives, attempts were sometimes made to present changes less as interventions from outside than attempts to make practice conform to native traditions (e.g., in the case of sati, to satisfy the principles of Hinduism).

Historians have shown that European descriptions of colonized peoples were often fashioned around the assumptions of the civilizing mission; subjects were rhetorically "savaged" (sometimes against available evidence) to demonstrate their need for European tutelage. This was even done to peoples who by some definitions were considered civilized—in particular adherents of Islam and Judaism. Muslims (who were present in all of the major empires) and Jews (considered imperial subjects only in Russia) were, in spite of possessing many attributes of civilization, often subject to the most aggressive cultural manipulation. (In the blood libel, which survived from medieval times, Jews were falsely accused of the most primitive of behaviors—human sacrifice and cannibalism.) In effect, non-European variants of civilization were as objectionable as lack of civilization. But the imperial powers were not always glad to see their efforts succeed; they were wary and spiteful toward the subjects who became most Europeanized, such as Bengali babus in British India and Muslim jadids in the Russian Empire.

The chief proponents of a civilizing mission outside of Europe were the British, French, and Russian empires. Britain tended to preserve native institutions and hierarchies, in effect presenting its civilizing mission as an attempt to recapture subject peoples' own degraded civilizations. The model for this indirect rule was established in India and then exported to other British colonies in Africa and Asia. The French approach was traditionally labeled assimilation (being strongly influenced by Republican egalitarianism), giving colonial subjects many of the same political-social structures as those

of France proper (although not always viewing them as potential French citizens) and concerned with the process (mise en valeur) of making subjects useful for France. Russia's approach was the most direct and genuinely assimilatory: administrators talked of the organic integration of Asian peoples into the Russian nation, and while many native structures continued to exist they were absorbed into Russian polity and society. And although the British and French attempted to put distance between metropolitans and colonials, Russia's idea of civilizing mission was also distinguished by encouragement of miscegenation between the "core" Russians and colonized peoples on the frontier.

Many Russians acknowledged the civilizing mission's unique compensatory aspect for their country: the mentorship of supposedly lesser peoples could counterbalance the image of Russia as backward itself. This required that the improvement of dominated peoples not be pursued along generic European lines (which was possible since the Russian aristocracy was traditionally steeped in French and German culture) but be approached as tantamount to Russification. In the context of rivalry with Britain, tsarist statesmen also claimed that Russia was a more just and more humane carrier of civilization to Asia because its peasant masses on the frontiers were closer in mentality to Asians and more tolerant of cultural differences than were Europeans settling in overseas colonies. Indeed, Russian imperialism was bound to appear more egalitarian because the Russian people themselves had few political rights.

But civilizing missions were not only the work of imperial states wielding power through laws and institutions. They also involved autonomous efforts on the part of European society in both metropole and colony: church missions and missionary societies; capitalists marketing their products to subjugated peoples; belles lettres and journalism as tools of colonial muckraking; women's organizations advocating improved conditions for their gender in the colonies. Many of these activities were in effect forms of middle-class self-expression, and therefore it is not surprising that of the imperial powers they were least evident in Russia, whose bourgeoisie was least developed.

All the empires shared concerns about relations in colonial settings between metropolitans and natives and expressed anxiety about whether the former were truly capable of representing a higher civilization to the latter. The seamier sides of European life—vagrancy, prostitution, violence, drunkenness, insanity—were often on display for colonial subjects to see. These problems challenged the validity of nineteenth-century Europe's transformation of civilization as an attribute of class or status groups into the property of larger national and racial collectivities. European societies were aware of having failed to achieve their internal civilizing missions, although the language of empire often assumed success. Indeed much recent research on nineteenth-century imperialism has shown the simultaneity and interdependency of the two processes.


By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of trends led to the decreased appeal of the concepts of civilization and civilizing mission as they had been known. The increasing hybridity of societies in the European overseas colonies (and Russian imperial borderlands) made the concepts' ambiguities harder to deny, traditional dichotomies harder to defend, and the empires themselves harder to maintain without a change of approach. The increasing secularization of European culture weakened the Manichean frame of mind that had separated peoples into the civilized and uncivilized. The rise of an industrial, self-reliant Japan, and its defeat of imperial Russia, challenged the assumption of the inherent superiority of Europe over Asia. And the cultures of many Eastern and "primitive" peoples found positive appreciation in European anthropology and in artistic and philosophical movements.

By most accounts, however, it was the cataclysm of World War I that decisively jolted Europeans and their non-European subjects alike out of old ways of thinking. Britain, France, and Russia described their struggle (for which they mobilized their colonized peoples as well as their Continental populations) as the very defense of civilization—yet the foe was within Europe, not outside it. The carnage produced by a continent focusing all its ingenuity on perfecting methods of killing and destruction made European authorities and elites look rather like the savages they had been dedicated to transforming both at home and abroad. If Europe's achievements could still be considered civilization, that word's meaning had to be reassessed to account for the accompanying dislocations and "discontents" Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) would later describe.

A new understanding of civilization emerged—more pluralistic and inclusive, and stripped of much of the nineteenth-century ethnocentrism and arrogance. This shift challenged imperial powers to justify their actions in new ways, leading to some new approaches (in France, associationism, which preserved more elements of subjects' native cultures, and in Russia, indigenization, invented by the Bolsheviks to undo the effects of tsarist chauvinism), and eventually to decolonization.

See alsoCitizenship; Colonialism; Eurasianism; Imperialism; Manners and Formality; Minorities; Race and Racism; Slavophiles; Westernizers..


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Robert P. Geraci