The First Blow to the Idea of Civilization

Roger Zelazny once said (via a character in one of his books) that civilization means ‘the art of living in cities’.

It doesn’t quite mean that. The last part of the word, ‘-ization’, literally means ‘action, process, or result of doing or making’*.  And civil essentially means ‘of or proper to a citizen’ (derived from the Latin word civilis). And citizen would be ‘a person who dwells in a city’.

So, I guess that the proper etymological definition for civilization is ‘the process or result of making what is proper for a person who dwells in a city’.

Let’s put it another way. Civilization is the result of making us efficient and proper at living in cities. However, I think that Roger Zelazny’s version is just as good – and sounds better.

What do cities have to do with anything?

Well, people who live in cities need to cooperate with each other. You can’t tear down a wall, if it supports your neighbor’s roof. You can’t dump your garbage in the street because people need an unobstructed route of travel. You can’t play loud music at 4 a.m. because the people living below you need their sleep.

You need to cooperate, and the other citizens that you rub shoulders with need to know that you are willing to cooperate. AND, they need to know that there are mechanisms in place to make sure that you will cooperate, otherwise they will leave the city and civilization will fail.

And, what happens when civilization begins to fail?

People die. Lots of them.

You don’t need to look any further than Iraq. 

Civilization held together for only as long as Iraqis believed that there were mechanisms in place to ensure that everyone cooperated. When those mechanisms demonstrated that they were NOT in place, they began to turn to other answers, other mechanisms.

The Mahdi Army was one, and the Sunni insurgents were another – along with a host of smaller actors.

But, it all started with an idea – the idea that there was no one who was going to make things work, that there was no one to protect them or to make sure that justice was done.

That’s why the looting in Iraq was so damaging.

It was the first blow to the idea of civilization. 

* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: June 19, 2007).

** Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: June 19, 2007).

1 thought on “The First Blow to the Idea of Civilization”

Comments are closed.