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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

Civilization: Has It Been Worth It?

If you can read this, you fit the dictionary's definition of a "civilized" person (except for Internet trolls, of course), and you probably feel that, all things considered, civilization is a good thing. There once was a time when I would have agreed, answering "Yes!" to the question in the title without hesitation. Today, however, I'm not so sure. We live better than any generation in recorded history; even the poor among us have conveniences that the god-kings of ancient times would have envied, such as air conditioning, better health care, faster transportation, instantaneous communication, foods from around the world at the local supermarket, entertainment at any time (as opposed to whenever musicians, jesters or actors happen to be available), and so on. Civilization is responsible, so I would not advocate getting rid of it, but what is the price we paid for all these benefits?

This website is unusual in the way it traces history from a creationist perspective, which is how most historians did it before the mid-nineteenth century. Now if you'll bear with me, I will take a look at civilization the same way.

First of all, what was the original purpose of civilization? It wasn't just to survive. Without civilization, mankind tends to organize into tribes, and while the individual may be killed by disease or violence (either man-inflicted or beast-inflicted) at an early age, the tribal unit itself usually succeeds. What's more, it does not appear that civilization was part of God's original purpose for man; that's why we were first created in a garden. In the Book of Genesis, we don't see the first signs of civilization until the fourth chapter, when Cain builds the first city, and one of his descendants, Tubal-Cain, is described as a master craftsman in metals. Therefore I would venture to say that the first civilization was built by the line of Cain, not by Adam's heir, Seth. Apparently the original purpose of civilization was to improve one's standard of living, and increase one's power, without relying on help from God.

After Noah's Flood, we see the first post-Flood civilization established by Nimrod, not by Noah. While I get the impression that Noah and his wife spent the rest of their lives on a homestead in the Armenian highlands, we see Nimrod building and conquering a prehistoric empire in Genesis 10. Then in the next chapter comes what I believe was meant to be that empire's crowning achievement, the Tower of Babel.

As you know, the Tower of Babel project failed, due to a confusion of languages before it was completed. This was the only time when mankind was united in one civilization, one nation. Since then man, whether he knows it or not, has been working to restore Babel; one of the purposes of civilization has been to regain what was lost at Babel.

My favorite computer game is Sid Meier's Civilization; I have yet to see a better way to simulate the course of history. In fact, when I had Civilization II on my computer, I created two scenarios: Antediluvia, for the world before Noah's Flood, and SEASIA1, for Southeast Asian history before 1500 A.D. You can find them on and this website's download page. When I upgraded from Version II to Version III of the game, however, I got a shock--the video at the start of the game showed a new Tower of Babel under construction, with the architecture of it changing as you went up: first bronze age, then classical, then medieval, and finally modern steel-and-glass at the top. If I met Sid Meier in person, I don't think we would agree on either religion or politics, but apparently he and the other Civilization game designers are at least subconsciously aware that a quest to build the world's greatest empire is also a quest to rebuild Babel.

Click here to see the Tower of Babel picture from Civilization III.

And here is the video connected with it.

It looks like Fritz Lang, the director of the 1927 science-fiction film Metropolis, was also aware of the Babel-civilization connection, judging from the Babel scene in his movie. Because he lived in early twentieth-century Europe, he could not have had much interest in Babelís spiritual meaning, that it was an act of rebellion against God. However, when it comes to Babelís political aspect--that a universal, purely man-centered civilization would lead to tyranny--Lang got it right. You can see the scene for yourself in this YouTube video:

Along that line, when a civilization is successful, it usually turns into an empire, growing to encompass as much of the known world as possible. Country after country has given manifestation to this spirit. Each in its turn raised great armies to displace the preceding empire. The country dominating the empire became greater than other nations and saw itself as a predator, with the rest of the world as its prey. This is not at all what God told His people to do, in either the Old or the New Testaments. And it is a grand exercise in futility, because nothing built by man lasts forever. Every state or institution that man has founded will eventually fall. No empire has outlived a California redwood tree; some (those of Napoleon and Hitler, for instance) didn't live as long as the oak in your backyard!

Have the benefits of civilization always been so obvious? For a long time after Babel, most people lived the barbarian lifestyle. In his work A World History, William MacNeill saw 500 B.C. as a critical date, because after that, the civilized world was no longer in danger of being completely destroyed by barbarians; presumably that was when the worldwide population of civilized men and women began to outnumber the barbarians. And after that date, most of the world's land was still barbarian territory, because civilized men preferred to stay in a few river valleys and cities. As late as 1500 A.D., at least half of Eurasia remained beyond the pale of civilization, and on the other continents, civilization had little more than a foothold before the nineteenth century.

Barbarism is a simpler way of life, but it often has a culture that can compare favorably with the intellectual achievements of civilization. From time to time civilized societies develop a fad for the art, stories, music and even the fashions of barbarian cultures; we have seen it in the the twentieth century with African, Celtic and Native American influences on the Western "mainstream." The outside world's discovery in the 1990s of khoomei (Tuvan throat-singing) is another example of the same trend.

(For what it's worth, two thousand years ago my ancestors painted themselves blue. So far I haven't had any urge to do that, but the custom seems to be making a comeback, among the fans at University of Kentucky games!)

Even with the most advanced societies, it seems that you can take somebody from the tribe of his ancestors, but you can't take the tribe from him. A good example would be Burning Man, an annual art festival and temporary commune held during the last week of August, in one of the most inhospitable places in the United States: Black Rock, Nevada. You can think of it as a Woodstock for nerds and geeks. I have never been there myself, but I have seen enough videos and pictures to get an idea of what it's about. On Saturday night, they burn a giant wooden stick figure, hence the name "Burning Man." In the video I saw of that ceremony for 2006, the Burn came after a performance where hundreds of semi-naked people danced in the dark with torches, accompanied by a constant drumbeat. It's eerie; to me the celebration looked primitive and pagan, if not downright antediluvian. Since most of the torch-waving participants were white, you can't write them off as Afro-Americans or Native Americans, reclaiming a part of their heritage. Then the Man was lit, with a blaze of fireworks, and everyone cheered. Here you see supposedly modern man performing and rejoicing in front of a bonfire, something people have been doing for as long as there have been people. Nor do they keep the ceremony to themselves; they broadcast it over the Internet for folks like me. That gives a new meaning to "techno-tribal," a term normally used for a style of New Age music!

Historians with Marxist leanings like to point out that barbarians live in a classless society, because in the tribe, only the chief and the medicine man/shaman are more important than anybody else; the other members of the tribe are equal, more or less. Indeed, one of the characteristics of any civilization is the tendency to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a small elite. This meant that the typical barbarian was richer than the typical peasant, even when forced to live on poor-quality land. Where herding was feasible, he kept flocks of sheep, goats, horses, cattle or camels, which provided everything he needed for a simple life, plus some luxuries; consequently he counted his wealth by how many animals he had, rather than by how much land or money. Before farmers and governments started putting fences across grasslands, those barbarians who lived as nomads had nearly unlimited pasture to graze their herds on, so as long as their animals had enough to eat, their herds could grow to nearly unlimited size, too.

In every ancient civilization the head of state claimed to be in charge because the gods placed him there, and he expected to be obeyed without question. The barbarians, on the other hand, lived in an environment that required them to be self-reliant and assertive; a barbarian chief had to earn the support of his warriors, and he usually governed by consensus, rather than by coercion. In The Outline of History, H. G. Wells referred to early civilized societies as "communities of obedience," and uncivilized ones as "communities of will." Communities of obedience have always been attractive to those seeking security, because of the obvious physical and intellectual benefits they offer: jobs, a steady supply of food, law and order, advanced education, elaborate arts and literature, etc. But human beings are not like ants or bees; most are too restless to sacrifice their individuality for the community, and would rather participate in a government than passively submit to it; failing that, they will escape to explore in a realm where they are free of restraints. For that reason, communities of will have always existed somewhere, and when communities of obedience come into conflict with communities of will, the communities of will often win, because warriors from the latter have a stronger reason to fight. And once communities of obedience make men servile, their authority can easily be transferred; that is why the lands of the Middle East have passed from one empire to another so many times.

When the barbarians finally became civilized, they looked for a way to combine the best of both communities, to accept the benefits of civilization without giving up their freedom. Two of the earliest examples of this are the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, both founded in the late sixth century B.C. Today such a government is often cited as the ideal, but it is less stable than an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, and harder to maintain, because if its institutions become unbalanced, the whole state is in danger of sliding into anarchy or tyranny. Wells saw universal education as a solution to this problem, but today we have universal education, and it rarely teaches civic responsibility, so the danger to democracy remains. That is why some writers call it a political experiment. In the author's opinion, representative governments are the best that man can do on his own, but they still aren't perfect, and when the Kingdom of God is re-established on earth, they will no longer be necessary; if God felt otherwise, the Lord's Prayer would have a line saying "Thy Republic Come!"

Over the ages, there have been dozens of attempts to build civilizations, some more successful than others. If we could rate the performances of these civilizations, which have done the best? I would rate three as being the most successful of all: the Egyptian, the Chinese, and the Greco-Roman.

Egypt wins a prize simply because its civilization was the longest-lived. According to my chronology, 2,789 years passed from Menes to Cleopatra; most historians will give the Egyptians even more time, like a full 3,000 years. Whoever you believe, the year count puts the Egyptians well ahead of nearly everyone else. Part of it happened because they got started so early; the world was sparsely populated in ancient times, and Egypt was relatively isolated, with deserts on both the east and west sides of the Nile valley. What this meant was that the Egyptians didn't face a serious foreign threat for the first half of their long existence. By contrast, those civilizations which claim to be older (mainly Mesopotamia and India) were exposed to outside invasions, and thus were conquered sooner. In addition, the annual rhythm of the Nile encouraged a conservative culture, and from the start most power and wealth was concentrated in a few families (the "iry-Pat" or old nobility), who always reminded the people of their duties to the gods and the pharaoh. Consequently revolts from within were less common as well.

When outsiders managed to get into Egypt and take over, the Egyptians convinced them that they were the oldest civilization of all, so foreigners like the Hyksos, Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians and Persians felt the need to adopt Egyptian customs, or at least respect them. Not until the arrival of a stronger culture, that of the Greeks, did the pharaonic culture begin to falter, and it finally perished under the harsh rule of the Romans. Later on Egypt would rise again, but these Egyptians would speak a different language, and practice a different religion altogether.

China got in the finals for similar reasons--it has the most durable civilization. By counting just the period from the first to the last emperor, 221 B.C. to 1911 A.D., we get 2,131 years. I'm leaving out the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties because archaeology shows Chinese culture in a developmental stage back then; in fact, there were several competing cultures in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys, any one of which could have become "China" if the Qin hadn't triumphed. We probably wouldn't even call the country "China" if another "warring state" came out on top, because China's name comes from Qin. If you want to count Chinese civilization from an earlier date, go ahead; then China will have outlasted Egypt, too. In the early 1990s, a Chinese theme park opened near Walt Disney World, and advertisements for it said, "The world's oldest civilization has now become central Florida's newest attraction." In response, I said, "The world's oldest civilization that is still going strong has become central Florida's newest attraction."

The emperor of China viewed all other nations either as vassals or rebels in a world dominion bestowed on him by Heaven. Usually the other nations of the Far East took China's great size and wealth as evidence that the emperor was right, and went along with this by sending tribute; in fact, the kings of those lands had to do this to confirm their own authority. This was especially the case with Korea and Vietnam, which were sometimes under Chinese rule. Among China's neighbors, only Japan felt it could stand by itself.

China has had a barbarian problem for most of its history; usually it came from the north, but it also came from the west until the Tibetans converted to Buddhism. The Chinese did not do very well when it came to defending their capital, which was taken and sacked many times. What they had in their favor was that they always outnumbered their opponents, sometimes by a hundred to one, so within a couple generations they absorbed/assimilated the conquerors. The Chinese state also had a marvelous ability to regenerate; no matter how badly it shattered, it always came back together again, and not until the mid-twentieth century did a province break away long enough to develop an identity of its own (Taiwan).

The price of this regenerative power was inflexibility; because everything seemed to work, the Chinese didn't want to make changes. Like Rome under the Pax Romana, when the barbarians were kept away, there was so much peace and prosperity that stagnation replaced exploration and research. Chinese bureaucrats were so sure they knew what was best for the people that they would not allow anything to threaten the established order. They created a static, conformist society that looked to the past, not the future. Thus China stood still, and could not cope when it encountered the more progressive West. That is why China suffered through "interesting times" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The idea of absolute, unchanging values may be attractive, but there is also something to be said for finding new truths at the expense of the old.

For the third top spot, I said "Greco-Roman" instead of Greek or Roman because after the Roman Republic conquered Greece, the Romans and Greeks complimented one another, like two hands on one person. The Greeks were better artists, writers and philosophers, while the Romans did better in matters of architecture, law, and civics. Over time the Romans walked away from their original Etruscan heritage, and adopted Greek culture as their own. In the process they created the unified state that always seemed to be out of reach for the Greeks, and promoted the Greek way of life wherever their legions went.

If you count from 776 B.C. (the traditional date of the first Olympic games, an important marker on the Greek calendar), to the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, you will get a span of 2,228 years. For more than half of this period, covered in Chapters 3-9 of my European history series, the Roman state was the primary nation of the West. However, in this case it was mainly the Roman legacy for law and order that lasted so long. Over the course of the centuries, the "Roman" people went from speaking Etruscan to Latin to Greek, and switched from paganism to Christianity, so while the Nile valley civilization was recognizably Egyptian at both the beginning and the end of the time of the pharaohs, if through some sort of time warp we could put together two Romans from the eighth century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D., I doubt that they would believe they were from the same civilization.

Today there are 39 nations where the Roman Empire once ruled. The Romans brought peace and prosperity to the Mediterranean basin for ten generations, using forms of transportation and communication (horses, oxcarts, barges) that wouldn't be improved on until steam power and electricity were harnessed. Throughout the Roman era, enemies of the Roman state were only able to take its capital three times: the Gauls in 390 B.C., the Crusaders in 1204 A.D., and the Turks in 1453 (I'm not counting the barbarian raids on Rome in the fifth century A.D., because Rome was no longer the capital at that point). And it speaks for Rome's importance that just about every European empire since that time, from Charlemagne's "Holy Roman Empire" to the European Union of today, has promised the same sort of unity that the Romans had. To summarize, the Roman Empire was the West's most impressive political achievement.

At the same time, the Greek legacy did not disappear. Eclipsed to a large extent during the Middle Ages, its rediscovery was such a big event to Europeans that they called it a "rebirth"--the Renaissance. Since then, the nations that have claimed to be successors of Rome, or promised to build a second Roman Empire, have also usually been the ones to spread Greek culture. I talk about this in more detail in Chapter 11 of my history textbook; here I will say that today's world has been so affected by ideas that started with the Greeks, that the world can be called a Greek colony. For that reason, I will credit Greco-Roman civilization as being the most influential, and the most flexible.

One failing of all these civilizations is a human rights record that ranges from less-than-perfect to dismal. To start with, we usually don't see the separation of church and state that is considered important today. In China, the first kings/emperors acted like priests, performing sacrifices at crucial times; in Egypt, the pharaoh was worshiped as a living god on earth. Only Western civilization tried very hard to set up a government that was something other than an absolute monarchy. Besides the Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic, efforts to set up representative governments were tried by several nations that traced their heritage to Greece and Rome, like Switzerland, Great Britain and the United States. However, as populations grow and time goes by, there seems to be a tendency for these governments to grow more oppressive. There are several reasons for this: large populations require more laws to maintain order, taxes go up to meet the increased demands placed on the government, and people become willing to trade freedom for security, to keep the gains they have made.

If the old institutions survive, they do so in name only; e.g., the Roman Senate continued to meet until the sixth century A.D., outlasting even the state it served, and the Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor continued to call themselves republics for the rest of their existence, long after they stopped acting like republics. Here in modern-day America, most of us seem content to live under a government that demands more taxes, and interferes with our lives more, than the British government our Founding Fathers revolted against. Thomas Jefferson said that a revolution about every twenty years is a good thing, because we would eventually accept tyranny if that didn't happen. Now more than eleven twenty-year periods have passed, and while there have been times of social unrest, I wouldn't call them revolutions, except for the Civil War. I'll venture that if Mr. Jefferson could visit the present-day United States, he would say, "You have ruined everything! Now if you'll excuse me, I must go to Philadelphia and write another Declaration of Independence."

The American Revolution Revisited.
It a nutshell, it is the imperfect nature of man that causes individuals to promise a utopia, only to deliver a "dystopia" if they get the chance. If men were angels we would need no government. If angels governed men we would not need checks and balances. The best of men are men at best.

Now that you know civilization has its faults, I hope you won't be bowing at the altar of higher culture. But replacing it with barbarism isn't the answer. Life as we know it is too dependent on the infrastructure we have set up, meaning that most of our population would starve or otherwise suffer, if civilization suddenly disappeared. If you've read any science fiction stories about the world after civilization has been destroyed (by nuclear war, plague, an alien invasion or whatever), or seen movies like the "Mad Max" series, you know a world without civilization isn't likely to be a pretty picture. Maybe some anarchist bullies would enjoy it, but the rest of us would prefer anything to that. Moreover, we saw the Khmer Rouge try to get rid of civilization completely, when they took over Cambodia, and the result was between one million and two million deaths.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if a partial return to tribalism is attempted, especially in space; if we go to other planets or stars and trouble develops there, help from earth won't be just a phone call away. The next four paragraphs are from a synopsis of Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn, who suggests that a new tribal-type structure would solve many of the modern world's problems:

(Source: )

"One of our most fundamental cultural beliefs is this, that Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance. This notion seems intrinsic to the human mind--self-evident, like The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Implicit in this belief about civilization is another: Civilization is humanity's ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed. Both these beliefs exemplify the cultural fallacy, which is the notion that one's beliefs are not merely expressions of one's culture but are intrinsic to the human mind itself. The effect of this fallacy is that it's almost impossible for the people of our culture to entertain the idea that there could be any invention beyond civilization. Civilization is the end, the very last and unsurpassable human social development."

"No one is surprised to learn that bees are organized in a way that works for them or that wolves are organized in a way that works for them. Most people understand in a general way that the social organization of any given species evolved in the same way as other features of the species. Unworkable organizations were eliminated in exactly the same way that unworkable physical traits were eliminated--by the process known as natural selection. But there is an odd and unexamined prejudice against the idea that the very same process shaped the social organization of Homo over the three million years of his evolution. The people of our culture don't want to acknowledge that the tribe is for humans exactly what the pod is for whales or the troop is for baboons: the gift of millions of years of natural selection, not perfect--but damned hard to improve upon."

"Civilization, in effect, represents an attempt to improve upon tribalism by replacing it with hierarchalism. Every civilization brought forth in the course of human history has been an intrinsically hierarchical affair--in every age and locale, East and West, as well as every civilization that grew up independently of ours in the New World. Because it's intrinsically hierarchical, civilization benefits members at the top very richly but benefits the masses at the bottom very poorly--and this has been so from the beginning. Tribalism, by contrast, is nonhierarchical and benefits all members with notable equality."

"It's out of the question for us to 'go back' to the tribalism we grew up with. There's no imaginable way to reestablish the ethnic boundaries that made that life work. But there's nothing sacrosanct about ethnic tribalism. Many successful tribal entities have evolved inside our culture that are not ethnic in any sense. A conspicuous example is the circus, a tribal enterprise that has been successful for centuries."

Unquote: We didn't have civilization in the beginning, but it looks like we'll have it at the end of time. While the Bible has us start in a garden, the last two chapters are in a great city, the New Jerusalem. Then we won't have to worry about the imperfections of men, because God will be in charge.

I really rambled on in this essay, so I hope I made some sense. Call it thinking out loud; we've been conditioned to think that civilization is always better, when that may not be the case. In fact, because he gave up certain freedoms and trusted in himself or other men, instead of trusting in God, it is quite possible that "civilized man" may have lost as much as he has gained. If nothing else, after reading this page, I want you to "think outside the box" our society has made, and see that an alternative to civilization, one that is not man-made, may provide the best future for us all.

The march of history over the millennia, from the Creation through various civilizations to the New Jerusalem at the end of time.

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