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What the world gets wrong about ‘civilisation’

Everyone is worried about the west. For some it is under attack, from refugees, terrorists or wokery. For others the west is itself the problem, forever imposing its own values as a universal good. But no one is sure what it actually is — or rather, where it stops.

It was easier when there was an Iron Curtain, neatly dividing the communist and capitalist spheres. Then came 9/11, and a new rupture between the liberal democratic west and the Islamic world. Now the ground is shifting again, as “modern Arab countries” are invited to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle for “western civilisation” against Hamas.

It’s more common these days to hear politicians talking about civilisations in the plural, and in superficially pluralistic ways. In a speech last October to the Valdai Discussion Club, a Kremlin-associated Moscow think-tank, Vladimir Putin explained that “there are many civilisations, and none is superior or inferior to another. They are equal since each represents a unique expression of its own culture, traditions and the aspirations of its people.”

The most important one to him of course is Russia, an “original civilisation-state” that “cannot be divided”, and certainly not by what he presents in the same speech as an illegal coup in Ukraine in 2014. This “Foreign Policy Concept” is the historical counterpart to the “multipolar” modern world Putin advocates as an alternative to the western “rules-based order”.

In China, meanwhile, Xi Jinping has launched a new Global Civilisation Initiative, to celebrate the world’s “unique and long civilisations . . . transcending time and space”. As in Russia, the idea of a strong and unified national culture rooted in ancient history bolsters a political and moral claim: for Xi, the consistency of Chinese civilisation “determines on a fundamental level that the Chinese must follow their own path”. And this way of thinking about civilisations as equal but distinct has reached the moral heart of the west: four Greek and four Chinese universities partnered to launch a Centre of Ancient Chinese and Greek civilisations last year in Athens, whose ancient port of Piraeus is now owned by the Chinese state shipping line.

The idea of a world of civilisations emerged in something like its modern form at the end of the cold war. In 1996 the Harvard political scientist Samuel P Huntington made a prescient case for conflict between civilisations as the defining feature of a new era, arguing that the most important distinctions between people were now cultural and religious rather than political and economic.

He identified nine contemporary civilisations, including “Western”, “Orthodox” and “Islamic”, but he also projected civilisations themselves deep back into time: “Human history is the history of civilisations. It is impossible to think of the development of humanity in any other terms.” And no wonder, if you also believe, as Huntington did, that “during most of human existence, contacts between civilisations were intermittent or nonexistent”.

The School of Athens, a fresco painted between 1509 and 1511 by Raphael, shows scientists, philosophers and mathematicians from the ancient world © Universal History Archive/Getty

Civilisational thinking of this kind depends on an idea of separate cultures growing like individual trees in a forest, with their own roots and branches distinct from those of their neighbours. They emerge, flourish and decline, and they do so largely alone. Growth and change are the result of internal development, not external connections. Civilisations might change their names on this model, but they don’t change their nature.


However you explain them, civilisations may seem like natural facts about the world, so that the only interesting questions appear to be how some do better than others or why they clash. But they are a modern confection, invented by 19th-century scholars to emphasise the superiority of their own nations and the justice of their empires. 

The word “civilisation” appears for the first time in France in the 1750s, introduced by the Marquis de Mirabeau. Contemporaries spoke of polite society, or civility, distinguishing modern Europe from its feudal past and accompanying the rise of commerce. But politeness was so often the face of superficiality, hypocrisy and corruption, and for Mirabeau, as Cambridge historian Michael Sonenscher has explained, true “civilisation” had a moral dimension that mere civility lacked.

Wider adoption of the word over the following decades, then, was a product of Enlightenment ideals of universalism and historical human progress — from hunters to shepherds to farmers to merchants, for instance, as Scottish philosophers argued, or, according to the German philosopher Hegel, from fetishists to polytheists to Protestants.

Civilisation in this sense was the ultimate goal of human flourishing, and in theory in reach of the whole population of the world — even if Europeans considered themselves best suited to achieve it. The idea helped to justify European imperial ventures in India and east Asia as a cultural mission to improve the lives and minds of the colonised. As the Scottish historian James Mill put it in 1810, “this English government in India, with all its vices, is a blessing of unspeakable magnitude to the population of Hindostan.”

In the 19th century this singular concept disintegrated as scholars identified multiple civilisations tied to specific regions, separate and rarely equal. This “civilisational thinking” in the plural added a reassuring new element to notions of European cultural superiority: the idea of distinct cultures that were not only different but always had been — and always would be. Many had natural limits to their progress, it now seemed, just like the human “races” coming into scientific focus around the same time. Meanwhile, national imperial strategies entered a more straightforwardly exploitative and violent phase, culminating in the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo. 

The intellectual historian Georgios Varouxakis has traced the phrase “western civilisation” back to the 1840s, and even then it was a slippery concept. In the middle of the 19th century, the “west” already marked a boundary with Russian interests for commentators on both sides of that border; by the end the focus from the western side extended to Islam. In 1891, Edward Freeman, regius professor at the University of Oxford, published a History of Sicily from the Earliest Times that invoked the same fundamental opposition between the island’s ancient Greek and Phoenician inhabitants as between its later Christian and Muslim ones: the central question, he said, that had to be fought out was “whether the central island of the central sea should belong to the West or to the East, to the men of Aryan or Semitic stock”.

The roots of the west were murky too, but scholars came to agree that they were local, reaching back to the coasts of the classical Mediterranean, the German forests or the beleaguered European redoubt of medieval Christendom.


As a classicist I’m conflicted. The place of Greece and Rome at the core of western civilisation has traditionally been central to the appeal of my field, and this isn’t going away: every year, applicants to Oxford still tell me that this is what has brought them to my course. They’re not misguided either. It is true that ancient Athenians were enthusiastic slavers and male supremacists. But the classical world can also provide inspiration for the modern west, with models for radical democracy or powerful dramas of refugee trauma and the horrors of war.

As a historian, I know that civilisational thinking is simply wrong. Local and regional cultures come and go, but they are created and sustained by interaction. The encounters involved don’t have to be friendly. But it is those connections that drive historical change, from the boats that brought the African donkey and the Eurasian wheel to the Aegean in the third millennium BCE to the ships equipped with the Chinese compass that brought Europeans to the Americas 4,000 years later, to conquer them with Chinese gunpowder.

My Greeks and Romans knew this too. They divided the world not by race, culture or creed but by climate and ecology. A Greek medical text written around 400BCE called “Airs, Waters, Places” explains that because in Asia the temperature is relatively stable and the climate mild, things grow well and everything is both beautiful and large, including the people. They are also gentle and affectionate, but they lack courage and endurance, enterprise and high spirits. Europeans, by contrast, are tougher, more courageous and more warlike — as well as wild, unsociable and passionate.

The claim is not that Asians or Europeans naturally behave in any particular way: it is that the environment encourages particular behaviours, both among those born in these lands and in visitors. Aristotle meanwhile located Greece itself between Asia and Europe, in the best of both worlds. 

Classical authors focused more in any case on connectivity. Romans emphasised the importance of encounters and exchange in a world in constant motion: the poet Catullus could imagine journeying with friends to India, Arabia, Parthia, Egypt and even “the Britons at the edge of the world”, while the elder Pliny, a polymathic scholar most famous for his death investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE, claimed that only the Indians never migrated.

The idea of European civilisation was used to justify imperial ventures. Here, an English representative from the East India Company is depicted towering above those around him © Print Collector/Getty Images

Greek legends, meanwhile, linked their own heroes by blood and travel to the queens, kings and gods of foreign lands: Phoenicians, Phrygians and Amazons. And Greek scholars acknowledged their debts: Plato has Egyptians invent mathematics, geometry and astronomy, while Herodotus explains that the Greek alphabet came from Phoenicia, and was known in Greece as Phoenician letters.

He was right on both counts, and the arrival of the alphabet was more revolutionary than it may sound. It is apparently more natural for humans to record syllables than individual sounds: there are many examples around the world of independently developed syllabaries, but all modern alphabets bar one go back to a single writing system developed by speakers of a Levantine language — a predecessor of Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic — almost 4,000 years ago. Via Phoenicia and Greece it reached Rome, and the modern west. Arabic took it from Aramaic. The only exception is Korean Hangul, the personal creation of Sejong the Great in the 15th century CE to improve literacy levels in his kingdom.

What even Herodotus didn’t know is that Phoenician letters weren’t invented in the Levant itself. Instead, the first signs securely identified as alphabetic letters were found in the Egyptian royal turquoise mines in the mountains of Sinai, scrawled there around 1800BCE by Levantine guest-workers, adapting hieroglyphs they couldn’t read to record a language they hadn’t previously felt the need to write.

Reading and writing in one’s own spoken tongue may seem natural today, especially to English speakers. But for many it is a relatively recent choice, and in antiquity it was unusual. Formal communication in the Levant happened in the languages of larger empires, above all Babylonian Akkadian, which was written down in a cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script with hundreds of signs for different words and syllables.

A cuneiform tablet discovered in Najaf, Iraq, dating from the 22nd-21st century BCE © AFP via Getty Images

Literacy was a niche skill, learnt with great labour and only by scribes, until the inventors of the alphabet devised a neat trick. Each of their “letters” was originally a little picture, signalling for them the first sound of the word for the item depicted. So the sign for “a” was the head of a bull, “alef” in the Levantine language, “b” was a schematic house or “bet”, and so on. Because the signs represented sounds, not syllables, there were far fewer of them. And you didn’t actually have to learn them anyway: you just needed to know the language, and the trick.

It was living abroad that gave these Levantine migrants reasons to write things down for the first time, to communicate to each other and their gods, and it gave them new tools to do so: they borrowed their alphabetic pictograms themselves from the Egyptian signs they saw around them — if often written back to front or upside down. 

The alphabet wasn’t the only west Asian innovation to reach the classical Mediterranean in its formative phase: the Levant has always been a crossroads of cultural interchange. Semitic loanwords into Greek often concern business and trade, and Levantine entrepreneurs must have introduced Greek-speakers to west Asian financial technologies such as deposit banking, marine insurance and bottomry loans.

By contrast, the numbers used in the modern west bypassed Greece and Rome completely. Greeks counted with their new alphabetic letters, while Romans borrowed a basic tally system from their Etruscan-speaking neighbours. Our standalone numerals were invented in India around 250BCE, building on a much older Mesopotamian counting system that used different columns for numbers of different powers. Indian scholars kept this positional notation, which is why 11 now means eleven and not two, but they replaced the cuneiform wedges that Babylonians tallied in groups of 60 with individual numerals from 1-10, and then perfected the system with the invention of zero. 

These Indian numerals had reached Arabic scholars in Baghdad by the ninth century CE, replacing the use there too of alphabetic letters: as a result, numbers in Arabic are still written not from right to left, like the rest of the language, but as in India from left to right. By the 12th century, adventurous Christian travellers like Adelard of Bath were encountering these “Indo-Arabic” numbers in the Islamic kingdoms of southern Europe, but they took a long time to catch on: even in 1500 most Europeans were still using Roman numerals.

Members of the far-right Patriot Front march through Washington DC last May © Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Such histories may seem to have little to do with the rise of populist isolationism in the US and Europe over the past decade. But although that is often couched in nationalist terms, it is based in a larger concern about a unique western heritage, where ancient Greece and Rome are easily hijacked as a sign of European cultural or simply racial superiority which Greeks and Romans themselves would have found absurd. American white nationalists from the Texas Revolution in the 1830s to the Capitol in 2021 wave flags with the apocryphal words molon labe — “come and take it” — supposedly addressed by a Spartan king to Persian invaders (they did). 

First promoted by the French activist Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, the theory that the white or indigenous European population is being replaced by immigrants in a form of reverse-colonisation is now a staple of rightwing conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and mass shooters around the world. This poisonous rhetoric depends heavily on the idea of a distinct civilisation — French, British, western or white — that is under threat from different and alien cultures and especially from their children. 

But it’s the idea of civilisation itself that is the real problem, and in particular the notion that it is a zero-sum game, with higher cultures under threat from migrant, fecund foreign values. There has never been a pure western culture that is now under threat of pollution. No single people is an island, unless they’ve been there for a very long time and haven’t invented boats. And that’s a good thing: without new relationships between different people exchanging unfamiliar ideas, nothing much would ever happen at all.

Josephine Quinn is a professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford. Her book ‘How the World Made the West: A 4,000-Year History’ is published by Bloomsbury on February 29

Main image shows statues of, from left, the sixth-century Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata; Greek goddess Athena; al-Biruni, an 11th-century Persian polymath; the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius

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