Professor Greg Melleuish, political scientist and historian at the University of Wollongong, explores the question: What is western civilisation?17 August 2018
Prof. Greg Melleuish
The question regarding the nature of western civilisation is not an easy one to answer, not least because of the way in which those of us who are the products of Western civilisation think about such things. Three preliminary points are worth making:
- The word civilisation was created during the Enlightenment. Its first usage in English is in Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society (1767) but it was not used in the plural until quite a number of years later. It is worth noting that Guizot, writing in the 1820s called his lectures and book Histoire de la civilisation en Europe not Histoire de la civilisation européenne.1 Western civilisation does not really appear on the scene until the twentieth century and is largely an American creation.
- The word civilisation is not the only word used in the ‘West’ to describe a complex social order. Before there was civilisation there was the word police from which the modern term policy is derived. Many figures of the late eighteenth century used this term including Ferguson and Adam Smith. Police has a largely political connotation, while civilisation is a response to the rise of commercial society. Culture emerged in the nineteenth century, in part as a response to what was seen as the overtly materialist and commercial nature of civilisation in countries such as England.2 In particular, Germans favoured Kultur as possessing a spiritual dimension in opposition to what was seen as the shallow and materialist nature of civilisation.
- One can be a civilised person without living in a civilisation. Being civilised can be seen as behaving in a particular way, generally marked by moderation and decency
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