Civilization is a process of taming and cultivating raw human nature. It requires a lot of effort and dedication over generations, but the end result is well worth it. Civilization includes the cultivation of the intellect, the creative arts, and social organization. The highest civilizations achieve the first-rate in all three areas.
The word “civilization” derives from the Latin civitatis, meaning city or community. People who live in cities can organize and concentrate political, religious, and social institutions that were previously spread out across separate communities. Cities also provide a central point for the production and trade of goods and services. In a way, cities are the precursors of modern nations. In addition to concentrating social, religious, and economic institutions, cities provided the basis for political structures that allowed people to mobilize large amounts of resources and labor. These communities are called states, and many civilizations grew alongside states or included several states. These states gave rise to the idea of a hierarchy of power with elite leaders, a court system, and a bureaucracy.
Big historians have debated the question of what it takes for a society to be considered civilized. Some scholars have argued that a civilization requires a high level of specialization of jobs. That is, some members of a society have to do very important and demanding work, while others focus on other less important work such as producing food and clothing. Other scholars have argued that a civilization requires the development of a sophisticated infrastructure, including the construction of cities and roads. And still other scholars have argued that a civilization must include a state that can control the lives and property of its citizens, and that it requires a well-developed and stable food supply.
In the past, most people who used the term “civilization” meant a complex stratified society that could support the existence of cities. They were often referring to the societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Middle East, the Indus Valley region in what is now Pakistan and India, the Huang He (Yellow River) valley in China, or the kingdoms of West Africa, including Great Zimbabwe and Ife.
These early societies shared certain common traits, such as advanced farming and domestication of animals, developed pottery and metalworking techniques, and hierarchical class systems. These traits made possible a range of other cultural achievements, from writing to mathematics and organized religion.
Many cultures went unrecognized as civilizations until recently, when more information about these ancient communities became available. Then, as long-held nationalistic and racialist narratives have been rejected, the number of civilizations that have been recognized has grown rapidly. Today, most big historians accept that the concept of civilization is a complex and dynamic one. The goal is to learn how to identify and describe these diverse human communities.