Civilization, advanced state of a society possessing historical and cultural unity. This article is concerned with the problem of identifying specific societies that, because of their distinctive achievements, are regarded by historians as separate civilizations. Distinctive features of the various civilizations are discussed elsewhere.

The historical perspective used in viewing a civilization, rather than a country, as the significant unit is of relatively recent origin. Since the Middle Ages, most European historians have adopted either a religious or national perspective. The religious viewpoint was predominant among European historians until the 18th century. Regarding the Christian revelation as the most momentous event in history, they viewed all history as either the prelude to or the aftermath of that event. The early historians of Europe had little occasion to study other cultures except as curiosities or as potential areas for missionary activity. The national viewpoint, as distinct from the religious one, developed in the early 16th century, largely on the basis of the political philosophy of the Italian statesman and historian Niccolò Machiavelli, for whom the proper object of historical study was the state. After that period, however, the many historians who chronicled the histories of the national states of Europe and America rarely dealt with societies beyond the realm of European culture except to describe the subjection of those societies by (in their view) the more progressive European powers.



Historians became interested in other cultures during the Enlightenment. The development in the 18th century of a secular point of view and principles of rational criticism enabled the French writer and philosopher Voltaire and his compatriot the jurist and philosopher Montesquieu to transcend the provincialism of earlier historical thinking. Their attempts at universal history, however, suffered from their own biases and those prevalent in their culture. They tended to deprecate or ignore irrational customs and to imagine that all people were inherently rational beings and therefore very much alike.

Early in the 19th century, philosophers and historians identified with the Romantic movement criticized the 18th-century assumption that people were the same everywhere and at all times. The German philosophers Johann von Herder and G. W. F. Hegel emphasized the profound differences in the minds and works of humans in different cultures, thereby laying the foundation for the comparative study of civilizations.


According to modern historians of civilizations, it is impossible to write a fully intelligible history of any nation without taking into consideration the type of culture to which it belongs. They maintain that much of the life of a nation is affected by its participation in a larger social entity, often composed of a number of nations or states sharing many distinctive characteristics that can be traced to a common origin. It is this larger social entity, cultural rather than political, that such historians consider the truly meaningful object of historical study. In modern times, the existing civilizations have impinged more and more upon one another to the point that no one civilization pursues a separate destiny anymore and all may be considered participants in a common world civilization.

Some historians see striking uniformities in the histories of civilizations. The German philosopher Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West (1918-1922), described civilizations as living organisms, each of which passes through identical stages at fixed periods. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, although not so rigid a determinist as Spengler, in A Study of History (1934-1961) also discerned a uniform pattern in the histories of civilizations. According to Toynbee, a civilization may prolong its life indefinitely by successful responses to the various internal and external challenges that constantly arise to confront it. Many historians, however, are exceedingly sceptical of philosophies of history derived from an alleged pattern of the past. They are particularly reluctant to base predictions about the future on such theories.


Historians have found difficulties in delimiting a particular society and correctly labelling it a civilization; they use the term civilization to refer to a number of past and present societies that manifest distinctive cultural and historical patterns. Some of these civilizations are the Andeanone, which originated about 800 bc; the Mexican (c. 3rd century bc); the Far Eastern, which originated in China about 2200 bc and spread to Japan about ad 600; the Indian (c. 1500 bc); the Egyptian (c. 3000 bc); the Sumerian (c. 4000 bc); followed by the Babylonian (c. 1700 bc); the Minoan (c. 2000 bc); the Semitic (c. 1500 bc); the Graeco-Roman (c. 1100 bc); the Byzantine, which originated in the 4th century ad; the Islamic (8th century ad); and the Western, which arose in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages.

See Aegean Civilization; Africa; Archaeology; Aztec; Babylonia; Byzantine Empire; Carthage; Celts; China; Egypt; Etruscan Civilization; Europe; Germanic Peoples; Greece; Hittites; Inca; India; Islam; Japan; Jews; Judaism; Maya; Minoan Civilization; Palestine; Roman Empire; Sumer; Syria.