History #1: Civilization

Musings on Civilization

Throughout history, there is a recurring narrative regarding the interaction of civilized people and barbaric people. That narrative usually goes something like this, there is a group of uncivilized people, from the forest or the steppe or the mountains, who initially clash with another group of civilized people, from the valleys or cities. Eventually, the uncivilized people realize the benefits of settled agriculture and give up their barbaric ways. This is a narrative about change and progress, as the world continues its march towards a better tomorrow. But is it true?

Civilization: The beginning

The earliest civilizations, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, were all founded near river valleys. This was probably due to the fact that the rivers brought water which in turn made agriculture easier. This agricultural advantage led to a food surplus which is a concept deserving of some expansion.

Food surplus

Everything we take for granted in modern societies is the byproduct of food surplus. The classic economic thought experiment, of a man alone on an island, always starts the same way. This man starts his island life by focusing all his energy on acquiring food, water, and shelter. Eventually, through productivity increases, the man finds that he has a surplus of food, which allows him the option of allocating his energy to other endeavors.

From this basic idea, we get all of modern civilization. Art, writing, politics, and every other use of time other than farming, all stem from having a food surplus. If the production of food was not efficient enough to feed a population, the whole population would then be solely focused on producing food.

Civilization: Continued

Having this food surplus was a significant change from the earlier hundred thousand or so years when hunter gather societies reigned supreme. This food surplus allowed for both population growth and concentration, which led to the modern states we know today. The great civilizations of history, the Chinese empire, the Roman empire, the British empire, all of them were organized around a powerful state. It is interesting to note, that one of the most powerful and successful empires, the Mongol empire, isn’t usually thought of as being civilized solely because of their lack of agricultural and state roots.

All of this progress eventually accumulates in the highly cultured and state ran civilizations that the barbarians eventually realize the merits of and join with. But maybe this isn’t the right way to look at civilization.

Civilization: Rethought

Instead of viewing civilization as the societies that organize around culture, maybe civilization should be viewed as the societies with a powerful and controlling state. Framing it this way, the whole narrative might have more to do with individual freedom and oppressive states. After all, the power of a state usually rests on its army and its ability to tax which require a sedentary population of workers hold it up. The narrative of barbarians finding the light and joining civilization falls apart when civilization looks less appealing.

Maybe a narrative where the barbarians are actually fleeing civilization in order to escape subjugation is more fitting. Even in modern times, people flee to the mountains to escape states. For example, the mountain tribes of the middle east or a hermit living in the mountains of Colorado. Even the original American settlers might have been viewed as barbaric by their more civilized English counter parts. This brings up the possibility that life in the hills might be better than life in settled society, with its wars and taxes.

Civilization: Worth it?

Yes. All of these arguments for the free mountain life do sound appealing. Simple hunting and gathering worked for thousands of years and there is plenty of evidence that this lifestyle actually left more time for leisure than farming. However, all of this ignores the internet. Hunter gatherers never had the time to invent the internet. Ideas are what separates us from the people who lived thousands of years ago. The ideas of electricity, of physics, of philosophy, of antibiotics, all of these ideas stemmed from that repressive structure of civilization. Civilization, as we know it, might not be the most sustainable way of life, but I think it is the best one we have come up with.


The study of history isn’t about providing answers, but about providing context. The debate over whether civilization is worth it and how we should organize our societies isn’t going to be solved anytime soon. However, it is worth understanding both sides of that debate to better inform our own choices. Civilization allows for greater opportunities, but mountain life offers more freedom and sustainability. We all have a say in this debate, and the choice of how we organize our own lives, will have a compounding impact on future generations.




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