"Civilization" is a tricky term, one that means many things to many people. For some, it denotes great buildings, canals, codes of law; for others, it offers a contrast between one group and another, with the advantage always going to the more "civilized" bunch against the "barbaric," "savage," or "primitive."
All such distinctions, writes Oxford University historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, are arbitrary and laden with subjective value; they speak to unscientific notions of progress, to hidden agendas. What matters, he continues, is the extent to which a culture has developed means to separate itself from nature: "Civilization makes its own habitat. It is civilized in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment." A culture such as the ancient Han Chinese, the medieval highland Maya, or the Renaissance Venetian, then, is highly civilized inasmuch as its members dammed and diverted rivers, drained lakes, stripped forests, and built monumental structures to celebrate their achievements; people content or resigned to "live off the product and inhabit the spaces nature gives them" are markedly less so by virtue of that accommodation.
No culture, Fernández-Armesto writes, is inherently exempt from becoming civilized; nor, he adds, does "civilized" equate to "good." In exploring history as a branch of historical ecology, he sometimes abandons his thesis, intriguing and provocative as it is, to engage in a wide-ranging survey of the world past reminiscent of (but much better-written than) Toynbee and Durant, touching on the ancient Greeks here, the herding peoples of the African savanna and Central Asia there, the Moundbuilders of prehistoric North America and the hunting peoples of the Arctic there. Unlike many standard textbooks, his narrative manages to offer something new wherever he turns. Allusive and learned, his book repays close reading--and should inspire plenty of argument along the way. -- Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Enthusiastic readers of popular history have come to expect the author of Millennium and Truth: A History and Guide for the Perplexed to deliver a read filled with wonders, important insights, wit and outrageous opinion. In this marvelous new work, Fern ndez-Armesto, a member of the Modern History Faculty at Oxford, starts with a simple premise: civilization is not evidenced by a formal political structure, aesthetics, ethical principles or religion, but rather by a culture's attempt to refashion its environment. His overview of the world's civilizations (arranged by habitat desert, tundra, etc. rather than by more traditional categories such as chronology or technological aptitude) admits no progress, and, in fact, alleges that to believe otherwise is a dangerous business that breeds complacency in the face of moral perils. The vivid writing is equal to the scope of the author's ambition, to catalogue most, if not all, of the civilizations the world has seen. So infectious is Fern ndez-Armesto's passion for his subject that no exotic person (Khmer King Suryavarman II) or place (the Inca retreat of Quispaguanca) no matter how remote seems superfluous to the text. Scattered within the fact-filled portraits are numerous opinions on topics large and small, opinions that mark Fern ndez-Armesto, if not a contrarian, a formidable iconoclast: civilization did not "originate" in the "alluvial soils" of Mesopotamia, the idea of Proto-Indo-European language developing in isolation is "an obvious fantasy" and "most" accounts of history include "too much hot air and not enough wind." But, despite a chilling evaluation of "western civilization" (for which he claims affection) and its global influence, he concludes on a pragmatic, almost optimistic note, resolving that "there is no remedy except to go on trying."
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