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Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature Reprint Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743202497
ISBN-10: 074320249X
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (June 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074320249X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743202497
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #806,850 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As an adolescent, Fernandez-Armesto read the first volumes of Toynbee's "A Study of History" and "vowed never to return to them." Later in life, he "found that Toynbee's work is half full of wisdom," and "Civilizations" owes much to that half, admitting that his doctrine of "challenge and response"--the interrelationship between humans and their environment--is a "powerful and useful characterization" of how civilization can be measured. Inspired by this and other ideas, Fernandez-Armesto here defines and organizes civilizations by "their systematic refashioning of nature."
Spanning over ten millennia, proceeding from tundra societies to maritime empires, and incorporating histories both obscure and familiar, "Civilizations" is a cornucopia of minutiae and generalizations, and the breadth of Fernandez-Armesto's reading and knowledge is staggering. Since he covers hundreds of societies, many get only a page or two while others get more detailed treatment, and the encyclopedic aspect of this work can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. (Readers lacking a historical atlas will probably find the lack of maps quite frustrating.) The book works best when the author is making a point or telling a story, as when he takes the reader on a tour of the wonders of the classical (Greek) world, when he discusses both the inflated significance and the true accomplishments of Vasco da Gama, or when he focuses, in the book's final chapters, on the importance of maritime history (his specialization) during the last thousand years. "Civilizations" falters a bit, however, when Fernandez-Armesto sketches cultures with which he seems to have a passing knowledge (Songhay, New Guineau, the Mound Builders).
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Format: Paperback
I admit that I have every known work published by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Almost all deserve that coveted five star award (exception being TRUTH). The current work is more than a history of various groups of peoples we conventiently call civilizations - culture would be apt. The originality of this work is its premise, namely that civilizations are to evaluated on their reaction to their environment.
It makes for interesting bed-fellows; one can group African and Arab desert tribes with the Lapps and Inuits. Upon reflection it makes sense to view things this way. The similarities among these various groups is amazing considering their geographical isolation and cultural diversity. But each ecological niche - sand, mountains, oceans, jungles, grasslands, swamps - have the same problems and obstacles regardless of their geographical location - whether near the North Pole, in the Andes or in the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia.
Fernandez-Armesto's works tower over felllow journalists simply because they extend further, make bolder claims, ask the right questions. Despite his interest and reverence for primitive peoples, he is not a multi-culturist who claims that every civilization is morally equal or that this kind of short, brutish life is preferable to our contented, abundant ones. He does ask for an attentive ear and an open mind for this lesson in history, language, food, customs and ideas.
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Format: Hardcover
Truth be said. Nowadays it is hard to find an accurate and impartial history of civilization, and most of the civilizations we'll be able to read about do not illustrate the effort to transform the environment like some of the civilizations portrayed in this book. The book is arranged according to similarities in the environment which sprouted especific civilizations and which similarities these weathers produce in their civilizations.
In a different manner to what you'll most often find, he will explain the similarities of civilizations neither as the product of a proto civilization nor as a global consciousness, but rather as a direct consequence of the desire to transform the environment. The other thing that made this book refreshing (I know that most wont find a comparative history of civilizations refreshing) is how lucid Fernandez-Armesto's thougths on civilization are.
On most explanations you'll find that the process of civilization is a way to improve the way of life, which this book clearly proofs wrong, via evidence, not because he is against civilization, but because in a short term it would reduce the diet of humans, and would increase infectious diseases.
This is not only a work of history, but it clearly ilustrates the human mind and how it adapts, not only to it's own environment, but to external cultural influences. Though, as said on other reviews, Armesto fails to deliver all he promised (probably because he promises too much), still his work is worth of praise.
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Format: Paperback
Fernandez-Armesto's venture into environmental history extends his reputation as the leading scholar producing large-scale history. In "Civilizations" he classifies civilizations according to the general type of environment in which they arose, thrived and (often) declined. He then analyzes their ability to adapt to those conditions, as well as exploring other influences. The result is an ambitious if not wholly successful work, but still a notably thoughtful one. Among other merits, his fine discussion of the thorny issue of defining a "civilization" is both sensible and relaxed, unlike some more overrwrought treatments (Spengler, Toynbee, Huntington). Like all his work, "Civilizations" is studded with insightful comments and distinguished by sparkling literary style. That said, there are some flaws. Some alternate typologies for categorizing societies and cultures are equally valid, and despite his best efforts, this work does not completely escape the shadow of determinism. This otherwise well-illustrated book is not well-supplied with the maps, diagrams and statistical tables that are very helpful in dealing with environmental data. Finally, the author relies almost exclusively on published primary and secondary sources, but this is really a necessity in writing history on such a huge canvas. It's the only way to avoid the "Lord Acton Trap:" that famous Victorian historian sought to narrate the whole history of human liberty entirely from manuscript sources, and as a result he never completed a single book. Write on, Dr. Felipe!
NB It's perfectly legitimate to use one's own earlier material in subsequent works, with proper citation. The best remedy is for buyers to examine the second book fully---or else read the first more carefully!
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