Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture and Civilization

The distinct meanings of these two words emerge fairly well when we speak of ourselves as a “multicultural society.” The unspoken meaning in that phrases is that we are now a “civilization.” In a designation like Greek or Roman culture, the two are hopelessly blended. Something like Greek culture existed in a more or less pure form, but when Athens and Sparta staged their early version of a, for them, world war, they had developed into civilizations. I imbibed this way of treating the two words when, anciently, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. For Spengler Kultur was the early, growing phase of a great collective, Zivilisation the later stage.

The root of culture is cultivation, thus agriculture, tilling, the Latin cultus—but that word also includes extensions of meanings like care and labor to include worship and reverence. Thus at the base of culture—religion.  At the base of civilization—the city. The root of the word is the Latin civis, meaning a townsman, later citizen, and from that came civitas, the city, replacing the original for that word, urbs; we still, of course, have urban areas and the behavior that goes with it (we hope), urbanity—when we are not civil.

In the life of the great big collectives, we move from very small settlements and larger aggregations of these held together by a common mode of worship—to vast urban conglomerations in which the transcendental view has thinned out to become a lifestyle. By the time we reach multiculturalism, culture is seen by the organs of civilization as an irrational residue to be tolerated as a civility.

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