The Story of Civilization: The Conditions of Civilization

Or the demon of earthquake, by whose leave we build our cities, may shrug his shoulders and consume us indifferently.
Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage“, page 1.
(Port-au-Prince, Haiti, soon after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 160,000 people.)

SUMMARY: Every civilization has economic, political, moral and social elements, and depends on geological and geographical conditions for its existence. But what preserves civilization is its transmission to our children — and the technique of such transmission is education.


“Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.” Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the quest for knowledge and art. “It begins where chaos and uncertainty end.” Because when man ceases to be afraid, his curiosity and constructive spirit are freed, and he naturally goes in search of understanding towards the embellishment of life.

Civilization depends on certain factors, and any of them may be decisive for its flowering or perishing.

As geological conditions, it is understood the fragility and ephemerality of man in relation to nature. Glaciations, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis are just some of the geological factors to whose whims civilizations are conditioned.

As geographic conditions, there is the heat of the tropics and their parasites and diseases, the amount of rainfall, the quality of the soils, the availability of rivers and natural harbors in the indentations of the coast, and, above all, if a nation finds itself located on world trade routes. “Geography, though it can never create it, smiles upon civilization, and nourishes it.”

Economic conditions are even more important. A people may possess orderly institutions, a high moral code, and even a tendency toward the arts, but if it does not transcend the stage of hunting and its existence continues always depending on chance, it will never pass completely from barbarism to civilization.

The main economic condition is a steady supply of water and food. The primordial culture is agriculture, for it is when man establishes himself in a fixed place and begins to plow the soil and accumulate provisions for the uncertain future that he finds the time and motivation to be civilized.

But while civilization begins with agriculture, it is with the city that it flourishes. It is there that the riches and minds produced in the countryside are directed. And it is at this crossroads of trade with minds that the intelligence of man sharpens and becomes creative power. There, some men can afford to abstain from manual labor and produce science and philosophy, literature and art. “Civilization begins in the peasant’s hut, but it comes to flower only in the towns.”

There are no racial conditions for civilization. “It is not the great race that makes the civilization, it is the great civilization that makes the people.” But there are certain important psychological conditions. There is a need of political order, so that man does not worry about being stolen or killed at every corner. It is necessary to have a unit of language and a unifying moral code. A certain unity of belief is usually advantageous as well. Finally, there must be education: there must be some technique in which the cultural heritage of a people can be transmitted to the young – “the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.”

But civilization is not something innate or indestructible. On the contrary, its existence is tenuous and must be maintained and renewed with each generation. It is through education that we preserve it.


  1. What is civilization?
  2. What are the elements of civilization?
  3. What kinds of conditions are necessary for its existence?

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