NL XXXV: What Civilization Means Specifically

Index to this series

Civilization is a process, from barbarity towards the ideal of civility (35. 1). The ideal itself, and any particular stage along the way, are also called civilization (35. 11). This is our understanding from the previous chapter.

Civilization happens to a community. Any member can refer to the community in the first person plural: it is a “we” (35. 24). There is the corresponding possibility of a “not-we” (35. 25), in the sense discussed in Chapter VIII, “Hunger and Love” (8. 16). The “not-we” can be relative (35. 28) or absolute (35. 27), according as, to its own members, it is a “we” or not. To us, a relative “not-we” can be a “you” (35. 28). I shall suggest that the “not-we” is always at least a “they,” although Collingwood uses this only for the relative “not-we” (35. 28).

Now civilization has to be explained in terms of three things, corresponding to the three possible persons of a personal pronoun. Collingwood takes the order “we, they, you”; I shall reverse the last two.


Within a community, civilization means behaving civilly (35. 35), in a sense coming down from ancient Latin (35. 42). It is a negative sense: it means not arousing passions that diminish a person’s self-respect (35. 41). This means not using force on the person (35. 44), as was discussed in Chapter XXVII.

Since we never live in Utopia, there will be times when civility requires being uncivil (35. 49). Collingwood does not elaborate. In the chief example, I suppose A would be applying force uncivilly to B. Our intervention, forcible as needed, would obviously be civil to B. It would also be civil to A, at least if we expect A to recover their senses and their ability to feel shame.

Here we may recall the scenario in the Republic mentioned in the previous post: If, while in their right mind, A has deposited weapons with B, but then goes mad and tries to recover them, then the just thing to do is to stop A, forcibly if necessary.


Our community must deal with you foreigners, be you living among us as metics (35. 7), or abroad as strangers (35. 66). Treating you civilly is completely different from liking you (35. 72). This is shown by the rule that loathing you is no excuse for mistreating you (35. 77)—a rule forgotten by immigration officers in the US, with the support of the President. Collingwood’s example is “C. M. Doughty’s life as a metic among the Arabs” (35. 7); but what exactly Doughty is an example of is not so clear. What I remember from a television program around 1980 is that Doughty was openly Christian. T. E. Lawrence’s 1936 Introduction (all I have read, and this just now) to Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta confirms this, but I see no sign of mistreatment:

Forty years ago the desert was less hospitable to strangers than it is to-day. Turkey was still strong there, and the Wahabi movement had kept fanaticism vivid in the tribes. Doughty was a pioneer, both as European and Christian, in nearly all the districts he entered…

They say that he seemed proud only of being Christian, and yet never crossed their faith. He was book-learned, but simple in the arts of living, ignorant of camels, trustful of every man, very silent. He was the first Englishman they had met. He predisposed them to give a chance to other men of his race, because they had found him honourable and good. So he broke a road for his religion. He was followed by Mr. Wilfrid Blunt and Miss Gertrude Bell, other strong personalities. They confirmed the desert in its view of Englishmen, and gave us a privileged position which is a grave responsibility upon all who follow them. Thanks to them an Englishman finds a welcome in Arabia, and can travel, not indeed comfortably for it is a terrible land, but safely over the tracks which Doughty opened with such pains.

In principle, civil treatment may be promoted by trading with you (35. 69) or travelling among you, even though this may also bring out hatred (35. 73). Conversely, slave-owners could declare affection for their human property, though selling them off at will, as shown in an exchange between Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Chapter 8), a book with a lot to say about civilization:

“How do you come to be here, Jim, and how’d you get here?”

He looked pretty uneasy, and didn’t say nothing for a minute. Then he says:

“Maybe I better not tell.”

“Why, Jim?”

“Well, dey’s reasons. But you wouldn’t tell on me ef I ’uz to tell you, would you, Huck?”

“Blamed if I would, Jim.”

Well, I b’lieve you, Huck I—I run off.


“But mind, you said you wouldn’t tell—you know you said you wouldn’t tell, Huck.”

“Well, I did. I said I wouldn’t, and I’ll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t a-going to tell, and I ain’t a-going back there, anyways. So, now, let’s know all about it.”

“Well, you see, it ’uz dis way. Ole missus—dat’s Miss Watson—she pecks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn’t sell me down to Orleans. But I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun’ de place considable lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do’ pooty late, en de do’ warn’t quite shet, en I hear old missus tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn’ want to, but she could get eight hund’d dollars for me, en it ’uz sich a big stack o’ money she couldn’ resis’. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn’t do it, but I never waited to hear de res’. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.”

Collingwood’s example of such a situation does not ring true for me, since, according to what I was given to understand as a child (and no experience contradicted it), farm children are discouraged from treating animals raised for meat as pets:

35. 74. Conversely, people who keep pigs love them tenderly, but that does not prevent them from murdering the objects of their affection.

Incivility is not cruelty (35. 78). The former would seem to be the contradictory of civility, and so a remnant will persist in the civilizing community. This remnant could involve the “scientific and intelligent exploitation” of foreigners (35. 83), as if they were inanimate nature.

Cruelty would seem to be the contrary of civility, and thus to have no part of civilization.

35. 85. Our question is this: Granted that a civilization of admittedly low type can make it a rule to reduce non-members of the community to this servile state and to justify it as a rule and as part and parcel of a way of life, can we say the same about reducing non-members to the status of whipping-boys, objects of cruelties practised for the sake of cruelty?

In a word, No.

35. 92. We can pity a sadist, but we cannot allow him to be observing the rules of his own civilization. He has no civilization. He is nearer akin to a Yahoo than to the animal rationale that obeys the rules of a civilization, whether high or low.

In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the Supreme Court wrote about the founding of the United States:

[Africans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations…

Source: Richard D. Heffner, A Documentary History of the United States [third edition, 1976].

Despite Taney’s words, the United States might be admitted to a low level of civilization, if slaves were protected against arbitrary cruelty the way animals are today. However, the continuation of Taney’s sentence seems to reduce his country to a Yahoo state:

…and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at the time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race.

Africans still being human, as Taney seems to grant, treating them “as an ordinary article of merchandise” can be no part of civilized life.


If foreigners are not considered human (35. 61), then there is no obligation to treat them civilly (35. 65). There is still a way of behaving civilly with respect to them. It is what slave-owners do, when they use slaves systematically for profit.

Towards nature, that which is never “you,” civility means exploitation through intelligent labor (35. 5). This is a sense of being civil that developed in the Renaissance (35. 55). The emphasis is on intelligence. Even the lilies of the field exploit nature for their sustenance (35. 51), though they toil not, neither do they spin. Animals toil for their sustenance, though we think the labor unintelligent, at least if the animals are not human (35. 52), or even if they are human, but are “what we call ‘savage’ or devoid of civilization” (35. 53).

In the exploitation of nature, some of us think there is a distinction between needs and luxuries, as if the former were things we had a right to (35. 57). As Ted Nugent sang in Great White Buffalo,

Well, it happened long ago, in the new magic land:
The Indian and the buffalo, they existed hand in hand.
The Indian needed food; he needed skins for a roof.
He only took what he needed babe; millions of buffalo were the proof.
But then came the white dogs, with their thick and empty heads;
They couldn’t see past a billfold; they wanted all the buffalo dead.

The white dogs were barbarians. However, as to the general proposition that there are things in nature that we do have a right to:

35. 58. This is nonsense. There are no necessaries. Nature recognizes no more right to live in a man than in a wild flower (35. 51). What man needs of the natural world is what he thinks he can get from it. His catalogue of these needs undergoes expansion as his consciousness of power over the world of nature expands. As men become, in this second sense of the word, more ‘civilized’, what passed for luxuries are constantly being transferred into the list of necessaries, and new luxuries are constantly being invented.

We also learn to do without things, such as draft animals (35. 59). In short, I would say (and I have), nothing that we do is natural, unless perhaps we are “savages.”

According to the 1995 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the use of savage for “a member of a primitive tribe” is archaic and offensive. It seems to me that the adjective “primitive” is offensive, if it is used to mean, as the dictionary says, “early, ancient; at an early stage of civilization.” Early in some respects may be late in others, as with Huck and Miss Watson.

A friend of mine was critical of the use of savage in Collingwood’s Religion and Philosophy (1916), in passages such as the following, where the possibility of immediate human control over what we now call nature is envisaged (page 18, emphasis mine):

The God of whom we have been speaking was a purely abstract one, a mere name for the philosophical Absolute, the solution of the cosmological problem. Thus we said that savage ritual (religious or magical) implies a creed; but it may not imply anything we should call a theistic creed. The savage may believe that his ritual operates directly on the rain without any intervention on the part of a single supreme will. This is his “theory of God”; his “God” is not a person but a principle.

The savage here would seem not to believe in nature, in the sense discussed in An Essay on Metaphysics (pages 191–2). This is the sense of something that acts on its own, but never as one of us:

If there is to be anything at all which can in any sense be called natural science, the people in whose minds it is to exist must take it absolutely for granted that there is such a thing as ‘nature’, the opposite (contradictory) of ‘art’: that there are things that happen quite irrespectively of anything these people themselves do, however intelligently or fortunately, and irrespectively also of anything any one else may do even with skill and luck greater than their own.

In Chapter XXXIII of the New Leviathan, on the German failure to understand the classical politics, Collingwood recalls the words of Rousseau:

33. 17. ‘Man is born free,’ says Rousseau in the first words of the Contrat social, ‘and everywhere he is in chains. How did this happen? I do not know,’ he goes on, and bursts into tears.

It was observed in Chapter XXXII that, in the dialectice of politics, knowing where we have started from is of secondary importance (32. 36); so Rousseau need not have been too worried about lacking a theory of the non-social community (33. 18). Nonetheless,

33. 2. Rousseau’s German readers were so far from understanding what his difficulty was that they agreed to mean by ‘the natural condition of mankind’ not the nursery, but the cave; not the opposite of society, but the opposite of civilization. Naturmensch is the German for ‘savage’.

If, as we discussed, Hobbes’s notion of an “artificial man” made no sense to German philosophers, this would suggest that, for them, we were perpetual savages.

4 Trackbacks

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