Why We Need a New Understanding of Civilisation

In the foreword to The Decline of Civilization, Romila Thapar argues that the current concept of civilisation is a partial understanding of a segment of the societies and cultures of the past, and thus a limited concept.

Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fanatics of all kinds today who build on the supposed intrinsic superiority of particular civilisations regard themselves equally as more civilised than the nonfanatical. They appropriate the concept of the civilisation that they are endorsing, read it in a way that suits their ideology and insist on its superiority. That then becomes the heritage that they claim from the past, irrespective of however garbled it may be.

What we now face is the fallout of the erstwhile division of the world into the civilised and the noncivilised. This has inevitably led to violence, terror and antagonism. The civilised would still like to claim status and power but are being challenged by the erstwhile so-called less civilised. The latter either wish to prove themselves by gaining control over the structures of the erstwhile civilised or argue for alternative structures. This contestation addresses the existing articulations and values but also demands some new ones to replace the old. This is what frequently results in the condition that Ramin Jahanbegloo describes as the decivilising society.

If this condition is to be remedied and the decivilising aspect removed, then we need a new understanding of the concept of civilisation. Such a new concept will have to induct the new but must also protect, in a fundamental way, what the notion of civilisation should be about, namely, the right of every human being to live with dignity together with all that it implies.

Ramin Jahanbegloo
The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore
Aleph Book Company, 2017

Civilisation, as this book points out, and as many of us have maintained, is not a concept that remains static. Its constituents change because when understood in terms of its historical moment, these can be appropriated or rejected. Ramin Jahanbegloo points out that decivilisation is not necessarily barbarism. But to think of it as such, as was common to colonial thinking, can have the consequence of totally negating those regarded as uncivilised. And we know that on occasion even the most civilised can act in an entirely unacceptable manner.

There is a dialectical relationship between what is thought of as civilised and its contradiction in the decivilised, the momentum of which requires us to redefine and refine what we understand by the concept of civilisation. One way of recognising this is through an awareness of the decivilising process in society – the subject of discussion in this book. Are we on the cusp of a radically new relationship with the world – with both the environment and its inhabitants – that will alter the core of the earlier relationship through restructuring our ethics and moral values? Or is the process of the decline of civilisation introducing the presence of other dimensions, hitherto hidden – of what we have regarded as the essence of being civilised?

The current concept of civilisation is at best a partial understanding of only a segment of the societies and cultures of the past from whom we seek our heritage. It is to that extent a limited concept. It is partial both in terms of representing only the elite cultures of any society, as well as in hesitating to concede that it is in the interconnections between cultures going back millennia that there lies the definition of civilisation. We can no longer base our understanding of the world on an image of civilisational blocks, clearly differentiated and demarcated, occupying our world. We have to now turn to demonstrating the interdependence of these civilisations and whatever cultures adhered to them, without which there could never have been the high achievements that they are associated with, nor a proper comprehension of what we mean by knowing the world.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore by Ramin Jahanbegloo.