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Understanding Culture and Civilization

By FabianLyngdoh

            There seems to be a need to understand the concepts of culture and civilization not only from the scholars and academics’ view-points but also from the common man’s perspective. Though there has been a burgeoning interest in the concept of culture, but there has not been much precision in its use, and the concept has been used in a number of ways which tend to overlap with one another. At times, culture refers to the finer things of life, refinement, achievement and appreciation of the fine arts, music and literature.But culture is also widely defined by scholars as the pattern of behaviour, attitude, value or belief, and skills that human beings learned as members of a human group. It is the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, laws, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

Civilization is different from culture though sometimes the two concepts seem to overlap. According to some views, civilization refers to the sum total of attainment of the  characteristics of life in an organized city or state. It covers not only social organisations but all other achievements which distinguishes man from the animals. The term ‘civilization’ is also used to distinguish levels of human development, to mark off civilized peoples from barbarians, or nature-peoples from culture-peoples. But in German social thought, it is culture that was held to be the repository of human excellence, artistic achievement and perfection, while civilization was regarded as a process of material development which threatened individual culture by creating an urban mass society.

For the Enlightenment thinkers, the notion of civilization was inextricably connected with the idea of social progress, that is, the triumph of rationality over religion, the decline of local particular customs and the rise of natural science. Civilization is also associated with the growth of absolutist state, and therefore with the reduction of local political autonomy, and with greater cultural uniformity within states.That is the reason why minority cultural communities are apprehensive of any signs of civilization and cling more on the ideas of tradition and culture.

Scholars of various disciplines have defined culture and civilization in a number of ways according to their own points of view. Let us here try to understand culture and civilization from a different perspective. Cultural ways has the past in view and maintains a close link with it, while civilization concerns more with the present and the future in its agenda.Culture concerns more with the sacredness of established way of life, while civilization concerns more with facing and challenging the emerging problems of life. From the point of view of culture, customs and traditions are sacred and more important than man, but from the point of view of civilization, man is more important than laws and customs which are only the means to serve the needs of man. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark, 2:27). In cultural societies, the basis of all laws in the society lie with the traditional socio-religious code prescribed by people who are dead and gone, but in a civilized society, the basis of all laws lie with the will of the living people, understood as the ‘civil society’. In the context of culture, man is expected to condition his behaviour according to established customs and traditions, while in the context of civilization, laws and customs are expected to be made according to the present need of man. That is the reason why the constitutions and laws of civilized nations are always provided with amendment clauses, so that the law may be amended from time to time according to emerging conditions and circumstances of life.So, a cultured person is one who is refined in the art of living according to established customs, but a civilized person is one who is refined in the knowledge and skills of dealing with the present problems of life.

Some scholars opined that civilization is the decaying phase of culture, the phase in which culture loses its creativity and becomes mechanical and imitative. But I would like to present the idea on the contrary that it is culture which is the decaying phase of civilization. We learned from history that every nation started from a certain level of civilization and it was built on the effort of civilization, but later it got transformed into a cultural system and people began to live in luxury and sloth. They converted their founders or conquering heroes into gods and goddesses and some sort of social religion was started and priesthood was instituted to perform religious rites to honour or placate the spirits of the deified ancestors. Thus socio-religious culture was established in which the past is holier than the present, and the dead are given more importance than the living. The socio-religious codes became the infallible laws of the state to maintain the absolute rule of the king and the special privileges of the priestly hierarchy. Then they were overrun by new adventurous conquerors who are driven more by the spirit of the present than that of the culture of the past. Thus, civilization decayed into culture, and culture was conquered by fresh agency of civilization that gives more importance to facts and actions than to ideas and feelings.

Culture is also understood as relative in the sense that different societies or cultures ought to be analysed objectively without using the values of one culture to judge the worth of another, and that the practices of a society should be described from the point of view of its members, as the beliefs are relative to particular society and are not comparable between societies. There are therefore no absolute values common to all humanity. Hence we cannot say that the culture of such and such a community is superior to the other. For this reason, it was sometimes opined that cultural communities should not be made civilized because they are happy as they are in their own culture.  However, though every human society has sufficient elements of culture to sustain itself in its particular territory, but it is only at a particular level of civilization. It is true that the apes and primitive peoples are happy as they are. Yet, we would kindly train and educate the apes to civilize them if we have the means to do so. Why should we then think of leaving primitive peoples as they are on the pretext of respect for cultural relativity or on grounds of conserving models of human primitiveness for the interests of scholars?

Every human community must be liberated from the conditions of uncivilized life. Their kind of happiness is dishonourable to the whole of human race. It is the happiness of eternal slaves of ignorance.Peoples of all races and tribes should avail the facilities of modern education, not for the sake of culture, because they already have that, but for the sake of civilization.The cultures of all communities are equal, but the level of civilization of one community may not be equal to that of the other. Granted that all cultures are equal, the civilization of a community is measured by how far its life is determined by its capabilities to meet the needs of the present situation than by the cultural values of the past. A particular tribal community may be alive and intact by the force of its cultural resources, but it may lack far behind other communities in civilization if it considers the honour of the ancestors who are dead as more important than the life of its members who are living. Civilisation concerns the growth of knowledge and the technical command over the forces of nature which is valid not only for a particular community as culture is, but it is valid for all humanity.

Civilization is ever changing and improving, while culture tends to remain static and sometimes stands as hindrance to civilization. Redundant but obstinate customs are negative social resources which add extra burden or even hindrance to human development. So, redundant traditional beliefs and customs though may not be easily ignored or be discarded right away, should not be counted as central and determining elements in the life of the society.To be a civilized society is not to be refined in the cultural precepts of the past, but to be able to harness scientific knowledge and technological skills to battle the odds of life and to be governed by the sociological principles of the present.Cultural precepts of the past must be integrated with the scientific and technological knowledge of the present in order that they may retain their relevance, because in the last analysis the present is the actual sovereign.Our cultural differences may sustain us as petty communities in various parts of the world, but it is not culture but modern civilization which sustains us as human beings through a system of political, social and economic interrelationships.

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