Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

3 June 2010


Khirokitia-Vouni, the remains of a neolithic settlement on Cyprus.

I have written a lot about civilization here, and developed several ideas and distinctions in relation to civilization, and now I have a slightly novel distinction to add to my previous expositions.

Civilization as we know it from its inception to the present day has consisted of two major periods, subdivisions of integral history as I have called it — the integration of humanistic narrative history and scientific natural history. These periods are the agricultural and the industrial. The Industrial Revolution that began in England in the late eighteenth century and subsequently transformed Europe, North America, much of South America, and is now visiting China is a point of transition in integral history from agricultural civilization to industrial civilization.

Although agricultural civilization and industrial civilization are distinct, they have much in common — as it to be expected from both being instances of civilization. What we may not notice is that the most prevalent structural commonality of agricultural civilization and industrial civilization is that both are instances of settled civilization. The transition from prehistoric hunter-gatherers to agricultural civilization was both a civilizing process and a settling process: civilization emerged, and that emergence was integral with the transition from a nomadic to a settled way of life for the greater part of humanity.

Civilization to date has been mostly (if not exclusively) settled civilization. In Viking Civilization (and several other posts such as Muscular Paganism) I argued that the Vikings constituted a unique form of civilization distinct from that form of civilization commonly instantiated in history, and that this was a nomadic, mobile civilization — a civilization founded upon a presumption of transience rather than upon the illusion of permanence.

Whether or not one agrees with me that the Vikings constituted a unique and distinct form of civilization, and whether or not one believes such a form of civilization to have ever been actually instantiated in history, we can clearly see that a unique and distinct conception and indeed a unique and distinct practice of civilization is possible. In other words, even if all civilization to date has been settled civilization, that does not mean that civilization eo ipso is limited to settled civilization. There remains at least the possibility of a civilization not based on a settled way of life. I am not sure what best to call this — unsettled civilization, nomadic civilization, and transient civilization all sound a bit awkward, though I would favor the last of these, and will use this in the meantime in the absence of any better designation.

I would argue that transient civilization has been instantiated more than once in history, although settled civilization has obviously been the rule. In addition to the Vikings, I would cite the Mongols as an instance of transient civilization, and perhaps also the plains Indians of North America. Again, the Mongols, like the Vikings, are often invoked as the antithesis of civilization; Genghis Khan is taken to be the very incarnation of barbarism. But, as I have pointed out, warlike peoples have an interest in cultivating a fearsome reputation. If one’s object of conquest capitulates without a fight on the basis of the conqueror’s fearsome reputation alone, then victory is that much easier. And we know that in the natural egalitarianism and competitiveness of warrior societies that calculated risks are a way of life. This is an eminently rational approach to war. While warriors may contest with each other how many heads or scalps they can take in a day, they will not scruple to accept an easy victory if it is offered to them.

While it is the case that civilization today, and indeed all civilization up until today, has been predominantly settled, it could well be that the great age of transient civilization is yet to come in some distant future of humanity. And why should this not be a hope? Could an age of transient civilization offer anything worse than the horrors of the twentieth century, with its relentless iterations of revolution, genocide, and terror? And as much as the political condition of the twentieth century can be an object lesson to all future ages, so the aesthetic condition of the twentieth century has equally important lessons. The classical ideals of order, harmony and proportion, once uncritically identified with civilization itself, were shown to be ephemeral and less robust and necessary than was thought. It could be argued that the civilization of the twentieth century has provided us with a rigorous conceptual and aesthetic basis for a transient civilization in so far as it showed us that civilization without Grecian order, harmony, and proportion is possible — and not only possible, but that this has essentially superseded the Hellenistic ideal the preceded it.

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The neolithic nuraghi on the island of Sardinia resemble the circular neolithic structures of Cyprus. Does this indicate cultural contact and idea diffusion, perhaps even thriving water-borne commerce already in the neolithic period? Or is this rather evidence of convergence?

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3 Responses to “Civilizations Settled and Unsettled”

  1. T. Greer said

    It is an interesting idea. I am curious as to what makes a civilization “transient”, however. If it is simply a matter of nomadism then every hunter and gatherer society is to be included. And what about migratory societies – those who live a nomadic lifestyle because they migrating somewhere else? (Polynesian explorers, Germanic hoardes, Mormon pioneers, ect?) Do these count as transient civilizations, even if they are only so for a season?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comments, which are right on target. This is an idea that I need to develop in greater detail. At present it is quite vague and would greatly benefit from some analytical rigor, so I cannot as yet say exactly what it is that makes a civilization transient. However, if we count prehistoric peoples prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution as not yet civilized, their nomadic existence does not count as a transient civilization. I like your suggestion of migratory societies, and will definitely have to think more about Polynesians in the South Pacific.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        Allow me to lend a hand. Since you said elsewhere that a civilization is defined based on the life/occupation of the majority of the population, then it follows that a transient civilization is defined as a civilization in which the majority of individuals in it are itinerants.

        I refer to itinerancy instead of mobility to avoid confusion, since modern industrial society has a great deal of mobility while still basically being settled. of course, under the agricultural paradigm, it was not unusual for people to live out their lives within 20 miles of their birthplace.

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