The Being of Civilization

9 March 2017


The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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5 Responses to “The Being of Civilization”

  1. gary schofield said

    Absolutely, this is a very interesting proposition: in effect you locate a point that is so consistent that even my subscription to your site is representative of its meaning, in as much as the need to interact in sustaining a civilised mind set is a continuous process, without which stagnation will occur. If I say I am not like a chimpanzee, I make the distinction ‘I am human’ the further up the scale toward similarity I go, the more complex the distinction has to become. It is interesting as it opens up avenues of enquiry concerning the sustainable natures of success and failure where city states are concerned i.e. the fundamental quality of state being measurable by its ontological position in the first instance; military might and politics being subservient to those self defining principles which are made tangible by their being manifested in the nature of the gods worshipped perhaps.
    Does the completed statement that begins ‘we are not like you because…’ exist in the tribal mind, if so how does this differ from the civilised mind?
    Thank you very interesting…

    • geopolicraticus said


      Minds flourish in the context of interaction with peers, as cities and civilizations flourish in the context of interaction with peers. The distinctive mode of human interaction David Christian calls “collective learning”; extrapolated to a social scale, interactions among cities and civilizations results in collective learning of a higher order (at a lower level, on a institutional level, this is sometimes called “institutional memory”).

      After I wrote this post I realized that I could now go back and revisit what I wrote in Why did Roman cities fail? and approach the dissolution of the being of (a given) civilization by way of the dissolution of the interaction of cities within the context of a shared civilization. This would extend my thesis from the origins of civilization to the failure of civilizations.

      Your question — Does the completed statement that begins ‘we are not like you because…’ exist in the tribal mind, if so how does this differ from the civilised mind? — is a complex one, and I will have to think about it before attempting an answer.

      Best wishes,


  2. gary said

    Hi Nick

    Thanks for that…

    Yes, I think I grasp the distinction you mention, I guess ‘institutional memory’ creates that which is sometimes called the normative position, which greatly contrasts with ‘collective learning’ a seeking outside the box as it were.

    I think there is much evidence to suggest a breakdown in the fabric of the Roman Empire’s system of beliefs, by Augustine’s time it was totally awash with different notions it seems. Maybe there is a period of growth, where new ideas are formulated, until a point of stability which is then held until new ideas destabilise it, and the society crumbles – a kind of paradox?

    Anyway must get on, thanks again…


    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Gary,

      Collective learning, when institutionalized, more often than not exemplifies the normative position. This is one reason the young so often rebel against institutionalized collective learning; it can deteriorate into little more than indoctrination, if not kept vital by some destabilizing influence.

      A society that has enough stability for individuals to live productive and satisfying lives, but with enough instability injected into the mix so that things don’t get stale, may be the non plus ultra of social order.

      The kind of paradox you mention is developed by Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in the sections in which he describes how the social system of capitalism produces the forces that seek its destruction. This wasn’t the case in Rome, but it is parallel: Roman peace, prosperity, and stability created the conditions under which Christianity could spread and flourish, and eventually undermine Roman civilization.

      Best wishes,


      • gary said

        Thanks Nick,

        My amateur supposition may be bad form, but I’m getting interesting answers 🙂

        ‘Being kept vital by some destabilising influence’ is quite a telling notion! I have come across this described as ‘the alienation of tradition’ as well somewhere.

        I think Christianity undermining Roman Civilization is a bit of a sweeping statement. I mean Constantine’s move to Byzantium wasn’t due to his acceptance of Christianity into the Empire, but a weakening of various aspects that had been going on for a long time. But I take your point that the infrastructure was there for Christianity to move into.

        I will read this weeks article a little later…



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