Orders of Civilization

14 July 2020


Yax Nuun Ahiin I, installed as king of Tikal by Siyaj Kʼakʼ in 379 AD.

Some time ago in a grab-bag post, Thinking about Civilization, I introduced a number of ideas I had been entertaining about civilization. One of these ideas was a distinction among what I called orders of civilization, and although I was a bit hesitant about this, I have subsequently used this idea in several posts, including Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, and Self-Transcendence and Developmental Stages of Civilization.

Here is now I initially laid out my orders of civilization:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time. (Iterated, civilization of the first order is a cluster, where the civilizations of the cluster exist simultaneously.)

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole. (Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series, where the civilizations in the series exist sequentially.)

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. (Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order.)

I have continued to have misgivings about whether this is a useful analytical tool in the study of civilization up until a couple of days ago, when I suddenly saw how it can be used to unwind an old problem — at least, an old problem for me. The problem in question is that of comparing civilizations so that the comparison is apples-to-apples and not apples-to-oranges. Once given a definition of civilization (which I formulate in terms of the institutional structure of large-scale social organization), all civilizations so defined have the definiens in common, and so any comparison among them is, in this sense, an apples-to-apples comparison. But the class of all civilizations can be decomposed in many ways, yielding subclasses of civilizations, and some of these can be importantly different so that we need to take account of them. What is the best way to decompose the class of all civilizations into subclasses? What decomposition yields the greatest analytical clarity?

The decomposition of the class of all civilizations that yields the greatest analytical clarity is that decomposition that allows us to give a systematic account of the inter-relationships among diverse civilizations in a way that employs a unified and coherent conceptual framework. What constitutes a unified and coherent conceptual framework is the topic for a treatise on the philosophy of science, but, intuitively, we know that we want clear, unambiguous concepts, a reasonable degree of parsimony, and classes defined by concepts that overlap very little or not at all, so that the decomposed class is exhaustively divided into its subclasses, with nothing left over and nothing that falls under two or more classes. The conceptual framework should also clearly exhibit the relationships among subclasses; when we employ the conceptual framework in question, we should know why and how the classified entities are in the classifications that they are in.

With the above in mind, I will revise my orders of civilization as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order Non-civilizations in the sense of being proto-civilizations or para-civilizations.

● Civilization of the First Order Civilization understood synchronically.

● Civilization of the Second Order Civilization understood diachronically.

● Civilization of the Third Order The development of civilization within a geographical region that involves both series and clusters in interaction.

● Civilization of the Fourth Order The development of civilization on a planetary scale.

These four orders of civilization could be further extended to five or more orders in the event of a spacefaring civilization that transcends planetary history.

The above revision isn’t all that different from my first formulation, but I needed to clean it up (and may need to further clean it up) in order to make the following point, which is primarily what I want to communicate: the institutional structure of civilization can be found at and within each order of civilization, and these institutional structures are distinct at each level, but directly related to the institutional structures at lower or higher orders. What this means is that there is an economic infrastructure, a conceptual framework, and a central project that inheres in the 0th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th orders of civilization, each of these institutional structures is distinct from the institutional structures at the other orders, and each institutional structure is related to the institutional structures of the other orders.

What this means is that, in a sufficiently complex historical milieu of civilizations, there could be a nascent central project of civilization of the 0th order, a synchronically understood central project of a single civilization of the 1st order, a diachronically understood central project of a single civilization of the 2nd order, undergoing development and manifesting itself differently in distinct synchronic milieu, a central project of the 3rd order relevant to multiple related civilizations, whether two or more civilizations within a geographical cluster, two more civilizations in a series, or more complex historical patterns of cluster/series or series/cluster (clusters of civilizations evolve over time, a series of civilizations may diverge into a cluster of civilizations, or a cluster may coalesce into a single civilization), and a central project of the 4th order that describes the totality of planetary-scale civilization over the totality of its lifespan. These same considerations hold true for the other institutional structures of civilization, meaning they hold true also for the economic infrastructure and the conceptual framework.

Now, some examples, so I’m not just dealing in abstractions. If we take a snapshot of some civilization at a moment in time, say, the Mayan early classic period, or, even more narrowly, the arrival of Siyaj Kʼakʼ at Tikal in 378 AD, we can analyze the institutional structures at this snapshot in time and delineate the economic infrastructure, conceptual framework, and the central project. This is civilization of the 1st order. If we take the entire history of Mayan civilization, from the earliest pre-classic period to the Spanish conquest, this is civilization of the 2nd order, which can be sequenced with the Mayan archaic period (its proto-civilization, i.e., civilization of the 0th order) and with Mayan cultural continuity after the Spanish conquest (its para-civilization, i.e., also civilization of the 0th order). The central project as it is exhibited over this historical development is distinct from the central project of the early classic period when Siyaj Kʼakʼ arrived at Tikal.

Mayan civilization did not appear (or disappear) in a vacuum. Mayan civilization is part of what I call the Mesoamerican cluster, which is a cluster of multiple civilizations from the earliest civilization of the cluster, the Olmecs, to the last pre-Columbian civilization of the cluster, the Aztecs. This is where my expanded framework described above really comes into play. We can identify a Mesoamerican civilization that is the civilization of the cluster, and not of any one of the individual civilizations that together constitute the cluster. That is to say, we can analyze the institutional structure of the Mesoamerican cluster and note its common elements that appear in all of the civilizations of this cluster, such as the Mesoamerican ball game, ritual bloodletting, related languages, and related agricultural practices and staple crops.

With the Spanish conquest, the heritage of Mesoamerican civilization is integrated into expanding western civilization, which at this time was establishing a civilization of planetary-scale. We are all still part of this process, which is not yet complete, nor do we have any assurance that it will be completed, as the nascent planetary civilization of our time could still fall apart into geographically regional civilizations. Another way to state this is that we are now living through proto-civilization of the 4th, and if this proto-civilization congeals into a planetary civilization, that civilization will be civilization of the 4th order and its economic infrastructure, conceptual framework, and central project will be distinct from these institutional structures as they are exhibited at other orders of civilization.

The concepts that I have described and illustrated above are scientific abstractions, which means that they cover many different instances, none of which instances are identical in detail. They may be no perfect exemplars of any of these conceptions, but the point here is to formulate a framework on concepts within which civilizations can be analyzed and compared. If the conceptual framework clarifies our knowledge, then it is worth adopting even if only provisionally.

Let us consider some complex historical circumstances to underline the abstractness of my framework, but which also underlines its utility. Western civilization is clearly civilization of the 3rd, moving in space, developing over time, and shifting its ideals and priorities. It has conquered and assimilated numerous other civilizations in its long history, and has been involved in relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict with many more civilizations. The development of western civilization has always been under pressure of interaction with other civilizations, from the Greeks’ defiance of the larger Persian Empire to the Cold War division of our entire homeworld during the twentieth century. This is as complex as a civilization gets without being a planetary-scale civilization and thus a civilization of the 4th order. We could call contemporary western civilization a civilization of the 4th order, but this would be a weak claim to make.

Chinese civilization has had a different history. It has been largely, though not entirely, isolated by mountains, deserts, and an ocean. Western civilization was shaped in the Mediterranean Basin by influences from Asia, Africa, and Europe in a continual exchange of persons, goods, and ideas. China was not without interaction, but these interactions were much less significant than the commerce of the Mediterranean Basin. Chinese civilization has, since its inception, been dominated by the Han ethnic group; other ethnic groups have been important — the Mongols, the Hakka, the Miao, the Tibetans, etc. — but apart from the Mongols no ethnic minority has challenged the role of the Han people in Chinese civilization. We can cite the example of the Silk Road as evidence of commerce with other civilizations, but this was a mere trickle of luxury goods. We can cite the voyages of Admiral Zheng He as evidence of exploration and discovery, but this was a comparatively short period of Chinese history. In other words, China is closer to exemplifying civilization of the 2nd order than civilization of the 3rd order, and so a direct comparison with western civilization is misleading; Chinese civilization should be compared to other civilizations of the 2nd order.

Indian civilization lies somewhere between the level of interaction that shaped western civilization and the level of isolation that shaped Chinese civilization. India has long had commercial shipping relationships throughout the Indian Ocean, in classical antiquity Alexander the Great made it as far as India, and in the early modern period Muslims conquered India and ruled as the Mogul Emperors. The Taj Mahal represents the level of syncretism of Hindu and Muslim civilization in the Indian subcontinent. But India has, to a lesser extent than China, been isolated by the Himalayas. Thus India is more difficult to classify according to my scheme, but at least with the scheme we can indicate the relative positions of western, Chinese, and Indian civilizations in regard to the geographical region in which they developed.

Islamic civilization, like western civilization (the two closely resemble each other), is a civilization of the 3rd order. Again like western civilization, it is very close to being a civilization of the 4th order, but it is still geographically concentrated in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, south Asia, and the Malay archipelago. One could say that the Arabian Peninsula was the cluster of origin for Islamic civilization, but it has now grown beyond that cluster of origin (in the same way that one could say that Europe was the cluster of origin for western civilization). Islam tends toward dominating the conceptual framework of the regions where it is influential, while western civilization tends toward dominating the economic infrastructure of the regions where it is influential, but neither of these tendencies is exclusive of the contrary influence.

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One Response to “Orders of Civilization”

  1. […] Orders of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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