Civilization entered the English language in the mid-18th century with the meaning “the act or process of bringing out of a savage or uneducated state.” In this preimperialistic age of exploration, it was popular to view people from less-developed lands as barbaric and in great need of cultural edification. As political scientist and historian Anthony Pagden wrote in a 1988 paper, 18th-century social theory held that a civilization was “the optimum condition for all mankind.” He continued that “only the civilized can know what it is to be civilized,” pointing out the implicit elitism of this concept. As imperialism boomed in the 19th century, this meaning of civilization gained popularity, but today it is considered narrow-minded, except when used in a historical context.
Once a nation, culture, or group of people has been brought out of the “savage” darkness into an enlightened and advanced state, it becomes a civilization. This sense arose about the same time, but without the imperialistic undertones attached to the original meaning of the word. When used with a modifier, it refers to the civilization of a specific region (European civilization, French civilization), people (Mayan civilization), or period of time (modern civilization).
In the early 19th century, speakers of English started using civilization to mean cities or populated areas in general—that is, places where civilizations are located. This word is applied as well to the comforts and conveniences associated with populated areas, so that today we might use civilization to describe what we have left behind if we go camping in the wilderness and have no cellphone coverage.
“We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture; we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology and for this reason we find ourselves caught up with many problems.“
—Martin Luther King, “Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood“ American Rhetoric (delivered February 26, 1965)
“As lower individuals within a society perish by contact with a civilization to which they cannot properly assimilate themselves, so ‘lower races’ in some instances disappear by similar contact with higher races whose diseases and physical vices prove too strong for them.“
—J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (1902)
“The cities of the Roman Empire served as centers of Greco-Roman civilization, which spread to the furthest reaches of the Mediterranean.“
—Marvin Perry, Margaret Jacob, Myrna Chase, Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, Volume 2 (2009)
“The mighty forces of steam and electricity were propelling civilization on its continuing westward march.“
—Joseph M. Henning, Outposts of civilization: race, religion, and the formative years of American-Japanese relations (2000)
“[A]ll the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have…depended for ages upon two principles…the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion.“
—Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London relative to that Event (1790)
“Civilization was an unknown quantity, whereas the jungle was familiar to himself and his ancestors, and the fear transmitted by his ancestors was firmly emplanted in his mind.“
—Ellen Newbold La Motte, “Civilization“ Civilization: Tales of the Orient (1919)