The Concept of Civilisation Redefined

The usual understanding of the concept of civilisation involves a complex society with an organized structure, generally a hierarchy of some sort with a division of labor and some methodology for portioning out the fruits of the societal structure to its members.  There are generally codes of behavior and enforcement mechanisms.   The European/American model, with its focus on gaining ascendancy through technology and economic and military might, has proclaimed itself as the highest developed civilisation in the world, although Western society does recognize that the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India, China, Japan, and Persia, as well as the Greek and Roman Empires, represented developed civilisations.  They tend to minimize the civilisations of peoples they have subjugated, or which have not taken the same turn of mechanical, economic, military and technical development or the creation of a dominating power structure.

Sri Aurobindo, however, looks at civilisation from a totally different perspective.  He looks at the development of the mental culture as the hallmark of civilisation, while those societies that have focused primarily on the satisfaction of physical and vital needs could be considered barbaric.  Even civilised cultures in today’s world can only claim, by this definition, a partially civilised culture, as there remain strong elements of barbarism in the most highly developed of the modern-day powers in the world.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “…barbarism is the state of society in which man is almost entirely preoccupied with his life and body, his economic and physical existence, — at first with their sufficient maintenance, not as yet their greater or richer well-being, — and has few means and little inclination to develop his mentality, while civilisation is the more evolved state of society in which to a sufficient social and economic organisation is added the activity of the mental life in most if not all of its parts; for sometimes some of these parts are left aside or discouraged or temporarily atrophied by their inactivity, yet the society may be very obviously civilised and even highly civilised.  This conception will bring in all the civilisations historic and prehistoric and put aside all the barbarism, whether of Africa or Europe or Asia, Hun or Goth or Vandal or Turcoman.  It is obvious that in a state of barbarism the rude beginnings of civilisation may exist; it is obvious too that in a civilised society a great mass of barbarism or numerous relics of it may exists.  In that sense all societies are semi-civilised.  How much of our present-day civilisation will be looked back upon with wonder and disgust by a more developed humanity as the superstitions and atrocities of an imperfectly civilised era!  But the main point is this that in any society which we can call civilised the mentality of man must be active, the mental pursuits developed and the regulation and improvement of his life by the mental being a clearly self-conscious concept in his better mind.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 86-87