Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.


The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:


Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.

The Conquerors – André Malraux

I can still hear the prattle of democracy at dinner, the trite formulas, ridiculous in Europe, harbored here like rusty old steamers, again I see the solemn enthusiasm they ignite among all these men.

My deepest hostilities aren’t so much against possessors as against the stupid principles that they spout to defend their possessions.

I finished The Conquerors a couple of weeks ago, so what follows are half-digested, half-forgotten thoughts on this book by Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Information and Minister of Cultural Affairs. My copy, and therefore this write-up, consists of two distinct parts: the novel, published in 1928, and a reflective essay on the topics of the novel, published in 1949.

The Conquerors is a novelization of the 1925-1927 Cantonese revolution in Hong Kong. The unnamed narrator is a Frenchman who traveled by way of Vietnam to meet his old friend Garine working as a propaganda officer for Mikhail Borodin, the Russian agent in Hong Kong. Despite nominally working toward the same end, there is tension between Garine and Borodin since the former is a true believer in the cause, while the latter is primarily working to advance the soviet political agenda. Yet, as these two men with European connections play out their drama, there is a larger conflict between Chinese revolutionaries, Chinese warlords, and the Europeans in Hong Kong. Garine and Borodin both intend to use the Chinese to accomplish their objectives, with a powerful pacifist (compared to Ghandi) and a young anarchist. The situation in Hong Kong deteriorates under repeated assaults from European capital and Chinese arms before ending on an ambiguous note.

The Conquerors is something of an odd book in that it is utterly driven by the plot, being told in chronological narration with a date and time for nearly every entry, while not actually being about the plot at all. The plot of The Conquerors is a vehicle for Malraux to talk about issues of colonialism and revolution, which he opposes and favors, in that order. Despite the flatness of some of the Chinese characters and the problems posed by the large number of Chinese factions, Malraux is most critical of European influence in the revolution since both capitalists and communists are, ultimately seeking to effect some sort of colonial project.

Where the novel The Conquerors ultimately fell flat, the concluding essay was a thoughtful critique of Western Civilization. Among other issues, he talks about how Russia is in some ways a European country and, in others, wholly un-European. In the conclusion to this essay he wrote:

When was France great? When she did not take refuge in France. She is universalist. To the rest of the world the greatness of France is much more the cathedrals or the Revolution than Louis XIV. Some countries, like Britain — and it may be to their honor–are the greater the more alone. France has never been greater than when she spoke for all mankind, and that is why her silence is heard so poignantly today.

Of course, this passage struck a particular note in the wake of the recent American election. There were individual scenes in The Conquerors that were excellent, but the book as a whole did not leave enough of an impression that I can remember it well several weeks later. This passage in the concluding essay did.


Next up, I have finished Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, but am up to my neck in grading and editing right now so have only just started Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Privilege and Civilization

“…a person is by nature an animal that lives in a community [polis], and one who is by nature and not by fate without such a community [polis] is surely barely–or more than–human.”

[ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, καὶ ὁ ἄπολις διὰ φύσιν καὶ οὐ διὰ τύχην ἤτοι φαῦλός ἐστιν, ἤ κρείττων ἤ ἄνθρωπος, Politics, 1.1253a]

So Aristotle says early in his Politics, a phrase that is often repeated, but usually truncated to “man is a political animal.” This observation comes only at the end of a passage where Aristotle analyzes human relationships, concluding that the polis is the highest form of community. He, of course, prioritizes free citizens and regards the civilizations of Asia as inferior on the grounds that they were slaves to the Persian king. A similar sentiment emerges in other Greek sources, such as Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaestus, which says:

“With gleaming-eyed Athena, he taught humans on the earth splendid crafts, men who formerly dwelt in caves in the mountains, like wild beasts. But now, through the famed-craftsmen Hephaestus, they have learned crafts and they live a peaceful life all year, easily and in their own homes.”

[ὃς μετ᾽ Ἀθηναίης φλαυκώπιδος ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἀνθρώπους ἐδίδαξεν ἐπὶ χθονός, οἳ τὸ πάρος περ ἄντροις ναιετάασκον ἐν οὔρεσιν, ἠύτε θῆρες. νῦν δὲ δι’ ᾽Ἣφαιστον κλθτοτέχνην ἔργα δαέντες ῥηιδίως αἰῶνα τελεσφόρον εἰς ἐναυτὸν εὔκηλοι διάγουςιν ἐνὶ σφετέροισι δόμοισιν.]

Technically, this passage could apply to any group of people who live in man-made structures, but the progression from living like (and with) animals to a civilized, urban life appears is fairly common. In Arrian’s account of Alexander’s speech to his men at Opis says that Philip found the men “impoverished wanderers” (πλανήτας καὶ ἀπόρους), “dressed in animal hide” (ἐν διφθέραις) and “feeding a few sheep on the hills” (ἀνὰ τὰ ὄρη πρόβατα ὀλίγα) and made them civilized city-dwellers (πόλεων τε οἰκήτορας). It should not be a surprise that the common thread privileges what is considered a typically Greek way of life, nor that the Greek authors looked upon their own culture as the ideal arrangement of society. The people at the top have a tendency to think that way.

It is also notable how infrequently “non-civilized” people show up in ancient sources unless they a) pose a threat to more civilized people, b) are an object of curiosity, or c) is used as a contrast to civilized cultures as either c1) to demonstrate how far civilization had come or c2) to espouse the prelapsarian virtues of people uncorrupted by luxuries of civilization. Barring that they are invisible. For instance, Livy gives the briefest accounts of tribes of people living in the Alps only because they block Hannibal’s passage into Italy.

The phenomenon of privileging civilization is old, but it is not a relic of the past. In recent history, the Worlds Fairs put “exotic” humans, including eskimos, on display. Exhibits depicting “non-civilized” peoples tend to be relegated to Natural History museums, and they are studied in the context of anthropology museums–or, at least, in specialized history classes for, for example, Native Americans. Other peripheral communities of people are simply excluded from the narrative. That is a feature of narratives–there are those within the spotlight and those on the outside. Yet, there is also a privileging of those whose societies are in some sense structured like ours and those that are declared to be the ancestors in the truest sense, namely not just those that came before, but those that established cultures and civilizations that led to ours. Those on periphery are curiosities of secondary importance.