Barbarism, civilization and politics in late xviiith century european thought

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Histoire moderne

In modern usage, in most European languages, the words “barbarism” and “civilization” are usually taken to be natural opposites, like day and night, or black and white. The story of how this opposition arose is, however, more complicated than it looks, not only because the two words and the concepts with which they were associated were coined at different times, but also because both terms originally had somewhat different meanings from those that they presently have. The aim of this short essay is to recover some of these meanings and, more particularly, to try to show why those given to both terms in the early nineteenth century still have a bearing on modern moral and political thought.


The concept of barbarism began with the Greeks. It is usually said to have arisen from the distinction made, among others, by ancient historians like Herodotus between those who were proficient in Greek and those who were not - and who, therefore, were barbaros (something like the same linguistic and moral evaluation is also said to have existed in imperial China). In this usage, as has also been said, the distinction began with the name of the other. It was also asymmetrical and, initially, territorial, meaning that an apparently stable set of criteria (as, in this case, linguistic proficiency, but also sometimes including skin colour, religion, occupation or activity) were used to ascribe or describe positions on the inside or the outside as superior or inferior and, by extension, to sustain a moral image of the world that was hierarchical, bipolar and stable. At its strongest, this type of distinction was taken to be physical or spatial. In other, weaker, versions of the distinction, the criteria were associated with qualities or capabilities that could be acquired, like knowledge, culture or, on some constructions, a whole way of life. Barbarism could, accordingly, be either a matter of fact or a more transient - and potentially contestable - social and historical condition. In either sense, however, the concept formed the basis of a moral and spatial topography that was - and sometimes still is - used widely to distinguish selves from others and, accordingly, to include or exclude in more or less durable ways.


The word “civilization” is more recent in origin. Its appearance and its relatively rapid adoption in the late eighteenth century added a new range of connotations both to the concept of barbarism and to the growing number of its antonyms. The word itself has an obvious family resemblance to the words civilized, civility, civil society or civil government, but the concept of civilization was originally used to criticise, rather than endorse, the behaviour and institutions to which those latter terms referred. Both the word and the concept were coined in the middle of the eighteenth century by Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, now best known as one of the French founders of the theory of political economy that its supporters called Physiocracy. Mirabeau first made his name with a book entitled L’Ami des hommes, or “the friend of mankind”, which he began to publish in 1756, shortly after the beginning of the Seven Years War between France and Britain. The wartime context had a strong bearing on the initial meaning of the concept of civilization. As Mirabeau emphasised in a short essay entitled a Traité de la civilisation (or a treatise on civilization) that he drafted at the same time as he wrote the first two parts of L’Ami des hommes, there was a big difference between civilization and civility. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists”, he began, “they would reply, the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail”.



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15/09/2014 - 15/07/2015