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Leave Your Philosophy at Home

By Darrell Roberts

The following writing comes from a previous Civilizations class.

Here’s the situation, a two-page paper defining a “civilization” is required.  Yours truly decides the instructor likely grows bored of reading the same regurgitation from nitwits, dimwits, and half-wits.   The instructor was kind enough to offer an email review before the paper was due for turn-in.  Since he gave us a two week heads up on the paper due date, he set his cut-off for his pre-review at a week prior to due date.

As one may imagine, a writing aficionado can knock out two-pages by accident, not a problem.  Thus, I took the professor up, and here’s my first draft that was emailed for his review.

The payoff comes at the end. 

What is civilization?  What are the characteristics associated with civilization?  These questions seem straightforward, but are they?  In fact, the term civilization and the associated attributes are subject to interpretation, and no absolute answer exists.  Thus, the first step in answering these questions is to accept it as an opinion and not a fact.   The next step is to establish a baseline definition of the word civilization.  Then, after a meaning has been established, the characteristics can be determined.

Many online dictionaries were consulted for the definition of civilization.  Guess what?  These definitions all varied in scope and meaning.  Yet, you have to make a choice.  So, from the much respected Merriam-Webster dictionary, civilization is defined as “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development…the culture characteristic of a particular time or place.”   Thus, a civilization is defined in relative terms and can change with cultural shifts and technological advancements.   Hence, a civilization would be reserved for the areas of the highest culture and technology relative to the peer societies of their day.  Using this definition as a standard, our focus can now shift to describe the characteristics of a civilization.

A quick internet search to the question, “What are the characteristics of a civilization?” will retrieve many articles with a variance in both number and actual characteristics.  As stated in the opening of this essay, the characteristics of a civilization is a matter of subjective opinion.

Thus, here is my list of characteristics for a civilization:

  1. A society that is centered around the urban development of people that share a loose set of characteristics (at a minimum).
  2. This society would possess cultural civility with a semblance of law and order whether established by law or culture.
  3. An ample food supply that supports both population and excess used for trade.
  4. An emphasis on exploration to obtain knowledge in such areas as education, science, medicine, and invention.
  5. A culture that provides an opportunity for creative expression, entertainment, and leisure activities.

In summation, what defines a civilization and its characteristics is open to interpretation.  Furthermore, the definition and characteristics of a civilization are subject to being re-defined over time.  In a basic sense, a civilization is defined in relative terms of cultural and technological development and possesses the characteristics that tend to support the overall well-being and opportunity for the inhabitants.


Pleased with my relatively non-boring work, I gleefully emailed my instructor:

10 18 email #1

Later that same day, his response:

10 18 email #2.JPG

*The emails were sanitized for names, dates, places, and such shit.

His response simple in nature–was extremely effective in f*cking with my head.  Sure, I knew what he wanted but writing damn near exactly what you heard is super boring.  In fact, it would be four days later before I even bothered with a new paper.  That was probably the most boring writing of my recent life.  However, I did score an “A.”  I also learned a valuable lesson.  No, it was not to write boring for such classes–it was to be sneaky in writing creatively in such classes.  In fact, I tried that out recently in my latest Civilization class.

You may wonder why a fellow likes so many damn Civilizations classes, it’s simple, history, civilization, politics, and such stuff make great electives for those that enjoy learning.

DR Tip:  When any Civilization instructor, this applies to all of ’em, asks you to define a “civilization”–your answer is ALWAYS going to be (NOTE: precise number and the keywords will differ, usually based on the book/instructor but usually it is between 5-7 characteristics): 


Congratulations, you just learned almost everything you need to know about a Civilization class.  The only information required:

  1.  The Khans were bad-ass dudes.
  2. The Europeans “discovered” everything.  Yet, nearly all their “discovered” lands were occupied by other people when they got there.  
  3. Odds are nearly every damn early invention–comes from some Western European dude.  *Except “China” that comes from…China, as did paper. 



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