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What is Civilisation? by Will Durant

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.

Physical and biological conditions are only prerequisites to civilization; they do not constitute or generate it. Subtle psychological factors must enter into play. There must be political order, even if it be so near to chaos as in Renaissance Florence or Rome; men must feel, by and large, that they need not look for death or taxes at every turn. There must be some unity of language to serve as medium of mental exchange. Through church, or family, or school, or otherwise, there must be a unifying moral code, some rules of the game of life acknowledged even by those who violate them, and giving to conduct some order and regularity, some direction and stimulus. Perhaps there must also be some unity of basic belief, some faith -- supernatural or utopian -- that lifts morality from calculation to devotion, and gives life nobility and significance despite our mortal brevity. And finally there must be education -- some technique, however primitive, for the transmission of culture. Whether through imitation, initiation or instruction, whether through father or mother, teacher or priest, the lore and heritage of the tribe -- its language and knowledge, its morals and manners, its technology and arts -- must be handed down to the young, as the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.

The disappearance of these conditions -- sometimes of even one of them -- may destroy a civilization. A geological cataclysm or a profound climatic change; an uncontrolled epidemic like that which wiped out half the population of the Roman Empire under the Antonines, or the Black Death that helped to end the Feudal Age; the exhaustion of the land or the ruin of agriculture through the exploitation of the country by the town, resulting in a precarious dependence upon foreign food supplies; the failure of natural resources, either of fuels or of raw materials; a change in trade routes, leaving a nation off the main line of the world's commerce; mental or moral decay from the strains, stimuli and contacts of urban life, from the breakdown of traditional sources of social discipline and the inability to replace them; the weakening of the stock by a disorderly sexual life, or by an epicurean, pessimist, or quietist philosophy; the decay of leadership through the infertility of the able, and the relative smallness of the families that might bequeath most fully the cultural inheritance of the race; a pathological concentration of wealth, leading to class wars, disruptive revolutions, and financial exhaustion: these are some of the ways in which a civilization may die.

For civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.

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2. uncertain or unstable
6. prior conditions for something to exist
8. large-scale, violent event in the natural world
9. shortness of time
10. delicate and understated


1. enduring forever
3. combine to form the whole; make up
4. the unfair gaining of benefit from the work of someone/something
5. pass something on, or leave to someone else
7. rudimentary or simple