Civilizations Essay

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The central analytical core of the concept of civilization as presented here is the combination of ontological or cosmological visions, of visions of transmundane and mundane reality, with the definition, construction, and regulation of the major arenas of social life and interaction.

The central core of civilizations is the symbolic and institutional interrelation between the formulation, promulgation, articulation, and continuous reinterpretation of the basic ontological visions prevalent in a society, its basic ideological premises and core symbols on the one hand, and on the other the definition, structuration, and regulation of the major arenas of institutional life, of the political arena, of authority and its accountability, of the economy, of family life, social stratification, and of the construction of collective identities.

The impact of such ontological visions and premises on institutional formation is effected through various processes of social interaction and control that develop in a society. Such processes of control — and the opposition to them — are not limited to the exercise of power in the ”narrow political sense; as even sophisticated Marxists have stressed, they involve not only class relations or ”modes of production. Rather, they are activated by major elites and influentials in a society.

The structure of such elite groups is closely related, on the one hand, to the basic cultural orientations prevalent in a society. On the other hand, and in connection with the types of cultural orientations and their transformations into basic premises of the social order, these elite groups tend to exercise different modes of control over the allocation of basic resources in the society.

In most human societies the distinct ideological and institutional civilizational dimensions were embedded in the major political, kinship, and ecological settings. The full development of these distinct civilizational dimensions — and of some awareness of their distinctiveness — occurred only in some very specific historical settings, namely, the so-called axial civilizations — even if some very important steps in that direction can be identified in some archaic civilizations such as the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, or Mesoamerican ones, and especially in what may be called proto-axial ones, such as in the Iranian-Zoroastrian one, i.e. those civilizations that crystallized during the half-millennium from 500 bce to the first century of the Christian era, within which new types of ontological visions, conceptions of a basic tension between the transcendental and mundane orders, emerged and were institutionalized in many parts of the world: above all, ancient Israel, followed by Second-Commonwealth Judaism and Christianity; ancient Greece; possibly Zoroastrianism in Iran; early imperial China; Hinduism and Buddhism; and, beyond the axial age proper, Islam. In all these cases the emergence of the axial civilizations that civilizations crystallized as distinct entities and an explicit consciousness thereof developed.

In these civilizations there developed a strong tendency to define certain collectivities and institutional — cultural or religious — arenas as distinct from ”ethnic or ”political ones — as most appropriate for the implementation of their respective transcendental visions.

Within all these civilizations there developed continual processes of change and of heterodox tendencies to far-reaching transformations. In close connection with these processes, heterodoxies there developed the strong sectarian heterodox visions that had been a permanent component in the dynamics of these civilizations, but with some partial exceptions, especially among some Islamic sects, they did not give rise to radical transformation of the political arena, its premises, and symbols. The most dramatic transformation from within one of the axial civilizations has probably been the emergence of modernity as a distinct new civilization, which first crystallized in Western Europe and then expanded to most other parts of the world, giving continual rise to the development of multiple, continually changing modernities.

This change took place in the realm of European-Christian civilization through the transformation of the sectarian visions through the Reformation and later the great revolutions, in which there developed a very strong emphasis on the bringing together of the City of God and the City of Man.


  1. Arnason, J. (2003) Civilizations in Dispute. Brill, Leiden.
  2. Castoriadis, C. (1987) The Imaginary Constitution of Society. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  3. Eisenstadt, S. N., Arnason, J. P., & Wittrock, B. (eds.) 2005. Axial   Civilizations   and   World History, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden.
  4. Eisenstadt, S. N. (ed.) (2002) Multiple Modernities. Transaction, New Brunswick.
  5. Tiryakian, E. & Arjomand, S. A. (eds.) (2004) Rethinking Civilizational Analysis. Sage, London.

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