Cultures Clash, Civilizations Don’t by Jan R. Hakemulder, PhD

Edited by Roxanne Toothman, M.S
March 7, 2011


Humanity repeatedly confronts the global economic and environmental conflicts of our times. For the future world, new strategies must be developed. Around 500 B.C., a transition of philosophy occurred along the Silk Road in China, India, and Southern Europe. It is my impression that at the moment–some 2,500 years later–humanity, again, is facing the need for fundamental global changes.

Jacob Burckhardt stated that a society depends on a dynamic balance between three social elements of power: Religion, the State, and Culture. Ethnic roots, religion, and state membership are the vital dimensions of one’s social identity.

The main purpose of this article is to uplift humanity beyond the conflicts linking religion, state, and culture. Civilization can select a route of togetherness that culture, politics, and religion rarely can offer. I am of the opinion that civilizations do not clash.

Hypothesis–the difference between culture and civilization can be summarized as the following: Culture is what makes people different. Civilization is what makes people unite. Civilization supports development of education, science, technology, commerce and economy that traverse all cultures. In addition, laws and principles of justice, which go beyond all cultural differences, accomplish development…

Culture and civilization

Edward Burnett Tylor–the famous British father of anthropology–is of the opinion that there is only one culture and only one civilization in which all people participate more or less. In accordance with the philosophy of his time, he believed in progress for humanity. From a time of difficulties and struggle, humanity, at long last, will enter a state of culture and a civilized society.

Levi Straus, on the other hand, believed that each culture is unique, is incomparable, and is based on its own norms.

Clearly, anthropologists cannot escape from the problems of equality and inequality of cultures, unless they accept a point outside culture. Since the 18th century, that point is known as civilization.

This last approach certainly is not new, with some governments promoting it for 5,000 years. What is new is that now rules and regulations are declared globally for all peoples, known as Human Rights. Civilization supplies legal orders for all existing cultures. These certainly are limited because it cannot include the entire world society. These legal rules must respect cultural diversity and cannot force all citizens to accept them. However, it is clear that society has limits–slavery, no death penalty, no discrimination, no torture, and no violence. These limitations do not oppose or violate the special cultural characteristics.

It must be clear that the development of one civilization that governs the whole world is an ideal prospect. There may be ten or more civilizations pointing in the same direction. However, nothing indicates that one culture will prevail. Cultural differences are far too vast.

As written above, the primal model of a universal civilization certainly is not new. We can find it in ancient China, e.g. in the works of Confucius. In addition, it is touched upon in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Written laws of justice even go back as far as Mesopotamia where the name of King Hammurabi is connected with a fundamental codex, which is the basis for the dawn of civilization.

Obviously, the entire world will never accept one culture. The differences between human beings cannot be meshed into one because culture is a matter of differences.

A culture contains attitudes and ways of thinking and living of people during a certain period of its existence. Thoughts and life work as an organic unit. People in some dominant cultures in the past–Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Persia, China, and Rome–thought that their culture was the one and the only one. The study and acceptance of other cultures was the invaluable merit of the European Enlightenment.

The crucial question remains: Is culture what makes man different from his natural surroundings? Geert Hofstede, distinguishes various sorts of cultures. The first is the limited form of the concept more or less the same as civilization (education, art, and literature), and the second is culture, which is described as the mental programming that people from one group have that distinguishes them from another group.


Many scholars, including the British anthropologist Tylor, do not distinguish between the concepts of culture and civilization. For many of them, the question concentrates on a civilization or the civilizations. This also is the basic principle of the well-known publication of the political scientist Samuel Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The author does not make any difference; for him, civilizations are “cultures with a capital.” This results in the worldwide opinion that there exist as many civilizations as “great cultures.” Huntington describes a civilization “as the largest possible cultural entity.” The question of culture remains because of the unbridgeable cultural differences, which internationally and locally can violently clash.

Obviously, civilization is the most important victim of culture equalizing. It seems that after the publications of Spengler and Toynbee, virtually no scholars have defended the concept of civilization. The words “civilization” and “culture” have an etymological difference. The word “civilization” goes back to Roman history. It comes from civis (citizenship), civitas (city, state), and civilitas (citizenship). The Roman word “culture” points first to agriculture (cultura agri). I would like to connect civilization to concepts of refinement, sophistication, ennoble, and good manners. During the development of humankind for millennia, the word “civilization” has received a special meaning that the concept of culture never has received. More and more, civilization is related to progress, development, and universality. This especially is true for the streams and movements after the time of the Middle Ages: Humanism, Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, capitalism, and secularism have been a turn around compared with the religious Middle Ages.

Religion as a basis for civilization

The relationship between religion and civilization always has been there. The famous philosopher Toynbee distinguishes higher and lower religions. Lower religions consist of nature religions, such as tribal or folk religions and are of all times. Higher or universal religions, on the contrary, developed after the start of the first civilizations. Because the oldest civilization originated some 6,000 years ago, it is obvious that civilizations preceded religions. This is proven by the existence of ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations, and perhaps, of an ancient Indian civilization in the valley of the Indus. The development of higher religions started in the first millennium B.C., with exception of the Arabic and the Islamic late comer in the 7th century A.D.

Do civilizations and religions clash?

A civilization always wants to expand with an approach to include the entire world. A civilization can include every culture or religion. History shows more wars in the same civilization and nearly no violation with religions. The civilization level of a higher religion is the relationship between other religions and atheists. We refer here to barbaric actions during the Crusades and butchery of putting people with other religious ideas on stakes. We also can mention the killing of so-called witches.

Bergson states that there always is a place for an open and dynamic religion in a real civilization.

From City of State: the axe of civilization

The most fundamental revolutions of humanity have been the agrarian revolution some 100,000 years ago and the industrial revolution of 200 years ago. These were and still are the most universal revolutions that changed the direction of humanity.

The most obvious change during the first revolution was the establishment of city-states. The oldest known city-states originated in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates in the South of Mesopotamia around the 4th millennium B.C. The oldest Egyptian cities started in the 3rd millennium B.C. in the delta of the Nile: Thebe and Memphis. At the same time, the first cities were established in the Indus Valley: Harrapa and Mohenjo Daro. Chinese village strongholds came at that time in the Valley of the Yellow River. In the 2nd millennium B.C., Chinese cities were built, e.g. Yin. The Egyptian and Chinese examples show clearly the ancient relationship between city and state because it was a short step from cities to states. The next phase of development has been the establishment of an emporium that wanted to include the entire world.

The above historical data lead to the conclusion that “civilizations are societies with cities.” (Wilkinson and Bagly) Because commerce needed contacts and travelling, roads were built to connect cities. Consequently, the population of cities from the beginning were a racial mixture. A culture thinks in singular, cities in plural. Trade has been crucial for city life. Ancient Egypt already had trade relations with Sumerian cities and even with cities in the Indus Valley. The most impressive examples of such international contacts were found along the Silk Road and the Spice Route.

Cultures are conservative and do not like the dynamic attitude of cities. However, it was possible to control existing differences of opinion and conflicts. Of course, the attacks of nomadic tribes on civilized nations tended to be problematic. Therefore, the Qin and Han emperors built the Great Wall as protection against the Huns.

The crucial topics of civilization: Education, Technology, and Science

Regarding the historical development of China and Japan, we have good examples of the influence of culture and civilization. Because of cultural considerations, the Chinese and Japanese governments respectively in 1433 and 1614 decided to isolate their countries from the rest of the world. They wanted to preserve and protect their own traditions and customs. On the other hand, both examples also prove that no culture can maintain isolation without ruining itself. The forces of civilization always triumph and will break down the “walls” of a culture.

These examples also show that individuals and people of all cultures can develop comparable technological inventions and intellectual capabilities. In the 14th century, the Chinese were building large ships for long sea routes even to India and Arabia. The Japanese invented firearms in the 16th century. Both nations, however, decided to abandon further sea voyages and arms production because they were distressed that by the use of these inventions, their own culture could be influenced negatively by foreign cultures.

In the intellectual atmosphere, however, the most striking example is the fundamental change of philosophy in China, India, and Southern Europe around the 5th century B.C. ( See: Jan R. Hakemulder: The Global Silk Road).

People in different parts of the world have the same basic capacities or are able to explore and develop them. Straight across all cultures, human social-economic development is a matter of education, technology, and science. These are the three “universalia” of each civilization because they do not know borders and do not accept any limitation.

It does not matter who made or where the first discovery or invention was established. It is certain that the results are and will be transferred globally. No scientist or inventor can count it completely to his or her own individual capacity and cannot prevent it from spreading outside of his or her culture. No culture has been able to build walls strong enough to keep new discoveries for itself. In some cases, a culture can hamper the spreading of inventions for only a short time.

Of course, many civilizations have disappeared. However, the discoveries and inventions of those cultures are ever lasting. The universal transfer of values is also basic for science. In comparison with technology, science is a recent product of civilization. Since the 17th century, modern Western civilization has been able to successfully unite science and technology. Scientists do not think in terms of nations, cultures, or civilizations. For them, there is only one perspective: from the infinite small–the microscopic vision–to the infinite large–the telescopic vision. For science and technology, there are no borders.

Globally, universal education as a basic right is the youngest product of civilization. It developed in the 20th century. Universally, education always has been limited. Raising children has been determined by culture and religion while education fundamentally has been a product of civilization. It is directed at everybody’s intellectual and human development and this certainly crosses all cultural and religious limitations and borders.

The danger of technology

The danger of technology is that it gives people powers that no longer can be controlled. We can find historic examples of it in Western literature, e.g. in the Faust of Goethe, the Frankenstein of Shelly, and the Godom of Meyrink.

The mythology of the Greeks has provided many important warnings. Very intriguing are the stories of Prometeus–stealing fire, Phaedon–with the sun carriage out of control, Tantalus–uncovering the secrets of the Gods, and Daedelos–a man who wanted to fly.

What connects ancient Greek mythology with contemporary critics on technological development is the fear that the development itself contains the elements for its own destruction. The fear is that technology gives such powers to humanity, which cannot be controlled anymore. An obvious problem that humanity worldwide is facing is global warming that is partly caused by humans, especially by destructive military interventions.

Language: writing and printing

The discovery of writing is less spectacular than the invention of making fire, agriculture, or the invention of the wheel. However, in the long run, no invention has contributed more to the development of humanity than the written word. It played a crucial role in the explosive growth of education, technology, and science. There is a direct connection with ancient civilizations. From the very beginning, written words and civilization were united. There is no civilization without cities, but, more importantly, there are no cities and no civilization without writing.

In the intellectual atmosphere, however, the most striking example is the fundamental change of philosophy in China, India, and Southern Europe around the Silk Road and the Spice Route.

Cultures are conservative, and consequently they do not like the dynamic attitude of cities. Most of the times, however, it was possible to control existing differences of opinion and to control rising the conflicts. More difficult to handle were the attacks of nomadic tribes on civilized nations. Therefore the Qin and Han emperors built the Great Wall as protection against the Huns.

The crucial topics of civilization: Education, Technology and Science

With the invention that blended the written word and technology–the art of printing, a vast change would take place. For three thousand years, every single text had to be written by hand on stone, wood, papyrus, parchment, or paper. In the 8th century, however, the Chinese invented printing. In the 15th century, Europe followed (Gutenberg) during a time when China already produced 800,000 books annually. Presently, worldwide 10 billion books are produced annually. A new invention–electronic reading and writing–has added even more possibilities to communicate through the written word.

Summarizing, we can state that writing has been the basis for the development of civilization, not oral communication. Of course, oral language will never lose its importance. On the contrary, there may be a revival of speaking and listening because of other technological inventions such as radio, television, Skype, cell phones, iPods, etc. However, the position of the written word will never be effected by all these recent inventions.

The scientific explosion

Science is the connected and systematic regulated entity of rationally and empirically examined knowledge. This knowledge is fundamentally available for all citizens. It has to be free from superstition and prejudices. Religious and political pressure is not allowed to change the results of research. Science has struggled for the last 2,000 years to achieve total independence, especially from religion.

Ancient Greek philosophers prepared the groundwork for science. In the time of Homer, the mythology of the world of gods had a large and impressive influence on all aspects of thinking and living. We can see this by reading the epic dramas such as the “Iliad and Odyssey.” However, four centuries later–4th century B.C.–Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle paved the way for science. These philosophers and their contemporaries searched for explanation of the world in rational terms. The Greek mythology changed the world forever.

In the time of Hellenism, the Greek ideas found their way up to the valleys of Indus and Nile. It resulted in a rare mixture of Greek and Eastern influences. The creation of Greek rationality and Eastern philosophy found a home in the Museion, the library in Alexandria.

In general, one can state that the Christian Middle Ages in Europe was stagnant with regard to further development of science. To go from the inert world of the Middle Ages to the dynamic universe of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, to name a few, was quite a contrast. As a crucial predecessor, we can also mention Descartes who, through his radical rationalism, forced a breakthrough for science.

Thomas Kuhn, the American philosopher, describes the history of science in the perspective of changing paradigms. From the late 17th to the early 20th century, we can distinguish the Newtonian paradigm of eternal and universal laws of nature. This also stimulated other sciences to base themselves on comparable general laws.

Inbeginning the 20th century, the relativity theory of Einstein and the quantum theory of Max Planck created a new paradigm. In this paradigm, the indefinite and unpredictable play a more important role than in determinism of the Newtonian laws of natural science. What still remains is the 17th century union between technology and science. A global explosion of education supported this union by bursting through all cultural and religious boundaries and continually strengthens its planetary and global influence. It even has stronger influence on globalization than business and economy because science and technology do not necessarily have local roots. They direct attention on the surrounding world and develop rational abilities for all people to determine their united future destination. The danger of technology

Education, the largest “company”

After thousands of years, even the so-called “civilized world” possessed only one percent of literate people. Large-scale literacy programs for the majority of the population started only in the 19th and 20th century. Compulsory education created hundred of thousands schools along with millions of teachers for the children of the world. The largest intellectual effort in world history was created. Of course, it is a challenge for the modern world to promote education for the children in many developing countries.

It is, however, a miracle that 80 percent of the world population receives at least some education and can read and write. Now, nearly 2 billion children (younger than 15 years) and 1.2 billion youngsters (15 to 24 years) receive some years of education and training. This is more than in all previous ages. In my opinion, this is the greatest and most impressive miracle of world civilization.

Today, without a doubt, education is the largest enterprise in the world. Stimulated by the development of technology, science, and industrialization while also being supported by social and political changes and revolutions, education has transformed the world more than any other revolution. This silent education revolution certainly has had the most fundamental influence on the 20thcentury. No other revolution in such a short time-a mere two centuries-has reunited civilizations by supplying knowledge, technology, and science.

On top of the above-described miracle, UNESCO started an action under the title: “Life-long Education.” Modern developments in daily life, science, and industry demand additional and continuous education. Here we, again, encounter cooperation between the three universalis. Scientific inventions were implicated by technology and used in education. Information technology and the Internet have given education and universities, in particular, unbelievable possibilities. Now students can be reached via the super highway with a variety of courses available on the Internet.

It also liberates scientific education and communication from political, religious and bureaucratic restrictions and limitations. This certainly does not mean that educational institutions are allowed to violate the laws of a state.

National laws, norms, and values

Religions and cultures are indicated as sources of civilization. However, civilizations are never connected with only one culture or religion. Most of the time, civilization originates at the borders of different religions which can include various cultures. There always have been secular civilizations tolerating religions but certainly not accepting religious concepts as a norm or giving power to the religious hierarchy. A mono-cultural civilization has never existed. Huntington, however, launched a dubious theory by trying to write about “an American identity” as a mono-cultural Anglo-Saxon nucleus.

Culture and religion had clear influences on civilizations and were establishing a strong social and hierarchical order. The Indian caste system is the largest existing descendant of this. A closed-caste system can have very complex structures, but, in essence, always remains the same. A caste immobilizes people and societies. It places them in a strict social organization that they cannot leave during their lifetime. The same was true in Europe during the Middle Ages. Society was based on military nobility, the priests, and the working class. The same trilogy was seen in Japan with soldiers, farmers, and business people.

A strong anti-Christian movement of the intelligentia followed the collapse of the European Middles Age order. This liberation of religious pressure stimulated Europeans of the 19th century to search sources. This was a dangerous time for civilization with cultural and political movements–Marxism and Fascism–shocked the world community.

The real sources of civilization, however, made the European civilization survive. These sources assisted in the development of norms/values, laws/institutions, and order/justice. Certainly, one set of these categories does not govern civilization. Each category is a part of the problem and not automatically the solution. However, every civilization from the inside is determined by a set of these categories.


Not surprisingly, there are three values–freedom, equality, and fraternity-that serve as the foundation of Western civilization. Values are collective and even universal ideals.

The classification of values created conflicts. Values such as peace, harmony, and togetherness were classified the highest–within certain religious borders–in the Middle Ages. Today these categories changed to freedom, equality and fraternity. These values never received attention in other civilizations. The choice of categories depends on historical grounds. In Greek and Roman times, we can find goodness, truth, and beauty as central concepts. It is obvious that Western modern values are in contrast with the Indian caste system and Islamic fundamentalism.

Norms and laws

Norms, as well as laws, regulate what people are supposed to follow. The difference is that norms–moral, social, religious, and aesthetic–are not written rules. On the contrary, laws are written rules and regulations applicable to mixed cultures, mostly for a nation. Norms are based on moral and individual freedom and can be followed or not. A multicultural society determines that their laws must be followed. National states need this difference. Written laws–with exception of the laws of Moses–were historically related to cities, states, and emporiums.

As far as we know, the oldest lawmaker was the Babylonian King Hammurabi in the 18th century B.C. Through his laws, he was able to unite Mesopotamia. There needs to be an authority to control members of the society. Violators of the law must be punished. This authority is the state.

A parallel development of state and justice shows a clear connection. In Europe, this developed into the state of justice. In fact, this is an extraordinary construction because it has been an important step toward a more civilized world. Parties are supposed to solve conflicts “under the law” with only the judge using violence, never citizens. This is a brake on the use of violence in a society that itself has imposed the laws. The law needs to have fundamental characteristics. It is crucial that all citizens have equal fundamental rights.

Another characteristic is the division of church and state. The constitutional state is one of the foundations of modern European civilization. This has been so successful that other countries wanted the same kind of order. This has been the beginning of an international constitutional law.

The establishment of international laws of justice has taken time and was–and still is–a difficult exercise. The formation of European states in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, in fact, started with France, Spain, Portugal, England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. At that time, governments had other problems instead of working towards international rules and regulation for justice. Up until 1945, Europe was a continent of independent sovereign states. It became the most belligerent part of the world. European governments were fighting wars, not only at home but also overseas.

Three witnesses of violence between states were Hugo de Groot (the Netherlands), Voltal (Prussia), and Puffendorf (Sweden). The first one was able to establish some sort of law for the free seas. He also published “De Jure Belli at Pacis,” a fundamental basis for the laws of war and peace. Although there were political philosophers trying to limit the disasters of war, they did not have the support from governments. Kings had full authority to start a war at any time. This was the case in Japan up until 1945. There was no way to accuse a sovereign for starting a war. A law described as a “crime against peace and humanity” was unthinkable up until the 20th century.

The establishment of international justice has been a matter of concern for the past 100 years. We can distinguish three steps towards an international order of justice:

  1. The first step has been the development of an agreement on international human rights at the end of the 19th century. The founder was the Swiss humanist, Henri Dunant. He established the International Red Cross. Years later, the principles of humanitarian rights were included in the Conventions of Geneva (1949).
  2. The second step occurred after the Second World War, when the category of humanitarian rights was expanded with those of crimes of war and against humanity. Military courts and tribunals in Nurnberg and Tokyo were the result and exceptional cruelties were judged.
  3. The third step is the most important development. The rise and formation of the international society supported the basis for international justice.

A first try at the establishment of the League of Nations was unsuccessful. However, it was the start of the United Nations (1945) and the basis for the establishment of International Courts of Justice in The Hague and Arusha. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has received its seat in The Hague.

Human rights have had a long and varied history. Next to the establishment of the United Nations, several non-governmental organizations came into existence, such as the Féderation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (1922), the International League for Human Rights (1941), the International Commission of Jurists (1952), Amnesty International (1961), Human Rights Watch (1976), International Alert (1985), and others.

In the second half of the 20th century, international and regional laws were established for many branches of the Universal Declaration: civil and political rights and liberties; the economic, social, and cultural rights; women’s rights and discrimination; race discrimination, tortures, and inhumane punishments; slavery; the rights of children and refugees; health care and education; ecology and environment. All these agreements, in contrast with the Universal Declarationhave real legal force.

The difficult balance between nature and culture

Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar on mythology, states, “As a result of the fundamental sin, nature was perverted.” For a long period of history, it has been difficult to bridge the gap between nature and culture. It is remarkable that the Chinese never had to face this problem. They embraced the idea of a harmonious relationship between nature and culture.

In Europe, the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes played the most important role concerning the split of concepts such as nature and culture, body and mind, and man and world. This paved the way for an unbelievable development of natural sciences: the study of natural sciences, mathematics, the human body, etc. Another 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, recognized the problems associated with the above-mentioned dualism of new science and traditional belief. He saw Western man on a very small path between two deep abysses, the infinite small and that of the immense large cosmos.

All nature religions are based on harmony between heaven and earth and of a symbiotic relationship between nature and culture. In agricultural societies, this relationship is certainly understandable. The first gods were nature gods and were the powers of nature. The slow development of technology could not disturb that harmony. Every pre-modern civilization has the remembrance of a time in which nature and culture, man and world were united in a relatively harmonious relationship.

Mythology of nearly all humans illustrates a united world in which nature-culture-religion, past-now-future, and living-dead-descendants, are one. It is remarkable that goddesses governed the golden era of the harmony of nature and culture. For thousands of years, especially the Mother Goddess played a fundamental role in the Euro-Asian continent. The feminine throughout our history has played an enormous role in the balance nature and culture. Alas, the conquest of Kanaan in the Bible heralded the destruction of the mother culture. The god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims clearly was a patriarchal and a male god. This was the slow beginning of contrast between nature and culture.

Chinese and Indian civilizations preserved the harmony for thousands of years. This accord implicates that man is part of nature. One can observe that in Chinese paintings, people are pictured very small in large and great natural surroundings. Taoism underlines the foundation of the Chinese civilization. In essence, it is a nature philosophy and is based on the idea that all natural rhythmic energies form harmony. This harmony does not relate to dogmas, neither is it directed to one or the other way of transcendence. Chinese philosophy does not concentrate on “Being” but on “To Be.” Chinese philosophers also did not accept any form of eternal life; they only were concerned about life itself. In accordance with their opinion, life was based on a cyclical movement in which existence and non-existence take turns in a spontaneous self-creating process.

In contrast with Western rationalism and Indian mysticism, the Chinese vision and philosophy are purely immanent and completely related to the concept nature. No other civilization has so strongly emphasized the creating of life process (what we call nature) and to fully identify itself with it.

A same sort of “natural” harmony also was the basis for the ancient Indian civilization. It had, however, remarkable differences with the Chinese concept. The last one had a fully secular worldview, a civilization without gods and without any form of transcendence. The Indian civilization, in contrast, is one of the most religious civilizations with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. We find in Indian approaches the ascetic and world avoid manifestations of Indian religion. In Hinduism, the spirituality is directed to the eternal variation of creation and destruction–Brahma and Shiva–that cannot be changed not even by the preserving force of the cosmic order, Vishnu.

The Chinese model has been a worldly, local, and secular harmony. The Indian was cosmic and universal, based on the rhythm of cycles of 4.32 billion years. This astronomic number was only one day in the life of Brahma. This was followed by a night of the same length before the time that Brahma created a new universe. Remarkable of this scheme is that this world is created and re-created and that the existence of the universe is estimated to be some 5 billion years. This estimation is very near the age of the solar system in accordance with modern accounts formed some 5 billion years ago. Harmony of the Indian civilization was founded on the balance between micro cosmos in which we live and macro cosmos of the universal order. This Indian approach of harmony was as far from the Chinese nature philosophers as from Western rationalists who based themselves on rationality. This rationality did not play an important role in the world of the Indians because gods ruled their lives. The Indian civilization was based on actions by gods not of human beings.

Worlds of harmony recall a time that the religions and supernatural beliefs were intimately connected with the human world, nature, the cosmos, and the community. There was no need to divide nature and culture.

Nature divided from culture

Division of nature and culture is characteristic of modern European thinking in the 16th and 17th century. Descartes presented radical conclusions that were the end of the synthesis of nature and culture of the Middle Ages. He was confronted with existential doubts and, consequently, he searched for absolute certainties. He discovered them in two separate created substances of God: the inner world of the spirit and the outer world of the sciences. This was the beginning of the actual division of nature and culture, body and mind, and a world of matter and spirit.

The strength of the sciences was based on a newly obtained autonomy. It had been hampered by the ways of thinking of the former period. However, after Descartes, sciences were liberated from theology and were granted the opportunity for an explosive development.

Another example was Machiavelli (16th century) who opened the way for the development of political sciences by liberating it from moral and religious obstructions. Three centuries later, scientists were able to develop a new world, with such subjects as psychology and sociology. In these new fields of study, however, nature and culture also were divided.

The new way of thinking gave argument for a rebellion against nature. The industrial revolution disturbed the relationship between nature and culture. Because of the change from an agrarian to an industrial society, migration from villages to cities started. On top of that, in the 19th century, 40 million Europeans went to America, Asia, and Africa. On the other hand, the same number of Chinese and Indians were migrating.

Western man had the impression of controlling nature and from that, knowledge and technology developed. Is it possible to unilaterally develop nature and to forget culture, e.g. man? I do not want to elaborate on this question. It is sufficient enough to mention world problems such as global warming, unequal distribution of labor and wealth, continuous conflicts between cultures and nations, etc. Some worried scientists have presented worst-case scenarios. In history, several civilizations destroyed their living areas by the erosion of soil, the explosion of population, the loss of natural sources of drinking water, the overuse and abuse of natural resources, the overproduction of waste products, etc. Civilization is certainly vulnerable.

Several people in the past warned about the dangers that mankind was facing. Marx tried to establish a global civilization. He only concentrated on a social and economic revolution. Nietzsche proposed a completely “new creation.” It was his opinion that the entire world society had to be changed fundamentally. In the same way, French philosophers such as Foucault, Deleuse, and Derrida launched structuralism, deconstructive, and past-modern attacks on the entire society. It was an attack on civilization as a whole. They were cutting the branch on which they were sitting!

In general, there was a growing suspicion against culture and civilization as expected by many scholars, e.g. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. For Nietzsche, culture was completely decadent. Only creative, brilliant people, the so-called Über Mensch (Super Man) could save the world.

He admired the philosophy of Zarathustra, an itinerant travelling preacher, who announced the coming of the Über Mensch. This choice is understandable because, in ancient Persian religion, man was not despised; he was a close ally of the divine. Man is not frustrated by the feelings of sin, and he represents a completely different type of human being: the high-spirited, who has to learn virtues, has to be educated to develop his qualities based on these virtues, and in this way, has to conquer the dark forces. Freud concentrated on the secrets of the human mind. His research lead to the opinion that culture was a source of an uncomfortable feeling of life. Psychoanalysis demonstrated the vulnerability of the human psyche, which according to his theory, was governed by drives and dreams. These unconscious forces were able to uplift, as well as to destroy, man.

The publications of the above-mentioned scholars and the publications of Ortega y Gasset and Spengler were leading to the following discussion point: Is civilization connected with progress or decline?

We can observe that people are expecting a better life. This expectation only has emerged in recent times. It developed because of a desire to progress. The European middle class was the beneficiary group of this new élan. However, this optimism was developed during World War I. Consequently, it turned into a pessimism that was strengthened by World War II.

A new feeling of optimism and trust in progress started in 1945, e.g. with the liberation of countries in Africa and Asia. This optimism was shaken tremendously in 1973 by the Arab-Israel war. Again and again, the idea of progress is hampered by an assortment of causes. It has been a movement of vicissitudes. We can regard this as the existence of a sort of cyclic dream. In fact, this dream is of all times and all cultures. It refers to a way of harmony between culture and nature, individual and community, good and evil, and heaven and earth. The most important characteristic is repetition.

The linear way of thinking is that on one side, progress will continue and on the other side, progress will decline. This decline is thought to take place in four steps. The most ancient example of this can be found in the Hindu tradition, expressed in the Vedas, possibly written in the 2nd millennium B.C. The first Vedic era–Satya Yuga–is called the time of truth or golden era. People did not suffer from hatred or fear. They were guided by virtue, wisdom, and religion. In the second era–Tretra Yuga–morality is declining and people are learning to know vice. The third era–Vapara Yuga–is a time of balance between virtue and vice. In the fourth era, vice becomes stronger than virtue. We can find the same version of these four worlds in Daniel, one of the books of the Bible.

Important political, social, and economic developments can be found in the entire history of humanity. The development of knowledge, technology, and science supports the idea of progress. Condorcet wrote in 1794, “historical description on the progress of the human mind.” It reflected a universal belief in progress underlining the destruction of inequality between nations. As promoters of a renewed optimism, we can name Comte and Hegel. In this context, the philosophy of Hegel is fundamental. He mentioned the development of the mind based on the subjective spirit (life of the individual man), the objective spirit (family, society, and state) and the absolute spirit (art, religion, and philosophy). This idea declined in the philosophy of the 19th century–with exception of some parts in the Marxist interpretation.

The idea of an infinite progress starting in the 18th century was based on optimism about human capacities. We can find examples of this optimism in an earlier period, such as promoted by Thomas Moore’s’ Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627). This utopian dream is also playing a role in the “society without classes” envisaged by Marx, in the disgusting Arian utopia of Hitler, in the utopia of unlimited freedom, and in the ecological paradise of the earliest environmental movement. This changed completely in political publications of the second half of the 20th century, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s’ 1984.

The concept of progress is difficult to measure. Nobody disposes of a neutral and objective set of criteria. Nonetheless, it is possible to demonstrate an impressive search to support the idea of progress. Science, knowledge, technology, and education have exposed an unbelievable development. Political democracy has brought more freedom and equality than all political systems of the past. The obvious progress also is demonstrated by the development of the constitutional state, the division of powers: state–church–court. Of course, globally, we are confronted with hunger and inequality. The difference with the past is that now many people regard this as unacceptable, and we observe a growing force to attack those problems.

Culture expresses differences

We need to be aware of cultural differences. The safety of former times no longer exists. There are no geographical distances any more because of the mobility of trains, cars, ships, and planes.

Time after time, we are confronted with terms as “culture” and “civilization.” In general, we can say that culture is a matter of safety and distance while civilization is a matter of dynamics that can bridge distances by braking through feelings of safety. Recently, an intense acceleration of time is bringing people into a larger totality. Culture is a matter of differences in symbols, heroes, rituals, and values, be they ugly or beautiful, normal or abnormal, rational or irrational. A Dutch anthropologist, Geert Hofstede, states, “values are feelings with direction” which always mean the possibility of choices between various ways of behavior. Cultures are underlining choices between freedom and equality, peace or justice, distance or closeness, collectivity or individuality, unity, or diversity.

René Girard points at fundamental differences, e.g. gods and men, men and animals, men and women. These are basic for any culture and civilization. He thinks that the fear of equality is what is bothering cultures.

Every culture is a “system of differences.” It is not the differences that stimulate people to violence but the disappearance of differences. Violence between cultures that are very different from each other is not common. However, violence between similar cultures having the same language is a frequent phenomenon, for example, the fighting between Hutus and Tutsis (Rwanda), and Protestants and Catholics (North Ireland). It is an unwritten rule that the more things are similar, the more they can react with hatred. The task of myths and rites is to underline differences in order to prevent the danger of slight differences.

Modern society cherishes differences, such as division of authorities and of politics and religion. Ortega y Gasset mentioned the danger of an undifferentiated mass, which is undermining civilization. “Massification,” in his opinion, is the elimination of aspects that make humans different from animals. Although massification via democratisation and general education regulates politics in many countries, I have the impression that Western civilization has sufficient power to survive.

The Indian caste system is an example of a non-bridgeable difference between social groups living next to each other. In those groups, individual differences are not important, but differences between groups are very strong. Only the collectivity determines who you are and what you can be. There exists a theory that the Indian castes are related to four basic categories, in general: Brahmans (priests), kshatriya (army), vaisya (administrators, farmers, merchants), and shudra (the lowest caste, but still positioned above the casteless fifth category, the untouchables).

China, Japan, large areas of the Islamic world, pre-Columbian America, and the Christian Middle Ages have known such hierarchical periods that were non-flexible ordered societies comparable to that of India today. The alternation of this hierarchy has been the key for the development of Western civilization. It brought equal rights and freedom for the individual citizen who is one person and cannot be divided. Society is ontologically only important to guarantee freedom and equality for the individual.

The fundamental difference between cultures and civilizations is, in fact, the diverse opinion of the transcendence. The differences between human beings can decline, but never between heaven and earth. The last difference will never disappear. Therefore, combining culture and religion as one identity is an attractive proposition, but this is only applicable for collective cultures.

Religions in relationship to Peace and War

Religion has a dubious position concerning international conflicts. During colonial times, a British historian wrote that Buddhists and Hindus were more peaceful than representatives of Western religions. However, I think that this opinion is very limited. Today we know of Hindu fundamentalism and the fighting between various groups of monks of monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism.

It is, however, a fact that Christianity is the most aggressive religion. In the three revelation religions–Christianity, Islam, and Judaism–we find the idea of the apocalypse, the end of times. With this idea, the revelation religions have a basis for their violence. No country has more apocalyptic groups and believers than the United States. One can ask the question, Is there a relationship between this aspect of religious belief and the aggressive political approach of the U.S. Administration?

The three monotheistic religions represent 60 percent of the world population. None of the three has found a way to create a more peaceful world. On the contrary, all of these religions have contributed to major conflicts and wars around the world.


Most of the wars in the last 300 years have taken place in Europe. Many of these wars were between states within the same civilization, wars between cultures. If there ever was a civilization that was destructive, it was the Western one. Moreover, it has been for a relatively short period. Europe has been responsible for two World Wars. On the other hand, Western civilization has created a world that (as a civilization) has never been more peaceful. The United Nations has advocated a flexible form of world order. Ever since the glory of the modern order of states, the number of wars between states has been drastically diminished. From 1993-2003, wars between states no longer existed, with exception of the American-British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the number of internal conflicts and civil wars has increased.

Hans Küng foresees the development of a Weltethos (World Ethics) that will be created from civilization. Religions will not contribute much to this because they are more or less prisoners of their “own and unique right vision.” Therefore, civilization will be fundamental for the creation of the new ethical vision. This cannot be expected from the many diverse cultures and people with thousands of different languages. In today’s world, several philosophers are distinguishing five or six civilizations. In my Global Silk Road philosophy, I have based my theory on the Far Eastern (China/Japan), Eastern (India) and Western (Europe/North America) civilizations.

Civilizations are lively and active, in contrast with cultures that are–because of their limited radius of action–much more permanent and stable. Civilizations are transforming variables, absorbing new impulses, and, at regular times, throwing off dead weight. That is the secret of their universality and of their indefiniteness.

Do civilizations have a common center? In my opinion, they do. However, what they share is not in the past but in the future. They share a common perspective, not a common tradition. From very different backgrounds and nourished by a jumble of roots and sources, they are starting on the way to a similar future.

All monolithic civilizations have come to a stand still or disappeared. There are only clusters of civilizations left, partly coinciding with historical centers of world religions. These are also overlapping and fertilizing each other. The cluster now guided by Western civilization is, in geographical distribution and depth, the most dominant cluster of all times. However, we have to keep in mind that Western civilization is not the only one and needs to renew continuously in order to have a positive influence outside of Europe and Northern America. It will need protection mechanisms against negative influences from inside and outside.

This means that Western civilization needs to allow and adapt influences from Chinese and Indian civilizations. Even China and Japan, as heirs of one of the most ancient civilization, could not prevent technology and science from becoming a combined origin for contact with other parts of the world. In this way, in the non-Western world, literacy and education programs strengthened the fundamentals of Western civilization that affected the introduction of science and technology. Science and technology, education and industrialization, justice and international cooperation are strengthening a common base with positive as well as negative results. This line of universalization is at full speed now and has to be adjusted daily. A blunt generalization of Western points of departure is not possible. However, certain crucial views can never be abandoned, such as equal rights, freedom, and democracy. Nobody can predict how the first world civilization will look in the future.

Material inventions and discoveries guarantee a common base. Civilization is a matter of values, institutions, and patterns of thinking. These are guiding societies in a certain direction, in which the material development only plays a minor role. All civilizations have taken over inventions from the West without abandoning their own values and norms. Certainly, the material base is dominated by world economy and commerce. Nevertheless, science, education, and art are keeping pace with those material inventions and economy, and civilization seems to point in the direction of a first universal civilization.

The spreading of modern Western culture unveils the continued existence of other civilizations. These include elements of the Western way of life and vision. They are not doing that without adapting, adjusting, and changing it in accordance with their own civilization. Therefore, the non-Western civilizations not only keep a grip on their own way of life but also contribute to world civilization as a whole.


The difference between civilization and culture is indelible. Cultures contain what people distinguish from each other, while civilizations are what bring them together. Each culture lives by tradition. It is a matter of repetition. Obviously, a civilization can unite many cultures, not by dividing and distinguishing, but by offering them a common goal and future. Cultures divide even that what is united. In fact, culture is the cult of the past because it revives the past repeatedly. Civilizations unite even that what is divided by cultural boundaries.

In comparison, civilization is mostly open and always in process. It is what happens if humans create a future that is indefinite. Monolithic predecessors that stopped renewal and development of civilization disappeared long ago. Active civilizations always revived and renewed other cultures and chose new directions in a flexible way.

The question remains: Is there a sufficient basis for three or more civilizations on earth? The challenge for mankind is if a global civilization can develop that will contain elements of the combined existing civilizations–unity in diversity. All civilizations have sufficient common grounds to discover a joined project that in the near future can elevate man and that can breathe new life into a united planet on a higher level. Scholars as Teilhard de Chardin as well as Shri Aurobindo have introduced the concept of man with a higher consciousness. This is the challenge for all people who will give guidance to others: children, students, citizens, workers, etc. The main task, however, will be guiding our own inner self and behavior.