Whose civilisation? Which Enlightenment?

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University

Bruce Mazlish, Civilization and its Contents, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2005 (208 pp). ISBN 0-804-75083-1 (paperback) RRP $34.00.

David J. Weber, Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005 (466 pp). ISBN 0-300-10501-0 (hard cover) RRP $70.00.

The European Enlightenment is back in fashion. In a range of recent publications Enlightenment thought has been re-examined, its diplomatic history has been explored, and its continuing relevance assayed. Among all re-evaluations and re-assessments this diverse scholarship represents, many scholars now accept that what previous generations of scholars referred to as the Enlightenment—a supposedly unique historical epoch uniting the various countries of Western Europe into a ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ culture emerging (roughly) between 1650 and 1800—was in fact a diverse phenomenon with distinct national variations.

Enlightenment thought has long been characterised by its commitment to progress, to individual liberty, a secular foundation for ethics, to science and technology and to the rational reform of society. Only comparatively recently have scholars turned their attention toward Enlightenment attitudes to empire, and here too there is a tendency to emphasise diversity. Sankar Muthu, for instance, has argued that ‘In eighteenth-century debates about human diversity, no single category, classificatory scheme or set of explanations of cultural difference was hegemonic in the manner that racial typologies of non-European peoples …’ came to dominate 19th century ‘… anthropological and political thought’ (2003, p. 279).

However, in my view, Enlightenment ideas of civilisation did operate as a single ‘classificatory’ scheme. This scheme was widely used by intellectuals, policy-makers and administrators from the 18th until well into the 20th century. Nonetheless, it was a scheme that could have remarkably different implications.

The term ‘civilisation’ has a unique Enlightenment pedigree.

The term ‘civilisation’ has a unique Enlightenment pedigree. It was coined by the French Enlightenment philosophe Mirabeau in 1756, and was rapidly adopted by a variety of intellectuals across Europe. Adam Smith, for example, spoke of civilisation in terms of the development of commercial societies with more efficient government and enhanced personal liberty. Though he defined civilisation in similar terms, Smith’s friend Adam Ferguson thought that greater wealth and luxury would enhance moral corruption and possibly lead to social decay. However the costs and benefits of civilisation were defined for Europeans, the central assumption behind much of the talk of civilisation was that Europe’s commercial, scientific, artistic and technological advances during the age of Enlightenment manifested a degree of civilisation far in advance of other parts and peoples of the globe. Reflecting on the term civilisation thus provides one way to explore both the diversity and unity of Enlightenment thought, and to assess its global impact.

It is timely then that Bruce Mazlish’s Civlisation and its Contents reminds us of the Enlightenment lineage of the term ‘civilisation’ but also points toward its recent and surprising resuscitation in a range of debates on domestic politics and diplomacy. In its original Enlightenment context, Mazlish notes, civilisation denoted ‘a particular form of sociability’ between individual agents whose conduct was ‘polished, refined, and mannered’ (pp. 5–7). This sociability rested on a delicate assemblage of elements including an urban environment of learned sophistication (urbanity), of flourishing arts and sciences, of commercial wealth and productive labour, and a shared commitment to the universal application of reason to the solution of all problems.

Civilised society was thus conceived as a realm of interaction needing protection from uncivilised peoples, whether the poor at home, or the so-called ‘savage’ or ‘barbarous’ nations abroad. Above all, the language and imagery of civilisation offered to Europeans a way of making sense of themselves in relation to other peoples who could be placed along a scale of civilisation in which, all too often, Europe represented the apogee, and the various Indigenous peoples of America and the Pacific, the nadir (pp. 40–41).

Some in Europe questioned the supposed superiority of European civilisation.

There were those in Europe who questioned the supposed superiority of European civilisation, and acknowledged that there were other civilisations outside Europe—those of China or Japan, or of Ancient Egypt for example. Nonetheless, the ‘ghastly power’ of the notion of European civilisation was that it purveyed the assumption of European superiority until well into the 20th century (p. 92). This legacy still colours recent calls for a ‘multivoiced’ ‘dialogue of civilisations’ to replace the ‘clash of civilisations’ that so many have identified as taking place between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ today (p. 114). And yet, Mazlish cannot help but see this dialogue leading toward the development of a ‘global civilisation’ with a ‘common basis in science and technology’ communicating ‘universalistic qualities’ (p. 130). Mazlish here seems to have confounded his desire for an inclusive dialogue of civilisations, with an assumption that the basic elements of Western civilisation will shape the outcome of such a dialogue.

Perhaps the error lies in the use of the term civilisation itself. Since its inception, the term civilisation was not merely descriptive—of stages of social development—but also governmental. For many European intellectuals, politicians and social reformers, the term civilisation implied a rational, effective and efficient system of government. For the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular, ‘civilisation’ served as a kind of conceptual shorthand for all the processes giving rise to new societies and states in Europe (Oz Salzberger 2003, p. 60). ‘Civilisation’ was understood not simply as the culmination of an historical process—a finished stage of social progress—but as a set of inter-related social, economic, political, cultural and military developments that it was a key task of government to foster and protect. In speaking of civilisation then, they were doing more than describing an historical process—they were helping to define a new social vision, a vision that had definite implications outside Europe.

While civilisation entailed the possession of government, the corollary was that a lack of civilisation meant a want (or even a complete absence) of government (Buchan, 2005a, pp. 1–22). Throughout the period of European imperialism (which spanned the age of Enlightenment), European colonists and colonial authorities used the term civilisation to justify their claim to empire. Not all Europeans spoke with one voice on this issue. Among the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and William Robertson believed civilisation would lead to Britain’s military supremacy and global empire, but Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson thought civilisation would prove a source of international conflict, and they viewed empire as a dangerous temptation or as a source of corruption (Buchan 2005b).

Even critics of empire however—thinkers such as Immanuel Kant—cast non-European Indigenous peoples as ‘savages’ living in ‘lawless freedom’ ([1795] 1970, pp. 102–103). It might of course be objected that this kind of dismissal of Indigenous people is no more (and of no more significance) than the common prejudices of many others in Europe at the time. But in saying so, we would run the risk of failing to see how pervasive assumptions about ‘superior’ European civilisation, and the different levels of more or less civilised conditions outside Europe, shaped European perceptions and actions.

Captain James Cook brought the European Enlightenment into the Pacific in 1768–70.

An interesting case in point is how Captain James Cook brought the European Enlightenment into the Pacific in 1768–70 and took possession of various lands (including Australia). Cook had been instructed to ‘obtain’ the ‘consent’ of Indigenous peoples to British annexation. He also carried additional ‘Hints’ from James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton and President of the Royal Society to avoid bloodshed, recognise the ‘rights’, and seek the ‘voluntary consent’ of Indigenous peoples (Morton in Beaglehole 1955, pp. 14–19). As Dan Carey has shown, these ‘Hints’ form part of a long Royal Society tradition of ethnographic instruction to travellers (Carey, 2006: 94–99).

Many European travellers however, could not help but see others through the distorting lens of European civilisation. Cook himself tended to interpret Indigenous communities through the medium of trade or ‘traffick’. Where a people engaged in trade, it was assumed that they accepted relations of private property signifying established laws and government protecting that property. The wording of Cook’s ‘Instructions’ and ‘Hints’ both linked the obtaining of ‘consent’ to the establishment of ‘traffick’, and this is precisely what he sought to do in Tahiti and New Zealand (Cook 1955, p. 197).

One of the chief virtues of Weber’s remarkably detailed and engaging Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment is that it allows us to see this interest in traffick not as evidence of a peculiarly British colonial attitude—supposedly more interested in civilised trade than barbarous conquest—but as a manifestation of Enlightened European thought. For too long, the ‘Black Legend’ of monumental Spanish cruelty in the Americas (a legend carefully fostered by the British to deflect attention from their own colonial cruelties) has coloured popular understanding of Spain’s Empire in general. Weber shows us however, that during the late 18th century, a succession of Spanish intellectuals, policy-makers, military officers and colonial governors sought to use ‘Enlightened’ ideas of social progress to reform Spanish society, government and imperial administration.

For these reformers Enlightened thought offered new possibilities for rational reform of the cumbersome machinery of empire, and humane treatment of Indigenous peoples in the colonies (p. 47). The ‘new method’ of Enlightened colonial policy, Weber suggests, revolved around the effort to ‘civilise’ Indigenous peoples, not simply by conversion to Catholicism, but by forming them as ‘sociable’ subjects able to provide more regular labour to the colony through the mobilisation of their own material self-interest (pp. 102–104). This was a vision of how Enlightenment intellectuals thought that European society functioned, transformed into a program for re-making Indigenous communities in the colonies. Central to this ‘new method’ was a renewed focus on trade as a mechanism of colonial control. Spanish authorities used trade in manifold ways, to impress by displays of largesse, to subvert Indigenous gifting relationships, to encourage dependency on European goods, to incorporate distant tribes into networks of commercial exchange, and to mimic French and British colonial practices (pp. 178–91). Trade thus seemed to offer a mechanism to transform supposedly ‘savage’ nations into ‘civilised’ subjects not by force, but by enlightened self-interest (p. 197).

Trade seemed to offer a means to transform ‘savage’ nations into ‘civilised’ subjects.

Something very like this understanding of trade informed Cook’s trafficking in Tahiti and New Zealand. The British took exchanges of nails and coins for food, raw materials or sex as indications of Indigenous consent to their continued presence. Similarly, the British assumed that Indigenous ‘consent’ to possession of territory was obtained by exchanges of nails, medals or even a glass bottle. But where Cook found Indigenous peoples who seemed uninterested in trade, such as those in New Holland (Australia), Cook made little effort to obtain ‘consent’ because he assumed that they did not own or exercise sovereignty over the land (Cook 1955, p. 399). Significantly, in one of the only references in Cook’s journals to trying to obtain Indigenous ‘consent’ in Australia, the encounter rapidly degenerated into outright violence, with the Europeans firing their muskets at Aboriginal men on the shore (Cook 1893, p. 19).

The implications of such encounters could hardly have escaped the notice of European readers. In the age of Enlightenment, military technology and discipline was considered a measure of civilisation. Adam Ferguson praised what he considered the ‘civilised’ methods of European warfare, and Johan Reinhold Forster (who accompanied Cook on his second voyage) saw a people’s military organisation as a measure of their social advance. Adam Smith also included lengthy discussions of the implications of economic development for military matters in his Wealth of Nations. According to Smith, the commercial ‘civilisation’ of Europe meant that ‘civilised’ nations with market economies possessed a greater capacity to invest wealth in modern military technology (Smith [1776] 1961, pp. 230–31). Although a critic of empire, he was comforted by the thought that while ‘at first sight appear[ing] … so pernicious’, modern military technology and discipline was ultimately ‘favourable both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization’, and provided the means whereby ‘a barbarous country’ could be ‘suddenly and tolerably civilized’ (Smith [1776] 1961 pp. 231, 228).

For those Enlightened intellectuals less worried about empire than Smith, the balance of power that this fiscal-military capacity created, had definite implications for Europe’s relations with non-European peoples. ‘The nations of Europe’ William Robertson ominously claimed, are ‘like one great family’, not separated by marks of ‘genius’ which, ‘in almost every period of history, has exalted the Europeans above the inhabitants of the other quarters of the globe, and seems to have destined the one to rule, and the other to obey.’ (Robertson [1769] 1856, pp. 413–414). Robertson and Smith differed over the benefits of Britain’s empire, but both accepted that the Indigenous peoples Britain governed in the Americas, the Pacific and elsewhere should be understood in terms of a scale of civilisation. This scale was not just a description. Its significance in the work of Smith, Robertson, and their contemporaries was that it indicated a set of historical processes that had given to Europeans particular advantages over, and a governmental capacity far in advance of, other peoples. The concept of civilisation thus tells us much about the diversity and the unity of Enlightenment thought and practice.


Buchan, B. 2005a, ‘The empire of political thought: Civilisation, savagery and perceptions of Indigenous government’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 1–22.

Buchan, B. 2005b, ‘Enlightened histories: Civilisation, war and the Scottish Enlightenment’, The European Legacy, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 177–192.

Carey, D. 2006, Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson: Contesting Diversity in the Enlightenment and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Cook, J. no date, The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, Volume I, Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771, ed. J. C. Beaglehole, 1955, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Cook, J. no date, Lieutenant Cook’s Private Log, Historical Records of New South Wales, Volume I, Part 1, 1893, Government Printer, Sydney.

Kant, I. (1795) 1970, ‘Perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch’, in Kant’s Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lord Morton, no date, ‘Hints offered to the consideration of Captain Cooke, Mr Bankes, Doctor Solander, and the other Gentlemen who go upon the Expedition on Board the Endeavour’, in The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, Volume I, Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771, ed. J. C. Beaglehole, 1955, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Muthu, S. 2003, Enlightenment Against Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Oz-Salzberger, F. 2003, ‘The political theory of the Scottish Enlightenment’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. A. Broadie, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Robertson, W. (1769) 1856, History of the Reign of Charles the Fifth, Volume II, George Routledge, London.

Smith, A. (1776) 1961, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume II, ed. E. Cannan, Methuen, London.

Bruce Buchan lectures in history and political thought at Griffith University. His research interests focus on the relationship between key concepts in Western political thought, such as corruption, commerce, sovereignty, and government and the experience of European empires and colonisation.