Essence of civilization and the building of civilizational paradigm

By HE ZHE / 03-08-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Civilization is a knowledge system. Photo: TUCHONG

The exploration of the essence of civilization is a matter concerning the holistic view of civilization. When constructing a new form of human advancement, we must return to the original meaning of civilization, which is progressivism. As for the progressive view of civilization, civilization is a knowledge structure.

Knowledge-based society

With the return to the view of progress as the basic perspective for the development of a new civilization, it is necessary to further measure the level of civilization’s development based on the progressive trend of civilization itself. Although there are many perspectives and indicators for assessing the development of human civilization, such as technology, institution, and cultural dimensions, the fundamental trend in human historical development is the overall progression from a violent society to an intellectual society.

From the perspective of human development, early human society was full of savagery and violence. Of course, the history of human social evolution is also a history of knowledge development. Violence and knowledge form a dynamic upward double helix structure. Humans originated from the accumulation of knowledge formed by labor practices, which also spurred the escalation of violence. In many cases, knowledge was prioritized to produce sharper weapons, such as ancient metallurgical knowledge meant for both farm tools and weapons. With the further advancement of knowledge, the degree of human violence also systematically increased. With the establishment of larger social organizations such as states, systematic systems of legal violence have been established, and violent conquests between states became more common and larger in scale. From the binary relationship between knowledge and violence, although violence has increased with the advancement of knowledge, humans have always sought to use knowledge to suppress it.

This state has grown increasingly pronounced in modern times. With the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment Movement, and the Industrial Revolution, humanity gradually transitioned from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness and understanding of the world. Within the European continent, the Peace Treaty of Westphalia, signed after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), established the principle of sovereignty between states for the first time, which became the first institutional framework for mankind to control the violence of war between states.

Knowledge system

Civilization essentially is a knowledge structure crystalized from human practice. The subject of civilization is humanity itself, as humans are the agents of practice. The ultimate cognitive achievements of human practice are condensed into a knowledge system, where knowledge guides practice and is continuously improved through practice. In terms of assessing a civilization, technology, institution, and culture all ultimately condense into a knowledge system, reflecting the level of progress in human understanding across multiple dimensions. As for the achievements of civilization, the fundamental achievement of human civilization lies in the formation of a knowledge system. Furthermore, this knowledge system can be inherited and accumulated across time and space, allowing human civilization to advance along the path of knowledge.

As knowledge, civilization itself includes at least the following three basic components.

The first componet is the knowledge structure of wisdom.

From the perspective of civilizational evolution, humanity has experienced huge cognitive leaps in its understanding of the objective world. The first leap occurred with the ability to use fire, create tools, and develop language and characters, enabling humans to stand out among many other species in the evolutionary sequence. The second leap involved systematically summarizing knowledge of heaven and earth, anthropomorphizing the world, leading to the formation of myths and religions. This leap also involved the development of basic metallurgy, agricultural knowledge, and engineering expertise, leading to the establishment of prosperous and enduring agricultural civilizations. The third leap occurred through systematic and rational thinking, precise analysis of matter, the quantitative explanation of nature, harnessing fossil fuels for energy and the smelting industry, leading to the various industrial and scientific revolutions. To date, humanity remains at the level of the third cognitive leap, with limited knowledge about the deeper mysteries of nature, such as the universe, the earth, wisdom, space, time, and other fundamental issues. The majority of human sub-cultures are still stuck at a certain stage of cognition, thus falling into a stagnant period of civilizational evolution.

The second component is the knowledge sturcture of benevolence. 

Benevolence describes the relationship between humans, and between humans and other species. The knowledge structure of benevolence has become an important and complex knowledge system in civilization. Today, almost all social sciences, including political science, economics, sociology, ethics, and law, are striving to construct a social structure of benevolence. Human understanding of benevolence has made great progress from the belief that humans are not equal to nature or gods, to the belief that inequalities exist between humans, on to believing that all humans are equal. Of course, with the further expansion of human benevolence, the systems of equality and freedom have also extended to human protection of animals and nature, forming a new concept of harmony and friendship between humans and animals and nature, further enhancing human cognition of benevolence and expanding its scope of coverage.

The third component is the knowledge sturcture of beauty. 

The concept known as beauty is essentially the pleasure and elevation of human spirit. Artistic forms such as music, painting, and poetry have existed since the early stages of human civilization. Therefore, the pursuit of beauty has always been deeply embedded in human genes. In modern society, various artistic works reflecting beauty help to nurture people’s physical and mental health, elevate people’s hearts, and comfort and enlighten them, enabling them to live a happier life. 

In summary, civilization is the knowledge structure of wisdom, benevolence, and beauty formed by humans in practice. It reflects humanity’s knowledge achievements in overcoming its ignorance and barbarism, thus restraining the natural state of violence. The pursuit of wisdom allows individuals to focus on natural and social mysteries, while also showcasing the great achievements of individuals and groups in the material form. The pursuit and construction of benevolence directly address individual and collective violence. The construction of social systems is ultimately aimed at resolving violence and promoting social harmony. The pursuit of beauty contributes to the construction of a more glorious and elegant intellectual space for humanity. Good art enables people to roam in peace and tranquility and realize the individual intellectual sublimation of life. The progress of human society lies in transcending the state of barbarism and violence through the pursuit of wisdom, benevolence, and beauty.

Sustainable progression

Although human civilization has been embedded with continuously accumulating knowledge since its inception, allowing it to continue evolving and ascending, the history of human civilization over tens of thousands of years reveals that the vast majority of sub-civilizations have either disappeared into the depths of history, remained stagnant at certain stages, or experienced prolonged fluctuations in the cycle of development and destruction. The ascent of human civilization appears to be a very accidental event.

The historical persistence of knowledge progression is the core hallmark of civilizational construction. Sub-civilizations that have stagnated invariably fall into the cycle of “civilizational development-violent destruction” without exception. Building a new form of human advancement requires a return to the historical essence of civilization, that is, to build a sustainable knowledge-based civilization for the future. Knowledge, as a product of the subjective and objective practices that are highly invisible and mobile, is ubiquitous in human society. To ensure its sustainable progress, in addition to its long-term resource investment and institutional stability, there are three necessary conditions.

Opening-up: key condition

Opening-up includes both the internal and external aspects of a civilizational entity. Internal opening-up refers to the fair distribution of social resources to all social strata, allowing individuals at all levels to obtain corresponding resources according to their own efforts and achieve upward mobility or social value affirmation through a variety of channels. This enables the knowledge-innovative members of society to continuously access social resources and engage in knowledge creation and exchanges. External opening-up is also important to the development of knowledge systems and the progression of civilization. Throughout world history, civilizations that are open to exchanges have prospered. In terms of knowledge development, many countries in history had relatively low levels of accumulated knowledge, but they ensured the sustainable growth of their knowledge systems by pursuing open and inclusive policies.

The rule of law: core condition

The rule of law entails governing according to a set of rules, constituting a complete logic for the operation of a country and society. A civilization governed by the rule of law represents a significant historical leap forward in terms of social organization. From the perspective of the continuous progression of knowledge, the rule of law is a necessary core condition of civilizational advancement. The four fundamental characteristics of the rule of law, including predictability, publicity, self-limitation, and stability and sustainability, collectively form the foundation for the sustainable progression of a civilization’s knowledge system.

Balance: fundamental condition

Balance refers to the interaction of internal and external factors to maintain the stable state of things. A prosperous, stable, and sustainable knowledge-based society is bound to form an internal historical balance among multiple systems, so that power will not interfere with the progress of knowledge, and the basic order of society is ensured. The fundamental problem facing the development of civilization is the sustainable progress of civilization knowledge. Only by building an open, law-based, and balanced social system and realizing the transformation from a violent society to a knowledge-based one can we truly build a new form of human advancement that is sustainable and progressive.

He Zhe is a professor from the Party School of the Central Committee of C.P.C (National Academy of Governance).

Edited by ZHAO YUAN