As I See It: Civilization, a word we know

Civilization is a word we know the meaning of when we use it, yet there are many possibilities. I think most of us first picture an organized culture with a minimum of savagery, like our own, or the way we imagine of our own. Civilization is people grouping together for common interest. Too often, it has been corrupted for the interest of a selfish ruling class.

In world history, we studied many ancient civilizations and cultures but my recollection of high school history does not include the brutality that marked almost all civilizations until the Marshall plan. Warfare was constant. After a war the winners took reparations (booty) that left the losers devastated and hopeless. In most cases, the brutality was beyond anything you can imagine if you have not studied it. Consider the Grimm tales a documentary. Even in peace, most cultures, civilizations if you will, were divided into three estates. The aristocracy, warrior, privileged, ruler class, alii. Two, the knowledge estate, clergy, professionals, kahuna. Three, everybody else, laborers, soldiers, kanaka. The knowledge estate maintained their positions by keeping the privileged informed. They kept the lower castes misinformed and dazzled with rituals.


Within each estate there was a complex hierarchy of course, but the first two had absolute brutal power over the third who had virtually no fixed rights. Often, there was an even lower subclass of human livestock, slaves, kaua. The unique thing about America and the post-war Western civilization is the mobility between estates. One is not bound for life to any estate. Descendants of slaves now serve in the highest most prestigious offices. Yet many nations still have a monarchy. True, most monarchs no longer have absolute power, but they get to keep the wealth their ancestors acquired (stole) from others without really contributing to its creation.

As our civilization becomes, dare I say it: more civilized? We try to break down barriers so that everyone has the same rights and opportunities. We have learned, since Adam Smith, that the true measure of a nation’s wealth is not the amassment of precious stones, metal, or even land but the productivity of the population. Mini-civilizations called corporations enable pooling of labor and capital to do things no individual could hope to accomplish. Within nations, a health care culture can insure that as many people as possible are well and fit to contribute to the common good.

Some people within our civilization become personally wealthy by creating something that was never there before (art, books, industries, philosophy). I think we admire them. Others become personally wealthy by manipulating assets so that riches accumulate to them at the expense of others. I do not think they are admired, except by their peers who wish to do the same.

In the 17th century, the ancient order began to change. Printing created the fourth estate. It was no longer necessary to nail theses on a church door. The press, now called the media, made it possible to inform the masses directly, and independently from the propaganda the warrior and priest classes were feeding them. It became possible for the majority, the third estate to become informed. They began to ask for something back from the ruling classes. Something more than bread and circuses. They wanted rights. Many that we take for granted today: Justice, free speech, freedom to own arms, freedom to assemble and petition the king. It’s a long list and not all have yet been achieved. It took another hundred years for this to become a movement.


In the summer of 1787, 55 rich white men met in Philadelphia and established a new definition of civilization: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to