Mastering Civilization

People often wonder what the point is in studying classical cultures, like Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt or Ancient China.

Some people say that it´s because the ancients were the high point of civilization and all went downhill from there.

But I think that, first, that this is to disconsider all the achievements of the last 5, 10, 15 or 20 centuries.

Second, this view neglects the fact that civilizations do not develop linearly. Anyone who has played the computer game Civilization III knows that at any given point, the Zulus might be more technologically advanced, though not as widespread as the Greeks, just as the Iroquois might be more culturally developed, though not as strongly armed as the Romans.

To say, therefore, that one given civilization, present or past, or is more civilized than another is one-sided, not only in the sense that it is simplistic (“what counts as civilized?”) but also in the sense of being parochial and borderline unfair.

Another view would be to say that we study ancient cultures for mere curiosity. In this sense, it does not really matter whether you study Ancient Rome or Ancient Tupi-Guarani: they are all dead and gone, and equally irrelevant to the current reality.

I also find this view parochial, though in a chronological rather than geographical sense. To have this attitude is to disregard an immense wealth about what makes human civilization what it is. It is like running the risk of reinventing the wheel just because we have no time for realizing that it’s already been done before.

Timothy Reagan´s “Paideia Redux: A Contemporary Case for the Classics” is the best lead I found for the question of “why study the classics?.” Not only does it make a great case for the relevance of the Classics on the issues that press the post-modern world, but it is a great source for other fascinating reads on the topic.

The connections that Reagan makes between current theories and ancient theories, and with other authors writing on this topic, illustrates well both my personal take on why study the classics, and my best strategy for doing well in the the Civilization game.

That is, both as a civilization and as an individual player, we all start in different locations, with access to different resources and different specific skills. Our specificities are at same time a plus and a limitation: a civilization with lots of hills has more access to iron and more defense points, but more difficulty for locomotion and for agriculture. A military civilization makes stronger armies, but takes longer to develop culturally.

We only have to gain in connecting with other civilizations as early in the game as possible. In this way, we can multiply both our access to resources (which depend on the specificities of our territory) as well as the speed in which we make technological advances (for while one invents the wheel the other is already inventing literacy, and the willingness to share makes both civilization stronger).

One might complain that the purpose of the game is still to outdo the other civilizations, and we can only win if at some point we break our allegiance with them, and leave them behind.

To this I reply that it all depends on why and how you play the game. For those who, like me, play it repeatedly, simply beating the adversary has no thrill. The fun is in playing a better game than before and in improving on my previous scores. And this (as I found from trial and error – lots of it), comes from making as many allegiances as possible, as early as possible.

But there are other games we only have the chance to play once. As far as I know, life is one of those.

References, Alusions and Recommendations:– Sid Meier´s Civilization III

– Reagan, Timothy. “Paideia Redux: A Contemporary Case for the Classics.” Journal of Thought 38.3 (2003): 21-39.

– Burbules, Nicholas C., and Rupert Berk. “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits.” Changing Terrains of Knowledge and Politics. Ed. Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler. New York: Routledge, 1999. 45-65.


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