Richard Miles (historian)
My bright idea: Civilisation is still worth striving for
Interview in The Guardian, The Observer, Sunday 17 October 2010
- Civilisation as a term suggests human agency. Things don't come together organically.
- There are winners and losers – and human will created the world we live in.
- Civilisation as a term suggests human agency. […] It is the way in which people have articulated how and why they wanted to live in communities. It's about how we imagine the perfect community. […] I think the most ambitious thing humans have ever done is deciding to live together with people whom they didn't know in cities. It's really difficult to build a community, to learn to celebrate difference and to live harmoniously together, and we fail all the time.
- In some respects, cities are bottom-up processes, but they are also top-down initiatives – and elites soon develop. Religion is older than the city, but the elites quickly build temples and turn themselves into priests. As they become more powerful the temples they build also have huge storehouses. What you see is that the man who has a surplus of material is the powerful man. This is because everyone is living hand-to-mouth, and if you have a bad harvest one year, well, you're stuffed.
- Writing certainly develops as an elite initiative at this [ancient] time. It helps them to harness the workforce – it's a way of communicating with the gods; and it's a way for the elites to list what you have, and what they have.
- If you are looking at fine buildings or the literature of the period, you have to be aware that you are only dealing with the mindset of the elite.
- But archaeology […] often acts as a parallel narrative to history: if you start digging with a textbook in your hand, you are soon going to get confused. You have to be comfortable with the idea that there are many different versions of history.