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The Empire of Civilization

The Evolution of an Imperial Idea

The term “civilization” comes with considerable baggage, dichotomizing people, cultures, and histories as “civilized”—or not. While the idea of civilization has been deployed throughout history to justify all manner of interventions and sociopolitical engineering, few scholars have stopped to consider what the concept actually means. Here, Brett Bowden examines how the idea of civilization has informed our thinking about international relations over the course of ten centuries.

            From the Crusades to the colonial era to the global war on terror, this sweeping volume exposes “civilization” as a stage-managed account of history that legitimizes imperialism, uniformity, and conformity to Western standards, culminating in a liberal-democratic global order. Along the way, Bowden explores the variety of confrontations and conquests—as well as those peoples and places excluded or swept aside—undertaken in the name of civilization. Concluding that the “West and the rest” have more commonalities than differences,this provocative and engaging bookultimately points the way toward an authentic intercivilizational dialogue that emphasizes cooperation over clashes. 

320 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009

History: General History

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


“Deeply researched, well argued, and readable despite the density of the material. . . . A rewarding read.”

Richard Thwaites | Canberra Times

“Offers a sophisticated and remarkably wide-ranging discussion of how the concept of civilization became central to philosophy, legal discourse, scientific progress, socio-political institutions and colonial ambitions. . . . Bowden’s inquiry . . . makes an important contribution to this political task.”

Australian Book Review

“A timely and significant book that advances our understanding not only of how the discourse of civilization emerged after 1492 and crystallized during the Enlightenment but, above all, how it continues to structure contemporary world politics. Bowden develops a unique multi-disciplinary approach that speaks directly to international relations, international law, and political theory. The book deserves to find its place alongside other key texts written by the likes of Richard Tuck, James Tully, and Antony Anghie.”

John M. Hobson, author of The Eastern Origins of Western Civilizatio n

“This well-argued, carefully researched book shows how valid and useful Lucien Febvre’s remark that ‘it is never a waste of time to study the history of a word’ remains even today. Bowden’s discussion of words such as ’civilization’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ ranges widely over Spanish debates on colonization, Enlightenment discourse, and contemporary Anglo-American writings. But what makes this book special is the fact that the colonized are never left out of view in Bowden’s history of European thought. A remarkable achievement.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies, University of Chicago

“This is an extremely erudite book that clearly illustrates Brett Bowden’s mastery of a wide variety of philosophical and historical sources. There is a lot of very interesting material here that is of enormous relevance to any contemporary intellectual reader attempting to place the concepts of ‘civilization’ and ‘civilizations’ in their proper historical contexts.”

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, School of International Service, American University

“Much has been written in recent times about Empire. But few of these works possess the quality of Brett Bowden’s far reaching historical study which is particularly timely and important because it explicates the intellectual foundations of Empire—particularly, the idea of civilization—with such clarity and depth. This is a superb book that will be of interest to everyone concerned about the enduring issues of Empire and their impact on some of the fundamental questions of our time.”

Tony Anghie, University of Utah College of Law

“This fascinating book traces the concept to the Enlightenment, when it evolved along with Western visions of progress and modernity as many Europeans looked at the rest of the world and saw the task of civilizing ‘backward’ peoples as ‘the white man’s burden.’ . . . In his most provocative claim, Bowden argues that today’s ‘new imperialism’—military interventions, nation building, and financial intrusions led by the International Monetary Fund—draws on deeply embedded assumptions about Western standards of civilization.”

Foreign Affairs

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

A Note on Spelling

1 Introduction: Guizot’s Question: Universal Civilization?

Part One: Civilization, Progress, and History: Universals All?

2 The Ideal of Civilization: Its Origins, Meanings, and Implications

3 Civilization and the Idea of Progress

4 The Notion of Universal Civilization: One End for All?

Part Two: The Art and Science of Empire

5 The Expansion of Europe and the Classical Standard of Civilization

6 The Burden of Civilization and the “Art and Science of Colonization”

Part Three: New Barbarism, Old Civilization, Revived Imperialism

7 New Barbarism and the Test of Modernity

8 The “New Realities” of Imperialism

9 Conclusion: The Future of Intercivilizational Relations





Australian Political Studies Association: Crisp Prize

Norbert Elias Foundation: Norbert Elias Prize

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