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The Meaning of Civilization According to Williams and Gandhi Essay

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Updated: Nov 6th, 2021

The term ‘Civilization’ has many connotations. Different cultures have differing view of what constitutes civilization. Henry Smith Williams, eminent doctor, lawyer and historian through his article titled Civilization written in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910 and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, lawyer, social activist, philosopher writing in his book Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, 1909 offer two strikingly contrasting views, which in parts; have some similarities as to what civilization means. Henry Smith Williams (1863-1943) was a typical enlightened intellectual of his times. A practicing doctor in New York, Williams believed in scientific reasoning and utilitarian principles of life and hence all his writings have slant towards explaining issues in a simple, practical and pragmatic manner. MK Gandhi (1869-1948) was a world figure born in India, who practiced as a lawyer in South Africa and later returned to India to lead a freedom struggle. Gandhi pioneered the concept of satyagraha or the peaceful protest movement. Gandhi’s’ lifelong beliefs in Ahimsa or non-violence, his version of humanism that emphasized the dignity of man that included a moral code and duty towards his nation, society and man in general were instrumental in capitulating him to World wide renown. This essay examines the nuances of ‘Civilization’ as understood and explained by the two luminaries with a view to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the term.

Williams approaches the issue through an analytical Western treatment of the term that comes natural to the person’s nationality, upbringing and education. Gandhi’s approach is more syncretistic and nuanced owing to his Eastern origins, life experiences and adherence to a different philosophy of life that eschews materialism. According to Williams the word ‘civilization’ is a derivative of the Latin civis, a citizen, and civilis, pertaining to a citizen1. Williams proceeds by giving an etymological treatment to the concept of civilization linking it to human progress where man developed system of writings and technological advancement. Gandhi on the other hand, describes civilization as a state of things wherein its “true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life” 2 and that such actions should lead to promote bodily happiness. The subtle difference is that while William’s emphasis is on the material aspects of civilization, Gandhi’s is steeped towards humanism.

Williams offers the western outlook of the various ages of man and uses the term ‘savages’ that reflects an unconscious sentiment of superiority in stating that ‘savages’ are savage because they had not developed into civilized races of today. Gandhi castigates this tendency by observing that Westerners consider other people to have become civilized out of savagery only when they adopt European clothing3 , thus pointing to obvious racial overtones. Williams assumes that elaborate system of writings evolved approximately six thousand years before the Christian era4 and that period could be termed as the first or lowest status of civilization. Here Williams draws a distinction to accept that ‘localized civilizations’ of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians and the Hittites grew while completely missing out the Indus Valley Civilization that predates all these civilizations probably due to his ignorance of the Indian Subcontinent. In Williams world view, technological advancements such as the invention of gunpowder, mariner’s compass and the printing press added further impetus to the process of civilizing human society. Gandhi derides such an explanation by stating that “now it is possible to take away thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill. This is civilization?5 Here Gandhi is asking the rhetorical question whether such a (mis)use of knowledge which brings death and destruction can be termed as acts of civilized people.

The industrial revolution heralded in by the invention of the Steam engine, the spinning jenny and the works of Darwin, Lamarck6 set the stage for the newest period of civilization. Williams betrays his mechanistic perceptions about mentality that he likens as “a reaction to the influences of the environment”7. Such a simple determinism yet again shows a mindset given to simplistic analytical reasoning that eschews the subtle nuances of human philosophies more attuned to syncretism, an approach quite clearly evident in Gandhi’s approach to civilization. Gandhi emphasizes that “Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty”8. Thus by extension, civilization is nothing but morality and good conduct and the physical constructs so dear to Williams are just trappings that adorn the real intent of civilization.

Williams’ analysis admits that localized civilizations benefited as long as they intermingled with other developing civilizations that enriched their knowledge base and declined when they became insular. Gandhi on the other hand holds that Indian civilization with its emphasis on morality and good conduct “has nothing to learn from anybody else” and that India has evolved not “to be beaten in the world”9. Having studied the aspects of civilization by other experts, Williams then offers his original nine stages of civilizational development 10 that covers three periods of savagery, three periods of barbarism and three periods of civilization of which the Upper period of his times , he concluded was drawing to an end. All through his treatise, the common thread is that technology and man’s ability to use it in relation to nature has been the key driver for the advancement of civilization. Gandhi on the other hand implies that Indian civilization was imperishable and that “nothing can equal the seeds sown by our ancestors11” because of the Indian philosophy of seeing “happiness as largely a mental condition”12.

Williams then adds the issue of ‘citizenship’ and ‘patriotism’ as aspects of higher evolution of civilization. Gandhi’s view on the system of governance is pointed to “performance of duty and observance of morality13” that can ensure good governance rather than at the western constructs of what constitutes governments. William’s ‘White man’s colonial ruler superiority’ comes though quite starkly when he states that “When the oriental civilizations of Egypt and Babylonia and Assyria and Persia were dominant, a despotic form of government was accepted as the natural order of things”14. By implication the ongoing British colonial rule and the treatment of the colonies as slaves, serfs and sub-humans was more civilized than those ‘Orientals’ who were ‘despotic’. Gandhi on the other hand likens western civilization as a “Black Age” that is “eating into the vitals of the English nation” 15. Later in his exposition, Williams grudgingly admits the existence of gigantic civilization of the East which in self-defense had managed to absorb the essential practicalities of the western civilization within a single generation16.

Civilization also required a rationalistic view of the world where the word “Supernatural involves a contradiction of terms and has in fact no meaning”17. Williams thus brushes aside the vast body of philosophical and religious work that forms an integral part of human civilization. Gandhi points to the facile western perceptions of what constitutes civilization by stating that “this civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. Its votaries calmly state that their business is not to teach religion”18. Williams then wonders that the ‘air-ship’ may give a new impetus to human civilization19 that would change the insularity of nationalism to the broad view of cosmopolitanism. Gandhi takes a rhetorical view of the advantages of airship20 travel and wonders whether such advancements really qualify as aspects of attaining civilization. Gandhi’s emphasis is that such a civilization is irreligion that is making people in Europe half mad and is on a path to self-destruction21.

William’s future of civilization then acquires idealistic hues when he ponders that cosmopolitanism may make the humankind forswear war and weapons of war and a form of enlightened eugenics where “survival and procreation of the unfit will then cease to be a menace to the progress of civilization” 22 will come into force. This is an extremely provocative line of warped reasoning, quite reminiscent of the ‘Superman’ of Friedrich Nietzsche or the ‘Aryan Super Race’ of the Nazis that came to follow. Williams then admirably dreams of strife being resolved without “reference to national boundaries”23. Here Williams comes very close to the ideals of Postnationalism and Universalism. Williams thereafter believes that civilization will one day represent a single family and that the “interests of the entire human family are, in the last analysis, common interests”24. Williams’ treatment thus acquires the hues of morality and good conduct that forms the main stay of Gandhi’s argument.

The writings of Williams and Gandhi are so divergent that it clearly points to the chasm in perceptions of a western mind and an eastern construct. William’s treatment is based on analytical, pragmatic materialism, while that of Gandhi is based on syncretistic humanism or all inclusive human behavior based of morality and duty. Williams’ development of the elements of civilization is based on quantifiable tangibles, while those of Gandhi are based on intangible ethereal principles of morality and good conduct. The writings of Williams are a reflection of the colonial era where the westerner’s superiority was considered as an apriori concept. In today’s’ world, William’s writings would have been roundly denounced as bigoted and ‘racist’, while those of Gandhi would have found acceptability in parts. Gandhi’s idealism is however, not completely correct as pragmatic policies are required for nation building and indeed civilization building, which is the strong point of William’s argument. William’s logical analysis is easier to comprehend than the philosophical musings of Gandhi. However, in the final analysis it can be said that both Williams and Gandhi have strong points in their arguments and a synthesis of both the views could possibly provide a more holistic explanation of what constitutes civilization.

Works Cited

Gandhi, M. (1909). Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1946.

Williams, H. S. (1910). Civilization. In E. B. 11th ed., HIST 1P99, essay sources (pp. 1-17).


Henry Smith Williams, “Civilization”. In E. B. 11th ed.1910,HIST 1P99, essay sources:1

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, 1909 (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1946),105.

  1. ibid, 105.
  2. ibid, 5.
  3. Gandhi, ibid, 106.
  4. Williams, ibid, 7.
  5. Ibid, 8.
  6. Gandhi, ibid, 108.
  7. Ibid, 108.
  8. Williams, ibid, 9.
  9. Gandhi, ibid, 108.
  10. Gandhi, ibid, 108.
  11. Gandhi, ibid, 108.
  12. Williams, ibid, 10.
  13. Gandhi, ibid, 107.
  14. Williams, ibid, 12.
  15. Ibid, 12.
  16. Gandhi, ibid, 107.
  17. Williams, ibid, 13.
  18. Gandhi, ibid, 106.
  19. Gandhi, ibid, 107.
  20. Williams, ibid, 14.
  21. Ibid, 15.
  22. Williams, ibid, 15.
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