If we have one term with an absolute content, ‘barbarian’, the same will be true of its opposite. A civilised person is one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognise the humanity of others fully.
So two stages have to be crossed before anyone can become civilised: in the first stage, you discover that others live in a way different from you; in the second, you agree to see them as bearers of the same humanity as yourself.
The moral demand comes with an intellectual dimension: getting those with whom you live to understand a foreign identity, whether individual or collective, is an act of civilisation, since in this way you are enlarging the circle of humanity. In this sense – but in this sense only – scholars, philosophers and artists all contribute to driving back barbarity.
In actual fact, no individual, let alone any people, can be entirely ‘civilised’: they can merely be more or less civilised; and the same goes for ‘barbarian’.
Civilisation is a horizon which we can approach, barbarity is a background from which we seek to move away; neither condition can be entirely identified with particular beings. It is acts and attitudes which are barbarian or civilised, not individuals or peoples.
Tzvetan Todorov, "Barbarism, Civilisation, Cultures" in "The Inner Lives of Culture"