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HOW INSTITUTIONAL DIFFERENTIATION CREATES NEW CIVILIZATIONS

 

An Analogy

Human societies resemble living organisms that have evolved from simple one-cell creatures to more advanced forms of plant and animal life. Life itself began in the form of simple organisms. All functions were handled within a single cell. The higher species consist of multi-cell organisms in which the cells have specialized functions but work together to maintain life in the whole. The functions are handled more efficiently due to their specialization. One finds on earth today an immense variety of living creatures, ranging from primitive microbes to human beings. Each species developed at a particular time through a process of differentiation from common ancestors.

In primitive societies, the community is organized in extended families or clans. Tribal government rests in the hands of a council of elders. A primary chief, who may also be a shaman, makes important decisions for the tribe. The shamanic priest communicates with the spirit world on its behalf and conducts rituals. Besides being a religious leader, he may function as a healer, historian, weather forecaster, poet, judge, and military leader. This arrangement works well for a small tribal community but not for one more highly developed. Then it becomes dangerous to put so much power into a single set of hands. As the society becomes larger and more complicated, it becomes difficult for an individual to master all the arts involved in its functioning. The various arts require specialists who can perform their tasks competently and work cooperatively with others.

Each major function in society has a specialized institution to handle it. The institution has a time in world history when it developed its characteristic form and experienced the most vigorous growth. In terms of an analogy with living creatures, we can think of this as a time when the institution split from the social mass and became a separate entity. Like cells detaching from one another, the institutional structures emerged from the matrix of primitive society. A kind of mitosis took place as the society in successive historical epochs split into sectors. First one institution detached from the social amalgam, then another, and another, until society came to include the range of institutions that we have today. Historical progress thus mirrors the process by which the more advanced societies acquire a pluralistic structure.

A characteristic of each epoch is that it takes its historical flavoring from the institution most recently detached. Before then, the society had a different structure and a different social-cultural quality. It belonged to a different civilization. World history reports the progress of civilizations. Each has a birth, a period of youthful growth, and a stage of maturity which reveals its form of empire. Development also continues in the old sectors out of which the new ones were created; but these new sectors, being younger, are more vigorous and dynamic. It is they which dominate the age. For, the detachment of a new institution carries with it a momentum of creative energy that drives worldly events along on a certain course. Historically significant events tend to be concentrated in that sector.

In today’s world, human societies are found at many levels of cultural development. There are still primitive tribes living in the jungles of South America, in Siberian forests, or on Micronesian islands. Feudal principalities yet exist in Europe and on the Arabian peninsula. In mid Manhattan and Beverly Hills, society is immersed in the electronics age. A community will tend to stay at the same level of development so long as it remains small and isolated from other communities. It will advance to another level when exposed to different cultures. The more primitive societies are stuck in a “time warp”. They remain at a level where most of humanity was at an earlier point in its history. The more advanced cultures emerged at a later time. And so, each cultural advancement is associated with a particular set of events that can be dated historically. The progress of history is seen in the structure of societies.

Division into Castes and Classes

Starting with tribal communities, human society has acquired new institutions which broke apart from the others and became separate power centers. Society thus came to embody a system of divided power. The institution of royal government detached from the temple cultures of Sumer and Egypt in the 4th millennium B.C. Philosophically based religions, whose conceptions date to perhaps the 6th century B.C., then challenged the imperial state. In Renaissance times, commercial institutions became a separate sector apart from church and state. Finally, in the 20th century, the entertainment industry began to take shape. Each of these developments marked the history of its epoch.

Ancient writings tell how societies formed separate classes of people to handle the different functions. According to Genesis, Jacob’s twelve sons each had offspring who became populous tribes. Each tribe received its own portion of land when this people returned to Canaan. Moses and his brother, Aaron, belonged to the tribe of Levi. Because Moses was “slow of speech”, God appointed Aaron to do the talking. The sons of Aaron became hereditary priests of Jehovah’s cult. One would suppose that Moses, adoptive son of Pharaoh’s daughter, might become a king. However, another tribe, Judah, became associated with the Hebrew royal household when David supplanted Saul as king in the 11th century, B.C. Thus, descendants of two tribes, Levi and Judah, exercised hereditary functions in the religious and political sectors respectively.

When Aryan nomads from central Asia invaded India around 1500 B.C., they imposed a system of social castes to maintain their superiority against the numerically superior, dark-skinned Dravidian peoples whom they had conquered. Strict rules forbade marriage with persons outside one’s caste. At first racially defined, this system became a scheme of occupational functions that was hierarchically arranged. Because the Aryan chiefs were warriors, the top rank was initially assigned to the Kshatriya warrior caste. The warrior chieftains presided at religious ceremonies, and the priests assisted. However, the Brahmin priests had control of the sacred literature. Their caste gradually assumed the top position during the many years of peace.

As presented in writings from 200 B.C., the castes were arranged as follows in descending order of rank:

name function
Brahmin priests holding religious power
Kshatriya warrior-kings holding political power
Vaisya farmers
and merchants
holding economic power
Sudra laborers other economic contributors
Untouchables beneath the caste system


Plato presented a scheme of social division in his dialogue, the Republic. His idealized society divided people into occupationally based castes. Because those in the lowest caste might be dissatisfied with their rank, Plato proposed that the rulers of society concoct a myth to suggest that the gods had created the different kinds of persons out of different metals. Precious metals would correspond to persons of higher rank; base metals, to the working class.

Plato’s three-tiered scheme of society is as follows:

metal term occupation
Gold people Guardians philosophers
Silver people Auxiliaries soldiers/police
Bronze people farmers& artisans



During the 3rd century B.C., Chinese society developed a system of imperial government in which the emperor ruled as “son of Heaven”. In this case, there was no political class because the Ch’in emperor in consolidating his empire had crushed the lesser nobility. There was also no religious class. Its place was taken by a cadre of Confucian scholar-administrators which managed the imperial government.

In descending order of prestige, this society contained the following classes:

(1) scholars, teachers, and public administrators
(2) peasant farmers
(3) artisans
(4) merchants

At the time of the Revolution, France was ruled by a strong monarch who consulted a parliamentary body, the States-General, when he wished to raise additional revenues. This body was divided into three “estates”, representing the different classes that comprised French society. Its convocation in 1789 led to a series of turbulent events culminating in the death of the monarch and reorganization of society. The three estates represented in the States-General were:

estate class function
First estate Christian clergy
Second estate lesser nobility
Third estate business & labor


It is remarkable that the same trinity of institutions - government, religion, and commercial enterprise - has comprised human societies for over two thousand years. Recently, one has also heard reference to a “fourth estate”, which is the press. And, if our theory is correct, the emergence of computers as a dominant cultural technology may bring a new set of institutions associated with a “fifth” estate. Humanity in the past has valued religious and political functions more highly than the economic though the latter is essential to human life.

During the French Revolution, the social order was turned upside down. Christian clerics lost their possessions and privileges, while aristocrats went to the guillotine. Commoners, including merchants, assumed the chief place in society. This regime gave way to Napoleon’s reign and defeat and restoration of the monarchy. Yet, the idea of a French-like revolution that would overturn the established order appealed to the European imagination.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was a conscious imitation of the French. In fact, the new society created by the Bolsheviks resembled Plato’s republic except that, due to its materialistic philosophy, the ruling class nominally served the interests of workers and peasants at the bottom. The Communist Party enforced its policies through the secret police and Red Army. Lenin, the first head of state, was a professional philosopher. The society’s “bronze people” were despotically ruled by Stalin, whose name means “man of steel”.

The class structure of the “classless” Soviet society is conceived in these terms:

institution function
Communist party political philosophers
KGB and Red Army policy enforcers
workers & peasants economic support



Contemporary U.S. society exhibits an even more pluralistic structure of power. Its sectorial division would follow institutional rather than class definitions. In June, 1996, Time magazine identified the ten most powerful persons in the United States. It is interesting to note their institutional affiliations. Three of these men - the President of the United States, Speaker of the House, and Federal Reserve Board chairman - were affiliated with the institution of government. Two - the chief executive officers (CEO) of General Motors, General Electric, and Fidelity Fund - represented business and finance. Two - the CEOs of News Corp. and Disney - represented the business of news and entertainment. Two - CEOs of Microsoft and Intel - represented the emerging computer industry. The field of religion alone had no representatives.

Western society incorporates power-sharing arrangements more than others. To some extent, that is due to its history. This model of society follows the historical experience of peoples living in the western half of the Roman empire after it fell to barbarian tribes. The religious and secular authorities shared power. The “checks and balances” system built into American government reflects that tradition. Chinese society, on the other hand, mirrors its historical experience which is based on a succession of imperial governments exercising centralized control. Therefore, apart from Marxist centralization, the totalitarian tendencies inherent in Chinese and other Far Eastern societies can be explained in terms of historical antecedents.

The totalitarian society that existed in the Soviet Union can be explained by the theory of the “Three Romes”: Rome, Constantinople, Moscow. Its unified power structure reflects an inheritance from imperial Rome via the Byzantine empire. In this case, religion remained firmly under the control of the political state. When the center of the eastern Orthodox faith shifted from Constantinople to Moscow in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Czarist government of Russia inherited the Byzantine system.

A Summary of this History

World history gives clues to the origin of contemporary society. Its knowledge will help to explain things that may seem illogical or obscure about the world in which we live today. Throughout history societies have become ever more complicated. New technologies have been invented and human knowledge has increased though spiritually we may not have advanced much, if at all, beyond the level of our primitive ancestors. Violence and coercion have been present throughout recorded time. Yet, for better or worse, humanity has embarked upon a great adventure called civilization. World history describes that process.

World history describes the process of society’s growing increasingly complex as successive institutions have become detached from one another in differentiated sectors of function or activity. In a nutshell, it has progressed in the following ways:

The first civilization began when the institution of government detached from the temple societies in primitive city states and, through military conquest, built political empires. We call this “Civilization I”, or “CivI” for short.

The second civilization (“CivII”) began when philosophy impregnated religion with the spirit of truth and, detaching from the state, created world religions.

The third civilization (“CivIII”) began when a new spirit of commerce, art, scholarship, and worldly discovery infused the culture of western Europe. The pursuit of money and education became its cultural focus.

The fourth civilization (“CivIV”) began when entertainment became a serious business and news reporting came to shape public opinion.

A fifth civilization (“CivV”) has begun with the arrival of computers; however, it may be too soon to identify its characteristic institutions.

Detachment of Government in the First Epoch

Society’s political institutions are related to its war-making function. When tribes go to war, their military leaders often assume dictatorial powers for the duration of the emergency. Wars create a need for government. The governments of “civilized” peoples are formed as a result of one tribe or nation defeating and enslaving another. This brings persons of diverse origin into close proximity with each other, creating a more rigid system of social stratification and more sharply defined property rights. In peace time, tribal leadership concerns itself more with performance of rituals upon which the community’s health and prosperity is thought to depend. Shrines to the gods or ancestral spirits are established in particular places. The priests who attend these shrines are responsible for cultivating the arts and transmitting ancestral wisdom to the next generation. The common people carry out economic functions. After society has advanced beyond the hunting and gathering stage, agriculture becomes the dominant form of economic activity although some persons herd cattle and sheep or engage in metalworking and other crafts.

As agriculture became more widely practiced and human populations increased, small city-states began to appear. Usually these urban settlements were established in a river valley where the land could be irrigated or reclaimed from the swamp. The Sumerian city of Uruk flourished between 4300 and 3100 B.C. in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. More than a dozen other cities including Ur and Eridu sprang up in its vicinity. In Egypt, human settlements called “nomes” appeared in several places along the Nile river around 4000 B.C. Their inhabitants were generally of one tribal stock. They acknowledged the same totem, obeyed one chief, and practiced the same rituals. Recent excavations at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa near the Indus River have revealed an advanced urban culture that existed between 2500 and 1900 B.C. in present-day Pakistan. The first Chinese city-state, Erlitou, was founded around 1900 B.C. in the valley of the Yellow river. Minoan kings on Crete maintained elaborate palaces and temples at Knossos on the island of Crete in the 2nd millennium B.C. The first-known American city was established at Monte Alban in southern Mexico around 200 B.C.

When the earliest civilizations appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt, most of the world’s population lived in tribal communities. Nomadic peoples followed their grazing herds from place to place in search of better pastures. Sometimes they carted their household goods in wagons or traveled by boat. When they went to war, the heads of families gathered in councils to appoint a king. Tribal customs and taboos dictated acceptable behavior. Punishment of crime was a private matter between the affected families. In the irrigated valleys and swamps of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as in Syria and Turkey, a new kind of society arose in the city-states. The irrigation works supporting agriculture in those places required a larger social organization. A ruling elite, which had access to written records, arose to administer the communal projects. Laws inscribed on tablets replaced unwritten customs. The increased productivity of agriculture created an economic surplus, which went disproportionately to the ruling elite. The society became highly stratified. Its rulers required luxuries such as jewelry and perfumes. After death, they were buried in elaborate rituals accompanied by attendants who had committed suicide.

Sumerian society originally consisted of a dozen small cities located in present-day Iraq. The temple was the embryonic institution from which civilization developed. In the land of Sumer, temples consisted of a large brick structure known as a ziggurat, built up on several levels to a towering peak. A community of priests, often assisted by female attendants, inhabited this building which housed a shrine to the local god. The god typically appeared in the form of a gigantic statue with animal or human features. This god owned much of the land surrounding the city, and farmers had to pay rent. High priests, called “patesi” or priest-kings, ruled the cities in the name of their local god. It was the priest’s function to represent the people before the god, who protected their community. However, the temples were also centers of commerce where grain and other commodities might be stored. While the priests were primarily concerned with performing rituals to ensure a successful crop, temple functionaries also kept astronomical records to determine the best times for planting. They performed public ceremonies, adjudicated disputes, treated illness, encouraged handicrafts, and administered civic affairs. One can imagine that this small temple community handled most of the specialized functions carried on in society.

The priest-kings who ruled Sumerian cities as servants of the gods combined religious and political authority. Society was yet in a unified state. Gradually the royal function became separated from the religious. As the city-states expanded territorially and encroached upon each other’s domain, they clashed militarily. So long as the city-states remained small and scattered, the military function was relatively unimportant. However, conflict developed between the separate communities over land and water rights. One of the first known conflicts occurred between the neighboring Sumerian cities of Lagash and Umma over the possession of a canal that bordered both states. King Eannatum of Lagash won that contest. A bas-relief celebrating his victory shows Eannatum’s troops in phalanx formation, equipped with helmets and shields. Sometimes disputes arose internally and someone had to mediate on the community’s behalf. The kings, while illiterate and uneducated, also tended to be more practical than the priests. Their residential palaces appeared beside the temples. A dual system of justice, royal and religious, was established.

The detachment of royal government from the temple is the critical event which began the first civilization. It may be that monarchy resulted from a naturally increasing need for military services as neighboring city-states expanded. Alternatively, this type of governance might have been imposed upon the settled communities as nomadic kings raided them and took control. Many a ruling dynasty began as leaders of marauding barbarian tribes that swooped down upon agriculturally based societies. The Egyptian priesthood, adept in rituals and magic, grew rich from the offerings made to the gods and income from temple lands. Its members were exempt from the requirements of taxation, forced labor, and military service. Even so, many priests resorted to selling charms and prescriptions for immortal life. The Pharaohs, considered sons of Amun-Re, were living gods whose cult conflicted with other religious traditions. As military leaders, they had need of resources squandered on priestly privileges. As law givers, they felt a need to treat all parties equally. King Urukagina of Sumer issued an edict that the high priest should no longer “come into the garden of a poor mother and take wood therefrom, nor gather tax in fruit therefrom.”

At his best, the monarch became a righteous protector of organized society and preserver of peace. “At that time,” states the preamble of the Code of Hammurabi,” (the gods) Anu and Bel called me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, the worshipper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to protect the strong from oppressing the weak ... to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people.” At his worst, he was an oppressive tyrant who taxed the people to indulge his own fancies or waged cruel war against other nations. The prophet Samuel warned the Hebrew people who were clamoring for a king that this person would “take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen ... and to make his instruments of war ... And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants ... and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep.”

Unlike the barbarian chieftain who plunders the wealth of others, the ruler of a civilized society has the responsibility to maintain a community that can prosper by its own works. Fundamentally, this involves marshaling an army to defend the society at its borders against external enemies. It also means waging internal war against disorderly or criminal elements. Waging war against foreign cities, the monarch would ride a chariot into battle armed with bow and arrow. A phalanx of foot soldiers would follow in formation. Often the goal was to plunder goods. War bred war, and soon political empires appeared. Around 3000 B.C., King Narmer of Upper Egypt conquered the delta region in the north. He become the first Pharaoh, wearer of a double crown. During the 24th century B.C., Sargon I, king of Agade, established the first known empire in Mesopotamia. Military service became a means of personal advancement for young men who might distinguish themselves by courage and strength. The Roman general Marius developed an army of paid professionals loyal to himself, who shared the plunder of battle and received pensions in old age.

One can imagine that the monarchy won people’s hearts and minds through its awesome power to persuade by force. Kings commanded mighty armies that slew the enemy, enslaved defeated peoples, and seized their wealth. Pride in military victory cemented loyalty to the state. Yet, kings and emperors were careful to respect the authority of the gods. Those who conquered other cities often placed statues of the conquered peoples’ gods in the pantheon of local deities erected in their capital city; for statecraft then included a good measure of religious diplomacy. Kings ruled as much through structures promoting habits of obedience as through application of force. In ancient Egypt, there were no police to control the population. Public safety depended upon Pharaoh’s prestige, reinforced by public ceremonies, monuments, and presumed access to the gods. In the Egyptian cult of the dead, Pharaoh held the key to the afterlife. His own expectations of personal immortality were extended to his loyal subjects.

The internal administration of government depends upon an efficient system of taxation and the rule of law. Both require written records. Priests in ancient Egypt taught writing to upper-class children in schools attached to the temples. Their main function was to produce scribes for clerical work of the state. Government clerks kept track of the census, examined tax records, and handled wills and accounting documents. Legal arguments were made in writing rather than through oral presentations in court. It would not have been possible to conduct governmental functions on this scale without written documents. Once writing appeared, codes of laws replaced the tribal customs that had governed personal behavior. These laws eliminated the need to pursue justice through personal revenge. They prescribed penalties and procedures for resolution of grievances in court. The head of government became a law giver as well as a judge. In China, early attempts to issue codes of law met resistance from a population used to following custom. A compromise was reached which allowed government to decide questions of national policy while popular custom controlled everyday matters.

During civilization’s first epoch, the king’s role grew to embrace the various functions that have become associated with government. While the military function remained paramount, the king also had a responsibility to strengthen the society during peace time. He administered justice, organized public works, carried on diplomatic relations with foreign governments, collected or paid tribute, and maintained religion by conducting public ceremonies. Monarchs also set the official weights and measures. They devised official calendars. King Urukagina of Lagash stimulated foreign trade by issuing an edict that merchants visiting his kingdom not be molested. Shulgi, king of Ur, initiated reforms in the areas of law, taxation, calendars, and weights and measures. Hammurabi of Babylon built temples and fortifications, dug canals, and compiled a famous legal code, while enlarging his empire. Alexander the Great imposed the Greek script on lands that he conquered. Kuan Chung, an advisor to the ruler of Ts’i, replaced bronze with iron weapons and established state iron and salt monopolies. “But for Kuan Chung,” said Confucius, “we should now be wearing our hair disheveled, and the lappets of our coats buttoning on the left side.”

The first Persian empire built an extensive network of well-maintained roads. Emperor Shih Hwang-ti standardized axle-gauges in China so that carts from all regions could travel through the soil in ruts of the same width. He also ordered construction of the Great Wall and improved the Grand Canal, which runs along the eastern coast. The Roman emperors Titus and Vespasian built the Colosseum to entertain the public with gladiatorial fights. As many as 10,000 persons perished during one particular festival. Imperial governments have issued coined money. They have collected taxes to finance their own upkeep or else have delegated this function to tax farmers. Governments have stationed garrisons of soldiers in remote places. They have maintained a postal system to dispatch messages throughout their realm. They have supervised bureaucracies of aristocrats or civil servants to carry out these various functions. In the Roman roads, walls, baths, and aqueducts, in Egyptian or Mayan pyramids, in the ruins of Assyrian or Minoan palaces, and in China’s Great Wall, one finds enduring evidence of the grandeur of civilization in the first historical epoch.

Detachment of World Religion in the Second Epoch

In the middle of the 1st millennium B.C., as alphabetic writing spread across Europe and southwest Asia, a remarkable change took place within human culture. This was a time when the peoples of the earth became aware of reason and truth. Karl Jaspers has called that period of intense rationality “the axis age”. It was an age which, Arnold Toynbee explained, was “a hinge on which human history has turned.” Historians point out that a disproportionately large number of the world’s great philosophers and spiritual leaders lived during the 6th and 5th centuries, B.C. (See Table 2-1.) In India, this was the time when Buddha and Mahavira were discovering new paths to personal enlightenment. In Persia, the prophet Zoroaster was developing a cosmology of good and evil. In Judaea, the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah were writing of God’s plan to redeem the Jewish nation. In Greece, philosophers such as Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Socrates were seeking to know ultimate truths. In China, Lao-tse and Confucius were expounding the ways of virtuous living.

The Hebrew religion, which had practiced sacrificial rituals, suddenly changed course. Amos, who was the first writing prophet, quoted God: “I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies ... (instead) ... Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream ... Hate evil and love good; enthrone justice in the courts.” The prophet Micah wrote: “What shall I bring when I approach the Lord? ... Am I to approach him with whole-offerings or yearling calves? Will the Lord accept thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? ... God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk wisely before your God.” In India, Buddha was meanwhile challenging the authority of priests who used their control of ritual for selfish ends. “Learn to distinguish between Self and Truth,” Buddha said. “Self is the cause of selfishness and the source of evil; truth cleaves to no self; it is universal and leads to justice and truth.” Righteousness and justice were ethical concepts declared pleasing to God. Right knowledge and belief were a foundation of religious practice.

A new civilization was beginning which would end in the establishment of world religion. This was not the religion of the hereditary temple priests but religion infused with philosophy. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are its principal representatives. One should not be confused by the fact that the same word, “religion”, is used to describe both kinds of practice. There was little continuity between the ritualistic, polytheistic cults found in the earlier period and the so-called “higher religions” which belonged to CivII. The institution of imperial government had intervened. Humanity had a fully developed model of organization in front of it when the world religions were conceived.

A clue to the nature of the world religions may be found in the tribes from which their founders sprang. Siddhartha, the Buddha, was born a prince in the royal household of the Sakya clan in Nepal. He was not a Brahman priest but a member of the Kshatriya warrior caste, which is associated with royal government. Buddha renounced the throne at an early age to search for personal enlightenment. Likewise, Jesus did not belong to the priestly tribe of Levi. He was descended from King David, who belonged to the tribe of Judah. A sign was hung above Jesus on the Cross which read in three languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Gospel of John pointedly remarks that the Jewish high priests tried to persuade Pontius Pilate to change the sign to read, “He claimed to be King of the Jews”, but that Pilate refused. Mohammed belonged to the Quraysh tribe, which was the ruling class of Mecca. They were not monarchs or priests but Bedouin camel drivers and caravan guides. Mohammed himself was a merchant who actively pursued that trade before receiving messages from God.

The fact that none of these three religious leaders came from the priestly class suggests that they were no reformers of existing religion but creators of a new type of religion. Arriving at a later time in history, the religions of Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed had more in common with the institution of imperial government than with traditional priesthoods. The new religions showed the influence of the philosophical revolution that had taken place during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., which was, in turn, related to the introduction of alphabetic writing. Philosophers developed the concept of generality whereby a single entity represents many specific instances. Governments were structured in a similar way: A single monarch governed many people. This all worked together to promote a new way of thinking about how the world was organized. The idea of a single God who ruled the universe took the place of locally based religions serving a plurality of divinities. As philosophers turned their attention to human affairs, they discussed concepts such as justice and goodness which resembled the legal principles underlying imperial governments.

Archeologists believe that alphabetic writing first appeared in Asian territories of the Egyptian empire around 1500 B.C. Semitic peoples in the Near East were first to use the new system of writing. The first expressions of religious monotheism also appeared in that part of the world. A century before Moses, the “heretic” Pharaoh Ikhnaton (ruled 1372-1354 B.C.) proclaimed that there was only one God, Aton, god of the sun, who ruled over all nations. He wrote poems of praise to Aton but forbade visual images to be made because this God was formless. When Ikhnaton died, the priests of Amun-Re reasserted control and the old religion was restored by his successor Tutankhamen. Despite its failure, this religious revolution, personally engineered by the world’s most powerful monarch, could not have failed to leave a deep imprint upon the culture. Religion was ripe for the idea of monotheism. Some have suggested that the conception of One God mirrored Egypt’s political unification of the eastern Mediterranean region by Ikhnaton’s predecessors, especially Thutmose III. God in this image resembled the person of Pharaoh, a figure to be feared and revered.

Moses gave monotheism a more lasting structure. He bestowed the concept of exclusive divinity upon the tribal god of the Hebrews, asserting that their God, Jehovah, had proved superior to the Egyptian gods through the many conspicuous miracles that had forced Pharaoh to permit the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt. A God whom nature obeyed had to be real. While the events of early Judaism predate the philosophical revolution of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., they show a similar rationality. Written law played a role in Hebrew nationhood from the beginning. The prohibition against worshipping graven images reflects the increasing value placed on ideas. Though the Hebrew religion contained many ritualistic elements, they are not mentioned in the Ten Commandments. These Commandments are general principles which describe acceptable or unacceptable behavior. The first Commandment reads: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt ... You shall have no other god to set against me.” Monotheism is itself written into law.

Indian religion began to show a philosophical side in the period between 800 and 500 B.C. The Brahman priesthood was then winning its struggle for social supremacy. An alphabetic script, Brahmi, was being introduced. The priests were educators of the young and preservers of the society’s oral culture. Written down, the Vedic rituals and stories became the sacred Sanskrit literature. The earlier parts of this scripture were concerned with the performance of religious ceremonies, hymns, incantations, and prayers. However, the priests later wrote commentaries to explain their meaning. From that effort emerged the Brahmanas and Upanishads, which were philosophical treatises meant to be studied in the solitude of the forest. These writings explored life’s ultimate questions, reaching the general conclusion that the individual soul was identical with the totality of external existence. By the 6th century B.C., when Buddha lived, the religious discussions had turned into a freewheeling philosophical debate that questioned all beliefs and doctrines. As in classical Greece, there were materialists, atheists, and sophists, who would argue any position. Each wanted to discover the truth for himself.

In the Maitri Upanishad, there is a story of a king who renounces his kingdom in order to practice austere living in the forest, clear his mind, and solve the riddles of the universe. That was also the vocation of Buddha, Mahavira, and other Indian sages. The story is told that at Buddha’s birth it was predicted that this child would become either the ruler of the world or, if he had certain experiences of pain and suffering, the discoverer of a universal path of salvation. After witnessing four kinds of suffering, the young Siddhartha left his family and his royal inheritance. He practiced asceticism and contemplation, had a spiritual insight, and became a wandering teacher. Buddha’s religious career dramatizes the choice to be made between worldly power and the pursuit of truth. Both options were available to the Buddha, but he chose to pursue the higher good, which was truth. (Jesus, too, was offered a choice by the Devil to rule earthly kingdoms instead of serving God.) In fairness, it should be mentioned that the institution of imperial government was critical to spreading Buddha’s ideas in the world. India’s greatest political ruler, the emperor Asoka, made Buddhism the state religion.

Two other sages of this period, Zoroaster and Confucius, were initially without a connection to worldly power. Having attained wisdom, these men wandered the land in search of a royal patron who would put their ethical principles into effect. The prophet Zoroaster put forth a scheme of monotheistic religion featuring a protracted historical struggle between Good and Evil. Two spiritual forces fought for the souls of men. Zoroaster found a patron in the Persian king Vishtaspa. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the first (Achaemenian) and second (Sasanian) Persian empires, and had a strong influence on postexilic Judaism. Confucius was a scholar of ancient Chinese history who lived in a period of turmoil. He had distilled the policies and practices of two “good emperors” from the Shang dynasty into a set of ethical teachings which he believed might revive Chinese society. He attracted a following of students while looking for a monarch receptive to his message. Confucius himself held several government positions. His philosophy became, in effect, a state religion when the Han emperor Wu-ti decreed that appointments to imperial office be made on the basis of an examination in the Confucian classics.

Philosophers have needed governments to make their ideas effective. Government leaders have needed philosophers to apply their ideas to the betterment of society or gain intellectual respectability for their regimes. Plato proposed that monarchs and philosophers be one and the same person. He wrote: “Unless philosophers become kings or kings take to the pursuit of philosophy and there is a conjunction of political power and philosophical intelligence, there can be no cessation of troubles for the human race.” Alternatively, the sons of kings might study philosophy or invite philosophers to be their policy advisors. For example, the young king of Syracuse, Dionysius II, invited Plato to advise his administration. Still another way to fuse politics and philosophy is for philosophy, in the form of a religion, to gain political power through a mass movement generated by its ideas as Marxism did. In the case of Islam, the prophet Mohammed made his connection with political power by being invited to head the government of Medina. He and his followers then created a political empire through application of military might. It became unnecessary for Mohammed to beg any king to accept his religious program.

Philosophically based religion appeals both to rulers and their subjects. An ethic of universal brotherhood makes it easier to govern by breaking down the barriers of kinship that separate people in an ethnically mixed society. A religion promising admission to paradise motivates people in this life. The Zoroastrian-Hebrew religious ideology looked to divine intervention rather than princely persuasion as a means of introducing a more perfect society on earth. The prophetic writers created a scenario of future events in which the forces of Good and Evil, God and Satan, would do battle. Just when Satan seemed to be winning, God would snatch victory from this desperate situation and establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness. A divine figure, the Messiah, would assist in this process. Jesus used the term “Son of Man” to describe him. This expression comes from the seventh chapter of Daniel. There Daniel wrote: “I saw one like a man coming with the clouds of heaven ... Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all people and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which should not pass away, and his kingly power such as should never be impaired.”

Was this person Jesus? The type of kingdom mentioned in Daniel’s writings fits the description of the Christian church which has existed under Jesus’ spiritual leadership. If Jesus was a king, however, he was a nonviolent one. Isaiah called the Messiah “Prince of Peace.” The phrase, “prince of peace”, seems a contradiction in terms since a king’s primary function has been to make war. It originally referred to King Solomon whose peaceful reign followed David’s. This phrase has also been applied to Augustus Caesar, who renounced further territorial conquests after Germanic tribes decimated three Roman legions in 9 A.D., and to the emperor Trajan. It was a fit title for Jesus who, accused of seeking royal power, meekly submitted to death by crucifixion. The early church was pacifistic, mindful of the sad fate that armed Jewish militants had met at the Masada in 70 A.D. Christians were forbidden to serve in the Roman imperial army. Starting in the 3rd century, this policy was gradually relaxed.

Religious communities were incipient centers of power in society. To reach that position, however, they had to engage in a prolonged struggle with imperial governments. It is not that religion detached from the institution of government; for government in that epoch was already a religion. It is rather that a different kind of religion detached from the religious structures based on worldly power. Some think that Christianity overcame the pagan or nature-based religions worshiped in Roman society. But the gods of local communities had long been more important than they. The prevailing type of religion at that time was what one would call “civic religion”. Like patriotism in today’s world, one did not worship the state so much as exhibit loyalty to one’s community. The warlike societies of CivI had conditioned individuals to identify completely with their community and, if necessary, be willing to die for it. That is why pacifists such as the early Christians were so despised. Being rather reclusive and gloomy individuals who pinned their hopes on another world, they were considered basically disloyal to the community.

A notable clash between the two religious views took place at the trial of Socrates. Members of a political faction in Athens accused him of civic impiety. They said that Socrates had corrupted the youth of that city by his philosophical discussions which caused them to question Athenian values. Socrates was found guilty and executed. But his personal courage in facing death, combined with a distinguished record of military service to the city of Athens, were so exemplary that history has instead convicted Socrates’ accusers. It did not hurt that Socrates was the mentor of Plato, who was Aristotle’s teacher, and that Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, whose military conquests spread Greek philosophy through half the world.

Rome had a civic religion in the form of emperor worship. The early Christians, being Judaic monotheists, refused to pay homage to the emperor’s divine spirit, which was a capital offense. The Romans also suspected that Christians were engaged in secret cannibalistic rituals that involved eating human flesh and drinking blood. Therefore, the first three centuries of the church’s existence were a time of intense persecution. Nero blamed Christians for setting fire to Rome. Numerous martyrs were put to death for persisting in their Christian beliefs. But the church withstood the adversity. Toughened by its ordeal, the Christian community thrived. It had become almost a parallel state within the Roman empire when, in 313 A.D., the emperor Constantine issued a decree of tolerance. Later in the century, Christianity became Rome’s state religion.

After Germanic warriors destroyed the western empire, the Christian church, of necessity, detached from the corpse-like state and became a freestanding institution. Barbarian kings now held the reins of military power. The Christian bishop of Rome, the Pope, enjoyed prestige through the cultural legacy of the fallen empire. When Pope Leo I persuaded Attila not to invade Rome, it became clear that church officials also exercised some worldly power. Their power increased when kings of the tribes which were occupying Europe converted to Christianity. An alliance was formed between the Pope and Frankish kings. The western Christian church, ruled by the Pope, became like an everlasting royal dynasty, the spiritual equivalent of imperial government. Thomas Hobbes observed that “the Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” This ghostlike structure, detached from yet engaged in the world, was what came in place of the “Kingdom of God”.

While Christianity had a monastic component, its main organization mirrored the Roman state. The church’s ecclesiastical structure was arranged along the lines of the old imperial bureaucracy. Cities that had been chartered as municipalities within the Roman commonwealth became seats of Christian bishops. The prefectures of the eastern empire were divided among the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, while the patriarchate of Rome assumed a role corresponding to the three prefectures in the western empire. Christian attitudes softened toward the military aspect of imperial governments. The physical discipline which Roman soldiers endured resembled the spiritual discipline of Christian martyrs. St. Clement wrote admiringly of “the orderliness, the pliancy, the submissiveness with which they (Roman soldiers) carry out their orders.” St. Cyprian compared Christian baptism with enrollment in the Roman army. As Christianity extended its geographical reach, its monasteries established in remote places resembled armed garrisons of the Roman state. Its missionaries sent out to convert the heathen were like soldiers of God.

So long as this was spiritual warfare, the church remained within bounds of its religious mission. It began to cross over the line when in 1095 Pope Urban II proposed that Christian rulers of Europe embark upon a crusade to recover the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem from Moslem rule. A series of nine crusades ensued. Seized with worldly ambition, the Roman church was behaving much like a political empire of the old type. In the Sixth Crusade, the Pope excommunicated Emperor Frederick II for failing to begin a crusade promptly. Frederick went through the motions of compliance with the Pope’s command. Upon arriving in the Holy Land, he and the Sultan of Egypt sat down together and, after an amiable discussion, concluded a sham agreement for Jerusalem’s surrender. In the so-called “Children’s Crusade”, thousands of idealistic boys assembled for embarkation to Palestine were sold into slavery or else perished from hunger and disease. The church launched a bloody crusade against Albigensian “heretics” in southern France and another against Bohemian followers of John Huss. Now overtly militaristic, Christianity abandoned the peaceful stance it had once assumed. Its true nature as a kind of imperial government was starting to show through.

At the height of the Middle Ages, European society exhibited a dualistic power structure. Religious and secular authorities, with parallel organizations, shared responsibility for governing the community. Roman pontiffs competed with Holy Roman Emperors, elected leaders of the European princes, to become the supreme power. A memorable event in their struggle occurred in 1077 A.D. when Pope Gregory VII kept the Emperor, Henry IV, waiting for three days barefoot in the snow before granting him absolution from excommunication. The issue of lay investiture of clergy was a bone of contention in those days. Church power reached its apex during the papacy of Innocent III. This imperious Pope developed the theory of the “two lights”, the sun and moon, which ruled over the daytime and night skies as the Roman church and secular princes ruled over souls and bodies respectively. “(T)he moon,” he argued, “derives her light from the sun and is inferior to the sun ... in the same way that royal power derives its dignity from pontifical authority.”

Detachment of Education and Commerce in the Third Epoch

In the third epoch of civilization, commercial institutions developed into an organized sector of society. Secular education became a means of furnishing these institutions with trained personnel. Economic accomplishments were despised in medieval times. A favorite saying was “Radix omnium malorum est cupiditas”, which means “The love of money is the root of all evil.” There was a hatred of rich people, especially the nouveau riche. While the higher qualities of chivalric virtue were ascribed to the nobility, persons belonging to the commercial and laboring class were perceived to have a base nature. “Coming to the third estate,” wrote Chastellain, a French court historian, “it is hardly possible to attribute great qualities to them, as they are of a servile degree.” The Roman elite had little interest in commerce. They were warriors and statesmen who let slaves manage the household business. Roman emperors tried to squeeze the merchant class. Islamic society had a greater appreciation of the merchant’s function since the Prophet himself had practiced it. Commerce flourished in Moslem lands during the European “Dark Ages”. Arab traders visited distant places in search of exotic goods and told colorful tales of their adventures. Chinese emperors coveted the Arabian horses that they obtained from the Moslems.

European commercial life began with the religious fairs held next to churches and cathedrals during holidays. Relics of Christian saints would be displayed at the great feasts drawing crowds from near and far. As peasants from the surrounding countryside flocked to these events, Arab merchants set up stalls to display their merchandise. Some of the local merchants placed orders and arranged for artisans to produce goods in exchange. The artisans established small handicraft operations to convert available raw materials into a saleable product. Thus a market was created for various kinds of goods. Towns sprang up near markets, ports and river crossings, or the residence of bishops or local nobility. They were a haven for persons who had freed themselves from feudal obligations. The artisans who congregated in the towns became organized in guilds. They tried to restrict trade in the products that could be locally consumed but allowed free exchange of the surplus. Merchant associations were formed to export this produce. As early as the 10th century A.D., textile manufacturers in Belgium and Flanders were organizing annual trade fairs. Cities along the sea coast became commercial centers which specialized in one kind of merchandise or another.

The city of Venice was such a center, specializing in spices, silk, Damascus blades, and other goods obtained from Islamic and oriental countries. In 1082, it received a charter of liberty from the Byzantine empire which granted its merchants freedom of transit and exemption from taxes and duties in territories west of the Bosphorus. The Venetians were skilled diplomats who, with few military resources, dominated trade between Europe and the eastern lands. As in Florence, a commercial oligarchy ran the city. Trade in the western Mediterranean region was controlled by Genoa and Amalfi. Amalfi, then a large city near Naples, carried on extensive trade with Islamic countries and transported pilgrims to the Holy Land. This city was destroyed in 1131 when the Normans seized Sicily. Genoa, located on Italy’s northwestern coast, became a commercial power during the Crusades. In fact, all the Italian trading cities benefited economically from meeting the needs of Christian troops on their way to battle. Venice cut a deal with knights of the Third Crusade to ferry them across the sea to Egypt in exchange for being temporarily pressed into its service. It used this opportunity to conquer the Dalmatian coast and sack Constantinople in revenge for an earlier dispute.

The Crusades were a spur to commerce, especially in northern Italy. The need to equip and provision expeditions to the Holy Land stimulated economic enterprise. Christian military victories in the First Crusade reopened the southern Mediterranean to trade by various routes. Commercial relations with the Moslems continued despite papal warnings. A network of consulates and codes of maritime law protected merchants visiting foreign lands. The Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitalers, created to aid Christian pilgrims, were pan-European military organizations which used their international contacts to amass huge property holdings. The Knights Templar loaned money to kings and princes and ran a thriving mortgage business. Philip IV of France dissolved this order when they refused his request for a loan. Otto of Bavaria kidnapped Richard the Lionhearted on his way home to England from the Crusades. The English crown had to raise a large sum of money for ransom. This money was raised from the nobility, who, resenting it, forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. The nobility persuaded that English monarch to allow a parliament to be convened periodically which would decide how tax monies would be spent.

Christian tradition prohibited lending money at interest. Any amount collected beyond the principal in repayment of a loan was considered usury. Judaic law allowed Jewish moneylenders to charge interest to non-Jews but not to other Jews. So Jewish businessmen dispersed throughout the Christian and Moslem worlds came to specialize in banking. However, the Roman church had also accumulated large sums of money needing to be put to profitable use. The church collected tithes and special offerings as well as monies deposited by individuals for safekeeping. By the 11th century, it had become a practice for monasteries or local parishes to lend money to landed nobility and be repaid by a share in the coming harvest. Sometimes the monetary value of the produce repaid would exceed the principal. Moneylenders sometimes disguised the receipt of interest through sham sales of lands producing an annual rent. Starting in the 13th century, church leaders and theologians began to relax doctrines relating to usury. Most European states repealed the laws against interest in the 15th century. The moral stigma attaching to usury was refocused upon charging rates of interest above a certain percentage level.

Wealthy individuals or families were the chief source of capital for large commercial ventures. They would advance funds to a merchant undertaking a voyage to distant lands in return for a share of the profits. Silent partnerships of this sort led to the formation of trading companies in which individual investors received a share of the proceeds proportionate to their investment. In the 14th century, the city of Genoa began to allow the shares to be transferred, creating joint-stock companies. Rich families also engaged in moneylending. The Lombards, especially Florentines, gained a reputation for tough, shrewd dealings. Moneylending families from Arras and Cahors drove a hard bargain with borrowers in Flanders, France, and England. The north Italian bankers developed many of the sophisticated mechanisms used today to finance and protect investments. They accepted banking deposits, recorded transactions to individual accounts, wrote bills of exchange for traveling merchants, took valuables possession to secure loans, and assumed risk in exchange for payment of insurance premiums. Genoese merchants used a system of double-entry bookkeeping as early as the 13th century. Lucas Pacioli published a book on the Venetian method of accounting in 1494.

A second region became commercially important during the 13th century. A confederation of German city-states known as the Hanseatic League conducted trade in commodities such as herring, timber, and salt in ports along the Baltic and North seas. Their commercial association grew out of a treaty concluded between Hamburg and Lübeck for mutual protection. When the Danish King Valdemar IV in 1362 seized the Baltic island of Gothland which included one of its largest ports, the Hanseatic merchants organized a trade boycott against Denmark. An alliance between these German cities and several princes forced the Danish king to withdraw from the island and eventually flee his country. The Hanseatic merchants gained a reputation for honest dealing at a fair price. They maintained “counters”, or trading ports, in such places as Bruges, which was a center of finely woven linens, and the Russian city of Novgorod. From London came wool; from Poland, grains; from northern Germany, timber, brewer’s yeast, and salt. For over three centuries, the rich “pepper-bags” or merchant traders of the Hanseatic League defended their commercial privileges. Relying on mutual advantage and trust more than force of arms, they became a powerful estate.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, religious and political institutions fought frequent wars to gain or hold territory. Lacking citizen armies, the warring parties had to hire mercenary soldiers. European princes purchased bishoprics from the church. Holy Roman Emperors needed to bribe electors to gain that position. The Vatican state had to defend its territories in Italy against military encroachment by the French. Surrounded by an explosion of artistic creation during the Renaissance, the Roman church adorned itself richly. Pope Julius II proposed to rebuild St. Peter’s church on a much grander scale. Famed artists such as Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo worked on this project for more than a century. These undertakings cost money. The mighty ones of Europe turned to bankers for the funds to carry out their various projects. In April 1552, Emperor Charles V, arguably the most powerful European monarch since Charlemagne, had to beg Anton Fugger to lend him the funds to raise an army to oppose his former ally, Duke Maurice of Saxony, who had defected to the Protestant cause. The emerging commercial sector thus gained leverage in society.

Many of the great banking houses in Europe began as financial adjuncts to textiles manufacturing. The city of Florence became a center of weaving and dyeing woolen cloth after the monastic Order of Humble Brethren relocated there from Tyre, bringing with them secrets of oriental cloth preparation. Florentine cloth gained a reputation for high quality. The wool was imported from northern Europe. Its transportation and financing involved risk. Florentine bankers, who handled the Papal funds, worked out a system of purchasing wool from England with monies collected there for the Roman church. Because the profit margin for woolen textiles was less than for luxury goods imported from the orient, cloth manufacturers in Florence had to watch their costs more closely. They had to develop more sophisticated ways to handle credit, to set prices, and cover their risks. They learned how to build a steady business based primarily on trust.

The German House of Fugger began in the 14th century when Hans Fugger produced and marketed a cloth called “fustian” which consisted of linen and wool woven together. His two sons, Jakob and Andreas, continued the family business after Hans’ death. Jakob and his sons acquired great wealth in this business. They therefore had money to lend when, in 1488, the Archduke Sigismund of the Tyrol needed to borrow a substantial sum to compensate Venice following an unsuccessful war. As security, Jakob Fugger took an assignment of metal from a silver mine recently opened in the Tyrol. Once in the mining business, he received assignments from other Tyrolean mines and from copper mines in Hungary in exchange for loans to members of the Habsburg family, especially Maximilian I and Maximilian’s grandson, Charles V. The House of Fugger also handled Papal funds, earning substantial income from the different exchange rates for receiving and dispersing funds in scattered places. Pope Julius II used the Fugger bank to deposit all incoming funds from the Jubilee Year of 1509, intended chiefly to pay for construction of St. Peter’s Church.

The project to build a monumental church in Rome and adorn it with the finest works of Renaissance art seemed to some to reflect mistaken priorities. This was Judaic religion mated with the visual arts, a most unstable combination. To pay for the project, the church had to step up its fundraising efforts in northern Europe. When Johann Tetzel arrived in Saxony in 1517 to announce a new sale of papal indulgences, Martin Luther posted a religious manifesto on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg to protest abuses of the Roman church. Though branded a heretic, Luther received support from powerful German princes. Soon European society was split into two armed camps. The Protestants were religious fanatics in the tradition of Moses, Mohammed, and the Byzantine iconoclasts, who were opposed to worshiping God in the form of graven images. They preferred God’s word as presented in the Bible. The worldliness of the Roman church, its wealth and ornate decorations, offended Protestant sensibilities. Ironically, the take from the sale of German indulgences was disappointing. Half of the proceeds went to the Fuggers for commissions and settlement of past debts.

The third epoch of history is characterized by individual enterprise. Its emblem would be that of a talented artist trying to sell his wares to the king, or, in Columbus’ case, sell the idea of equipping a transoceanic voyage to Queen Isabella. In the nascent spirit of capitalism, one sees enterprising individuals ready to use their skills for financial gain. One sees go-getters on a mission to achieve something. One sees a willingness to go into the other man’s territory to gain or sell something. The vast wealth of this age attracted clever individuals seeking to better themselves by their wits: goldsmiths, musicians, clothiers, portrait painters. In Renaissance Italy, a life of wealth went together with cultivation of knowledge. Power was combined with possession of beautiful objects. In Florence, Venice, and other north Italian cities, it was customary for successful men of commerce to retire early and devote their remaining years to public service. They had their children educated by humanist scholars. They spent money to purchase and copy ancient manuscripts. They commissioned works of art. In this bustling environment, an artist was able to make a name for himself. Risk-taking merchants could become rich.

The 15th century voyages of discovery brought European society in direct contact by sea with the Far East. It brought the destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires, the colonization of foreign lands, and subjugation of various non-European peoples. The motive for this was a mixture of zeal to expand the Christian empire and individual ambition to become rich. The centuries-long struggle between Christianity and Islam had reached a decisive stage. At the eastern end of Christendom, the Ottoman Turks had finally succeeded in conquering and extinguishing the East Roman empire, thereby blocking European trade routes to the East. At the western end, the Christian kingdom of Aragon and Castile had finally expelled the Moors from the Iberian peninsula. Marco Polo’s book describing his travels to China in the 13th century had convinced Europeans that the Far Eastern societies possessed huge quantities of gold. Precious spices and silks were to be had in ample supply. Christopher Columbus presented a plan to Spanish royalty to reach this rich region by sailing west. It was approved in the same year that the Christian conquest of Grenada was complete.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it unleashed an exodus of Greek-speaking scholars to western Christendom. This reinvigorated a trend, which began with Dante and Petrarch, of studying the artifacts of Graeco-Roman civilization from a realistic perspective. After centuries of looking through the thick lens of Christian dogma, western intellectuals learned to see the classical world as it actually was. Petrarch desired to know the ancient authors as persons. He wrote letters to them as if they were his friends. By the 15th century, such interests had grown into a torrent of humanist scholarship. Men hunted for ancient manuscripts in monasteries or cathedral libraries. Greek emigres from the Ottoman empire brought thousands of volumes with them. They also brought language skills that were in demand. The revival of interest in classical languages had two effects. First, it enabled Biblical scholars to make new translations of original Greek texts and so obtain more authentic knowledge of Christian concepts from their source. Second, it exposed Europeans to the literature of classical Greece. The excellence of those ancient works helped to wean Europeans from their religious heritage.

Petrarch’s interest in preserving and studying original texts is regarded as a starting point of the western academic tradition. Martin Luther, who was professor of New Testament studies at the University of Wittenberg, brought scholarship to the service of revitalizing Christianity. Dante had begun the European tradition of writing serious literature in vernacular languages. Its most important application was in translating Biblical texts. John Wycliffe produced an English-language Bible translated from Latin in the 14th century. Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German. Luther and Wycliffe, as well as John Huss, held positions at universities in Europe. All were critics of the Roman church who, though excommunicated, found official or popular support.

Today’s type of university dates back to medieval times. Of the first dozen universities in Europe, eight were established in Italy. There were twenty European universities in 1300 A.D. That number increased to forty-five in 1400, and to eighty in 1500. One might suppose that the European cultural ferment of the 14th and 15th centuries was related to the growing number and importance of universities. The introduction of printing in the mid 15th century was another factor. Ever since the abbot Cassiodorus in the 6th century A.D. had ordered his monks to copy and preserve classical texts, Christian monasteries had been centers of literate culture. The Dominican and Franciscan teaching friars established schools of theology in the 13th century. Medieval universities prepared students for learned professions including medicine, law, theology and the arts. The University of Paris, for instance, was an association of scholars and students who had migrated with Peter Abélard from the Cathedral School of Notre Dame. Originally controlled by the bishop’s chancellor, it later operated under a charter granted to the guild of teaching faculty.

The Reformation stimulated European education. Protestants wanted more people to be able to read the Bible. Martin Luther proposed a system of universal education administered by municipal and religious authorities in which students would be taught history, languages, singing, and mathematics. The Scottish Calvinist, John Knox, urged that each church appoint a schoolmaster to teach Latin and grammar. The Jesuits responded to the Protestant challenge with their own kind of intensified education, including a four-year course in theology for preachers. A six-year course in philosophy would train the teachers. A later trend was to include more courses in secular subjects and develop national systems of education. Erasmus believed that studying classical Latin literature would improve moral education. The Port Royalists in France favored courses in French literature. Educational reformers stressed the role of the teacher and the need for children to play. The Bohemian educator, John Comenius, introduced books with pictures. Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that children should receive a “natural education” in which book learning would be delayed. The Prussians, on the other hand, introduced compulsory schooling and use of a professional staff. The state took over schools from the church.

The modern conception of childhood arose in the period between the 16th and 18th centuries. Previously, children were treated like miniature adults. They had no special clothing or toys, and little training beyond observation of parental activities. Many were engaged as apprentices or domestics by the age of seven or eight. Girls married in their early teens. The first schooling was for boys from the better families. The idea of universal education, segregated by age and involving many years of classes with progressively more difficult course work, came later. Another change concerned social classes. European society was traditionally structured by estate rather than by socioeconomic class. Each estate - nobility, clergy, burgher, serf - was bound by a set of legal privileges and restrictions. Except for the clergy, membership in an estate was hereditary. Each individual in society had a role that was fixed for life. Whatever education existed would be directed towards preparing for that role. The French Revolution dissolved social categories. In the new society, anyone was allowed to pursue any occupation or trade.

The “philosophes” of the 18th century Enlightenment were eager to separate European culture from its Christian element. Their feeling was that, while Christianity may once have played a parental role in the culture of Europe, Europeans had now reached the age of discretion and were able to think for themselves. Such attitudes pushed education in a secular direction. The philosophy, literature, music, or art that had been produced under royal or ecclesiastical sponsorship now furnished the basis of a high culture which might be studied in schools. The anticlerical French took the lead in proposing that education abandon its purpose of religious indoctrination and instead be directed toward preparing for practical occupations. The Marquis de Condorcet proposed to the 1792 Legislative Assembly that French education be reorganized to encourage the cultivation of individual talents regardless of social class. He proposed a universal system of education on five levels: primary schools, secondary schools, institutes, lycées, and the National Society of Arts and Sciences. An individual might go as far through this system as his abilities permitted. Scholarships would be awarded to the deserving poor.

The idea caught on during the period of the French Revolution that an “aristocracy of talent” should replace the natural aristocracy. Ability alone would dictate how far a student went in the educational process. The idea later took hold that to have gone a long way through the system signifies personal ability. And so, prolonged education became equated with superior intellect. Someone who had graduated from college was thought to be smarter than a high-school graduate, and the graduate with an advanced degree smarter still. The new social contract is based on this kind of reasoning. Employers look for evidence of completed education in employment applications. The applicants expect that their many years of schooling will be rewarded by being offered an attractive job. A new set of lifetime incentives have thus been created to accompany the growth of commercial bureaucracies in the third civilization. As the Roman church once exercised power by controlling the sacraments that offered admission to Heaven, so educational institutions have become gatekeepers to lucrative careers. Education has self-consciously pitched its function in terms of offering social advancement: If you want to “better yourself”, go back to school.

Detachment of News and Entertainment in the Fourth Epoch

World history in the fourth epoch deals with institutions that have existed only in the last two centuries. The sector which has detached from commercial society is associated with news and entertainment. For millennia, human beings have entertained each other and exchanged gossip on topics of current interest. Such activities took place informally. Organized entertainment was used in the past to build a sense of community among sometimes fractious groups. The Greek Olympic games were held every five years to honor the Olympian gods during which a month-long truce was held between the warring city-states. Begun in 776 B.C., the Greeks based their calendar on this event. The Roman government used gladiator sports to pacify the urban masses. “Bread and circuses” became staples of public life. Gladiatorial contests were held year round in the Colosseum and Circus Maximus before large crowds. Violent fights to the death and dangerous chariot races were the most popular events. Riots sometimes broke out between factions of spectators supporting rival chariot teams.

Though the news and entertainment industries are a subset of commerce, they have become much more. Unlike most other industries, they involve the systematic use of time. They have a potential to influence the society in ways that go beyond a purely economic function. The communications media have a certain ability to determine how people think; and that rebounds in many directions. As a commercial product, entertainment is less essential than housing or food. It is the type of product which is purchased with surplus income. To be commercially feasible, this industry needs audiences with sufficient income and leisure to want the entertainment and be able to pay for it. The industry needs a means of gathering enough people together to make it worthwhile for skilled entertainers to perform. And, finally, the content must be interesting or amusing enough to attract large audiences.

The role of public entertainment would be quite small in a rural society where people worked from sun up to sun down and had little money. It began to increase when they moved to cities and towns that could support traveling shows. Itinerant entertainers began crisscrossing the eastern part of the United States following the war of 1812. Like peddlers of the same era, they roamed from town to town in search of paying customers. The traveling circus came to America from Great Britain in the 1830s. Lyceums sponsoring lectures by cultural celebrities also became popular. Live theater was another fixture of American night life. After a white entertainer named “Daddy” Rice overheard a slave boy in Cincinnati singing a ditty “Jump Jim Crow”, he went around the country dressed in rags and with burnt cork on his face doing an imitation of the boy’s silly routine. That was the beginning of the minstrel show and vaudeville.

The master showman of this era was Phineas T. Barnum. His enterprise began in 1835 with a single attraction: Joyce Heth, a Negro woman alleged to be 160 years old who Barnum claimed had once been George Washington’s nurse. Gawking crowds paid $1,500 a week in admission fees to take a look at her. Barnum broadened his program of attractions to include freak shows featuring such characters as Jo-Jo the dogface boy, Zip the pinheaded man, the gigantic Admiral Dot, and the midget General Tom Thumb. He later purchased a gigantic elephant, Jumbo, from the London zoo to perform in public. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” merged with James Bailey’s competing attraction in 1881 to form the Barnum and Bailey circus. Meanwhile, “Buffalo Bill” Cody organized a “Wild West Show” to recreate scenes from the American West for curious persons living in the eastern part of the United States and in Europe. The show featured cowboys and Indians on horseback twirling lariats and performing gun tricks and even an appearance by Sitting Bull. Queen Victoria became one of its biggest fans when Buffalo Bill brought the show to England in 1888.

Another venue of popular entertainment was the special exhibition or fair intended to celebrate industrial or cultural progress or, perhaps, an important historical anniversary. During the 19th century, a number of international expositions were held for this purpose in Europe and the United States. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert hosted the first such event at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. Its success inspired others including the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (where Alexander Graham Bell exhibited the telephone), the Paris Exposition of 1889 (for which the Eiffel Tower was built), the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904. World fairs, as they came to be called, were held in New York City, Brussels, Montreal, Seattle, and other cities. State and county fairs, emphasizing agriculture, became an annual tradition in most parts of the United States during the 19th century. In addition, trade associations for various industries have sponsored public shows to introduce their products for the coming year.

Rising incomes and reduced hours of work have given working people in the industrialized countries a greater opportunity to participate in leisure activities, including entertainment-related events. In the early 1800s, it was customary for factory employees in England and America to work twelve or more hours a day. The fledgling trade-union movement agitated to require employers to reduce daily work schedules to a maximum of ten hours. The British Parliament enacted legislation to that effect in 1848. After the Civil War, the goal of the U.S. labor movement was to achieve an eight-hour workday. Average weekly hours in the United States came down by an average of two hours per week per decade - from 68 to 60 hours - between 1860 and 1900. Then, between 1900 and 1940, average hours were reduced by four hours per week per decade: from 60 to 44 hours. Between 1940 and 1980, the average U.S. workweek dropped by an additional 5.5 hours. Since 1980, the trend has been in the opposite direction. Real pay for industrial workers, though fluctuating with the business cycle, has generally increased.

Industrial development brought more people into the cities where entertainment facilities were located. Workers, in their time off, found it convenient to relax in the saloons or attend sporting events. Professional baseball began in the United States not long after the Civil War. Henry Wright organized the first professional team in 1869. In England, rugby football became popular among workers in the northern industrial counties. Workers who played for the teams asked for reimbursement of expenses related to lost wages. Association football, or “soccer”, began with the formation of the Football Association in 1863. This English game, also with professional players, spread to the Continent where it became Europe’s most popular sport. An international soccer federation, then comprising thirteen European nations, was founded in Paris in 1904. The Tour de France, a marathon bicycling event, began in the previous year. Its sponsor was a weekly newspaper in Paris whose publisher saw an opportunity to gain circulation at the expense of a rival.

The real opportunity for the entertainment industry lay not so much in charging admission for tickets as in building an audience which could be tapped by advertisers. For that to happen, there had to be changes in retailing. For most of European history, goods were sold in public markets convened at particular times and places. A person wishing to buy something when the market was not open went to a shopkeeper who stored various kinds of goods in a cramped room. The most common goods sold in these “general stores” were foodstuffs such as pickled herring, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and tea. Textiles were sold separately by wholesale merchants or tailors. In the early 19th century, stores began to specialize in certain products. There were draper’s shops, victualer’s shops, hardware stores, and stores selling “home products”. Manufacturing firms sent sales representatives to make the rounds of these stores. To display their expanded selection of products, the storekeepers needed to operate in more spacious quarters, preferably on the ground floor. They needed to attract a greater volume of customers to pay the rent. Therefore, the merchants sent people out to distribute handbills on the street, advertising products that they had in stock.

In 1852, a French merchant named Aristide Boucicaut opened the world’s first department store in Paris. He called it Bon Marché. Unlike earlier stores where customers haggled with sales clerks to obtain the best price, this store had a fixed price for every item. The merchandise, clearly laid out in racks, was packaged and ready to go. The retailer limited himself to a profit margin of 20 percent, yet allowed customers who were dissatisfied with a purchase to return the item for full credit. Sales clerks were instructed to assist customers, not hassle them to buy something. The new system was a hit with Parisian women. Visitors to the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris learned of this merchandising innovation and took the concept back to their own country. Soon there were department stores everywhere, replacing the small specialty shops. With low profit margins, the trick was to lure numbers of customers into the store. Bon Marché developed attractive window displays to exhibit its products. Since the customers wanted variety, this store offered new styles of fashions each year. It offered promotional “sales” with discounted prices for new or unusual merchandise. All these announcements had to be communicated to the public.

Newspaper advertisements offered the most economical means of reaching masses of potential customers. The basic system of advertising was, of course, well established. Printed broadsheets, combining news and advertisements, had been published in North America since colonial days. The modern newspaper took shape in the 1830s when the technology of cylindrical printing appeared. Newspapers, first in New Orleans, dispatched correspondents to cover the Mexican War. In the mid 19th century, journalists discovered that lithographic pictures could increase popular interest in their publications. Harper’s Weekly built up circulation by presenting illustrated battle scenes from the U.S. Civil War. Once organs for expressing partisan political views, newspapers learned to boost circulation by features appealing to the general reader. Large and exciting headlines, halftone photographs, crisply written copy, and sensational news content were found to increase readership. Such efforts reached a peak at the turn of the century in the competition between newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst for the top circulation in New York City. These publications both delighted in reporting garish crimes, wars, and disasters.

Newspapers derive roughly one third of their revenue from paid subscriptions. The other two thirds comes from advertising. Merchants pay newspapers to run advertisements because a certain number of readers who notice the advertisements will be influenced to buy their products. The larger the circulation, the more people who are exposed to a particular advertisement and receive its motivating message. Therefore, advertising rates vary according to a publication’s paid circulation. From the reader’s point of view, advertisements serving someone else’s selling agenda are acceptable because the additional revenue from them helps lower the price of the subscriptions. They come at a cost of having to tolerate unwanted copy next to the features in which readers may be primarily interested. With few exceptions, this material represents junk that must be browsed through to find the parts of the newspaper that they want to read. However, it is a small price to pay.

Some persons read newspapers because they believe it is their civic duty to become informed about current affairs. Presumably, they can cast a more intelligent vote if they often read news articles about public officials or issues raised in political campaigns. In their sociological study of “Middletown”, a hypothetical mid-sized U.S. city of the 1920s, Robert and Helen Lynd found, however, that, compared with 1890, newspapers in 1923 provided less coverage of agriculture, education, and politics, and more of organized sports, women’s issues, business, and cartoons. While the purpose of newspapers was “ostensibly to give information” about community life, the authors concluded that the press served the additional functions of molding political opinion, creating a favorable image for advertisers, and making money for the newspaper itself. Two thirds of the space in the morning paper was devoted to advertisements. The number of lines of paid advertising had increased sixfold between 1890 and 1923. Advertisements in that day tended to play on feelings of class insecurity, or, as the Lynds put it, “concentrate ... upon a type of copy aiming to make the reader emotionally uneasy, to bludgeon him with the fact that decent people don’t live the way he does: decent people ride on balloon tires, have a second bathroom, and so on.”

The technology of radio broadcasting inherited the commercial practices that had been created by newspaper advertising. The Radio Corporation of America was established in 1919 to exploit the market for selling radio receivers used in ham-radio broadcasts. This objective proved too modest in view of profits to be made from selling advertising time once commercial radio stations began broadcasting in the 1920s. The broadcasts themselves were necessarily offered free of charge. Yet, because a large audience was tuned to these programs, the radio stations could charge a large sum of money for airing commercials. Listeners could not ignore the radio commercials, which directly interrupted the programs, as newspaper readers could ignore advertisements filling space. When television came along in the late 1940s, it added a visual component to the programming but otherwise continued the arrangement that radio broadcasters had with commercial messages. Television was a perfect instrument for selling consumer products. The corporate sponsors saw big sales increases in return for the money spent on this form of advertising.

Network television in its heyday had a lock on people’s attention. Television sets were on for an average of seven hours a day in U.S. households. This pervasive medium captured one in every four waking hours. Such a large audience meant that anyone who needed to communicate with the public had to do it through television. But television commercials were expensive. When televangelists tried to preach the Gospel of Jesus on television, they also had to include a heavy fundraising appeal. The stations were forcing preachers to become pitch men to keep their programs on the air. Although, in theory, television broadcasters cover political campaigns without charge in the context of news reporting, the media have tended to report novelties and gaffes and the horse-race aspect of election contests. The candidates have had to run a gauntlet between reporters asking tough questions. Those wishing more control over their image are forced to purchase time for television commercials. That expense has been the main item driving up the cost of political campaigns, which, in turn, has made it necessary for elected officials to solicit money from wealthy donors and special-interest groups wanting favorable policies in exchange.

More and more, the news is becoming a form of entertainment. There is a feeling that when you tune to radio or television or watch a film, you are wanting to be entertained, not preached at or informed. Sam Goldwyn once said of movies: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” To a certain extent, then, the entertainment culture has killed serious public discussions. A television consultant who works with politicians described his craft: “We work more with mood and music. We try to create an impression to leave with viewers. We don’t care so much about the written word in an era when personalities are more important than issues.” Television uses a sequence of carefully selected pictures to produce an emotional effect. A montage of visual snippets and sound bites creates an impression of personality which, hopefully, viewers will find attractive. Television commercials do not sell consumer products through a rational discussion of their technical merits but by suggesting that the product fits in with an attractive lifestyle. Heavy repetition of a brand name makes the product a familiar item. Having little idea of its comparative advantages or disadvantages, the viewer nevertheless sees herself using it.

Commercial profitability depends on the relationship between prices and costs. Advertising makes it possible for a product which is competing against other similar products to charge a higher price than otherwise without losing customers. If the advertisements consisted of logical arguments related to a product’s merits as a consumer item, then the manufacturers would have to compete either on the basis of improving product quality or lowering the price. They would have to convince the public that their product represents superior value. However, technological knowledge is transferable. Anyone who follows its blueprint can replicate the process of manufacture or the product design. That means that any well-financed manufacturing firm can produce an unlimited quantity of this improved product and, given the nature of capitalistic markets, price and profitability will quickly come down. The alternative is, by advertising a brand name, to place in the consumer’s mind the idea of wanting only this particular product. Whatever forms a distinct image in the public consciousness, if only a name, becomes a unique product capable of fetching a higher price. Once customers have formed the mental habit of purchasing only the branded product, they will not settle for a substitute even if shown that the two are functionally the same.

However, this process is wearing thin. The cheaper house brands sold in supermarkets and stores have, in fact, gained market share at the expense of higher-priced branded products. The next step, then, is to sell products which are truly unique. The only type of product that fits this description is one based on human personality. Not long ago the Minnesota Timberwolves signed a six-year contract with a 19-year-old professional basketball player named Kevin Garnett, who agreed to play basketball exclusively for that team in exchange for $125 million. One would imagine that the Timberwolves might have been able to find another player who could handle Garnett’s function at a considerably reduced price. However, athletic performances, depending as they do upon the athletes’ personal skills, are a unique commodity on the market. The same is true of professional singers, actors, talk-show hosts, and other performers. The public has become used to seeing or hearing, and wanting, a certain person. Supply is limited to that one individual, while demand has no limit. No wonder the contract price of star performers soars to astronomical levels.

Nike footwear has this process a step further in tying a famous athlete’s image to the sale of manufactured products. The Chicago Bulls’ star player, Michael Jordan, appears in Nike television commercials in a manner linking this brand of footwear with Jordan’s glamorous image and lifestyle. The fact that its shoes, manufactured in the Far East for small change, can be sold at high prices to young men and women in the United States enamored of Jordan’s personality fetches Nike a large profit even after the cost of his multi-million-dollar endorsement fees has been deduced. Disney uses cartoon characters to supply the personal element for commercial tie-ins. This arrangement has the further advantage of avoiding endorsement fees that would have to be paid to human celebrities. A fictitious “personality” owned by a film company gets the payments instead.

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 2 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

 

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