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My Model of Historical Prediction

by William McGaughey

(a paper presented electronically to the 2007 annual proceedings of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations)

Will the future resemble the past? If so, we have a chance to know what the future will bring. But the fact is, the future is always different. We are always moving toward a new situation. That does not mean, however, that parts of the past do not repeat or, at least, that there is not a resemblance or common pattern between past events and what we see today and will see tomorrow.

George Santayana, the philosopher, is quoted to the effect that those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it. I assume this means repeat mistakes of the past. If we remember these mistakes, we perhaps will take steps to avoid similar situations in the future. In other words, we do have some control over what will happen.

An important figure in the history of ideas, responsible for the modern approach to historical prediction, is the historian Oswald Spengler, a German who published a book, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Spengler developed a rigid analogy between biological creatures and civilizations. For him, civilizations were cultural organisms which went through predictable life cycles. Since some civilizations have already experienced that process in its entirety, we can predict what will happen to ones, such as our own, which have not yet completed the cycle. That cycle, begun in a birth and growth to maturity, always proceeds to decline and death.

In the history of ideas, I think it useful to point out that German philosophers and thinkers pioneered the concept of ideas or forms progressing in time. Goethe was a student of biological processes. It was Hegel, however, who brought this scheme to fruition. In the current world of historical thinking, Hegel is a counterpart to Plato, whose ideas dominated the Greek world of static, eternal realities. Hegelian dialectics was an inspiration to the Marxists who believed that human societies were destined to reach the stage of socialism after passing through several other stages.

My own scheme of historical prediction comes mainly through Arnold Toynbee, whose approach was, in turn, inspired by Spengler. Toynbee’s A Study of History was published in ten volumes which came out between 1934 and 1954. I read the two-volume abridgement by D.C. Somervell. Additionally, Toynbee published several other books including Mankind and Mother Earth and An Historian’s Approach to Religion which were a source of information for my own book, Five Epochs of Civilization.

Toynbee’s work seemed to me to be more grounded in historical reality than Spengler’s was. Spengler seemed more like a philosopher or poet. Toynbee, however, wrote of real civilizations that had existed in the past, identifying for each a point of origin and, for dead civilizations, a point of extinction. I was fascinated by Toynbee’s idea that civilizations can be related to each other in “generations” and by his specific identification of civilizations in the past, notably the Minoan and Hellenic civilizations, which are ancestors of our own western civilization. Toynbee also developed a compelling explanation of the role of religion in creating new civilizations.

On the other hand, I did not accept Toynbee’s argument that western civilization - the one to which most Europeans and Americans alive today belong - originated in the post-Roman society of the Franks, around the time of Charlemagne or earlier. I also doubted that Christianity is the central unifying force of this civilization. Toynbee’s idea of the future, contemplating that the Christian religion would syncretically absorb other influences in modern times to become a universal culture, seemed implausible. When you look around to see what is happening today, you find young people playing video games and listening to recorded music on their IPODs. You find very little interest in religious ideas or systems. So I departed from Toynbee, and from Spengler, in the definition of what a civilization is.

For Spengler, Toynbee, and most members of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC), civilizations are regionally based cultures whose political organization is critical to its historical integrity. A society “falls” when its government is overthrown by other governments or by barbarians or what we would call “terrorists”. We have in our collective consciousness the idea of “the decline and fall of the Roman empire”, when it was an empire - or, more precisely, half an empire - which fell rather than a civilization. Many would draw parallels between what happened to the (western) Roman empire in the 5th century A.D. and what they think may be happening to the United States of America today.

This model of the future is based on Edward Gibbon’s book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in several volumes between 1776 and 1788. Gibbon was making an argument that Rome fell because its moral and cultural foundation had been fatally weakened. The chief cause of this weakening was the emerging Christian religion. It’s ironic, then, that modern-day Christians use this book and its concept to argue that American society may be headed for a fall due to its weakened moral foundation, by which is meant its attachment to Christianity. Moral weakness is evidenced by such things as sexual promiscuity, broken homes, drug and alcohol dependency, and general pleasure seeking.

What gives this argument its punch may not be Gibbon’s work so much as thematic elements found in Biblical prophecy. Many Christians believe that Christ will return to earth some day in a particular scenario of events. Those events invariably include a period of turmoil in which natural and social irregularities appear: Earthquakes and famines will occur. Parents and children turn against each other. Weird sexual practices take place.

It is in this context that Christians see the decline of our own society in America. The moral weaknesses that they believe were a cause of Rome’s decline and fall are significant mainly as signs that the end of the world is near, heralding Christ’s return. I would point out, however, that Biblical prophecy is not history. It is literature originating in a writer’s imagination, believed to have been divinely inspired. Science fiction might be considered a modern-day equivalent.

What, then, of prediction based upon an analysis of history? My scheme of prediction is based on the approach developed by Spengler and Toynbee. However, I define civilizations differently. What I call Civilizations I, II, III, IV, and V are not regional cultures that have reached a certain degree of sophistication and power but stages in a worldwide process of cultural development. Their key elements are: communication technologies and institutions of power. The one provides the material structure for public discourse; the other, the organization of functions in society.

I will not present my scheme in detail here since I have already done so in previous writings. However, the following table provides a summary:

Name of civilization communication technology dominant institution
     
Civilization I ideographic writing government
Civilization II alphabetic writing world religion
Civilization III printing commerce and education
Civilization IV electronic recording & broadcasting news & entertainment media
Civilization V computer communication the Internet & ?

 

For purposes of historical prediction, I assume that humanity has passed through the stages of Civilization I and Civilization II (although Islamic society may still be in the latter), that it is nearly finished with Civilization III, and that it is now experiencing Civilization IV, but that a new civilization (Civilization V) has already begun to sprout. That means that we may look at the first two civilizations, Civilization I and Civilization II, as models from the past that indicate how the currently existing civilizations may develop in the future. With respect to Civilization III, we can anticipate events in its terminal phase. With respect to Civilization IV, we can predict what may happen in the remainder of its existence as a living organism. With respect to Civilization V, we can historically envision its development from start to finish.

My theory is spelled out in detail at the web site http://www.WorldHistorySite.com/prediction.html, which is one of Google’s top-rated sites for the search words “predict the future”. (It used to be #1 but has been dislodged from that position by some fortune-telling sites.) From my own study of history, I find the following patterns:

“(1) When a new technology with radically different and improved capabilities of communication is first introduced into society, it will profoundly change the culture and, indeed, mark the beginning of a new civilization. Qualities inherent in the technology help to shape this new culture.

(2) New civilizations produce new institutions of power as functions once handled informally become organized, detach as separate power centers, and assert political and cultural dominance.

(3) Each civilization develops its own dominant beliefs and values, its own models of attractive personality, and its own "religion" in a broad sense.

(4) Civilizations follow a life cycle in which their period of "youth" is marked by vigorous growth and cultural creativity, their period of "adulthood" is marked by the formation of empires, and their period of "decline" is marked by institutional coercion and violence involving those empires.

(5) Themes or values that prevailed at the beginning of an historical epoch often give way to their opposite as the epoch comes to an end.

(6) The arrival of a new civilization also affects institutions that were dominant two epochs earlier. Such institutions undergo a democratizing process.”

The web site applies these principles to each of the five civilizations. Since the discussion is lengthy, I will not repeat it here. Patterns 4, 5 and 6 offer the most promising basis for prediction. Like Spengler who saw dynamic “cultures” developing into arteriosclerotic and imperial “civilizations”, I see “civilizations” (encompassing both phases of the cultural entity) passing through a fluid and creative phase before developing powerful “empires” which become increasingly abusive. I also see institutions formed in one historical epoch being fundamentally transformed in subsequent epochs.

 

Take government as an example.

In tribal societies, the community was ruled by an elder or a representative of a leading family. This arrangement led to the institution of the hereditary monarchy.

In Civilization I, or first epoch of history, kingdoms or communities that were based on blood kinship went to war against each other. The winner enslaved the loser, took his territory, and from this formed a larger kingdom. A large empire such as Rome’s stood at the end of the process. The hereditary monarch who ruled the conquering kingdom - or, in Rome’s case, won a political power struggle - ruled over this empire. Still, government was controlled by a single ruler whose position was inherited from the previous ruler through the rights of blood kinship.

In Civilization II or the second epoch of history, which was an age of world religion, the religious and political authorities developed a power-sharing arrangement. The emperor had charge of temporal affairs while the Pope had charge of spiritual matters. The basic idea behind government in this period was that, although the monarch’s position as head of government was inherited, it was also divinely sanctioned. It was God’s will that this particular man rule England (or France or Spain) and anyone who rebelled against the political ruler was also rebelling against God. James I of England invoked “the divine right of kings” to justify his exercise of power.

Civilization III, or the third epoch of history, was an age dominated by commerce and secular education. Printing was its cultural medium. The institution of hereditary monarchy came under attack during this historical epoch beginning with the regicides of the English Puritan and French revolutions. At its close, after World War I, three large political empires fell - the Prussian empire of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the empire of Czarist Russia - and were replaced by democracies or by dictatorships masquerading as democracies.

Democracy was the new form of government produced during this era. The Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal”. Its original meaning was not that all citizens were equal but that God had not created certain men - kings - to rule over other men. All persons eligible to vote had an equal voice in the government.

Democratic government had its roots in Parliamentary government. Parliaments were a body of men elected to represent a district of the kingdom. Originally, this body was needed to help the king collect taxes. Therefore, Parliaments were concerned mainly with economic functions. In a democracy, however, the "people" who elect Parliaments take over the government. This system assumes that the citizens are able to cast an intelligent vote. They must be literate and informed. They must be educated.

Civilization IV, or the fourth epoch of history, was and is an age of news and popular entertainment based primarily upon electronic media of communications. The art of getting elected to public office depends upon communicating effectively with the voters. Since the news media refuse to give political affairs the coverage which newspapers used to give but parce out information in “sound bites”, aspiring politicians communicate with voters through paid commercials. This means that they need to raise money to pay the media organizations. The scandal of today’s political process is that private commercial organizations - the TV networks and other such media - effectively own government because they are able to control its source of power, which is public opinion.

Computers show promise in ending that regime. Already we have seen how computer-savvy campaigns such as Howard Dean’s in 2004, were able to raise money on the Internet, advertise meetings and rallies, and otherwise support candidacies regardless of what the big media did. Indeed, political bloggers have created their own media. We know that computer communication will continue to have a large impact upon political affairs but, at this point, cannot predict what will happen.

This discussion explains what happened to the institution of government as western society passed through different epochs of world history . A similar discussion can be held regarding other institutions, such as business, education, or religion.

The fact that a profound change occurred in government between the first and third historical epochs - when hereditary monarchy was replaced by democracy - gives reason to suggest that a similar democratizing change might take place in other institutions over the course of two epochs. Religion would be ripe for such a change in the fourth epoch; business and education, in the fifth.

Is this sound prediction or a pseudo-science? My only basis of judgment is to find patterns in history that seem to apply to the current situation. These patterns assume that civilizations exhibit life cycles and that the future course of the current civilization can be known by looking at the history of past ones.

I have also toyed with the idea that civilizations swing between opposing ideals during the course of their history. For example, a recent article published in Comparative Civilization Review sees the institution of government swing between loyalty based on blood kinship (or race and ethnicity) and loyalty based on abstract concepts such as law and religion. Similarly, the institution of religion swings between the two poles of self-chosen belief and government coercion.

Let me say in closing that it is easier to predict the decline of existing institutions than it is to anticipate what will arise to take its place. Those institutions slated for decline are ones that we can already see. The replacing institutions of power may still be a gleam in someone’s imagination.

Let me also say that this type of analysis does not involve arguments that our civilization will decline because of depleted resources, overpopulation, nuclear catastrophe, global warming, disease, or other natural causes. Such events may be predictable, but not in terms of past civilizations. Our situation today is unprecedented in terms of the peril which we face as a species. So, while we can reasonably anticipate and, hopefully, prepare for the expected dangers, history offers little guidance as to what civilizations will arise as a result of them.

 

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