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What is Original in this World History

by William McGaughey 

 

A professor of history told my wife that he was not impressed with Five Epochs of Civilization because it was not an original work. Most of its materials were borrowed from other authors, he said. I would suspect that this would also be true of most other histories except for those based on eye-witness reporting. Even so, the professor’s criticisms are valid and deserve a response.

Yes, it is true that when I try to narrate world history, my information is taken from other people’s writings - Arnold Toynbee’s “Mankind and Mother Earth”, H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History”, Ernst Samhaber’s “Merchants Make History”, to name some of the more important sources. It is also true that my historical scheme follows Toynbee, Spengler, and others in conceiving of world history in terms of a series of civilizations which have life cycles. These civilizations are living organisms that rise and fall in a predictable sequence of developments through time. On a larger scale, they resemble the lives of plants and animals.

My particular contribution, as I imagine it to be, lies in proposing a particular scheme to tell the story of humanity. In other words, it proposes a way that world history might be organized. If one tells world history in terms of a single story running from prehistoric times into the present, the picture would lose its focus. I am proposing instead that this story be broken down into chapters. Each would tell the story of a particular “civilization” - which is a configuration of culture and society. Each civilization’s story would roughly correspond to a particular period in world history - an “epoch”. Historical epochs are characterized by the dominance of particular civilizations. The terms “civilization” and “epoch” are two aspects of the same thing.

Therefore, when I claim to be making an original contribution to history, I mean that I am giving world history a particular design. I am finding a way to break a single story into several stories which offer greater coherence and focus. Think of how the separate chapters in a book allow focus on a smaller topic within the scope of the whole. My contribution is to create chapters of world history to tell the story well.

The traditional way that world history has been organized in the west has been to divide it into three parts: ancient, medieval, and modern. Generally, ancient history begins with the primitive settlements in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it peaks with the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and ends with the fall of the Roman empire in 476 A.D when the barbarian king Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus. Medieval history would begin the the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century A.D. and run through the 15th century A.D., when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, Columbus sailed to America, and Europeans during the Renaissance developed secular interests. Modern history would include events following the Renaissance that have continued to the present time.

This scheme of history has several problems. First, the Roman empire did not fall in 476 A.D. Only its western half fell. The eastern half of the empire continued for another thousand years in the form of the Byzantine empire. Slavic peoples adhering to Orthodox Christianity would see the western three-part history as biased toward the experience of west Europeans. A second problem has to do with the term “modern”. This implies a period of history which is the last in a series; almost by definition, it includes the present. The culture begun in the Renaissance must continue in an unbroken line to the culture that we have today. I do not believe this is the case. Today’s “pop culture” of downloaded music and video games is substantially different from the culture of Victorian England. A significant break point separates these two cultures.

Therefore, I came up with my own scheme of five civilizations inhabiting epochs of history. It has two sets of keys. The first pertains to a new type of communication technology developed at the beginning of an epoch. The second pertains to a new institution that acquires power and comes to dominate the society during the same period. The communication technology is an invention that allows a new culture to develop within the “space” of its communication. The institution is a human organization that is introduced in society and comes to prominence at a certain time. The history of the epoch would focus primarily on events affecting that institution. Such a scheme reduces the element of bias because both the institutions and communication technologies are found in societies around the world. It neither glorifies nor denigrates any group of people.

The scheme of five epochs of civilization is presented in tabular form:

 

name of  civilization communication technology     institution of power   rough time period
           
Civilization I    ideographic writing   imperial government   3000 B.C. to 550 B.C.
Civilization II   alphabetic writing   world religion   550 B.C. to 1450 A.D.
Civilization III   printing   commerce and education   1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.
Civilization IV electronic recording  and broadcasting   popular entertainment   1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D.
Civilization V computers   the Internet & ?   1990 A.D. to present


How did I come up with this scheme? Was it a sudden insight I had or pattern I saw after many years of studying world history? No, it started more modestly with the thought that we Americans are currently in transition from one civilization to another as the young generation becomes less literate than its predecessor and more attuned to electronic entertainment. We therefore had two cultures: one based on reading books and another on watching television. One civilization would therefore be based on the technology of printing. The other would be based on the technology of television broadcasting (as well as radio broadcasting, sound recordings, and motion pictures). The break point is found in our own lifetime, give or take a few generations.

The thought then occurred to me that world history is broader than the period within our own experience. Another, even more important cultural break occurred when humanity first acquired the technology of writing. Before that, human culture was transmitted orally. We had, then, three important cultural inventions - writing, printing, and television broadcasting - each with its own epoch of history. We had civilization after writing was invented but before printing was invented; the civilization of printed literature; and the post-literate civilization of electronic entertainment. One might also add a fourth epoch - the civilization before writing was invented. However, since we associate civilization with a literate culture, we term this period “pre-historic”. History requires written records.

I later realized that still finer distinctions might be made. I had to distinguish between the time when writing was first introduced in ideographic symbols and when alphabetic writing was developed, using symbols for elemental sounds rather than entire words. This improvement allowed literacy to spread more rapidly than before. A new type of culture ensued. Also, I realized that computer-based communication was radically different than radio or television broadcasting because it allowed two-way communication. Therefore, the period of literate culture is broken down into three, not two, epochs. Likewise, the period of electronic culture is divided into two epochs, before and after the introduction of computer technology.

The scheme of a succession of new communication technologies came first. When I matched the introduction of each technology with a period of time, I realized that each period had a distinct history. The early literate societies are associated with city-states that grew into kingdoms and empires. This epoch of history focuses on government, in other words. After alphabetic writing was introduced in the first millennium B.C., there was a philosophical revolution that ultimately produced the world religions. This period of history focuses on the Christian church and other “spiritual” empires. And so it was also with the other three epochs. There was a correlation between a communication technology and a dominant institution of power.

Some may ask why this organizing scheme matters to anyone. From the standpoint of studying history, it matters because a clear structure of organization makes it easier to comprehend and remember historical facts. People remember stories that move in a clear and obvious direction. We would want to keep the structure of history as simple as possible without excluding important facts. We would want this structure to be coherent.

Another advantage of a well-organized history has to do with predicting the future. Here I am in debt to Spengler and Toynbee for their notion that we can know the future of our own society through analogy with past societies in a similar phase of development. In other words, if each civilization has a life cycle, we can predict the future course of this one by knowing where we are in the cycle and what happens to civilizations in a later phase. However, it is important that the patterns allegedly found in world history be in some sense real. Otherwise, the alleged analogies with past “civilizations” might be based on imaginary patterns that would not hold true in the future.

I am pleased to report that the scheme of civilizations presented in this website ranks high in predictive interest. (At one time, it ranked #1 in Google for the search words “predict the future”.) This, of course, does not guarantee accurate prediction - we will only know that when the future comes. However, this scheme of prediction does make sense to some people. It offers an analytical tool that was not previously available.

This would be my response to the professor who pointed out that the materials in my world history were not original. It’s in the structure of stories at the highest level of history that the present can be understood and the future can possibly be seen.

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