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.
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.
larger scale, they resemble the lives of plants and animals.
particular contribution, as I imagine it to be, lies in proposing
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.
when I claim to be making an original contribution to history,
I mean that I am giving
world history a particular
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
history to tell the story well.
traditional way that world history has been organized in
the west has been to divide it into three parts: ancient,
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 5th century A.D. and run through the 15th century A.D.,
when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, Columbus sailed
America, and Europeans during the Renaissance developed secular
Modern history would include events following the Renaissance
that have continued to the present time.
scheme of history has several problems. First, the Roman
empire did not fall
in 476 A.D. Only its western half fell.
half of the empire continued for another thousand years
in the form of the Byzantine empire. Slavic peoples adhering
Christianity would see the western three-part history as
biased toward the experience of west Europeans. A second
to do with the term “modern”. This implies
a period of history which is the last in a series; almost
includes the present. The culture begun in the Renaissance
must continue in an unbroken line to the culture that we
I do not believe this is the case. Today’s “pop
downloaded music and video games is substantially different
from the culture of Victorian England. A significant break
these two cultures.
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
power and comes to dominate the society during the same
period. The communication technology is an invention
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
in societies around the world. It neither glorifies nor denigrates
any group of people.
scheme of five epochs of civilization is presented in tabular
|name of civilization
||3000 B.C. to 550 B.C.
||550 B.C. to 1450 A.D.
||commerce and education
||1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.
||electronic recording and
||1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D.
||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
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
sound recordings, and motion pictures). The break point is found
in our own lifetime, give or take a few generations.
thought then occurred to me that world history is broader than
the period within our own experience.
more important cultural break occurred
when humanity first acquired the technology of writing. Before
that, human culture was transmitted orally. We
three important cultural
inventions - writing,
printing, and television broadcasting - each with its own epoch
of history. We had civilization after writing
but before printing was
invented; the civilization of printed literature;
and the post-literate civilization
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.
later realized that still finer distinctions might be made.
I had to distinguish between the
time when writing was first introduced
and when alphabetic writing was developed, using symbols
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
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
into two epochs, before and after the introduction of computer
scheme of a succession of new communication technologies
came first. When I matched the
introduction of each technology
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.
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
focuses on the
Christian church and
other “spiritual” empires. And so it was also
with the other three epochs. There was a correlation between
technology and a dominant
institution of power.
may ask why this organizing scheme matters to anyone. From
the standpoint of studying
history, it matters because
a clear structure
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
would want this structure to be coherent.
advantage of a well-organized history has to do with predicting
Here I am in debt to Spengler
Toynbee for their
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
are in the
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.
am pleased to report that the scheme of civilizations presented
in this website ranks high in
interest. (At one
time, it ranked
the search words “predict the future”.)
This, of course, does not guarantee accurate prediction
- we will only
when the future comes. However,
this scheme of prediction does make sense to some
people. It offers an analytical tool that was not
would be my response to the professor who pointed out that
the materials in my world history
in the structure of stories at the highest level
of history that the present can be understood and
can possibly be seen.