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Civilizations and Historical Epochs

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About Historical Knowledge

In reflecting upon its past, humanity is aware of times when life was different than it now is. The artifacts of those times are still to be seen in stone monuments, pottery shards, tools, and other physical remains. History is a collection of stories from the past which explain how the world that we know came to be. Unlike fiction, the stories of history are considered to be literally true. That brings other scholarly disciplines into the process of establishing historical truth. While our memories of history are forever receding into the past, its knowledge therefore increases as new facts come to light. Research techniques developed within the natural sciences, such as carbon dating, have improved the accuracy of information accepted as historical fact. Because the Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, Mayan, and other peoples kept records of astronomical events observed in their times, we are able to date stories found in ancient literature mentioning them. Archeological excavations, the discovery of manuscripts or carved inscriptions, and the deciphering of previously unknown languages increase our knowledge of long-lost civilizations.

One might say that the writing of history extends only so far as historians have knowledge of its events. What may once have happened will, of course, be excluded if the experience has been forgotten. Since stories include an interior consciousness of events, our knowledge of them will necessarily depend upon preserving them in a medium which can express human thoughts. Such a medium is, of course, written language. Some stories have come to us in the form of folklore handed down within tribal societies. While the stories may be based on actual experiences, their long process of oral transmission from one generation to another poses a risk of corruption. Writing, on the other hand, holds together in the same form so long as the material in which it has been expressed can weather processes of natural decay.

Conventionally one associates the experience of preliterate societies with “prehistoric” times. Arnold Toynbee has written: “Nomadism is essentially a society without a history. Once launched on its annual orbit, the Nomadic horde revolves in it thereafter and might go on revolving for ever if an external force against which Nomadism is defenseless did not eventually bring the horde’s ... life to an end. This force is the pressure of the sedentary civilizations round about.” Malidoma Somé, an African ritualist living in the United States, has compared the preliterate culture of his native village with the culture he found in the West. Westerners, he observed, are always in a hurry to go somewhere, and, in the process, they lose touch with their spiritual roots. Malidoma noted that the people of his tribe, the Dagara people of West Africa, do not have a conception of history. Their world view is timeless. What happens now is important, not what has happened. If an important event takes place, it quickly passes into the realm of mythology.

In the western view, human societies improve through the contributions of creative individuals. There is also destruction as once-healthy institutions become corrupt. Yet, world civilization is always moving towards an expanded state of consciousness. Human societies have changed. Fewer people live in tribal societies and more in those urbanized societies which are called “civilized.” World history tells the story of humanity’s changing from one situation to the other. The situation at the beginning of the story is different than at the end. Significant history is that which leaves an imprint upon the structure of society. It is the story of how the most advanced types of society came to be. There is not a single story to describe this process but several stories. That is because modern society consists of a plurality of institutions to handle its various functions. They emerged in different times.

The purpose here is to take the confused themes of world history, separate them into their different strands, and present each in a clear and coherent set of images. It is analogous to inserting a prism into a stream of white light. Such light is a mixture of variously colored rays with distinctive wave lengths. A prism inserted into its beam breaks the colors apart so that a person can see the separate spectral components. Likewise, world civilization as it exists today is a mixture of several different civilizations. Each has a story to tell. Since these civilizations overlap in time, their combined history is murky and confused. Historical understanding requires that one separate out the events connected with these different civilizations so that the direction behind each set of experiences becomes plainly seen.


Competition for Space in Books of History

World history, being the accumulated record of past human experience, might consist of a large collection of personal biographies in the form of books, letters, notes, photographs, and other effects. Each person who has ever lived had a story to tell. If history were the sum total of all such stories, world history would not be contained in books but in large warehouses or computer files. Such a massive amount of information would make this history quite inaccessible. No one would have time to review more than a tiny part of it. Traditionally, history has never been a narrative of people’s lives but of important people’s lives. Some persons are more prone to being historical figures than others. To be lifted to that plane, one needs a device of personal magnification. Government office has placed certain individuals in positions of authority over others. The early histories were, therefore, chronologies of royal dynasties. Democracy has broadened the cast of historical characters. Besides kings and prime ministers, historians now record the lives of philosophers, saints, writers, scientists, entertainers, and other public figures.

The writing of history has lately become a matter of some controversy. That is because, as historical personalities have become democratized, people’s expectations have increased that they will find representation in historical writings. It is understood that individuals are included in books of history because of some accomplishment or creative work. It is therefore an honor to be mentioned in history, and the amount of space given to describing a person’s life would be a measure of that honor. If the average person is not mentioned, he or she aspires to assume historical importance through surrogates who are of a similar demographic type. People expect that history will provide attractive role models for themselves. Therefore, a political battle is raging about the kind of history textbook which ought to be used in the schools. Histories which give insufficient attention to the accomplishments of certain groups are challenged on the grounds of historical bias: Since “the victors write history”, they reflect merely the views of the politically strong in an age when those histories were written.

Opponents of that view accuse its adherents of rewriting history in a partisan way. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has compared contemporary efforts to give African-Americans, women, and others greater historical prominence with a similar struggle waged by Irish-American zealots at the beginning of the 20th century. He noted that “John V. Kelleher, for many years Harvard’s distinguished Irish scholar, once recalled his first exposure to Irish-American history - ‘turgid little essays on the fact that the Continental Army was 76% Irish, or that many of George Washington’s friends were nuns and priests, or that Lincoln got the major ideas for the Second Inaugural Address from the Hon. Francis P. Magehegan of Alpaca, New York, a pioneer manufacturer of cast-iron rosary beads.’ John Kelleher called this ‘the there’s-always-an-Irishman-at-the-bottom-of-doing-the-real-work approach to American history.’ About 1930, Kelleher said, those ‘turgid little essays’ began to vanish from Irish-American papers. He added, ‘I wonder whose is the major component in the Continental Army these days?’”

Does such a thing exist as a truly objective world history? Probably not. Each selection of facts involves someone’s preconceived point of view. Subjectively, many or most people want to believe that historical trends culminate in their own situation. However, a world history is written for all humanity. In a pluralistic world, one must accept that this history will include experiences of persons unlike ourselves. One needs to organize the writing of history by idea or theme rather than by types of persons given space in its works. World history is not centered in anyone’s parochial experience.

An Example of a Biased History

In the late 19th century, western peoples had a strong sense of self-confidence. In the United States, the focus upon European civilization was combined with a jingoistic appreciation of U.S. national strength. Historical textbooks of that era reflected ethnocentric values. A leather-bound book in my great-grandparents’ collection, Illustrated Universal History, exemplifies historical thinking at the time. Published in Philadelphia in 1878, this book divided world history into three parts: “Ancient History”, “the Middle Ages”, and “Modern History”. Ancient history began with Adam’s life in the Garden of Eden and ended with the fall of the west Roman empire in 476 A.D. The Middle Ages followed Rome’s fall and continued until 1517 A.D., the year that Martin Luther challenged papal authority. Modern history covered the subsequent period up until the time that the book was published. In a preface, the author informed readers that “(t)he greatest prominence is given to the annals of those nations of ancient and modern times which have acted a leading part on the stage of the world’s history.”

It is revealing to see the number of pages assigned in this 685-page book to the histories of various nations. The first two pages deal with “Antediluvian History” and the “Dispersal of Mankind.” The history of “Oriental Nations” occupies the next thirteen pages. Histories of China, India, Assyria and Babylonia, Egypt, and Phoenicia each claim one page. Persian and Hebrew history together have seven pages. Nearly thirty pages are devoted to the history of ancient Greece, and fifty to Roman history. The 78-page section on the Middle Ages chronicles royal dynasties in Europe between the 5th and 15th centuries A.D. Mohammed’s “Saracen Empire” is covered in four pages. India and China are mentioned as destinations of European exploration. “Modern History”, focused on post-Reformation European dynasties and U.S. political administrations, claims the remaining pages. Wars and revolutions are the most heavily covered events. They include the “Thirty Years’ War”, the “English Revolution” and the “War of the Austrian Succession”. Tucked away in this history are one-page summaries of events in India and Persia and a brief description of Spanish conquests in America. The history of the United States between 1776 and 1876 takes up sixty-five pages.

Today such a book would not be considered a “universal history”. While it is interesting to know, for instance, that a Roman emperor named Heliogabalus was assassinated in 222 A.D. and that rude behavior by the Duke of Buckingham upset plans for Charles I of England to be married to a Spanish princess, such events of western political history shed little light upon fundamental issues affecting those societies. While the history of governments has served as a proxy for general history, human societies do involve more than their political aspect. A more serious deficiency is the book’s preoccupation with western Europe and North America. It may have seemed in 1876 that the whole world was moving toward domination by the western powers. Events of the last century have corrected that impression. Much has been omitted from this book concerning the experiences of peoples in the nonwestern world who did leave a complete written record. If the scattered societies on earth each have separate histories, the question then becomes how much space to give each people’s experiences in a book of world history.


Population as a Guide to Historical Coverage

One approach might be to assume that each person’s experiences are as deserving of historical coverage as another’s, and, since all individuals have an equal claim to this coverage, the amount of space given in world history to the various national histories should follow the size of national populations. The nation with the largest population in a given time period should have the greatest historical coverage for that period, the second most populous nation should have the second most coverage, and so on. If the size of populations drives historical coverage, historians need to review population statistics over a period of time. Colin McEvedy’s and Richard Jones’ book, Atlas of World Population History, provides data concerning world population between 10000 B.C., when the neolithic revolution began, and 1975 A.D. This information has been updated to the present.

Click here to see the earth’s total population and its percentage breakdown by region in years between 400 A.D. and 1997 A.D. China and India together have accounted for about half the total population for much of this time. The European share of world population increased between the 17th and 19th centuries and then declined. The population of North and South America plus Oceania (Australia and the Pacific islands) gained a sharply higher share of world population between 1850 and 1997. This surge in population roughly corresponds with the emergence of the United States as a world power. European power and influence in the world reached a peak in the 19th century, as did Europe’s share of world population. The main reason for gains in population has been the spread of agriculture. Some societies develop agricultural economies sooner than others. Other factors supporting population increases have been industrialization, medical advances cutting the death rate, and migration into underpopulated territories. War, famine, pestilence, and disease bring sudden drops in population. Another cause of population decline is the reduced fertility of women in affluent societies.

Changes in world population can mask conflicting trends between nations. The surge in population growth during the first millennium B.C. took place primarily in Asia, north Africa, and Europe. Greek peoples settling the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black seas were major contributors to this growth. Because of their increasing numbers, the Greeks were able to withstand the Persian emperor Xerxes II’s invasion of their homeland in the 6th century B.C. and provide muscle for the army of Alexander the Great two centuries later. However, the Greek population stagnated during Hellenistic times. Rome’s population of 5 million persons around 200 B.C. gave it an advantage in the war with Carthage, whose population then numbered about 1.5 million. A Jewish population boom during the 1st century A.D. brought Judaism and Christianity to cities throughout the Roman empire. The following table shows the three largest cities in the world in years since 2000 B.C. The names of those cities evoke the memory of kingdoms and empires which have left their mark upon world history.

Three Largest Cities in the World
date first second third
2000 B.C. Ur Memphis Thebes
1600 B.C. Avaris Babylon Setabul
1200 B.C. Memphis Khattushash Dur-Kurigalza
1000 B.C. Thebes Sian Loyang
800 B.C. Thebes Sian Loyang
650 B.C. Nineveh Lintzu Loyang
430 B.C. Babylon Yenhsiatu Athens
200 B.C. Chang'an Patna Alexandria
100 A.D. Rome Loyang Seleucia
361 A.D. Constantinople Ctesiphon Patna
500 A.D. Constantinople Ctesiphon Loyang
622 A.D. Ctesiphon Chang'an Constantinople
800 A.D. Baghdad Chang'an Loyang
1000 A.D. Cordoba Kaifeng Constantinople
1200 A.D. Hangchow Fez Cairo
1350 A.D. Hangchow Peking Cairo
1500 A.D. Peking Vijayanagar Cairo
1600 A.D. Peking Constantinople Agra
1700 A.D. Constantinople Yedo Peking
1800 A.D. Peking London Canton
1850 A.D. London Peking Paris
1900 A.D. London New York Paris
1950 A.D. New York London Tokyo
1975 A.D. Tokyo New York Osaka
Source: Chandler, Tertius. Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth. (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1987.)

The population of both the Roman and Han Chinese empires hit a peak in the 3rd century A.D. The Roman empire then had a total population of 46 million, and the Chinese empire more than 50 million people. China’s population declined after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D. Europe’s population, which totaled 36 million persons in 200 A.D., fell to 26 million in 600 A.D. At both ends of the Eurasian continent, nomadic tribes from central Asia with population of perhaps 5 million persons were infiltrating and defeating empires ten times as populous. In China, population growth resumed when imperial rule was reestablished. Its population rose from 60 million persons in 1000 A.D. to 115 million in 1200 A.D. thanks to fuller rice cultivation in the Yangtze valley. The population of Europe began a similar recovery, starting in 1000 A.D. Its center of gravity began to shift from the Mediterranean region to countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. The population of India, centered in the Jumna and Ganges valleys, rose steadily from 41 million in 200 A.D. to 79 million in 1000 A.D., before settling into a more gently rising pattern for the next five centuries.

This period of population growth came to an abrupt end in China when Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan overthrew the Sung dynasty in the 13th century. Those barbarian tribes set about to destroy China’s agricultural infrastructure which they saw as a threat to the nomadic way of life. It is estimated that three fourths of the people in China’s northern provinces died from the Mongol violence. Similar attacks against the Islamic and Byzantine empires and kingdoms in eastern Europe also brought great loss of life. The population of western Europe reached a plateau in this period as agricultural technology ran up against the limit of available land. Then, in 1347, a terrible plague hit Europe which had originated in a caravan unloading its cargo at Kaffa in the Crimea. The “bubonic plague”, which raged for six years, killed between one third and one fourth of Europe’s population.

Perhaps the most unusual event in the history of world population took place with European colonization of the Americas. The native population declined by a fifth during the century which followed Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere. While Spanish rule was brutal, the main cause of the decline was disease. The American Indians lacked immunity to measles and smallpox germs brought from Europe. The colonists, who had originally used Indians to mine silver and gold, needed to find new sources of labor. First Portuguese, then Dutch and English merchants found it profitable to bring captives from east Africa across the ocean to sell as slaves. Between 1500 and 1850, 9.5 million Negro slaves were brought to the Americas, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. After the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, voluntary emigration from Europe drove population gains in the New World. About 41 million persons arrived in the great migration that took place between 1845 and 1914. Population growth in all parts of the world has accelerated during the 20th century.

Because so many more people are living today than in previous periods, our sense of historical “space” should take into account not only numbers of years but the weight of populations attached to those years. The quantity of historical experience - if this concept has any validity - should follow man-years of human life. The following table shows the cumulative man-years at selected intervals of time between 10000 B.C. and 1997 A.D. By this reckoning, more “history” has been packed into the last half century than into the ten thousand years before Christ. If one wishes to divide world history between 10000 B.C. and 1999 A.D. into two equal population-weighted periods, the dividing line would be drawn at 1577 A.D. While this approach has obvious limitations, it does underscore the fact that historical experience has accelerated. One should not underestimate the importance of modern times in any scheme of world history.

Cumulative Man-Years of History 10000 B.C. to 1999 A.D. by Percent of 1999 Total
7500 B.C. 1.7 %   800 A.D. 27.9 %
5000 B.C. 2.1 %   900 A.D. 29.8 %
4000 B.C. 2.6 %   1000 A.D. 31.9 %
3000 B.C. 3.7 %   1100 A.D. 34.4 %
2500 B.C. 4.5 %   1200 A.D. 37.3 %
2000 B.C. 5.6 %   1300 A.D. 40.1 %
1500 B.C. 7.1 %   1400 A.D. 42.9 %
1000 B.C. 9.1 %   1500 A.D. 46.3 %
500 B.C. 9.9 %   1550 A.D. 48.2 %
400 B.C. 10.7 %   1600 A.D. 50.3 %
300 B.C. 11.6 %   1650 A.D. 52.5 %
200 B.C. 12.8 %   1700 A.D. 54.9 %
100 B.C. 14.1 %   1750 A.D. 57.8 %
0 A.D. 15.4 %   1800 A.D. 61.3 %
100 A.D. 16.9 %   1850 A.D. 66.1 %
200 A.D. 18.4 %   1875 A.D. 68.7 %
300 A.D. 19.9 %   1900 A.D. 71.9 %
400 A.D. 21.4 %   1925 A.D. 75.9 %
500 A.D. 22.9 %   1950 A.D. 80.9 %
600 A.D. 24.5 %   1975 A.D. 88.6 %
700 A.D. 26.1 %   1999 A.D. 100.0 %
Source: Atlas of World Population History, Penguin, 1978


A Division into Parts

History is a great mass of experiences awaiting interpretation. The first step in understanding an unintelligible mass of phenomena is to articulate it in some way. So we divide the mass of historical experience into civilizations. Times and places where human culture was fundamentally different from our own we say belonged to a different civilization. World civilization has existed in many different places on earth. The peoples living in those societies may or may not have had contact with each other. If isolated from one another, they would not have had a common history. In that case, world history would be a plurality of histories proceeding on separate tracks. Each society would have its own recollection of memorable events. Now that the world’s people are aware of each other’s existence, the concept of world history has become important. Historians face the challenge of finding a coherent scheme to describe their past experience.

World history is a form of story-telling on the highest level. There is not just one story to cover all events in this world. Stories describe movement from one situation to another. In the case of world history, one finds that events move in one direction in one period and then reverse themselves in the next. Therefore, the broad narration of world history is divided into parts, called “epochs”, to increase narrative coherence. These are large periods of time when people’s experiences of the society and culture and historical events run in the same direction. The division of world history into epochs is like the division of a book into chapters. Such organization increases understanding. A key to understanding world history is to know how to split it by epoch or, in other words, to tell one civilization from another.

Toward a Definition of Epochs

The early Christian community had a sense of the world coming to an end. This apocalyptic expectation established the idea of a dividing point between two historical epochs which could not have been more different. On one side of the divide was a period of human turmoil and wickedness when Satan seemed to be in control of the world. On the other was the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth when justice and mercy would reign forever. The one period would pass over to the other in the “twinkling of an eye” once the necessary conditions were fulfilled. Because Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah who was associated with this process, his appearance on earth assumed epochal importance. The western world has adopted the convention of dividing world history into the periods before and after Christ’s birth. The years before Jesus lived are designated “B.C.”, or “before Christ”. Those after his birth are designated “A.D.”, or “Anno Domini”, which in Latin means “in the Year of the Lord.”

This scheme of epochs was first proposed in the 6th century A.D. by a Greek-speaking Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus. Prior to that time, people were not conscious of living in a Christian era. The early Christians expected Christ’s imminent return. The Disciples met weekly in the room where Jesus had shared his “last supper” with them. This meal was symbolic of the messianic banquet. Christians believed that Jesus’s “Second Coming” would take place on such an occasion, when his followers were gathered in one place. After the Christian community became too large to meet in a single room, it became important to establish a single time when Christians in scattered places could meet to share a communal meal. Because Jesus’ return was thought likely to occur on the anniversary of his resurrection, the problem of establishing a common date for Easter became a concern for the church. The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. decided that Christians in all places should celebrate this holiday on the first Sunday after the vernal equinox.

After western society had existed for more than a thousand years after Christ’s birth, a Cistercian monk named Joachim of Fiore speculated that a third phase of the Christian era was fast approaching. Its period corresponded to the third member of the Holy Trinity, he said. The first epoch, the age of the Father, covered the time before Jesus appeared on earth. The second epoch, the age of the Son, covered the time when the Christian church was active in the world. The third epoch would be an age of the Holy Spirit. Direct experience of God’s spirit would then become more important to Christianity than the sacraments. This doctrine, which appealed to Franciscan monks and other spiritually sensitive persons, was a challenge to the institutional church. Joachim’s predictions centered on the year 1260 A.D. No cataclysmic events occurred then which triggered waves of spirit. It was, instead, a year of interregnum in the succession to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Frederick II, seen by some in the church as the Anti-Christ, had died ten years earlier. The next emperor, Rudolf I of Habsburg, would not be chosen until 1271.

Joachim’s prediction may have helped to prepare western peoples for thinking in terms of three historical epochs: ancient, medieval, and modern. That scheme came into fashion during the Renaissance, although the term “medieval” had previously been used to identify the time between Christ’s first and second comings. Before the Renaissance, Europeans had tended to see a cultural continuity between the Romans and themselves; they were near the end of a long age extending back to Augustus Caesar and Christ. Before Christ was another age, which was an age of darkness. At some point in the 14th or 15th century, people began to realize that a full millennium separated them from Roman times. Their society had evolved into something quite different than what existed then. The old culture of classical Greece and Rome was through; it had the completed look of another culture. Renaissance scholars who studied the Graeco-Roman texts were aware of a civilization comparable or, perhaps, superior to their own, separated by a large number of years. They gave the name “medieval” to that intervening period and associated modernity with themselves. Today, much later, we are still living in “modern” times.

Renaissance historians looked at the ancient civilization of Greece and Rome as a superior culture and their own culture as a revival of classical learning. That left the “medieval” period as a time when culture went into decline. Where Christianity had once represented historical progress, its influence was now seen as narrow, ignorant, and backward. This disdain of Christian culture deepened during the 18th century Enlightenment. Medieval society became associated with the “Dark Ages”. Yet, the Christian religion had played an important role in shaping western culture. Its epoch of dominance, occupying the middle position in European history, touched both the ancient and modern in a defining way.

The relationship between Christianity and the Roman empire has been a key element in western history. Its epochs changed when those institutions were fundamentally affected: The dividing point between ancient and medieval times has been variously defined as the year when the Roman emperor Constantine decided to tolerate Christianity (313 A.D.), when Constantine founded the city of Constantinople as the empire’s second capital (330 A.D.), when emperor Theodosius I was baptized into the Christian faith (380 A.D.), and when the last emperor of the west Roman empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Heruli king Odoacer (476 A.D.). The dividing point between medieval and modern times has been defined as the year when the Ottoman Turks extinguished the east Roman empire by capturing Constantinople (1453 A.D.), when Columbus first set foot in America (1492 A.D.), and when Martin Luther caused a split in western Christianity by posting his “95 Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany (1517 A.D.).

Nonwestern Peoples’ Histories

The division of world history into three parts - ancient, medieval, and modern - may describe the experience of peoples in western Europe, but not in the rest of the world. Most of the world’s population is not Christian, and only the westernmost part of Eurasia belonged to the Roman empire. Therefore, the experience of a collapsing empire followed by a universal but empireless religion and then its fracturing and replacement by a secular order is peculiar to western society. The histories of other societies show a different pattern.

Even the society most closely related to western Christendom, the Orthodox Christian society, had a different historical experience. In its case, the original empire lived on until 1453 A.D. Byzantine society engaged in prolonged wars against, successively, the Sasanian Persians, Umayyad Moslems, Frankish crusaders, Saljuq Turks, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks before Constantinople fell. The Orthodox community then led a dual existence. After the Duke of Moscow accepted its faith, imperial religion shifted locations to Russia. Meanwhile, in Asia Minor and the Balkan peninsula Orthodox Christianity was allowed to continue within an Islamic society. Following World War I, the Ottoman empire dissolved and the Czarist empire in Russia was replaced by an atheistic political regime.

In China, religion (in the form of an ethical philosophy) was subservient to a system of imperial government which dominated that society for two thousand years. The first epoch began with the unification of the Chinese nation in 221 B.C. Thereafter, the succession of imperial dynasties provides a framework for organizing Chinese history: Ch’in, Han, Sui, T’ang, northern and southern Sung, Yüan, Ming, and Ch’ing. These dynasties rose and fell and were sometimes followed by periods of interregnum; but always, until the 20th century, hereditary monarchies were reestablished with administrations staffed by Confucian scholars. Only the Yüan (Mongol) dynasty differed in that respect. The Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty ended in 1912 when the last emperor was quietly deposed by Chinese nationalists.

India has a completely different history. Only two indigenous political dynasties - the Maurya and Gupta - have ruled over the Indian subcontinent, both for a relatively short time. Instead, Indian society has coped with a series of foreign invaders: Aryan nomads, Macedonian Greeks, Ephthalite Huns, Turkish Moslems, Timurid Moslems, and European merchant-adventurers. India has also been a principal battleground between religions. The original religion possessed by its Aryan conquerors was challenged in the 6th century B.C. by two religious philosophers, Buddha and Mahavira. The Gupta dynasty brought a resurgence of Hinduism, which succeeded in expelling Buddhism from India. Moslem armies from the northwest later took the subcontinent by force as Hindu kingdoms in the south were extinguished. Conflict between Moslems and Hindus marks the latter part of Indian history.

In the case of Islamic society, a single religion created and sustained an enduring network of political empires. Its first epoch might have begun with the message delivered by the archangel Gabriel to Mohammed and ended with the prophet’s death in 632 A.D. The next might include Islam’s rapid conquest of territory by Mohammed’s successors and the reign of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus. The Abbasid rebellion in 747-750 A.D. replaced Arab with Iranian ascendancy as the caliphate moved to Baghdad. This epoch brought a fracturing of political rule. New kingdoms affiliated with the Abbasid dynasty appeared in north Africa while an Umayyad refugee ruled the Iberian peninsula. Islam came under attack from western Christian crusaders and, more importantly, from the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries. After that threat had subsided, three new Islamic empires appeared: the Turkish Ottoman empire, the Persian Safavi empire, and the Mogul empire in India.

The Moslem calendar begins with the hegira, Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. The Christian era begins at the time of Christ’s birth. Before world religion took charge of such matters, it was customary to begin chronologies with important political events. The Roman calendar began with Rome’s founding in 750 B.C. The Greek Seleucid empire used a chronology that began with Seleucus Nicator’s occupation of Babylon in 311 B.C. The Babylonian Era of Nabonassar, used by the Greeks of Alexandria, began in 747 B.C. If the United Nations had the same degree of influence within the world community as these ancient empires had in their regions, we might have renumbered the dates of world history with a base line set in 1945 A.D. However, government is no longer such a dominant institution, and neither is religion. Other institutions share the power with them in society. It becomes more difficult to find a focal event to represent the society’s collective experience.

According to a traditional Christian view, world history began with God’s creation of the world in six days. Studying the Biblical lists of generations, Archbishop Ussher of the Anglican church came to the conclusion that the world had been created in 4404 B.C. The Greek and Russian Orthodox church set the date of creation at 5509 B.C. Millennial anniversaries have raised expectations of epochal change. When mankind approached the end of the 1st millennium A.D., many expected the world to end. Clergy of the Russian Orthodox church had a similar expectation in 1492 A.D., which was seven thousand years after the supposed date of creation. Because God had created the world in seven days and one of God’s days might have been equivalent to one thousand years, it was thought possible that the world would end on August 31, 1492. Only after that date had safely passed did the Orthodox clergy do their calculations for Easter in the eighth millennium. Now, as humanity approaches the end of the 2nd millennium A.D., its doomsday thoughts center upon the possibility that a massive computer glitch may occur because an earlier generation of programmers failed to provide for more than two digits in the year’s field. Many predict an economic recession or worse in the impending Y2K catastrophe.

Religious Histories

There is a reason why the best-known models of world history are rooted in religious traditions. That is because religion gives history a basis of universality. The natural tendency would be for each society to have its own history. Each society’s history would have its own developmental dynamic. World history, if it existed, would be a compilation of diverse experiences described in separate sections of a book. However, religion includes the concept of a God (or gods) who created the entire world. Judaic religion asserts that Jehovah, the tribal God of the Hebrews, is synonymous with this universal God. Therefore, the story of Jehovah’s relationship with his chosen people is also humanity’s story. If Jehovah is God, then he has power over the earth and holds in his hand the fate of all its inhabitants. God’s plan for the world is the basis of a truly universal history.

Since diverse peoples on earth have had experiences apart from encounters with this God, religious history must be oriented towards the future. Eventually, God will reveal himself to all humanity. The apocalyptic element of Judaic religion gives it a future-looking vision. Although Judaism is a tribal religion, it projects a universal message through its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, which extend God’s promises to all people. Judaic history is highly personalized and thus agreeable to human sensibilities. It incorporates the idea of historical progress. Each epoch has a clear theme.
Starting with Adam’s creation on the sixth day, the Judaic religious history might be divided into the following epochs:

The first epoch began with Adam and Eve, progenitors of the human race. From Adam until Noah, the earth’s people lived without divine guidance.

A second epoch began with God’s promise to Abraham that he would become the father of a great tribe whose descendants would possess the land of Canaan forever. The offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did become numerous during their sojourn in Egypt.

In the third epoch, Moses organized this increasing people into an independent nation. He led the Hebrew people on a migration back to their ancestral homeland and gave them a set of divine laws to obey.

The fourth epoch began with David’s anointment as king of this nation. The Hebrew people acquired their own political empire. After Solomon’s reign, the empire fell apart in a period of more or less unrighteous kings. This epoch ended with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the exile of Jewish leaders to Babylon.

A fifth epoch began with Jewish prophetic writings during the Babylonian captivity and with the subsequent return from exile and restoration of the Temple cult. This was a period of Messianic expectation that God would restore the Jewish nation to its former prominence. The epoch ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The sixth epoch encompasses Jewish experience during the Diaspora. It began with rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai’s establishment of a religious academy in Jamnia shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The seventh epoch began with the success of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement which restored a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948 A.D.

Starting with the fifth epoch, the record of past events was mixed with an idealized history projected onto the future. Jewish prophecies written at that time presented a scenario of coming events which culminated in the time when the Messiah appeared and God’s Kingdom was established on earth. The next part of the story would be the Messiah’s appearance; and that has not yet happened. Therefore, this history is essentially on hold. Many interesting things may have happened in the meantime but nothing of religious consequence. Christianity shares these expectations, with a twist. Christians believe that the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus. However, he did not come in the glorious manner that was foretold in prophecy. Consequently, the Christian community now looks forward to a “Second Coming” when Jesus, arisen from the dead and revealed as Son of God, will return to satisfy the full range of Messianic expectations.

The Messiah was a character in a story. It was a story of future history which Jesus knew and self-consciously worked to complete. In the coming day of the Lord, wrote the prophets, God would bring vengeance upon the enemies of Israel and restore the Jewish nation to the glory it had possessed in the days of David and Solomon. One of David’s descendants, the Messiah, would act as God’s agent in the course of those events. When Jesus said in the Gospels, “the kingdom of God is upon you”, he meant that the scenario of events foretold in Messianic prophecy was about to happen. Jesus was himself stepping into this story to fulfill its conditions. (Already the prophet Elijah had returned in the form of John the Baptist.) However, God’s timetable is different than man’s, so that human expectations are easily deceived. Jesus spoke of the Son of Man, or the Messiah, “coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory.” He spoke of wars, earthquakes, famines, and other “birth-pangs of the new age.” The apocalyptic event to which Jesus referred would mark the dividing point between two historical epochs. The preceding epoch would consist of events in ordinary history. That which followed would be a post-historic time when God’s perfect Kingdom would come down to earth.

The prophet Mohammed appeared on earth six centuries after Jesus’s death. Moslems believe that he, like Jesus, was a prophet in the Judaic tradition. Such divinely appointed figures periodically deliver new messages from God. Historical epochs run in the times from one major prophet to another. Yet, the messages delivered by God’s prophets are often considered heresies by followers of the previous tradition. The Jews rejected Christian teachings. Christians and Jews both rejected Moslem teachings. The reverse was not true. Christians accepted the religious validity of Judaism up to the time that Jesus lived, but afterwards they condemned the Jewish people for rejecting God’s son. Likewise, Moslems acknowledge the divine origin of both the Christian and Jewish faiths while faulting their adherents for rejecting the message delivered by the last and greatest prophet, Mohammed. One perceives in this the idea of historical progress. The last of God’s messengers is best because, assuming that his inspiration comes from God, he is delivering a more suitable and complete message for the times. Then, once again, living history is closed. God does not speak.

Long after the time of Jesus and Mohammed there appeared another kind of prophet, a political economist named Karl Marx. Proclaiming that religions were “an opiate of the people”, this economist nevertheless embraced the historical view of Judaic religion. Marx argued that the forms of economic relationship in a society control its political, cultural, and spiritual life. Social progress occurs when the relationships change. So humanity has advanced in successive epochs from savagery to barbarism and to civilization. Civilization has advanced from societies with slave-based economies to feudal societies and then to those based upon the capitalistic system. A further and final progression was expected from capitalism to the socialist order. Violent insurrections and social upheavals marked the points of change. As the French revolution brought society from feudalism to a capitalistic economy, so a bloody revolution would take place when capitalism gave way to a socialist society. Its peaceful activities would fill history’s final epoch.

A revolutionary event did take place when Lenin and his followers seized political power in Russia in 1917. The Bolsheviks liquidated the old order and remade society according to socialist principles. This was the Marxist equivalent of apocalypse. In theory, a “kingdom” of everlasting perfection had been created in the form of a society whose government was committed to managing the economy according to scientific principles. The certainty of science, rather than God’s will, guaranteed that history would unfold as Marx and Engels had prophesied. A tumultuous change in governments, rather than divine intervention, brought about a change in the world order. Lenin, as a secular Messiah, presided over this process of epochal change. Unfortunately for Marxist believers, the Russian revolutionaries had an opportunity to put their theory into practice. Lenin found it expedient to revive the sagging Soviet economy by introducing capitalistic incentives. Stalin resorted to terror to enforce the socialist program. The system bogged down in production inefficiencies, militarism, and spiritual decay. Seventy five years later, the communist state came to an end in Russia. Socialism was revealed to be, not society’s final stage, but a place on the way back to capitalism.

Hegel’s Scheme of Historical Progress

An important influence upon the Marxist history was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher who lectured at the University of Berlin in the 1820s. His work added a historical dimension to western idealistic philosophies. Like Plato and Aristotle, Hegel held that reason controlled worldly events. Unlike them, he envisioned that ideas, or their worldly representations, turned into something else during the process of being realized. World history exhibited progress in ideas. Hegel believed that the various institutions in society were produced through rational processes driven by historical necessity. World history proceeded by a dynamic of institutional development which followed dialectical logic. By this logic, purposes which have been realized bring into existence new purposes which pull in the opposite direction. While an idea of purpose is being fulfilled in the world, it tends to create its opposite, which is the antithesis of this idea. The two movements together then create a synthesis which reconciles their conflicting tendencies in a more complex form. Believing that society’s material conditions governed ideas, Karl Marx converted Hegelian dialectics into the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

Hegel’s thoughts on world history are expressed in The Philosophy of History, based on lectures first given in 1822. In his view, the major figures of history were persons “whose own particular aims involve those larger issues which are the will of the World-Spirit.” They knew which historical possibilities were “ripe for development” in their own time. Hegel saw world history as a process of developing towards an ever increasing state of freedom in human society. “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” he declared. A German chauvinist, Hegel wrote that “the History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning.” He divided world history into epochs associated with: (1) Asia, (2) Greece, (3) Rome, and (4) Germany. The “Roman”, or Christian, era was divided into the periods between the time of Jesus and Charlemagne and between Charlemagne and Martin Luther. The “German” era comprised the period between Martin Luther’s time and the 19th century. Hegel believed that German culture was superior to the previous types of culture because it exhibited the highest degree of freedom. While the slave-based societies of Greece and Rome were aware of freedom for some people, contemporary Germans were first to realize that “man is free” and freedom is the end of all history.

Hegel’s philosophy assumes that a universal mind controls the world, ever spinning out new forms. These forms have a permanent existence somewhere. In that respect, Hegel’s scheme is like Plato’s. However, Plato had little interest in the changing nature of human societies. Hegel was first to recognize the social dynamic underlying history. His philosophy conveys the idea of historical progress. Since the Hegelian world mind is universal, its processes are equally valid for the Chinese, Peruvian Incas, and west Europeans. Like God, this mind is capable of creating a unified world history. Since ideas are indestructible, the world fills up with more of them as new ideas are created. Development occurs in a single direction. There will be turning points when the force of newly created ideas begins to be felt within human society. There will be historical epochs describing the times when one or another idea system holds sway. While cloaked in objectivity, Hegel’s history is, however, really another form of religious history. As such, it is prone to ethnocentric bias.

Theories of Historical Recurrence

If the historian does not believe in God or in the idea of a universal mind creating worldly institutions, then the mechanism to ensure that world history will follow a single course is missing. The idea of historical progress stands on shaky ground. All that the historian can do is report the histories of separate cultures that have come and gone in the past. “Vanity, vanity ... all is vanity ... What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing is nothing new under the sun,” said the worldly wise preacher in Ecclesiastes. Only fools believe that what they now see is being experienced for the very first time. If one studies history, one finds precedents in earlier society for nearly every idea or type of behavior that one observes today. On the other hand, the conditions of contemporary life do seem to be different than in the past. Which theory is correct? Does human society continually develop new and more sophisticated and complex kinds of institutions or does worldly experience repeat in predictable cycles?

In the view of eastern religion, a person’s earthly existence is but a single incarnation of soul. Life goes round like a wheel, which is the wheel of delusion and suffering. The object of religious practice is to escape the karmic cycles of incarnation through personal enlightenment or direct experience of God. World history is not a major concern of persons with this outlook. If worldly events repeat in cycles, nothing which happens in a particular cycle can have much significance. The most interesting thing in life would be the possibility of jumping off its revolving treadmill to merge with the cosmic being.

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, advanced the idea that worldly empires inevitably become corrupt and fail. When people refer to “the lesson of history”, they are normally suggesting a parallel between past societies like Rome’s which have collapsed and disappeared and their own society which they believe has entered into the stage of moral decay. Presumably, contemporary society might heed the historical warning and take steps to avoid disaster before it is too late. The fact that Gibbon believed that Christianity had undermined Roman morals and faith does not stop Christian moralists from lamenting today’s decline in religious faith. However that may be, Rome’s example of a civilization that has disappeared has impressed upon western minds the impermanence of earthly cultures. World history has become a kind of garden in which past and present civilizations can be seen and compared.

Spengler’s History

A German historian, Oswald Spengler, popularized historical recurrence in the early 20th century. He believed that human cultures have a life cycle like those of natural organisms. As an individual person matures and grows old, so entire cultures experience a state of ripeness and then die when they have exhausted the possibilities inherent in their type. His theory, presented in Decline of the West, proposed that western culture had reached that stage. Spengler’s aim was to create a new method of analyzing history which he called the “morphology” of history. That technique implied that human societies could be understood, and their futures predicted, by recognizing the cultural forms which appeared at certain times in their development. Though the particular forms might be different for the different cultures, they could also be chronologically analogous, or “contemporary”, in terms of life cycle. “It is a matter of knowledge,” wrote Spengler, “that the expression-forms of world-history are limited in number, and that eras, epochs, situations, persons, are ever repeating themselves true to type.”

Spengler was contemptuous of historians who held that world history exhibits progress. They were, he said, “a sort of tapeworm industriously adding onto itself one epoch after another.” Instead, human cultures were like the various species of plant or animal life. Spengler declared: “I see in place of that empty figment of one linear history, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image ... Each Culture has its own new possibilities which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”

The idea of organic life cycles led Spengler to make distinction between culture and civilization. “A culture”, he wrote, “is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself ... It blooms on the soil of an exactly definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualized the full sum of its states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul ... The aim once attained, the culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals ... and it becomes Civilization, the thing which we feel and understand in the words Egypticism, Byzantinism, Mandarinism. As such it may, like a worn-out giant of the primeval forest, thrust decaying branches toward the sky for hundreds or thousands of years.” Spengler’s assessment of the West’s future arose from his belief that European society had entered into the phase of civilization. Its creative potential had been realized. This was not classical Greece or Gothic Europe, but a time of moribund empire. With cold and calculated decisions, London banks were tightening their grip upon society. All else had been pushed to the limit. Extinction remained the only unrealized possibility.


Toynbee’s Theory of Civilizations

Spengler’s was not an ethnocentric history. Western culture was merely one of several cultural types that had appeared in world history. Spengler did not consider this to be better than the others or unique, just different. Arnold Toynbee, British author of A Study of History, admitted to having once been in awe of Spengler’s “firefly flashes of historical insight” and have wondered “whether my whole inquiry had been disposed of by Spengler before even the questions ... had fully taken shape in my own mind.” He agreed with the idea that different cultures might have parallel histories, but disagreed with Spengler’s practice of treating preconceived metaphors as if they were ironclad historical principles. Toynbee supposed this to reflect a difference in national traditions of scholarly thinking. “Where the German a priori method drew blank, let us see what could be done by English empiricism,” he declared.

Toynbee proposed that “the intelligible unit of historical study is neither a nation state nor mankind as a whole but a certain grouping of humanity which we have called a society.” A society, he said, provides “common ground” for communities of people to engage in various pursuits. Civilizations were societies that had advanced to a certain level. In A Study of History, Toynbee set about to identify and examine societies of that kind. He found twenty-one different examples. (See the following table.) Of the twenty-one civilizations, eight still exist while thirteen have become extinct. Toynbee acknowledged that world history also includes societies which have not become civilizations. Some, such as the Irish or Nestorian Christian cultures, were “abortive” civilizations. Others, including the Polynesian and Eskimo cultures, were “arrested” civilizations. Numerous other societies were what Toynbee called “primitive societies.” In 1915, a team of anthropologists counted 650 different cultures of that type.

Toynbee's Twenty-one Civilizations
name place when began
Egyptiac Egypt before 4000 B.C.
Sumeric Iraq before 3500 B.C.
Minoan Crete & Cyprus before 3000 B.C.
Hittite Turkey before 1500 B.C.
Babylonic Iraq & Syria before 1500 B.C.
Syriac Syria before 1100 B.C.
Western Christian Western Europe before 700 A.D.
Orthodox Christian Turkey & Balkans before 700 A.D.
Russian Orthodox Russia 10th century A.D.
Arabic Arabia before 1300 A.D.
Iranic Persia before 1300 A.D.
Sinic China c. 1500 B.C.
Indic India c. 1500 B.C.
Far Eastern China before 500 A.D.
Far Eastern - Japanese Japan after 500 A.D.
Hindu India before 800 A.D.
Mayan Central America before 500 B.C.
Andean Peru c. 1st Century A.D.
Yucatec Mexico after 629 A.D.
Mexic Mexico after 629 A.D.
Source: Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Oxford Univ. Press, 1956 Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.


Initially, one might suppose that the more advanced and successful kinds of societies were blessed with richer soils, more intelligent people, more advanced technology, or some other advantage. Having studied the matter, Toynbee concluded that societies did not prosper through natural advantage but through the experience of successfully meeting a challenge. For example, the early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia faced the challenge of desiccation in the waning years of the Ice Age, as once lush grasslands turned to desert. In response to that challenge, they constructed irrigation works which provided water for agriculture. Likewise, communities on the frontier with barbarian peoples or in a buffer zone between two different societies are often stimulated to superior achievement. Primitive societies, on the other hand, tend to be satisfied with doing things in the same way as before. Lacking a reason to change, they let custom settle upon them with a thick crust. If the society experiences too much hardship, though, it might become retarded or destroyed.

Prehistoric conditions describe life in a state of nature. Allegorically, this may be identified with the Garden of Eden where life is balanced and perfect. A new element enters into this world to upset its balance and set in motion a process of recovery. Such an event represents “an intrusion of the Devil into the universe of God”. If God’s prehistoric world is balanced and perfect, then historical times are unbalanced and evil. They exhibit a dynamism born of the need to correct error. Yet, the less perfect, civilized societies invariably prevail in confrontations with primitive peoples. That is because their long experience of creative struggle has given these societies the knowledge and power both to tame nature and conquer other human communities. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel personifies this process. “Though the Lord may have respect for Abel,” wrote Toynbee, “no power can save Abel from being slain by Cain.”

Toynbee offered an analogy to describe humanity’s “advancement” from a primitive to a civilized state. “Primitive societies,” he wrote, “may be likened to people lying torpid upon a ledge on a mountainside, with a precipice below and a precipice above; civilizations may be likened to companions of those sleepers who have just risen to their feet and have started to climb up the face of the cliff above ... Starting with the mutation of primitive societies into civilizations, we have found that this consists in a transition from a static condition to a dynamic condition.” It was a process known to ancient Chinese philosophers: “This alternating rhythm of static and dynamic, of movement and pause and movement, has been ... described ... (by Chinese sages) ... in terms of Yin and Yang - Yin the static and Yang the dynamic ... In the Chinese formula Yin is always mentioned first, and, within our field of vision, we can see that our breed, having reached the ‘ledge’ of primitive human nature 300,000 years ago, has reposed there for ninety-eight percent of that period before entering on the Yang-activity of civilization.”

Toynbee, like Spengler, believed that civilizations pass through life cycles that bring certain events. Their societies typically begin with nomadic tribes who wander into a territory and settle there. Alternatively, they may be resurrected from the social rubble of a fallen civilization. There is generally a “time of troubles” when the new society is put under stress. Civilizations then achieve a “universal state” in the form of a political empire which is able to keep the peace for many years. Finally, the empire decays and falls. A new period of disorder then ensues; and then a new order. A religion created from within the fallen society may provide a cultural structure from which the next civilization can emerge. Toynbee compared this process with a chrysalis connecting moribund insects with larvae that appear in the next generation. The Christian church was such a link between the moribund society of the late Roman empire and the one subsequently ruled by Frankish kings. A similar event took place in China as Mahayana Buddhism penetrated and converted the Han dynasty.

According to Toynbee, the twenty-one civilizations were related to each other generationally, as if arranged in a family tree. (See the following table.) “The continuity of history is not a continuity such as is exemplified in the life of a single individual,” he wrote. “It is rather a continuity made up of the lives of successive generations ... in a manner comparable ... with the relationship of a child to its parent.” Toynbee noted that all known civilizations have existed within the span of three “generations”. A first-generation society would be one which arose, without precedent, by its own efforts. After existing for a time, such a society would typically fall prey to marauding barbarians and disappear. Second-generation societies emerge from the rubble of this collapse, often comprising the same barbarian tribes that were responsible for it. With third-generation societies, the process is repeated.

A Family Tree of Civilizations

first generation  
second generation  

first generation    
second generation    
third generation    
Western Christian
Orthodox Christian
Russian Orthodox

first generation  
second generation  
Far Eastern

Source: Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Oxford Univ. Press, 1956. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.

In such manner, the Hittite and Babylonian civilizations took the place of the Sumeric, their parent, after it collapsed in the 16th century, B.C. A satellite of Sumerian society, the Minoan, was parent to the Syriac and Hellenic civilizations. The Minoans were a seafaring people on Crete and neighboring islands who were overcome by an avalanche of uncivilized peoples around 1200 B.C. Hellenic society was formed from descendants of these people settling along the coastal regions of the Aegean sea. Syriac society was formed from peoples who settled at the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea about the same time. It included the Hebrew kingdom of David and Solomon, Phoenician settlements in Lebanon and North Africa (Carthage), and the Persian Hebrew empire established by Cyrus. Belatedly this society achieved a universal state in the empire created by Mohammed and his successors. Hellenic civilization was spread through Asia and Africa by the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Romans later embraced it.

Syriac society was parent to two third-generation societies which were created through Islamic religion. The Syriac and Hellenic (or Graeco-Roman) societies together gave birth to Christianity, which, in turn, spawned three third-generation societies. These were the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Western Christian societies. The remaining Old World civilizations which exist today, located in Asia, are offspring of two other first-generation societies, the Indic and Sinic. Both are products of world religions that had contact with Hellenic civilization at critical points in their development. Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in China and Japan, was a variant of the Buddhist teaching which developed in the Greek kingdom of Bactria and its Kushan successor state in northern India. The modern Hindu religion is also a product of that cultural cross-fertilization. In the New World, the Andean (Inca) and Mayan societies were first-generation civilizations. Mayan society was parent to the Yucatec and Mexic civilizations overthrown by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

A devout Christian, Toynbee envisioned that Christianity might last forever, syncretistically absorbing new influences and being influenced by them. Since western society was culturally linked with this religion, it, too, might continue indefinitely. The repetitious rise and fall of civilizations suggests historical recurrence. The cumulative wisdom of religion suggests cultural progress. Toynbee found a way to reconcile these different elements in the model of a chariot on wheels. Toynbee compared world religion to a chariot which “mounts towards Heaven ... (through) ... the periodic downfalls of civilizations on Earth.” If, as Aeschylus said, wisdom comes from suffering, then the immense suffering that accompanies a fallen society adds to humanity’s fund of moral knowledge. Progress will occur in spiritual understanding even if the material structure of society is bound to life cycles: Turning wheels move the chariot ahead.

A Critique of Toynbee’s Scheme

If civilizations are analogous to plant or animal life, a society in a later generation could not advance much beyond its parent. Locked into this model, historians could not admit that contemporary society appears to be quite different than societies were in the past. Human culture seems obviously to be advancing toward new and better forms of knowledge, organization, and material equipment. We have airplanes, automobiles, and television sets while our remote ancestors had suits of armor, shields, and spears. According to Toynbee, our “western Christian” civilization has existed for nearly 1,400 years. Begun at some time during the 6th century A.D., it is still going strong. To suppose, however, that Europeans and Americans in the late 20th century belong to the same civilization as the one which existed in the time of Charlemagne taxes belief. Then, warrior kings and Popes ruled society; today, kids watch Saturday-morning cartoons on television. While Christianity is an element connecting the two cultures, many other influences also touch modern life.

Toynbee associated changing civilizations with the process of their military and political overthrow. The critical event would be a barbarian invasion of the civilized societies, which resulted in destruction of the old order and creation of a new one. Yet, as Toynbee himself observed, the Christian church was a more important factor in shaping western society than the barbarian invaders. Rome’s state religion, Christianity, brilliantly survived the wreck of the Roman political structure. There was a continuity of beliefs and values between the Roman and Frankish societies. If the Christian religion was the principal force holding this civilization together, then perhaps one should say that the civilization went back farther than the 6th century A.D. Perhaps it began at the time when Constantine embraced Christianity? Better still, it might have started at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection; or, perhaps, at the time of his birth? Or perhaps this civilization actually began when Jewish prophets first started writing about the Messiah?

The problem may be that Toynbee has equated civilizations with societies. Civilizations he considered to be a subset of societies; they were ones culturally more advanced. By another definition, however, societies may be said to embrace a community’s material organization - its government, its economy, its physical infrastructure - while civilizations pertain to the cultural aspect. Accordingly, a civilization would encompass the dominant set of images, ideas, and values in the society; it would be its fabric of consciousness. If that is so, then a single civilization like Christianity’s might pass ghost-like through several different societies and not end when those societies came to an end. Conversely, a single society might contain several different civilizations. What determines a civilization’s beginning and end may have to do with its pool of consciousness rather than with dynastically continuous governments. Civilization is formed of a people’s historical memory. It constitutes an unbroken awareness of experiences. Society is like the structure of cell tissues in a body.

From the perspective of societies, the turning points of world history would be important battles, successions of rulers, and other elements affecting political organization. However, that approach to history is today making less sense. It used to be that the fortunes of nations were tied to the success of wars waged by their political rulers. If wars were lost, the defeated peoples were slaughtered or taken into slavery. But now, peoples have become morally separated from their governments. We can condemn an Adolf Hitler while helping the German people to recover from the war which he conducted in their name. The history of political empires will be interesting to people if, in some way, they can identify personally with those behemoth-like structures. Otherwise, accumulations of worldly power follow what used to be called “the vain repetition of the Gentiles.” Nothing much is accomplished by their ceaseless rise and fall.

Common Elements in World Culture

Even if the world’s people grew up in separate places on earth, one finds evidences of a common culture. For example, all of Toynbee’s civilizations except for the Inca mastered the technology of writing. One might suppose that, in the Old World, the knowledge of written language spread from Mesopotamia, its first known location, to other lands. It appears less likely that the pre-Columbian Indians had contact with literate societies of the Old World. How then did the Mayans, Aztecs, and other American peoples acquire a script? If their scripts were original, it suggests that some uncanny force drives human cultures. Something in the nature of an organic imperative required that the Mayan people invent written language, as the Sumerians had done, when their society reached a certain stage of development.

Primitive cultures throughout the world have many similar characteristics. They are tribal societies held together by ties of blood kinship. They lack a knowledge of writing. Their practices include, in Arnold Toynbee’s words: “the religion of the annual agricultural cycle; totemism and exogamy; tabus, initiations, and age-classes; segregation of the sexes, at certain stages, in separate communal establishments.” When civilization first appears, society acquires a different set of characteristics. According to Roger Lewin, its institutions include: “sedentism, elaborate burial and substantial tombs, social inequality, occupational specialization, long-distance exchange, technological innovation, (and) warfare.” These characteristics apply to societies throughout the earth. Whether or not the societies had contact with each other, there seem to be a universal process at work as civilizations emerge from tribal society. One finds the same stone-faced pyramids, hierarchies of priest-kings, and wars of conquest in pre-Columbian Mexico as in Shang China and Pharaonic Egypt. One finds the same transition to written language.

We can therefore begin to see the outlines of a world history in the process of moving from one type of culture to another. The adoption of a new cultural technology such as writing would be an element in this process. So would a change in the nature of the society’s power structure. Comparing Toynbee’s description of primitive society with Lewin’s description of the earliest civilizations, one finds a change in the type of society as a relatively small and homogeneous tribal community governed by custom gives way to a large-scale society governed by a bureaucratic hierarchy of kings and priests. The “civilized” society is characterized by this new form of government. Its kings wage wars, use jewelry and fine clothing, facilitate trade, require large burial structures, etc. The technique of writing is useful in transmitting the king’s message to scattered communities of people. The two elements - cultural technologies and institutions of power - go together in certain ways.

The cultural technology is the easier of the two to place within a historical context. If history is a record of events in public life, then the mechanism that transmits awareness of high-level events to the public will be a fundamental part of the process. When a new type of cultural technology is introduced, it creates a new kind of public space. Its own qualities as an expressive medium affect the kind of expression that people receive. Public life changes in a certain way, and history is affected by that change. Our own culture appears to be undergoing a transition away from the use of written language and toward communication through electronic devices such as films, audiotapes, radio, and television. As a reversion from written to spoken language, some would say that this revival of non-literate culture denotes the “end of civilization”. Let us say only that it denotes a different kind of civilization. The communications technology will have a profound impact upon the society and its scheme of values.


Changing Cultural Technologies as a Guide to Historical Epochs

Although cultural technologies and institutions of power are both determining factors in civilization, it might be well to start with a review of cultural technologies. In simplest form, one might envision a three-part scheme of history to describe the progression from (1) preliterate to (2) literate and (3) postliterate societies. Prior to the 4th millennium B.C., all societies had a preliterate culture. Such cultures were based upon oral transmission of the ancestral knowledge. The first literate cultures, which we call “civilizations”, appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia between 3500 and 3000 B.C. Written language came to the Harappan culture of India during the 3rd millennium B.C., and to the Minoan and Chinese cultures around 2000 B.C. Meanwhile, preliterate societies continued in places where the people pursued a nomadic or tribal way of life. In the 20th century A.D., a postliterate culture emerged first in the affluent western societies and then in other societies as the technologies of electronic recording and communication became widely used. However, that did not mean that people ceased to read and write.

Looking at Arnold Toynbee’s list of twenty-one civilizations, one is struck with a sense that the civilizations which Toynbee called “first-generation” societies were different in type than those which he called “second” or “third” generation societies. The first-generation societies included the Egyptiac, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumeric, Mayan, and Indic civilizations. Second-generation societies included the Syriac, Hellenic, and Hindu civilizations, among others. The third-generation societies were offshoots of religious culture, descended from the Syriac and Hellenic civilizations. Apart from their more ancient appearance, the first-generation societies are distinguished from the others by the fact that their societies used pre-alphabetic systems of writing. Admittedly, some second-generation societies - the Yucatec, Mexic, Babylonian, Hittite, Far Eastern, and Japanese civilizations - also possessed this kind of writing. However, the transition from ideographic or syllabic writing to alphabetic scripts is an important element of historical change.

Alphabetic writing first appeared in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. It was effectively introduced in the eastern Mediterranean region and in India between the 11th and 7th centuries, B.C. The Phoenician, Hebrew, Persian, Greek, and Roman societies all had alphabetic scripts while the earlier Mideastern societies used cuneiform or hieroglyphic ideographic writing. Therefore, a dividing line might be drawn in world history at some point during the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. That line would divide the earliest civilizations from those which are familiar to us from reading the Bible or works of classical literature. Perhaps this literature helps to explain why the Hittites seem alien and cruel while the Greeks seem culturally advanced. The Greek and Roman alphabetic literature creates a cultural bond between these ancient peoples and ourselves. We connect with them through a literate tradition which conveys their philosophies, myths, and religions.

In the middle of the 15th century A.D., the technology of printing was introduced in western Europe. This was another cultural technology which changed society. Printing greatly increased the number and variety of books in circulation. It made printed newspapers possible, and, with them, advertising and the prompt dissemination of news. The age of printing was, therefore, a third epoch within the period of literate culture. In the first epoch, which ran from the 4th millennium B.C. to the first half of the 1st millennium B.C., pre-alphabetic scripts produced a primitive type of literature. In the second epoch, which ran from the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. to the late 15th century A.D., the literate tradition begun in Biblical and classical times continued through handwritten manuscripts written in alphabetic scripts. In the third epoch, which ran from the late 15th century through the end of the 19th century, printed texts dominated the culture.

The postliterate culture of the 20th century is driven by inventions which record and transmit visual and aural images. Its dominant technologies include photography, sound recording, motion pictures, and radio and television broadcasting. In the late 20th century, the computer has also come into popular use. This is a radically different type of device than the others. While computers also work through electronic circuitry, they allow the sensory images to be changed. Two-way communication can take place between the sender and receiver of messages. A whole range of information processing becomes possible with computers that the earlier devices could not handle. Therefore, one might place a dividing line within the history of the postliterate culture to create two epochs, one dominated by the earlier set of communications technologies and the other by computers. However, since the computer age has begun so recently, its epoch is more potentially than historically developed.

Summing up, we have a five-part scheme of world history which would include the following civilizations:

Civilization Approximate Dates
Civilization I 3000 B.C. to 550 B.C.
Civilization II 550 B.C. to 1450 A.D.
Civilization III 1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D.
Civilization IV 1920 A.D. to 1990 A.D.
Civilization V 1990 A.D. to the present

The beginning and ending dates are a bit misleading. World-historical epochs are not marked by clean-cut events which bring one period to an end as another begins. Historians cannot pinpoint such changes in time, saying that one civilization replaced another on a certain date. Regarding the first civilization, only a small fraction of the earth’s population lived in the Sumerian or Egyptian societies. Most still lived in tribal societies. When alphabetic scripts took hold in the middle part of the 1st millennium B.C., many peoples continued to use the older system of writing. The Chinese still do to this day. Handwritten manuscripts did not cease to be produced when printing became available. Literacy has not become a lost skill since radio and television came along. A more complicated model of history is required to describe the process of change.

When a new cultural technology is invented and adopted, it does not altogether replace the older technologies. Neither does its type of culture replace the preceding culture. Rather, the technology and its cultural product join what went before. Society fills up with an increasing variety of elements. At the same time, the new cultural technology, being new and unrealized, tends to project itself more energetically than the old ones. It tends to stamp itself more vigorously upon the culture. Perhaps historical epochs are like the different phases of vegetal growth after a forest fire has charred a section of land. First the ferns return, then shrubs of various types, then small trees like poplar and birch, and finally the taller pines which dominate a forest in its period of mature growth. When a certain type of plant appears in a later phase, the other types do not disappear. The forest simply fills up with a broader mix of vegetation.

We use the terms “epoch” and “civilization” quite interchangeably. They are different aspects of the same thing. A civilization is a kind of cultural presence. An epoch is a period of time. Our scheme of world history maintains that epochs change when the civilizations associated with them change. Although a new cultural technology may be the triggering agent, we are concerned more with the effect. It would be convenient for historians if societies in all parts of the world simultaneously switched from one type of culture to another. We could then have clean-cut epochs presented in simple diagrams. However, the reality is that civilizations arrived in the earth’s societies at different times. For example, the nascent city-state arrived in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least a millennium sooner than it did in China. That means that the beginning date of the first epoch is at least one thousand years earlier in the two Middle Eastern societies than in the Far Eastern society. Even if the same sequence of events is experienced by all or most cultures, the timetable of world history applies differently to the different geographical segments. The civilization itself follows the type of social structure that embodies its relations of power.

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 1 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

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