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Why History Does Not Repeat Itself

If history repeats itself, the past indicates the future. A common approach to prediction is to extrapolate from current trends. Events presently observed are carried to a logical conclusion. Therefore, the futurist needs to know what is happening in today’s society. He should be in touch with the creative centers where new ideas or products are hatched. If one wants to know, for instance, how American automobiles may look in three years, a good place to visit might be the styling offices at Ford or General Motors. One must use intuition and common sense to imagine how today’s innovations will play out in future society. There is always an element of uncertainty in any apparent movement towards an end. If, on the other hand, history does not repeat itself, then all bets are off. This type of reasoning will be of little use.

Lord Acton’s maxim, “Power corrupts” , describes processes that drive historical events. Because of corrupt tendencies inherent in any organization, history does not move in a straight line. Corrupting power brings progress to a halt in each line of development. The correction must come from another direction.

Bureaucracy is the name of an organization advancing toward a state of corrupted power. Any enterprise which succeeds in its purposes develops an organization that has power. This organization works through a structure of persons placed in functional positions. Individuals at the top of the hierarchy exercise power over persons in the lower ranks. The organization itself exercises power in the larger society. So long as those managing the organization remain true to its purposes, the organization will remain healthy and strong. But power is a much-coveted object. The quest to acquire or retain power within a bureaucratic organization becomes a new purpose which subverts the original one. So power corrupts.

As a general rule of bureaucracies, it would seem that any organized effort tends in time to become disorderly and corrupt. Where an organization once had a clear purpose, that purpose becomes confused while developing a material structure to achieve it. With material development comes a shift of attention away from external purposes and toward the appeasement of internal power. Persons within the organization become aware of the personal concerns of those holding superior power. A bureaucratic mentality develops in which clear expressions of purpose give way to a devious process of decision and thought, sensitive to the power structure, its personalities, and their special needs.

One can see that historical change might be driven by tendencies for the society to become something other than what it once was. Worldly endeavors which once exhibited strong purpose develop blockages of spirit. Powerful institutions become centers of coercion and deceit. They wage wars and burn people at the stake. Absolute power, such as Caligula’s, invites such depravity that it cannot be allowed to continue. Unless a reformer arises internally, the cure for this corruption can only come from outside the circle of power. Here people are freer to speak and think the truth; and that makes them strong. So, when a society becomes clogged with coercive decisions and arrogant lies, it is time for a new message to be delivered from outside the powerful class. The conventional wisdom then becomes ripe to be challenged. The spiritual energy flows in a direction other than in the past.

Organized society contains the seed of its own destruction. The future gravitates not towards this but a positive end. Courage, not wisdom, is on the cutting edge of change. Courageous acts, almost by definition, are performed in the face of real difficulty, which in this context means to oppose abusive power. Therefore, historical change quite often goes against what might be predicted from an assessment of current strength. The world moves away from developed realities toward the invisible idea. It comes to resemble more what is not than what was in the past. Civilizations tend eventually to move away from themselves. In fact, the tendency of historical epochs is for the flow of events to reverse their original direction.

It should be evident that the most awesome power to coerce worldly affairs in favor of its own perpetuated existence fails to sway the course of history. Time and time again, historical events run counter to this power. Human intelligence is too weak to prevent errors from entering into society even if one had total powers of enforcement. The safest strategy, then, is to build society in such a way that errors can be corrected if they appear. The society should contain pockets of slack, or purposes running counter to the prevailing purposes, so that a source of opposition can be found to corrupted power and this can be brought to bear against abuse. Malignancies that would be fatal in a single trunk will not destroy societies having a pluralistic power structure. That is why totalitarian systems of governance do not last.

Prediction through Analogy with Previous Cultures

Desiring to know the future of world civilization, one might think it contradictory to use history for that purpose if the future does not resemble the past. Profound breaks will occur in the flow of historical events. Prediction of them is problematic. We call these breaks “apocalypse” or “revolution.” Curiously, the early prophets of apocalypse combined attempts at prediction with a kind of literary deception designed to gain credence for their views. The writer did not publish prophecies under his own name but under that of a well-known religious personality from the past. “In the classical apocalypse,” wrote Albert Schweitzer, “the alleged writer undertakes to predict the course of history from his own day in the remote past to the age in which the real writer lives, as something glimpsed in a series of visions, and rounds it off with visions of the final age. Since the reader can establish the accuracy of the prophecies of past events, it is hoped that he will come to be convinced that the events still to come will occur as foreseen.”

Another approach is to regard human culture as resembling organic entities whose experiences follow a life cycle. The major discontinuities of world history are associated with the births of new civilizations. The civilizations, once born, move through a sequence of events which can to some degree be predicted by analogy with previous civilizations. Because their history is known, the next phases of the present culture can be anticipated with reference to corresponding points in that earlier development. While it is true that the future unfolds in new and unexpected ways, there may be a general congruence of events between the future and past in the same way that a child’s expectations of future life might follow the parents’ experience. Even in the crib, the child would be expected to have a future of growth, maturity, and decay. If we apply this model to cultures, the definition of the culture becomes critical. Without a clear definition, the lifelike patterns of historical experience could be interpreted any number of ways.

Oswald Spengler suggested such a technique of historical prediction which was modeled after Goethe’s conception of “living nature.” In Decline of the West, he wrote: “Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. It is a young and trembling soul, heavy with misgivings, that reveals itself in the morning of Romanesque and Gothic ... Childhood speaks to us also ... out of early-Homeric Doric, out of early-Christian art and out of the works of the Old Kingdom in Egypt that began with the Fourth Dynasty ... The more nearly a Culture approaches the noon culmination of its being, the more virile, austere, controlled, intense the form-language it has secured for itself, the more assured its sense of its own power, the clearer its lineaments ... Still later ... fragrant with the sweetness of late October days, come the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Hall of the Maidens in the Erechtheum, the arabesques on Saracen horseshoe-arches, the Zwinger of Dresden, Watteau, Mozart. At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization, the fire in the soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures.”

Spengler took note of great intellects such as Goethe and Frederick the Great who moved “with perfect assurance” among historical analogies. “Thus, he (Frederick the Great) compares the French to the Macedonians under Philip and the Germans to the Greeks. ‘Even now,’ he says, ‘the Thermopylae of Germany, Alsace and Lorraine, are in the hands of Philip,’ therein exactly characterizing the policy of Cardinal Fleury. We find him drawing parallels also between the policies of the Houses of Habsburg and Bourbon and the proscriptions of Antony and of Octavius.” Yet, for the most part, these were flashes of historical intuition. Spengler’s aim was “to work out a method” to solve the problems of history: “Analogies, insofar as they laid bare the organic structure of history, might be a blessing to historical thought. Their technique, developing under the influence of a comprehensive idea, would surely eventuate in inevitable conclusions...” Such a technique he called the “morphology of world-history”.

This technique has a practical benefit when predictions are made based on morphological comparisons between different civilizations. Spengler’s “decline of the west” involved such a prediction concerning the late 19th and early 20th century culture of western Europe and America in relation to the cultures of Greece and Rome. “Let it be realized,” he wrote, “that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hitherto looked on as the highest point of an ascending straight line of world-history, are in reality a stage of life which may be observed in every Culture that has ripened to its limit ... Considered in the spirit of analogy, this period appears as chronologically parallel - ‘contemporary’ in our special sense - with the phase of Hellenism, and its present culmination, marked by the World War, corresponds with the transition from the Hellenistic to the Roman age. Rome, with its rigorous realism ... will always give us, working as we must by analogies, the key to understanding our future. The break of destiny that we express by hyphenating the words ‘Greeks-Romans’ is occurring for us also.”

Spengler has been much criticized for his assertion of ironclad parallels between events happening in different cultures. Biological processes may have a looser causal connection than physical motions. As it turned out, the future of the West in the 20th century scarcely resembled patterns found in histories of the Roman empire. Writing at the dawn of the entertainment age, Spengler failed to anticipate “pop culture.” His predictions were rooted too much in a CivIII mentality. Yet, though Spengler’s specific predictions were off base, his analogical approach at least offers a means of dealing with historical uncertainty. If current trends cannot be trusted, congruent points in cultural lifecycles may point a way to the future. Arguing by analogy with historically known events, would-be prophets of present and future societies can anticipate what might happen from a general knowledge of past civilizations. The same inner dynamic applies to human culture in all epochs.

Some Observations of Past Civilization

World history provides definite clues to the future of society. Some of the developmental patterns to be gleaned from past societies include the following:

(1) that when a major new cultural technology appears in society, it marks the beginning of a new civilization. This is the birth phase of its life cycle.

(2) that a new civilization brings new institutions of power. Certain functions become organized within their structure which once took place informally. These institutions assert political and cultural dominance.

(3) that there is a connection between the dominant institutions in a civilization and its triggering cultural technology. Inherent qualities in this technology shape the ensuing civilization.

(4) that the new civilizations bring new types of belief and new models of personality.

(5) that, over the course of an epoch, the cultural dynamic produces a change in values. Themes that prevailed at the beginning of an epoch give way to their opposite as the epoch comes to an end.

Movements to the Opposite

With respect to the last point, one trend that we saw, for instance, at the beginning of CivI was increased concentration of military and political power. Rulers of the city-states went to war against each other to expand their territories. The large empires in the Middle East fought ferociously. Entire nations were uprooted from their ancestral lands. After centuries of unrelieved carnage, Octavian achieved total power in Roman society. As the emperor Augustus, he then renounced further territorial conquest. Around this time, a child was born in a manger to parents complying with an imperial census. He became known as the “Prince of Peace.” Jesus taught that in God’s kingdom the meek would inherit the earth. The last would be first, and the first last. This humble king, wearing a crown of thorns, was put to death on a cross. Yet, the next civilization belonged entirely to him.

At the beginning of CivII, the focus of thought was upon ideas, the “word”, or what the Apostle Paul called “things unseen.” Visual representations of God were considered idolatrous. The early Christians admired ascetic personalities like St. Anthony. They were pacifists who refused to participate in Roman military service. Then the Christian church became Rome’s state religion. The Papacy became a surviving center of power. Toward the end of CivII, Popes were ordering European princes to undertake military expeditions against Moslem rulers of the Holy Land. The Papal state hired mercenary soldiers to protect its territorial domain. It rebuilt St. Peter’s church, employing some of world history’s best-known artists. This new emphasis upon beauty, wealth, and power was the antithesis of early Christian values.

CivIII began, during the Renaissance, with a type of artistic expression that exhibited wholeness of visual forms. Giotto’s works pointed the way to a new style of realistic painting whose colors and shapes suggested palpable objects. This epoch also began with the transcendent power of European princes. Then, in the 19th century, the newly invented technology of photography allowed machines to produce a more accurate representation of visual scenes than a human artist might hope to achieve. Inspired by the camera, impressionist painters abandoned attempts to create the image of shapely objects and instead placed colored dots on the canvas as rays of light might strike the eye. This break with tradition led to other schools of experimental art - cubism, surrealism, Dada - around the time of World War I. This was an art without beauty or form in a traditional sense. It produced a fragmented view of the world. The great war that occurred at the end of CivIII brought the collapse of the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and the Turkish Ottoman empire.

CivIV started out with the entertainment industry being a sideshow. In America, white society took delight in mimicking the song-and-dance routines of Negro slaves. Exotic circus-like spectacles attracted gawking customers. Set against a tradition of academic pretentiousness, popular culture won people’s affections. It was good-humored and safe. As this type of entertainment prospered, however, the business aspect became more important. Movies, radio, and television produced quantifiable audiences which could be tapped by advertisers. In time the fun went out of the entertainment business. Cold product calculations drove what was allowed to be heard and seen. The threat of large corporations defending their “intellectual property rights” stood behind innocent-looking cartoon figures. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, the depiction of blacks in U.S. popular entertainment was guided increasingly by political correctness, mandating favorable treatment. Here, too, the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction.

Synchronized Political Leadership

With respect to models of personality, all civilizations, starting with the first, have had political leaders. Those leaders who have risen to the level of historical greatness have tended to take on the flavoring of the personalities associated with their age. The principal requirement of a political leader is to be a skilled military commander, administrator, or lawgiver. In addition, the great kings and emperors of CivII have had a taste for philosophy or a gift for divine revelation. Those in CivIII have sometimes been talented writers. Some in CivIV have had an entertainment background.

Besides being an effective general, Alexander the Great was well versed in philosophy and Homeric literature. A student of Aristotle, he actively promoted the philosophically-based Greek culture. The Indian emperor Asoka is known for promoting the Buddhist religion. One of Rome’s “wise emperors”, Marcus Aurelius, was a philosopher of some note. His Meditations are still widely read. The prophet Mohammed was, of course, a communicator of divine messages as well as a skillful military and political leader. The renowned Mogul emperor, Akbar the Great, invented his own religion.

In CivIII, two of the greatest U.S. Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, are known for their mastery of written language. Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln the Gettysburg Address. Their reputation for greatness depends, in part, upon their skill in finding the right words to express democratic ideals. Frederick the Great was a master of French prose writing. Winston Churchill is known for his eloquent speeches in the House of Commons in the darkest hours of World War II. John F. Kennedy’s Presidential reputation is bolstered by often-quoted lines from his Inaugural Address.

In CivIV, one of the most effective political leaders was Ronald Reagan, who was a film star and television host before he entered politics. John F. Kennedy was also a telegenic personality. Bill Clinton, a saxophone player, connected with youthful audiences on MTV. Jesse Ventura, the first Reform Party candidate to be elected governor of a U.S. state, became famous as a professional wrestler.

If some day in the future a computer nerd becomes elected President, history may record another political leader in synch with his age.

There are, of course, some political leaders whose accomplishments were ill-timed for the age in which they lived. Lenin, a philosopher, lived towards the end of CivIII; his religious-political empire no longer stands. Pharaoh Ikhnaton may have been ahead of his time; his religious innovations were promptly undone after his death. The emperor Nero was a self-styled artist. Adolf Hitler painted landscapes before he became a politician. Neither of these talents added any luster to their historical reputations.

A memorable photograph shows Richard Nixon, political leader of the Free World, shaking hands with Elvis Presley, the “king” of rock ‘n roll music. It was one of those moments when the top representatives of two different civilizations came face to face. When England’s Princess Di perished in a car crash in 1997, a bitter confrontation took place between the royal household and the press. Diana’s brother, Lord Spencer, accused the paparazzi of precipitating her death by pursuing Diana too aggressively. There was an immediate popular reaction against the press. The tabloid press soon counterattacked with headlines suggesting that Queen Elizabeth and other royals were taking Diana’s death too dispassionately. “Where is the queen?,” blared one headline. “Your people are suffering, speak to us, ma’am,” said another. Soon people were complaining of the Queen’s coldness, and she had to go on television to reassure the public that she truly cared. Curiously, the same rash of stories brought out the fact that, privately, members of the royal family referred to themselves as “the firm”, which is an epochally correct way of referring to the monarchy in a commercial age.

Effect of Changing Civilizations

A lesson of history may be that powerful institutions become coercive and brutal while seeking to retain that power. Typically, this happens at the end of the epoch in which they were the dominant force in society. Then other institutions arise from the margins of society to assume dominance in the next epoch. The creative impetus passes to a new sector.

When the first civilization gave way to the second, philosophers presented a moral critique of government. Idea-based religion took its place in society alongside government as an institution of power. When the second civilization gave way to the third, Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were engaged in a costly and ferocious power struggle. Christians were fighting Moslems. Protestants were fighting Catholics. In that context, the moneylender gained leverage in society. Secular learning gained new support. When the third civilization gave way to the fourth, humanity had just experienced two world wars brought on by economic rivalries and hostile ideologies. The high culture had become self-congratulatory. Ideas taken too serious had sown anger and strife. Therefore, the public turned to lighthearted pursuits. Mass entertainment became the order of the day. Now, as we start to move into the fifth historical epoch, a reaction may be taking place against an entertainment culture which shows signs of becoming overblown.

Curiously, the arrival of a new civilization also brings a change in institutions developed two epochs earlier. Such institutions undergo a major transformation giving impetus to democratization:

First, we compare the religious institutions transformed by philosophy in the second epoch with religion as practiced in prehistoric times. Prehistoric or primitive religion, controlled by hereditary priesthoods, is ritualistic, nonscriptural, and nature-centered. World religion is creedal, scripturally based, and centered in ideas of God. Membership is open to all believers, and a meritocratic process determines the hierarchy. The democratic impulse is seen most clearly in early Buddhism challenging the Brahman priests.

Next, imperial government, which had dominated CivI, was similarly transformed during the third historical epoch. Despite repeated attempts, no monarch was able to reunite European peoples in an enduring empire. Later, monarchy itself was replaced by democratic government. The will of the people became, in theory at least, the new political master.

Finally, world religion, product of CivII, has come under a subtle attack during the fourth historical epoch as the entertainment culture has discredited serious thinking. Television-induced consumerism has created a materialistic attitude which prefers “things seen” to promises of Heaven. The religiously motivated person, or indeed anyone with strong ideological convictions, comes across in this culture as a sinister, cult-like figure.

If the pattern holds true to form, one would expect that the arrival of CivV might transform institutions developed in the third historical epoch. Chief among them would be secular education and commerce. A process of democratization might affect those institutions.

Some Questions About This Process

Civilizations are not living creatures with clearly developed, observable bodies but unifying patterns which historians have found in the mass of recorded experience. Each may see a different cultural pattern in the mass of facts. Spengler quotes Goethe as saying on the eve of the Battle of Valmy in September 1792: “Here and now begins a new epoch of world history, and you, gentlemen, can say that you ‘were there.’” There can be no doubt that the first movements of the French armies towards their eventual conquest of Europe were historically important; but whether this marked the beginning of a new epoch of world history is another matter. This book does not regard events happening in the year 1792 as being pivotal to human history. Historians have associated epochal break-points as well with such experiences as the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of democratic government, the rise of empirical science, and economic globalization. All these are, of course, important events though perhaps not definitive of new epochs in world history.

This book must offer a defense of its scheme. What makes cultural technologies supremely important in the determination of new historical epochs? An answer is that these communicative technologies shape public experience. They have a certain causal connection with institutions which exert power in the society and “make its history”, so to speak. Historical experience partakes of their flavoring. If this be true, then the first invention and widespread use of a major new cultural technology marks the beginning of a new civilization and, by implication, the end of an old one. Since computers embody such a technology which has only recently appeared, we know that we are in the midst of a significant cultural shift. The challenge is to predict what will come next.

Change is a fact of every time and place. The question is whether the changes which people observe mark the beginning of a profound and irreversible cultural shift - i.e., a new civilization - or are evidence of mere fluctuation. A dogmatic history such as this helps to reach a decision; but is the decision correct? In defense, it should be said that the conclusions reached in this book are generally in line with historical consensus. Most historians regard the period of the 6th and 5th centuries, B.C., as being pivotal to human history; and, again, the period of the Italian Renaissance during the 14th and 15th centuries, A.D., is thought to be historically significant. This book envisions that those times marked the beginnings of CivII and CivIII respectively. It should also be said that they were accompanied by particular circumstances which were not present at other times, working to inspire creative change. They will be discussed later in this chapter.

A Connection with Social Structures

First, let us consider the causal impact of cultural technologies upon the society and its culture. This book advances the theory that the introduction of new cultural technologies in society causes new civilizations to appear. To assert a causal relationship between two things, one should be able to demonstrate, first, that the cause appeared earlier in time than the effect, though not too much earlier, and in approximately the same place or involving the same set of objects. Second, there should be some logical connection between cause and effect which seems to explain how the one affected the other. In this case, we are suggesting that the invention and widespread use of a new cultural technology precedes the arrival of a new civilization and that the technology exhibits characteristics which relate to elements of the impacted civilization. The cause - the cultural technology - is quite clear. Each was invented in a particular time and place by historical persons. The effect - the civilization - is harder to place.

A change in the dominant mode of communication changes the nature of public experience and, with it, the type of society. “Eventually social structures come to imitate or replay the patterns by which these dominant (cultural) technologies are organized,” wrote John Logan. In his view, for instance, the perception of written language brought a different brain-wave pattern into play than is found in television viewing. “The left-brain patterns of rationality, logic, linearity, sequence, mathematics, and analysis are characteristic of the literate mode of communication ... The right-brain patterns of intuition, analogy, pattern recognition, nonlinearity, simultaneity, and holism are associated with both the oral and electric information modes of communication. Left-brain literacy information patterns favor specialism while the right-brain patterns of oral and electric information tend more to a multidisciplinary approach.”

The invention of ideographic writing is related to the rise of imperial government. The purpose of training scribes was to supply literate administrators for the temple and palace bureaucracies. At this point, literacy was restricted to a small number of professionals. Society needed only to have information recorded once in a form from which it could later be retrieved. Ideographic writing was too difficult for mass instruction. Only a large bureaucracy could afford to train individuals in this art. Written language, in the hands of a few, was capable of supplying a communications link between numerous people engaged in the same enterprise. Government could exercise control over a vast territory and send a consistent message to diverse communities. The writings could be delivered from royal headquarters to places throughout the empire. This supported a system of taxation and law.

Alphabetic writing was easier to learn. As more persons in society became literate, the culture changed. The escape of literacy from a professional elite to the masses was accompanied by a democratization of religion, especially in India. General literacy produced an increase in philosophical awareness. Logan explained: “Perhaps the most striking effect of the alphabet was the great number of new abstractions that appeared almost simultaneously. All spoken words are abstractions of the things they represent. The written word is a further abstraction of the spoken word, and phonetic letters give it an even greater abstraction than ideographs or pictographs. The use of the alphabet thus involves a double level of abstraction ... The impact of alphabetic writing can be traced by noting the increase in abstract thought and language that occurred as Greek literature progressed from Homer to Hesiod to the pre-Socratic philosophers and then to Plato and Aristotle ... Under the influence of alphabetic literacy, Greek writers created the vocabulary of abstract thought that is still in use to this day, notions such as body, matter, essence ... Ideas such as truth, beauty, justice, and reason took on new meanings and became the subject of a new type of discourse.”

Printing multiplied copies of the same text. Printed literature became articles of commerce. The extra care that went into preparation of texts was well-suited to scholarly pursuits, including science. Printing accelerated the dissemination of knowledge and supported a system of universal education. It elevated the individual author or artist to the status of cultural hero. Most significantly, it transformed personal correspondence into newsletters and newspapers that circulated among a larger circle of readers. Printed newspapers and periodicals created a sense of instant history. Their communication constituted an ongoing spectacle of events in real time connecting individuals to activities in the uppermost levels of society. Democratic government became possible when the multitudes of citizens became informed about political issues and personalities. The newspapers also became vehicles for commercial advertising. This revolutionized the way that the producers and sellers of products communicated with their customers. A consumer mass market was created for various kinds of manufactured goods containing new and improved features.

The technologies of electric or electronic communications that appeared in the 19th century took over some of the newspapers’ function in presenting an ongoing spectacle of public events. However, their ability to convey the sensuous detail of persons personalized the spectacle. People became interested in it not to gather information but to be entertained. Radio and television broadcasts introduced a stream of exciting or amusing new persons into the household, interrupting daily living routines. People settled back to enjoy a substitute experience at certain times of the day or week. As millions of people were all experiencing the same thing, the content of radio or television programming became the society’s common culture. The commercial advertising connected with the programs became its most powerful selling force. Certainly the communications technologies which present this big show are related to the entertainment culture: they gather its audience.

Some Anomalies

If one assumes that cultural technologies are the determining factor behind civilizations, then one is led to the following conclusions:

Any society which uses an ideographic or pre-alphabetic script belongs to CivI.

A society which uses alphabetic script in handwritten rather than printed texts belongs to CivII.

A society which has printed literature but not electrical or electronic communication belongs to CivIII.

A society which has embraced electronic entertainment but not the culture of computers belongs to CivIV.

When the computer culture becomes fully developed, that will be CivV.

By and large, this scheme applies to societies in the times after the invention of particular cultural technologies. However, it is possible for a society to neglect or refuse to implement a technology that has become available elsewhere in the world. In that case, our scheme would assign its culture to the civilization associated with the earlier form of communication.

An example of that situation would be the civilization of Far Eastern peoples. The first Chinese city-states appeared around 1900 B.C., and they developed a system of writing not long after that. Yet, the Chinese have never adopted an alphabetic script. Neither have the neighboring Korean and Japanese people. If one accepts the association between cultural technologies and civilizations, one would have to conclude that the Chinese civilization (together with its Japanese and Korean satellites) belongs to CivI. Some would say that this indicates cultural backwardness. On the other hand, Chinese culture has always seemed rather sophisticated to western peoples. This book takes the position that, because they failed to adopt alphabetic writing, the Chinese and their neighbors have remained in the first civilization for thousands of years. A corroborating fact is that Chinese society has long been dominated by imperial government, which is the characteristic institution of that civilization in its mature phase. The philosophical revolution of the 6th century B.C. failed to produce an indigenous world religion in China.

Islamic society, an outstanding example of world religious culture, likewise failed to advance from the second to the third civilization because it rejected the technology of printing. A combination of religious opposition and cultural arrogance blocked the introduction of printing presses in the Ottoman empire. Although a Turkish press began operations in 1726, it was shut down in 1742 after printing less than twenty books. After Islamic governments sent students to the West to acquire technical training in the early 19th century, the ban on printing was relaxed. Soon numerous books were translated into Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and newspapers appeared in Islamic countries. Three and a half centuries of delay had cost these Mid Eastern peoples a wealth of secular learning while preserving the intensity of their religion.

An example of a society failing to advance from the third to the fourth civilization may be that of the Soviet Union, which, until its fall in the 1990s, was wedded to a rigidly literate mentality and to 19th century cultural forms. That situation has already been discussed.

An example of a society failing to advance from prehistoric culture to that of basic literacy may have been the society of India before Buddha’s time. The Indus Valley culture had possessed an ideographic script until its demise around 1800 B.C. The Indian people were then without writing for more than a thousand years during Vedic times. However, this was also a period of cultural ferment when the poems and hymns of Aryan culture were developed in oral form. It left a foundation for primitive religion with its rituals and pluralistic deities. Literacy reappeared shortly before the time of the religious reformers, Buddha and Mahavira. This injection of philosophy into the Indian religious tradition created a world religion, Buddhism, and pushed the earlier Hindu religion in the same direction.

Another way of looking at this situation would be to say that certain civilizations have failed to “advance” to the next stage because of their own perfection. Societies which have come into a particular civilization relatively late in the historical process tend to acquire a more perfect version of that civilization than ones which adopt it sooner. They cling to the civilization more tenaciously.

The first Chinese emperor, Shih Hwang-ti, unified China in 221 B.C., nearly three millennia after King Narmer of Upper Egypt had established the first Pharaonic dynasty. The pattern of imperial government which he and his Han successors established then lasted for another two millennia. Islam was the last of the three principal world religions to appear. Philosophy characterized this type of religion early in its historical cycle, but spiritual empire, including warfare, characterized it in a later stage. Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, shows less of the philosopher and more of the spiritual official than Buddha or Jesus. He was himself a successful military leader and head of state. The Marxist-Leninist state established in Russia was a product of late CivIII thought. Marx and Lenin were both newspaper editors early in their political careers who later wrote scholarly books. The society which was created in the image of their thought reflected the coerciveness, anger, and intellectual arrogance of these two university-educated men.

World history focuses upon the first introduction of a technology, giving the impression that this innovation spreads evenly over the world. However, we have seen that the different societies on earth have adopted new cultural technologies at different times. We have also seen that a society can retain an older technology beyond its period of common use. Finally, it should be noted that, when a new cultural technology is introduced in society, the previous ones do not disappear. People still produce handwritten letters in an age of printed literature. They still read books and newspapers in an age of free television programming. Institutions that arose during the first or the second historical epoch can still be found in contemporary society. It is, therefore, a mistake to suppose that historical epochs suddenly begin or end on particular dates and that the cultural scenery abruptly changes. Rather, the beginning of those new periods are marked by the addition of something. The society fills up with an even greater variety of cultural practices.

The Timing of New Civilizations

If one contends that the introduction of a new cultural technology causes a new civilization, then timing becomes critically important. One should recognize, however, that the date when a cultural technology was invented may be less significant than the date when its cultural influence was first felt. We need to have a sense of when the technology became widely used in the society in order to know when it became culturally influential. How much of a delay was there between the invention or first appearance of a new cultural technology and the time when it took effect in the society? The answer is often unclear.

The easy part is to determine the date when the technology was invented. Ideographic writing first appeared in Mesopotamia around 3300 B.C. It came to other Middle Eastern societies and to China at various times during the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C. Crude though it might be, this information provides a set of temporal parameters for the first two civilizations: CivI could not have appeared in Egypt or Mesopotamia before the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. In India, China, and Crete, it came centuries later. CivII could not have appeared in Phoenicia or Palestine before the 13th to 11th centuries B.C., in Italy before the 8th century B.C., in India before the 6th century B.C., in Arabia before the 5th century A.D., or in Java before the 8th century A.D.

John Logan has estimated that “(i)t took about five hundred years for literacy to take hold of the Greek mind, and a similar period elapsed between the introduction and widespread use of literacy among the Hebrews.” If alphabetic writing was introduced to the Hebrews and Greeks in the 11th century B.C., then this statement would imply that its cultural effect was first felt during the 6th century B.C. in Greece and Judaea. Solon, Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Heraclitus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah are some who lived in that century.

A society’s rate of literacy would be an indicator of how strongly written language affected its culture. People must know how to read and write before literature can have a direct impact. On the other hand, a literate elite can influence the views of many others without reading skills. Because their religion emphasized scripture, the ancient Hebrews may have been the first people to attain basic literacy. Only a small minority of Greeks in Socrates’ time could read or write. A reading public arose for the first time during the Hellenistic period. The amount of literature available greatly increased in Aristotle’s time and especially after Ptolemy I established the great library at Alexandria. At its peak, this library contained more than 700,000 scrolls. Starting with Latin translations of Greek writings, Roman aristocrats in the 3rd century B.C. began to assemble private libraries. The imperial bureaucracy employed numerous scribes for administrative purposes. When the western part of the Roman empire fell to Germanic invaders, this apparatus collapsed. With it went the need for writing. It is estimated that the literacy rate in Europe dropped to between 1 and 2 percent by the year 1000.

The Christian church kept European literacy alive through the “Dark Ages”. In the 5th century A.D., the Benedictine abbot Cassiodorus ordered his monks to collect Greek and Latin manuscripts. Church administration continued to use written documents. The cathedral schools started by Charlemagne in the 9th century A.D. revived the tradition of scholarship. The need for books by university students, the emergence of law and other learned professions, and the translation of the Bible and other texts from Latin into popular languages caused literacy rates to climb sharply in the period between 1200 and 1400 A.D. Paper meanwhile became cheaper and more plentiful thanks to technologies imported from the Islamic world. However, the greatest spur to literacy was the invention of the printing press. By 1700 A.D., literacy rates in Europe had increased to between 30 and 40 percent. Universal elementary-school education brought the rate to above 50 percent in 1850, and above 90% in 1930.

UNESCO assumes that it takes four years of schooling to teach basic literacy skills. To meet that standard would require that a society reach a certain level of affluence and commitment to formal education. A UNESCO survey published in 1978 estimated that 70 percent of Africans, 60 percent of Indians and other residents of south Asia, and 30 percent of Latin Americans were illiterate in 1970. Rates of illiteracy were officially less than 5 percent among residents of North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and South Korea.

To assess the cultural impact of technologies since printing, we must follow a different approach. Most technologies of electronic communication transmit their messages in spoken language. Nearly everyone can understand those messages without additional education. The question then becomes, instead of skills, how many people possess the equipment needed to receive its type of communication. For instance, the number of people owning radio sets indicates the potential size of the radio audience, which, in turn, suggests the importance of radio to the culture. The same is true of television and personal computers. While a majority of people in industrialized countries owned radio and television sets, the rate dropped to less than 20 percent in nations such as China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. Since literacy rates were higher in those nations, one would assume that many people read books and newspapers for relaxation. Alternatively, listening to the radio or watching television might be a communal experience.

Statistics showing annual sales of particular kinds of communication devices suggest their cultural impact upon societies in particular places and times. The following tables show the number of telephones, radio receivers, and television sets in use in the United States during certain years. In each case there was a period of “take off” in the sale and use of the device.

Telephones in use in the United States (in thousands)   Radios in use in the United States (in thousands)   Television sets in use in the United States (in thousands)
year telephones in use   year radios in use   year televison sets in use
1880 60 1922 60 1947 14
1890 228 1924 1,250 1948 172
1895 340 1925 2,750 1949 940
1900 1,356 1927 6,750 1950 3,900
1905 4,127 1930 13,750 1951 10,000
1910 7,635 1933 19,250 1952 15,000
1915 10,524 1935 21,456 1953 20,000
1920 13,273 1940 28,500 1954 26,000
1925 16,875 1945 33,000 1955 31,000
1930 20,103 1950 41,000 1960 46,000
1940 21,928 1955 46,000 1965 53,000
1945 24,867 1960 50,000 1970 60,000
1950 43,709 1970 62,000 1975 73,000
1955 56,243 1975 73,000
1960 74,342
1965 93,656
1970 120,218
1975 149,008
International Historical Statistics, Gale Research, 1983 International Historical Statistics, Gale Research, 1983 International Historical Statistics, Gale Research, 1983

For all its success at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the telephone experienced slow commercial development. Barely more than a million Americans subscribed to telephone service at the end of the 19th century. Then, because of a reform in rate charges, the service took off. Nearly one American in ten was connected to telephone service when World War I began. For the radio, the take-off period occurred in the decade between 1923 and 1933. For television, it was during the 1950s. The technology had been ready for a decade but World War II upset the timetable of commercial exploitation.

Cable-television subscriptions took off in the 1980s. Fifty nine percent of U.S. households with television sets subscribed to cable in 1990, compared with 22.6 percent in 1980. For the personal computer, the first burst of sales occurred during the same decade. There were 2.3 million computers in use in 1980. That grew to 50 million in 1990, and 90 million in 1995.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence from Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown suggests the impact of phonographs, telephones, motion pictures, and radio on life in a hypothetical mid-sized American community in the 1920s. The phonograph, which was still a curiosity in 1900, was then owned by 59 percent of American families. Twenty-three percent of working-class families had bought phonograph records in the preceding year. About 46 percent of “Middletown” families owned telephones, including most of its business class. Motion pictures had largely replaced live shows in the opera house, popular in the 1890s, and had cut into lodge attendance. Between half and three quarters of Middletown’s population attended one or more movies in July 1923. About 12 percent of the business class and 6 percent of the working class owned radios. Radio listening was by then the most popular activity in homes, cutting into reading and movie going.

One notes that the lag time between the invention of a cultural technology and its implementation in society has progressively shortened with each civilization. Where alphabetic literacy took five hundred years to penetrate the Hebrew and Greek societies, more than half of Americans owned phonographs within fifty years after this device was invented. Personal computers appear to be gaining acceptance at an even faster rate. In 1998, about 41 percent of U.S. households owned home computers. This degree of market penetration represents phenomenal growth for a technology which began in the late 1970s. It took radio 37 years to reach 50 million households; television, 23 years; and cable television, 15 years. Experts predict that the Internet will take another five to seven years to reach that level.

Another anomalous situation concerns the timing of the third epoch. If this epoch began with the invention of printing, one would expect to find a change in the culture at a later time. Instead, a rather dramatic cultural change took place in the century preceding Gutenberg’s invention. The 14th and 15th centuries are considered to cover the period of the Italian Renaissance , yet Gutenberg printed his first book in Germany during the second half of the 15th century. Clearly the invention of printing did not cause the Renaissance. Some have proposed a connection between the two events on the basis of reinforcing previous trends. John Logan has suggested that, unlike the revivals of European learning which took place in the 9th and 12th centuries A.D., “(t)he printing press allowed the Italian Renaissance to sustain itself ... (so that) ... the quattrocento revival could continue to gain momentum.”

The Organic Life Cycle

Civilizations, as we said, are like living creatures. They have a birth-like beginning, a period of youthful growth, a prolonged period of maturity and strength, and a time of stagnation followed by terminal decline. Their birth would be associated with the reception of a new cultural technology. The youthful phase would occur when this technology, taking effect, starts to realize its creative potential by producing new forms of expression. New institutions of power are associated with them. The period of mature strength would be associated with empires which have grown from these institutions. The time of stagnation and terminal decline would involve the inevitable corruption of empires as they become preoccupied with their power and engage in coercive acts to protect it. At each point in their life cycle, civilizations resemble individual persons going through a similar process of life.

There is a dichotomy between the creative and adult phases of this development. An individual human being, while growing up, changes rapidly during the first fifteen to twenty years of life and then settles into a relatively unchanging physical state for most of life’s remaining years. So civilizations experience times of unusually intense and fruitful creative activity when new technologies, new values, new thoughts, and new artistic and social forms are introduced. Such times are followed by much longer periods of stability when existing patterns are maintained. We tend to look back sentimentally upon the years of adolescence and childhood when critical growths took place within a relatively short period of time. Yet, it was for the sake of adulthood that the child underwent growth. So the phase of empire, though relatively uncreative, must be seen as the culminating stage of civilizations. Both the periods of fast and slow development are important to their history.

Oswald Spengler expressed this historical dichotomy in terms of “culture” and “civilization”. Culture described society in a period of creative, youthful change. Civilization referred to the same society when it had devolved into a static condition “consist(ing) in a progressive exhaustion of forms that have become inorganic or dead.” We use the terms “culture” and “civilization” interchangeably while upholding Spengler’s distinction. The time of Spenglerian “culture” is indeed special, coming, as it does, right after major turning points in world history. Its creative energy holds the promise of empires to come.

When a new cultural technology is first introduced, it comes with such a rush of novelty and excitement that a burst of creative expression is released. The classic works of a culture are created in this environment. It is no accident, then, that the unsurpassed prose of Biblical writings or of Plato’s or Aristotle’s philosophical discourses (classics of CivII) were produced at a time when alphabetic scripts were still fresh. Likewise, wrote Toynbee, regarding CivIII: “When the vernaculars won the upper hand completely, the first effect was to give license for an exuberance that provided a hotbed for genius. An example of this in prose is Rabelais (1494-1553) and in poetry Shakespeare (1564-1616).” Besides the switch from Latin to vernacular languages, the print revolution was then sweeping across northern Europe. As for CivIV, classic films such as Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz were produced in the decade after motion pictures acquired sound. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly sang “golden oldies” in the decade when recording artists first appeared on television.

It may be that we only think that these pioneering artists were the best. Alternatively, it may be that others as talented were prevented from following in their uninhibited footsteps by naysaying critics or priests attached to their cult who cut others down to size. Or, perhaps, the early original works, once expressed, exhausted the logical possibilities inherent in the medium so that subsequent works in the same vein seemed imitative.

Marshall McLuhan has written that the different cultural media “evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions ... (which) ... alter the way we think and act ... Those who experience the first onset of a new technology, whether it be alphabet or radio, respond most emphatically because the new sense ratios set up at once by the technological dilution of eye or ear present men with a surprising new world which evokes a vigorous new ‘closure’ or novel pattern of interplay, among all of the senses together.” Intuitively, we can associate these times of cultural fruitfulness with the youthful vitality of a new culture. They are when a civilization is entering its stage of daring, exuberant adolescence. The energies then pouring into creative expression serve to make a clean break with the previous civilization.

Golden Cities

Historical change does not take place in the abstract. We tend to remember the start of a new civilization by its association with a “golden city” located in a time and place where the changes were culturally most productive. Most historians would agree, for example, that the Greek city-state of Athens presented an extraordinary spectacle of intellectual and artistic brilliance during the time when Pericles was its political leader. In the 15th century A.D., the Italian city of Florence was the center of a similarly lush cultural growth. Cosimo de’ Medici, and his grandson, Lorenzo, were, like Pericles, prodigious statesmen and patrons of the arts. While Athenian culture of the 5th century B.C. excelled in philosophy, architecture, sculpture, and drama, Renaissance Florence is known for its architecture, sculpture, and painting. These two golden cities each arose in the period of youth for a new civilization. The cultural fluorescence associated with Periclean Athens marks this time in the life of CivII, as the Florentine Renaissance culture does for the following civilization.

Is there an equivalent city to represent the fluorescent culture of CivIV? Because this civilization was introduced by a number of inventions over a long period of time, one hardly knows where to spot its beginning. One might say, however, that the decade of the 1920s in the United States was a time of intoxicating involvement with new media. The first commercial radio station began broadcasting at the start of this decade. Phonograph machines blared music of the “Jazz Age.” Paris and New York City were both cultural meccas in the 1920s. A bevy of famous writers graced the literary scene while avant-garde art found eager patrons. Keeping in mind the electronic nature of this culture, though, a better candidate for the role of “golden city” in the fourth historical epoch might be Hollywood, which is a kind of virtual city specializing in film entertainment. Or, perhaps, centers of popular music like New Orleans, Memphis, or Nashville, or New York’s “Radio City”, would fit that role. As for the first and fifth epochs, we know that the city of Babylon in Hammurabi’s day was a culturally fruitful place and that the revolution in personal computers was hatched in a place called “Silicon Valley”.

Signs of Quickening Culture

Futurists are often proclaiming the dawn of a new age, based upon one sign or another. This book regards the introduction of new cultural technologies as a prime indicator of historical change. The times of technological innovation are reasonably clear. Greater uncertainty surrounds the period of implementation, when a technology achieves cultural impact. Even so, historians have a rough idea of when new civilizations appear from the introduction of the successive cultural technologies in particular places and times. The early periods in the development of civilizations we say are times of “quickening culture”. They are times of cultural fluorescence, when the Shakespeares of the age briefly shine. They are times when golden cities like Athens and Florence appear in their prime. Since the major cultural technologies have penetrated the earth’s societies on a staggered timetable, it may not be possible to say that a single period of years encompasses the time of cultural quickening associated with each technology. Each appears in some societies sooner than in others. Their times of invention and subsequent adoption on a broad scale vary considerably from place to place.

That said, we can predict significant historical change through the appearance of a major new cultural technology such as alphabetic writing. Such an event portends the birth of new civilizations. Particular periods of time will be stamped as times of cultural quickening when civilizations are entering their formative stage. They are set apart from periods of inconsequential fluctuation and slow growth accompanying civilizations in a later phase. Accordingly, let us assume that:

• the period of cultural quickening associated with CivI occurred in Egypt and Mesopotamia during a centuries-long period following 3100 B.C.; in India, five hundred years later; and , in China, a thousand years later.

• the period of cultural quickening associated with CivII occurred in Syria, Palestine, Greece, and India between 600 and 300 B.C.

• the period of cultural quickening associated with CivIII occurred in western Europe between 1400 and 1600 A.D.

• the period of cultural quickening associated with CivIV occurred in the United States and other industrialized nations between 1870 and 1970 A.D.

• the period of cultural quickening associated with CivV has been taking place in the industrialized nations since 1990.

We are presuming here to identify special times in world history which lead to new civilizations while other times do not. Historians could cite many cases of cultural fluorescence during the last six thousand years. Not all have been associated with a change in civilizations. Hammurabi’s Babylon reached a cultural peak more than a millennium after civilization first appeared in that region. Christian scholarship and art flourished in Ireland between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D. as did Islamic culture a short time later. Then, of course, we have the 17th century revolution in western science, the 18th century Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, and so on. It seems, in other words, that cultural creativity has been exercised in every period since civilization began. Yet, we are claiming a special historical distinction for places and times which followed the introduction of a new cultural technology. Were Athens and Florence, in fact, so unusual compared with Baghdad, Córdoba, Paris, and Edinburgh?

The period of empire is easy to recognize; one spots it for sheer size. The splendor of imperial Rome or China made an undeniable impression upon human consciousness then and now. A less evident situation is the seed of empire. It can easily be mistaken for something else. If we find ourselves in the midst of unsettling cultural change, we are interested to know whether the latest trend will turn out be an ephemeral event or one of history’s turning points. We want to be able to recognize the genuine article of future greatness when it appears in humble origin. There may be signs marking such times of true change. There may be particular circumstances denoting the infancy of new civilizations. Besides coming at a time soon after the introduction of a new cultural technology, the quickening phase of a culture may be characterized by the following conditions:

(1) Such a period is associated with a place of political and cultural parochialism and a thriving commerce. A plurality of small states contend for dominance.

(2) This period also produces important innovations in mathematics and commercial practice.

(3) It is a time of expanded geographical horizons when perceptions of a wider world broaden understanding.


An Environment of Parochial Contentiousness and Commercial Contact

Arnold Toynbee has noted that the cities of Athens in the 5th century B.C. and Florence in the 15th century A.D. shared, besides cultural brilliance, a similar geopolitical condition. Both were independent city-states having populations in a range of 50,000 to 150,000 persons. As relatively small political units, these states were vulnerable to military attack by larger neighbors. They also engaged in fratricidal wars with other states of comparable size. Having cooperated at the start of the 5th century B.C. to defeat invading Persian forces under Xerxes II, Athens and other Greek cities fought amongst themselves in the bloody Peloponnesian war and then for much of the next century until they were subdued by Philip II of Macedon. A similar situation existed in Renaissance Italy. Caught in the struggle between Popes and Holy Roman Emperors, the north Italian city-states enjoyed two centuries of independence before the region was invaded by France in 1494. Like their Greek predecessors, the Italian city states were unable or unwilling to form political associations on a larger scale. Their fate was to lose their independence to the more powerful monarchies of France, Austria, and Spain.

This pattern of contending states fits other societies that existed on the brink of a new civilization. It describes the warring Sumerian states before they were unified in the 24th century B.C. It fits the pattern of the Chinese kingdoms that were struggling for supremacy in the period when Lao-tse and Confucius lived. Northern India was split into a number of warring kingdoms at the time of Mahavira’s and Buddha’s religious activity. The kingdom of Magadha, where Buddha achieved enlightenment, won the military competition in the first half of the 5th century B.C. Toynbee saw a parallel between what the Greeks and Italians faced at the time of their cultural ascendancy and the situation of western Europeans in the early 20th century. The common situation was that a plurality of contending parochial states with advanced cultures were losing their political position because of failure to form a government large enough to withstand threatening foreign empires. What Macedon and Rome did to the Greeks and what European monarchies did to the Italians, the United States and Soviet Union were doing to the nations of western Europe in Toynbee’s day: dwarfing them politically and militarily.

The point is that worldly pressures may inspire creative thinking. Extraordinary needs elicit unusual cultural and social solutions. In the 5th century B.C., European Greeks were under stress from the Persian empire. The Athenians and their allies repelled the Persian invasion through a valiant effort. The next half century of Greek history was culturally brilliant. Renaissance Italy faced a similar situation in pressures exerted upon western Christendom by the Ottoman Turks. In 1453 A.D., Turkish armies captured Constantinople, the last stronghold of the Byzantine Roman empire. Since the Ottoman empire blocked overland trade routes to the East, European merchants were forced to pursue alternative transportation by sea. That led to the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery and European colonization of the New World. The condition of civic particularity in Italy and Greece was intellectually stimulating. The small-scale communities brought diverse cultures into close range of each other, which inspired creative comparisons of various sorts. Athens, Sparta, and the other Greek cities had their own laws and social systems. Their citizens were intensely patriotic, considering foreigners to be barbarians. A similar situation existed in Renaissance Italy.

Another stimulation comes through foreign trade. Athens in its prime was a bustling center of seaborne trade with communities along the Mediterranean and Black seas. The Greek colonies in Ionia, first to distinguish themselves in science and philosophy, were also first to develop a thriving commerce. An economic revolution occurred on the Greek mainland in the 5th century B.C. as neighboring peoples resisted the Greeks’ practice of dispatching their surplus populations to colonies. With colonial expansion blocked, the Greeks had to find ways to support a growing number of people on a fixed amount of land. Their solution was to switch from mixed farming to support local populations to a system of specialized agriculture that produced goods for export. The Greeks exported products such as wine and olive oil and received grain and dried fish in exchange. The black- or red-painted vases which we admire for their artistic design were export items that helped the Athenians to balance their trade.

In the 15th century A.D., northern Italy was bustling with commerce. Italian bankers prospered from money-lending activities related to the frequent wars in this region. Venetian merchants controlled the European trade in oriental spices and silk. Italy and other parts of Europe had sustained severe depopulation from the Bubonic plague which occurred in the mid 14th century. At least a third of the people died. The result was to create a labor shortage which drove up wages and left farm land without a means of cultivation. The price of grain dropped due to shrinking demand. In response, Italian landowners discontinued cultivation of marginally productive land, improved irrigation, and began growing specialized crops with greater profit potential. In textiles manufacturing, low-profit goods such as woolen cloth were abandoned in favor of more expensive silk products. During the Renaissance period, northern Italy became a supplier of luxury goods.

We know that the Sumerians who invented writing were a commercially active people. The Egyptians had extensive trade relations with peoples in southern Arabia, Nubia, Syria, and Crete. Nineveh and Babylon, as well, were important centers of trade. The two centuries in India which preceded the rise of Buddhism were a time of brisk expansion in manufacturing and maritime trade. Merchants traded in commodities such as jewelry, spices, cloth, and dried fish along the southwest coast of India as well as in Babylon, Arabia, and Egypt. The Egyptian city of Alexandria, known as a place of religious ferment, carried on an active trade with India and other places. Mecca was a commercial hub for Arabic peoples in the early 7th century A.D. Prior to his religious calling, Mohammed led caravans to trade in Yemen and Syria as agent for his wealthy wife. So it would seem that a commercial environment does not preclude other kinds of interests; it may actually spur intellectual or spiritual questionings.

Mathematical and Commercial Innovations

The periods of cultural quickening were also times when new techniques appeared. In addition to the technologies of written language and electronic communication, each of these periods brought forth discoveries in the field of mathematics. Each produced advances in commercial practice. The Sumerians developed a system of installment purchases. They used barley and silver as a medium of exchange. Professional moneylenders took advantage of the farmers by lending them silver to buy seed and demanding repayment of the loan at harvest time when the market price of barley was low. The ancient Egyptians developed many of our basic concepts of arithmetic and geometry including fractions. They used this mathematical knowledge to restore landmarks wiped out by floods. Egyptian plane geometry was based on generalization from particular cases.

A novel feature of the period between 600 and 400 B.C. was the use of minted coins to facilitate trade. This practice began in Lydia around 600 B.C. Lydia was a small kingdom in Turkey which had conquered most of the Asian Greek city-states. Its last king, Croesus, made the mistake of attacking the Persians, who defeated him in battle and annexed his kingdom. Before that disastrous event, Croesus had issued the first minted gold coins based on the local standard of Phocaea, a captive Greek city. Their use spread quickly through the Persian and Greek worlds. The advantage of minted coins was that the coin bore an official inscription certifying that its gold content was of a stated quantity and degree of purity. Trading became more convenient than under the previous system where the monetary medium had to be weighed and tested, or, in the case of cattle, fed. Greek thinkers of this period used deductive reasoning to increase mathematical knowledge. Thales of Miletus, who imported Egyptian geometry to Greece, was among the first to study relationships between the different parts of a geometric figure. Pythagoras, known for the Pythagorean theorem, also discovered that simple numerical ratios in the length of vibrating strings produces harmonious music.

The third period, between 1400 and 1600 A.D., saw the rapid growth of towns in Europe. They were centers of commerce and manufacturing. The medieval system of tenant farming had been replaced by a system of contract labor. Guilds regulated occupational work in the cities. Merchants’ associations promoted exports of local products. New financial arrangements were developed to facilitate trade expeditions to distant places. The joint-stock company pooled the resources of several investors for large-scale enterprise. Marine insurance covered the risks of loss at sea. Banks took deposits from individuals, cashed bonds, and issued letters of credit. A Venetian monk, Fra Luca Pacioli, is credited with having invented the modern system of double-entry bookkeeping in 1494 A.D.

Several mathematical concepts and techniques which had been developed in India came to Europe via the Moslems in this period. Algebra was introduced into Italy in 1202 A.D. by Leonardo of Pisa. Arabic numerals, introduced to Europe in the 11th century A.D., were so called because Europeans acquired them from a book written in India which was translated into Arabic. The Arabs themselves never used this numbering system. There was some resistance to it because the symbol for zero (0) was easily confused with 6 and 9. However, printing removed that visual ambiguity and the new system prevailed. The technique of long division, which began to be used in the 15th century, first appeared in Calandri’s arithmetic published in Florence in 1492 A.D. Mathematical practitioners of the 15th century introduced the modern notations for plus (+), minus (-), and percent (%).

The fourth historical epoch, beginning in the second half of the 19th century, established the modern practice of retail shopping. The department store, which first appeared in Paris in 1852, revolutionized the way that commercial products were sold to customers. The products exhibited in store displays were sold at a fixed price. This ended the traditional haggling over prices in the market. Because retail markups were low, profits depended upon attracting prospective customers into the stores. The merchants placed paid advertisements in newspapers to interest the public in their products. Mathematical discoveries during this period challenged long-held assumptions about space and time. Non-Euclidian systems of geometry were developed by Lobachevsky, Riemann, and others during the 19th century. Albert Einstein challenged Newtonian physics with his theory of relativity. Quantum mechanics questioned spatial assumptions of experimental science. Boolean logic, formulated in 1854, provided a theoretical basis for digital processing.

Perceptions of a Wider World

While cultural technologies are a force to shape historical experience, civilizations also change with new perceptions of the world. Societies can expand their mental horizons both by seeing the world in a different way and by traveling to previously unknown places. Historically, the scattered peoples of the world became more aware of each other as they had increased contact. Improved techniques of transportation and communication have made humanity aware of a larger world than what they knew before. Starting with their immediate environment, human beings have come to see a progressively enlarged territory supporting human culture. The Greeks called this “Oikoumenê”, which means the “inhabited” part of the world. World history includes, among other things, the process of “discovering” previously unknown places on earth and the people inhabiting these places, so that the definition of Oikoumenê is broadened.

The turning points of world history have taken place in times of discovering this broader world. Once separate peoples who came in contact with each other enjoyed the stimulating effect of that experience. The earliest Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese societies were limited to a few city-states. None had more than a vague idea that other peoples existed. Archeologists have found no reference to Egypt in Sumerian writings before the 15th century, B.C. The separate Aztec and Inca societies were unaware of each other when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, A.D. With the dawning of CivI came an expansion of geographical horizons. The first Pharaonic dynasty, which united Lower and Upper Egypt, brought political and cultural unity to a land extending hundreds of miles along the Nile river. Sumerian society originally consisted of a dozen small communities within a hundred miles’ radius of each other. When King Urukagina of Lagash unified this region in the 24th century B.C., he boasted of an empire stretching “from sea to sea” - from the head of the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean sea.

The period between 600 and 400 B.C. was a time for Mediterranean peoples to explore the world. While Aramaean merchants traveled east on overland routes, sailors from Carthage visited lands along the shores of the Atlantic ocean. Carthaginian traders obtained copper from Spanish mines and tin from southwest England. In 520 B.C., a Carthaginian captain named Hanno set forth on a voyage along the west coast of Africa, reaching present-day Gambia. There his crew collected specimens of plant and animal life including some chimpanzees. Some believe that a group of Phoenician sailors commissioned by Pharaoh Necho circumnavigated the African continent in the 7th century B.C. During this period, the Greeks established colonies in southern France, Italy, Sicily, Libya, Turkey, and the Ukraine. Greek tourists frequently visited the ruins of Egypt. Herodotus, a geographer of the 5th century B.C., believed the inhabited world to be a mass of land bounded, on its four corners, by India, Ethiopia, Iberia (Spain), and Scythia (Ukraine), which was penetrated by two great seas.

Herodotus’ geography encompassed three of the four great Old World civilizations - China’s alone being excluded. It, of course, also excluded the New World civilizations. The next epoch brought both of those areas into the scope of the known world. When the Mongols attacked Poland and Hungary in the 13th century, A.D., it brought Europe in contact with a political empire that extended eastward to the Pacific Ocean. A young Venetian named Marco Polo traveled to Peking with his father and uncle where they were warmly received by the Mongol emperor. After spending seventeen years in China, Marco Polo returned to Italy where he wrote a book about his adventures. The desire for oriental riches and the opportunity to convert numerous heathen people to Christianity inspired Columbus’ attempt to reach China and Japan by sailing west. His voyage across the Atlantic Ocean led to the discovery of a new continent. Columbus mistakenly supposed that he had reached India. Geographical knowledge also expanded with the Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias’ voyage around the tip of southern Africa in 1488. Another Portuguese captain, Vasco da Gama, reached Calcutta by this route ten years later.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain employed by Spain, commanded the first voyage around the world. In September 1519, he set sail for South America with five ships. It took a year to find a passage to the Pacific ocean around southern Argentina. The expedition next headed straight across that ocean to the Philippine islands where Magellan was killed. One of his ships, the Victoria, continued to travel west through the Indian ocean and around Africa and, in September 1522, it arrived back in Portugal. This voyage demonstrated both that the earth was round, though larger than what Columbus had thought, and that it included a second hemisphere. Such explorations put all the earth’s major societies in touch for the first time. In the same year that Magellan set sail, Hernando Cortés overthrew the Aztec empire in Mexico with a group of four hundred armed men. French explorers probed the interior waterways of North America, seeking a “northwest passage” to the Pacific similar to what Magellan had found in the south.

When CivIV began in the mid 19th century, there was renewed interest in geographical exploration. The Explorer’s Club of London sponsored an expedition to equatorial Africa to discover the true source of the Nile. Richard Burton and John Speke discovered Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Speke went on to reach Lake Nyanza, now believed to be the Nile’s source. The Mormon trek to Utah and the California Gold Rush of 1849 brought arid lands in the western part of North America in touch with the eastern population centers. Australia and New Zealand received an influx of white immigration. Admiral Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853 brought that island society out of its self-imposed isolation. The completion of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1905 opened up the interior of northwest Asia to Russian colonization. In some of the earth’s last unexplored territories, Robert E. Peary traveled to the North Pole in 1909. Rival teams of explorers, led by Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, raced to the South Pole in 1911-12. Amundsen’s team was the winner. Scott and his four colleagues perished on the return trip from the Pole but left diaries.

Humanity has since moved into a new era of geophysical discovery. Advancements made in theoretical physics early in the 20th century have made people aware of new worlds at the extremities of physical magnitude. They perceived an atomic structure with protons and electrons in the tiniest particles of matter. They witnessed the destructive power of energy released from atoms when the U.S. Government exploded two atomic bombs over Japanese cities during World War II. The German V-1 and V-2 rockets used to drop bombs on English cities in that war progressed to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which, equipped with nuclear warheads, stocked strategic arsenals during the Cold War. People living in these times were aware of how dangerously small the earth had become. Missiles launched from another hemisphere could obliterate their own city in less than an hour’s time. However, the same type of missile helped to launch the space age. Rivalry between the two military superpowers, begun with the launching of Sputnik, led to a series of manned expeditions to the Moon and unmanned space probes to several planets.

The physical exposure to new worlds stretches the mind. This experiences brings forth new conceptions which might not otherwise have appeared. Because Greek intellectuals were familiar with cities besides their own, they could intelligently discuss the relative merit of different forms of government. Plato was able to imagine an ideal society as described in the Republic. The discovery of America inspired Sir Thomas More in 1516 to write Utopia; it suggested to him the possibility of a world better than his own. In 1948, the astronomer Fred Hoyle suggested that if someone could take a photograph of the earth from outer space, that image would change men’s minds as never before. His prediction was fulfilled when such a photograph was taken during the Apollo flights to the Moon. The picture of our own planet, a bluish white-streaked sphere suspended in the darkness of space, has been credited with inspiring the environmental movement. Arthur Clarke has predicted that the colonization of space will have an even greater impact upon human thinking.

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