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World Civilization Identified with Five Epochs of History
by William McGaughey
Historical and Sociological Approaches to Civilization
In contemplating civilizations, it is possible to approach these entities sociologically and learn about them through the various facets of their societies and cultures. In such a way, Alexis De Tocqueville described U.S. society in the 1830s, or Robert and Helen Lynd described "Middletown" America in the 1920s. The life of a community is seen in snapshots taken at roughly the same time.
Another approach is historical. The assumption here is that a civilization can be known by the story which leads from its past to its present and beyond. This story narrates important events that explain how the society came to be. The approach to civilizations presented in this paper is historical rather than sociological. The study of civilizations is much the same as studying world history. In fact, world history might be considered the story of civilizations.
World History and Comparative Civilizations
The purpose of this paper is to present a scheme of world history and comparative civilizations. This scheme is presented in a fuller version in my book, Five Epochs of Civilization: World History as Emerging in Five Civilizations, which was published last year. The book was reviewed by Matthew Melko on June 1, 2001, at the 30th annual meeting of the ISCSC on the Newark campus of Rutgers University. I made a related presentation at a workshop on the following day. This paper will respond to points made in Professor Melko's review, and in subsequent discussions, as well as explain the thesis of the book.
Melko considered the title of my book to be "appropriate," but the subtitle and chapter titles "misleading." The word "civilization(s)" appears twice in the title and subtitle, once as a qualifier for an epoch of history and once as an end toward which world history may be proceeding. This would be a point of confusion needing to be clarified.
In my book, the concept of an "epoch" is much the same as that of a "civilization," however there are differences. An epoch is a period of time. A civilization is a social or cultural system. The apparent confusion may perhaps be resolved by suggesting that historical epochs are distinguished from one another by having a certain content which is associated with a civilization. Historical turning points, which mark the beginning and end of epochs, are times when one civilization replaces another. In this way, world history and the study of civilizations are reconciled.
Civilizations and Societies
Ernest Gellner, quoted by Leonidas Donskis, has proposed that "the proper study of mankind is human groups and institutions." I would propose that, with respect to world history, those groups are civilizations. What is a civilization? Is it a society -- i.e., a community of people -- or is it a society's culture?
The book, Five Epochs of Civilization, comes down on the side of saying that civilization is culture. In this respect, its point of view differs from that of Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and most ISCSC members who would hold that civilizations are geographically based societies that have existed at various times. There is a Chinese society that Toynbee identified with a "Sinic" civilization (to describe its earlier version) and a "Far Eastern" civilization (its later version). Similarly, there have been Indic, Hindu, Hellenic, Mayan, Minoan, Western Christian, and other civilizations associated with peoples who lived in certain places and times. Many of these civilizations are extinct while a few have continued.
A goal of discussions at a recent ISCSC conference has been to compile a definitive list of the "mainstream" civilizations, with a consensus solidifying behind the following: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Minoan, Classical, Islamic, Byzantine, Western, African, Mesoamerican, and Andean.
Arnold Toynbee wrote that the appropriate entity to be studied in history was a "society." He defined a "civilization" as a type of society. A society is a set of communities which have a common culture. Another name for this civilization might be a "civilized society."
A civilized society has certain characteristics which distinguish it from "uncivilized" or "primitive" societies. One element would be the capacity for history. Such societies develop towards new and more complex forms of social organization. Through written history, they also remember the process by which the changes took place in the society. Primitive societies, on the other hand, are bound to tradition. They remain in much the same form for thousands of years. Their collective memory consists of oral folklore and myths.
If civilization were a society (as Toynbee regarded it), this entity would consist of a certain racially or ethnically homogeneous group of people sharing a political structure and a communal experience. The other possibility would be to define civilization in terms of the society's culture. The cultural identity would be distinct from people who embraced the culture. By this definition, civilizations would change when their cultures change, not when there is a change in political organization.
By the second standard, civilization did not fall when Germanic barbarians overran the territories of the west Roman empire because there was cultural continuity in Christianity. The barbarian tribes invading Europe quickly converted to this religion. It was only when the Christian faith lost its grip upon west European culture in Renaissance times that this civilization ended. So the choice of one definition or another for civilizations has an impact upon the designation of historical turning points.
It is evident that racially- or ethnically-based societies are scattered throughout the earth. For millennia, most of these societies had scant knowledge of or contact with each other. They could not have had a common history. World historians have a problem. Since history is a story, the story of world history would have to be the separate stories of all these different societies. This scheme of world history is untidy. Historians face the problem of deciding how much space to give to each people's history and of how the histories are related to each other.
World historians today emphasize contacts between civilizations, suggesting that these contacts give impetus to cultural change. Such change, they say, is the stuff of history. That partially solves the problem of fragmented history, but it ignores the internal change within societies. Spengler, Toynbee, and others have noted an analogy to life cycles in living organisms. Societies and cultures do, on their own accord, begin, mature, and grow old. This, too, affects the course of history.
The scheme presented in Five Epochs of Civilization regards civilizations as worldwide cultural systems. World history becomes a matter of narrating events to show how the civilizations follow each other. A single story, albeit fragmented, would suffice to present world history.
There is a question of deciding how much space in the history books to give to particular events or to particular peoples' histories. If historical coverage gravitates towards creative activities more than ones which maintain what has gone before, then those societies which have initiated important changes in human culture merit more space in the history books. For example, Sumerian society merits much historical attention because it initiated writing, commercial accounting, and other features of urban society. However, the Sumerian-style "urban society" must be worldwide for the argument to hold.
With respect to space given to particular peoples' histories in books of world history, I think that the size of human populations ought to be a criterion. India and China, for instance, have together had 40 to 50 percent of the world's population during the last 2,000 years. A world history respecting the volume of human experience would not want to neglect the histories of those two nations. It can also be argued that "person-years" of experience indicate the volume of history as it progresses through time. Since world population has increased from 265 million persons in 1000 A.D. to six billion persons in 2000 A.D. world history, according to this criterion, should give the modern era greater attention than its number of years would justify.
I offer this argument partly to counter Professor Melko's criticism that the historical epochs in my book seemed lately to be coming at a faster pace and be violating a certain sense of proportion. However, person-years of history, not years, would determine what is proportionate. If one divides world history between 10000 B.C. and 2000 A.D. into two equal segments reflecting the weight of populations, the mid-point would be set at 1577 A.D., not 4000 B.C. Approximately 18 percent of human history during this 12,000-year period occurred in the 20th century according to population-weighted criteria.
Are civilizations truly worldwide? To answer the question affirmatively, students of comparative civilizations would have to cite cultural practices held in common among the various societies, whether or not it can be demonstrated that those societies had contact with each other. Some civilizationists agree. Shuntaro Ito, then president of the ISCSC, said at the 25th annual meeting of this organization:
Global transformations, by definition, change societies around the world. They represent change from one worldwide civilization to another. However, this situation poses a challenge to historians: worldwide civilizations (if such exist) must be incorporated in several societies that are separated from each other. Those individual societies may have begun at different times. Their cultural elements would have matured in different periods. That means that a particular civilization (and its related historical epoch) began in several different years, depending on which part of the world.
For instance, Civilization I may have come to Pharaonic Egypt, in the 32th century B.C.; to the Indus Valley civilization in the 25th century B.C. ; and to Chinese society in the 20th century. B.C. In other words, it is not possible to say that a particular epoch of history began on such and such a date for societies everywhere in the world. The dates are staggered around the world. Therefore, world history is not a clear-cut scheme in which historical epochs begin and end on certain dates; it is a more complex system.
The Problem of Cultural Definition
Civilizations as culture run the risk of arbitrary definition. Which culture is a civilization? Since a culture has many elements, one needs certain key elements to tell one from another. In this regard, culture is like human personality. One can develop several sets of criteria to define personality. Is one a "type A" personality, or an introvert, or an "other-directed" person, or a "Pisces", or a "dominant" or an "intuitive" type by the Meyer-Briggs classification? It would not seem that all such classifications can be equally valid. Which is the most "scientific"? In a similar way, not every cultural element is a key to civilizations. Historians and students of comparative civilizations must make some judgment calls.
Toynbee's scheme of civilizations avoids this problem because the fate of societies can be quite unambiguous. Societies are clearly defined communities of people. Usually they begin when nomadic groups enter a land, settle there, and establish a political order. The societies end when a civilized order is overrun by another group of nomads or is absorbed, through conquest, into an alien political empire. For example, the Hittite empire and its civilization perished in what Toynbee called the "V¦lkerwanderung" that took place in the 12th century B.C.
Cultures are comparatively soft. They are subject to uncertain definitions. Consider the zodiac as a guide to human personality. Part of its scheme is based on hard information. A person's birth date is a key element. So is the configuration of celestial bodies at the time of a person's birth. However, the interesting part is what this all means in terms of one's behavioral tendencies or personal fortune-telling. Today's horoscope tells me that, because I am a Pisces, "Relocation will have lasting and lucrative financial results." That would be quite interesting to me if it were true. However, I consider horoscopes to be a superstitious work. And so it may be with culture-based civilizations. They are interesting constructs but intellectually suspect.
Nevertheless, the point of this paper is to make such an argument about civilizations and, hopefully, provide useful knowledge. Civilizations have two key characteristics: (1) the "cultural technology," or communication technology, which is the dominant technique of expression in a culture, and (2) the institutions of power which dominates society. They have several minor characteristics, such as the dominant beliefs, values, and models of attractive personality. Dominance is, of course, a term subject to interpretation.
Let us consider this question from the perspective of the first characteristic, the dominant cultural technology. The technologies which are associated with the "five epochs" are: (1) writing, (2) alphabetic writing, (3) printing, (4) electronic recording and broadcasting, and (5) computerized communication. To identify a civilization by its dominant cultural technology helps stake a claim to universality. With respect to the question whether of civilizations are worldwide, one might ask: Is writing found in societies throughout the earth? Is alphabetic writing? Is printing? The answer is generally "yes", although there are some exceptions. Peoples living in primitive communities generally have an oral, but not written, culture. The Inca society of pre-Columbian Peru communicated through knotted cords rather than visual symbols written on paper. The ancient Chinese had writing, but lacked alphabetic writing.
It appears that worldwide civilizations do exist if defined by communication technologies. It also seems that these civilizations arrived in much the same order in societies around the earth. Writing in an ideographic form -- one symbol for each word -- was invented before alphabetic writing; and alphabetic writing was invented before printing; and printing, before electronic communication; and electronic communication, before computers.
One also observes that the arrival of a new technology does not make the previous technology completely obsolete. Even though people today send e-mails by computer, they also read printed newspapers, listen to the radio, and send handwritten letters in their society's alphabetic or ideographic script. Two hundred years ago, they were limited to the newspapers and handwritten letters.
The culture fills up with an increasing number and variety of communication techniques; it does not drop the use of the old ones as new ones are added. Nor, contrary to the point made in Melko's book review, does this scheme imply that use of the previous epoch's dominant communication technology diminishes in absolute terms as a new epoch brings a new technology. In this respect, civilizations do not end though they have a clear beginning. Something of the manuscript or print culture remains in the electronic societies of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is doubtful that the old cultures will ever completely end.
On the other hand, historians are able to determine with some precision the times when a communication device was invented. Writing, in an ideographic form, was invented in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) in, perhaps, the 33rd century B.C. Alphabetic writing was developed in Palestine or Syria in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. Gutenberg's invention in 1454 A.D. sparked an explosion of printed literature. Patent applications pinpoint the invention of various electronic devices in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first commercial radio station in the United States began broadcasting in 1920. Can one say, therefore, that the age of radio broadcasting began in 1920? Yes. Did it end when television broadcasting took off in the 1950s? No.
An argument is made in Five Epochs of Civilization that the newer communication technology, having certain superior qualities, supersedes the old one with respect to cultural influence. Like a growing child, its culture has more creative energy. It comes to dominate historical events in that age. This is not a matter of one culture replacing another, but of a new culture being added to what previously existed. Therefore, the invention and widespread adoption of a major communication technology sets a line of demarcation between historical epochs.
Development of pluralistic institutions
Historians are aware of changes that have taken place within the structure of human society during the past five to six thousand years. Societies in growing larger have acquired a more complex set of institutions. The tribal societies of prehistoric times were organized in small communities. Their leaders combined many functions. Starting with temple cultures in Egypt and the Near East, societies have become pluralistic. First, the institution of monarchy separated from the temple priesthood. Then, thousands of years later, there was a philosophical challenge to government power which led to the creation of the world religions. In the middle of the second millennium A.D., commercial interests challenged the duality of church and state in western Europe. Secular education took the place of religious instruction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a "fourth estate" centered in journalism and in mass entertainment became a center of power challenging the others. World history is related to this process of institutional transformation.
The first and greatest historical transformation occurred when city-states were formed in agricultural societies. Those urban communities became centers of a a new civilization which was more tightly organized than before. Its society was more stratified and exercised control over a broader range of territory. It also had written language. Set against this type of society were nomadic communities whose livelihood depended on tending herds of animals.
The first institution to emerge was government. The royal court appeared alongside the temple as a center of power in the early city-states. In the first three thousand years following Egypt's unification in 3,000 B.C., world history was the story of political empires expanding from cities to extended territories. They held nomadic invaders in check and fought rival empires. Wars shaped history in this period. Government as an institution developed in size and scope of activity.
The Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and other peoples each appeared on history's stage as an imperial power. Emperor worship and rule by priest-kings characterized religion in this epoch. The culmination of the first historical epoch was the formation of four large empires in the Old World -- the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Chinese -- in the second and third centuries A.D.
The second epoch came with the formation of philosophically inspired or creedal religion that replaced religions based on rituals aimed at controlling nature. Its seeds were sown during the "Axial Revolution" in the 6th and 5th centuries, B.C. Philosophers then made a moral critique of government. In the story of this civilization, virtuous individuals confronted a brutal state and, in their death, became martyrs or prophets of a higher truth. Their lives were recorded in sacred scriptures.
The four political empires of the first epoch found a counterpart in the three world religions -- Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam -- which claimed a part in society's governance. Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian and Monophysite Christianity, and ethical philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and neo-Platonism, were also religions of this type. The second civilization reached a peak in the first half of the second millennium A.D. Religion and secular government were the two centers of power in society at this stage. The significant historical events during this epoch had to do with religion, its theologies, conflicts, structures, and relationships with government.
The humanist culture of the Italian Renaissance marked a departure from the Christian civilization. Around 1500 A.D., the cultural movement begun in northern Italy spread to other parts of Europe and then to the rest of the world. The new civilization had a commercial flavor. New forms of business organization and new banking and accounting techniques were employed in Renaissance Italy. Merchants and bankers controlled the civic life of its major cities.
Columbus sailed to America in search of spices and gold. Commerce and industry, aided by secular education, were harnessed to the cause of national power. Petrarch's rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics gave rise to humanist scholarship which inspired western education. Government, organized at the level of the nation state, was transformed by democratic revolution. Printed publications, including mass-circulation newspapers, appeared for the first time.
The new secular culture idolized artistic, musical, and literary genius. Creative individuals also made discoveries in science and technology. To be "civilized" meant to be educated in the excellent works of one's culture. This epoch of world history differed from others in that western Europeans were unique in its civilization. Europeans gained a technological and military advantage over nonwestern peoples. At the end of the epoch, there was a backlash against the cruelty and coercion of European colonialism and the slave trade. In its mature phase, this civilization self-destructed in the two "world wars", fueled by economic and political competition among the European powers.
The fourth civilization was focused on news and entertainment. After the previous civilization had produced angry ideologies and two world wars, people grew weary of serious business. They retreated into lighthearted diversions whose experiences were supplied quite cheaply by new technologies of sound recording, motion pictures, radio, and television. As public attention became fixed upon such images, the entertainment industry became a source of power in society.
Commercial products were introduced to consumers through radio and television advertisements exhibiting an attractive lifestyle. Commercial broadcasting became more than a business. Through advertising, it provided a link between customers and product suppliers in all sectors of industry. It controlled the political process through access to the voters' hearts and minds. So now we have "the media," along with government, religion, commerce, and education, as components of society's power base. When computer technology becomes fully developed, it, too, might become an institution of power.
These, then, are parameters for the scheme of world history presented in Five Epochs of Civilization. The introduction of a new communication technology, such as writing, or printing, or radio broadcasting, indicates that a new civilization is about to appear. The appearance of this technology is not synonymous with the civilization's appearance but is a kind of lead indicator. The other key element, as we said, is the emergence of a new institution or institutions as a source of power in the society. In this respect, too, civilizations do not end entirely because the institutions do not end. Pluralistic societies fill up with a greater number and variety of institutions.
Putting the two together, we have this scheme:
Civilization Name Communication Technology Institution of Power Prehistoric The spoken word Ritualistic priesthoods, tribal leadership Civilization I Ideographic writing Royal/ imperial government Civilization II Alphabetic writing World religion Civilization III Printing Business firms, secular schools Civilization IV Electronic communication News media, entertainment providers Civilization V Computer technology The Internet and/ or ?
Other Aspects of Civilizations
If these elements characterize civilizations, then other relationships between them might be found. First, the new communication technology should appear in roughly the same period as the ripening of its related institution. Indeed, it seems that writing in its ideographic form was developed at about the same time (4th millennium B.C.) that the first city-states appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Alphabetic writing spread during the time when the great philosophers and religious prophets lived. Gutenberg built his printing press shortly before Europeans began to explore the oceans and colonize nonwestern peoples.
Second, there might be a relationship between these two aspects. Such a relationship might be an imperial bureaucracy's need for written records to carry out its tax-collection function. Or, it might be the use of printed newspapers to advertise and sell commercial products. The relationship between an invention, such as the motion-picture projector, and the entertainment sold in movie theaters is obvious.
A civilization also has a side associated with its values and ideals. The ideal of goodness, as defined by Greek philosophers, influenced Christian society. In the age of printed literature, people came to prize the beauty of a writer's personal style. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Beethoven became cultural heroes, not because they were good persons but because they had the vision and ability to create exquisite works of art. In the age of electronic entertainment, ideals are centered in a performer's ability to deliver a good performance, whether in athletics, film-making, stand-up comedy, or music. The ideal of "rhythm" fits that type of talent.
In summary, civilizations are not geographically scattered societies but successive stages in the development of human culture. They are cultural positions along the path of humanity's progress. This scheme contains the idea of historical turning points marking places where human society changed direction. The successive communication technologies created a type of public space where significant events took place.
It may help to compare this scheme of history with that presented in Shuntaro Ito's presidential address to the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations at its 25th annual meeting in Pomona, California, in June 1996. The title of his talk was: "A Framework for Comparative Study of Civilizations". Ito's model of civilizations is not unlike the one described above.
Ito expressed sympathy for the historical views of "multicivilizationists like Danilevsky, Spengler, and Toynbee who criticized Eurocentric, unilinear developments of civilizations." He disagreed with their tendency to regard civilizations as isolated organisms which develop according to an autonomous mechanism. He referred to transformative processes which affect societies globally. These cultural transformations, or "civilizational revolutions," occur first in what Ito called "pioneer areas" before they spread to neighboring societies.
Ito presented a list of 23 "civilizations" which resemble those of Toynbee. His five great transformations cut across these civilizations, adding a second dimension to the study of comparative civilizations. Ito compared his two-dimensional scheme to the "warps and woofs" in weaving. "Warps and woofs complete a textile of my framework of civilizations," he wrote.
My use of the term "civilization" pertains to the "woof" aspect only. The term "society" would describe the "warp" dimension. Even so, Ito refers to "urban civilizations," "axial civilizations," and "scientific civilization" in the much same way that I use the term, "civilization." His thesis of the "five stages of global transformations" is expressed: "I believe that mankind has come to the present having experienced in common the five great civilizational revolutions. These are: "the Anthropic Revolution," "the Agricultural Revolution," "the Urban Revolution," "the Axial Revolution," and "the Scientific Revolution." All cultural areas were to undergo these revolutions sooner or later, primarily or secondarily."
By coincidence, Ito's five revolutions are the same in number as the five epochal changes identified in my book. Apart from terminology, his scheme of civilizations is structurally the same. Also, Ito's "Urban Revolution" and "Axial Revolution" coincide with the turning points which I associate with the start of the first and second civilizations. There are two differences: First, Ito makes the "Anthropic Revolution" and the "Agricultural Revolution" the first two items in his list of woof-type civilizations. Second, the last item, the "Scientific Revolution," differs from the turning point which begins the third civilization in my scheme; and his suggestion of an impending "Environmental Revolution" as a sixth event is also different.
Two questions need to be asked to decide between these alternative models: First, does world history (or the study of civilizations) properly begin when the human species emerged from an ape-like condition; or does it begin with urban society? Second, what is the most appropriate turning point in world history after the age introduced by the Axial Revolution? Is it a "Scientific Revolution," as Ito suggests; or would some other type of event make a better indicator?
With respect to the first point of difference, I acknowledge that the changes associated with Ito's "Anthropic Revolution" and "Agricultural Revolution" are important transformations experienced by societies around the earth. The question is where the study of history (or of civilizations) ought to begin. Ito's scheme occupies a position closer to so-called "big history," which treats everything from the "big bang" on as a part of historical study. Mine, more cautiously, follows Toynbee in dividing "primitive societies" from "civilized societies" and proposing that history begins with the beginning of civilizations.
Ito himself seems to agree when he writes, regarding his diagram of civilizations: "(T)hese major civilizations (in the diagram) are civilizations after the Urban Revolutions, for I define 'civilizations' par excellence as those after the Urban Revolution... The 'Urban Revolution' defines civilization par excellence, because civilization means to become civil, to have an urban way of life."
Where History Should Begin
Those who argue that the history of civilizations begins with urban societies can point out that they, unlike primitive societies, have developed the art of writing. Writing gives access to humanity's interior consciousness of past experience. If, therefore, world history is a story of humanity's collected experience, only a story based on written records can produce a complete narration from the point of view of eyewitnesses. Until sound recording was invented in the late 19th century, only writing could preserve a person's thoughts, after the person had passed from the scene. Therefore, historical records seem to depend on the existence of writing in the society being studied. Since writing began with the Urban Revolution, there was no previous history as such.
To a certain extent, however, knowledge transmitted through speech can be remembered before it is written down. Much of our knowledge of antiquity comes to us by such means. It is a service to humanity for scholars to interview elders of tribes without a written history and write down what has been passed on to them by word of mouth. Archeological research may also uncover physical clues from the past to shed light on long-lost cultures.
Two techniques of recent vintage include linguistic analysis and DNA mapping. In the first case, scholars are able to determine from the study of words in several different languages which languages, and, therefore, which groups of speakers, have a common heritage. They can determine which languages were derived from others. This helps to date the languages and determine their past geographical distribution. In the case of DNA mapping, geneticists can determine which groups of people are biologically related. They have found, for instance, that, while most native Americans came across the Bering Straits from Asia, a small group of Ojibway Indians share genetic links with Europeans, suggesting that their ancestors may have migrated across the north Atlantic ocean.
Techniques of modern scholarship and science push history's record deeper into the past. Perhaps some day an ample record will exist of experience in societies which lacked writing. But, for now, history proper can be said to begin with those societies whose story is preserved in written records.
I would argue that there is nothing wrong with looking at a smaller slice of human experience than some scholars would like, and calling this "history." Such a decision does not imply that the previous experiences were unimportant. Neither does it imply that precivilized peoples are morally or culturally inferior. We would simply be choosing to study a particular segment of human experience associated with a particular type of society and leave the rest for other disciplines.
Where to Place History's Subsequent Break Points
The fifth "revolution" in Ito's scheme of civilizations is what he called "the Scientific Revolution." This occurred in Europe during the 17th century. The shift in intellectual attention from religious philosophy to patterns observed in nature laid a foundation for the great material development which Europeans and others subsequently experienced. After the age of scientific discovery came the "Industrial Revolution", beginning in England during the late 18th century. Ito also mentions a "third stage" of the Scientific Revolution, which he calls the "Informational Revolution". This is concerned with information-processing or computer technologies, centered in North America and Japan.
In my scheme of history, the break point after the Axial or spiritual revolution would be that cultural transformation which took place in northern Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries A.D., associated with the Renaissance. This is what began the third epoch of civilization. The 17th Century revolution of scientific knowledge would fall within this civilization but not be its starting point. Then, after the third civilization would come the fourth civilization, concerned with mass entertainment. The fifth, computer-based civilization, has just come into view. What justification might I offer for this scheme?
Admittedly the Scientific Revolution began a culture which has changed the earth's landscape and created many new types of artificial objects. Scientific knowledge is a prerequisite to those technological wonders evident in modern life. But, civilization, in my view, is not primarily about hardware. It is about values. Only a few intellectuals are directly engaged in the production of scientific knowledge or share its passion; many more simply enjoy its fruits.
In contrast, the great majority of people have first-hand experience with commerce and secular education. The career system leading from the school system into money-centered occupations may be the main experience shaping modern life. So it seems fitting to put the period of the Italian Renaissance at the beginning of this epoch. For it was then and there that the marriage between humanist (or secular) culture and commercial occupations was arranged. The explosion of European adventure and migration into other parts of the world also began at that time.
Some would scoff at the idea that popular entertainment is the foundation of the civilization which we inhabit now. Melko's review wondered if "entertainment is not something that has always been desired, but is not, and never was, central for most people." Yet, the news media and the various businesses engaged in entertainment production are recognized as being more than a mere subset of commercial enterprise. Lightweight though it may seem, popular culture commands the attention of most of our young people. Television shows, sporting events, blockbuster films, and hit recordings of popular music are the closest thing that we have today as a national culture. This, then, I would argue, is a culture of sufficient heft to be compared with civilizations of the past.
If this assumption holds true, another civilization is coming along with the development of computer technology. Though also electronic, it is different in kind from previous electronic technologies that merely recorded or broadcast sensuous images. One-on-one communication between man and machine has now become possible. But we must await further developments of this technology before reaching conclusions as to what its civilization will become.
I would agree with Ito that an "Environmental Revolution" may be around the corner. If so, it might constitute another turning point of world history. The consequences of a nuclear, biological or chemical catastrophe, environmental exhaustion, and overpopulation could be so severe as to overwhelm civilization as we know it and force humanity into another mode of existence. However, that has not yet happened. While there are hints of it in certain parts of the world struck by famine, overpopulation, and disease, residents of First-World nations are still largely insulated from that possibility.
Marxism, whose historical epochs depend on changes in society's economic relationships, has some contemporary appeal as does Alvin Tofler's view, focusing on industrial or occupational changes. Stedman Noble stresses the importance of agriculture, wheeled chariots, and iron production in the history of civilized societies. Ideals, beliefs, and values seem weak in comparison. Yet it is these soft things, I believe, which are the essence of culture-centered civilizations. While physical conditions underlie culture, the human spirit creates it.
Finally, with respect to the question of whether popular entertainment can comprise a civilization, let me suggest that, because of this civilizational shift, our very enterprise hangs in the balance. We at the ISCSC are ones who care about the definition of civilizations. The majority of our contemporaries do not seem to care. In promotional efforts related to Five Epochs of Civilization, I have found that there is no category associated with civilization, or even with world history, within our society's communication apparatus. There may be "food," "sports," "entertainment," and "lifestyle" editors at major newspapers, but hardly a reporter who deals with the larger questions of history. And this reflects the direction of popular interest.
So, as persons pursuing Civilization III dreams in a Civilization IV era, we have our work cut out for us. This question of comparative civilizations must somehow be made interesting and relevant to our fun-loving contemporaries.
Donskis, Leonidas. "Ernest Gellner: Civilizational Analysis as a Theory of History." Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 1999. p. 58
Ito, Shuntaro. "A Framework for Comparative Study of Civilizations." Presidential address delivered to the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations at its 25th annual meeting in Pomona, California, June 1996. Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 1997, pp. 4-15.
McGaughey, William. Five Epochs of Civilization: World History as Emerging in Five Civilizations. Minneapolis: Thistlerose Publications, 2000.
______ Rhythm and Self-Consciousness. Minneapolis: Thistlerose Publications, 2001.
Melko, Matthew. Mainstream Civilizations. Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2001, pp. 55-71.
Noble, Stedman. "How Humans Domesticated Themselves, Invented Agriculture, and Became Civilized. Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2001, pp. 72- 103.
Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History, Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1956