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A Pyramid of Stories

In theory, world history may be presented in the form of a story. It is the story of all humanity. A story narrates a set of events taking place in time. Certain actors do certain things in certain places and times, arranged in a chronological sequence of events.

How about human experience as a whole? Is not world history too voluminous and diverse to be told in such a way? A possible solution is to tell the story in segments. There is not a single thread of narrative but many separate threads placed in both a horizontal and vertical relationship to each other.

Horizontally, the stories are told in coherent units - i.e., relatively simple narratives moving from one situation to another. There may also be segmentation according to geographic localities. Vertically, the stories are told from top to bottom in layers that show increasing detail. Taken as a whole, the structure of stories resembles a pyramid. The stories on top are more general and abstract; those on the bottom describe events ultimately concerning individual persons.

Basically, world history is a creation story. It is the story of how human society as we know it was created. Humanity in all parts of the earth initially lived in small, tribal communities that supported itself by hunting, fishing, and simple acts of gathering food. Today, people live in a complex society that includes many different institutions and activities. How did we as a species get from one situation to another? That is the story of world history.

In telling the story of humanity, the historian should be careful not to show ethnic or regional bias. World history should not imply that any one people or nation, culture or religion, is superior to another. It should not imply that events are inexorably moving toward a particular conclusion. There is no culminating situation. Who knows what the future will bring?

The conventional idea of progress in too many cases means “becoming more like ourselves”. We think we have a superior culture that the rest of the world will eventually adopt. Obviously, that approach will not do for an authentic world history, which is the story of all peoples and nations. We need a more objective approach. We need a history which all the earth’s people can adopt without pride or shame.

The type of history proposed in the book, Five Epochs of Civilization, focuses upon the development of institutions within society rather than the experience of particular peoples. There are no heroes or villains in this scheme, only a story of how the world of human society was created.

Each historical epoch has its own story, which is the story of the culture and society that developed then. It is the story of a particular "civilization". A civilization is a culture that originated in particular circumstances, developed and grew to maturity, and then declined. It has its own life cycle and set of stories describing that process. For coherence’s sake, we need a story for each civilization instead of trying to lump them all together.

The idea of this history is that human culture developed in stages. Ten thousand years ago, the human race was organized by blood kinship in extended families. Five thousand years ago, small city-states arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The institution of royal government appeared as a source of authority and power in this new kind of society. The art of writing was invented for commercial purposes. Then, twenty-five hundred years ago, there was a spiritual revolution which changed human cultures throughout the Eurasian continent. Ethical philosophies and religions were the result of alphabetic literacy.

Historians sometimes describe these changes as “turning points” in human culture. Another way to look at it is to say they were the end of one civilization and the beginning of another. Actually, the civilizations did not begin and end at the same time; there was a certain overlapping of dates in the sequence of the different cultures.

Civilizations do, however, follow a certain life cycle. The story line of each is the same as in our own lives: birth, growth, maturity, and decline. Each such story is like a chapter in a book. That is how the needed segmentation of world history might be handled. We follow the separate life-cycle threads of each civilization.

Five Epochs of Civilization divides the whole mass of recorded experience into five civilizations which are identified as follows: Civilization I, Civilization II, Civilization III, Civilization IV, and Civilization V. The term “recorded experience” (or “historical experience”) means that this history does not embrace all that humanity has experienced, only that part which has been recorded in writing or another permanent form. Before writing, human cultures were transmitted by word-of-mouth. Human societies were tribally based. Prehistoric experience is therefore excluded from this scheme.

Historical experience is, however, a large enough body of recollections to require subdivision if it is to be coherently perceived and understood. That is why our world history is organized in chapters devoted to the particular civilizations. For the sake of rigorous analysis, we need key elements or criteria to differentiate one from another.

Five Epochs of Civilization presents two sets of criteria: communication technologies and centers of power. One describes the material foundation of the culture, and the other, the institutional ingredients of society. The following table shows how these two variables relate to the civilizations that have appeared to date in world history:

Name of civilization communication technology dominant institution(s)
Civilization I ideographic writing government
Civilization II alphabetic writing world religion
Civilization III printing commerce and education
Civilization IV electronic recording & broadcasting news & entertainment media
Civilization V computer communication the Internet & ?

 

This web site, http://www.WorldHistorySite.com, presents numerous materials relating to the five civilizations which comprise world history according to this scheme. There is no need to repeat the discussion here.

Suffice it to say that this is not the only acceptable scheme of world history. It is, however, one which allows coherent, meaningful stories to be told without regional or ethnic bias. In focusing upon the development of human society, it removes identity politics from world history allowing the subject matter to be approached with more objectivity. This is a new creation story deserving our consideration.

Please accept it, then, as a starting point or conceptual foundation for building our historical pyramid. Tentative stories to be positioned at the top of the pyramid are presented for your inspection in Chapters 4 through 7 of Five Epochs of Civilization. They are not meant to be the final word but merely a first draft. In time, more accurate, polished, and complete versions of this history may appear. The pyramid may then, and hopefully will, be constructed on all levels, extending downward to a great mass of detail.

This is an opportunity for you to write history. And if the pyramid of history is built, humanity itself will take notice. In the presence of its true stories, future generations will come to seek knowledge and understanding in the structure of words that has been created. Like the Great Pyramid in the vicinity of Cairo, it will be an enduring structure of world culture.

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