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What this History Is and Is Not

 

What world history is not:

It is not a chronology of kings or political rulers. While U.S. history, for instance, can be organized according to a succession of Presidential administrations, world history comprises many different nations. Government activity and influence accounts for only a small part of human experience. The history of governments is a part of world history, but only part. Its chief organizing principle should be something else.

It is also not the history of a particular people, religion, gender, or race. It is not the story of progress from savagery to “our” civilization. Such histories tend to glorify sub-sets of humanity at the expense of others. World history needs to be more objective and less political. Each human being should find a dignified place in this history, none more than others.

 

What world history is:

World history is a creation story. It is the story of how the world (in its present state) was created. We live both in a physical world and in a world of human society. For each, there is a story of how this world came to be. The concept of “Big History” says that history encompasses both types of stories.

For the physical world, the story would be based on scientific explanations of how the universe was created following the “Big Bang” through to the appearance of precivilized groups of human beings. For the world of human society, this history would describe the development of human society from small tribal communities at the dawn of civilization to the large and complex communities that we have today.

The second type of story is conceptually more challenging since, unlike natural scientists, historians do not agree on the basic pattern. Some assumptions concerning design will have to be made. The assumption here is that world history can be told coherently and meaningfully told through the “Five Epochs of Civilization” scheme of history.

This scheme of world history envisions that human society has developed an ever more complex structure of institutions as the human population has grown. This history is concerned exclusively with so-called “civilized’ society because it alone progresses to a “higher” or different state. Since the first civilizations appeared in Iraq and Egypt in the fourth millennium B.C., we are talking about events that have taken place in the past five or six thousand years.

Five Epochs of Civilization organizes world history around five successive “civilizations.” These civilizations are cultural entities or configurations that have appeared in human societies on earth, one after another, at particular times. The introduction of a new communication technology (such as writing) plays an important part in that process. However, the history itself is more concerned with institutions that exercise power in the society. At certain times, particular institutions emerge to dominate the society or, at least, exert a new and powerful influence upon the development of society in that period: government, religion, commerce, secular education, popular entertainment.

The “story” of each civilization is analogous to the story of individual persons. It follows an organic life cycle. Each is “born”, so to speak. It has a period of childhood, or youthful growth, followed by the rise to mature strength; and then, after a long period of maturity, it begins to weaken and grow old. Civilizations, unlike people, do not die but, instead, see their dominant institutions falter as they are replaced by a successor. Their mature phase becomes associated with institutional empires that become abusive and are discredited.

In the case of government, we can date the “birth” of its civilization at various times ranging from 4,000 B.C. in Egypt to the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. in Central America. This is the story of small city states becoming established as monarchies and then warring with each other until the dominant state becomes a great empire. In western Asia and Europe, a number of political empires rose and fell until Rome ultimately triumphed. After the western part of its empire fell in the 6th century A.D., religion became the dominant power in society.

The second civilization, focused on religion, began with its transformation from ritualistic worship to philosophy-based or creedal religion in the 1st millennium B.C. This is the story of the three world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam - growing out of an earlier Hindu, Judaic, or pagan worship and then establishing a particular relationship with the state that involved power sharing. Each entered a phase of empire characterized by worldly ambition and war, and then the replacement of religious culture by something else. In the case of Christianity, the Renaissance brought an effective end to its civilization.

The secular culture of Europe begun in the Renaissance (the third civilization) had a commercial flavoring. Blocked trade routes to east Asia inspired the search for alternative routes by sea and discovery of the Americas. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English competed for colonial possessions around the earth. The Protestant Reformation and Catholic reaction gave a boost to religious education which, in turn, led to schools run by the state. This civilization gave rise to polished works of music, and art, national literature, natural science, the Industrial Revolution, intercontinental railroads, capitalistic enterprise, the labor movement, international socialism, famous universities, and the refined sensibilities of Victorian England. Its phase of empire came to a bloody end in the two world wars, followed by decolonization, struggles against racism, and the rise of non-European powers.

A fourth civilization, none too serious, arose as economic development gave rise to increasing leisure. People turned their attention from the complexities of modern art, angry ideologies, and devastating wars to something more light-hearted. The sports of boxing, horse racing, cricket, baseball, football, and basketball, among others, attracted large crowds and became professionalized. The Olympic games were revived. The invention of the phonograph amplified the voice of popular singers. Motion pictures elevated dramatic productions into a popular culture featuring Hollywood stars. Then, in the 20th century, came radio and television which revolutionized the art of selling commercial products. By the end of this century most Americans were living in an entertainment-centered culture.

As the name suggests, Five Epochs of Civilization makes room for a fifth civilization following the one based on mass entertainment. This will be a computer-based culture. It will be a global culture. The Internet has expanded and personalized electronic communication. A critical issue in this civilization’s growth will be its ability to monetize Internet traffic at the expense of the broadcast media. This civilization is yet in its infancy. Stay tuned.

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Following this outline of civilizations, we are ready to build the pyramid of world history. Level One, at the very top, consists of a brief statement of how he world went from the beginnings of physical existence to its condition in late 2007 - too general to interest anyone besides theoreticians of history.

Level Two begins to fill in the picture. What we have immediately available is the histories of Civilizations I, II, III, and IV as contained in the book Five Epochs of Civilization. For the first time, this becomes available for free on the Internet.
The history of Civilization V was not written when the book came out in 2000 because so much of this history was in the future. Now that seven more years have passed, we begin to see how its potential will play out. But nothing is written yet. The “historians” in this case will be persons who have lived through its experience.

The other gaps on Level Two of this pyramid have to do with the period of time before civilized societies appeared. This history would cover events from the beginning of the physical universe billions of years ago to 4000 B.C. in some instances and later in others.

One might divide this period into two epochs: (1) from the universe’s beginning to the beginning of our species (homo sapiens); and (2) from man’s first appearance to the arrival of civilized societies. Astronomers, physicists, geologists, and biologists would have charge of stories in the first epoch; archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and DNA researchers would have charge of those in the second epoch.

Regarding the first epoch, we would want to know how the milky way and solar system were formed, how the earth developed within the solar system, how geological processes shaped the earth on land and sea, how species of plant and animal life developed on earth, and how the human species appeared. Try to tell this in a narrative.

Regarding the second epoch, we would want to know the origins of the human species, the patterns of migration from its birthplace in east Africa to the far corners of the earth, the artifacts and techniques of the hunter-gatherer economy, the earliest development of agriculture, the history of languages, the myths and folklore of preliterate culture, and many other things about our human ancestors before they had a written history.

To prime the pump, so to speak, we have the histories of the first four civilizations ready to go. This website contains links to those histories. The next step is either to complete the Level Two histories or, better still, to begin the more extensive process of writing histories on Level Three. In other words, take what has been written for the first four civilizations and elaborate upon what part of the story interests you. Or, if the Level Two version omits something important, tell that story.

Once we have a fairly complete Level Three history and many people involved in writing it, we can then go back to rewrite the history on Level Two. And then, if there is an interest, we can go still deeper into Level Four. This will take a much greater production of writing. We will need historical accuracy and understanding, clarity and brevity of writing, a balanced explanation, and a good narrative for each segment. The end result should be a collaborative world history that is well developed and accessible to all.

This pyramid of history can make an important contribution to human culture in a global age. It can help to build a more peaceful world community.

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