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Summary of Individual Chapters


Five Epochs of Civilization


Chapter One: In Search of a Pattern in World History

An important part of historical study is the task of finding a design in the record of human experience. World history is embodied in a set of stories. The stories tell how humanity has progressed from one situation to another - from a less to a more complex type of society.

The crux of the matter is to determine the turning points of history. They are times which mark a dividing line between two different types of culture. In contrast with histories centering in the experience of particular nations, this one follows changes in the values and structure of society.

The introduction of new cultural technologies creates a space for new types of public experience. They define the successive epochs of world history. Civilizations are not societies which rise and fall in recurring cycles but cultural systems which build upon the work of their predecessors. Curiously, these civilizations appear to be worldwide. That makes it possible to view world history with a single focus.


Chapter Two: Institutions Differentiating within Society

The flow of world history follows the creation of an increasingly complex society. Ever more specialized institutions appear.

When civilizations first arose in the eastern Mediterranean area, civilized societies were ruled by institutions that combined political and religious authority. During the first historical epoch, the political function split from the religious. Royal governments created territorially extended empires by force of arms.

However, the experience of military violence, cruelty, and injustice produced a yearning for a more rational and peaceful world. Philosophers expressed such ideals. In time, philosophy found an outlet in religion. There followed an age of idea-based religions which transcended nationality - the so-called "world religions".

Subsequently, these religions became contending empires which fought for worldly power. Then came a movement away from spiritual strife as humanity embraced a more sensuous, and commercial set of pursuits.

The epoch of European dominance, beginning in the 15th century A.D. featured values centered in wealth and in the cultural trappings of wealth. Western expansion brought all the world's people in touch with each other for the first time.

After two bloody wars, this third civilization began to dissolve in the new culture of popular entertainment. Making people have fun became a serious business. Gaining and keeping their attention became a road to power and wealth.


Chapter Three: Personality and Belief

The institutions of government, world religion, commerce and education, and popular entertainment have a spiritual side which is tied to their belief systems and perceptions of attractive personality. Each historical epoch has its own "religion" in a broad sense.

A religion has beliefs concerning fundamental questions. It also promotes certain models of personality.

The nature worship of tribal peoples gave way to "the worship of one's own collective human power." Religion was in the hands of government.

Then prophets and philosophers challenged civic authority. They created a new kind of religion which could be formulated in creeds. Fidelity to those creeds offered a path to Heaven.

"Religion" in the epoch of commerce and education turned to things of this world. People believed in education, money acquired through successful careers, and the creative greatness of artists and musicians.

The invention of electronic technologies capturing sensuous images has created a culture of immediate spectacles which the community can share. The world of big-time entertainment offers fame and fortune to the lucky performers who find a place in its shows; but, as the gossip columns reveal, these glamorous individuals may have their share of problems.


Chapter Four: A Short History of Civilization I

The history of the first civilization is a history of government. It includes the experience of wars and changing political dynasties. This is history as it is commonly understood.

Monarchical government began with the foundation of the early city-states. It grew to the size of empire when the localities came in conflict with each other. Certain kings prevailed in these wars. The losers were defeated and enslaved.

Like a pair of book ends, the multi-millennial reign of imperial governments in Egypt and China frames the beginning and end of this epoch.

Western peoples look back to Rome for their model of empire. Before that, bloody empires rose and fell with some frequency in the Middle East: The Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Hellenistic Greeks were among those competing for power.

The Achaemenian Persian empire was revived under Parthian and Sasanian kings before succumbing to the armies of Islam.

India had two short-lived indigenous empires before foreign Mogul and British rulers unified the subcontinent. Imperial splendor reached a peak in the 3rd century, A.D.

By the 7th century A.D., only the Greek Byzantine and Chinese imperial dynasties remained to represent this civilization in the Old World.

Balance-of-power diplomacy prevented a revival of empire in Europe. Only religion could bind diverse peoples in a community.


Chapter Five: A Short History of Civilization II

The history of the second civilization began in that remarkable intellectual and moral awakening that occurred in scattered societies during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Spiritually advanced persons who lived then have left their teachings to posterity.

The culminating event of this epoch was the establishment of three world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam - and the ideological transformation of earlier religions such as Judaism and Hinduism. In league with government, these religions staked out territories of influence.

This type of religion was driven by ideas rather than rituals. Besides the founder's teachings, religious doctrine includes the work of interpreters who evaluate, codify, and explain doctrinal positions.

Religion has, however, a worldly side in the hierarchies of clergy who staff its institutions. Here ideological zeal and ambition may lead to a result at variance with the beneficial and peaceful values at the core of the religion.

Toward the end of the second epoch, Christian crusaders went to war against Moslems who ruled the Holy Land. Moslems and Hindus fought for control of India. Buddhists and others cultivated the martial arts.

Meanwhile, communities of mystics, monks, and scholars practiced the hard discipline of a spiritually centered life. Their quiet experiences, too, are part of the history of this second civilization.


Chapter Six: A Short History of Civilization III

The third civilization began with an awakening which has been called the Renaissance. Its culture originated in northern Italy where commercial success was combined with a taste for classical scholarship and exquisite art.

European influence spread with the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of transoceanic discovery. West Europeans colonized lands in the New World which Columbus had "discovered" en route to the Orient. Rival nations bordering the north Atlantic fought for control of the trade in oriental spices.

Later, a brisk trade in rum, coffee, and tobacco developed between Europe and its colonies in North America and the Caribbean islands. Slaves imported from Africa were put to work producing commodities for export.

The savage warfare between Protestants and Catholics caused European intellectuals to shun religious controversies and pursue secular learning. Scientific discoveries brought technological innovations that transformed manufacturing and transportation.

Industrialized societies gained wealth while developing social rifts. The laboring class asserted itself through strikes. Parliamentary governments challenged the authority of kings. Wars and revolutions advanced ideals of progress against the old order.

Having defeated Spain on the seas and France in land battles fought in India and North America, Great Britain became the world's leading colonial power. Challenged by Prussian Germany, this sea-based nation threw the flower of its youth into a continental war from which it never fully recovered. Its former colony, the United States of America, filled the power vacuum.

Anticolonial movements in the 19th and 20th centuries brought political independence to peoples in South America, Asia, and Africa.


Chapter Seven: A Short History of Civilization IV

It may seem strange to suggest that entertainment is the basis of a new civilization replacing that of the past five hundred years. Yet, signs of its cultural dominance are compelling.

This historical epoch began with the minstrel shows, freak shows, and circuses of the previous century and with popular sporting events such as horse races, boxing matches, and baseball games. Spectacular exhibitions such as the Crystal Palace in 1851 attracted large crowds.

However, it was the invention of electronic devices to record and transmit images of sight and sound which created the new popular culture.

After serious ideas had led to the carnage of two world wars, Americans wanted something a bit lighter. Some people enjoyed themselves at Broadway theaters or in clubs featuring jazz music. Others followed the careers of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio on the baseball diamond.

Movies came of age in the 1920s when they acquired sound. Commercial radio stations began broadcasting music, news, and light entertainment. The creative ferment between black and white people's entertainment brought forth rock 'n roll music. Television broadcasts, begun after World War II, became the center of attention in many households. The lure of easy money fueled a gambling craze.

Entertainment tastes became diversified: some enjoy shows suitable for "families" while others prefer "adult entertainment".

Computer-generated images create new vistas of visual excitement. There are new opportunities to have fun with illusion-producing machines.


Chapter Eight: The Impact of Cultural Technologies upon Public Experience

The reason that the introduction of new cultural technologies is linked to new civilizations is that, in delivering an image or message to an audience, these technologies create their own type of experience, coloring it in certain ways. Certain institutions depend on their communicative service.

Government bureaucracies employ the technology of writing. The invention of the alphabet put written language into the hands of merchants and others leading active lives. The exposure to visual symbols suggested to some philosophers that abstractions had an independent existence.

Printing increased literacy. It fostered a more precise way of thinking, so important to modern science. Well-known authors came to acquire cult followings.

That changed when the technologies of film production, music recording, and radio and television broadcasting brought the personal images of performers into full view. Famous people were packaged and sold as image commodities.

With the development of computers, the culture is again set to change. Perhaps the individual experience of interactivity and connectedness will spawn a new set of public values.


Chapter Nine: A Short History of Cultural Technologies

Written language was invented in ancient Mesopotamia as a means of recording commercial transactions. The same set of symbols was used to express numbers and words.

Ideographic writing began when scribes chose different symbols for the quantities and types of commodities. Phonetic elements crept into writing driven by a need to express abstract concepts. In some scripts, the symbols expressed syllabic sounds.

The alphabet, whose letters represent the pure sounds of speech, first appeared in the Middle East during the 2nd millennium B.C. Two Semitic peoples, the Phoenicians and Aramaeans, carried its technology to distant places in trading expeditions.

The Phoenician alphabet gave rise to the Greek and Latin alphabets, parent of most European scripts. Far Eastern societies have retained the earlier ideographic or syllabic system of writing.

Printing came to the West from east Asia. Gutenberg's pioneering use of movable type sparked an explosion of printed literature. Mass-circulation newspapers appeared in the 19th century.

Photography and telegraphy, invented in the 1830s and 1840s, were among the first technologies to use chemical processes or electrical signals to capture or express images and words. The phonograph and motion-picture machine delivered a series of images in time.

Radio and television broadcasting sent messages through the air waves to persons with receivers tuned to particular frequencies. There came to be a culture of live images connecting the performers with mass audiences.

The computer, first developed during World War II, has grown in processing speed and capacity while becoming physically miniaturized.


Chapter Ten: Using History to Predict the Future

Can world history be used to predict the future? If the future resembles the past, perhaps so. Otherwise, a way to anticipate coming events in our civilization might be through analogy with other civilizations in a similar phase.

Each of the four world civilizations whose history is already known follows a life cycle. Generally, its period of exuberant, creative expansion is followed by a maturing phase that brings empire. This, in turn, leads to violence and coercion as an attempt to retain worldly power.

One also discerns a pattern by which institutions emerging in one period are fundamentally altered two epochs later.

Historians are wanting to distinguish historical turning points from ephemeral changes in the culture. Besides the appearance of major new cultural technologies, this book identifies other conditions that are present in times of fundamental change:

First, the new civilizations arise in an environment of political parochialism and vigorous commerce.

Second, this environment produces important innovations in mathematics and commercial practice.

Third, there are expanded geographical horizons. People's imaginations are excited by perceptions of a wider world.


Chapter Eleven: Intimations of a Fifth Civilization

The computer age is upon us. Though in its infancy, we know this epoch will bring distinct changes to society. To predict the future of this civilization, one can anticipate impacts arising from the nature of the technology.

Already there is interest in the commercial application of computers. One can envision powerful new modes of selling and distributing products which gives consumers more information, choice, and control.

Education is another area which foreseeably will be transformed. Computers give students the ability to interact individually with a mechanized teaching source. They also have an unlimited capacity to replicate lessons. Shortages of high-quality education could be a thing of the past.

The most profound result of computers may be as a tool allowing man to remake himself. Computers can control the extensive information contained in the structure of DNA molecules. They have the potential to replicate processes of the human mind.

In this "Frankenstein civilization", man and machine will forge a common future which is at once dangerous and exciting in its far-reaching possibilities. 


Book Specifications: 

Title: Five Epochs of Civilization: World History as Emerging in Five Civilizations
Author: William McGaughey
ISBN:               0-9605630-3-2  
Publication date:  2000
List price:         $18.95 (U.S.) per copy  
Length:             503 pages text, 616 in total  
Type of book:   original softcover, notch binding  
Other features:  Book also includes a summary, bibliography, index, 26 tables, and 115 illustrations.  

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