Expansion

2004-03-07

In The Evolution of Civilizations, Carroll Quigley enumerates seven phases in the life of a civilization:

  1. Mixture -- the mixing of various groups or peoples to form a distinct society

  2. Gestation -- the development of a unique method for accumulating an economic surplus and investing it in methods of expansion

  3. Expansion -- a period of vigorous expansion in population, territory, technological competence, wealth, knowledge, etc.

  4. Conflict -- major conflict between societal elements or geographical areas within the civilization

  5. Empire -- development of a universal empire ruling over the entire civilization, which far from being a golden age represents a precursor to decay and collapse

  6. Decay -- ossification of institutions and structures within the empire (as representative of the civilization)

  7. Invasion -- collapse of the civilization, usually through invasion by a newer civilization that is in the expansion phase

Resilient civilizations are somehow able to emerge from an age of conflict by returning to the expansion phase, rather than beginning their decline with the emergence of a universal empire. The foremost example is Western civilization, which according to Quigley has experienced three periods of expansion (970-1270, 1420-1650, 1725-1915), each followed by a period of conflict (1300-1400, 1650-1750, 1915-1950). Each time, Western civilization was able to develop a new basis for expansion: feudalism (symbolized by the knight, who was also an entrepreneur of sorts) in the first period, commercial capitalism (the trader) in the second period, and industrial capitalism (the producer) in the third period. At the time of Quigley's writing (the book was published in 1961), it was unclear if Western civilization would develop a new basis for expansion (although he thought it would). Now we can say that it has, although the exact nature of the current basis for expansion (variously described as the service economy, the information age, the computer age, etc.) is not fully clear yet.

A civilization that experiences so many periods of expansion is bound to exercise immense influence over humankind. One measure thereof is the simple geographical breadth of the civilization. Nations and societies that were once beyond the pale of modern Western civilization (such as Scandinavia, central Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Ireland, Greece, southern Italy, Spain) are now thought of as naturally part of the West. Through exploration and colonization, Western civilization expanded to the New World and to Australia and New Zealand, and exercised a powerful influence over southern Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Other measures would include economic wealth, (scientific) knowledge, technological innovation, and military power -- all measures on which the West has been dominant over the past 500 years.

Quigley's analysis is more nuanced than Douglas Robertson's in The New Renaissance because Quigley focuses on only the last 6,000 years or so -- i.e., human experience in societies that developed a settled existence and written language. Whereas Robertson paints in broad brushstrokes, Quigley analyzes not only the mode of information retention but also key technological and societal drivers such as methods of farming and power generation (human power in the slave-owning societies of Classical times; animal power in early Western civilization; animal and wind power in the second period of Western expansion; steam power, internal combustion, and electricity in the industrial revolution) and the dominant forms of weaponry, which affect the organization of both armies and the body politic (feudal knights supplanted by mercenaries for hire in the mercantile age, supplanted by mass armies in the democratic age, supplanted by specialist and centralized armies in the mainly authoritarian twentieth century).

As even this cursory overview indicates, Quigley sees decentralization and individual liberty (balanced by what he calls the gradual and communal search for truth) as essential to the resilience of Western civilization; he also sees centralization (especially in the form of a universal empire within a civilization) and the ossification of effective societal organizations and methods into static "institutions" as the death-knell for expansion and renewal. The fact that Western civilization has traditionally been polycentric and has never led to a universal empire (despite many efforts to do so) is part of its unique status among human civilizations so far. Naturally, whether it can stave off empire and decline is an open question.

Going further, it would be interesting to interweave Quigley's analysis (which is largely based on technological and economic development but also takes into account military and political organization as well as social and intellectual trends) with Robertson's insights into the dominant means of information retention. Is there something special about Western civilization after the invention and wide dispersal of printed texts? It certainly does seem as if Western civilization kicked into high gear after 1500 or so, and has become increasingly "self-aware" over time with vast increases in scientific, historical, social, biological, and psychological knowledge. This knowledge has not been merely theoretical but has led to ever-expanding power and control over the means of production (both economic and technological). Will the incipient information revolution instigate even more fundamental changes in the human ability to manipulate nature (even human nature)? Will it lead to greater centralization (as some fear) or initiate a fundamental de-centralization of key societal factors such as power generation, weaponry, material production, and knowledge creation? Will it change society and human relations so deeply that the age of civilizations (over the past 6,000 years) is supplanted by something radically new? It's too early to tell, but the hints are tantalizing.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal