Historical Patterns

2004-12-12

I continue to work my way through Weapons Systems and Political Stability: A History by Carroll Quigley. As far as I can see, the book is really a long (1043 pages) treatment of the history of civilizations, with a special focus on security (not a history of weaponry per se). Interspersed with long historical narrative we find some briefer passages that are more reflective or philosophical. For example, speaking of the "almost total disappearance of cities west of the Jordan River" after about 850 BCE, Quigley writes (pp. 162-163):

This may be regarded as an example of the five steps by which civilized life in literate urban centers rises and falls: (1) increasing political security leads to (2) growing commerce (at first distant trade in luxury items, and later local trade in more essential commodities), with a resulting growth in specialized economic activities; (3) the appearance of new social classes, merchants and artisans, who become city residents with a social position as a middle class, between the ruling elite and the peasantry; (4) the growth of a town, usually around a ritual center or citadel; and (5) growing literacy and the appearance of vernacular literature. The same five steps mark a civilization's decline, with the steps in the same sequence but each step in the reverse direction: decreasing political and personal security leading to a decline in distant trade and in luxuries but later, also, in local trade in necessities; followed by erosion of the urban and middle classes, who follow the food supply back to its source in rural areas, the growing ruralization accompanied by growing militarization of life, as the society moves toward a two-class society of warriors and peasants, with declining literacy.

A few pages further on (pp. 165-166), while introducing the rise of sea power between 1500 and 500 BCE, he writes:

History does not move forward in one direction, or even at a steady rate. It often flounders for extended periods, churning about in almost the same position, going in circles, while generations of nameless persons are born, grow up, reproduce, and die. Then, in some mysterious way, some society in one area finds an organizational structure and a particular cognitive system which gives it a pattern in which people's energies can be applied in a more or less common purpose and direction. On that basis, for many generations, that society moves in a single direction, exploiting the possibilities of that organizational structure and its cognitive system. Eventually, the possibilities of those cultural patterns become exhausted, and their essential nature becomes corrupted or lost, the society slows down, wavers in its course, and begins to weaken both in its ability to satisfy the basic needs of its members and even to defend them as a group against outside threats. That society may perish or it may persist in weakness and corruption for many generations before some outside society comes upon it with sufficient strength to destroy it; but, in either case, until it disappears, its history, once again, takes the form of endless churning about in aimless circles without purpose or large-scale group satisfactions.

When a society finds a fruitful organization and outlook, other societies may copy its organization (although not its outlook), either in emulation or in self-defence against such a superior organization of human efforts represented by that superior system. When this occurs, numerous distinct societies over a wide area and over an extended period of time may seem to be moving, almost simultaneously, in meaningful and purposeful directions. Such periods of reciprocal copying and resistence to other societies can be observed if we look at human history from a broad enough point of view. Such a transformation is familiar to us in the worldwide repercussions following the application of steampower and modern technology to production in the eighteenth century.


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