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About the Design of World History


by William McGaughey

A question that needs to be considered is the relationship between world history and civilizations. Institutionally, it is the difference between the World History Association, heavily influenced by William H. McNeill, and the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, which Arnold Toynbee helped to organize in 1961.

The oldest versions of world history featured chronologies of kings, emperors, and other political leaders. More recently, it has become the history of civilizations. Instead of focusing upon governmental activities alone, world history has also included events relating to the cultural and material life of societies around the world. It has described the rise and fall of civilizations.

Even so, there remains a question of how the story of civilizations ought to be written. Does world history flow in a certain direction? Which historical themes are important?

The McNeill school of world history tends to emphasize contacts and communication between geographically separated communities. Trade contacts along the Silk Road or oceanic routes, human migrations, exchanges of food or diseases, or the spread of missionary religions would be a prime focus of world history. Its logical end would be the unification of humanity in a global society.

In contrast with those who emphasize external contacts between civilizations, Arnold Toynbee and others of his school have looked at the internal dynamic of societies to identify the source of historical change. In their view, human societies are like living organisms whose fates are reasonably predicted by their life cycle. Civilizations are born, grow, reach a state of maturity, and then decline and die. As Oswald Spengler conceived them, they are analogous to a species of plant.

This fundamental difference in outlook among prominent historians has been too little discussed. We need to consider the structure of world history - how its story should be organized and designed. Is there a biological force intrinsic to human societies that drives world history in a certain direction or is this history subject to mechanical influences from outside?

Although both are concerned with history, one should recognize that the study of civilizations differs from world history in a certain respect. World history is a story, which is a narrated series of events that helps to explain how our world came to be. The study of civilizations is not a story but an analysis of historical developments. Its prime focus is the rise and fall of civilizations.

Edward Gibbon may have started civilization studies with his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, explaining how and why Rome fell. Toynbee’s A Study of History is more about the birth and rise of civilizations. Societies became powerful or culturally distinguished, he believed, because they had successfully met a challenge. For example, Athens in the 5th century B.C. achieved great things in the aftermath of thwarting a perilous invasion by Xerxes I, the Persian king.

I find the “life cycle” explanation of the rise and fall of civilizations to be compelling. This gives a more meaningful view of historical events than the idea that historical change occurs when one culture strikes another like colliding billiard balls. However, external influences do undeniably also play a role.

The problem with studying civilizations is the lack of a story. Individual scholars work in their area of specialty and fail to grasp the whole picture. We often have these scholars talking past each other instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue. In contrast, world history cannot be adequately written unless the whole story of humanity is told. Many separate histories involving many scholars would be pieced together. A solution would be to write a world history that includes the life stories of all civilizations. The fall of one would lead to the appearance of the next much as generations of live creatures follow one another.


Some models of world history

I have recently reviewed six books of world history including my own and determined how their stories were designed. The books were published between 1876 and 2011. They are:

(1) I.S. Clare’s, Illustrated Universal History, published in 1876,
(2) H.G. Wells’ An Outline of History, published in 1920,
(3) William H. McNeill's A World History, published in 1967,
(4) Arnold Toynbee’s Mankind and Mother Earth, published in 1976,
(5) William McGaughey’s Five Epochs of Civilization, published in 2000, and
Peter N. Stearns’ World History: the Basics, published in 2011


1. I.S. Clare’s, Illustrated Universal History, published in 1876

Clare’s book was published at the time of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American independence. Like other historical books of this era, this so-called “universal history” is really a western history. The histories of China and India together claim two pages. Western history is told in the traditional three-part structure of ancient, medieval, and modern.

This book is largely a political history. It is the story of dynasties of nations and empires that existed at various times. Rome was, of course, the great empire of western peoples as a whole. Ancient history ends when the western Roman empire fell in 476 A.D. But classical Greece was a cultural predecessor of Roman culture so that its history is also given much space. To a lesser extent, the Biblical history of the Israelites also merits attention as a people who flourished in ancient times and shaped our religious beliefs.

Medieval history concerns the political landscape after the west Roman empire fell. The barbarian tribes that overthrew Rome are discussed in this section. So are the Muslims who created a great empire during this time as well as dynasties of the Frankish empire. Medieval history also includes social institutions such as chivalry and the feudal system. The seven crusades summoned by the Pope against Islamic rulers of Jerusalem also merit attention. Other than these, the history of the middle ages is largely a series of dynastic histories in Italy, France, Germany, England, and eastern Europe. The Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery mark a transition to modern times.

Modern history has a peculiar structure based on chronology: the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The 16th century is shaped by struggles between Spanish and English kings (Charles V and Henry VIII) and their immediate successors, Philip II and Elizabeth I. The 17th century is shaped by the 30 years’ war, the English revolution, wars involving the French king Louis XIV, and England’s American colonies. The 18th century is shaped by a series of military struggles: the war of the Spanish succession, the war of the Austrian succession, the seven years’ war, Anglo-French colonial wars, and the French revolution.

The story of the French emperor Napoleon kicks off the 19th century. The remaining part of this century is dominated by numerous political revolutions, reforms, or civil wars, and by political events in Spain’s American colonies. The history of the United States of America, beginning with the American Revolutionary war, is largely the story of successive presidential administrations.

Although important events in nonwestern societies in ancient times are neglected in this universal history, the reigns of 25 different Roman emperors lasting from 180 A.D. to 364 A.D. are covered in an eight-page section titled “the period of military despotism”. Constantine the Great, an important figure in the history of Christianity, is included among this group of emperors.


2. H.G. Wells’ An Outline of History, published in 1920

This two-volume work by H.G. Wells, An Outline of History, is more than a world history. Chapters 1, 2, and 5 briefly discuss the formation of earth as a planet in space and the earth’s geological history as these events were known in Wells’ time. Chapters 3 through 7 describe the development of life on earth. Chapter 8 and 9 tell how the human and Neanderthal species evolved. Chapter 10 through 15 are concerned with prehistoric culture including the early inhabitants of Europe, the races of humanity, languages, and religions. It is with chapter 16, titled “the first civilizations”, that world history proper begins.

While the civilizations of India and China are mentioned, this is really history from a European point of view. We have the distant civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, and Babylonians in the foreground. Then come the classical civilizations of antiquity: Judea, Greece, and Rome. The west Roman empire collapses and the Christian church takes its place. The religion of Jesus moves to center stage. The first millennium histories of Persia, Byzantium, Islam, India, and China are covered in a single chapter titled “seven centuries in Asia” (chapter 31)

Chapter 32 is about the Islamic religion; and Chapter 34, about the Mongol empire. Other than this, Chapter 33 and Chapters 35 through 40 are almost entirely about the western societies of Europe and America. Despite discussions of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, this history is focused largely upon political events. World War I brings this history to a close. (Wells published his book in 1920.) The concluding chapter speculates upon the possibility of world government as a device to end wars.

This history is told in chronological order. Wars, migrations, revolutions, and other political events make up a large part of the story. Napoleon and Alexander the Great (but not Julius Caesar) rate separate chapters.

Even so, Wells is relatively sensitive to cultural issues such as the impact of writing or of certain ideas. He is more apt to discuss personalities such as Charlemagne and emperor Frederick II. He is less concerned with institutions arising in society or with events in nonwestern societies.


3. William H. McNeill's A World History, published in 1967

William McNeill was writing at a time when western history was in transition to world history. After World War I, western historians were beginning to realize that the old histories of humanity had neglected important events and developments in the nonwestern world and they tried to correct that situation.

McNeill’s A World History betrays growing pains. It seems that nonwestern history has been added onto the traditional model of (western) history. Indeed, Part III is focused upon western domination of the world.

Structurally, McNeill’s book goes by regions and periods. For example, Part I looks successively at developments in the Middle East, India, Greece, and China until 500 B.C. before barbarians intrude upon civilized society. Then, in Part II, McNeill discusses events in the Greco-Roman world from 500 B.C. to 200 A.D. and in India from 200 to 500 A.D. Barbarian invasions between 200 and 600 A.D. and the rise of Islam are described in separate chapters. Then come the histories of China, India, and Europe between 600 and 1000 A.D. Another segment, between 1000 and 1500 A.D. highlights Turkish and Mongol invasions, medieval Europe and Japan, and so-called “fringes of the civilized world” - southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas.

Part III tells how, after 1500 A.D., the European nations first explored and then colonized other parts of the world. The focus here is on political (government-centered) developments although non-political events such as the scientific and industrial revolutions, which help explain European dominance, also enter this history, as do artistic and literary accomplishments by Europeans. Although outside western Europe, Russia and Japan gain a fair share of attention. The great political revolutions of North America, France, and Russia between 1776 and 1917 are focal points of this history.


4. Arnold Toynbee’s Mankind and Mother Earth, published in 1976

Arnold Toynbee tells the story of human civilization in a peculiar way. The story is told in chronological order while shifting from one region to another.

Starting with Mesopotamia (Sumer) and Egypt, we move into several different regional cultures in the first millennium B.C.: Judea, Greece, India, China, and the New World cultures of central and south America. Each place requires a separate chapter to tell its history during a particular period of time.

Later the focus of world history shifts to religions and political empires. The Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires each take a turn on center stage. Chapter 37 tells how four empires dominated the Old World until the early third century A.D. After Rome fell in the west, the east (Byzantine) Romans and Sasanian Persians were locked in mortal combat until the armies of Islam threatened both. China meanwhile was developing a more durable empire, or series of empires, starting in the third century B.C. The eruption of the Huns and other tribes in the mid first millennium A.D. put an end to the age of political empires.

Chapter 25, “New Departures in Spiritual Life”, introduced an age of religion. Buddha was the first founder of a world religion; then, Jesus of Nazareth; and finally Muhammad, who brought monotheistic religion to the Arabs. The different religions then developed institutional structures and formed alliances with states. Religion was the dynamic force in human culture during this time.

Meanwhile, the east Roman empire, linked to orthodox Christianity, hung on for another thousand years while being attacked by Muslims. Small empires rose and fell in the New World. China radiated both political and cultural influence. India remained religiously and politically divided as Muslim kings invaded from the north. The periphery of eastern and southeastern Asia fell under either Indian or Chinese influence. The Mongols threatened several civilized communities simultaneously.

Toynbee says little about commercial or educational institutions and next to nothing about the entertainment culture of the 20th century. His history is bound to the print world rather than to the world of electronic communication. Also, this world history neglects the African continent perhaps because it was on the periphery of larger political and religious empires. Unlike some other world histories, there is little sense of progress toward a particular end. Otherwise, Mankind and Mother Earth, is a comprehensive and highly informative narrative of human history.


5. William McGaughey’s Five Epochs of Civilization, published in 2000

My book, Five Epochs of Civilization, is a book of world history. It tells the history of civilized societies in chapters 4 through 8. Chapter 11 continue the story into the future to the extent that this was unknown at the time of writing. Chapter 2 is also part of the history; it describes events at the beginning of each civilization - their creation story, so to speak. The remaining five chapters are historiography rather than history.

In this book, world history is divided into five periods or epochs that are each associated with a civilization. The first civilization describes the period between 3,000 B.C. when civilized societies arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the time of Christ. The second civilization describes the period between the time of Christ and 1500 A.D when the Protestant Reformation took place. The third civilization describes the period between 1500 A.D. and 1920 A.D., the aftermath of World War I. The fourth civilization describes the period between 1920 A.D. and 2000 A.D. when the Internet took off. The fifth civilization which began in the 21st century is an age, still developing, which will be dominated by computer technology.

Communication technology plays a key role in creating and shaping the successive civilizations. Each civilization begins with an emerging technology that becomes the dominant mechanism of public communication. And so, the first civilization is associated with writing in its primitive, ideographic form; the second civilization, with alphabetic writing; the third civilization, with printing; the fourth civilization, with electronic recording and broadcasting; and the fifth civilization, with computer-based communication including the Internet.

Each type of communication technology fosters the development of a particular institution. For the first civilization, it is the institution of government; for the second civilization, world religion; for the third civilization, commerce and secular education; for the fourth civilization, the news and entertainment industry; and, for the fifth civilization, the Internet and perhaps other institutions. These successive institutions each exercise power in the society. Although the newest one is dominant, they work in combination with each other to produce an increasingly pluralistic society in which power is divided.

Five Epochs of Civilization defines civilization as a stage in the development of a single worldwide civilization rather than a regional entity. There is, for instance, no “Egyptian” or “Chinese” civilization as such. This type of world history is intended to be a creation story about the various institutions that have appeared over time in our highly complex society. Its story concerns power struggles between the different institutions and their leaders. While this book asserts that the histories of populous nations should receive their fair share of space in books of world history, it directs much attention to events and developments that have shaped our modern world such as those involving electronic media.


6. Peter N. Stearns’ World History: the Basics, published in 2011

Peter Stearns was chairman of the committee that developed the curriculum for Advanced Placement courses in world history. Unlike others, this book is not a world history as such but a book about world history. However, chapter two, titled “A World History Skeleton”, tells how the author thinks the story of world history ought to be told. I will follow this “skeleton” in representing the design of Stearns’ history.

The first section, whose events are dated from 2.5 million years B.C. to around 1000 B.C., pertain to prehistory and the earliest civilizations. It tells of the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, of city states supported by agricultural production, of trade and culture, and the rise of monarchy.

The second section, from 1000 to 600 A.D., called “the classical period”, describes the consolidation and expansion of political power in Eurasia, trade relations between different societies, the emergence of philosophy and the arts, and the fall of great empires through barbarian invasion.

The “post classical period”, from 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D., is concerned with the spread of missionary religions and the acceleration of trade relations between scattered peoples. Civilization spread from core areas to peripheral places such as Russia and Japan. Toward the end of the period, the Mongols and Ottoman Turks subdued the older civilized regions.

The “early modern period”, from 1450 to 1800 A.D., brings the western hemisphere of the Americas into the sphere of world civilization. The nations of western Europe compete to establish colonies. New trade relations emerge. There is a revolution in science and technology.

A section titled ”the long Nineteenth Century” starts with the industrial revolution in Britain and goes on to discuss expanded food production, growing populations, steam-powered transportation, power inequalities created by capitalism, race-based slavery, and national independence movements. It ends on the grim note of World War I.

Finally we have “the contemporary era in world history”. The population explosion continues. Nonwestern nations challenge European dominance. Technology integrates the world, creating a global society. There are social and political upheavals that abolish monarchy and promote the rights of women. Consumerism challenges traditional religion.

The above characterizations merely scratch the surface of the books’ designs. Their tables of contents and chapter sub-heads give a more complete picture of how the stories were developed. They can be found at


Observations about these models

It is interesting to see how the conceptions of world history have changed as books have been published successively in more recent years. Clare’s lIlustrated Universal History, published in the 19th century, shows obvious regional or ethnocentric bias compared with the later works. It also tends to be focused on political administrations and their activities to the exclusion of other developments in society.

H.G. Wells greatly expands the coverage of nonwestern history although Europe still retains the edge in terms of volume and level of detail. Kings, emperors, and the founders of world religion are still the primary players in history even if other types of characters occasionally enter the picture. The same is also true of McNeill’s A World History - it has a predominant if not exclusive focus upon Europe and upon political personalities. It is only with Toynbee’s Mankind and Mother Earth that a world history with true regional balance is told.

How are the world histories organized? Necessarily they will be organized by dates and by region, especially in the early period. After preliminary discussions of agriculture and the early city states, humanity’s story is told in chronological order, swinging back and forth between geographically separated communities.

Toynbee does this systematically. For example, in Mankind and Mother Earth, Chapter 50 is about the expansion of the Islamic state between 633 - 750 A.D.; Chapter 51 about the rejuvenation of the East Roman empire between 628 - 726 A.D.; Chapter 52 about Western Christendom between 634 - 756 A.D.; and Chapter 53 about Eastern Asia between 589 - 763 A.D. The histories of India and Meso-America are also worked into this oscillating scheme. Except for Egypt, Africa is not. Perhaps that is because tribal societies have remained dominant there until recent years.

Does the story of world history have a direction? Some world historians, including those who write big histories, stress the increasing connectedness of human tribes. With improved transportation and communication, the once scattered peoples of the earth are coming into closer contact with each other even as human populations steadily increase. There is racial and ethnic intermarriage and an ecumenical spirit among some religions. H.G. Wells saw the necessity of world government to end wars. Even if the other world historians have not gone so far as that, all acknowledge the increasing integration of humanity in economic and cultural ways.

Another theme or direction in world history is the increasing complexity of society. Not only are human populations expanding but also their communities are acquiring more pluralistic power structures. Totalitarian societies such as imperial Rome’s or Nazi Germany’s, dominated by government, are necessarily being replaced by societies where power is shared with religion, business, the media, and other institutions. Each institution has its own creation story. World history would be the sum total of those stories.

My book, Five Epochs of Civilization, presents world history in those terms. Each epoch of history is associated with a “civilization” which, in turn, is associated with a particular configuration of institutions and a particular set of communication technologies, mostly forms of writing. Since the scattered societies on earth have gone through a similar process of development, it becomes possible to tell world history in a fairly unified story. Each phase of the story tells of a civilization that goes through the Toynbeesque process of rising and falling according to an internal dynamic.

The point is that world history is more than a personal literary production. We need to think objectively about its design. Certain designs flow naturally from the stream of recorded events in human experience. Historians need to discuss and debate their features. That would be a suitable enterprise for organizations such as the World History Association and International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations.

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