LEARNING FROM HISTORY
Human history may be viewed from various angles. The easiest history to write concerns the doings of a few well known people and their involvement in some memorable events. History may also concern itself with inventions and discoveries: the use of fire, of the wheel or smelting metals. It may center around sources of food, means of shelter, or the making of records. It may be concerned with the construction and decoration of cities, kingdoms and empires.
Social history enters the picture with travel, transportation, communication, trade. Human beings group themselves in families, clans and tribes, in voluntary associations; they compete, plunder, conquer, enslave, exploit; they co-operate for construction and destruction. Political history is but one aspect of man’s group contacts and group projects.
There have been histories of particular civilizations and of civilization as a field of historical research. With minor exceptions none of the authors that I have consulted has attempted an analytical treatment of civilization as a sociological phenemenon.
Scientists start from hunches, examine available data, advance tentative conclusions, test them in the light of wider observations, and round out their research by formulating general principles or “laws.” This scientific approach has been used in many fields of observation and study. I am applying the formula to one aspect of social history: the appearance, development, maturity, decline and disappearance of the vast co-ordinations of collective, experimental human effort called civilizations.
“Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, where are they?” asked Byron. He might have added: “What were they? How did they come into being? What was the nature of their experience? Why did they rise from small beginnings, develop into wide-spread colossal complexes of wealth and power, and then, after longer or shorter periods of existence, break up and disappear from the stage of social history?”
Such questions are far removed from the lives of people who are busy with everyday affairs. In one sense they are remote; in the larger picture, however, they are of vital concern to anyone and everyone now living in civilized communities. If Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians built extensive empires and massive civilizations that flourished for a time, then broke up and disappeared, are we to follow blindly and unthinkingly in their footsteps? Or do we study their experiences, benefit from their successes and learn from their mistakes? Can we not take lessons out of their voluminous notebooks, avoid their blunders and direct our own feet along paths that fulfil our lives at the same time that they meet the widespread demand for survival and well-being?
Civilization has been extensively experimental. Several thousand years, during which civilizations have appeared, disappeared and reappeared, have been too brief to establish and stabilize a hard and fast social pattern. As the complexity of civilizations has increased, variations and deviations have grown in number and intensity. With the advent of western civilization a culture pattern is being put together which differs widely from its predecessors.