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This Fleeting World

Working on world history today, many e-mail exchanges with David Christian, the remarkable historian who has done so much to eludicate the bigger kind of history, the history of the cosmos, known simply as “big history.” I first heard of this from Bill McNeill, the eminent University of Chicago historian, and it did sound strange. It’s great to be getting ready to publish with David again and we can have some fun, too. For example, he sent me a link to Eric Idle’s cartoon version of big history. If Christmas shopping is getting you down, take a look–it’ll put things in perspective.

More about history’s parachutists and truffle hunters, and even better, a short piece from one of David’s articles in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History follows, if you click the link below.

Schemes of Periodization

The simplest approach to periodization—one that is present in many creation stories—divides the past into two great eras. These can be thought of as the era of creation and the era of today (as in some Australian Aboriginal accounts), or the eras before and after “the fall” (as in the Genesis story in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition). Dualistic periodizations offer a powerful way of contrasting the present and the past, either to praise or condemn the contemporary era.

Traces of such periodizations survive, even today, in dichotomous schemes such as those of modernization theory, with its stark contrasting of so-called modern and traditional societies.
However, most schemes of periodization are more complex, dividing human history into several major eras, each with subdivisions of its own. Dynastic histories weave their accounts of the past using the reign dates of major kings and emperors as their frame. Such accounts are present in Chinese dynastic histories and in the chronologies of Maya historiography. Dynastic histories often imply a cyclical view of the past, in which each era (like each ruler) passes through periods of strength and weakness. Historical accounts conceived within a more linear view of the past often take as their main framework a series of distinct eras, all of which may be seen as part of a larger, universal trajectory. Writing in the eighth century BCE, the Greek poet Hesiod described five great ages of history, beginning with a golden age, in which humans were contented and godlike, and passing through several stages of decline— the ages of silver, bronze, and heroes—and finally to the era of his own day, which Hesiod characterized as one of violence and stupidity.

Patterns of rise and fall have reappeared in more recent writings, such as in the work of Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) or Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975). Marxian historiography offered a combination of cyclical and linear chronologies, beginning with an era of simple perfection (the era of primitive communism), that was followed by stages characterized by increasing productivity and increasing inequality and exploitation. But the Marxist scheme culminated in a future that would resolve these contradictions by combining high productivity with a return to the egalitarianism of the first era.

Most modern attempts at large, synoptic histories have preferred schemes that are fundamentally linear. Such schemes have been greatly influenced by the work of archaeologists and anthropologists, for whom the problem of constructing a periodization covering the whole of human history was often more urgent that it was for historians, who normally focused on shorter periods of time. Because archaeologists, unlike historians, deal mainly with material artifacts, it was natural for them to construct their periodizations around aspects of material culture. The nineteenth-century Danish archaeologists Christian Thomsen (1788–1865) and Jens Worsaae (1821–1885) constructed a scheme comprising three ages—a Stone Age, a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age—that still has some influence within the study of prehistory. In the twentieth century, G. Gordon Childe (1892–1957) built on the Marxist insight that particular technologies imply distinctive lifeways and social structures to argue that the major turning points in human prehistory were the appearance of agriculture (the “Neolithic Revolution”) and the appearance of cities and states (the “Urban Revolution”). Nineteenth-century anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) and Edward Tylor (1832–1917) offered parallel schemes in which different eras were distinguished by different social structures in a progressive movement from “savagery” to ‘barbarism” to “civilization.”

In the late twentieth century, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists became increasingly sensitive to the dangers of using schemes that imply easy value judgments. So, while most modern schemes of periodization retain a sense of directionality in history, they usually resist the assumption that directionality implies either progress or decline. On the other hand, most modern schemes of periodization at the largest scales still rely primarily on a combination of technological and sociological factors to distinguish between different eras. This is a tradition with roots going back to the earliest written histories. The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from the third millennium BCE, recognizes, in the contrast between the urban warrior hero Gilgamesh and his great friend Enkidu, who came from the wild lands beyond the city, that different technologies imply different ways of living, different systems of ethics, and different types of political and social action. Karl Marx (1818–1883) formalized this insight within the notion of a mode of production. The best justification for such an approach to the challenge of periodization is that fundamental technologies shape so many other aspects of human history, including living standards, demography, gender relations, political structures, and the pace and nature of historical change.

ENDS (c) Berkshire Publishing Group 2005

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