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 A Short Description of the first Four Civilizations

 

Civilization I 

In Brief: Government emerged as a powerful institution during the first epoch of world history when it detached from the temple culture of Egyptian and Mesopotamian city-states and went to war against neighboring states. The history of the first civilization features conflict between agricultural and nomadic peoples and military competition between kingdoms of the settled communities. This period culminated in the formation of large political empires that exercised totalitarian control in society.


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Civilization I is a name given to the type of society which emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium B.C. and in other places at later times. This was the urbanizing society which emerged as humanity outgrew village life and created city-states. Societies undertook communal irrigation projects, engaged in extensive commerce and trade, became socially stratified, utilized written records, buried their government leaders in elaborate tombs, and went to war.

The war-making function stands out in this period of history. During the first historical epoch, small city-states were consolidated in kingdoms, and kingdoms in large political empires. From an embryonic state, government as an institution developed to include the various functions that we see today. To tell the history of this civilization is to see world history as it has traditionally been told - the rise and fall of political dynasties, kingdoms, and empires. War, political intrigues, royal marriages and such things would drive the course of events.

The brief but spectacular career of Alexander the Great would be an important part of this history as would that of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Pharaoh Narmer, the Chinese emperor Shih Hwang-ti, and Cyrus II of Persia. So would the barbarian incursions that menaced civilized societies and sometimes toppled their political regimes.

The Pharaonic dynasties of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom (2700-1090 B.C.) are like a bookend anchoring the earlier part of this epoch. The other bookend, anchoring the latter part, would be the succession of Chinese imperial dynasties which began in 221 B.C. and ended with the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1912 A.D. In between, one finds the Babylonian empire of Hammurabi, the Hittite and Assyrian empires, the Achaemenian Persian empire, the Roman empire, Parthian empire, and many others. The New World empires of the Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Inca societies also belong to this civilization.   

An important element in civilization at this stage was ideographic writing. While tribal societies often lack written language, all known civilizations with the possible exception of the Inca had developed this capacity. Ideographic (as opposed to alphabetic) writing uses a unique symbol for each word. This is a craft for professional scribes. It is believed that writing was invented in Sumer (Mesopotamia) in the late 4th century B.C. not long after the first city-states appeared.

The first civilization is characterized by the emergence of large political empires and by primitive forms of writing. Its culmination would be the constellation of four political empires - the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Chinese empires - which existed at the beginning of the 3rd century, A.D., before the Huns and other nomadic tribes invaded them. Later attempts to reestablish universal states in Europe, such as Charlemagne's, Napoleon's, or Hitler's, have consistently failed. The Chinese, however, succeeded in reestablishing dynastic rule after periodic interludes of barbarian disruption.

 

 

Civilization II 

In Brief: Infused with the spirit of goodness and truth, world religion emerged as a separate center of power in civilized societies. The idea-centered religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam represented a departure from previous religious traditions focused on ritual and civic worship. Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism were likewise shaped by philosophy. In the end, the world religions resorted to military violence and coercion to maintain their worldly position.


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A turning point occurred in human history during the 6th and 5th centuries, B.C., when a group of philosophical and religious thinkers - Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, Pythagoras, and others - proposed ethical ideas. From their thoughts came new schools of philosophy and, ultimately, systems of world religion. This change took place in the same period of time in scattered societies of the Old World.

An infusion of philosophy into traditional religion marked the beginning of this civilization. There was conflict between the new system and earlier forms of civic worship - e.g., Christian martyrdom in Rome. New structures of power emerged to house religion. Religious scriptures became the main carrier of this culture.

In the West, monotheistic religion challenged the polytheistic cultures of nature and civic worship. While Pharaoh Ikhnaton embraced the idea of a single God in the 14th century B.C., it was Moses, a century later, who brought it into the mainstream of our religious tradition. Judaism was transformed during the period of the Babylonian exile when it absorbed elements of Zoroastrian cosmology, including the idea of a Messiah.

Christianity sprang from Jesus' self-conscious role as Messiah; to this Judaic scenario were added forms of Greek philosophy. The church went through a period of philosophizing about Jesus' nature. Later, the prophet Mohammed received a divine revelation that brought monotheistic religion to Arab peoples. His religion spread quickly through force of arms. Judaism and its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, prevailed over earlier forms of worship. The new religions were idea-based rather than focused on sacrificial rites.

In the East, two religious innovators, Buddha and Mahavira, challenged the Brahman priesthood. Their "church" was organized in monastic communities which allowed participation by persons of lower birth. Both were philosophers seeking an escape from the worldly treadmill of illusion. The Mauryan emperor, Asoka, made Buddhism the state religion of India. Later, resurgent Hinduism (embracing some Buddhist concepts) pushed Buddhism out of the Indian subcontinent.

A new form of the religion, Mahayana Buddhism, was hatched in the Greek-cultured Kushan empire. This type of Buddhism spread to China in the 3rd century, A.D., where it filled a gap in the religious cultures of Taoist and Confucian philosophy. It later spread to Korea and Japan. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam became the dominant religions of southeast Asia.

World religion was influenced by the prior example of political empire. When the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the church became a kind of spiritual empire. Roman pontiffs shared authority with temporal rulers. In the Byzantine world, however, Christian authority was subservient to rule by the emperor. World religion in a later phase became coercive and militaristic. Christians fought Moslems in a series of Crusades launched by Urban II. Moslems and Hindus fought for control of India. Even the peace-loving Buddhists practiced the martial arts in the Far East.

The second civilization is characterized by a power-sharing arrangement with secular rulers, by a culture of creeds and scriptures, and by written language based upon alphabetic (as opposed to ideographic) scripts. It dominated the first millennium and a half of the Christian era.  

 


Civilization III 

In Brief: During Renaissance times, European culture became redirected from religion to worldly interests and pursuits such as commerce, natural science, and art. European navigators explored distant places on earth. Humanist scholars laid the foundation of secular education. This was the epoch of European colonial expansion when societies became organized at the level of the nation state. Today's educational and career system (including an appreciation of classical music and literature) is its legacy.


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Civilization III describes the European secular culture which began in the 14th and 15th centuries, A.D. This culture became territorially aggressive, and eventually "civilized" the entire world. Its seeds were sown in the period of the Italian Renaissance. Portuguese and Spanish navigators "discovered" a new continent and reached the rich lands of India and the Far East by sea.

Commercial gain was the driving force of this new civilization. Wealth as a value supplanted the Christian ideal of poverty. "Things seen" gained a new appreciation. Along with wealth went a desire for secular learning. Humanist scholars, steeped in the rediscovered classics of Graeco-Roman antiquity, educated the children of wealthy merchants. Rich individuals collected books and commissioned works of art.

The incessant wars among European princes, Holy Roman Emperors, and Popes were fought with the help of mercenary soldiers. Bishoprics and imperial elections were bought and sold. St. Peter's church was adorned with costly art. In this environment, moneylenders such as the Fugger family of Augsburg became major power brokers. The Roman church's fund raising efforts brought charges of corruption and inspired the Protestant Reformation.

Portugal and Spain enjoyed an early commercial advantage as a result of discoveries made by its navigators. In the 17th century, the Dutch gained control of the seas. A century later, the English evicted the Dutch and the French from their colonial possessions in North America and India. The British Empire, commercially oriented, became the leading power on earth. However, North American colonists gained their independence from England. A decade later, the French Revolution took place. Napoleon briefly unified continental Europe.

In the 18th century, European trade shifted away from the spices of the Orient and towards agricultural commodities that could be obtained in the Americas: tobacco, coffee, rum. A three-cornered trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas brought black slaves to the New World. The slave trade flourished when cotton was king, but was abolished in the 19th century. There were moral limits to money's power.

In the 19th century, European science and technology transformed industrial processes. The manufacturing class became wealthy. Industrial laborers learned to bargain collectively. This was a period of enormous gains in transportation and communications as the steam locomotive, telegraph, and other such inventions were introduced. National governments embraced free trade. Child labor gave way to universal education. The European powers carved up Africa into colonies and forced the Chinese imperial government to grant trade enclaves.

European political dominance was effectively ended in the suicidal warfare of World Wars I and II. Suddenly, democratic governments replaced a host of monarchies and empires. Anti-colonialist movements and labor unrest swept the world.

The third civilization is characterized by corporations, banks, and other commercial institutions and by an educational system subservient to careers. Its epoch lasted from Renaissance times until the early 20th century. Its dominant cultural technology was printing.

 

Civilization IV 

In Brief: The industrialized societies have moved into an age of entertainment. In this culture, technologies of mass communications deliver auditory and visual messages to entire communities, keeping people amused and informed. We have here a fast-paced, style-defined culture dominated by images of human personality, whether in sports, musical recordings, or television shows. Commercial advertising supports the shows.


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We know this civilization as the entertainment culture. Persons living today are aware of a new culture - pop culture - which has captured the affections of the young while subverting the culture learned in schools. A new illiteracy may be spreading as children grow up before television sets and embrace rock 'n roll music.

Entertainment, too, has a history. American entertainment can be traced back to the 19th Century freak shows, the circuses of P.T. Barnum, outdoors sporting events, minstrel shows, international expositions, penny arcades, and the like. Broadway shows, vaudeville, jazz performances, boxing championship fights, and Major League baseball were popular in the early 20th century. Now people are into gambling, pro basketball, fake wrestling, rented videos, video games, and, of course, television sitcoms. Each generation has its set of diversions. Each field of entertainment has its own history.

This civilization cannot be discussed without reference to advances in communications technology. Motion pictures and phonographs, a legacy of Thomas Edison, paved the way for a culture based on radio and television. Huge audiences tuned in to this type of entertainment, which was essentially free once the receiving equipment was bought.

One can see that the entertainment industry is larger than a single industry; it is what attracts customers for businesses in all industries by capturing people's attention. The device of slipping in commercial messages next to the part which the viewers or listeners want to receive is a subterfuge inherited from newspaper advertisements; but it works. Much commerce revolves around this sales device.

The history of American entertainment has racial overtones. Beginning with the "Jim Crow" ditty, white audiences were attracted to black entertainment routines. Jackie Robinson's entry into Major League baseball and Elvis Presley's imitation of black musical styles were important steps in the development of the entertainment culture.

A tension exists between pop culture and the "high" culture of symphonic music, theater, and art, which command academic respect. The one belongs to the fourth civilization while the former is a relic of the third. In pop culture, performers are the star; in the previous culture, it is the composer, writer, or creator of artistic works.

The fourth civilization took off in the aftermath of the two world wars. People wanted to keep their minds off ideologies and angry thoughts. But now the entertainment world is becoming less fun and more concerned with the business aspect. People are growing tired of the dumbed-down, one-size-fits-all mass entertainment. As they turn to cable TV and the Internet, network television's share of prime-time audiences is down.

The fourth civilization is centered in the mass media of news and entertainment which have existed from the end of World War I to the present. Its dominant cultural technologies are various devices of electronic communication.  

 

 

Civilization V 

We are now entering a fifth civilization based on computerized knowledge and communication. Although it is too soon to know its ultimate shape, one might suppose that this civilization will be a universal system whose initial structure is the Internet.  

 

 

to: worldhistory


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