The Evolution of Civilizations28 Jul 2003
Mentioning Carroll Quigley to someone these days will elicit a range of responses, ranging from respect to apathy to wild-eyed paranoid rantings. Mostly, however, you get blank stares. Those that have heard of him, though, tend to associate him mostly with his other books, namely Tragedy & Hope and the Anglo-American Establishment. Evidently these books lay the foundation for a lot of the right-wing paranoid “new world order” conspiracy theories. This was news to me, and seemingly in odd contrast to the tone of this book, which is very straightforward, scientific, and thoughtful. I can’t speak with any authority to this slightly murkier and odd side to Quigley, but I enjoyed this book tremendously.
In the Evolution of Civilizations, Quigley begins by explaining his intentions in the book: to lay out a scientific, analytical framework to apply to — you guessed it — the evolution of civilizations. He aims to delineate clearly the line between knowledge and understanding — something that he obviously sees as a problem with the field of History. He wants to create a “vocabulary” for understanding history, social problems, and civilizations, and to create a distinction between arguing ideas and semantics. This hits home for me, as I am perpetually frustrated by arguments fueled only by an inability to recognize a disagreement as one of pure semantics, but I digress.
He begins by dividing the interactions of people into three social aggregates: social groups, societies, and civilizations. He defines a social group as persons that have long-standing relationships and regard themselves as a unit, with exclusivity as a defining feature. An example of this would be a football team, a chess club, etc. A society, on the other hand, is “a group whose members have more relationships with one another than they do with outsiders.” Civilizations, then, are the next level of social interaction and are the meat of this book.
Throughout the book, Quigley introduces many ideas that are useful not just in analyzing history, but in critical thinking in general. One of these is the inclination of humans to polarize a continuum — to divide what is really a smooth continuum into two separate poles. Black/white, short/tall, good/evil, etc. He explains that while the framework he will subsequently attempt to lay out is a useful guideline it’s critical to acknowledge that it’s simply the polarization of what is in actuality a fluid continuum. There is, of course, no absolute date that delineates “The Dark Ages” from “the Rennaissance”, but it is a useful framework for analysis.
He also introduces the idea of “instruments” and “institutions”. In Quigley’s field of sociology, institutions are hardly a new idea, but Quigley’s definition is different in this context than in the traditional definition. He talks about the requirement of every civilization to have an “instrument of expansion.” This is the driving force for the civilization’s success. An institution, on the other hand, is an instrument that has ceased to benefit or serve the civilization at a whole and instead has become self-serving.
Quigley’s model civilization is subject to 7 distinct stages:
- Age of Conflict
- Universal Empire
He then proceeds to subject various periods of history to this model, analyzing their beginnings, growth, and decay according to these 7 stages. Let me just say that although Quigley’s goal in writing the book was this analytical model, it’s also a remarkable tour of history that I found particularly interesting. He covers the birth of the earliest civilizations, Mesopotamia, Canaanite and Minoan civilizations, Classical civilization, and of course, Western civilization. For each, he demonstrates how each civilization adheres roughly to these 7 stages, but elaborates on the exceptions. He notes that you can actually go back and forth between several stages as new instruments of expansion are discovered, using Western civilization as a prime example of this.
Quigley’s style is quirky and endearing. He takes his commitment to developing a “vocabulary for understanding” to the literal level when he invents the word “clarid”, for lack of a better term. He demonstrates an astounding wealth of knowledge, with digressions into the natural sciences, as well as a comprehensive lesson in a wide spread of civilizations. I found his descriptions of the Minoan civilzation, in particular, to be intriguing. It is a tremendously educational book, both in matters of knowledge and of understanding. What I took away most from this book, however, was the ability to properly distinguish between the two.
NOTE: I am interested in Quigley as a person, although I haven’t been able to find much in the way of a biography, or really any information about him at all. A google search for “Carroll Quigley” seems to turn up mostly reviews of his books, and many “new world order” references and conspiracy theories. Evidently Clinton was a student of Quigley’s, so you find a lot of stuff accusing Clinton of right-wing leanings and globalization conspiracies. I find it intriguing (and laughable). If anyone knows anything more about this, or has any opinions on Quigley, let me know!.