Finding Meaning in History

The fact that grand narratives of history have largely fallen away from the intellectual landscape in the last few decades downplays their earlier prevalence, especially in the United States. Postmodernist efforts at deconstructing grand narratives had an effect from the late 1960s, while academic specialists had always been skeptical of going beyond what evidence could support. Take, for instance, Herbert Butterfield’s point that as historical accounts took a broader view, they tended to impose what he called a Whig interpretation. Butterfield stressed that this practice of reading outcomes back into events to impose structure and causation draws attention to some things while suppressing material inconvenient to the story. Others, however, found such grand narratives a helpful way to locate themselves and the problems of their own day in a larger context that gave meaning.

Through their volumes on the history of civilization, Will and Ariel Durant tapped into a large audience in the United States—readers that presumably had more than a vestigial interest in culture. The series paralleled the introduction of courses in Western Civilization by American colleges designed, as David Gress argued in From Plato to NATO, to make sense of the crisis brought on by World War I. By contrast, academics had long sought to ground their approaches to society and culture in scientific method with its prestige and claim to understanding. An older tradition of philosophical history as belle lettres did not suit this cultural moment. Nor did the more narrowly focused application of forensic methodology by matching documentary evidence to reconstruct events provide enough structure. Social science demanded a system to make sense of episodes and events which otherwise blend together without any means of distinguishing immediacy from importance.

In The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis, Carroll Quigley sought to provide that kind of system. A foreword by his friend Harry Hogan for the 1979 edition by Liberty Fund describes it as “an ambitious effort to make history understandable.” Critics at its original release in 1961 thought it a considerable improvement on Arnold Toynbee’s influential but now largely forgotten A Study of History, which traced in twelve volumes the development and decay of historic civilizations. Lacking rigor, his volumes amounted to a large collection of evidence without the critical analysis the task demanded. Toynbee, Quigley warned, failed to explain adequately the process of change and particularly why apparently successful civilizations suddenly fail to meet challenges and thereby fall into decline. Quigley’s concern about the prospects for American civilization made him determined to put analysis on a scientific basis that avoids what he disparages as childish judgments on historical events.

Midcentury Modern in American Culture

If Quigley’s approach seems dated, his work nonetheless reveals much about his own day’s mindset and the intellectual trends that lingered beyond it. A middlebrow readership more sophisticated than that term implies provided an audience that sought a framework to make sense of present-day challenges. High school education and reading as a cheap hobby among the aspirational had spread from the 1920s. Books gave servicemen in World War II a welcome distraction that authorities encouraged. Cultural engagement raised expectations among readers who wanted more knowledge or understanding than they had before—in much the same way as they desired new technology they encountered or a wider range of consumer goods. It was also part of moving up the social ladder by showing intellectual aspiration or a desire for self-improvement. Being well read demonstrated sophistication and adult seriousness.

The postwar expansion of higher education tapped a market for more than just economic opportunity as Mortimer Adler’s influence popularizing of the great books program reflected. The aspirational middlebrow culture increasingly disparaged by the late 1960s marked a noteworthy counterpoint in the United States to midcentury modern design that typified the era.

Science enjoyed tremendous prestige after 1945 along with experts who deployed its insight as government or corporate planners. Technological achievements demonstrated its promise to a generally impressed public. Scientific amounted to modern which rendered anything seemingly unscientific out of fashion. The same applied to social science in various forms. Alan Petigny notes in The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965 how psychologists, sociologists, and economists in the United States supplanted clergy and other moral authorities on questions from child rearing and sexual mores to law in a shift that brought changes whose impact only later became apparent during the 1960s. Faith in science, however, built on trends earlier in the twentieth century and even before that shaped the professionalization of academic disciplines.

Besides the ability to harness and control nature, science offered predictable rules to explain the world. Indeed, part of Marxism’s appeal lay in its spurious claims to scientific exactitude. The search for intellectual rigor with the authority it conferred had led many historians from the early 20th century to consider themselves social scientists. Not content with empirical study and applying logical rigor to evidence, they sought, if not laws akin to the physical sciences, at least predictable rules to show how phenomena worked. Policy-oriented disciplines like political science specifically defined themselves that way. Indeed, political science epitomized the progressive ideals of the period when the discipline took form which continued to define it long after those ideals had passed out of fashion. These trends pushed much of academic culture in the United States to consider the structure provided by analytical models as essential to make sense of a complex reality. History otherwise presented merely one thing after another with no way to distinguish immediate or interesting from important.

A Quest for Scientific Method

Quigley, an Irish-American from Boston, and the son of a fire department chief in an aspirational middle class family, preferred science over the humanities as a pupil at Boston Latin School. Harvard, where he studied biochemistry as an undergraduate before switching to history with additional courses in political science, was more open to able outsiders during his time there in the 1920s than its reputation as a bastion of the Protestant establishment suggests. He seems, however, to have been detached from its culture even as it shaped him. Quigley spent his later career in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington teaching a wider range of topics than those in history departments would expect. The phrase “in it, but not of it” captures Quigley’s relationship with historical scholarship, which he approached “from a primary concern with mathematics and science.”

Scientific training made Quigley stress the need for analytical tools to categorize information effectively, but he admitted that his focus with its emphasis on the big picture and processes made his historical interpretations controversial within the field. He asked different questions from those pursued by more traditional historians. Quigley regretted that many social scientists he encountered “had erroneous ideas about the methods and theory of natural science, believing them to be rigid, exact, and invariable.” Work in both social and natural science had taught him that methods drawn from the latter applied to both and nothing useful in either could be done without them. He called the laws scientific methods provide “idealized theories reflecting observed phenomena only approximately” that remain open to revision from new evidence. They rested on three steps of gathering evidence, developing a hypothesis, and then testing it. The result, Quigley believed, made the resulting generalizations accurate enough to be analytical or predictive tools.

Rather than a work of history, he presents The Evolution of Civilization as “an attempt to establish analytical tools that will assist the understanding of history.” More than half the book walks the patient reader though the reasoning Quigley used to develop these tools. Impatient readers may find these chapters heavy going. Quigley rightly describes science as “a method, not a body of knowledge or a picture of the world.” The body of knowledge that science accumulates may grow and the picture it gives may change, but the method remains constant. He adopts a scientific method as a way to understand social change, particularly the state’s development in Western Europe over more than a millennium. The starting point is a walk through the relationship between man and culture before moving ahead to distinctions between groups, societies and civilizations.

How Civilizations Evolve

A reciprocal process operates between individuals and their culture by which the social environment, as Quigley describes culture, shapes the former while the personalities created form that environment. Culture includes material things and patters of action, feeling, and thought, along with established relationships. It adapts because it can change, but is resilient in not changing without cause. Terrain, climate, and ecosystem drive change, and so do encounters with other cultures. People together with their culture form societies, which Quigley calls a group of individuals sharing more in common with each other than outsiders. Where groups can only be understood by reference to things outside them, societies form a comprehensible body on their own terms.

Quigley draws a distinction between parasitic societies, which live by hunting and gathering rather than increasing the quantity of wealth, and producing societies, whose farming and herding creates wealth. Producing societies with cities and writing form civilizations that display varying degrees of complexity. Having framed these categories and noting the complexities they involve, Quigley approaches the development of civilizations as a continuum where differences within it are so subtle that it can be divided “by imaginary and arbitrary boundaries.” Those boundaries imposed from the outside by the historian provide only approximate reality, but still offer a way to treat historical phenomena by rational processes. After all, theories always adumbrate the full experience they cover, but navigating scholarly complexity without one may not be possible.

Quigley takes descriptive concepts out of the levels of culture determined by efforts to meet different human needs. A diagram based on those levels also enables him to sketch cultural development over time. Social organizations consisting largely of personal relationships meet particular needs, but each organization tends to become an institution as its own interests displace the initial purpose for it. The more organizations become institutions the less effective and adaptable they become. What Quigley calls the “institutionalization of instruments” disrupts civilizations by stifling growth and fostering conflict. Institutions operating for their own benefit pit members against those attempting to break the grip on resources they hold. Whether societies adapt and continue to grow rests on that struggle’s outcome. Extended decline under the weight of institutional capture renders civilization vulnerable to hostile outsiders.

Instruments of expansion provide civilizations a mechanism for growth and keeps them dynamic. Quigley describes them as coming together in three parts with the incentive to invent, the accumulation of wealth, and then putting capital behind inventions to raise productivity. The social organization of a civilization shapes how these three parts operated in particular cases. Some societies offer more space for the critical thinking that drives invention. Groups within all societies need to have surplus wealth and the willingness to invest it. Instruments of expansion tend over time to become institutions focused on their own perpetuation rather than their original purpose and thereby stagnate. Quigley calls the result a “tension of evolution” where a society adapted to expansion and whose population expects growth becomes frustrated by stagnation. Conflict typically ensues. Here he modified his definition of civilization to “a producing society with a means of expansion.”

From these observations and definitions, Quigley argues that the processes behind the institutionalization of instruments of expansion help understand why civilizations rise and fall. They pit the wealth and instruments controlled by a few against the resentful many. Toynbee, whose theory Quigley largely praises, lacks the correlation between the stages of change and process of change he gives here to answer the question of why civilizations successful for so long suddenly fail. Without the means to grow once instruments become institutions, they divide and decline. Civilizations can survive crisis by reforming or circumventing institutions, but where those controlling them prevent either by reaction, decline proceeds.

Quigley charts seven stages in the history of civilizations. These include mixture, gestation, expansion, conflict, universal empire, and decline. Mixture occurs along border zones of established civilizations as influences combine and shape new ways to meet human needs. Gestation involves the development of that synthesis below the surface of existing arrangements until an instrument of expansion produces the next stage. Expansion brings growth until it slows to begin a stage of conflict. Where reforming or circumventing institutions as they generate tension resolves conflict, civilizations return to expansion. Finding new instruments of expansion modifies the cycle. Otherwise, conflict ends with universal empire as conquest diminishes the number of political units in a civilization. What appears a golden age, however, reflects the false glow of an overly ripe civilization on the verge of decay that renders them vulnerable. Decline closes the cycle of a civilization, but a new pattern of mixture and gestation along its periphery typically begins the pattern anew.

Quigley’s System and the Rise of the West

Having laid a foundation, Quigley applies his “idealized theories” about civilization in an overview from prehistory to the present. His grand narrative sets aside China, India, and Mesoamerica to focus on the history leading to Western Civilization. Specialized knowledge, mainly relating to climate and flood cycle of rivers that shaped farming, combined with writing to transmit it as the instrument of expansion driving Mesopotamian civilization. The latter provided the cuneiform inscription “amagi” that Liberty Fund takes as its logo. Positional notation for numbers and sailing vessels to conduct trade were also fundamental invention for Mesopotamia. Egypt underwent its cycle of rise and decay over roughly the same period, though Mesopotamia underwent periods of revival that postponed or slowed its decay.

Canaanite civilization included the Hebrew peoples and occupied the Mediterranean littoral between Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. Quigley describes commercial capitalism as its instrument of expansion. Commerce assisted by geography directed its energies westward to plant colonies like Carthage in North Africa. There the original periphery became a new civilizational core eclipsing the source of its foundation as it went into decline. Carthage lasted until its defeat and destruction by Rome. Minoan civilization began earlier and discovered ways for an island people to thrive without exhausting soil and other resources. It expanded into mainland Greece and through the Aegean until decline coupled with Iron Age invasions brought collapse.

Ionian Greeks deeply influenced by Minoan civilization formed the culture that dominated Classical civilization that the rest of Greece adopted and the Latin-speaking world of Rome “put on like a garment.” That culture had key attributes in valuing honor and esteem, seeking explanation over sensation, being possessed by city dwellers, and valuing the golden mean. Slavery provided a means of expansion with surplus wealth going to build cities and long distance trade in luxuries. Crisis brought imperial wars, but Alexander’s short rule never created universal empire. A new age of expansion in the Western Mediterranean with the growth of Rome absorbed Greece and then forged Europe, the Mediterranean and Near East into universal empire. Decay then made Rome vulnerable to mounted barbarians whose technology and tactics surpassed its own.

Quigley describes Western civilization as “one of the most difficult tasks for historical analysis, because it is not yet finished, because we are a part of it and lack perspective, and because it presents considerable variation from our pattern of historical change.” Indeed, concern about what comes next in the ongoing story underpins his project. Rather than seven clear stages, Western civilization involved “a series of at least three pulsating movements of expansion.” Conflict then produced new instruments of expansion to put back the cycle. Quigley reckons a third age of conflict began as expansion reversed itself around 1890 with growing competition over diminishing access to wealth. An upsurge of irrationality typified by intellectual movements and decadent social behavior, along with twentieth century wars, signaled this turn to conflict.

The Question Behind Quigley’s Search

Can a third turn provide a new instrument of expansion to save Western civilization from decline? Quigley poses the question rather than answers it, and offers the techniques provided here as a guide to work toward solutions by better understanding the past. Revealingly, he ends by warning “the problems of the world are not solved by the use of the natural sciences alone.” They require instead a wider perspective best found in studying the past to understand trends and the big picture.

Quigley’s concerns point to the unease, if not fear, that lay behind the optimism and talk of vigor that characterized America during the Kennedy era. Postwar prosperity did not stop or restrain trends he cited under the hearing of irrationalism. Cold War tensions gave more than adequate evidence of conflict that lingered after World War I. Understanding the past offered more than just entertainment or self-improvement for aspirational readers likely to pick up books like Quigley’s. It seemed, as he noted, a way to make sense of a troubling present.

How well does his big picture meet that challenge? The fact that he, like Toynbee, have fallen into neglect suggests not well enough. Little in Quigley’s account seems much amiss and his framing raises interesting points to examine specific cases with greater depth. Specialists might question some of those points or complicate his story, but he would likely dismiss them as quibbling over knowledge when understanding should be the focus. The problem with that rejoinder is that historical understanding requires knowledge and deeper, more focused inquiry that goes beyond generalization. Concepts and models like those Quigley offers point to questions rather than answering them, which leaves that harder task to others.