The most unstable civilization in world history!

As I mentioned in my last post, I have very recently put up a new article on Western civilization.

One thing that struck me forcibly when preparing that article is the extent to which, when compared to other great civilizations, the history of the West is punctuated by a series of radical transformations.

Take Chinese history, for example. Before the 19th century it is traditionally seen as a stately parade of dynasties, reflecting periods of unity and strength interspersed by periods of division and weakness. Change there certainly was: in political terms, the gradual development of one of the great governing systems of the world, which reached its zenith under the Qing emperors; in economic, social and technological terms, the appearance of ever greater sophistication: a denser pattern of cities and markets; a more complex society with the rise of, first, the scholar-official group and then of a large and prosperous commercial class; agricultural changes leading to population growth; and the appearance of great inventions – famously the wheelbarrow, paper, the compass, firearms, printing and paper money.

However, the impression one gets in all these aspects is one of gradual evolution rather than sudden change. The great disruptions of Chinese history – the Mongol invasions, for example, or the chaos following the fall of the Han dynasty, and the great rebellions of 753 under the Tang – did not lead to sudden and profound changes in Chinese society, but just continued to the onward unfolding of Chinese civilisation.

In Indian history, too, there are no apparent transformational episodes. Perhaps one “revolution” was the coming of Muslim conquerors after 1000, which may have led to the final snuffing out of Buddhism as a major religion in India. However, this seems to have been a long-term trend (and to my mind, a rather puzzling one) lasting several centuries, to which the Muslim invasions contributed but did not cause. There certainly seems to have been no great transformation of politics or society at this time. 

When one turns to Western history, however, we find change upon change; and not just small, incremental changes but transformational changes which fundamentally alter the very nature of Western civilization itself.

Firstly, there was the fall of the Roman empire: neither Chinese nor Indian history witnessed anything quite like this, where political disintegration was accompanies by a catastrophic decline in material culture.

Then there was the Renaissance, which radically changed the terms of Western thought, leading on to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Next, the Reformation left a profound and indelible mark on European and American religious life, creating that individualistic outlook so distinctive of the West.

The industrial revolution moved the West onto a completely new level of economic and social development.

So, change upon change, revolution after revolution. Compared with the civilisations of China and India, Western civilization has been massively unstable: but what’s the reason behind this instability?

I haven’t got a firm answers to this; I’m not sure anyone has. But I can suggest a few possible reasons – which I think I’ll leave to my next post.

By Peter Britton