Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations

I’ve finished reading the Carroll Quigley book The Evolution of Civilizations, and while there are a couple of presumptions that bother me, on the whole the book is really all its cracked up to be. In short, The Evolution of Civilizations is an amazing, solidly grounded empirical analysis of both the essential structure of society and civilization, and how they evolve through various predictable stages. This evolution is presented both as a structure composed of essential characteristics and is followed by four case studies of civilizations and how they illustrate the similarity in structure and evolution. There is much here that is useful/enlightening about Wester civilization in general but, particularly, how these observations may apply to contemporary American society. I will outline a short abstract of the important points by specific chapter:

#2 Man and Culture

The differential between animals and man is established through culture, which “intervenes” between man and the natural environment and instinctual drives. Human nature has a wide variety of potentialities and motivation to make these potentials “actual” – and so, human culture produces various “patterns” of beliefs, actions, and thought that are passed on as traditions. There are 6 divisions of human potentialities that account for all manner of material and spiritual human needs. These are :

1) Military

2)Political

3)Economic

4)Social

5)Religious

6)Intellectual

Culture is adaptive and integrative (but never fully integrated in the sense of being complete), trending the various potentialities into an interlocking unified, but perpetually changing system.

#3 Groups, Societies, Civilizations

Aggregates of persons can be divided into Collections, Groups, and Societies. Societies then, can be divided into either “Parasitic” or non(wealth)accumulating societies or “Producing” societies. The latter of which can evolve into Civilizations. Historically, there have been many more non-producing societies than producing ones, and fewer still the number of civilizations (with no more than two dozen in total).

#4 Historical Analysis

The 6 divisions of potentiality correspond to 6 degrees of human need:

1) the need for group security

2)the need to organize intewrpersonal power relationships

3)the need for material wealth

4)the need for human companionship

5)the need for psychological certainty

6)the need for understanding

To satisfy these needs, there comes into existence, on each level, organizations (or networks or “personal relationships) “Instruments” which are designed to address these needs with relative effectiveness. The essential problem here – and the central thesis of this book – is that these “Instruments” take on a life of their own, distinct from the original purpose, and evolve into an “Institution”. All social instruments trend toward becoming institutions, which accordingly is a “rule of history”. The institutionalization of the original instrument happens because #1) it takes on activities and purposes of its own that are different from the purposes for which it was intended, and as a consequence, an institution achieves its original purpose with decreasing effectiveness, because it s original purpose is subverted by its own needs become its own ends. #2) Because every institution is human, it is subject to the human weakness and ambitions of seeing from a self interested perspective – and away from the original intent that absorbs its time and energies. #3) And because the social conditions surrounding any such organization are constantly changing in the course of time, it makes it doubly hard to adapt to changing circumstances when its having trouble keeping the original intent in focus.

When instruments become institutions – “and they all do” – the declining effectiveness of the institution generates discontent with its performance. Which gives rise to what he calls a “tension of development” which in turn calls for three possible outcomes:

1)Reform, reorganization of the methods to return its effectiveness to instrument status.

2) Circumvention, where the institutions existing “vested interests” are left intact but is left impotent or largely ceremonial, while a new instrument is designed to perform its real function.

3)Reaction, where the institution fights back against reforms and wins, leaving those reliant upon its original intent, stuck with an ineffective institution for an indefinite period of time.

#5 Historical Change in Civilizations

The pattern of change within any civilization consists of 7 stages:

1) Mixture

2) Gestation

3) Expansion

4) Age of Conflict

5) Universal Empire

6) Decay

7) Invasion

resulting from the fact that that each civilization has an “Instrument of Expansion” that becomes an institution. The civilization rises when this organization is an instrument and declines as this organization becomes an institution.

An “Instrument of Expansion” is an organization that facilitates:

1)the incentive to invent new ways of doing things – invention

2) the accumulation of surplus wealth – savings

3) whereby the accumulated wealth is used either to utilize the new inventions and to invent more – investment

When the instrument of expansion becomes an institution (institutionalized) we get “tension of evolution”. The society as a whole has become adopted to expansion and the mass of people expect it and desire it. And when they don’t get it they become disappointed, restless, or bitter, because the society at large is often organized so that if it cannot expand it will collapse. While this true of all Civilizations it is especially true of late Western Civilization and particularly true of the United States – which at the time of writing, appeared to be in the stage 4 age of conflict, and threatening stage 5 universal empire – all of which are characterized by “growing class conflicts, declining democracy, dying science, decreasing inventiveness, growing irrationality, foreign entanglements, and sweeping religious movements”.

Not bad for a book written in 1961. In spite of the many dreadful epiphanies it conjures up.

One Response to “Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations”

  1. anna missed » Blog Archive » fattening frogs for snakes, instruments to institutions #1 Says:

    […] cultural and ideological institutions – suffice it to say, that the entire spectrum of instruments (see here) designed to expand human potentials have turned into institutions, that have themselves, devolved […]

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