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Some Comments and Reviews about Five Epochs of Civilization 



"My favorite reading is history and one of the most interesting books I've read is Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey ($18.95, Thistlerose Publications, 1702 Glenwood Ave. North, Minneapolis, MN 55405) that presents history in a unique way, building on the work of Spengler and Toynbee. It will change your understanding of history by looking at the way civilizations arose and passed from the scene, each influencing the next. At the beginning of a new century and millennium, this book isn't just a set of dry facts, but rather a cohesive and comprehensive way of discovering how we have reached this point, starting with the primitive city-states in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC. You will see how the acquisition of power drove forward toward the creation of the great religions and philosophies by which we live. The Renaissance, the third epoch, released a cultural outburst in European civilization, moving onward to the technological and commercial institutions that shaped the times that led to our own. Great reading!."

- Alan Caruba, (January 2000)


"Five Epochs of Civilization is an impressive, 500-page paperback that includes separate histories for each of the four civilizations which have appeared in human history to date in a developed form, as well as imaginative and plausible speculations concerning a possible fifth, computer-based civilization. These histories concern the progress of political empires, world religions, commercial and educational institutions, news and entertainment. Author William McGaughey also discusses the impact of cultural technologies upon civilized societies including the introduction of ideographic writing, alphabetic writing, printing, electronic communication, and computer networks marking break points in world history associated with new civilizations. Five Epochs of Civilization will prove to be of immense interest to students of history as it moves beyond traditional ethnocentric histories to include the experiences of Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican, and other non-European peoples. Unique, challenging, informative, exceptionally well researched, Five Epochs of Civilization is a benchmark publication that will appeal to both academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the evolution of human civilization to the present day - and into the new millennium."

- The Midwest Book Review (January 2000)


"Those who seriously regard the study of history as a social "science" often feel compelled to discover patterns or forces or dialectic that can explain the myriad of human experiences. McGaughey has not been trained as a professional historian; after graduating from Yale in 1964, he worked as an accountant while writing several books on economics and world trade. Still, he displays a competent grasp of the basic events and mass movements that changed the way millions have lived. He presents the last five millennia as a playing out of five epochs through which virtually all world civilizations must progress; these include such epochs as the age of military empires, the age of world religions, and the emerging age of computer technology. McGaughey writes with a refreshing, nonpedantic, and breezy style. While he often strains to fit square pegs into round holes in support of his thesis, he often convincingly points out common strands that have united disparate societies. This should be an enjoyable but not necessarily convincing work for general readers."

- Jay Freeman, Booklist (February 15, 2000)


"Congratulations on your work. It is a valuable synthesis, bringing together a multitude of historical strands under the rubric of five discrete 'civilizations' and methods of communication ... Your insight about the 'rationalization' of job information and skills by the computer and the impact of the computer on higher education were something of a revelation to me ... This is an important book. Anyone who is interested in how language and communication shapes history will profit from reading it."

- Benjamin K. Hunnicutt, history professor, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, author of Work without End   


"The body of your book was interesting to me because I taught world history for three years ... The last chapter is the most interesting. Your ideas about how computers can serve humanity or dominate it are well presented and open up the possibility for discussion."

- Jean Helliesen, retired history professor, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, WI   


"You make an interesting contribution to the history of civilization... The summary is excellent."

- Dr. Robert Mueller, former asst. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica, author of 2000 Dreams and Ideas for a Better World   


"The full story of the human venture presents a perspective that is very different from the norm: that, in reality, we are all brothers and sisters ... that all peoples have been 'depositors and withdrawers at the world bank of knowledge' ... I heartily recommend this well-written volume to anyone interested in the unedited story of the human venture."

- Mark Welter, world-history instructor at the University of Minnesota and member of World History Association.  


"... a good summary of the Frankenstein culture"

- Andrzej Nowicki, aerospace theorist, Warsaw, Poland    


"It is not easy to write a history of the world in the restricted space of a single volume ... An account of the world that merely puts together histories of different societies would be a bland work of compilation. What makes the writing of world history interesting is the search for underlying patterns beneath the confused mass of historical experience, the identification of processes which determine historical change and progress, and the prognosis of future on the basis of past and present trends.

That precisely is the scope and subject matter of William McGaughey's brilliant book on world history, exploring five millennia of civilised existence of mankind and etching out the contours of an imminent new age. The book has apparently been written in the tradition of Gibbon, Splengler and Toynbee. While Gibbon mainly focused on the declining phase of the Roman empire, and Spengler developed his findings on the breakdown on Western civilisation into a general theory of the rise and fall of civilisations, it was Toynbee who escaped the time and space warp and proceeded to study all the major civilisations of the world in a theoretical framework.

McGaughey, like Toynbee, takes a look at the whole range of major civilisations and is also at pains to propound a theory underpinning the development of history. Although his book falls short of the exacting standards of historical scholarship that characterized the monumental works of Spengler and Toynbee, it certainly qualifies as a highly readable account of world civilizations in a compact volume. As such, it is more akin to the American tradition of writing world history, typified in Will Durant's The Story of Civilization and The Story of Philosophy. It also reminds one of H.G. Wells' The Outline of History and the British historican J.M. Roberts' one-volume History of the World.

There could not be a more appropriate time for the publication of such a book. As humanity enters a new millennium, it is only befitting that a critical survey of the preceding centuries of human venture is available to curious readers even in an age hooked on popular entertainment and averse to serious scholarship. While most titles published in recent months have focused their attention on the 20th Century, McGaughey's book is unique in two respects: one, it covers the entire span the reach of human civilization on the face of the globe; and, two, it advances a fresh theory of the determinants of civilizations in terms of dominant cultural technologies.

The author defines civilization as a process whereby small tribal communities evolved into large pluralistic societies that we find in today's world. The story of civilization may be divided into five major epochs, each driven by a dominant cultural technology and having a distinct set of ideas and beliefs as well as institutions of social and political organization ...

Despite the richness and amplitude of the subject it handles, the book is very neatly structured and well argued. It is divided into three parts. Part I contains a comparative study of the existing theories of world history and civilization as embodied in the religious thought, the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, and the analytic insights of Spengler and Toynbee. It is in this context that the author proceeds to proffer his own theory of cultural technologies as determining the course of history and the cultural technologies themselves and explains their impact on the course of civilization ...

Undoubtedly, the book under review offers fresh insights into the convoluted processes of historical change and development. However, the author takes little pains to establish his theory, by demonstrating in a clear chain of cause and effect, the linkages between the dominant cultural technology and various facets of the civilization attributed to it. Although the central premise of the thesis is discussed perfunctorily in some sections of Part I and III, it does not per se emerge from the events and movements detailed as characterizing the epoch in Part II. This is a limiting factor of the analysis.

The book also has some blind spots. For instance, while discussing Muslim polity in Medina during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), the author says, 'Its armies waged aggressive war first against Mecca and then other Arabian cities. A factor aiding in their success was that Muhammad allowed his followers to attack caravans and plunder defeated enemies. The rich Jews of Medina, who refused to convert to Islam despite their acceptance of a single God, were a particular target' (Page 216). This is a blatant distortion of historical truth ...

Despite these weaknesses, Five Epochs of Civilization is undoubtedly a valuable book which covers the entire expanse of recorded history with great clarity, care, and erudition. The author has a flawless literary style of writing, shot through at times with a journalistic flair. Quotations from relevant sources coupled with chronological data in tabulated form lend an aura of scholarship and facility to the book. The value of the book lies in making a complex subject highly intelligible, entertaining and accessible for the common reader."

- Sami Saeed, Books & Authors, Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, June 6, 2000, p.6


"I found McGaughey's book hard to put down once I started reading. His historical theory follows a different approach than conventional western historians who, typically, confine their discussion of ancient civilization to Greek and Roman societies and ignore the experiences of Chinese, Indian, Islamic, African, and other nonwestern peoples. This book presents an 'historical poem' of world history, dividing 5,000 years of world history into five epochs based on the introduction of new media technologies. Even though each society has its own customs and experience, all peoples are seen to have made important contributions to world civilization. The process of societal development is much the same around the earth. This is a new concept, and readers can learn much from its theory. Such a history has transcended limitations based on race.

A great man (Chairman Mao) once said that people should pay attention to historical experience. McGaughey has drawn comparisons between past and present civilizations to draw out the similarities and differences in meaningful ways. With the common civilization model, he has identified education and commercial trade as salient features in the present civilization. Such a conclusion matches the Chinese 'open door' approach which highlights science and education as keys to China's future development."

- Adi Dai, Xin Hua Book Studies, 2001 (Beijing, China)


"'World History gives clues to the origin of contemporary society. Its knowledge will help to explain things that may seem illogical or obscure about the world in which we live today,' says the author who has presentedthe history of our civilization in five epochs of historical experience and associates each with distinct qualities and themes. In a brilliant analysis of the march of world history, he has recognised the contributions of different lands and races to the sum total of cultural evolution.

'Civilisations are not societies which rise and fall in recurring cycles but cultural systems which build upon the work of the predecessors.'

The author is able to see a pattern in the world history. The culmination of the first civilization was the formation of four world empires whih dominated the old world in the second century A.D., the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Chinese. Then barbarians overran the civilised empires and this epoch came to an end.

The second epoch began in the middle of the first millennium B.C., when an extraordinary group of philosophers, prophets and religious thinkers lived. It is mainly the story of three world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. In the end, the world religions fought one another, mimicking the political empires and turned public sentiment against them.

The third epoch began with territorial and cultural outburst of the European civilization associated with the Renaissance. The early voyages and transoceanic discoveries gave way to political and commercial rivalries between Atlantic nations, to colonisation and enslavement of non-European people, to scientific, industrial and democratic reolutions and to wars with advanced weaponry culiminating the World Wars I and II. In the end the world was caught up in European adventure producing a backlash.

Civilization in the fourth epoch turned to popular entertainment and light-hearted diversions to help them relax. With the invention of electronic devices, this culture became connected to 'mass media' - motion pictures, radio and TV. Rock 'n roll created an 'international youth culture'. All these subverted organised religions, diverted children's attention and took over the merchandising of commercial products. Now in the fourth epoch, humanity stands on the brink of a fifth civilization sparked by computer technology. Its history, being mostly in the future, is speculative.

According to the author, each civilization began with the introduction of a new dominant cultural technology. The first civilization began with systems of primitive or ideographic writing; the second with alphabetic writing; the third with printing in Europe; the fourth with electronic technologies of communication, and the fifth, with computer technology.

In addition to short histories of each of the four civilizations, this book includes a history of the cultural technologies and their relationship with personal or social values, the process of the society's development into a system of increasingly complex and pluralistic institutions, identify changing beliefs and models of personality in the successive civilizations.

The computer age is upon us and it would make revolutionary changes in the world of communication, commerce, education and informtion technology. The most profound result may be man's use of computers as a tool to remake himself; computers can handle the extensive information contained in the structue of DNA molecules. The have the potential to replicate processes of the human mind. In this 'Frankenstein civilization' man and machine will forge a common future 'which is at once dangerous and exciting in its far-reaching possibilities.' Thus, the author has given an incisive survey of world history as emerging in five civilization epochs."

- K.V. Raman, The Hindu, Tues., July 31, 2001 (Madras, India)


"In this unique book, William McGaughey adopts a radical style that portrays world history in an entirely new light. Due to the conservative nature of history writing, most history books are a mere rehash of earlier works. But this is not the usual run-of-the-mill book of history. While keeping to the basic historical tradition, stating the facts as they are, the author tries to weigh and interpret the facts against the various factors by which history takes its form. This book is a brilliant attempt to present in a most comprehensive and lucid manner the entire structure of human history in both space and time. And the author's peculiar approach makes it a successful attempt.

Rather than the traditional method in which topics are arranged and treated on geographical, political or anthropological basis, his approach is largely time oriented, following global changes in societal values and structures chronologically. And within this framework, he plots his themes and subject-matters based on what he considers to be the most distinctive periods in the evolution of human civilization. In fact, the identification and critical analysis of these turning points of world history is the main b urden of this book.

The book is divided into three parts with each part consisting of three to four chapters which are further broken into sub-headings. The introductory pages (i.e., pages xiii to xxii) give the summary of the book's contents; a general description of what the book is all about an an outline of individual chapters.

The first chapter is more or less a polemic on the historical epochs. The author identifies what, in his view, are the most important periods in world history. And with convincing arguments, he divides world civilization into five epochs and entitled them numerically; Civilization I to Civilization V. According to him, Civilization I began from 3000 B.C. and focused more on government based on military might, culiminating in large empires such as those of Egypt and China. Civilization II lasted between 550 B.C. and 1450 A.D., focusing on religion and culminating into the three world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Commerce and education was the main focus of Civilization III which spanned from 1450 A.D. to 1920 A.D. And from 1920 A.D. to 1990, Civilization IV held sway, with emphasis on the media of news and entertainment. Civilization V is largely speculative as it focuses on the future; the Internet and beyond.

McGaughey, however, recognizes the fact tht civilization, which is a gradual process by which human society becomes organized or developed through some advancement in human endeavour, cannot be divided so sharply along time limits. Hence, he explains in page 438 that it is a mistake 'to suppose that historical epochs suddenly begin or end on particular dates and the cultural scenery abruptly changes.' Rather, he said, 'the beginning of those new periods are marked by the addition of something (new).' The dates are therefore only approximations, aimed at splitting the humbled mishmash of human experience into discernable components.

Part Two discusses civilizations I to IV in detail. And Part Three highlights the cultural technologies which are the main shaping force of civilizations. In the first two chapters of this part, the author argues that the introduction of new technology usually marks the beginning of a new epoch. He identifies communication technologies as the major force in this regard; each form of technological breakthrough marking the beginning of each of the five civilizations. They include ideographic writing, alphabetic writing, printing, electronic communications and computer networks, spanning from 3100 B.C. to date.

The author discusses the cultural technologies as they affect social values, describing the process of societal development as a system of increasingly complex and pluralistic institutions. And in the subsequent chapters, he identifies changing beliefs and models of personality in the successive civilizations. In these chapters, he expatiates on the epochal values which he earlier enumerated in Chapter Three, Part One (page 94) titled 'Personality and Belief'. According to him, the values systems of each of the four epochs of civilization were predicated upon the principles of, 'It is good to be powerful and great', "It is good to be good', 'It is good to be educated and rich', 'It is good to be famous', respectively. What the epochal value of the fifth civilization will be is still a subject of speculation and debate. And the author does quite a lot of that in the last two chapters titled 'Using History to Predict the Future' and 'Intimations of a Fifth Civilization.'

The dominant cultural technology of the fifth civilization is obviously the computer. Hence, the author's arguments revolve round the advantages and disadvantages of this new technology. On the positive side, the technology will introduce a new communication order (as it is already doing) in which the process of commerce and education would not only be made easy but be greatly enhanced. And on the negative side, the computer will give rise to the development of more sophisticated weapons of destruction and, as man will likely be more clever than intelligent, thinking more or less like computer, the weapons will be prone to impulsive application.

The fifth civilization will indeed take humanity through dangerous realms of experience. And, as the author puts it, 'One cannot now predict whether this civilization will mark the final phase of human existence or being a further progression toward what will become a sixth and then seventh or eight epoch of world history.' In any case, he adds, 'World history will not end unless humanity ends.' (p. 503)

Five Epochs of Civilization is a masterpiece. McGaughey, who has previously published four books on social and economic topics, is not a professional historian. But, ironically, this seeming shortcoming turns out to be a plus to the production of this book. It apparently makes him feel free to bend the rules in order to make the work accessible and comprehensible to the average reader. He simplifies some of the technical terms to everyday expressions. And while the texts are in simple language, the illustrations are neatly laid out.

Also, knowing that he was threading through another man's field, as it were, he was thorough in his research. Evidently, he availed himself of the modern communication technology in gathering the relevant materials for the publication. The book is so comprehensive that it is capable of satisfying every reader, whatever his area of interest in history.

One of the most outstanding qualities of this book is its objectivity. The facts are true and the arguments are free of prejudice. The author discusses every place, people and belief as if he belongs to each and every one of them. The only deficiency, however, is his failure to discuss Africa as much as it deserves. A book as exhaustive as this ought to have a full page or two highlighting some facts about slavery and the colonisation of Africa by Europe. This aspect of world history is very important because it was a major factor in the emergence of the awakening which industrialised Europe at the expense of the third world countries. It is not enough to acknowledge the fact that the human race originated from Africa (as the author does on page 141), the reasons why this root of human civilization was, and is still, being held down by the force of history needs to be accounted for. This aspect is quite central to the present world political and economic order and it will determine the collective future of all human race in definitive terms, and should have therefore been treated as such.

Any way, since this book evidently aspeires to transcent ethnocentric bias and present a true world history, this omission could be regarded as an oversight that could be rectified in a subsequent edeition. Another area that needs to be corrected is the pagination of the illustrative tables. They are arranged on the table of contents with no page numbers indicated. It makes it difficult to skim the relevant pages of illustration.

On the whole, McGaughey's Five Epochs of Civilization is an excellent job, an epoch-making phenomenon in the art of history writing. It combs through the entire human history and brings out the essential configurations of the remote past, the complex present and the unknown but predictable future, which give world history its true name and meaning. The book is a databank for researchers and a reading pleasure for history scholars and the general readers. And it could be obtained directly from the publishers: Thistlerose Publications, 1702 Glenwood Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55405, USA."

- Sumaila I. Umaisha, "The Write Stuff", New Nigerian Weekly, January 13, 2001 (Kaduna, Nigeria)


"The basic thesis of this book is that each epochal civilization has a defning cultural technology, the foundation of wh ich is based on some form of written communication. These epochal cultural technologies have been ideograms, phonetic alphabets, printing, electronic images, and computers or digital technology. In each of the five epochal civilizations he identifies, William McGaughey seeks to demonstrated how cultural technology shaped value systems and politics. Each epochal civilization had a value system that was based on beliefs exercised by its leadership. The first epochal civilization (3000-550 B.C.E.) used ideograms, and its leaders sought to be powerful and great as evinced by military commanders, administrators, and lawgivers such as Hammurabi and Qin Shi Huangdi. In the second epoch (550 B.C.E. - 1450 C.E.) the phonetic alphabet facilitated writing of oral traditions, and leaders desired to attain goodness as exhibited by philosophers or those possessed with divine revelation such as Plato, Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus. The third epoch (1450 C.E. - 1920 C.E.) was shaped by printing, and its leaders aimed to be educated and rich as exampled by Petrarch, Martin Luther, the philosophes, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill. In the fourth civilization (1920 C.E. - 1990 C.E.), leaders mastered the electronic image, and their objective was to be famous, as evinced by sports and movie entertainers and Presidents Reagan and Clinton. We are now in the fifth civilization, asserts McGaughey, that began in 1990, and which is dominated by the computer, but the value systems and leadership goals have not been redefined yet.

Categorizing and interpreting human events is an ever greater challenge for world historians. This work is a sweeping, syncretic survey of the world, which evokes images of Carl Becker's phrase, 'Everyman his own historian.' McGaughey provides a broad and sweeping historiographical survey before lurching back and forth through epochal civilizations. His vignettes provide new insights into past events and goad one to rethink interpretations about cultural technology, values, leadership, and, especially, religious ideals. His best vignettes are found in his discussions of the second and third epochs, especially when he contrasts the real world as conceptualized by Plato and Jesus, which is the unseen, with that of the Renaissance scholars, which was the world that can be seen. McGaughey also provides pertinent insights into the fourth epoch, when he discusses the relationship between entertainment, values, and leadership; in doing so, however, some of the connecting points seem tenuous. One is reminded of James Burke's TV series 'Connections', which organized materials uniquely and provided sound insights, but left many connections beyond simple logic or requiring faith unexplored. General readers and teachers will find McGaughey's packaging of information and ideas stimulating."

- Vladimir Steffel, Ohio State University, Marion Campus, in The Historian, winter 2002, published at the University of South Florida


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