When you hear the phrase “world history”, you may well think of the contents of this chapter. This is the chronology that has been passed down to us in school. The reason we associate world history with the past few millennia has as much to do with the realities of history as the history of reality.
On the affirmative side, this was an age of profoundly influential changes. The most powerful institutions 1,000 years ago were empires and world religions. Although they often clashed at the margins, they unified kingdoms into ever-larger blocs, alliances, and cultures. By 1700, trade and international affairs were consciously global. Virtually everyone lived in a society that had been transformed by a major empire or religion, whether a Brazilian Catholic or a Chinese Buddhist.
Empires and nation-states were the highest recognized form of sovereignty. Their disputes were settled more by contests of strength than by rule of law. Competition often brought out the best and worst of nations. This was shown time and again, from the Chinese warring states to the Greek and Mayan city-states. Seafaring empires such as England, France, and the Netherlands engaged in an accelerating cultural competition. Their rivalry produced wonders such as capitalism and the scientific revolution, but, as we know, they were engaged on a fatal collision course. The 30-Years War and other ostensibly “holy” wars set the pattern that would continue until the empires finally destroyed each other in the 20th century. The change that Europe brought to Africa and the Americas is an extremely mixed legacy, among the most divisive historical issues today.
There is another, very pragmatic reason that history courses focus on the last few millennia. Before recent sciences such as archaeology and paleontology, the only window into the past was written records. Writing and reading became commonplace only in the 1st millennium BCE. The ancient Greeks and Chinese had particularly good scripts, so we often think that history began with them. With an exclusive reliance on ancient writings that fade out gradually beyond 1000 BCE, it is easy to get the false impression that this was a magical time when human affairs themselves emerged from a void. As we have seen in Chapters 3 – 4, though, institutions such as government, law, and religion were already highly advanced by that time. Surely Confucius, Jesus, and the Buddha were not the first people to talk about human decency, but, since their wisdom was among the earliest on record, they were given immense credit and accorded super-human qualities. The oldest written scriptures of the Jews and Hindus – the bases of all surviving world religions – date from this period and purport to describe the creation of the world. With no earlier texts to refute them, they were literally taken as gospel.
The quiet counterrevolution was the progression of rational thought. Ancient Greeks understood logic and the nuances of language. Millennia later, science and statistics gave scholars techniques for understanding nature. To a casual observer, the world may have looked much the same at the end of Chapter 3 as at the beginning. Drastic changes were on the horizon, based not on how the world looked but at how some people were looking at it.
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