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 "The Nature of Civilizations",
A review by Carroll Quigley in The American Anthropologist, Vol. --, No. -- (1970),
of a book.
The Nature of Civilizations,
by Matthew Melko. Introduction by Crane Brinton.
Extending Horizons Books. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969.

 

"The Nature of Civilizations"

 

 

The Nature of Civilizations.
By Matthew Melko. Introduction by Crane Brinton.
Extending Horizons Books. Boston, Mass.: Porter Sargent, 1969
xvii 204 pp., figures, tables, chapter notes and sources, bibliography, index. $4.95 (cloth).

 

   This little volume of 180 pages of text is concerned with the nature and processes of change in complex societies (civilizations) regarded as wholes. Melko is well qualified to write on the subject, which he has been studying with gusto since his student days. The book itself is not completely satisfying because it tries to do two distinct things and, while doing one of them very well, is considerably less successful in doing the other.

   The successful accomplishment is his succinct exposition of the present state of the study of his orphaned subject, which finds a home in no academic department or discipline but turns up as frequently in sociology or philosophy as in anthropology or history, and may, indeed, even be found resident in two of these simultaneously on the same campus without anyone recognizing the fact.

   The second, and less satisfactory, aim of this volume is to present Melko's own version of the process of macrohistory in civilizations, a task to which his knowledge and personal abilities are somewhat less adapted.

   For presenting the state of the art, Melko is admirably prepared. He is very well acquainted with the literature in English, is not hampered by the artificial barriers between existing departments of knowledge, and has most of the less tangible qualities needed for such an effort: he is judicious, objective, free from the personal neuroses that have influenced some of the most famous writers on this subject, has a pleasant sense of humor and a facile writing style, is very energetic, and is widely knowledgeable in general history. As a consequence of these qualities, this little book provides an admirable introductory bibliography to this subject, not only in the annotated listing at the back of the volume, but also in the lists of readings at the end of each chapter.

   The chief weakness of the volume from this point of view is that Melko restricts himself to published books in the English language. This is unfortunate, since there has been a good deal of valuable work done on this subject in foreign languages. In some cases, where works are available in English translation (such as Danilevski, Othmar Anderle, or W. F. Wertheim), Melko either does not mention them or admits he has not seen them. Moreover, he omits all periodical articles, such as those in Comparative Studies in Society and History: An International Quarterly (The Hague: Mouton. since 1958).

   I realize that Melko had no intention of reporting on unpublished materials here, although he does mention two (by T. D. Bowler and Robert Wesson) that he happens to know. But I can say from my own experience that there has been a wide and growing interest in comparative macrohistory (stirred up by Toynbee, Kroeber, and the crisis of the age), and there has been, recently, a fair amount of unpublished material passing about among those who are interested. The value of this book would have been increased substantially if Melko had referred to some of these writings or made available the names of some of the writers. One of the valuable assemblages of such unpublished materials is in the possession of Professor Anderle in Germany and includes unpublished papers from international conferences on "The Problems of Civilization." Unfortunately, any subject, no matter how important, which lacks an established academic department as a base will find it almost impossible to obtain funds for publishing such papers.

   What this subject needs very badly is a single clearing house and a newsletter for these materials. Melko would be an ideal manager of such a center for English language materials. He might include listings of academic courses on this subject, since these are now being offered and listed under at least the four different departments mentioned earlier.

   Academic compartmentalization has been particularly injurious to the comparative study of civilizations as wholes, despite the importance of the subject for the understanding of of contemporary social sciences. The most valuable contributions have come from anthropology, which had worked out its concepts of "society" and "culture" and was tackling primitive societies as "wholes" and on a comparative basis before 1940. Since World War II, this discipline has turned increasingly to the study of complex societies. Most of this progress was a consequence of anthropology's use of the comparative approach, which many outstanding anthropologists now want to abandon.

   In 1934 Toynbee first stated the basic problem of this subject: what is the comprehensible social unit or entity in which historical changes occur? He was, apparently, quite unaware of the answers that had already been given to this question by men like Kroeber. Today, many historians who are interested in this subject are still unaware that graduate courses on the subject are being offered on it in departments of anthropology or sociology in large universities (such as Northwestern). As a consequence of this lack of interdisciplinary communication, the subject, despite its importance, lags from lack of intellectual stimulus and financial support.

   Melko's presentation of his own idea of the process of evolution in civilizations is considerably inferior to his presentation of the state of the subject. His explanations are too brief, breezy, and episodic. His knowledge of history, although clearly wider than most historians', is not adequate to this subject, and his thinking processes lack the necessary rigor. His "Model of Development" is based too obviously on the experience of Western civilization, as Toynbee's was based too obviously on that of Classical Civilization. The evidence, as it accumulates, tends to show more clearly that both these civilizations, especially Western, were too aberrant to be taken as typical. Moreover, Melko's model (as presented in Chapter Five, along with a diagram and a table) shows grave inadequacies in its total omission of both the geographical setting and the technological basis in the life of a civilization. A study in which this reviewer is now engaged, on the relationships between weapons systems and political stability in past civilizations, shows the futility of any discussion of the history of civilizations that does not take adequate notice of weapons technology and of the organizational and psychological patterns within which weapons are used. It seems clear to me that no civilization or its macrohistory should be approached without careful consideration of at least five major areas: (1) the geographical context; (2) the technological and artifactual basis: (3) the organizational matrix within which artifacts are used; (4) the emotional and cognitive structures or patterns of the society: and (5) the intellectual or ideological patterns that are, as often as not, complementary to (and often logically incompatible with) the less conscious emotional and cognitive structures of the same culture (see W. F. Wertheim, "Society as a Composite of Conflicting Value Systems," in his East-West Parallels; Chicago: Quadrangle, 1964, pp. 23-37).

   Because Melko's "model" omits at least three of these five areas, it has glaring inadequacies and distortions. With all modesty, I must agree with Melko's suggestion (p. 197) that a beginner in this subject should start with my Evolution of Civilizations (1961, but now out of print). From that point Melko is an adequate guide to the literature, but it must be recognized that this important subject is still functioning on a rudimentary level and can hardly hope to mature unless it can establish some procedures for communication and financial support outside the organizational framework of any existing academic discipline.

Reviewed by CARROLL QUIGLEY
Georgetown University

 

 

Scans of originals

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