Carroll Quigley on the Seven Phases in the Evolution of Western Civilization

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(The principles/stages are here applied to the evolution of European civilization)

Alfred Skorupka:

"Quigley writes that, although Western civilization emerged from the wreckage of Classical antiquity, it differed from it in every important aspect of its culture. Even in its first three stages it had a different military system (based on specialized cavalry rather than on infantry), a different technology (based on animal power rather than on slavery), a different economic organization, a different political organization (formed about rural castles rather than around municipal acropolises), and, above all, an entirely different religious system and basic ideology.


The American researcher writes that, the mixture of cultural elements that formed Western society came from four chief sources. One of these was Classical culture, whose greatest influence was in law, government, philosophy, and science. Another was the Semitic influence, which came largely through Christianity and the Jewish people and thus spread its effects largely in the field of religion and morality. The third influence, that of the barbarians, was a very diffused one, and is chiefly notable in social relations and technology; while the last, coming from the Saracens consists mostly in incidental items and served also as an intermediary in the transfer of Classical influences.

The period of mixture of Western civilization was merely a continuation of the period of invasion of Classical civilization and lasted from about A.D. 370 to at least 750. It was followed by a period of gestation of about two hundred years. The two periods together had to achieve three tremendous tasks: first, to bring into existence the new Christian society by creating relationships between groups and individuals and by establishing patterns of ideas and activity that would permit a new society to survive; second, to repel invasions of non-Christian cultures or to enforce conformity to the new Christian patterns by those who could not be expelled; and, third, the accumulation and investment functions of the instrument of expansion must begin to operate.

As long as transportation was lacking and political disorder continued, the Age of Gestation continued. The demands of political and military life made it almost impossible for the feudal organization to amass surpluses and to direct these surpluses into expansive channels. Only in the final quarter of the tenth century was this situation reversed, and a new period of expansion, the first in the Western civilization, began.

According to Quigley, the first stage of expansion in Western civilization lasted for about three centuries (970-1270) and was one of the greatest of such periods in human history. Its instrument of expansion was the feudal system in which a small minority of fighting men and clergy were supported by a great majority of peasants.

The revival of commerce, especially in the twelfth century, gave rise to a new social class isolated from the agricultural process, and living in towns rather than on manors. This new middle class, or bourgeoisie, created such a demand for the necessities of life that a new kind of commerce, of local origin and concerned with necessities, appeared.

These three innovations – commerce, the middle classes, and town life – represented a social and economic revolution in Western society. They led to increased literacy, support for the revival of public authority, new ideas, new morality, and acute religious problems. Taken together these provide a fairly typical example of Stage 3 in a civilization.

The usual characteristics of Stage 3 are easy to identify in the period 1270-1300: increased production, growing population, geographic expansion, and increased knowledge. To a lesser degree, and somewhat belated, can be seen the growth of science, but democratic elements, while present, were unable to develop far because of the continued supremacy of specialized weapons. These kept power securely in the hands of a minority.

We read that, the old view of our grandfathers that the Middle Ages was a static and backward era is now accepted by almost no one, but it is not so generally recognized that medieval expansion was slowing down by the end of the thirteenth century and that the society was entering upon a typical age of conflict. But by 1274 the feudal organization, especially the feudal lords, had become institutionalized into an obsolescent structure with few functions and a powerful determination to resist further change and to defend its own social position. This institutionalized feudalism is called chivalry.

This need became the basis for the imperialist wars of the Age of Conflict that began at the end of the thirteenth century. English wars against the Scots, Welsh, Irish, and French; French wars with the English, Burgundians, and others; the almost endless struggles among the princes, both lay and clerical, of Italy and Germany; all these, as well as civil struggles such as the Wars of the Roses, the struggles of the Armagnacs, or the Sicilian Vespers, helped to provide jobs for the impoverished feudal nobility.

Quigley writes that, various explanations have been offered for these misfortunes, such as the plague, growing public disorder, increased religious controversy, and others, but, however these factors may have acted and reacted on one another, there can be no doubt that by the year 1300 Europe was in the kind of crisis we call an Age of Conflict.

All these hardships and disorders led to a growth of irrationality, one of the most typical examples of this to be found in any Age of Conflict. All kinds of irrational heresies, like the Flagellants or the Beguines, became rampant in Europe; witchcraft, astrology, even

devil worship, dances of death, necromancy, and all degrees of despair and emotional desperation were prevalent. The tone of the age is clearly revealed in a man like Villon and well described by modern writers like Johan Huizinga or Millard Meiss.

The geographic expansion of Christendom, which reached its peak with Marco Polo (1271-95), largely ceased with that achievement and was only resumed a century later with the exploits of the Portuguese in a new Age of Expansion.

About 1440 new life began to spring up, with new hopes and renewed ambitions. This new growth was based on the activities of a new instrument of expansion, commercial capitalism, a complete circumvention of the previous feudal organization that had originated the older period of expansion in the tenth century.

By capitalism we mean “an economic system motivated by the pursuit of profits within a price structure.”

American scholar writes that, we have three different names for institutionalized capitalist systems which were dominant in the three Ages of Conflict of Western civilization. These are municipal mercantilism in the period 1270-1440, state mercantilism in the period 1690-1810, and monopoly capitalism in the period 1900 and after.

The new Age of Expansion after 1440 lasted until near the end of the seventeenth century. It is very familiar to all students of history and is frequently called the ambiguous term “Renaissance”. Even a neophyte in the study of history is aware that this period possessed the qualities we have listed as typical of any Age of Expansion: increased production, rising population, geographic expansion, growth of knowledge, and intermittent impulses of science and democracy.

In science the period from Copernicus, or even Leonardo, to Newton is recognized as one of the most brilliant in all history, while in geographic expansion the age of Vasco da Gama or Magellan is no less famous.

The second period of expansion in Western civilization was transformed into a second Age of Conflict when the instrument of expansion became an institution. The two phases of this organization are generally called commercial capitalism and state mercantilism.

We read that, each of the three Ages of Conflict of Western civilization sought to protect the vested interests of one of these aspects, but in the reverse order so that the consumer was dominant in the first period (about 1400), the trader was dominant in the second (about 1750), and the producer was dominant in the third (about 1930).

As might be expected in such a period, the century 1650-1750 was one of imperialist wars, of class conflicts, of flattening population expansion, of softening prices, and of irrational confusions. Of these the class conflicts and imperialist wars continued until 1815, although a new Age of Expansion had begun as early as 1730. Napoleon was the culmination of this Age of Conflict, seeking to establish a universal empire (and almost succeeding in the core area by 1811), seeking to enforce his mercantilist conceptions with the full authority of his imperial system, and quite convinced that he was living in a limited world in which one share could be increased only if another were curtailed.

Our author writes that, the change, which is usually called the Industrial Revolution, was in full development in England but was largely unknown in France during the Napoleonic Wars. In this regard, also, these wars represented a conflict between a newer organization for fulfilling human desires and an older, obsolescent one. Thus from four points of view concerned with finance, agriculture, manufacturing, and economic regulation, the political struggles between England and France in the Napoleonic period reflect a contest between the future and the past.

The third Age of Expansion lasted from about 1730 to about 1929, although indications of a new Age of Conflict began to appear as early as 1890. Its instrument of expansion remained capitalistic, but operating in fields other than those that had become institutionalized in the earlier Age of Conflict of the late seventeenth century. The reappearance of expansion clearly resulted from circumvention of this previous organization. Again the period of expansion can be divided into substages that make the process of expansion appear as a series of steps or surges.

We might list these steps as follows:

(1) the agricultural revolution from 1730;

(2) the Industrial Revolution from 1770;

(3) financial capitalism from 1850; and

(4) monopoly capitalism from 1900. Naturally the dates listed are very rough, because the advent of these steps in quite different in various areas.

Two revolutionary events of the later eighteenth century contributed a good deal toward the new Age of Expansion. These were the transportation revolution, which began about 1750, and the population revolution, which began about a generation later.34 Quigley writes that, this change led to the period of financial capitalism that began about 1850 and died a violent death about September 1931 with the collapse of the international gold standard.

Geographic expansion was resumed so that Africa, the polar regions, the Matto Grosso, and New Guinea became familiar areas; population soared; production increased, even in periods of falling prices; knowledge expanded beyond any one person’s comprehension; even democracy and science reached their greatest victories. Indeed, the nineteenth century in terms of our description of an Age of Expansion could be the Age of Expansion par excellence.

In the military and political levels the third Age of Expansion was associated with such familiar historical development as the mass citizen army, the national state, and democracy. The shift to these from the older stages of these levels generally occurred during the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

The third Age of Expansion of Western civilization began to draw to its close at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1890 the rate of general expansion had begun to decrease, giving rise to acute crises in industry, agriculture, labor relations, political action, and international relations. These crises culminated in the beginnings of a new, third Age of Conflict in Western civilization.

The third Age of Conflict of our society began to display the ordinary marks of such a stage about 1890. At that time, in the principal industrial countries it became clear that the rate of expansion had reversed itself.

According to our researcher, imperialist wars developed from epidemic to endemic status in our culture, beginning perhaps with the Boer War and the Spanish-American War, but rapidly expanding into a cycle of international stress and crises in which we still live. At the same time, on the intellectual level occurred a great upsurging of irrationality.


All these characteristics of an age of irrationality began to appear on all sides – increased gambling, increased smoking, the growing use of alcohol and narcotics, a growing obsession with sex and with perversions of sex, an increasing mania for speed, for nervous tension, and for noise; above all, perhaps, a growing tendency to regard violence as a solution for all problems, by they domestic, social, economic, ideological, or international. In fact, violence as a symbol of our growing irrationality has had an increasing role in activity for its own sake, when no possible justification could be made that the activity was seeking to solve a problem.

In the new pluralistic system that has arisen, the great danger in many countries has been toward increasing consumption to the jeopardy of capital accumulation and public service. This danger has frequently appeared as a tendency toward inflation that would destroy capital accumulation be destroying savings.

At the present time it is too early to judge if the present crisis of Western civilization will resolve itself into a new, fourth Age of Expansion, or will continue through an Age of Conflict to a universal empire and ultimately to decay and invasion.


If we assume that this model of the evolution of civilization is correct, what stage is now waiting for the West?

On the theory Quigley – Samuel Huntington wrote:

- „In his terms, as well as those of other civilization scholars, the West now appears to be moving out of its phase of conflict. Western civilization has become a security zone; intraWest wars, apart from an occasional Cod War, are virtually unthinkable. The West is developing, as was argued in chapter 2, its equivalent of a universal empire in the form of a complex system of confederations, federations, regimes, and other types of cooperative institutions that embody at the civilizational level its commitment to democratic and pluralistic politics. The West has, in short, become a mature society entering into what future generations, in the recurring pattern of civilizations, will look back to as a “golden age”, a period of peace resulting, in Quigley’s terms, from “the absence of any competing units within the area of the civilization itself, and from the remoteness or even absence of struggles with other societies outside”.”

So, we would now be at the stage of “universal empire”, which can take a long time if – as recommended Huntington – the European Union will connect to the NAFTA, the US-led one organism political and economic.

However, after the “universal empire”, as evidenced by Quigley – always followed by the invasion of an alien civilization, and thus the death of a mature community."

(Source: Alfred Skorupka. Reflections around the theory of Western civilization, by Carroll Quigley; DOI: 10.5604/01.3001.0012.7602)