top of page

World History

David Engels

Professor for Roman History, Université libre de Bruxelles

In a period characterised by globalisation, a hitherto unprecedented level of historical knowledge and the gradual return of extra-European civilisations such as China, India and the Muslim World to the forefront of politics and economics, it seems more than ever necessary to adopt a global approach towards the numerous phenomena of world history and to abandon definitely the traditional vision of a teleological, Eurocentric history. Consequently, it is only by comparing and not only juxtaposing the great civilisations that rhyme the course of history that we can hope to accede to a fuller understanding of what it means to be truly human and to discern, within the overwhelming mass of our global historical legacy, what features pertain to evolutions proper to single civilisations, and what approaches are rather characteristic for the ‘condition humaine’ in its largest sense. It is thus not surprising that recent times have seen a resurgence in the interest for comparative history, most notably in the field of the history of philosophy, the compared study of empires, the interest for the genesis of the ‘State’ in various parts of the globe or the comparison of great universalist realms such as the Roman and the Chinese empires, to name only a few.

Of course, given the immensity of the task of developing a global cultural morphology based on the comparison of past and present societies, such a historical endeavor can only be a ‘work in progress’ to be constantly refined and overhauled. However, this awareness should not make us refrain from boldly undertaking this important task. On the one hand, it is only by constant trial and error that we can hope to build a truly universal and humanist approach towards history. On the other hand, the study of history should also make us realise that every period has not only the right, but even the duty to develop a vision of its past based on its momentary necessities and paradigms, as the ultimate goal of a fully humanist historiography cannot rely on the mere accumulation of objective ‘facts’, but on the multiplication of perspectives each of which has full right to claim a subjective truth.

In all those respects, Oswald Spengler was not only a pioneer, but also a visionary: His attempt to re-write human history by abandoning not only the merely empiricist, chronological approach, but also the traditional view of history as based on the idea of ‘progress’, enabled later generations to free themselves from many Eurocentric prejudices, and his dedication to demonstrate how all human cultures were not only fundamentally equal, but also, to a large extent, subject to the same historical dialectics should become a crucial, though often under-rated inspiration to a vast host of writers, thinkers and politicians such as – to name only a few – John Scott Fitzgerald, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry Miller, Arnold Toynbee or Henry Kissinger. However, it is also important to realise, for those endeavouring to continue Spengler’s work as well as for those preferring to focus on its criticism, that he was, by far, neither the only, nor the first historian who tried to develop a philosophy of history based on the paradigm of the ‘mortality’ and thus, more or less explicitly, the symmetry of high cultures, as expressed in his influential and highly suggestive comparative tables.

Thus, already the early Biblical interpretation of history is characterised by a comparative outlook on human societies, whose rise and fall is attributed to similar phenomena of virtue and vice, and we find this vision also in classical Greek historical thinking (as exemplified by Herodotus or Isocrates), in Chinese historiography inspired, as Sima Qian, by a Confucianist approach, or in the historiography of Islam, as at-Tabari. Not dissimilar, though less based on moral than rather on extremely differentiated social and institutional criteria, is the vision of the sociological school as represented by Max Weber and prefigured by Ibn Khaldun. Another approach equally important to understand the thought of Spengler is the idea of world history as rhymed by a pre-ordained succession of empires or dynasties, each one having its specific ethos, as is notable not only in the Danielic prophecies, but also in classical authors such as Polybius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Christian historiographers such as Orosius or Otto of Freising. Already the book of Daniel, comparing human history as such to a statue with the likeness of a human being, or Livy when he compared the State and its functions to the organs of a human being, paved the way to a more organic understanding of history.

Thus, many historians and philosophers such as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, Florus or Ammianus Marcellinus compared the different periods of the rise, culmination and decline of the Roman state to the different ages of man; an approach which exerted a tremendous influence on later historians who, such as Francis Bacon, used the biological analogy as a tertium comparationis in order to compare different empires with each other, or by Goethe in order to theorise the difference between an ‘organic’ and an ‘anorganic’ outlook on the realities of the world. This pattern, to some extent, also underlies another, equally influential interpretation of history, viz. the dialectic approach first seen in the theologico-historical speculations of Joachim of Fiore, comparing the history of salvation to the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and Hegel, who compared not only the three dialectical phases of human evolution to the three ages of man, but who also applied thus comparison to the different ‘peoples rhyming world history.

This emphasis put on the idea of the people has, of course, to be seen in the context of romanticism, another fertile inspiration for Oswald Spengler analysing history not through moral or biological criteria, but through essentially esthetic patterns differentiating, such as Schiller, Nietzsche or Thomas Mann, between irrational or creative and rational or technicised phases, later on to be labeled ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. It is only by taking into account these fruitful interactions in the evolution of the philosophy of history that we are fully able to understand the rise of a morphological and comparative approach of history, as already prefigured by Vico and then fully developed by Danilewski, Spengler or Toynbee.

bottom of page