Engines of History Research Paper

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Divine, secular, and political forces have been given primacy as the chief drivers of history over the centuries. These forces evolved from the Mandate of Heaven to Marxism. Rapid upheavals of the twentieth century, along with technological change and the increasing awareness of human impact on the biosphere, have invited a recasting of history that takes into account scientific processes of which humans were previously unaware.

Human beings like to understand what goes on around them, and historians, being human, like to understand what they write about. They do so by finding causes even for the most surprising events. This was true from the start. Herodotus (484–425 BCE), for example, set out to explain how a few small Greek cities had been able to defeat an immense Persian army and navy, while the first historian of China, Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE), sought to explain how China’s ruling dynasties rose and fell. Herodotus found a twofold explanation: free men, he said, fought willingly and more bravely than Persian subjects, forced to obey a mighty king; moreover, the king’s overweening pride also offended the gods, who sent storms to damage his invading fleet. Similarly, Sima Qian invoked both human and supernatural causes. According to him a ruler’s virtue allowed him to rule well and therefore attracted the Mandate of Heaven, but when rulers ceased to be virtuous, heaven withdrew its mandate, and good government broke down until a virtuous new ruler emerged to found another ruling dynasty.

These ideas about what made history happen the way it did proved to be very influential. Until about a hundred years ago, China’s historians continued to organize their histories around successive dynasties empowered by the Mandate of Heaven. And the idea that freedom made men successful in war (and also in peace) appealed to Romans as well as to Greeks, and reentered European consciousness with the Renaissance.

But in the world as a whole, the Hebrew prophets’ idea that Almighty God governed history, punishing peoples and persons for their sins, and rewarding scrupulous obedience to his will, played a more influential role, dominating Jewish, Christian, and Muslim societies from the inception of those religions. For believers, Divine Providence remained inscrutable to everyone except specially chosen prophets. Yet ordinary chroniclers and historians took God’s will for granted as the decisive force behind everything that happened. Other causes, when they bothered with them, were only subordinate instruments of God’s will. Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, treated the visible world as an illusion and paid scant attention to human history. Instead religious speculation about endless cycles of reincarnation reduced everyday events to transient triviality.

The Importance of Animism

Behind and beneath these civilized literary traditions lay a much older interpretation of the world that modern anthropologists call animism. Its basic tenet is that natural objects are inhabited by invisible spirits and share the spectrum of cooperation and conflict that humans exhibit in everyday interactions with one another. Spirits can also move about invisibly, entering and leaving a person or object at will. Hence the world of spirits exactly parallels human societies. Individual spirits work their will when they can, submit when they must, and influence everything that happens to human beings.

The earliest bands of human foragers carried these ideas with them around the Earth, and they still permeate common speech as, for example, when historians refer to the “spirit of an age.” Later religions made room for spirits, too, in various forms: angels, devils, saints, and ancestors to whom ordinary persons could appeal for help in time of need, or, as the case might be, drive away by appropriate rituals. As such, animism is the longest lasting, most pervasive worldview that human beings have ever conceived. Throughout most of the past, the coming and going of spirits and the clash of their individual wills convincingly explained dreams, sleep, and death, as well as illness and trance and why human hopes and expectations were so often disappointed by experience. Experts in the supernatural sought to navigate among the spirits, driving some away, appeasing some, and keeping others close by for help in time of need. All religions of the world descend from and incorporate the notion that we are surrounded by a society of powerful spirits, affecting everything that happens.

Yet curious persons could never refrain from trying to fill in the gap between invisible supernatural powers, variously defined by local religion and folk practice, and whatever it was that actually occurred. As long as historical changes remained so gradual as to be imperceptible, it was possible to believe that everyday surprises and disappointments remained fundamentally the same across time. In such societies, belief in the overriding power of gods and spirits remained thoroughly persuasive. But when new forms of government, new economic activities, and new information about distant peoples and places upset old customs and expectations, new-sprung prophets, philosophers, and historians came into their own by investigating more closely the world of people and things and its relationship with supernatural powers. This was the context within which the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), the Hebrew prophets, and Chinese and Greek philosophers, as well as Herodotus and Sima Qjan did their work.

Greek and Roman Influences

Among the Chinese, the idea of a dynastic cycle, supervised by a vaguely personified heaven, remained central and seldom challenged. Greek historical ideas were more volatile. Some, like the poet Hesiod (c. 700 BCE), held that all changes were for the worse, declining from an age of gold, to silver, bronze and then of iron, amidst which the poet found himself. Yet the story of how Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and empowered humankind by that gift, implied the opposite idea that humans had in fact accumulated skills, knowledge, and power across time.

Nor did Herodotus’s ideas seem adequate to historians after him. Thucydides (c. 460–404 BCE), for example, refrained from even mentioning the gods, and explained the course of the Peloponnesian war by emphasizing deliberate public decisions, influenced by the personal character of individual leaders. Yet he also recognized more general processes at work: how Athens’ tyranny over other cities provoked eventual defeat; how the hardships of war disrupted commonality among fellow citizens, provoking civil strife, and how pursuit of honor gave way to greed. Later Greek historians, most notably Polybius (c. 200–118 BCE), elaborated the idea that a natural cycle existed whereby political power passed from monarchy to aristocracy and then degenerated into democracy. Polybius argued that the rise of Roman power—his principal subject— was due to Rome’s mixed constitution, balancing monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements.

Almost two centuries before Polybius wrote about Rome, the conquests of Alexander the Great (Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 BCE) conquests brought Greeks into far closer touch with Egypt and western Asia than before. Accordingly, Hellenistic scholars set out to link the Greek past with that of Egypt and western Asia by constructing parallel chronologies. About 200 BCE, an Egyptian priest, Manetho, organized Egyptian history into thirty dynasties that are still used; and at almost the same time, a Babylonian priest, Berosus, summarized Mesopotamian history—before and after the Flood—down through Persian times. Both wrote in Greek, perhaps at the command of the new Macedonian rulers; and simultaneously Eratosthenes of Cyrenaica, (c. 276–194 BCE), most famous for his accurate geometrical measurement of the circumference of the Earth, arranged Greek history around quadrennial Olympiads dating back to 776 BCE.

All too obviously, history was expanding geographically and chronologically, and persuasive ideas to explain all the surprising things that kept on happening were in short supply. In Roman times, the idea that unvarying natural law, as conceived by Stoic philosophers, ruled the universe had to compete with the notion that Fortune, conceived as a whimsical goddess, favored some and destroyed others for no reason at all. The leading Roman historians emphasized individual moral character, and both Livy (59 BCE–19 CE) and Tacitus (56–120 CE) regretted the end of republican liberty, arguing that moral decay was what had led to civil war and imperial government in their lifetimes.

Advent of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam superseded discrepant pagan ideas about history by recognizing God’s almighty will, operating always and everywhere. Jews, Christians, and Muslims agreed that the main lines of the world’s history were revealed in sacred scripture. History began with creation, and centered not on war and politics, as pagan historians had assumed, but on how God had revealed his will to humankind, and on the always-imperfect efforts people made to obey and observe his instructions. Holy Scriptures also predicted that the world was destined to end suddenly with a Day of Judgment, when God would reward and punish the living and the dead, sending everyone eternally to heaven or to hell.

However convincing this overall pattern of history might be, short-term surprises remained as puzzling as before. But for many centuries the authority of sacred scriptures, and of codified interpretations placed upon them by religious experts, remained authoritative. Correspondingly, historical writing became intellectually impoverished since miracles abounded, and easy invocation of God’s will explained everything. To be sure, pagan classical writers were never entirely forgotten, and writers like Eusebius (flourished 313–337 CE) and Orosius (flourished c. 414 CE) made rather hasty efforts to fit a few highlights from the pagan political past into the biblical narrative. New habits of citing and quoting sources make even the most credulous Muslim and Christian chronicles of interest to modern scholars; and the universal framework of sacred history—from Creation to the Day of Judgment—made it easy to introduce new peoples, states, and regions into the historical domain as they became known to Christians and Muslims. More important, the universal character of God’s power invited believers to construct all-embracing chronologies, beginning with Creation for Jews, with the birth of Christ for Christians, and with Muhammad’s flight to Medina for Muslims. Despite the awkwardness of running numbers backward before the Christian and Muslim eras, these chronologies remain in use today, though most historians now substitute the religiously neutral label “Common Era” when using the Christian scheme for dating events.

After 1000 CE, trade intensified and information about distant places and peoples expanded across the Old World, and inherited religious explanations began to demand more detailed analysis. How did Heaven or God—or any other sort of ultimate power—use intermediate causes to direct human history? How indeed? Both Byzantine and Italian scholars looked afresh at ancient texts for helpful hints, but most were satisfied with rather superficial rhetorical borrowings from pagan writers. To explain the rise and fall of Cesare Borgia, for example, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) fell back on the goddess of Fortune without really believing in her existence.

In North Africa, however, the Muslim Ibn Khaldun (1342–1406) generalized from the political tumult of his times, arguing that superior social cohesion among nomad tribesmen allowed them to conquer urban dwellers only to see their initial cohesion weaken under urban conditions, thus making way for a new conqueror. His concept of ever-fluctuating “social cohesion,” and his recognition of systematic social change throughout Muslim society in the wake of the Black Death, which had killed both his parents, departed from anything historians had thought of before. Perhaps because they were so novel, his ideas survived very slenderly in Muslim lands, and came to European attention only after l860.

Giambattista Vico (1688–1744) resembled Ibn Khaldun in the originality of his ideas about what made history happen. His principal book, Scienza Nuovo (1725) offered a speculative and evolutionary view of world history, according to which each successive age was characterized by dominant ideas and ideals, expressed in religion and poetry, and developed its own distinctive patterns of behavior. He remained devoutly Christian, but elaborated more systematically than anyone before him how Divine Providence allowed selfish and often brutal humans to change their thoughts and actions from age to age.

North of the Alps, the religious upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation dominated historical thinking from 1517 until about 1750. Protestants argued that the Roman Catholic Church had departed from authentic Christian practice as recorded in the Bible; Catholics attributed such practices to apostolic tradition, faithfully transmitted from Peter to the popes of Rome. This was an historical question, and generations of scholars argued back and forth, developing new information, new linguistic skills, and rules for correcting copyists’ errors in ancient and medieval texts—but never achieving anything like agreement. After 1499, the Muslim world, too, split more sharply than before between Sunni and Shi’a versions of Islam; and, as in Europe, bitter controversy fortified disagreement, without enlarging historical knowledge as much as in Europe, thanks largely to pious restrictions on resort to printing.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century

Beginning about 1750 more and more Europeans tired of religious controversy and the warfare it provoked. Secular, anticlerical, and sometimes consciously irreligious ideas proliferated, especially in France and England. Distinguished historical expressions of this change in the climate of opinion include Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs (1756); William Robertson’s History of the Reign of Emperor Charles V (1769), and Edward Gibbon’s six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). These historians discarded prevailing notions about the active intervention of Divine Providence in human affairs, believing that God, if he existed, had created the world as a self-regulating machine, leaving full responsibility for what happened in history to human beings. Voltaire expanded the scope of history to embrace everyday customs around the world including distant China—whose civil polity he admired because it did without priests and revealed religion. Robertson dealt with the storms of the Reformation era without clearly taking sides. And Gibbon’s history traced the triumph of “barbarism and religion,” that is, of Christianity and Islam, which, he argued, eventually brought the Roman Empire to an end in 1453.

European historical ideas took new forms with the rise of nationalism, accelerated by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed. Many Germans, reacting against French political and cultural primacy, accepted the idea that a distinct national spirit inhered in their own and every other language. Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) was an influential advocate of this idea, and when medieval and modern history became a regular subject for lecturing and research in German universities after 1815, academic history took off as never before. As the study of history spread to universities in other countries, written histories quickly assumed distinct and diverse national forms. Ideas about what guided history multiplied correspondingly.

Three more or less distinct schools can perhaps be distinguished. One was conservative, idealist, and Christian, believing that each nation had its own proper place in God’s plans for humankind, and therefore inherited institutions and practices that appropriately expressed the spirit and destiny of each people and state. A second was liberal, progressive, and somewhat less sure of being able to discern God’s hand in history. For the English-speaking world, Lord Acton (1834–1902) more than anyone else defined this view through a history of liberty he projected but never actually wrote, and more concretely by planning a collaborative multivolume Cambridge Modern History, embodying the liberal view, that was published soon after his death. Both conservatives and liberals were challenged after 1848 by socialist, materialist, and godless Marxism. Yet Karl Marx (1818–1883), in rejecting the Christian version of history, reproduced its principal features, claiming that private property had supplanted primitive communism (equivalent to leaving the Garden of Eden), but changes in the pattern of class warfare that had followed were destined to come to a speedy end when the proletariat, created by modern industry, would take power and restore justice, equality and communism by accepting the principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The conservative tradition emphasized national, political history and the rise of an international balance of power, adjusted from time to time by war and diplomacy. Liberals emphasized the progress of constitutional freedom across the centuries and congratulated themselves on its approach to perfection in their own time. Socialists emphasized economic history, class conflict, and the international solidarity of the working class. All agreed that human beings made their own history, but since individual and collective wills clashed perpetually, results were never exactly what anyone hoped or intended.

Twentieth Century and Beyond

World Wars I and II tended to discredit all three historical traditions. Balance-of-power politics enhancing national rivalries and provoking such destructive violence were not truly conservative, resulting in revolution instead. Freedom to fight and die in the trenches was not an acceptable climax to the advance of constitutional liberty either. And the international solidarity of the proletariat was everywhere betrayed in 1914, even though Communist revolution in Russia created a rival social and political order challenging other states after 1917; after World War II China and several other countries also became Communist as well.

Historians were rather slow to adjust their ideas to these upheavals. It was easier to persist in conservative, liberal, and socialist modes of thought and not ask large questions about overall patterns and universal causes. In Communist countries, official policy enforced ideological conformity and history soon became mere apologetics for the government of the day. Elsewhere, new themes multiplied, study of new peoples penetrated academic history departments, especially in the United States, and increasingly minute specialization prevailed.

Resulting multiplicity makes it hard to pick out important new ideas about the course of history and the factors that affect it. Rapid globalization since 1950 pushed towards taking world history more seriously than before. New awareness of ecology and the radical impact of recent human activity on other forms of life raised new questions about the human past. The extraordinary multiplication of human numbers drew attention to demography as a fundamental variable as well. More generally, recognition that we are inescapably part of much larger evolutionary processes—cosmological, terrestrial, biological, and human—invited a recasting of history to take account of processes of which humans were previously unaware, yet which influenced or even controlled what they were able to do. Histories limited to criticizing and correcting surviving written records about what people said and did had kept historians busy in the nineteenth century. That no longer seemed in the least adequate to describe what really happened. But how to disentangle the enormous complexity of disparate processes within which we exist remains an open question. Very likely, human intelligence and our use of language will never be able to find answers that satisfy everyone.

Still within the past half century, historians have come to understand far more than before about human origins and what used to be called prehistory, thanks to archeological discoveries, anthropological studies of surviving bands of foragers, and observation of bands of chimpanzees and our other close relatives. Similarly, advances in epidemiology allowed historians to understand far more about how disease organisms and human populations have interacted across time. Energy flows sustaining human activity offer a promising way to construct quantitative estimates of our quite extraordinary success in enlarging our ecological niche at the expense of other species. Moreover, human webs of communication, permitting more extensive and efficacious cooperation across time, seem responsible for the collective learning and the accumulation of skills that produced this amazing result.

In general, by assimilating history to sister sciences, or more exactly by making all the sciences historical, we can hope for an improved understanding of ourselves and everything around us. For it is now apparent that all the sciences evolve across time, and the physical, chemical, geological and biological processes they study are likewise time sensitive. Change pervades the universe. Human changeability is unusually rapid and, at least on a terrestrial scale, is unusually significant as well, since we are and have long been capable of upsetting all the lifeforms around us, thanks to actions coordinated by language and more recently by mathematical symbols and digitalized signals as well.

A few historians have begun to attempt this bold synthesis. Among them, David Christian with Maps of Time (2004), is the most notable. But the task is just begun, and who knows what may follow? Human history is always surprising and sure to remain so. Authoritative religions may again simplify the task of making sense of what happens. Sudden collapse of existing high-tech urban societies cannot be ruled out. Human survival itself is problematic. Or we may learn enough to navigate the future for a long time to come just as successfully, and as precariously, as our predecessors did. Time, as always, will tell. And all the while, historians’ ideas will continue to reflect changing conditions within the societies they live in.


  1. Baali, F. (1992). Society, state, and urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s sociological thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Christian, D. (2004). Maps of time: An introduction to big history. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  3. Gibbon, E. (2003). The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (H-F. Mueller, Ed.). New York: The Modern Library.
  4. Hardy, G. (1999). Worlds of bronze and bamboo: Sima Qian’s conquest of history. New York: Columbia University Press.
  5. Leathes, S., Prothero, G. W., & Ward, A. W. (Eds.). (1902). The Cambridge modern history: Planned by the late Lord Acton. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  6. McNeill, W. H. (1998). History and the scientific worldview. History and Theory, 37 (1), 1–13.
  7. (1979). The rise of the Roman empire (I. Scott-Kilvert, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.
  8. Robertson, W. (1972). The history of the reign of Charles V. In F. Gilbert (Ed.), The progress of society in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Stahl, H.-P. (2003). Thucydides: Man’s place in history. Swansea, U.K.: Classical Press of Wales.
  10. Thomas, R. (2000). Herodotus in context: Ethnography, science and the art of persuasion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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